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Social Media and Academic Labour

Notes for my talk in Leeds tomorrow

It is increasingly hard to move without encountering the idea that social media is something of value for academics. The reasons offered are probably quite familiar by now. It helps ensure your research is visible, both inside and outside the academy. Many of us might be sceptical of the dominant discourse of impact within which such a concern for visibility tends to be expressed. I certainly am in many ways, worrying that this is irrevocably tied up in the instrumentalisation of research, the declining autonomy of researchers and the marketisation of the Academy within which research takes place. Nonetheless the imperative to make and demonstrate impact is already an entrenched characteristic of the research economy and looks likely to stay that way.

In this short talk, I will make the case that social media in general and blogging in particular represent a way to expand academic autonomy, improve the quality of our scholarship and nonetheless meet the demands of what I have elsewhere called the Accelerated Academy, all at the same time. This might seem implausible, so please bear with me. If it seems overly optimistic, let’s talk about this at the end because my actual view of the research economy is pretty grim and depressing. My enthusiasm for social media comes in large part because I see it as something that can, at least potentially work to ameliorate a whole series of problems that afflict those within the contemporary research economy.

A good way into this is to consider some of the other benefits increasingly held to obtain through academics using social media. I already mentioned visibility, internal to the academy and outside of it. Related to this, is the chance to practice communication with nonspecialist audiences. It’s a faster way to get your research findings out. It allows you to build an audience for future publications, in advance of their actual release. In doing so, it allows you to find people who share your research interests, as connections more or less inevitably form on the basis of what you publish and what you read online.

But the advantage that I’m most interested in and the one that will be key to the argument I’m making here, is that the more you write, the easier writing gets. The more you think, the easier thinking gets. My enthusiasm for social media in general, as well as blogging in particular, stems from the endless occasions they offer for thinking and writing.

But isn’t thinking and writing what we do anyway? Well yes, on one level, it is. Though I think there are important questions to be asked about how the accelerating pace of working life in contemporary universities impacts on the time and energy available for thinking and writing. But talk today is not about that.

It’s this presumably everyday quality to academic thinking and writing  which has increasingly left me confused about one of the most common concerns, even objections, to academic social media: isn’t it just one more thing for already busy people to do? On the surface, this makes complete sense. This is certainly true for some people. It’s almost certainly true for everyone at least some of the time. But much of what academics do on social media  should not be something extrinsic to their scholarship but instead should be constitutive of it. As the sci-fi author, digital rights activist and blogger Cory Doctorow puts it: blogging is “my major way of thinking through the stuff that matters to me”. This is true of myself as well. I think it’s true of many academics using social media, even if they don’t recognise it. Furthermore, I think much of the value that social media has for academics within the contemporary research economy won’t be actualised until this has become a ubiquitous feature of how we talk about the way we can use social media as researchers.

There’s a lovely extract of the Academic Diary in which Les Back reflects on the life and work of the social theorist Vic Seidler. Remarking on the vast range of topics on which Seidler has written, Les suggests that this deeply committed man “writes not because his academic position expects it but because he has something to say and communicate”. For someone like Seidler, writing is something a person does because they are “trying to work something out”.

This captures what I see as the promise of academic social media. It’s 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. Whether this non-instrumental exploration of ideas remains the norm or could be sustained in the long term is a different question – as I’ll come on to, I think there are reasons to worry that the research economy is inimical to this.

What does this all mean practice? I’m talking about quite straight forward practices which all of those conducting research engage in to differing degrees. I’ve often used the term ‘public notebook’ and the existence of non-public notebooks is the most obvious point of comparison here. Prior to starting a research blog early in my PhD, I use to scribble notes in a succession of moleskin notebooks – ones I would later struggle to decipher due to my scrawled handwriting. 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. Modern digital equivalents involve tools like Evernote or OneNote. These have many of the advantages of using social media – they can also of course be integrated with them, for instance by quickly sharing notes from Evernote or automatically clipping content you discover on social media into the appropriate Evernote folder. But as with social media use, they have the advantage of mobility, in so far as that one can use them across devices and across contexts – rather than the careful work of keeping physical files or the necessity of ensuring one always has one’s physical journal and never, under any circumstances, lose it.

The features I discussed earlier might all sound individualistic. But it’s in considering how the use of social media differs from contemporary alternatives like Evernote that it becomes apparent how the benefits of social media are intrinsically social. Later in the book I mentioned earlier, 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.

It’s in this sense that I’m arguing social media increases the autonomy of researchers, both individually and collectively. If we accept the argument that metrics necessarily entail the evisceration of self-governance, with hierarchical regulation replacing horizontal norms, then this new horizontal space of collaboration and cooperation begins to looks exceedingly valuable. It’s a new kind of space and one which could be easily destroyed if we too easily accept that what we do within it should be measured and incorporated into the logic of career advancement.

The kinds of scholarly communities of practice we can see perpetually coming to life online are obviously not confined to the digital sphere. But academic social media is at present profoundly generative of them, whereas the broader research economy is increasingly characterised by a competitive individualism which works to preclude them However I think this not just important within the academy but also in the relationships between academia and other institutional spheres. For instance, academic social media is changing how journalists and academics interact: it’s easier to identify academics, but it’s also easier to make demands upon them which might be unreasonable or unwelcome, often with only a cursory understanding of what they hope to achieve through such a potential collaboration. It’s also changing the relationships between social scientists and the communities they research, as organised groups increasingly monitor and engage with academic research, in ways that can throw up all such of problems. This is why the nature of the ‘third space’ of academic social media is so important.

