Review of Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemsley "Going Viral" and Limor Shifman, "Memes in Digital Culture"

Intellectual Affairs

For some reason I have become aware that it is possible to take photographs of bass guitar players in mid-performance and, by digital means, to replace their instruments with dogs, so that it then appears the musicians (who very often wear a facial expressions suggesting rapture or deep concentration) are tickling the dogs. Yes, yes it is.

I am not proud of this knowledge and did not seek it out, and would have forgotten about it almost immediately if not for something else occupying my attention in the past few days: a couple of new books treating the phenomenon with great and methodical seriousness. Not, of course, the dog-tickling bass player phenomenon as such, but rather, the kind of online artifact indicated by the titles of Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemsley’s Going Viral (Polity) and Limor Shifman’s Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press).

The authors differentiate between the topics of the two volumes. Despite a common tendency to equate them, memes don’t always “go viral.” Things that do (say, video shot during a typhoon, uploaded while the disaster is still under way) are not always memes. The distinction will be clarified shortly -- and there is indeed some value in defining the contrast. It corresponds to different kinds of behavior or, if you prefer, different ways of mediating social and cultural life by means of our all-but-inescapable digital device.

Still, the line should be drawn only just so sharply. It seems bright and clear when the authors bring their different methods (one more quantitative than qualitative and vice versa) to the job. I don’t mean that the difference between viral and memetic communication is simply one of perspective. It seems to exist in real life. But so does their tendency to blur.

“Virality,” write Nahon and Hemsley in a definition unlikely to be improved upon, “is a social information flow process where many people simultaneously forward a specific information item, over a short period of time, within their social networks, and where the message spreads beyond their own (social) networks to different, often distant networks, resulting in a sharp acceleration in the number of people who are exposed to the message.” (Nahon is an associate professor, and Hemsley a Ph.D. candidate, at the Information School of the University of Washington.

Here the term “information item” is used very broadly, to cover just about any packet of bytes: texts, photographs, video, sound files, etc. It also includes links taking you to such material. But unlike a computer virus -- an unwanted, often destructive such packet – a message that has “gone viral” doesn’t just forward itself. It propagates through numerous, dispersed, and repeated decisions to pay attention to something and then circulate it.

The process has a shape. Charting on a graph the number of times a message is forwarded over time, we find that the curve for a news item appearing at a site with a great deal of traffic (or a movie trailer advertised on a number of sites) shoots up at high speed, then falls just about as rapidly. The arc is rapid and smooth.

By contrast, the curve for an item going viral is a bit more drawn-out -- and a lot rougher. It may show little or no motion for a while before starting to trend upwards for a while (possibly followed by a plateau or downturn or two) until reaching a certain point at which the acceleration becomes extremely sharp, heading to a peak, whereupon the number of forwards begins to fall off, more or less rapidly -- with an occasional bounce upwards perhaps, but nothing so dramatic as before.

So the prominently featured news item or blockbuster ad campaign on YouTube shoots straight up, like a model rocket on a windless day, until the fuel (newsworthiness, dollars) runs out, whereupon it stops, then begins to accelerate in the opposite direction. But when something goes viral, more vectors are involved. It circulates within and between clusters of people -- individuals with strong mutual connections with each other. It circulates through the networks, formal or informal, in which those clusters are embedded.

And from there, onward and outward – whether with a push (when somebody with a million Twitter followers takes notice), or a pull (it begins to rank among top search-engine results on a certain topic), or both. The authors itemize factors in play in decisions about whether or not to share something: salience, emotional response, congruence with the person’s values, etc. And their definition of virality as “a social information flow process” takes into account both the horizontal dimension of exchange (material circulating spontaneously among people familiar with one another) and the roles of filtering and broadcasting exercised by individuals and online venues with a lot of social capital.

None of which makes virality something that can be planned, however. “Content that we create can remain stubbornly obscure even when we apply our best efforts to promote it,” they write. “It can also grow and spread with an apparent life and momentum of its own, destroying some people’s lives and bringing fame and fortune to others, sometimes in a matter of days.”

