Topic hierarchies and Sycophants

A very promising research inquiry was undertaken by L. Thoms & M. Thelwall: how is the academic‘s identity (re-)constructed by the network of links on their homepage? The complex networks of personal and topical, international and interdisciplinary connections, links, and discourses, are really a very interesting research object.

But the authors’ disputable results disappoint me. They conclude that

“the identities of the individual are ultimately lost to the governmentality of the university.”

and they see a disempowerment, e. g. of the “sycophant’s” type of homepage, mainly because s/he links back to the university and department sites.

I think this is an extreme example of how the dislike of social hierarchies misleads to misunderstanding and disliking topical hierarchies. Every mundane folder hierarchy contains a “parent folder” link — why should an academic not link back to their context? This link saves him to include and maintain dozens of single links to his related siblings, as well as to the parents’ cross-references such as partnerships and cooperations.

The problems associated with the academic’s home page are much more complex. It is not a matter of a subordination relationship between a single central “governmentality”, or “ideology”, and the academic citizen subject. First, university organizational units are not as disempowered as the external observer might guess from the org chart. Then, there are many levels of academic org units, and some of them are nearly sovereign principalities, and sometimes the home page owner is the prince himself whose power over his subordinates’ home pages is often only limited by his lacking HTML skills and the necessity to depend on a departmental webmaster.

This apparently trivial problem of technical infrastructure, however, is where the major tension becomes visible: the tension between administrative units, and the topical / subject matter boundaries. Financial pressure may tempt to confuse both levels and merge too disparate unit. What results is not the sycophant but defiantness.

In an ideal world where such banal constraints were not present, an academic homepage could be such an ideal node in the topics/subjects network, because its vertical and horizontal links could be an ideal representation for emerging and established topical relationships. If, however, they are mistaken as social or even economic hierarchy, technorati links are a welcomed substitution and, of course, hierarchical classification is taboo.

Thanks to Firstmonday for publishing the thought-provoking article, and S. Downes for pointing to it.

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