There are all sorts of instrumental gains to be had through engaging with social media: increasing your visibility, expanding your network, ensuring your work is widely read, engaging with non-academics publics and making an impact outside of the academy. But there are gains to scholarship which are more important and perhaps more diffuse than this. What increasingly interests me is the tension between them the two tendencies: how the instrumental use of social media, encouraged within the contemporary research economy, might imperil the gains which I’ve suggested can be made on the level of craft and collaboration.

I’ve suggested that the value of social media for academics can be seen in terms of craft and careers. These two dimensions often overlap but I think it’s useful to separate them analytically: contributions to individual and collaborative scholarship on the one hand, contributions to the development of careers on the other. Obviously the former usually takes place in the context of the latter – though the rise of the ‘alt-academic’, pursuing scholarship without pursuing a traditional academic career, can be seen to break this link. But the relationship between them isn’t always clear. For instance, in recent work, myself and Filip Vostal have been exploring the manner in which the accelerative pressures found in the contemporary academy militate against good scholarship. If people are asked to do more with the same or less, then what effect does this have? If we construe it in traditional terms, particularly as something conversant with and contributing to ‘the literature’, then good scholarship becomes structurally difficult 28,100 journals publishing 2.5 million articles a year. Under such circumstances we come to encounter surface writing rather than depth writing, rearranging ideas rather than developing new ones: scholasticism on the one hand, empiricism on the other. My point is not to explore the accelerated academy here but simply to flag up how institutional changes complicate the link between craft and careers. This is the environment within which the latent value of social media for academics comes to be actualised along either dimension.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m particularly interested in how time pressure figures into the developing discourse about social media for academics. On the one hand, I think the idea of social media being ‘just one more thing to do’ is straight forwardly a mistaken way of understanding what academics do on social media. On the other hand, I think the temporal pressures to which academics are subject in their institutional lives will inevitably shape the character of their social media use:

  1. Time-pressure can be a symbol of status and flaunting it can represent one of the few socially acceptable forms of conspicuous self-aggrandizement available (Ian Price)
  2. Time-pressure can reduce the time available for reflexivity, ‘blotting out’ difficult questions in a way analogous to drink and drugs
  3. Time-pressure can facilitate a unique kind of focus in the face of a multiplicity of distractions: past commitments ‘choose’ for us
  4. The accelerative pleasures and creative inducements of ‘binge writing’ and working to a deadline (Maggie O’Neill)
  5. Time-pressure can leave us feeling that we are living life most fully. If the good life is now seen as the full life then living fast feels like living fully (Harmut Rosa)

These all contribute to a broader context in which speed becomes problematic within the academy. It comes to enjoy an immense psychic charge as something which feels like, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, the cause of and solution to all life’s problems:

Coupled with intense competition within the academic career structure, as well the broader spectre of redundancy which Bauman argues characterises academic life as a whole in late modernity, it’s inevitable that what Ruth Müller theorises as anticipatory acceleration arises as a situationally logical strategy: going faster without specific goal in mind, seeking to outpace competitors given limited positions available for a cohort. As I understand her argument, which I really recommend reading directly, this gives rise to a subjugation of present pleasures to anticipated future rewards, with a contraction of alternative futures envisaged by the subject. The more hyper kinetically you commit yourself to career advancement, pursued through anticipatory acceleration, the more difficult it becomes to climb off the treadmill because your horizons narrow to the next goal. Though her empirical work has focused on post-docs in the life sciences, the scope of her concepts seem broader than this, both in terms of discipline and career stages. The conditions she describes in the condition from post-doc to faculty surely also obtain in the transition from lecturer to senior lecturer, from senior lecturer to reader and from reader to professor.

The ensuing dynamic of competitive escalation is crucial to understanding labour in the contemporary academy. It is a social mechanism driving the intensification of labour and destroying solidarity, tied up in a life-destroying feedback loop with the systems of audit which work to replace the horizontal regulation of professional standards with the vertical regulation of metrics. The value of social media for academic craft can mitigate these effects by grounding individuals in non-instrumental motivations for their work (curiosity, playfulness, exploration) and facilitating collaboration between such individuals outside the rubric of competitive individualism. But how likely is this to continue? I’m interested in how what Jose Van Dijck calls the popularity principle intersects with the competitive individualism of the accelerated academy: will the metrics of social media become just one more way in which academics can evaluate themselves in relation to others and be evaluated as they proceed through an increasingly rigidly defined career structure? If the logic of careers comes to dominate academic social media, can the logic of craft survive? If not then what does this mean for the broader conditions of academic labour? The institutionalisation of alt-metrics seems likely to be the most important vector through which the answer to these questions will begin to unfold. How will social media activity be measured and how will this new process of measurement intersect with existing processes of measurement? Will alt-metrics unsettle existing hierarchies or simply lead to dual hierarchies that might converge upon the same academic celebrities who dominate the intellectual attention space?

However there are other substantive areas in which these issues are currently being played out: online harassment of academics, social media policies within universities, institutional reaction to online academic speech, regulation of the corporate brand, social media training and support offered by staff. I think the way in which the benefits of social media are coming to be framed is particularly interesting and we’re likely to see this come to be dominated by the language of ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ on the one hand, ‘academic citizenship’ and ‘academic civility’ on the other. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these things but what gets squeezed out in the middle is scholarship. I’ve not really talked about substantive cases in these areas today. There’s a few reasons for this: some of them are very contentious and I’m more comfortable writing about them then speaking about them, doing them justice requires a lot of empirical detail and would take a long time, it’s easy for this reason to get lost in detail and miss the broader picture. After all, it’s this broader picture which interests me. Social media is tied up in all manner of ways with the transformation of the university, as well as the transformation of the universities place within wider social life. There are many other factors, but the institutionalization of social media is a key vector in these unfolding changes. One which, I’ve tried to argue and hope we can discuss further, has important ramifications for academic labour.

Categories: Digital Universities Social Media for Academics Thinking

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Mark

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