An Internet meme, as Limor Shifman sums things up, is “(a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance; (b) that were created with awareness of each other; and (c) were circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the Internet by many users.”

Shifman (a senior lecturer in communication and journalism at Hebrew University of Jerusalem) calls it “the best concept to encapsulate some of the most fundamental aspects of the Internet in general,” and especially now, when the tools for creating and modifying digital content are so readily available. The sort of cartoon video exemplified by “Reading and Time: A dialectic between academic expectation and academic frustration” also comes to mind, as does the Pepper Spraying Cop meme, now something of a classic.

As with virality, the concept rests on a biological metaphor. Coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976, “meme” began in a quasi-scientific effort to identify the gene-like elements of behavior, cultural patterns, and belief systems that caused them to persist, expand, and reproduce themselves over very long periods of time. As reincarnated within cyberculture, the meme is a thing of slighter consequence: a matter of endless variation on extremely tenacious inside jokes, occupying and replicating within the brains of bored people in offices.

Shifman's point that memetic communication (which for the most part involves mimicry of existing digital artifacts with parodic intent and/or "remixing" them with new content) is an exemplary case of Web 2.0 culture seems to me sound, which probably also explains why much in the book may seem familiar even to someone not up on LOLcats studies. Yes, memes are a form of active participation in digital communication. Yes, they can carry content that (whether the meme goes viral or not) questions or challenges existing power structures. I have seen my share of Downfall parody videos, and am glad to know that Bruno Gantz is okay with the whole thing. But every so often that line from Thoreau comes to mind -- "as if we could kill time without injuring eternity" -- and it seems like a good idea to go off the grid for a while.


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Essay on what's missing in discussion of the humanities

Over the last year there has been a steady stream of articles about the “crisis in the humanities,” fostering a sense that students are stampeding from liberal education toward more vocationally oriented studies. In fact, the decline in humanities enrollments, as some have pointed out, is wildly overstated, and much of that decline occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. Still, the press is filled with tales about parents riding herd on their offspring lest they be attracted to literature or history rather than to courses that teach them to develop new apps for the next, smarter phone.

America has long been ambivalent about learning for its own sake, at times investing heavily in free inquiry and lifelong learning, and at other times worrying that we need more specialized training to be economically competitive. A century ago these worries were intense, and then, as now, pundits talked about a flight from the humanities toward the hard sciences.

Liberal education was a core American value in the first half of the 20th century, but a value under enormous pressure from demographic expansion and the development of more consistent public schooling. The increase in the population considering postsecondary education was dramatic. In 1910 only 9 percent of students received a high school diploma; by 1940 it was 50 percent. For the great majority of those who went on to college, that education would be primarily vocational, whether in agriculture, business, or the mechanical arts. But even vocationally oriented programs usually included a liberal curriculum -- a curriculum that would provide an educational base on which one could continue to learn -- rather than just skills for the next job. Still, there were some then (as now) who worried that the lower classes were getting “too much education.”

Within the academy, between the World Wars, the sciences assumed greater and greater importance. Discoveries in physics, chemistry, and biology did not seem to depend on the moral, political, or cultural education of the researchers – specialization seemed to trump broad humanistic learning. These discoveries had a powerful impact on industry, the military, and health care; they created jobs! Specialized scientific research at universities produced tangible results, and its methodologies – especially rigorous experimentation – could be exported to transform private industry and the public sphere. Science was seen to be racing into the future, and some questioned whether the traditional ideas of liberal learning were merely archaic vestiges of a mode of education that should be left behind.

In reaction to this ascendancy of the sciences, many literature departments reimagined themselves as realms of value and heightened subjectivity, as opposed to so-called value-free, objective work. These “new humanists” of the 1920s portrayed the study of literature as an antidote to the spiritual vacuum left by hyperspecialization. They saw the study of literature as leading to a greater appreciation of cultural significance and a personal search for meaning, and these notions quickly spilled over into other areas of humanistic study. Historians and philosophers emphasized the synthetic dimensions of their endeavors, pointing out how they were able to bring ideas and facts together to help students create meaning. And arts instruction was reimagined as part of the development of a student’s ability to explore great works that expressed the highest values of a civilization. Artists were brought to campuses to inspire students rather than to teach them the nuances of their craft. During this interwar period a liberal education surely included the sciences, but many educators insisted that it not be reduced to them. The critical development of values and meaning was a core function of education.

