Put Down that Web!

By: Matthew Battles
July 31, 2009

Atlas Sepia<em>, by Kurt Christensen</em>
Atlas Sepia, by Kurt Christensen

A COLLEGE WHERE I do a bit of teaching just sent me an email announcing the formation of a “social media working group” whose job it is to “research, suggest, and implement strategies and best practices” and “organize a system for maintaining (the college’s) social media presence and content.”

Higher education, like the mainstream media, is frankly desperate to extend their dominion in the social networking space. Like their corporate peers, they’ve been eager to colonize the flourishing Internet at each phase of its development, and now is no exception. It’s hardly novel of me to say that along the way they’re killing everything that makes networked communication a worthwhile cultural force.

At first blush, it seems as if they’re right to fear the evolution of the Internet. At its ever-adapting edge, its energies and structures are fundamentally opposed to the hierarchized world of middlebrow knowledge and opinion that is the dark matter of the institutional, incorporated way of life. That’s why it’s so dispiriting that to date these shifting technologies have proven amenable to middlebrow domestication at every turn — and the social media are proving no different.

I’m no advocate of censorship; these media should be used in every possible way. But when I use Twitter and other social media, I’m seeking a dialogue with individual minds, not corporate interests. Friending or following major-media news shows, accredited colleges, and corporate philanthropies is not dialogue in any true sense of the word.

In a thriving networked culture, it should be possible not merely to complement but to replace institutions and corporations with commons-native constellations of intelligence. The mainstream media quakes before the ever-multiplying range of news-gathering alternatives. In the intellectual world, the Infinite Summer— a massively distributed endeavor to collectively read and discuss the late novelist David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus Infinite Jest— is proving the power of social media to build loosely-structured networks of brains to replace the medieval legacy of colleges, faculties, and curricula.

But the middlebrow institutions —Titans of modernity’s prior imperium — keep getting in the way. Do not friend them; do not follow.