Category Archives: academia

::gulp:: oh shit.

So, a while back, Nicole Ellison and i got this brilliant idea ::cough::choke:: to put together a special issue of JCMC (a fantastic journal in our field) when we were plotting about a workshop for an upcoming conference (announcement on that soon). Based on our guesstimate, we figured that we could find six solid articles on social network sites and that it would help everyone to have them published. We sent a CFP around, hoping for the best. Yesterday was the deadline for proposals and we are faced with a reality that is beyond anything either of us could’ve imagined. We received over 100 submissions from researchers around the world doing amazing work on a wide variety of related topics. I’m sitting here, drowning in proposals, mouth wide open. I had *no* idea that this much work was going on in this space. None. Completely shocked. And then it dawned on me… No matter what i do, i’m faced with the reality of having to reject fantastic, solid research.

::eyes wide:: I have to admit that i’m speechless. Shocked dumb.

At some point, i’m going to have to wake up from this stupor and connect with Nicole so that we can start evaluating the proposals. God, this is terrifying. When we decided to do this, i never thought about what it would mean to _reject_ people whose work should be published. ::shudder:: I’ve had to reject people before but not like this; usually, i have to reject stuff under blind review that isn’t ready for prime time. This week, i’m going to have to reject work that is ready and good. I’m also sad because i was hoping to give lots of productive feedback, but there’s no way that’s possible now. I feel terrible about this.

I also need to start plotting again… There needs to be another way to get more of this work out there. And i want to figure out ways to connect all of these researchers since there’s so much overlap. (And the answer is not create my own journal… that would _kill_ me.) For those of you academics out there, what are other related journals that we can encourage people to submit to? I *hate* that we’re going to have to reject so many people’s rocking work so i want to at least provide alternative venue suggestions.

For those of you non-academics, i’m sure this seems all weird but publishing is the core of what we do. And people really want to publish in good journals with work that’ll complement what they are doing. Special issues that are on your topic are the best thing in the world because it means collaborating with your peers who understand what weird work you’re doing. This is also one of the major drives to put together a special issue. You don’t get a lot of credit for doing it, but you get to see all of the cool relevant work in your area, engage with scholars of like minds, and learn from them. I know it’s weird but i really love this stuff and it’s moments like this when i’m simultaneously overwhelmed/terrified and utterly psyched.

(To all of you who submitted who are reading this, my sincerest thank you for contributing. This is going to be a very competitive issue that i think will be valuable for all of us. I’m really psyched even if i’m completely overwhelmed this morning.)

applying to graduate school

Academia has patterns and one of the ways that i know that it is November is that i’m getting lots of email from friends thinking of going to graduate school and from people who want to apply to the School of Information. Although i’ve been in school for forever, i’m not an expert on applying to graduate school but i do have some thoughts…

While i offer some suggestions below, i’d really like to do a call out to professors and graduate students who might have advice about applying to graduate school. Please suggest things in the comments. I know that applying to graduate school provokes all sorts of anxieties in people and i’d love to offer some guidance collectively if possible.

Anyhow, here are my top 4 rules:

Rule #1: Apply to potential advisors, not to programs. Sure, a PhD from CalTech looks uber swanky on your resume but if you aren’t that interested in what you’re researching and you have a poor rapport with your advisor, the likelihood of you dropping out is HIGH. In most programs (particularly engineering and sciences), your advisor is *EVERYTHING*. This is the person who will direct much of your research, the person who will fight to get you through the program, the person who will make you feel guilty about spending too much time blogging, the person who will foot your bills, and the person whose love you desperately need when you think the world sucks. You better love your advisor or you will be miserable.

So, when searching for schools, look for advisors who write like you want to write, who do the kind of work you wish to do, who generally are the kind of people you want to be. Try contacting them but don’t be discouraged if they don’t respond; many are too busy to field messages from potential students. If you can’t get in touch with them, try contacting their students. In both cases, write a BRIEF message about who you are, why you want to study with that person/in that lab, what you think you can offer. Do your research before contacting a prof – know what they’ve written, what they’re studying, and why. Compliment them (all academics are suckers for compliments) but don’t get too sickeningly sweet. Make sure you’re concise and that your email is well written but not stiff as a board. Give them something to respond to (translation: ask a question). The best questions include the future of their research, what motivates their research, an intelligent question about their findings, etc. This should be in addition to a question about what the prof is looking for in new students. While the adage is that there are no dumb questions, this simply is not true. Dumb questions, complimentary emails with no hooks, begging and pleading… these won’t garner responses. Don’t expect to start a conversation.

