What are learned societies for? This is how Jennifer Platt answers this question on loc 119 of her history of the British Sociological Association:
Learned societies such as the BSA are a vital part of the social structure of academic life; not every eligible person belongs to one, but nonetheless all are affected by them. However, the topic is one that has usually been neglected in general historical work on academic disciplines. That often focuses on disembodied ideas or, at most, uses social units such as schools of thought, departments or educational institutions. Learned societies deserve better than to be confined to the ghetto of commissioned anniversary organisational histories. They cut across the boundaries of those conventional historical units, organising conferences, promoting the professional development of their members, creating networks and publishing journals and books which are important to the intellectual life of the discipline. They also represent the discipline to the outside world, whether in the large political arena of major governmental decisions on education and research, or in the many smaller arenas of funding bodies, exam boards and governing bodies in higher education.
While these organisations are rarely the object of theoretical scrutiny, we can nonetheless see their characteristics being implied in everyday conversations which practitioners have about their shared professional world. They are crucial to establishing the parameters of those worlds and their influence can be indirectly felt far more widely than it is directly encountered. It is precisely because they “cut across the boundaries of those conventional historical units” that their importance goes unrecognised, creating the conditions in which research centres, schools of thought and academic departments can thrive before fading into the background as intellectual historians focus on what are in part outputs of this work.
However when we consider the functions of learned societies, it is easy to see how their importance might wane when communications capacity is dispersed throughout the discipline. Underlying their internal and external functions are the capacity to communicate within the discipline and to represent the discipline through communication with the external world. There were always other organisations with some capacity to do this (e.g. influential academic departments) but this was a side effect of other functions rather than an end in itself.
It is not so much that social media decentralises communicative capacity, dispersing it throughout the discipline, as much as it allows the proliferation of other actors who can perform these internal and external functions. There are new intermediaries who can connect the discipline internally and represent it externally. This raises the obvious question: what is the point of the learned society in an age of social media? Is it to perform the internal and external communications function but to do it more effectively than the new intermediaries? Is it to leverage this function towards certain purposes (e.g. establishing ethics guidelines) which other actors lack the normative legitimacy to pursue? Is it simply as a scholarly publisher and a conference organiser? Or do they need to find a new purpose in order to avoid a slow slide into irrelevance?