What does it mean to have a professional identity in an age of social media?

Notes for an upcoming talk: not yet proof read!

By the time I sat down to write this talk, I began to regret the title which I’d given it. To speak of an ‘academic identity’ makes it sounds as if this is a singular thing undergoing change in a unified way, while the notion of an ‘age of social media’ is an egregious cliche. Therefore I thought I should start by clarifying what exactly it is I’m planning to talk about. To put it more straightforwardly, I want to talk today about social media becoming a mainstream part of university life in the UK and what this means for how academics understand what they do and present this understanding to others.

In becoming mainstream, the academy is catching up to wider society, where social media has become ubiquitous in recent years. My favourite way to illustrate the ubiquity of social media is the Internet Live Stats: real time estimates of activity across a whole range of platforms, intended to convey the rhythm of its change over time. This is the context in which academics begin to use social media: 315 million tweets, 33 million Instagram photos uploaded and 2.5 million blog posts today. These numbers remind us that academic activity is a drop in the ocean compared to the activity taking place, something which the political scientist Gary King has described as “the largest increase in the expressive capacity of the human race in the history of the world”.

It can be useful to reflect on this because academia tends to inculcate a sense of our own importance. It places us at the centre of knowledge production, undertaking research which we think is, or at least should, attract the interest and support of others. How could we see what we spend so much our lives working on as anything other than important? However social media will often force us to confront our relative peripherality and it’s helpful if we can recognise this from the outset. There is an important sense in which social media demands a change in how we understand what we do and how we present this understanding to others.

This understanding is tied up with what I think of as academic exceptionalism: the notion that academic labour is somehow different from other forms of work. We are doing important things, concerned with lofty goals, moving knowledge forward. While the scholarly work undertaken with them often is important, the rhetoric of scholarship can often obscure the reality of universities as workplaces, reliant on precarious labour and demanding sacrifice in order to participate. In inviting a change in our academic identity, how we understand what we do as scholars and present this to others, social media furthermore encourages us to reflect on universities as workplace, overcoming what Marcus Morgan and Patrick Baert describe as the ‘black-boxing’ of the academy. However to understand the changes taking place, we need to consider social media’s changing role within universities.

Social Media within the Academy 

When I began a part-time PhD in 2008, social media was still in its infancy. Facebook was four years old and Twitter was two years old. Instagram, Snapchat and Pinterest hadn’t been invented yet. Blogging had been a widespread activity for years however, including being something I had done myself for at least half a decade. Yet at that stage it was something largely invisible within higher education. To introduce social media into a formal setting within higher education was seen as irrelevant at best and rather suspicious at worst. As one senior academic said in a meeting when someone suggested my professional association should get a blog: “why would we want to be associated with blogging?” This was a polite academic version of the sentiment which Andrew Marr expressed at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 2010: “A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting”. Who would want to be associated with blogging when that was how bloggers were so frequently seen?

At risk of stating the obvious, these dismissals confused blogging as a platform with certain blogs as a product. They take a stereotype, become fixated on it and lose sight of the rich array of uses to which the underlying technology can be put. We can see a similar pattern in how critics responded to social media platforms, as they began to appear with greater frequency in the early years of this decade. But these reactions have, thankfully, started to fade away over the years, with the uses of social media becoming so apparent that simplistic stereotypes seem less plausible than they once did. They have come to occupy at least some role in most people’s lives outside the academy and can now be seen with ever greater frequency within the university.

One place we can see this particularly clearly is in academic conferences. For instance, as some of you are probably aware, it’s currently the British Sociological Association annual conference. The first time I went to one in 2010, there was little social media to be seen anywhere. By 2012, there were people reflecting on the conference back channel that had emerged, sharing blog posts they had written and commenting on events. By 2018, there were reflections on every session providing a weirdly panoramic view of the conference as a whole. Perhaps not a substitute for attending in person but in many ways a useful window on events, quite unlike the distracted and over-stimulated state which has always characterised my experience of large conferences. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to attend a conference like this and not seen evidence of social media, ranging from social media profiles listed on presentation slides, live tweeting guidance for audience members, real time displays of hashtags and the ubiquitous site of people glued to smart phones and tablets while nonetheless being palpably focused on the events in the room.

Social media: from peripheral to mainstream? 

