by Craig Martin
My Facebook friends often say that serious academic conversations can’t take place on Facebook. Apparently the limitations of the format are limited such that substantive engagement is difficult if not impossible. However, I’m not entirely persuaded.
If they mean that we cannot engage on Facebook with the same substance as in journals or books, then of course that’s true. But consider a format of engagement that’s closer to Facebook: the conference panel discussion. Q&A sessions after panel presentations are notoriously awful. Some people ask stupid questions, some people ask off topic questions, and some people ask questions that are really statements. I’d say, by contrast, that I’ve had better conversations on Facebook about academic issues than I’ve ever had during a conference Q&A. I’d take a serious Facebook group over a conference panel discussion any day of the week.
In addition, even if that weren’t the case, much of academic work is community building. Lots of what we do involves the academic equivalent of knowing winks, high fives, and “amen, sister.” That’s how academic circles get built: people confirming shared sympathies and antipathies. The format of Facebook might be better than any other for scholars separated by space to “shoot the shit” in ways that build academic cliques. Nothing makes sympathies more clear than, for instance, someone “liking” a status update that says “Samuel Huntington sucks!” While “liking” a status isn’t substantive scholarly engagement, it does build community. Since the creation of groups with shared sympathies is as essential to academic projects as it is for any other type of social project—and since the opportunity to build such social circles is available to most of us only once a year at AAR/SBL (in its direct form at least)—I’m grateful for this online space and the forms of engagement it allows.