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Facebook IPO: What would Hegel do?

I am pretty sure that the investment potential of Facebook is underpinned by the theoretical knowledge of Hegel. Having studied him for the last two years during my PhD, I am pretty sure that Hegel, that German, 18th century philosopher known as the father of the modern state would not only be one of Mark Zuckerberg’s closest friends, he probably would have found Facebook. Except that he would have called it something like Recognition or Dialectic. He would be an avid blogger – quite handy when wars across Europe and/or financial hardship are making it difficult to publish – and made pretty good use of wikis. It would have been interesting to see something like the Phenomenology of Mind promoted via Twitter but I am pretty sure he would be a Networked Researcher.

So when I read Mark Zuckberberg‘s letter to potential investors as to what they should know about investing in Facebook, I could not help thinking that Hegel would be proud. Both Hegel and Zuckerberg emphasise the foundational importance of relationships. The essence of Hegel’s philosophy is Recognition, where each self-consciousness (i.e. human being) exists in and for itself in that it exists for another self-consciousness, that is ‘it is only by acknowledged and recognised’ (Phenomenology of Mind). In The Bonds of Love, the feminist psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin argues that Recognition is so central to our existence that we often take it for granted; she says that near synonyms include ‘affirmation, validation, acknowledgement, knowledge, acceptance, understanding, empathy, taking in, tolerance, appreciation, sight, identification with, find familiar with and love’. Hegel is so bold as to argue that society, though an extension of the family, starts with a unity of individual consciousnesses of oneself held together by a feeling of love. ‘The first element of love is that I will to be no longer an independent self-sufficing person and that, if I were such a person, I should feel myself lack and incomplete. The second element is that I gain myself in another person, in whom I am recognised, as he again is in me. Hence, love is the most tremendous contradiction, incapable of being solved by the understanding.’ (Philosophy of Right). It is difficult to argue that Zuckerberg would not have sympathy with that view. He describes Facebook social mission as starting small, ‘with the relationship two people':

Personal relationships are the fundamental unit of our society. Relationships are how we discover new ideas, understand our world and ultimately derive long-term happiness.

His stated aim for Facebook is to help people connect, share information and build those relationships, whether it’s with small circle or half the world. What’s interesting is that he then goes on to what appears to be an ultimate agenda of rewiring ‘the way people spread and consume information, believing that ‘the world’s information infrastructure’ resemble the social graph – a network built from the bottom-up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date’. This way of transmitting information is not dissimilar to what the growing body of neuroscience demonstrates about how the brain works, points out the French Hegelian philosopher Catherine Malabou (What should we do with the Brain?). In other words, how we individually process information, neuron by neuron, would seem a logical way for how we relate to people, convey information and how societal change is achieved. A key element of a neuron though is that it does not easily connect to other neurons – Malabou calls it explosion – and bonds only become stronger gradually over time. It’s also why we take time to drop habits (The Future of Hegel). Zuckerberg says:

As people share more, they have access to more opinions from the people they trust about the products and services they use. This makes it easier to discover the best products and improve the quality and efficiency of their lives.”

