Only in academia could not paying attention and gossiping– often nasty gossiping– be dignified with the official sounding label “back channel communication.” Marc Parry (“Conference Humiliation: They’re Tweeting Behind Your Back”) told one story in the Chronicle of Higher Education last month, and then Joe McCarthy (“The Dark Side of Digital Backchannels in Shared Physical Spaces“) went into much more detail on his blog a few days ago.
I was particularly struck by McCarthy’s piece, in which he lists his unhappiness with back channels at conferences in this way: “the non-democratization of attention; our addiction to gossip; the unhealthy cycle of manipulation for stimulation; and the prejudice, intolerance, bigotry, and power promulgated by homophily in networks … to name a few.” What so funny (not in a ha ha way) is that this list describes the dark side of academia in general, made manifest via tweets.
It’s the dark side of our culture, too, and the crassness promulgated in several segments of commercial culture, a kind of narcissistic crudeness that seems to substitute for what was once thought to be wit and charm. It’s the Coulterization of public debate; ugliness for money, and your chicks for free. It’s fascinating that academic culture, once so fiercely independent, should reflect such a profoundly unreflective engagement with commercial culture and discourse.