July 25, 2016 | Louise Adams
It is widely agreed that we live in a ‘soundbite culture’, one which prioritises short, punchy forms of communication. From the TED-Talk to the tweet to the emoji: quick and concise means immediate impact, and immediate impact means value in the present. But what should the relationship be between soundbite culture and the academy?
Many researchers believe that communicating ideas in shorter, more accessible formats will enable them to engage with people and organisations beyond university walls, giving their work ‘impact’ on a public level. Yet many others are more sceptical, contending that such practice distorts complex research and cheapens traditional scholarship.
Perhaps some of this scepticism comes from the history of ‘soundbite’ as a term. The OED reminds us that the phrase was conceived by 1970s advertisement culture, created in order to market things. Today, the soundbite is associated strongly with popular journalism – particularly the political sort – and usually refers to a headline or video clip which ‘sells’ a story.
These commercial roots ring alarm bells for harried scholars in a world of scarce funding, who feel under pressure to sell their ideas in soundbite form to committees, producers or administrators. Many academics criticize this research environment, arguing that if we shoe-horn research projects into the soundbite culture paradigm, we imply that ideas are only valuable if they sell in the present. We overlook longer-term, less sensational kinds of impact. We also idealise a certain tempo – the ‘elevator pitch’, ‘lightning talk’ and ‘three-minute thesis’ are all about rewarding fast-paced communicators. Funding schedules and competitive job markets pressurise doctoral students to finish within three years. These factors combine to make slow, ruminative scholarship seem outdated or dysfunctional. Indeed, scholarly culture has traditionally protected in-depth, complex and rigorous study, something that produces rather unwieldy textual offspring. Researchers have been notoriously squeamish about ‘reducing’ their research into abstracts and summaries, let alone a zingy headline. Amidst our rapidly changing media scene, many would look back with nostalgia to such an attitude. The academy, they argue, should have nothing to do with soundbite culture.
Yet in many cases, this mind-set produces work that is obscure, wordy and obsolete. It can also cause scholars to overlook the wonderful potential of digital media to enable better, efficient and innovative research, and its power to communicate this effectively to audiences outside their specialist field. It is here that our blog-ridden culture offers a helpful challenge, because it demands that university work be regularly translated into an accessible language and format. Short doesn’t have to mean transient or shallow: capturing the essence of an idea for non-specialist audiences can be helpful, educational and inspiring. So does soundbite culture harm academic research, or help it? It probably does both – sometimes enabling ideas to spread, sometimes undermining good critical practice. The task facing researchers is that of discriminating between these two aspects, and discerning which of them are at play in their various activities.
Scholars should resist the superficial, reactionary engagement with ideas that soundbite culture and its digital tools often elicit; instead, they should promote the intentional use of these tools for longer-term impact. Exemplary of this is ‘Slow Scholarship’, a project by John Lutz which is inspired by the ‘Slow Food’ movement. Lutz curates a ‘slow blog’, or ‘slog’, for which posts are painstakingly crafted, and demand further thought and conversation. 
The relationship between soundbite culture and the academy should thus perhaps be one with a degree of mutual subversion, a creative friction through which both are held accountable. If popular culture challenges the unhelpful insulation to which scholarship is prone, then perhaps academic culture can use the soundbite form as an aid toward critical health in public life – by using it as a starting point for conversation, rather than an end in itself. Such creative and thoughtful engagement with soundbite culture would perhaps ensure that as our society’s media, funding sources and lifestyle norms change, the academic ideal of critical engagement does not.
My research interests concern the activity of reading as a cultural construct – particularly the relationship between literary portrayals of reading and wider social attitudes towards knowledge and mediation. My doctoral project focuses this upon the long eighteenth century and the work of William Godwin (1756-1836). See my full profile here.
Article edited by Vicki Madden and Tess Goodman.
1. See the ‘Slow Blog’ manifesto at: http://web.uvic.ca/~hist66/slowScholarship/