Making the Most of Social Media

Notes for my talk at the ESRC North West DTC tomorrow

Social media has changed a lot since I began my PhD. But what’s notable about this is that I didn’t start my PhD particularly long ago. When I began in 2008, my blogging was a personal hobby which I couldn’t possibly conceive of as relevant to my research. But by the time I finished in 2014, social media had come to shape every aspect of my developing research career. It’s possible I’ve been an outlier in this respect, but the same transition can be seen within my discipline. At my first British Sociological Association conference, the event’s hashtag felt like it was dominated by digital tumbleweeds and a few lonely voices speculating about how few sociologists were using Twitter in the UK. By the time of the most recent British Sociological Association conference, the event’s hashtag had become a thriving hub of activity, as scores of sociologists attending the conference live tweeted their way through the event. These are personal experiences, grounded in my own career and my engagements with my discipline in the UK, but they are representative of a broader transition. What was once a fringe pursuit, regarded with disinterest at best or suspicion at worst, increasingly finds itself seen as a central part of what academics are expected to do. What might once have been a curiosity about how a particular academic conducts themselves looks increasingly likely to be incorporated, formally or otherwise, into the expectations to which academics are subject in their professional lives.

This is a recipe for anxiety. Something that moves so fast, as can be seen in the hypnotic resource that is Internet Live Stats for which I’ve only attached a screen shot, can be bewildering. So much happens in what we might call an ‘internet minute’ that it can be hard to make sense of the sheer scale of the activity, let alone determine how to make the most of it. But it’s this speed and scale which has created so much attention because of the sheer size of the audiences which can be found through social media. On paper, the possibilities seem tremendous: free, open, accessible platforms that allow us to access hundreds of millions of users. In practice, the reality is more complex: how can we actually ensure that we’re heard above all that noise? How do we negotiate the already competing demands upon our time when engaging on social media is added to them? How do we square the requirements of visibility online with the most conventional expectations about how researchers comport themselves offline? In other words: how do we make the most of social media?

Unfortunately, there are no universal right or wrong answers to these questions. There are general tips which apply to all researchers engaging online, as well as common issues that those in the academy face when they use social media. But so much still depends on the individual scholar, what they’re comfortable with, what they hope to achieve and the environment within which they’re working. What I’ll do today is to offer some general tips & address these common issue. But my main focus is on how to address these deeper underlying question of why you want to use social media and what you want to do with it, because I firmly believe that if you address these questions of ‘what’ and ‘why’ then the ‘how’ questions become much clearer. Deciding on which platform is right for you, how you wish to use it and how you wish to combine these as part of a much broader range of activities you’re committed to becomes much easier once you’re animated by a clear understanding of what you’re setting out to achieve and why it matters to you. Ultimately, existing platforms change so fast and new ones spring into being with such rapidity, that a preoccupation with the platforms themselves can just be confusing. Plus remember MySpace as a timely reminder of the capacity of hugely popular social media platforms to die.

Instead, I think it’s useful to think in terms of scholarly activities and the various ways in which different sorts of technologies are used to enact these, helping or hindering them in the process. The radical sociologist C Wright Mills wrote a wonderful appendix to his famous The Sociological Imagination about scholarly craft: he argued for the necessity of keeping a ‘file’ in order to ‘keep one’s inner world awake’. These are activities we all engage in but which, rather interestingly, tend not to feature in public discourse: the daily minutae of scholarship. Notebooks, filing cabinets, file cards, newspaper clippings, print outs, drawings, marginalia in books, annotated papers, reading lists etc. My favourite example from my own experience is the fixation on Moleskin notebooks which dominated the early stages of my PhD. I loved these notebooks, still do in fact. I would enthusiastically scrawl ideas as I was travelling, record notes of what I was reading and try to develop a research journal to track my engagements over time. I’d then proudly place these notebooks on a shelf, admiring the odd sense of solidity they conveyed when I stacked them up near my computer. In my more pretentious moments, I found myself thinking about the weight of the ideas contained within them and how satisfying this was.