If the professor agrees to meet with you, show up on time and engage them about their research. If you didn’t do your research before, you better have by this point. Bring with you a paper including a brief bio of you and a very short abstract of what you want to do in graduate school. It can’t hurt to include a small, simple, elegant (i’d recommend black & white) photo on that page so that they can keep names/faces together (cuz the scattered professor stereotype exists for a reason). If you did meet with the prof, follow up via email and perhaps include similar information so that they’ll recall you via search when they’re looking at applications.

Note: in many programs, professors choose students so if they remember you and like you, that will be a plus for your application. Having a professor on your side is a good thing for getting in but it’s also key if you want to be happy once there.

Oh, and helpful hint: don’t apply to professors who have retired or gone to a different program. Websites are good first guidelines but you really need to talk to someone to find out the state of the school at the moment. Hell, at the very least, call the secretary for the department. I feel really badly every time someone contacts me saying they’ve applied to work for my advisor at Berkeley; he retired.

Rule #2: Programs are not generic. It’s amazing the number of people who apply to programs en masse and have no idea what they’re applying to. It’s really obvious in the application. When you write an application for graduate school, make sure it’s tailored for that program. Why are you applying THERE? Make sure to situate yourself within the broader program – what can you offer, why do you think you should be there, why do you think this is a good program? Work this stuff into your essay – make it really clear that THIS is the program for you. Reference professors explicitly, complimenting their work. This will help them understand where you think you belong within the program.

Before applying to a program, read the fine print. How much coursework will you have to do? What kind of requirements should you expect? How does the program do funding? Know what you’re getting into before you apply and make sure that’s soaked in and part of your application. For example, if it’s a program with two years of solid coursework, don’t write that you’re done with coursework and can’t wait to focus on research.

Rule #3: Interdisciplinary programs are not the lazy way out. In many ways, the borders of disciplinary programs are far more sane than interdisciplinary ones. To do well at an interdisciplinary place, you can’t just be sorta ok at a bunch of things – you actually have to dive deep and get really knowledgeable about a bunch of things. In many ways, it can be a lot more work and at the same time, you’ll never really succeed at being an expert at anything (which others will kindly remind you of constantly).

Don’t choose an interdisciplinary program because you can’t make your mind up about what you want to study. This is the *worst* reason to go to graduate school, especially to go to interdisciplinary programs. You need to have a vague idea of what you want to study and why. If you just want to be in graduate school, you’re better off at a disciplinary place (although i think that that motivation is still terrible there). At an interdisciplinary place, you’re always going to be making your own path, fighting for what you think it important, etc.

At the same time, don’t go to a traditional disciplinary place if you want to do interdisciplinary work really badly. It’s quite possible to stick to a discipline until after your PhD is over (and this will make it a lot easier to get jobs) but if you think you’re going to be doing an interdisciplinary dissertation, don’t expect a disciplinary place to support you unless you’ve built a relationship with an advisor. I’ve watched many sad graduate students push for interdisciplinary work in a disciplinary program and bloody their heads from the repeated bashing against the immovable wall that is academic bureaucracy.

Rule #4: Read Piled Higher and Deeper. Phd Comics is a fantastic procrastination tool for all graduate students and a reality check for all wannabe graduate students. Its depiction of graduate school is far better than any that i know. And it will make you laugh and laugh and laugh until you cry.


Graduate school is all-encompassing. You will not have a life for years. Nor will you have money or sanity. So if you’re going to go for a PhD, do so because you love what you want to study and getting that PhD will make your life easier. Passion and maschoism are the only things that will get you through this academic hazing ritual. No matter what, you have to figure out how to make the process sane and positive for yourself. It doesn’t come easy but you can figure out how to make it enjoyable; i certainly have. But it takes a lot of hard work. And a good anti-depressant.

Anyhow, i’ll try to offer more advice if i think of any, but in the meantime, i’d love to hear what others suggest….