Malabou develops Hegel’s notion of plasticity to emphasise the tension between our resistance to and our susceptibility to change. As can be seen from Zuckerberg’s approach, it’s a conservative (incremental) approach to achieve a radical or progressive goal of ‘a stronger economy with more authentic businesses that build better products and services’ and better government that responds to its citizens. And let’s be honest, the big problems that put us off companies and politicians is poor customer service, marketing that we just cannot relate too and products that just don’t meet our needs.
This brings me on to the ‘Hacker’ way, which Zuckerberg defines as ‘building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done’. In many ways, I would argue that Hegel was a hacker. Certainly, his key text, the Phenomenology of Mind, published in 1807, was something that had to be finished quickly because of financial pressures and concerns about war. In a continent dominated by Christianity, he certainly tested boundaries, with his philosophy taking in or recognising ideas from Eastern religions such as Buddhism. Indeed, in my view, by focusing on Recognition, he is arguing in favour of seeing beyond the illusion of self and other to what connects the two.  And, studying and then writing during the French Revolution, he was always a strong liberal; however, he recognised that liberalism could not be imposed from the top-down but could only be achieved gradually, incrementally, in a bottom-up or peer-to-peer fashion, much like the ‘continuous improvement and iteration’ of Facebook’s Hacker Way. Indeed, Malabou suggests that the What Should We Do The Brain? is a critique of a neoliberalism that has distorted the science of the brain and that we really ought to be reading more Hegel. And this is of course why it’s not enough to just read one text by Hegel or even only what he wrote. Whilst his philosophy is premised on their being such a thing as perfection, he describes history as being the development of progress towards perfection. Costas Douzinas points out in The End of Human Rights that the Hegelian Spirit, which was the underlying driver of the change in the word, has never grasped the totality. It goes back and forth between this world and the spiritual dimension and each time it understands a little more about the world. Each moment of time is a little more understanding. Hegel never said that anything that’s gone before is perfect, because the Spirit won’t know perfection until it understands everything. In other words, as Facebook hackers would say: ‘Done is better than perfect’.
The original aim of this post was to argue the relevance of Hegelian philosophy to today’s world. But then, as a true believer, I would say that. More importantly, having read through Zuckerberg’s letter, I am pretty sure that there is a theoretical basis to Facebook’s mission (and social media in general). Hmm, I wonder if I should put my money where my blog post is.

Social Media as a Research Tool

By Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell

interview in the mud

Social media can make fieldwork easier...and cleaner

I seem to be becoming known as a bit of a social media expert, particularly in relation to its application within academic research and researcher development.

So how did this come to be? Aftr all, my PhD is in Human Geography; my thesis examined the role of capacity-development initiatives in the implementation of multi-lateral environmental agreements in Africa – not a subject which shouts out social media!

During my second year, I had a few problems. I went down with scarlet fever so I couldn’t do fieldwork. Then, when I was allowed to go, my placement fell through. Furthermore, I had a supervisor who didn’t appreciate the concept of overseas fieldwork so I was left trying to work out what to do. But by this time, I had realised that many international organisations, including UN bodies, were using message boards and forums to engage with their target audiences/participants. This set me off on a two year experiment. I worked with a web developer to build a website which became my field site or hub around which my research was centred. It hosted a range of open source and bespoke applications in order for me to engage with a range of globally-dispersed participants.

What I found was that by engaging pro-actively with digital technology, I could significantly increase the reach of my work. I managed to interview people I would not have been able to using traditional methods as it would have been both too time consuming and expensive to conduct the interviews. Using VoIP and Skype is significantly cheaper than traditional face to face or phone methods, and free if Skype-to-Skype. Digital technology also enabled me to significantly increase my response rate for my questionnaires. An initial paper version of my questionnaire generated a less than 20% response rate. When I later re-sent the same questionnaire using a web-based survey tool, the response rate increased by over 50%.

My original site was live for two years. By the time I completed my studies, there had been rapid developments in the types of digital technology/social media applications publicly and freely available, making it even easier to integrate digital technology into the research process. As a result, post-PhD, I have been involved in a number of resources that illustrate how social media can be used in all stages of the research process and in a researcher’s professional development. I am also developing training courses to promote and support the use of technology. In doing so, I am not calling for the abolition of traditional methods. In certain circumstances, digital techniques aren’t practical. However, I do believe researchers should investigate what these mediums can offer.

Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell gained in her PhD in 2010. As well as continuing her research in geography,  she is involved in developing social media training programmes for research students and researchers at Kings College London. She is also managing editor of PhD2Published, the founder of the Networked Researcher blog and avidly tweets at @sarahthesheepu.

The Big Society is the Parental Society

If there’s one good thing that has come out of the riots and looting in English cities this week, it’s that it has brought out the parent in society.