The problem was that I could rarely read my own hand writing, couldn’t search them and as much as I admired them aesthetically, they were pretty useless to me as a research journal. Plus as many people will tell you, they are by definition quite easy to lose if you carry them with you all the time. I never experienced this because I didn’t carry them with me all the time. This in itself caused problems because I’d often find that I had an idea or insight that I wanted to record, but I didn’t have my current notebook with me. I’d sometimes record it on a scrap of paper, hoping that I’d add it into the notebook when I got home but I rarely succeed in this. On other occasions, I’d hope I remembered the thought once I was home. I never did. In contrast, the research blog I soon started, replacing my older blogs filled with rants about politics and song lyrics I liked, could be found wherever I had internet access. The very fact of other people, at least in principle, reading what I wrote forced me to elaborate upon fleeting thoughts in order to make them legible for others. Tagging and categorising these notes, as blogging platforms encourages you to do, quickly built up a living archive of my scholarly engagements that I’ve since got into the habit of frequently tracing back. It enabled me to connect with others that shared my interests, as well as building up an audience for publications long before I’d actually published anything. It became for me how one of my favourite science fiction authors, Cory Doctorow, describes his own blog: “my major way of thinking through the stuff that matters to me”. This is exactly what I hoped my Moleskine notebooks would do but they never quite did.

But this isn’t for everyone and my point in telling this story is not say that you should all use blogs as research journals. Many people, including myself, wouldn’t be comfortable blogging about field work and data in such a journal. Many people would prefer to fully work out their thoughts before making them public, though I do think the risks entailed by this are overstated because, as the philosopher Daniel Little puts it, people enjoy seeing ‘ideas in motion’. Many people would prefer the option to share a note on social media, something which digital journals like Evernote provide very effectively, rather than sharing by default. I think it’s a mistake to assume social media platforms and digital tools are necessarily an improvement. In fact, I don’t think such a judgement makes sense in the abstract. A particular social media platform is only going to be useful to someone in a particular context for a particular purpose. The key to negotiating the world of social media as an academic is to develop clarity about what you’re doing and enough familiarity with social media platforms and digital tools then you can think clearly about how they might help or hinder particular tasks. These tasks are manifold: locating literature, reading literature, analysing data, conducting field work, networking within your field, engaging with publics outside the academy and many more. Social media can be used for all of them, in all manner of ways, but how to do this is likely to be confusing unless we’re specific about what we want to do and why we want to do it.

But I think there are other, more hands on, pointers which apply to most if not all:

  1. Use the opportunities afforded to you as an ESRC funded researcher. Sign up to their e-mail alerts and engage with the digital opportunities contained within them. Engage with the ESRC on social media platforms. For instance, add your status to your Twitter profile and they’ll follow you back. Tag @ESRC when you’re discussing your activities and making announcements.
  2. Share what you care about online. In a recent book, the Sociologist Les Back suggests that Twitter sometimes facilitates our “inhabiting the attentiveness of another writer” by providing “signposts pointing to things going on in the world: a great article, an important book, a breaking story”. Through the things that others share, we sometimes enter into their world and participate in an economy of “hunches and tips” which is the “lifeblood of scholarship”. These provide pathways through the literature, allowing others to use them as guides into and through often difficult bodies of work. If you consistently share what you care about then other people to whom this matter will find you online. It’s in this subtle way that I think everyday use of social media can help mitigate the competitive individualism which dominates the academy.
  3. Try not to get hung up on the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to behave on social media platforms. These norms are not so different from the rest of your life, something which the contrived opposition of ‘offline’ and ‘online’ often works to obscure. Are social media platforms ultimately that different to an academic conference, albeit on where the words linger on in the room after being spoken? Each profile is a spot on the internet that’s staked out as yours. What you do with it is up to you. Some people choose to wander over to their podium every now and again, make an announcement and then wander off. Some people give their presentation at the podium and then leave, only returning when they want to give another. Some do their presentation but thrive on the Q&A afterwards. Some might not like the feel of the podium and eschew a formal presentation to go and chat more directly with their audience. Likewise some people just want to listen and ask questions of other speakers. Others would rather ditch the conference and go straight to relaxing at the pub.
  4. But if you’re unsure about how to behave, the best thing to do is to seek out exemplars, both positive and negative. Do you like how someone engages on a particular platform? Try and articulate precisely what you like about it and whether it’s right for you. Conversely, if someone frustrates or bothers you, don’t just get irritated. Instead try and clarify exactly what it is you don’t like in order that you’re better able to avoid this. In this way, it becomes easier to develop a deliberate sense of how you feel you ought to behave online, rather than be plagued by a diffuse anxiety that you might be ‘doing it wrong’.
  5. When in doubt, connect! The capacity of social media to flatten academic hierarchies is vastly overstated but there’s a kernel of truth to it: unless you’re a remarkably outgoing and talented networker, it’s much easier to approach well known academics online then it is in person. If you find yourself hesitating about whether to make contact with them, err on the side of connection. At worst they’ll ignore you & the architecture of social media is built from the ground up to encourage people to interact as much as possible. Furthermore, use community resources like hashtags to connect with others at a similar stage to you. As well as #PhDChat, which I found almost indescribably comforting at many points during the last year of my PhD, there’s #ECRChat and #ESRCPhD as well as many other localised to particular fields of practice. Plus don’t forget all the people you already know. Add your social media profiles to your e-mail signature and look for your friends and acquaintances when you try a new platform.
  6. Tell a story about yourself using your profile. This can feel narcissistic but in an information saturated world, these snippets of biographical information are key to allowing people to know where you’re coming from. This isn’t just a matter of people within the academy. Social media radically increases the ease with which academics can be found by those within the media, government and civil society. But they need to know who you are and why they might want to talk to you for those conversations to begin.

