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What's wrong with a Twitter degree?

I can haz Master of Arts!

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"It's not another Mickey Mouse course," insists tutor Jon Hickman, of Birmingham City University, talking about his new MA degree course in "social media". The £4,400 course starts in September. "People are going to think we're doing an MA in blogging or Lolcats."

So what's it about, then?

"It's about the culture of things," he explains to prospective students in the must-see video embedded below. Er, like what?

"This guy's tattooed a Fail Whale onto his leg!"

Uh, huh.


Jon Hickman: MA in Social Media from Kasper Sorensen on Vimeo.

Birmingham's MA course has drawn plenty of criticism today - not least from prospective students, who have questioned why they need to pay over £4,000 to "learn" something they can figure out by themselves in five minutes. But some of the criticism is misplaced. Bear with me for a moment.

Academia should be where you can question things critically, look at where the ideas came from and where they might go. In short, it's a refuge for intelligence, where you can say the unsayable free from commercial pressure. It's particularly needed when our first line of defence against stupidity - the media of the day - doesn't do its job. Web 2.0 was, at core, a prank on the media by advertising and public relations, and our posh papers, such as the Daily Stenograph and the Grauniad, have fallen for it the hardest. They're in full zombie mode, the latter printing over 200 Twitter stories in a single month.

Now if these new communications tools are popular - and Friends Reunited, Facebook and MySpace genuinely are - then they're good candidates for academic study. It's how you do it that is important.

So what's missing from the Twitter MA? I'll give you an example. The rhetoric of Web 2.0 has its roots in the New Age cults popular in Northern California in the 1960s and 1970s. Tim 2.0'Reilly was influenced by the "human potential movement" at Esalen. Many prominent Valley techies and business pioneers were influenced by Werner Erhard's EST. And these, in turn, drew on a hodgepodge of influences including Reich. The cult-like thinking and playground hostility is evident to anyone who criticises the fad du jour. EST recruiters would silence critics with, "That's enough of your rationalist bullshit!" - and the damning condemnation, "You don't get it!", comes directly from the cult.

So Web 2.0 is sold largely on therapeutic grounds - it's good for you to get it off your chest, just don't expect governments or large corporations to listen to you.

The manic emphasis on communication also draws from cybernetics, as James Harkin highlighted here recently. But more messaging doesn't mean better messaging - as military planners discovered when Hezbollah taught the Israeli Defence Force a lesson in communications.

Then there's the pseudo-mystical idea that through blogging or Twittering, a "hive mind" will emerge. It's a fascinating, and more than slightly creepy proposition, that there's only supposed to be one "hive mind" - and we should pay any attention at all to what it "says".

But most striking by its absence on this course is the sociology - the study of one group attempting to elbow another out of the way.

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