Announcing the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative

The MacArthur Foundation has been an amazing source of inspiration for me. As many of you know, my dissertation research is funded through a large grant by the MacArthur Foundation to my advisors to investigate Kids’ Informal Learning with Digital Media. Well, the MacArthur Foundation has decided to take it to the next step. On Thursday, i had the fortune to be in New York for the launching of MacArthur’s broader initiative on Digital Media and Learning. All sorts of folks gathered at the launch – press, academics, educators, policy makers, non-profit leaders, corporations, etc. – to celebrate the new $50M launch. The President of the Foundation spoke and then three grantees – Mimi Ito, Henry Jenkins, and Nicole Pinkard – discussed the significance of this research. (I wrote up a synopsis for MacArthur if you’re curious.)

The significance of this is huge. As an academic, getting no-strings grant money is becoming more and more difficult. I’ve been pretty opposed to making moral concessions by applying for grants from DoD, CIA or Homeland Security. There are corporate grants but that complicates things because you have to explain how your work will help them make more money. This inherently clouds research for me. With my research on youth, there’s no doubt that i could get a corporation to sponsor it, but would i have the freedom to study whatever i felt was significant? Could i publish everything that i found? Would i be able to get data from competing companies? Probably not to all of the above. Because the MacArthur Foundation funds my work, no one owns it and i can speak freely.

The work that MacArthur is funding needs to happen and it crosses disciplines and institutions. We need to understand what youth are doing, not just how to control them. We need to understand from youth’s perspectives, not from the perspectives of those who wish to make money off of them. There is no doubt that our research will be used by governments, parents, educators, corporations, etc. but to do the research free from the constraints of those groups is a blessing. Furthermore, by gathering hundreds of researchers investigating these issues from different angles, the Foundation is starting to build a socially conscious field of scholarship.

I can’t thank MacArthur enough for recognizing the importance of this research and moving it forward. I want to publicly acknowledge their contribution and invite you to get involved as well. For those who wish to keep up with what’s happening:

Also, please spread the word about this project to those who are interested in youth, digital media, and (informal) learning.

Special Issue of JCMC on Social Network Sites

Six weeks ago, i asked all researchers who were publishing about social network sites to come forward and be counted. I mentioned that Nicole Ellison and i were plotting… Now i’m back to reveal what we are up to. We used that list to show that there was enough research going on in this space from a bazillion different disciplinary and methodological directions to justify a special edition of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. For those who don’t know JCMC, it’s a kick-ass interdisciplinary journal (with a saint as an editor). They’re dedicated to being accessible. The articles published are meant for a broad audience and they make all of their issues online for EVERYONE to read.

So, anyhow, we approached JCMC with our plot… we wanted to excite the journal into letting us put together a special issue on social network sites. And guess what? It’s gonna happen!

I’m here to announce a Call for Proposals for a Special Issue of JCMC on “Social Network Sites: People, Practice, and Culture.” 500 word abstracts will be due 28 November 2006. Full papers will be due 28 February 2007. Read the Call for full details about the scope of this issue and the procedure to submit. Feel free to ask questions as well. We welcome previously unpublished research articles and they will be peer-reviewed. We welcome all theoretical and methodological approaches. Also, based on the confusion in my previous post, we added the following definitional clause: “While all social network sites allow participants to create a profile and publicly articulate their social connections within the system, the line between social network sites and dating sites, MMOGs, media sharing sites, blogging tools, and other social community sites can be blurry. Rather than enforcing a strict definition of what constitutes a social network site, we ask authors to explain how their site of study fits into a rubric of social network sites.”

Anyhow, i’m uber uber excited about this so i hope that you pass it along to everyone you know doing research in this area. Also, while we’re on the topic, Nicole and i will most likely be hosting a workshop on social network sites at the Communities and Technologies Conference next summer. These are topically connected but participation in one does not require participation in the other. More on this shortly.


education and Skywalker Ranch

Yesterday, i flew up to Skywalker Ranch to meet with a bunch of people who think about/work on issues around education. It was held there because it included folks from the George Lucas Educational Foundation (and was put on by the Institute for the Future and the KnowledgeWorks Foundation). OMG… drool. That place is just ridiculously gorgeous! There were gardens and a lake and vineyards and all things pretty northern California. PLUS there were original life sabers and other movie memorabilia. Mega drool.