In spite of this increasing visibility, we still find some people for whom the use of social media itself is inherently unprofessional. In 2016, a particularly clickbaity instalment of the Guardian’s Academics Anonymous feature was published with the title ‘I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer‘. This anonymous PhD student took issue with how “using social media to impress people that you know – as well as those that you have never met – has now become a professional concern for many academics”. This grumpy piece takes issue with their fellow academics “live tweeting and hashtagging their way through events” and bemoans the feeling that it is necessary “to parade myself online to please my employer or to stake my claim as a good researcher”. In another example, Gabriel Egan explains ‘Why academics should NOT make time for social media’, claiming that social media feeds an innate craving for esteem and an obsession with how we are regarded by others. He calls on academics to resist these platforms in order that students might be “weaned off the social media that, like bad food, infantilises them by overfeeding their innate cravings”.

It is easy to dismiss these critics as walking anachronisms, pontificating about matters they fail to understand. But it is worth stopping to consider what is at stake here. These are disputes about what it is to be a professional. They are disputes about how a professional role is changing as technologies which are still comparatively recent start to become feature as part of a workplace that is easily characterised in terms of its insularity. Social media is seen by these people as challenging a proper sense of professional comportment, incentivising triviality and encouraging self-promotion in lieu of serious research. The fact that in many cases they confuse the causality, attributing to the making influence of social media what in reality has it causes in the competitive individualism of the accelerated academy, doesn’t mean we should dismiss the gist of their complaint even if we take issue with how they have framed it.

Underlying these accounts are a concern with how social media might change professional standards, as well as how this plays into powerful agendas elsewhere in society. The latter claim is one I absolutely share. We should be critical of social media firms, exercising an immensely powerful hold over social life while claiming to be neutral technology firms rather than media actors. We should also be immensely careful about how these platforms have been designed in order to facilitate ever greater ‘user engagement’: using real time experimental methods to tweak their interface and expand their functionality in order to keep us on the platform for ever greater lengths of time with the hope that human attention can be leveraged into advertising revenue. If we are not careful about things such as ‘likes’, ‘retweets’ and follower counts then we risk confusing popularity for value, caring about things which have no intrinsic worth and wasting our time pursuing them in exactly the way the platforms have been developed to encourage.

What easily gets lost in these discussions is a sense of why academics might want to use social media in the first place. Endless debates about why academics should use social media and why academics shouldn’t use social media tend to obscure the actual motivations which lead academics to use these platforms. Not motivations in the sense of career goals. But motivations in the sense of the actual reasons why actually existing human beings choose to spend their time in this way, liable to be messy and contradictory in a way that resists an easy reduction to pursuing a career. Some of these might be relatively banal: blind habit, passing time when commuting, talking to friends. Others more strategic: connecting with people in your field, having a public profile, informing people about your work. Further motives might be more diffuse: a sense of wanting to make a difference with your research without being sure exactly what that difference would be or a feeling that being open about your research is important without a clear outcome in mind. Then there are the motives which might remain unsaid: a fear of missing out on opportunities, a sense this is what everyone is doing so you should to or a concern that potential employers expect it now.

The reasons an academic might have for using social media will vary immensely depending on factors such as their field, discipline, career stage, age and interests. For this reason, it’s helpful to get away from talking about academics in general using social media in general in order that we can have specific conversations about why particular academics might want to use particular platforms for particular purposes. The more specific we can be about why we want to use social media, the easier it becomes to negotiate questions of what we want to do and how are going to do it. This is why I want to argue that we have to be cautious about the language of professionalism. It makes it hard to be specific about our use of social media and restricts conversations about it the most general terms, revolving around appropriateness and inappropriateness rather than the many creative and empowering uses which we can individually and collectively make to if as academics.

We are moving on from social media for academics being seen as something questionable to social being widely accepted, but the risk is that we shut down the creative possibilities which made it exciting in the first place. If we accept the language of professionalism uncritically, we risk social media becoming just another criteria through which academic gatekeeping takes place such that any upwardly mobile young academic will be aspiring towards a highly visible social media presence alongside their  publications in high impact journals, grant income and teaching evaluations.

What does it mean to use social media professionally? 

