From Phil Agre’s 2004 book chapter, “The Practical Republic”. Dr. Agre disappeared himself some years later, and those who know him (sadly, I am not one because I admire his work) ultimately did locate him alive, and purposefully isolated from society:
“So the three elements of social capital — networks, trust, and social skills — are interrelated. And the element of social skills should not be taken for granted. Many people grow up in environments where the necessary social skills do not exist, either because everyone is too busy scratching out a subsistence living, or because they have acquired the social skills they need to live in a different kind of society, or because they have internalized conservative ideologies that keep them from creating associations that might threaten established interests. People from such a disadvantaged background might excel in school and get a good job, only to stall in their careers because they are not building strong networks . People whose careers stall in this way are often mystified; they are working hard, doing what they are told, projecting a positive attitude, and generally exercising the skills that are required to get along in a clientelistic world. But they lack the skills of association. Indeed, they probably lack even a clue that the skills of association exist. They might decide that they are being discriminated against (which does happen, skills or no), or that they really do deserve the subordinate social status to which they had originally been assigned. Either would be a tragedy compared to a world in which the necessary skills are universal.”
My first doctoral student, Christopher Mascaro https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=UKtQbogAAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao inspired within me my own unexplored curiosity about social media and politics in 2010 (I left for Missouri before he graduated, and his utlimate Drexel supervisor, Denise Agosto and I collaborated with Christopher on the later publications in this thread). Early on, Scott Robertson, and Ravi Vatrapu pointed us in the right direction, and our papers built on theirs, which built on Agre’s. Our last discussion of it was in January 2017 in Hawaii. Its a thread I intend to pick up again one day, when I am emotionally ready .. The intersection of politics with social computing that ignited our collaboration resulted in a number of papers Christopher and I wrote together, often in partnership and collaboration with other students (either my supervisees before leaving Drexel, or students of my colleagues). Including, with dire recognition I will omit somebody …
– Alan Black https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=ScNY2rEAAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao
– Elizabeth Garwood (Thiry) https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=kuO5oKMAAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao (Penn State, covertly borrowed providing all involved plausible deniability, but if you’re looking for somebody to blame, its definitely Andrea Tapia)
– Nora McDonald https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=u3BoLzgAAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao (When I asked her to move with me to Missouri, she looked up where that was on Google Maps, and politely answered, “no” within five minutes. *Very* sharp. My extraordinarily talented colleague [mentor, competitor, inventor of Wikipedia, at least for Academics], Andrea Forte, supervised her dissertation work at Drexel, and last I heard she was in a post doc at Maryland with another exceptional social computing scholar, Helena Mentis (You can correct my characterization ?? if needed.)
– Rachel Magee https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=OGHTlHoAAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao
– Alison Novak https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=iX2aHEQAAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao and
– Ian Graves https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=GxMkRhcAAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao (supervised by the inimitable Bill Harrison, and borrowed to collaboration with the understanding that I slowed down his graduation, there would be consequences ?)
And most recently James Chester Bain, whose dissertation work examining anti-immigrant sentiment and hate speech on Twitter, as it relates to local conditions, using data from Twitter, numerous US Government agencies, and the United Nations … then analyzing the relationships using convolutional and gated neural networks (AI, machine learning, deep learning, pick a buzzword, none of it is magic, as James will attest) … intersects with the idea of issue entrepreneurship that Christopher and I first examined in the first paper we wrote. [James is a post-doc in Calgary, and his dissertation work is proceeding toward publication.]
I cannot say my collaborators and I have cited this work of Agre’s in every publication, but I can confidently say most (which is also true of Ravi and Scott’s work) Agre is prescient, disquieting, and passes a regular person’s “face validity” test. Vatrapu and Robertson narrow in on the earliest specific mechanisms of how what Agre saw in the distance were coming to be in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s.
All this work is on my mind a lot today, because the roads of understanding how information and misinformation spreads on the internet is one thread I followed in parallel. Mainly with Josh Introne (Syracuse), in the context of online health forums, https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=-u-TgXAAAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao, and more recently with Bryan Semaan and Ingrid Erickson as collaborators with Josh. I am most proud of our paper on the Reification of Advice; because we took the time to find the key insights, the results are among the most novel and potentially impactful findings I’ve ever reported, and we worked on that paper for around 7 years.
After more than a decade examining the force of social media, and the empires of social media, one starts to see the trajectory of our existence through technology as either a new hope, or some kind of revenge of the Sith. </Star Wars Allusion>
Today I spend my time exploring what I think of as the ‘light side’ of “The Force” — open source software health and sustainability, and games for learning. I had to stop examining political discourse online because it kept feeling darker, and darker to me. My interest in open source intersected with Nora McDonald’s interests, and I’ve kept at that because its an area of inquiry in social computing with more hope than despair.
Matt Germonprez at Nebraska-Omaha has been a great collaborator the past 7 years. That’s where most of my energy is right now: Open Source Software Health and Sustainability.
But back to social media, civil discourse, and society …. after all that work, I don’t think anyone summed up what did happen, 12 and 16 years before it happened, as well as anything my esteemed colleagues and I produced during and after the transformation of our political process on Alderaan (OK, this is seriously my last Star Wars allusion)., er, earth, as Agre did right here.
I guess we call that a “seminal work”, or standing on the shoulders of giants. I just think its an important read, and I wanted you to understand why. I wanted you to explain, I suppose, why it is intellectually, and professionally a bridge too far for me to see false information, wrapped in platitudes and the American flag, and not fact check it in the comments. About 90% of the responses are vile. Agre’s work fortells much of the “why”.
If you have trouble sleeping at night, you can find the specific publications with collaborators mentioned above defiantly posted on my website here: https://www.seangoggins.net/publications/ .. I say defiantly because publishers like their paywalls. Personally, I prefer my work be shared with the public who pays for it, and I have seen Elsevier’s balance sheet. They will be OK.
It is only really now that I understand this chapter, though. I have enjoyed the past four years with a partner who has the social skills, in real life, and on social media, along with the passion to intercede in the political catastrophe the US began in 2016, and ends no later than January 20, 2021 at noon. I didn’t really know what Agre was talking about deeply enough until I observed and supported Kate Canterbury in her political advocacy, and organizing work these past four years. If social skills are rated 1-10, Kate’s an 11, and I am maybe a 6 on a good day.
Finally, the Agre chapter I contextualized so deeply as part of my own experience that you have probably now called the fire department to get the boy out of the well …