a complete misunderstanding of counterpublics

A friend of mine is completely enamored by danah boyd’s writing, which to a degree I understand. She’s a PhD student at Berkeley, and she often writes some pretty smart things about online information and networking systems. However, I think her writing too often resorts to sloppy use of terms and fails to take into account some very important aspects of social theory. For example, Jeff Rice has called her out on misusing hegemony and subaltern in one “online article,” arguing (in part) that “reductive categories like the ones Boyd constructs (not to mention the mis-usage of terms like hegemony) are not gong to be much help other than to reconfirm what we already feel (X group is oppressed).” I have also noted elsewhere about her sloppy use of terms.

I’m not trying to state this out of an ad hominem attack (that there is something wrong with her character or her abilities or something); the point I am trying to convey is my history of frustration with her work. This brings me to what I read today. Via Spinuzzi, I read a response to boyd’s call to “boycott locked-down academic journals.”

Boyd writes:

I vow that this is the last article that I will publish to which the public cannot get access. I am boycotting locked-down journals and I’d like to ask other academics to do the same.


• Young punk scholars: Publish only in open-access journals in protest, especially if you’re in a new field. This may cost you advancement or tenure, but you know it’s the right thing to do. If you’re an interdisciplinary scholar or in a new field, there aren’t “respected” journals in your space and so you’re going to have to defend yourself anyhow. You might as well use this opportunity to make the valued journals the open-access ones.
• More conservative young scholars: publish what you need to get tenure and then stop publishing in closed venues immediately upon acquiring tenure. I understand why you feel the need to follow the rules. This is fine, but make a point by stopping this practice the moment you don’t need it. (emphasis original)

Anne Galloway’s response is a smart one. She points out that boyd overstates the “lock-down” of academic journals (which she does), but most importantly:

danah’s overall tone is so patronising to academics that I can’t help but feel insulted. I mean, really, how do unsupported claims like this one – “If scholars are publishing for audiences of zero, no wonder no one respects them” – help our shared cause of reforming academic publishing?

I, like Galloway, fully support open-access publishing, and I think Galloway’s point about boyd’s tone is important.

However, I’d like to finally bring this around to my major objection to boyd’s claims. She’s upset because the general public cannot read her article she has published in a “lock-down” journal. What she fails to understand is the differences between and among various types of publics. In other words, she’s completely misunderstood audience here. She misunderstands who academics speak to in specific contexts. An academic does not always speak to the “general public,” but must speak to and help build dialogue within counterpublics (in Michael Warner’s sense — so not necessarily subaltern as Nancy Fraser uses the term). Certainly, there are problems with access to some journals even for academics — while I agree with her complaints that academic journals are too expensive, she also blows this out of proportion (if no academics subscribe to journals, as she claims, how is it that I subscribe to three as an instructor?) — but the solution isn’t boycotting those journals.

Part of boyd’s desire, it seems, is to have academic work open to the public. This is a good goal, but boyd conflates two important goals of academic writing: 1) influencing the “public” and 2) creating disciplinary knowledge. This is a matter of audience. While some academic pieces work for both the general public and for one’s discipline, others are meant solely for an academic audience. Boyd writes:

I think that scholars have a responsibility to make their work available as a public good. I believe that scholars should be valued for publishing influential material that is consumed by anyone who might find it relevant to their interests.

I agree. But some articles and books are about creating disciplinary knowledge, about discourse within an academic counterpublic, and making this work available to the public isn’t as useful because the general public isn’t part of that “discourse community” (a term I try to avoid). It should be available to the public, I believe, in the name of transparency, but this is another issue. Boyd, I believe, has missed the whole point of audience of academic writing.

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4 Responses to a complete misunderstanding of counterpublics

  1. collin says:

    Smart post, Michael. I was thinking about blogging this exchange myself, but I’m not sure I could add much to what you’ve said here.