Thus, despite the pressures of social change and of the compelling results of specialized scientific research, there remained strong support for the notion that liberal education and learning for its own sake were essential for an educated citizenry. And rather than restrict a nonvocational education to established elites, many saw this broad teaching as a vehicle for ensuring commonality in a country of immigrants. Free inquiry would model basic democratic values, and young people would be socialized to American civil society by learning to think for themselves.

By the 1930s, an era in which ideological indoctrination and fanaticism were recognized as antithetical to American civil society, liberal education was acclaimed as key to the development of free citizens. Totalitarian regimes embraced technological development, but they could not tolerate the free discussion that led to a critical appraisal of civic values. Here is the president of Harvard, James Bryant Conant, speaking to undergraduates just two years after Hitler had come to power in Germany:

To my mind, one of the most important aspects of a college education is that it provides a vigorous stimulus to independent thinking.... The desire to know more about the different sides of a question, a craving to understand something of the opinions of other peoples and other times mark the educated man. Education should not put the mind in a straitjacket of conventional formulas but should provide it with the nourishment on which it may unceasingly expand and grow. Think for yourselves! Absorb knowledge wherever possible and listen to the opinions of those more experienced than yourself, but don’t let any one do your thinking for you.

This was the 1930s version of liberal learning, and in it you can hear echoes of Thomas Jefferson’s idea of autonomy and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thoughts on self-reliance.

In the interwar period the emphasis on science did not, in fact, lead to a rejection of broad humanistic education. Science was a facet of this education. Today, we must not let our embrace of STEM fields undermine our well-founded faith in the capacity of the humanities to help us resist “the straitjackets of conventional formulas.” Our independence, our freedom, has depended on not letting anyone else do our thinking for us. And that has demanded learning for its own sake; it has demanded a liberal education. It still does.

Michael Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His new book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, will be published next year by Yale University Press. His Twitter handle is @mroth78

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Essay suggests liberal arts training relates to skills

The liberal arts are dead, or — at best — dying. That's the theme of story after story in today’s news media.

Professional skills training is in. The STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields are in. Practical, vocational higher education is in. The liberal arts are out, relics of a “traditional” way of thinking that has been overtaken by the pressing demands of our dizzyingly complex digital age.

As new students arrived on college campuses this fall, the message many of them heard is that majoring in history, or English, or anthropology is a surefire recipe for a life of irrelevance and poor job prospects. These “conventional” disciplines cannot possibly train students for productive, enriching careers in the high-tech information age whose future is now.

Although this viewpoint is rapidly gaining the status of settled wisdom, it is tragically misguided. It is based on a false dichotomy, namely that the liberal arts and the more vocational, preprofessional, practical disciplines — like, say, computer science — are fundamentally different and opposed. But this misunderstands both the age we’re living in and the challenges we face, not to mention one of the most significant trends in higher education over the last few decades — the evolution of interdisciplinarity.

In essence, this whole debate comes down to skills. The liberal arts are often said by critics to provide little that is of “practical value” in the “real world.” In reality, though, liberal arts curriculums can and do give students skills that are just as professionally useful as those in more “relevant” occupationally specific fields of study.

At my university, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, students this fall can declare a new major called global studies, which integrates courses in 12 liberal arts departments — including economics, geography and environmental systems, history, media and communication studies, and political science — into a rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum. Majors are required to study abroad and to achieve fluency in at least one foreign language. By graduation, they will have demonstrated their research, analytical, critical-thinking, and writing skills in a substantial, “capstone” research project. Our students will also do internships with companies, not-for-profits, and government agencies.

