Public Engagement and Social Media

There’s a really important piece in the LSE Impact Blog by Philip Moriarty describing his experiences using social media for public engagement. In many ways he has been the embodiment of the engaged academic, driven by a sense of responsibility to communicate scientific knowledge and an enthusiasm for engaging with the public about that knowledge. Not only has he been a prolific blogger and video blogger, he has spent countless hours engaging with these visitors and viewers, producing what he estimates as half a million words of comments and responses in the process. He believed passionately in they importance of this activity, the necessity of academics being willing to directly engage with the public and take advantage of the opportunities for this which social media have opened up.

His reflections on these experiences are essential reading for anyone interested in the future of social media for academics. In retrospect, he believes his efforts achieved virtually nothing. Though there have always been productive exchanges which he cited in the face of scepticism by friends and colleagues about the value of what he was doing, Philip argues that the obstacles to the engagement he pursued have their origin in the platforms themselves. The incentive to build a subscriber base, something which can be enormously profitable on YouTube, incentivises behaviour which has created an environment toxic to the reasoned discussion which public engagement presupposes. To approach it in the open-minded way he did, with a commitment to open debate and a refusal to block or ban, has created all manner of difficulties and his article is an important warning about the difficulties that social media can leave academics exposed to.

While it’s essential that we recognise these dangers, the risk is that it generates a backlash against public engagement through social media. Yet as Philip says, “Productive engagement online is possible”. What’s urgently needed is a more nuanced discussion about social media platforms, the opportunities and challenges attached to each, before we advocate public engagement be pursued through them. My recent preoccupation has been on how the way in which we talk about social media, as powerful new ways to get our ideas ‘out there’, can preclude such nuance. If we see social media as helping us scale the walls of the ivory tower, allowing us to form connections with a public that has been kept out by our impenetrable language and paywalled journals, we might get an unpleasant surprise when we encounter disinterest, antipathy or outright hostility in response to our efforts.

This shouldn’t lead us to rethink public engagement, it should lead us to question the assumption that ‘the public’ is present on these platforms waiting for us to engage with them. We need to understand how platforms influence who sees our activity, how they interpret it and how they respond to it. We need to be clear about the particular groups we are trying to engage with, how to develop connections with them and why they will be interested in connecting with us. We need to understand how things can go wrong and we need to develop support mechanisms for those who find themselves in such positions. We need to do this urgently, in order to ensure that the increasing visibility of academic life through social media isn’t seized upon to fuel the developing backlash against expertise and experts. This new interface between the university and wider society needs to be carefully managed. There are exciting opportunities here but also profound risks if we fail to meet this challenge.