    I think if I’d add anything, it would be to underscore the importance of those different registers, and also to add a Latour spin to the idea of ‘public,’ and to note that it’s an *effect,* not a quality, of certain work. Particularly in this day and age, that something is available doesn’t mean that it’s public, and making something public isn’t always easy, isn’t always warranted, and isn’t always tied to the quality (or any other intrinsic characteristic) of the work. I’m certainly in favor of openness, but the alleged advantages of that position often assume a level of publicness that is achieved by cultural microprivilege rather than mere availability.

    (and it’s almost too obvious to mention that Academia varies widely from discipline to discipline when it comes to the biblioligarchy of corporate publishing)

    See? Nothing to add! 😉


  2. zephoria says:

    Are you frustrated with my blog or with my academic scholarship? For better or worse, I find that even scholars are more likely to read my random rants on my blog than they are to read my actual scholarship. This goes back to the point of today’s post. What gets out there, what spreads around is what is most easily accessible, not necessarily what’s vetted (or even edited for that matter…) The blog essay you’re referring to was never edited let alone peer reviewed let alone cleaned up. It was a rant with intentionally snarky misuse of academic terms (as explained later).

    In terms of your primary critique, I agree that conceptualizing and taking into consideration an intended audience is important; I’m not trying to negate this with my point. My scholarship is written for specific discursive communities, but I still want it to be publicly accessible. Your side comment about transparency is my point. I’m not saying that academics should change the target audience of their writing, but I do think that we have a responsibility to put things out for the public good. I think that we can write for a disciplinary audience and still have our work be accessible to those who wish to invest the time to make sense of the arguments we are pursuing. I think that this is especially critical as interdisciplinary scholarship develops and builds connections between different scholarly traditions.

    Just because an article is meant for an academic audience doesn’t mean that it has to be DRMed and made inaccessible in the hopes that only those with the right credentials will stop by and check it out. Young scholars often don’t have access even though they’re a part of the same discursive world. At the same time, scholars from other fields may find value from arguments made from a different discipline. I have been floored every time I hear from people from other fields who find my work and are able to draw parallels in their fields. I don’t believe that this would happen if my work wasn’t available to the public. They wouldn’t think to look in information science journals (let alone computer science ones).

    I’m not saying that all academic work needs to influence the public, but that doesn’t mean that it should be kept secret from the public either. I’m fully aware that academic writing is meant to further discursive arguments, but that doesn’t mean that it should be kept out of reach from interested parties (including precocious folks from “the public”). Transparency is key.

    I’m sorry that my tone bothers you and Anne. My goal is to rally people into doing something to change the state of affairs, not to patronize academics. I’m sorry that I was ineffective at this.

  3. Anne-Marie says:

    I don’t know Michael. The tone of the post on apophenia bothered me too, for most of the reasons Galloway cites, but this response – I’m missing something in your objection – help me understand what you mean?

    I agree that boyd overstates the issue – of course, academics do subscribe to scholarly journals, of course academics are writing for audiences bigger than zero. And I agree with Galloway that there are lots of productive things an author can do, like take control of their own contracts, and like pressuring funding agencies to require open access – solutions that boyd does not address. And I agree that by failing to address those solutions she does more harm than good with this post.

    But it sounds to me like you’re conflating audience and access here — that you’re equating a call to publish in spaces where anyone can access the material with a call to write for anyone. And I don’t see that connection.

    Why would a refusal to publish in what she calls a “closed” journal be the same thing as refusing to write to advance the discipline, for academic audiences? Why would an open access journal inherently be written for the “general public?” Most of them aren’t. Most of them have the same narrowly defined disciplinary audiences as any journal. The access to the information is not a statement on the audience for that information — and to choose to publish in an open access journal is not to miss the whole point of audience of academic writing.

    And I don’t understand why we should be okay with a reality that says that those works that are intended for purely academic audiences and to build disciplinary knowledge, should be available only to those scholars who have employment status at an institution that can afford to subscribe to that work. There’s a whole body of people who are working and living in our disciplines, but who are not in academia. Being in academia, and particularly being employed in academia, is far from the only reason why someone would have an interest in or commitment to disciplinary knowledge creation?