Equally important, they will develop “global competence,” which employers in many professions have identified as one of the most desirable, but grossly lacking, sets of skills required of their new employees. Broadly defined, global competence is “the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance.” Its central elements include knowledge of world affairs — cultural, economic, and political; proficiency in communicating with people in and from other societies, both verbally and in writing; the ability to appreciate multiple perspectives and respect cultural diversity; and the intellectual and psychological flexibility to adapt to unfamiliar and rapidly changing circumstances.

Developing the skills that we hope to instill in UMBC’s global studies majors is an inherently interdisciplinary mission. In a recent New York Times column, Yale professor Nicholas Christakis argues that the social sciences (a subset of the liberal arts) badly trail the natural sciences in generating innovative “institutional structures” that can produce the kind of cutting-edge science necessary for solving some of the world’s most intractable — often intrinsically interdisciplinary — problems. However, he also notes that this is beginning to change, for example, in the form of a new global affairs major at Yale.

Whether it’s global studies at UMBC or global affairs at Yale, these exciting new programs tangibly articulate why talking about liberal arts education versus practical training creates the false perception that these two enterprises are essentially at odds. At UMBC, it's the combination of interdisciplinary liberal arts education; substantial research, writing and analysis; rigorous foreign language training; study abroad; and experiential learning in the form of internships and other applied opportunities that will give students the skills they will need to thrive and “do good” in the 21st century.

The tragedy is that we might blow it. If we continue to present students with a false choice between the liberal arts and “real-world” vocational training, we will produce what social scientists like to call “suboptimal” outcomes. Too many talented, energetic, hard-working students will choose “safe” educational and career paths, and too many truly global problems will go unsolved.

Devin T. Hagerty is a professor of political science and director of global studies at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

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Essay calls for adjuncts to start talking with students about their status

If you’re an adjunct, I have a small but important task for you:

Ask your students what "adjunct professor" means to them. You might hear something like, It means you don’t have a Ph.D., or You don’t have tenure yet. (Yet ... if only.) Don’t be bitter or cynical, and don’t barrage them with statistics, stories of unfair working conditions, and vitriol against "the administration." Try to be as calm and diplomatic as you can, and simply listen. Some might understand and empathize, or some may simply brush it off. If you’re a multi-campus adjunct (or "road scholar," as we’re sometimes called), students may understand that their class and campus aren’t the only things demanding your attention. Carve out some time in class, and ask your students what "adjunct" can or does mean. Maybe they’ll like the break from talking about another scarlet A or going over their next writing assignment.

Better yet, ask your students regardless of whether you’re adjunct, tenure track, or tenured. Part- and full-time faculty, regardless of discipline, need to be collaborating -- both as part of this conversation and more broadly across our disciplines and campuses

Whenever I’ve asked my students what "adjunct professor" means, I’ve told them about some of the differences between being on and off the tenure track, how pay can differ, how we don’t get paid as much as other professors or administrators, and so on. Thanks to some Modern Language Association networking I did with New Faculty Majority, I was part of a "PBS NewsHour" story in March, and I mentioned it to a few students in case they wanted to watch. I had hoped the piece would be substantive and lead to others focused exclusively on adjunct labor -- and thus reach students’ parents -- but it wasn’t and it didn’t.

I’m ultimately trying to raise questions and spark discussions -- debates, even -- about how and why to talk about labor conditions with students. I’m not intending to provide a script or list of directives, short of saying that by no means should “Job Information List” or “search committee” be said in the classroom. Our students have a right to know that all professors aren’t treated and promoted equally -- and, more importantly, that this affects how we educate them. Anecdotally, I’ve had to limit my accessibility, office hours, and even designs for more ambitious courses in the past when I’ve taught at two campuses and had 70-80 students. This semester, for the first time since 2006, I’m only on one campus and have 26 students. I have a lot more time and energy for important teaching tasks: slowing down when I grade to write fuller, more meaningful comments; spending more time and energy to design new assignments and "know" my students more fully; and, simply enjoying more time to grade, prep, and meet with students.