On top of being in an idyllic setting, the meeting was quite engaging. It was very school-focused and a small group of us came to the realization that schools need to start serving the tension between ego-centered, personalized, individualistic society and globalized society. There used to be scales – people would be part of local communities, broader communities, nation-states, etc. Networked society is altering the relationships between people and communities are suffering because of the lack of cohesion, social norms, etc. When we think about education (especially when we talk about its role in relation to civic life), we need to stop damning technology and start engaging with the shifts that have occurred in the architecture of sociality. We started toying with what that would mean as a design criteria for educational infrastructure. (I was trying really hard to think of optimistic ideas for formal education but i also realized how much i still detest the bureaucratic nature of public schools.)

can i have an -ist please?

At the end of any press interview, i’m inevitably asked to label myself. What they really want is an easy -ist word. Y’know – computer scientIST, anthropologIST, biologIST, psychologIST, artIST… This part of the interview always makes me squirm more the most. I don’t have an ist and usually, i don’t want one but it’s really becoming a pain in the ass. I usually try to squeeze out of it by saying that i’m a PhD student in the School of Information at the University of California, but sometimes, that’s not enough.

I often sheepishly call myself an anthropologist which, when concerning MySpace would be mostly accurate given that i’m doing a full-on ethnography of it situated in anthropological theories but i’m also not really accepted by the anthropologists as one of them. Sometimes, i think that i should call myself a cultural theorist since that’s sorta right, but at the same time, i’m more of a cultural observer and documenter than a theorist. At least so far. And the observer part sounds so not professional. I’ve tried accepting informationist but that just sounds so wrong. While i love what information schools are trying to do, i don’t think of them as creating -ists. Of course, that’s true for most “schools” like law, education, business. Could you imagine being a businessist? Ugg.

So i want an -ist. Who wants to bestow me an -ist?

no CHI for me

The workshops at CHI this year are *unbelievable* and it was hard to choose. In the end, i agreed to be a discussion leader for Social Visualization Workshop. As the registration deadline loomed, i was hoping that i would find funding, but both are kinda tangential to both my research and work. I decided to look and see if i could afford it on my own and was shocked to see that the cost of registration (including workshops) is $650. And that’s the student price! ::gulp:: So, sadly, i will not be attending CHI this year.

I have to say, i’m also quite shocked at the hike in fees. [For those who are used to industry fees, this is quite expensive for an academic conference where even the presenters pay.] I thought i was going mad until i saw Jofish’s visual of the registration costs over time:

I know that putting on conferences is expensive but i really wish i knew what registration fees went towards. I also wish monetary-related decisions were more transparent, particularly for conferences that are not-for-profit. Are there reasons to keep attendees in the dark about what their fees pay for?

Like Jofish, i also wonder about the implications that this fee hike has for interdisciplinary discussions when members of less-funded disciplines cannot attend. Making CHI only affordable to the CS folks is not a good thing. And i cannot even imagine what it must be like to be outside of the Euro-American corridor where most of these events occur. Or to be a graduate student who has no funding and never has the privilege to attend. It’s scary to think about the ways in which the academy work creates fundamental biases in knowledge production.

what is vulgar in academia?

Last night, a friend told me about a kid who had his dissertation censored by their school. I was wracking my brain trying to figure out what on earth one could write that would get censored and failed. So i responded with puzzlement and i was told that he had written an entire chapter on how his department’s drama had detrimental effects on his research (this was part of the methods section). Needless to say, this did not go over well.

Today, i was told that i could not submit an abstract with “MySpace whores” in it and was encouraged to change it to “MySpace prostitutes.” Of course, i was like no no no… that’s not the term people use. I think that it is wholely inappropriate to alter cultural terms when trying to talk about the culture. I unhappily agreed to remove the entire segment from my abstract but made it very clear that i had every intention of talking about “MySpace whores” given that the talk is on friending practices in MySpace and the term comes up in almost every conversation i have with people. The response? “i don’t care how vulgar you get in your talk. that will be only a reflection of you and not of me.”

