So what is ‘networking’?

This is an extract from Social Media for Academics 

To talk of ‘networking’ raises the inevitable question of what your ‘network’ is and why it matters. This is a theme which cuts through the book given that the network is so crucial to social media: without a certain critical mass of users, it’s difficult for social media platforms to be useful to anyone. What’s the point of sending 140-character messages, sharing audio clips or self-publishing articles if no one is going to find them? Social media offer endless opportunities to communicate with your network and expand it in the process. But this doesn’t really answer the question of what the value of this actually is. In part, it can simply be a matter of the enjoyment of sharing things you’ve produced, something which the media scholar David Gauntlett (2011) conveys power­fully in his book on creative production, Making is Connecting, which situated this aspect of contemporary digital culture in terms of a much longer history of craft.

One of the difficulties with the notion of ‘networking’ is that it can seem to imply that such an activity is extrinsic to scholarly activity, such that one does one’s real work and then (reluctantly) looks outwards towards their connections. What this leaves out is the vast majority of academic work that involves collabo­ration in one form or another. Gauntlett expresses this nicely, suggesting three ways in which ‘making is connecting’:

  • Making is connecting because you have to connect things together (materials, ideas, or both) to make something new
  • Making is connecting because acts of creativity usually involve, at some point, a social dimension and connect us with other people
  • Making is connecting because through making things and sharing them in the world, we increase our engagement and connection with our social and physical environment

While Gauntlett is talking about creative production in general, the same points can be extended to scholarship. In fact his discussion of ‘craft’, a term not often used to apply to the work that goes on within the academy, offers a useful reminder of the genuinely creative work that is undertaken by academics (albeit frequently within conditions which frustrate that creativity or at least make it difficult to experience it as such). By this he means a process of discovery, often involving new ideas which emerge through acts of creation. This helps bring people together through their shared acts of creation, consolidating bonds between collaborators which take on a life of their own in the outcomes of this work together. This language of craft, which Sennett (2008) talks about in terms of doing things well for their own sake, provides a nice counterweight to some of the instrumentalising tendencies which the contemporary academy can give rise to.

Talk of ‘networks’ and ‘networking’ can be off-putting. I like Gauntlett’s account because it captures how networks are integral to creative work: making is connecting. It follows from this that connecting can be a preliminary to making. As Weller (2011: loc 172) puts it, ‘[n]etworks of peers are important in scholar­ship – they represent the people who scholars share ideas with, collaborate with on research projects, review papers for, discuss ideas with and get feedback from’. Networks are integral to scholarship. The possibilities which social media open up for networking can have hugely important implications for your schol­arship, though they also pose challenges which we’ll discuss. But first, it’s important not to forget your existing network when you begin to engage with social media.