The emergence of sociological media? Is social media becoming mainstream within UK sociology?

I wrote a short article for the BSA Teaching Journal last week arguing that we are seeing the early stages of social media use becoming mainstream within UK sociology. I’m interested to know what others think of this argument so here is the evidence I cited:

  • Almost 30 Sociology departments now have a twitter presence. Numerous departments have their own blogs.
  • This year’s BSA conference saw 1497 tweets from 328 users on the #BritSoc13 hashtag – compared to a handful of people discussing the passing tumbleweeds on #BritSoc12 the year before.
  • Many of the BSA’s study groups have twitter feeds (off the top of my head I can think of at least 8) and a number of the study groups have their own blogs.
  • On a purely anecdotal level there seems to have been an influx of sociologists to twitter and the blogosphere in the last 9 months or so. Though I recognise how tenuous and prone to confirmation bias an anecdotal observation like this is.

These clearly aren’t mainstream activities yet. But in the very recent past social media seems to have quietly become much more integral to the activity of UK sociologists than it was previously. I thought Dave Beer captured this quite nicely when he asked “Can academics manage without Twitter?” a couple of months ago (before almost immediately answering his own question by creating a twitter account) :

What I’m finding is that Twitter seems to have rapidly become the place to find out about what is going on in the academic world. It would seem that there is something about Twitter, more than any other social media, that seems to suit academics. The result seems to be that academic life is being remediate a on a large scale. Not only is information about opportunities (including job, publishing and speaking opportunities) passing around freely, but Twitter seems to be making aspects of academic practice more visible. We can see what is going on where, who has achieved what, where people are moving to, and so on. I’m wondering if this is going to increasingly mean that you need a good reason to avoid Twitter. I’m increasingly getting the sense that I’m likely to miss stuff, or that I’m likely to fall out of the loop. Plus, of course, there is the visibility that comes with an established Twitter profile. Maybe resistance is futile. Maybe this is the new space for academic life to thrive.

So, in full knowledge of the fact the only people likely to ever see this question are those who are using Twitter and reading blogs: is social media beginning to become a mainstream activity within UK sociology? What would it mean for it to become ‘mainstream’? What are the risks attached to such a process? What are the opportunities? I think Dave Beer’s post also highlights some of the important questions which need to be addressed if social media is becoming mainstream in this way:

But this remediation of academic life, and the underlying politics of data circulation, are going to need some attention soon. The ease with which Twitter has been absorbed into academic practice is interesting in itself. It will probably be worth thinking through the ways in which it is restructuring academic practice and communication – and how it amplifies certain voices amongst the noise of Tweets.

So even if academics can presently manage without Twitter, will this continue to be true in the future? If so do the implications of this trend vary across the career structure? For instance would it be easier for established professors to distance themselves from a mainstreamed academic twitter sphere than it would be for early career researchers or PhD students? If there are (s0ft) risks likely to be attached in future (missing out etc) to a lack of twitter presence then does this create a need for academic departments to work collectively to leverage the benefits of twitter for those within them? I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the way services like Rebel Mouse (which I use to automatically create this page which I’m extremely fond of but is nonetheless rather pointless) could be used at the departmental level to draw together the social media presence of all those within the department in ways beneficial to both the individuals and the department themselves.

But this assumes individual researchers at whatever stage would want to be actively identified with their department in this way. Is this a safe assumption? This post about the individualisation of professional identity within higher education is quite thought provoking in respect of this question. A lot of fascinating trends are tangled together here – I’m increasingly convinced that digital strategy, practice and culture are a fascinating lens through which to explore the broader institutional restructuring that is taking place within higher education. I collected my initial thoughts about this here for a lecture I did at City a couple of months ago. It’s something I want to do a lot more work on in future.

1 Comment

  1. Mark,

    Love this post (and the Rebel Mouse page). Let me give you a personal reaction. I have been greatly influenced by a colleague who was once, moons ago, a student of mine and who has now well surpassed my achievements–Deborah Lupton [@DALupton]. She said to me, very nicely, when I said I liked the internet but could not see the point of Twitter, “Stephen, you just don’t get it”. Absolutely right. I didn’t but she rapidly opened my eyes. Now I do. Thank you again, Deborah.

    So, like all late converts, I have since been proselyting my erstwhile colleagues—I used to be a sociology prof but now I run my own consultancy company, which includes things like facilitating some large planning sessions or conferences at Universities…

    Well, I have to tell you, as a rough rule of thumb, over about 55 not only do my friends not get it, they don’t want to get it. This is embedded in a wider mind-set. They are locked into a sorts of 1970s model of the academic enterprise, with a focus on ‘refereed publications’ in ‘high status journals’. Etc. Pressed, they blame this on education bureaucrats for insisting on these things as ‘measures’ of academic impact/performance, a view that seems widely held but is rather disingenuous (well it is if you are over 60 like me). They choose to forget that when the bean counters came to the door and chose these methods for measurement, they did so because they were so well established in academia. In sociology, I recall, in the mid ’70s, being given a friendly lecture by my then Chair about how a paper in ASR or AJS was worth about 5 published in a list of more minor journals, how two such papers were worth a book, unless it was a very high status imprint like CUP, etc. Publish or perish thrived, selfish colleagues who shut their door, ignored students and typed furiously prospered and promotion/tenure committees loved them.
    .
    If you are fixated on this way of doing things, you have a really hard time taking a blog seriously, you don’t and won’t get social media generally (though you can manage email) and you are wont to pontificate on how the existing model is the only one that can deliver quality. Nonsense: history is littered with technologies for this…

    Meanwhile, I hear quite literally, senior professors (one only last week who I won’t name cos he is a nice guy) insisting that he will retire rather than get on Twitter and (possibly inadvertently) exemplifying Kuhn’s argument that paradigm shift is based on the old generation dying out.

    Back in the late ‘60s, when sit-ins were all the rage, there is a famous photo of a group of (baby boomer) students marching on the LSE waving a banner “Beware the pedagogic gerontocracy!!”. Sadly the baby boomers now ARE the pedagogic gerontocracy. [Not me, I’m a traitor, 🙂 ]

    Stephen Mugford

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