Much as there are practical tactics which work for most, if not all. There are common issues academics face when they engage online. Social media collapses the boundaries between the different groups which we engage with and poses the question of how to manage overlapping relations between them: for instance, are you ok with your students reading material you’ve shared with your friends? One response to this problem is never to say anything online that you wouldn’t be happy with everyone in your life hearing. Another is to try and mark out particular material as being for different audiences, perhaps even by having separate profiles. My own approach has been to assume everyone in my life realises there are different facets to me and if something I share online seems confusing to them, they probably weren’t my intended audience. But then again, this might be why all my non-academic friends unfollowed me on Twitter a long time ago.

There’s also the more unpleasant side to social media. Sometimes, this might be a matter of getting drawn into pointless arguments. For instance, I’m as enthusiastic about Twitter as one can be, yet I’ve never seen any evidence that meaningful debate is possible within 140 characters, though it’s certainly possible to have constructive discussions amongst people who share things in common. As a general rule, if it feels important to you that someone on the internet is wrong, that’s the time to step away from social media. On the other hand, there’s a much darker world of online harassment, far beyond the simple matter of academic egos and cantankerousness. This is a big topic, one which most social media platforms are failing to do enough about. The only general advice I can offer is to be aware of the issue, particularly if you’re working on a very politicised topic. Also familiarise yourself with the facilities each platform offers to ban and block and don’t hesitate to use them if you feel the need.

There’s the ever present risk of time wasting. I think this issue can be overstated and it’s often framed in terms of an assumption that social media is just ‘one more thing to do’: scholarship is assumed to be something prior to what scholars do on social media. But the more that you’ve embedded social media in your everyday activities, the less this is true because what you’re doing on social media is scholarship. Nonetheless, sometimes it can be a bit compulsive and tools like Anti-Social, Freedom and Rescue Time all provided effect mechanisms for carving out time away from social media to immerse yourself in other things.

But the most important thing is to try and enjoy it. You’re unlikely to make the most of social media if you don’t. My experience has been that the promise of academic social media lies in its use as a platform for trying to work things out. More so, doing it in the open grants each of these attempts a social existence, one that comes with undoubted risks but also enormous rewards. Little bits of thought shrapnel, brief attempts to make some sense of the ‘feel of an idea’, come to enjoy their own existence within the world. They’re mostly forgotten or even ignored from the outset. But there’s something quite remarkable about occasions when these fragments resurface as someone sees something of value in them, perhaps when you saw no value in them yourself.

In this way, it attunes you to the impulse to write because you have “something to say and communicate”. This isn’t always the case and I worry that the metricisation of scholarly blogging will prove immensely destructive of it. But there is at least for now something deeply rewarding about seizing on an inchoate idea, developing it and throwing it off into the world to see what others make of it. For no other reason than the pleasure inherent to it. Making the most of social media can help develop your career, build your network and make an impact. But more importantly, it can deepen your enjoyment of what you do, keep you connected to the curiosity which animates your research, help you connect with others who care about the same things as you do and build up opportunities to work together enjoyably in an environment otherwise dominated by competitive individualism.

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