DH23: Personal Branding and Algorithmic Coherence

So apparently this is me… I am online (self evident I’d say), a sport, have great management, have some sort of family element, but not as much as the committees I’m on though more than the medication I take. I also have education, and legal issues. I am also more online than I am social, which is a rather damning indictment.

Ok so I’m running thoroughly behind on my DH23 Things course. I could make excuses; I could? Oh thanks! Ok well I’ve been writing an application to the British Academy, my publisher wants chapter abstracts yesterday, the contents of my house have imploded, and exploded simultaneously due to a serious lack of ‘tidy time’ and to top it all off, the family beach hut is damp. Damp I say! We should really move it further away from all that water. Also work. Have you ever read the guidelines for ERC grants? Seriously, go have a look, I’ll wait. Oh you’re back? Either it’s been three days or you didn’t read it.

So yes my commitment in time to DH23 has waned, but my spiritual commitment is still here and I’m catching up! The theme of this week’s (last week’s) DH23 Thing is ‘Building an Online Identity’. I have tinkered with this for many years, and am in fact part of the original Facebook generation; I had an account way back in the day when only University students were allowed on. It was fantastically elitist and then they let all the regular people in. Honestly you try and erect an ivory tower in virtual space and then they go and ruin it! I gave up on Facebook a while back, citing various reasons, which I still would agree with.

However having an online presence could be considered a useful marketing tool in terms of your career, and its quite likely you’ll end up with one whether you control it or not. The question then I suppose is, should you have to cultivate an online presence, just because you’ll end up with one anyway?

I have for many years run my own little springboard, http://www.jallenrobertson.com, and I am not proud of it. I made it from the ground up and updates and maintenance is not particularly simple. That’s why websites such as Flavors.me or About.me are fairly appealing. Even if you have the know how to create your own site from scratch, these services are very valuable from the convenience angle, and I plan on converting soon. These sites work as a useful springboard, consolidating all the bits that you want to present as ‘you’ in one place. I think they’re probably most useful for those of us that carry business cards, and when I say us, I mean you, because business cards would be an act indicating far more forethought and professionalism than I currently have.

An aspect of this ‘Thing’ that I’d like to take issue with however, is the focus on making yourself more ‘algorithmically coherent’. To cultivate an online presence suggests a way of ensuring that wherever you are found online, the correct ‘you’ is presented. However the difficulty here lies not in you being able to present a coherent identity, but in the algorithms behind these tools ‘correctly’ reading that coherent identity. The little graphic at the start of this post is from MIT’s ‘Personas’ project. It’s a nicely presented little tool that takes your name and hunts around to construct a summary overview of ‘you’ as the web presents you. To begin with the tool appears to be rather on the ball. It instantly found this blog and my old University of York profile and went to town mining all the information out. However the resulting graphic left a little bit to be desired, and lacked much coherence. As such the implication is that I myself lack an online coherence. I then went to Socialmention and plugged in my usual online handle, and then my full name. Little of relevance emerged, though I have discovered my handle (concocted by my 11 year old self as the character in a story I was writing) has now been appropriated into txtspk for certain urban African-American teenage subcultures. This confused the hell out of me and the result was a high level of association between myself, and basketball.

As for Google, well that fairs a little better. Plug my name in there and the first thing you get is my Linkedin profile, which wasn’t mentioned as a possible tool by DH23, but is valuable just from the sheer weight the site carries in Google’s PageRank algorithm. Then my Academia.edu page, still associated with York because if I become ‘independent, I may lose traffic because all the searches for me on Google that Academia.edu shows me include the word ‘York’. I retain it in this anachronistic state because it is still highly valuable as it holds my papers and a general overview of my research interests. Then there is a listing of everybody with my name on Ancestry.com except for me. Then it gets to this website, focusing primarily on my wacky ‘Dismantling a Remix video‘. Then there is something that is impossible to manage, people on Facebook with my name (or close enough). Neither of them are particularly bad press for me but Facebook holds such weight that it is almost (only almost) worth having a profile again just to combat the confusion. Then there’s a few pages related to videos I’ve made, a working paper on SSRN which is nice, and then finally we move to irrelevance after my Google+ account, which quite frankly, though I love Google dearly, is pretty irrelevant in itself.

So far none of these tools present me as the god of digital Sociology that I clearly (with fantastic levels of delusion) am.  So what am I going to do about this sorry state of affairs? Probably nothing, and I don’t think that’s a problem.

Ultimately, because of the ways in which these algorithmic systems operate, I believe your online presence has much more to do with the sites you are on than what you say on them. I’m not going to cleverly intertwine meta-tags into my posts, or focus on maintaining a profile across every internet space there is, or will ever be. It’s not a useful way to spend my time. I have had more feedback and contacts from the papers I’ve written, and the things that I’ve made, than from any blog, social network profile, or Twitter account. It may seem odd coming from someone so entwined with contemporary technology but I don’t think trying to fit ourselves into the algorithmic framework of the tools that currently exist is particularly valuable. There are academics out there that cultivate their online presence with daily posts, minute-by-minute tweets and by splashing themselves on every site there is. Much of it appears to me to be brand management, the marketing of an image that is a placeholder for you. I’m going to go on the pejorative here and say that I find it dehumanising. Branding is ultimately the reduction of something highly complex, down to a message, a few key terms that sum something up. Perfect for algorithms, lousy for people.