Wow… that was harsh. Am i vulgar to be using the terms that people use? Sure, one could make an argument that their terms are vulgar to elitist ears, but i’m studying a culture filled with all sorts of shall we say… interesting… terminology. If i were speaking to an audience of anthropologists or gender studies folks, no one would bat an eye. Why am i suddenly lacking decorum when i move to disciplines filled with mostly straight white men? Because hegemonic decorum doesn’t recognize the language of less privileged populations? Hrmfpt.

more reasons to love Jean Lave

Sometimes, people tell you what you need to hear at the exact right moment, even when they themselves do not realize it. As i mentioned before, i’m taking this amazing course this semester. What i’m beginning to realize is that it is not the brilliant readings that are of value to me so much as the ways in which it is helping me frame academia and research. As i am starting to admit that i won’t be in graduate school forever and taking steps towards dissertation, all of my neuroses about the academic process are coming out full force. (Of course, this is not helped by the layers of bureaucracy and hoops that are required to move towards graduation.)

Last fall, i submitted my IRB (“human subjects”) forms for approval. The stack was a small tree. On Tuesday, shortly before class, i received “conditional” approval for my work and was told that i would know what i needed to change within a month. How i love the slowness. These IRB forms have been weighing on me. In order to step through that hoop, i had to list every question i would ask my subjects in a sort of formalized script, exactly how i would recruit my subjects (including the exact wording), the hypothesis of my research that i am testing, etc. These forms fundamentally conflicted with how i believe good ethnographic research works. Sure, i could do an interview study from this but my whole project is about hanging out amongst youth, both online and off. Of course, interviewing will be a part of it, but there’s so much more. But to say exactly what that will be has felt so unreasonable that it took me six months to file the damn forms because i had a complete panic attack every time i looked at them. I finally sucked it up and tried to articulate everything i could. Yet, i still felt as though i had failed. I failed to account for the times when i sat on the 22 overhearing teenagers’ commentary following school. I didn’t account for the invitations that i receive to sit in on people’s classrooms, special programs to keep teens off the streets. I didn’t account for the times when teens saw my MySpace shirt and came up to me to tell me their story. Eeek!

And then, in discussing Beamtimes and Lifetimes, we started talking about the process of doing ethnography and the dangerous assumption that ethnography is the same thing as an interview study. Having been involved in a backchannel about how Traweek’s project could’ve possibly gotten through IRB, i piped up and said that i thought that people conflated the two because of the amount of formalism required to get through IRB. Jean’s response was priceless. In essence she said that you have to submit the forms to the best of your ability but “you don’t have to do what they say.” IRBs are there to protect the university, to make you think about ethics, but they don’t know how to handle ethnography and the most important thing is to create a list of your ethics and to stick to them, to really be accountable to yourself – “everybody ought to write their own ethics statement and follow it.” I told her about the formalism of the forms and she laughed and said “gracious me, throw that stuff out the moment you’re done.” She reminded us that ethnography can’t be done that way, that we will all fail ourselves. “Be careful, if you say you’re going to do this tight-assed medical model stuff, you might end up doing it.”

At one point, one of the students spoke up: “remember, you’re being recorded.” She laughed, smiled and said, “that’s okay, send it to the committee.”

public check-in

My blog is an opportunity to expel all of the crazy thoughts going through my head, process weird intellectual concepts, note things that i’m fascinated by and all around serve as a large pensieve of my thoughts.

As you may have noticed, i’m living in the world of youth these days and a lot of my blog posts for the next four months are going to be focused on that. My apologies to those of you who are looking to me for information on social software. I am currently more interested in understanding the theoretical and historical underpinnings of youth and identity. That said, what i am doing is not removed from social software. Most youth today use social technologies as part of their coming of age processes. They have far richer social lives than most adults. What they are doing with technology is far more complex. Furthermore, they are really focused on the act of socializing, not collaboration or any other work-centric model. Youth have a lot to teach us about social software – about its strengths, weaknesses and where innovation should go. Obviously, i’m biased – this is the root of how my research is applicable to technologists.

I hope those of you building technology will enjoy my journey to the depths of youth. I certainly am. If not, i’m sorry.

I’m also not going to being as up-to-date about industry developments as i used to be. I always love when people shoot me an email with things i really should know about – articles, links, etc. Even if i don’t post about it, i really do appreciate reading it. Besides, the probability of me already having seen it isn’t as large as you might think.

I’m also deeply appreciative of those who point me to other reflections on youth culture, either out in blog-land, in the press, or in culture more broadly. If you find something and you happen to think of me, please send it my way. Finally, if you’re writing about or thinking about youth culture, please let me know… Sometimes, i think that i’m on my own planet.