You are a text: social networking’s canonical equivalents

There is a corollary between key texts on a given subject – known as ‘canonical texts’ – and the most prominent contacts in online social networks on a given subject.

That social networking contact might be an individual on Twitter; an institution on Facebook; a photostream on Flickr; or a business web presence and so on. The important point is that the contact is ‘canonical’: it is one to whom we are recommended to turn through a consensus of opinion, either through word of mouth online, or through ‘recommendation services’ such as that found through Twitter’s ‘Discover – Who to follow’ function, for example.

I call these ‘canonical contacts’. These contacts are to social networking what Shakespeare, Chaucer and Jane Austen are to the literary canon.

As such, I would argue that canonical contacts have similar problems and benefits to the textual canons which preceded them and which have been discussed at length. The following are a cursory considerations of the kinds of objections made regarding the textual and canonical contacts.

1. Canonical contacts are not chosen by us (or by anybody). The mechanism for establishing a network has many paths that lead in the same direction – to a set of established (not by us) canonical contacts. This canon is handed to us, conveniently readymade and therefore narrows the perspectives otherwise open to us.

2. Undermining the potential of chance encounters. This is one of the ways in which ‘recommendations’ – the removal of chance encounters and serendipity – is damaging to our to the development of knowledge and understanding. Establishing a ‘canon’ is one way of reducing the number of available options for learning and removing the notion of ‘chance’ encounters. How do we learn if we do not make the mistakes – and how far is not following a canonical contact a mistake?

3. Who has the authority to determine a canon? In conventional terms, a canon reflected the choices of scholars, course designers, the academy, Government advisors, schools and many other individuals and institutions of power. An objection is that it reinforced the liberal, white, male culture of the time. In addition to these similarities, there are differences worth exploring: in terms of social networking contacts, it is Twitter, Facebook, Google and so on, who recommend contacts based upon their algorithms. Importantly, it is also the sharing online of useful contacts by users themselves.

4. Homogenisation of culture. Where we all choose the same sources of information, we are likely to not just arrive at similar conclusions, but only ask those questions that are within the intellectual framework of the contacts in which we are immersed.

5. We are not beautiful unique snowflakes. Online, we are free to choose our information from many sources. But we already know that using search engines such as Google’s influences, necessarily, the availability of information online. We are free to choose any contact and we might consider our choices as unique. Yet, I imagine a high degree of consensus between users when considering the same subject. I speculate we do not (often) have a high degree of individuality in our choices: we are not beautiful unique snowflakes. We choose the same people when wanting to know about the same subjects.

There are many ways to defend either the textual canon or the canon of contacts. Certainly, in a potentially bewildering array of users, websites, services and so on, it is often wise and natural to gravitate to the most popular and/or the ones recommend by people we trust. I wonder if we are currently in a similar position to the one John Searle outlines below, when he considers the historical placing of the western literary canon:

There is a certain irony in this [i.e., politicized objections to the canon] in that earlier student generations, my own for example, found the critical tradition that runs from Socrates through the Federalist Papers, through the writings of Mill and Marx, down to the twentieth century, to be liberating from the stuffy conventions of traditional American politics and pieties. Precisely by inculcating a critical attitude, the “canon” served to demythologize the conventional pieties of the American bourgeoisie and provided the student with a perspective from which to critically analyze American culture and institutions. Ironically, the same tradition is now regarded as oppressive. The texts once served an unmasking function; now we are told that it is the texts which must be unmasked.

Searle, John. (1990) “The Storm Over the University”, The New York Review of Books, December 6, 1990.

There is much more to think about on this subject. I’m not the first, of course, to recognise some of the negative effects of reducing chance encounters, say; or the ways in which search engines effectively narrow our scope. But thinking about canonical contacts – and I had in mind individuals on Twitter especially – leads me to think that we can use our understanding of the decades of debate on the textual (and specifically literary canon) to think about the ways in which we might choose the contacts we follow and what this means for us and education.


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