Having been an adjunct for 14 years and counting -- the first six while finishing my doctorate, the last eight as job seeker and teacher-scholar -- I find myself thinking a lot about how to involve students in discussions of academic working conditions. Regardless of how we raise the adjunct question in our classes, we need to do so constructively, meaningfully, and diplomatically, and without simply airing grievances or ranting against "the administration." Tone is key. My program director once described me as calm and articulate -- which is typically how I discuss such professional matters in the department or online. There are private Facebook groups (e.g., Con Job), direct Twitter messages, and hallway conversations for the vitriol and the ranting -- which, believe me, is therapeutic.

By the same token, I’ve also been thinking about how to reach students’ parents in equally meaningful and constructive ways. I’d never advocate direct-emailing them or aggressively interrupting freshman orientation, but perhaps our conversations with students will trickle down to their parents. Or, perhaps we might find ways to talk with parents at orientations and move-in weekends. They, too, have a right to know that some of their children’s professors have limited availability, minimal financial support, and overbooked schedules across campuses.

Particularly with universities that (claim to) value the first-year student experience, new students and their parents should be aware that the professor of their intro-level course may work multiple jobs -- teaching or otherwise -- while acquainting students with college-level learning, or that s/he doesn’t have a TA to handle some grading. Parents might need reminding that most adjuncts don’t have other full-time jobs and simply teach "on the side" or "in the evenings." For some of us, teaching and working in several part-time positions is our full-time job.

It's crucial that we ask these questions and talk with our students. In my case, the adjunct question has come up in a few different ways with my students. Last fall, one student was a little impatient (albeit well-intentioned) about my replying to an email she sent asking about feedback on a paper idea, so she sent me one of those, "Did you get my last email?" messages. I replied that I’d seen the first one and planned to respond soon -- while reminding her that she was one of about 75 students I had that semester across four courses and two campuses. In a few other instances, students’ schedules have conflicted with my office hours, and I’ve sometimes had to teach on another campus when students requested to meet. We work it out, often with a little finessing of the schedule, but I seize the chance to tell them why I’m not around as much as they or I might like.

I posed the adjunct question to an honors-level Shakespeare course last fall, and it led to a short discussion of some differences in faculty rank and course assignments. Most recently, I asked a student (also a campus tour guide) what the university told her to say to prospective students and their parents about different faculty ranks and working conditions. They do acknowledge that the university has different levels of faculty, and that several professors are part-time and teach at other local universities. (About 13 years ago, another student-tour guide told me he was instructed to say that all university faculty were full-time, even though he knew I was an adjunct without a Ph.D. yet. At least some things have improved.) At this point, though, simply acknowledging that there are different faculty levels at the university -- while still knowingly maintaining an uneven playing field -- is problematic at best, and unconscionable at worst. Don’t just tell students you have different faculty ranks; help the part-timers earn more and move up those ranks.

Clearly, some things can’t be changed by one conversation with students. Tenure-track positions aren’t going to multiply overnight, department chairs and deans aren’t going to automatically promote adjuncts, and students aren’t going to march on the university president’s office. Although there won’t be immediate big-picture effects of such a conversation, we should still have it with our students. Ask them and see where the conversation leads.

I now have another small task for you: Start talking about how we can -- indeed, should -- involve our students in discussions of academic labor. Share and tweet this piece. Comment, answer, even disagree. Remember that there are different kinds of action: from simply reading and sharing this piece, to talking with your students, to figuring out what has and hasn’t worked well. And maybe see how and when you can reach a student’s parents.

Clearly, these conversations are fluid and ongoing. Your job -- our job -- is to take them off the page or screen and into our social media feeds, department meetings, and, perhaps more pressingly, classrooms.

This article is adapted with permission from one part of a series in Hybrid Pedagogy on contingent faculty members. Joseph Fruscione teaches first-year writing at George Washington University; he also works as a freelance tutor and editor. He has taught American literature, adaptation studies, and first-year writing at the university level since 1999.

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Essay calls for faculty members to learn how to advise students on non-academic matters

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