An interview with Inside Higher Ed about Social Media for Academics

An interview with Carl Straumsheim from Inside Higher Education, due to be published later this week. 

Q: In the book, you grapple with the idea of writing about a topic that “will be out of date by the book is read, let alone a year or two later.” But you argue that while platforms may go in and out of fashion, the core functions of social media — sharing, socializing and so on — remain the same. Could you expand on that, and what it means for academics?

One of the most important things in getting to grips with social media as an academic is to move beyond a preoccupation with each individual platform. There’s a learning curve with any platform, but they’re never insurmountable. What’s much more important than how you use a platform is what you want to do with it and why. These are questions which take us beyond the platform itself and back to the everyday working lives of scholars. Do you want to publicise your work? Engage with publics outside the academy? Find news way of locating and managing information? Extend your professional network? In so far as social media is valuable for academics, it’s because it helps scholars perform their existing practices in new and better ways. The whole field becomes so much easier to navigate when you’re clear from the outset about what you want to do and why. It also helps you step back from the ‘next big thing’ and get away from the sense that you have to be engaging on every platform that’s out there. 

Q: You talk about how posts on social media could be interpreted differently by friends, family members, employers and other groups (“identity dilemmas”), and how crafting a clear online identity can prevent misunderstandings. You have a straightforward Twitter profile: a title, what you’re working on and a link to a website. What are you hoping to accomplish with that bio? What are some effective examples of online identity creation that you have seen?

My main concern is to draw together the different strands of my professional life into one coherent whole. This can be a challenge in the limited number of characters available but it’s not impossible! I work for two academically related charities, as well as my post-doctoral fellowship in the department where I undertook my PhD. There’s also a whole range of projects I’m involved in which are just as important to my sense of professional identity as my ‘day jobs’. So the main purpose of my Twitter profile is to allow people to quickly see the work I’m involved with, as well as how I choose to present myself professionally to the world. The description ‘digital sociologist’ isn’t part of any of my formal job descriptions, but that understanding, as well as the Twitter profile and personal website that communicates it, unites what might otherwise feel like a fragmented working life. In this sense, you could say that my profile is doing important ‘identity work’ for me and that this reflect my status as someone who is pursuing a somewhat alt-academic portfolio career. What constitutes effective management of online identity is going to vary a lot for this reason. The key thing is to be clear about what you want to convey to others about yourself and your work. It can be tricky at first to craft an online identity within the constraints offered by social media platforms but it’s worth persisting. This isn’t just digital narcissism, these profiles serve an important function in helping people orientate themselves within an information saturated world. My favourite Twitter bio comes from the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. His profile describes him as “Economics professor, quietly writing obscure academic texts for years, until thrust onto the public scene by Europe’s inane handling of an inevitable crisis”. As professional self-narratives go, there’s an awful lot being conveyed there, all the more powerful for being so succinct.

Q: Many conferences these days — especially those with an ed-tech angle — have embraced live tweeting, featuring a “scoreboard” in a central location showing the top participants and tweets by likes, mentions and retweets. How should conference organizers walk the line between encouraging meaningful online conversations and preventing popularity contests?

It’s a difficult line to walk because what media scholar José van Dijck calls the ‘popularity principle’ is built into the architecture of the platforms themselves. In a very real way, their design is intended to leave us thinking and acting in terms of ‘popularity contrasts’. But as long as we’re aware of this, it’s possible to mitigate it and the challenge itself encourages us to articulate scholarly values that are sometimes taken for granted. For instance to be clear about what meaningful scholarly dialogue entails and whypopularity contests serve to hinder it. I think scoreboards should be challenged in this way and I’d be surprised if many people offered enthusiastic justifications of them in the face of this challenge. However it’s also important that we remain open to novel technologies, refusing to fall into the trap of thinking that just because a platform can be used in a stupid way, that it will be used like this in higher education. Conversations about shared values and standards are the most important thing here but the novelty of the technology stands in the way. Both because of the allure of shiny new toys and as a reflection of the fact that, in many cases, we simply haven’t developed such standards because the activities we’re applying them to are so new.

Q: As a follow-up question, do you see the debate about live tweeting at conferences being reignited if live streaming apps such as Periscope become more popular? 

It seems urgent to me that we have a more nuanced conversation about expectations of behaviour at conferences, because I suspect live streaming apps are going to reignite the live tweeting debate and then some. Conference organisers have a huge role to play here. Not just in terms of determining a policy for the event and communicating it, but also by seriously reflecting on who will be taking part in their event, the relationships between them and the purpose the event is intended to serve. I love live tweeting, in fact I find it a much more enjoyable and effective way to engage seriously with a talk than taking notes. But I don’t think it should ever be an unthinking default. There are lots of reasons to prohibit live tweeting at a whole event and individual speakers should always be given the space to communicate that they would rather the audience don’t live tweet, even if it’s a prominent feature of the event as a whole. But live streaming risks being experienced as much more invasive by speakers. For this reason I think it’s something that should be left to the organisers of the event, discussed in advance with speakers, rather than left to the discretion of individuals in the audience. I can certainlyimagine academic environments in which everyone is comfortable with individuals in the audience choosing to live stream a talk. But my hunch is that these will be few and far between. It’s certainly not a safe assumption to make.

Q: Inside Higher Ed annual survey of faculty attitudes on technology last year included questions about social media use. Strikingly, 75 percent of faculty respondents said they don’t use social media to express their views on scholarship or politics. What voices from academe do you feel are missing on social media?

This is a real shame because one of the most exciting things about social media is the opportunities it offers for publically engaged scholarship. But when we place these opportunities in a broader context, it’s easy to see why so many people feel this way. I do worry that people sometimes over-estimate the risks of engaging online, imagining that there’s a hoard of trolls waiting to pounce on the slightest slip as soon as they dip their toe into the water. Nonetheless, it’s impossible to deny that there’s a problem here and it’s one which is getting worse. Some of the most egregious cases involve seemingly organised attacks on progressive scholars, particularly those from groups who are already underrepresented and marginalised within the academy. The authors at Conditionally Accepted have incisively documented how this marginality is compounded by institutional reactions, with ‘academic freedom’ too often amounting to mere ‘academic tolerance’ for those who seek to engage politically. While calls by Hank Reichman and others for greater work with faculty to develop social media policies are important, these need to be seen against a background of endemic and growing inequality within the academy. It’s much safer for some to express their views on scholarship or politics than it is for others. Nonetheless, social media has offered a powerful platform for scholars who are women, of colour, LGBTUA, working class, disabled and/or precariously employed to speak out and connect with each other, in spite of the risks entailed by doing so.

We also need to see these issues against a broader climate within which certain forms of dissent are perhaps becoming more difficult. Anyone doing research on a potentially contentious issues needs to reflect seriously on this politically polarised environment, something which they’re likely already all too aware of, before engaging on these topics through social media. But of course it’s precisely this context which means it’s more important than ever that scholars engage with the social and political world around them. I worry that without more support and commitment from universities, it’s unlikely we’ll see this promise realised.

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