Books

New Book Explores Social Media From Many Angles

by An Xiao on March 6, 2012

The cover for The Social Media Reader places it squarely in a fictitious map of Troll Bay, in the island of Stumbleupon.

The cover for The Social Media Reader places it squarely in a fictitious map of Troll Bay, in the island of Stumbleupon.

We all use social media. We tweet, Facebook, tumble and pin away, and some of us even make art on these platforms. Social media have been explored in countless talks and essays, as everyone from sociologists to artists to technologists have come together to explore just why these new media are so interesting, and what they mean about society.

Strangely enough, however, no one has taken the time to put all this thinking into a single book.  While college courses teach social media and strategists lecture on how best to leverage the tools, academic literature remains scattered in various outlets, both online and in print.

Enter the The Social Media Reader, a new book from NYU Press edited and put together by artist and professor Michael Mandiberg. Mandiberg, who teaches teaches design and digital media at the College of Staten Island/CUNY and whose projects have influenced a number of new media and social media projects, was hoping to fill a void in social media literature.

While preparing for a course on the subject at CUNY, he realized there were no books that covered the subject from multiple perspectives.  “I wanted to teach this course and there wasn’t anything out there,” he told me as we sat down for an interview at the recent College Art Association conference. “There were no books. So I said okay fine I’m going to have to do the research on what I want to be included in this reader I’m going to make.”

As he sifted through essays available online, he realized that almost all of them were available on a Creative Commons License. And for those that weren’t available entirely for the public domain, he tells me, “I had a pretty good sense that I might be able to open those licenses.”

The book makes for excellent reading and includes the work of famous essayists like Tim O’Reilly’s What Is Web 2.0, Lawrence Lessig’s look at remix culture and the law, Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail and Clay Shirky’s Gin, Television and Social Surplus. My favorite is a new piece from danah boyd, who reflects on the always-on lifestyle afforded by new media and social media. Here’s a snippet:

Being always-on and living a public life through social media may complicate our lives in new ways, but participating can also enrich the tapestry of life. Those of us who are living this way can be more connected to those whom we love and move in sync with those who share our interests. The key to this lifestyle is finding a balance, a rhythm that moves us in ways that make us feel whole without ripping our sanity into shreds.

The essays are grouped into six parts, ranging from meaty topics like mechanics and mechanisms, labor and law. But some, like humor and money, have just a few essays that I wanted to supplement.

Mandiberg's broad practice as an artist includes Google, which features a laser cut of GOOGLE etched into phone books.

Mandiberg's broad practice as an artist includes Google, which features a laser cut of GOOGLE etched into phone books.

“Most of the really important dialogues are around the law,” noted Mandiberg, citing the recent legal battles around SOPA and Facebook’s privacy policies. “But the book is very much interdisciplinary. The term social media in the title is meant as an umbrella to hold all of the different perspectives.”

Indeed, his terrific introductory essay notes the broad range of terms applied to what he calls social media, from “user-generated content” to “convergence culture” to “Web 2.0.” Each of these terms reflects the necessary perspective of the author who coined it:

Each of these terms encapsulates a different aspect of, and comes from the different perspectives of the multiple actors of, the phenomenon of social media. The book uses the term “social media,” both in the title and in this introduction. The goal of this book is not to argue for the term “social media” at the expense of all these other terms.  The goal of this book is to bring examples from the multiple disciplines, perspectives, and agendas into one space. “Social media” is a broad enough term that it can encompass, while preserving, each of these perspectives and their respective terms.

Perhaps it’s Mandiberg’s practice as an artist, design and educator that helps ground the work’s many angles, as his work has played on issues of identity and commerce, information distribution and military interventions.

“I think social media has come to interface with everything in different ways,” he noted.  “It’s important for almost all media creation.  Some of my favorite ways in which it interacts are the ones which go online and offline.”

Michael Mandiberg's artistic credentials, courtesy The Banff Center. Image via Mandiberg.com.

Michael Mandiberg's artistic credentials, courtesy The Banff Center. Image via Mandiberg.com.

The risk with any book on technology is that it can become outdated in just a matter of months.  And so The Social Media Reader’s most intriguing element, and the one with the most potential to keep it fresh and relevant in a field that seems to change every few months, is its Creative Commons License. Mandiberg and NYU Press have made almost the entire book available under a CC BY-NC-SA license, making it one of the few academic books out there available for public remixing and reinterpreation outside commercial uses.

As with most publishing cycles, Mandiberg worked with a multi-year production time, meaning some timely and critical issues, like the role of social media in the Arab Spring, have not been explored. Were I to remix the book, I’d want to include discussions of global social media practices, especially in places like China with complex controls that still allow for a thriving online culture. I’d want to explore internet humor more and expand more on the “sociality” section. I’d also do away with the term “the Internet,” which suggests a single, unified, inter-networked entity, when in fact many internets exist alongside each other, only loosely interacting.

But that’s the beauty of the license. The book already casts a broad net and brings in many treasures exploring issues around social media in so many fields. It makes for an excellent, vital read and makes a necessary to push into more thoughtful explorations on the topic. As readers and co-creators, we can expand on and grow Mandiberg’s great collection, and perhaps do more, especially if a digital version of the book is made available online.

“I want to see what creative people do with it,” Mandiberg told me. “At the very least things that have happened with some of my other works is that things get translated. There’s other places. You can take a chapter and turn into a video.”

“I disagree with open access,” he continued. “Access isn’t enough. I want to touch. I want people to read it, but I want to see what happens when people touch it.”

The Social Media Reader is available in print and online via NYU Press and Amazon.  Editor Michael Mandiberg will be hosting a book launch at MOMA PS1 on March 18.

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