Anyone who has spent a moderate amount of time on the major social networking sites will be well aware of the vast amount of gurus and charlatans advertising themselves as social media experts. Their very actions and methodology belie them as frauds. So many exist that we are now inured to their solicitations and dismiss them as sad-case nuisances. The guys and gals who simply ‘don’t get it’.
However, genuine social media experts do exist. Men and women who have put in the long hard hours at the computer, in the library, in the field doing research and can legitimately declare themselves competent to speak of what they know – but they are few and far between. If the academic world doesn’t wake up, they are going to be even fewer and further between.
Contained in the Dagstuhl Manifesto for Digital Social Media was the revelation that “Currently, in France, Germany, Italy, the UK and Spain at least half a dozen to a dozen young researchers trained in the aforementioned areas of computer science would qualify for professorships in social computing, not mentioning the researchers available in smaller European countries.” In Ireland, the country with the highest per capita density of those with postgraduate qualifications, there are at least two accredited persons educated to Masters level that I know of.
In America, most of those who are genuinely respected as social media experts come from the enterprise and entrepreneurial sector, and it is no surprise that most of their focus is on marketing and branding. There is nothing wrong with that of course as money makes the world go round. But there is more to social media than maximising return on investment and developing product awareness outreach. There are other dimensions to be considered in the application of social media tools to government, education and, yes, even academia itself.
There are whole areas of society that can benefit from social media, but without the profit motive to drive the basic research, it seems at the moment the work is unlikely to get done, the opportunities will be lost.
So where are the future generations of thought leaders in this area? The people who will devote years of their lives to develop a deep and valuable understanding of the nuts and bolts of this medium?
Well the future looks bleak. Funding for a new Institute of Web Science, an initiative involving Tim Berners-Lee, has foundered on the rocks of the UK’s need to cut spending wherever it can. The rather Orwellian-sounding Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has characterised plans for the Institute as a “low priority“. Considering that a third of the world’s population is actively engaged online at this present moment, it would be interesting to find out what they considered a high priority.
But the issue is immediate. There is a dearth of digital knowledge-intellectuals now (as opposed to knowledge-workers), and it seems as if things are going to get worse. The need is great for rigorously-trained, academic tutors and researchers that have a deep enough and wide enough understanding of what are the forces exerting and effecting the greatest changes in the fundamental aspects of how we live, relate to each other and do business that is being brought about daily by the continuous development and expansion of the Web.
With Linked Data becoming more pervasive and an exponential release of it into public life, who and where are the people who are really going to know about it and help the rest of us to really understand it? Since the government is not going to help and we can’t all be involved in refining the transactions of commodities to the consumer, then the onus is on the academic institutions themselves to provide a way to answer this pressing need.