    Increasingly, even those of us in higher ed have to face the reality that our institutions can no longer afford the scholarly information that’s out there. That’s real. The issue of access to scholarly knowledge has reached a crisis point. That’s real. The cost of journals rises at a rate about four times higher than the rate of inflation. Libraries have to choose to maintain journal subscriptions, or cut money elsewhere. That’s real. Even if boyd’s examples are hyperbolic or simplistic, she is not blowing this issue out of proportion.

    (and I didn’t read Galloway as saying she blew this part of it out of proportion – I thought Galloway was referring to the related issue of the author’s ability to hold onto their own right to distribute their work).

    I subscribe to journals too, that are produced by scholarly and professional associations, but I can’t afford to subscribe to journals produced by Sage, or Elsevier. And neither can anyone else I know. And this issue reaches far beyond the sciences. Every time a library cuts the book budget just to maintain their serials budget, that’s another blow to the university presses. Scholarly information, disciplinary knowledge, is not getting published because of these economic realities. That’s real too. And there are real consequences to our disciplines, and our culture, if we allow that to happen.

    One rock-star academic, boycotting these journals after already getting published there, is not going to fix this problem – neither is a boycott by all the punk rock academics out there. Publishing in open access journals, demanding change from closed journals, pressuring funding agencies – these are all things that need to happen. And we don’t have to give up our commitment to academic audiences to do them.

  4. Michael says:

    Thank you, Collin, danah, and Anne-Marie, for your comments. You’ve helped me think about my own response.

    Colin and Anne-Marie, I think you’ve helped me understand what I was really getting at, but didn’t have the words readily available at the moment of writing: that there are problems with 1) the creation or representation of a single “public”; and 2) the conflation of “public” and “accessible.” Anne-Marie, I think you’re right in that I too fell into the conflation problem in this post, and I’m thankful for you pointing it out. I also think that, upon reviewing my post and danah’s post that I may have over-emphasized a few of her points because of how problematic I saw it to view publishing in these “lock-down” forums as publishing for an “audience of zero,” when I see it as publishing for a public (or to help create a public, if we remember, as Collin points out, as does Michael Warner, that a public is an effect of a text).

    Of course, as I stated, I completely agree with danah that these articles should be accessible and open to everyone.

    Danah, I’m sorry if I came across here as too snarky (and unnecessarily focused on issues outside of this particular discussion). I have read some of your scholarly work, and I find it pretty interesting. I agree with your defense that a blog post is very different from published scholarly work in that it is often thinking on “paper” in an accessible forum. A blog post doesn’t necessarily have to be as theoretically grounded and can be about a writer trying to get ideas out and get others’ reactions to them. I certainly write things on this blog that a few days, weeks, or months later, I find I strongly disagree with. I leave it up, because I view it as a documentation of my learning process as well.

    In regards to your defense of your “American class divisions” paper, I’ll admit I have a hard time following all of your case. I think this is largely because your paper was couched as “a blog essay” rather than a blog post, which connotes, as a convention of “essay,” some time and revision in it. Also, I am not sure if being an academic and a blogger are two separate identities, as you claim. I’m also thinking here of your paper on Friendster (“None of This is Real”) in which you discuss how we aren’t in control of our identity presentations and how they are read (I’m paraphrasing poorly, I’m sure). I think it’s hard to have separate blogging and academic identities, because they overlap: they are read in the context of each other.

    But anyway, I think we’re desiring very similar things: transparency (and here I want to be careful to mean access to those outside academia, not a belief that others will get the same meanings out of our work that we “intend”), free sources and circulation of information, and wider access to materials. I agree with many of your claims in your post on “lock-down” academic journals.

    I enjoy reading your blog, danah, and will continue. It makes me think and question my own perceptions or understandings.

    Colin’s point about how publics are an effect of texts is probably the best summarization of what I was trying to get at (and put in a much clearer way, as well).

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