What is social media for? This is the question I’ve found myself asking after spending the morning responding to this, as I contemplate calling it a day on the blog I’ve been editing for over seven years. I obviously have a stock answer to the question: social media is for all the things scholars did prior to social media, simply offering new means to these ends, as well as a few new ones. If you really wanted me to be schematic, I’d say it’s for building networks, publicising your work, engaging with publics and managing information. Those are the purposes I discussed at length in my book anyway.
However it would be dishonest to leave it here. As social media advocate and workshop facilitator, I answer the question by referring to the useful things which academics can do with social media. But the specificity of academics is not exhausted by their work, greedy though this social role might be, raising the question: what is social media really for? What is it for in addition to those useful things one can do with it? How might this feed back into the narrowly professional uses of social media, leaving an unspoken surplus which lingers on the periphery of our consciousness, after we have accounted for our use in terms of our professional responsibilities?
There are lots of ways to characterise this. Marcus Gilroy-Ware recently framed it as filling the void. Jodi Dean writes of the affective intensities entrenching our capture by digital media. It could be a useful exercise to produce a review article collecting these attempts to characterise the psychic excess of social media use. But meanwhile the great twittering machine trundles on, something which I feel I’ve been far too bound into for a long time and increasingly long for distance from. I wonder how much subtle dissatisfaction there is elsewhere, amongst other academic users of social media, as well as how it finds expression in their lives (or doesn’t).
It feels impossible for me to withdraw from social media entirely. Mainly because it’s integral to my day job, as well as for many of the projects I’m involved in. Plus I derive too much satisfaction from blogging. But it’s becoming clear to me that I’m happiest when I’m away from social media. It’s increasingly obvious to me that I don’t actually enjoy the blooming, buzzing confusion which it lends to my experience of the world. I’ve also claimed to be writing a book about digital distraction for the last couple of years, without getting this much further than the elaborate collection of notes which this blog represents.
Therefore I plan to take an extended break. Hopefully much longer than the month last autumn which confirmed my growing dissatisfaction with social media. I’m writing this partly as an explanation for my absence, as well as suspecting it might be a useful auto-ethnographic note when I’m later writing about these questions in a professional capacity. It’s pretty easy to work out how to contact me through means other than social media so I’ll leave that to you.