Rather than focusing on your brand, maybe you should focus on what these platforms can do to share your passion for what you do, and share your work. The focus should be on what you can actually do, rather than the cultivation of a perfect, algorithmically honed illusion. Put your effort into the content, and let your persona build itself.

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Progress Report: We Have a Spike in the System

Don't look in the closet

Just updated the videos on how peer-to-peer networks work to Youtube videos. Now they are available in glorious HD, with surround sound, 4D vision and an immersive simulator technology that makes you feel like you really are there…. in a diagram of a network architecture. Well the HD is cool I suppose.

Also having not checked my stats for the site in a while I was pleasantly surprised to see I reached a new daily peak of visits this week. I have no idea why there was such a spike as apparently all visitors reached the site entirely on their own (without an outside link or google search). Ego me wants to presume my website was cited in some high class lecture and then all the students simultaneously loaded it up on their iPads as in this fantasy the University is horrendously well funded.

However realist me also knows that not all visits to a website are human, and it may just have been a case of the spiders; a phrase which gives me the jibblies.

I have my Viva in precisely seven days, which is rather terrifying. A viva is essentially a time when you, after slaving for three years over a tome of 100,000 words, are questioned on it relentlessly by two very clever people. It’s the academic equivalent of the realising-you’re-naked-in-the-classroom nightmare; they may as well be picking holes in your soul.

Finally in other news I’m currently knocking out book proposals to a variety of publishers to see if I can’t get my history of digital distribution published. Responses so far have been positive so you never know I might be shamelessly hawking my book on here in a years time, we can only hope.

Article Update: Embargo!

I got an update on the progress of open-accessing my article and it is both good and bad all at the same time. The wonderful White Rose Foundation has now begun hosting my paper for people outside of academia to access. However, as much as they want to free it to the world, Taylor and Francis, the publishers of the journal have placed an 18 month embargo on making articles open access.

She's a sexy sassy MEP

That means it won’t be truly free until April 2012, at which point the masses of (two) people who want to read it will have given up and gone elsewhere, distracted by the hover-boards, jetpacks and flying cars that will be plentiful in 2012.

There is a silver lining however; if you want a copy you can go to the White Rose page and press the request button, at which point I will email one out to you post haste. The form just asks for an email and a reason for requesting it. I don’t mind if you put a reason or not but stick ‘DCI’ in there for good measure.

LINK: Request your copy now! (Hoverboard not included)

Passion

Under monopoly all mass culture is identical, and the lines of its artificial framework begin to show through. The people at the top are no longer so interested in concealing monopoly: as its violence becomes more open, so its power grows. Movies and radio need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce. They call themselves industries; and when their directors’ incomes are published, any doubt about the social utility of the finished products is removed.

Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, 1944

It became apparent on New Years Eve, whilst watching the umpteenth ‘top songs of the decade’ show that the general pop music landscape was unchanged from 2000 to 2009. The majority of it was cultural product designed off the back of market research and demographic profiling. What was interesting however was the process by which these acts came into being. Whereas the early part of the decade still ran the process of designing and manufacturing a pop group in the background, only to release them to the world in a flurry of doves and multimillion dollar marketing budgets, the latter part of the decade was more transparent. What we now find is that although the acts are produced in much the same way as they were before, the process of producing the act is itself a lucrative entertainment empire. The target audience is actively encouraged to become complicit in the construction of the next big hit, and that construction is as much pop culture as the final end product.

The observations regarding the increasing transparency of manufacturing pop are nothing really. A blip, a grain in the decades of actions that Adorno and Horkheimer first recognised in the 1940s. The quote from them is one of my favourites. It is a quote that I truly believe should be read by as many people as possible, if only once. It is clear concise and blunt, but most importantly it is sixty-six years old and is truer today than the day it was written. I find it strangely beautiful in the vehemence it conveys, I often wish academia had some more of this passion left.

If you feel inclined you can read the entirety of Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay on the Culture Industry online.

I Often Plagiarise Myself

Here’s a thought for those of you that like to mix your academic work with your blogging vices. My university is trialing some software that detects plagiarism. It runs the submitted work through a few trials and tribulations to see if any significant strings match anything found online. It’s primarily there to make sure an essay isn’t actually a liberal quoting of Wikipedia.

However what happens when the software picks up a match for online content that the author of the submitted work is also the author of? What will happen in two years if my thesis gets run through this algorithm and a big arrow points at this blog? Obviously the mess should swiftly be resolved (one would hope) by me explaining the source of the blog. However it demonstrates both the problems of relying on algorithms and the problem that occurs when someone’s output is no longer contained to a professional sphere. Fifteen years ago no-one would expect a student to be airing their work anywhere outside their professional sphere. Now it should be compulsory.

