What's wrong with a Twitter degree?
I can haz Master of Arts!
"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!"
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.
"Fantastic social media strategy"
No one has a keener nose for sniffing this out than Reg readers - as you see here. And "social media" attempts a landgrab on several agendas. Why have advertising, marketing and PR been so successful in bewitching large media executives? What is it about Web 2.0 that appeals to the dull jobsworth types - in government as well as large companies - what I call the Vertical Marketing Bureaucrat? Why is your company paying so much for it, instead of real technological innovation?
Unfortunately students won't get anywhere near such answers on Birmingham's MA in Social Media. Because Hickman is an evangelist, not an academic, he won't be asking these questions. Let's have a look at what he is adding to the sum of human knowledge.
Hickman is very excited that people attend Conservative Party conferences because of their "fantastic social media strategy". Really? He apologises twice for saying "Tories" - "I didn't mean to swear!". [*]
Social media, he says, allows "people in niches and margins" to have a voice. But that's not the same as being heard, and his list is pretty selective. "Muslim feminists" are OK - climate skeptics, probably not.
Hickman insists the MA is "rigorously assessed" and involves "planned intellectual progression, research and scholarly progression". The MA must involve "systematic understanding of knowledge and awareness of current problems".
But it isn't really about any of that. It's about promoting the commercial profile of the Birmingham City University "plc", so wealthy and gullible parents of overseas students will divert some of their trust funds towards the institution.
The problem comes later, when the graduates find themselves in the Web 2.0 marketing jobs which they hope to get. (Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, there will be any). When the bubble bursts, the Social Media graduates will have less idea of why it burst than you or me. ®
* That's him out of a job in 2011, then.