The shock, outrage, fear and heartbreak at the destruction did not result in a society that wallowed in self-pity and impotence, wondering when a paternal state was going to come and sort things out and make things better. In fact, if anything, society, local communities, found that there was very little point depending on the state, whether police or politicians, which only proved itself to be as vulnerable and fragile as a little child.

Instead, come Tuesday morning in London and later in other cities, members of local communities were out in force cleaning up the mess, offering support to victims and the emergency services, protecting neighbourhoods from further looting. A number of social media initiatives, such as @riotcleanup on Twitter, sprang up to work with councils and the police to find out where ordinary members of the public could go to help out. ‘Local’ didn’t just mean your neighbourhood or borough, but even your own city and, for some, county.

Next to the parental society, the vague pronouncements, unsatisfiable promises and unthinking diagnoses of a “sick society” and “broken Britain” from politicians seems absolutely childish. Indeed, I would argue that calling society sick or broken is an insult to every person who got knee deep in broken glass (literally and metaphorically). I might also add that the looters’ own justifications for their actions made them sound more educated than the politicians.

This is what the Big Society is about. The reference to size is superficial, in that parents are bigger than their young children. But it doesn’t mean a retrenchment or shrinking of the state. Instead, for children to be big like their parents means to take on the responsibilities of being an adult and being a parent, which includes holding their own young children to account. A Big Society is a Responsible Society, not one that is absolutely dependent on a childlike state.

It was ironic that the police were practically pleading for parents to find out where their kids are and to bring them in. Whether this worked or not is unclear but it perhaps it was an indication as to the proper relationship between society and the state.

1st Subscriber: Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell

Yes, after nine months or so of writing this blog, I have finally got my first subscriber. And so the lucky winner of the ‘Not a PhD Thesis’ First Subscriber prize is Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell. (Yeah, I was going to make the usual joke about being my first but, since she’s a bona fide academic – as opposed to a wannabe like me – I figured it might come out the wrong way.)

And so, her prize is the opportunity to massage my ego. When I asked her what it was that drew her to Not A PhD Thesis and why she subscribed, she replied:

I like to read a range of PhD students blogs. I am interested in what people do and do not share. It also provides a record of how peoples thoughts change and how, like yours shows, you start writing about one thing and then move on to another. Its fascinating to see how people’s work evolves and how they present it. I’ve become a lot more productive reading and writing blogs.

I like the mix of philosophy and religious based critique in your blog, even though i am not at all religious. They are very thoughtful and well connected. The one I most liked recently was ‘Doing a PhD: Labour of Love‘ as I can certainly identify with that idea!

The grat thing about PhD student blogs and tweets is they bring together such a diverse group of people who may not have met in real life and allow them to exchange ideas and thoughts which is fantastically enriching.”

Of course, it would be remiss me of tell you something about Dr Quinnell. She has just graduated with a PhD from Kings College London for her thesis, ‘Building Capacity for Bio-safety in Africa: Networks of Science, Aid and Development in the Implementation of Multi-Lateral Environmental Agreements’. She blogged about at The Life and Times of an Aspiring Academic. However, in the course of doing her PhD, she developed an interest in the use of social media for academic research. She is the Managing Editor of PhD2Published, a online resource of PhD graduates looking to publish their thesis, and she had just launched a new blog, Networked Researcher for the purpose of supporting and promoting the use of social media in academic research.

Dr Quinnell can be contacted on Twitter on @sarahthesheepu and @phd2published.

Being single on Valentine’s Day

If, like me, you hate Valentine’s Day because of your singleness, the Evangelical Alliance (of all people) offers a much more inclusive way of thinking about it. NotMyHeels has a bit of a Valentine’s Day Rant.  Alternatively, if you have no special someone, you can take a much more activist approach and take back the day with Plenty More Fish’s social networking competition or join PR Tips and be thankful for the way social media make you feel connected. Finally, when all else fails, we can just sit back and laugh at all those Valentine cynics and thank God we don’t have to deal with that crap.

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