Citation Metrics & the Freedom to Share

Citation Metrics probably aren’t the most exciting thing you’ll hear about this week but they’re incredibly important if you’re an academic, or if you’re concerned about the freedom of knowledge. In the UK the performance of departments in universities is assessed based on an audit that occurs every five or so years called the Research Assesment Exercise (RAE). The result of the RAE translates into how much government money that department will recieve until the next RAE.
So far the RAE has worked through a system of peer review. Every department submits a certain amount of articles
from various staff members along with a statement about the make-up of the department and other academics in the country are assigned to review the work and rank it. At the end all the ranks are tallyed up and a grant is worked out. The whole process can be rather expensive if you consider the cost of administration and dealing with staff having to be taken off their normal schedules to evaluate their peers.
So, bring in the citation metrics. Whenever someone writes an article and submits it to an academic journal it also becomes indexed by a citation index, the best known of these being the ‘Web of Science’ from Thomson Reuters. This database keeps track of which articles cite which articles and so provides a massive resource for ranking academic work based on how many people considered it worth citing. From these individual rankings academics can be valued based on how many other articles have cited their work. This gives them a number value which is often consulted when they apply for jobs. Departments routinely look up their applicants on the index to see how influential their work has been. If they are ranked highly it’s more likely the department will recieve more audit money.
The government has already expressed interest in the idea of moving from an audit based on peer review to one based on the data provided by the citation index. The massive costs required to run a peer reviewed audit certainly makes an audit based on mining already compiled data rather enticing.
To get to the point consider this scenario. Due to certain political aspirations in line with the Creative Commons movement, I feel that if I were to publish my work, it should be done openly, available to anyone to utilise. Most academic journals require you either pay for access to the content, or that you are a member of an institution that pays for your access. If you’re not an academic or willing to fork out money, a massive chunk of intellectual endeavour is closed off to you. If I want to publish outside this system I can, I’m totally free to give my work away for free however I choose. However these articles will never be indexed and so never count towards my ‘value’ as an academic. I shoot myself in the foot for my principles.
There is of course the option of a book, which is my current contingency plan. Over the course of my thesis I’ll have to lock my work away into those closed systems to secure some vague semblance of value. However at the end I can recompile these articles into a book (which i wanted to do anyway) and give that away for free as a seperate piece. As long as I can find a publisher willing to just do physical distribution and be happy to distribute free pdfs I should be set. Although not all publishers are a part of the index either…

Citation Metrics probably aren’t the most exciting thing you’ll hear about this week but they’re incredibly important if you’re an academic, or if you’re concerned about the freedom of knowledge. In the UK the performance of departments in universities is assessed based on an audit that occurs every five or so years called the Research Assesment Exercise (RAE). The result of the RAE translates into how much government money that department will recieve until the next RAE.

So far the RAE has worked through a system of peer review. Every department submits a certain amount of articles from various staff members along with a statement about the make-up of the department and other academics in the country are assigned to review the work and rank it. At the end all the ranks are tallyed up and a grant is worked out. The whole process can be rather expensive if you consider the cost of administration and dealing with staff having to be taken off their normal schedules to evaluate their peers.

So, bring in the citation metrics. Whenever someone writes an article and submits it to an academic journal it also becomes indexed by a citation index, the best known of these being the ‘Web of Knowledge’ from Thomson Reuters (a closed system similar to Google Scholar). This database keeps track of which articles cite which articles and so provides a massive resource for ranking academic work based on how many people considered it worth citing. From these individual rankings academics can be valued based on how many other articles have cited their work. This gives them a number value which is often consulted when they apply for jobs. Departments routinely look up their applicants on the index to see how influential their work has been. If they are ranked highly it’s more likely the department will recieve more audit money.

The government has already expressed interest in the idea of moving from an audit based on peer review to one based on the data provided by the citation index. The massive costs required to run a peer reviewed audit certainly makes an audit based on mining already compiled data rather enticing.

To get to the point consider this scenario. Due to certain political aspirations in line with the Creative Commons movement, I feel that if I were to publish my work, it should be done openly, available to anyone to utilise. Most academic journals require you either pay for access to the content, or that you are a member of an institution that pays for your access. If you’re not an academic or willing to fork out money, a massive chunk of intellectual endeavour is closed off to you. If I want to publish outside this system I can, I’m totally free to give my work away for free however I choose. However these articles will never be indexed and so never count towards my ‘value’ as an academic. I shoot myself in the foot for my principles.

There is of course the option of a book, which is my current contingency plan. Over the course of my thesis I’ll have to lock my work away into those closed systems to secure some vague semblance of value. However at the end I can recompile these articles into a book (which i wanted to do anyway) and give that away for free as a seperate piece. As long as I can find a publisher willing to just do physical distribution and be happy to distribute free pdfs I should be set. Although not all publishers are a part of the index either…