So if social media has come to be seen as something professionally necessary, how should we be using it? In preparation for this talk, I spent an afternoon looking through the advice universities offer their doctoral students and staff about social media. To given an illustrative example, the University of Manchester’s social media guidelines caution to be ‘be professional’:

consider whether any posting may reflect poorly on you or the university. consider your audience and your message; remember once it is out there it is almost impossible to remove, and word spreads quickly, so think before posting content or joining groups that could be discriminatory or judgmental in nature and don’t post content that could be considered to be offensive, defamatory or derogatory, or which could cause someone to feel bullied or harassed, or could harm a reputation. don’t post anything online you wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing on our website or in our prospectus.

My point is not that is bad advice as much as that it takes the notion of ‘professional’ as straight forward when it isn’t. It frames social media use as an exercise in impression management, taking advantage of “new and exciting opportunities” while avoiding anything we share ‘reflecting poorly’ on oneself or our university. It assumes social media is about branding, developing our own brand while protecting the corporate brand of the institution. It takes so many things as a given that should be the object of discussion about what it means to do scholarship with and through social media. These guidelines often include worthwhile advice about some of the objective risks entailed by social media (viral misinterpretation, reputational damage, possible plagiarism, online harassment, legal risks) but a concern to be ‘professional’ doesn’t help you negotiate them and I’m concerned it might sometimes make them more difficult to see.

If it’s unclear what exactly it means to be professional, is it any easier to specify what it would mean to be ‘unprofessional’? If we talk about someone being unprofessional on social media, what sort of behaviour are we likely to be talking about? ‘Professional’ is often contrasted to ‘personal’ in these discussions and the dividing line between the two can seem clear. Professional encompasses your research, your teaching and events you take part in. Personal is cat pictures, political rants and music you like. But in practice these two categories often blur together in problematic ways, not least of all when your professional work is something which you are personally passionate about and people you personally care about share your professional life with you.

If we take professionalism in its literal sense as “the competence or skill expected of a professional” then the question becomes clearer: who gets to define the competence or skill  expected of academics in an age of social media? It’s not unreasonable for the university to make a claim that doctoral students and staff should avoid getting the university in trouble, particularly if their online identity is tied to that of the institution. But this isn’t a conversation stopper and there’s so much more to say about the issue.

A backlash against social media in the name of professionalism is something we can see in other sectors, ranging from doctors through to police and school teachers. Social media creates challenges for any job which involves relations with the public, holding out the possibility of new connections which unsettle existing expectations and call for revised understandings of propriety. But in many such cases, we have seen social media used in a critical way by frontline staff and stamped down upon for exactly that reason. Contained within what might seem like rather dry debates about ‘professionalism’ are some important issues about academic freedom.

Why should we be careful about ‘professionalism’? 

One of the most worrying aspects of this is how the language of professionalism easily slides into victim blaming. One of the most exciting possibilities which social media opens up is for public intellectualism, building on your scholarship to make interventions concerning the political events of the day. But for those who don’t intervene from a position of classed, raced or gendered privilege then these interventions sometimes provoke a backlash which the university can see as reputational damage. Does this count as ‘unprofessionalism’? If we think it does then the possibility that social media might enable academics to intervene in public debate rapidly starts to shut down, as we could never guarantee those interventions won’t generate a negative reaction in times of increasing political polarisation.

To mandate professionalism too easily leads people to only share what is finished and finalised. This restricts the opportunities to enjoy what the philosopher Daniel Little describes as “ideas in motion”. Many of those most enthusiastic about social media, including myself, find it a wonderful place to think out loud and share ideas in the process of development. There are sometimes risks entailed in doing this but I would argue they tend to be overrated and the personal and collective gains can be huge. By sharing the backstage aspects of academic work, we overcomer the tendency towards what Howard Becker describes as ‘pluralistic ignorance’: assuming no one struggles because no one talks about struggling. My conviction is that sharing work in progress in this way helps make the academy a more dialogical, supportive and creative place in which we understand more of the ongoing intellectual work underlying the finished books and papers we see our colleagues produce. However it’s hard to feel confident doing this, if you’re concerned that you might be judged as being unprofessional for sharing what the radical sociologist C Wright Mills described as ‘fringe thoughts’.

The language of professionalism also changes how we relate to others. It encourages us to see our online interactions as strategic opportunities, with better or worse outcomes depending on how much skill we exercise over them. For instance, consider ‘networking’: what does this mean to you? It’s a term I’ve always hated, inevitably making me remember occasions on which someone has networked me, looking over my shoulder to scan who else was entering the room while sustaining the pretence they had entered a meaningful dialogue with me. Networking in this sense is creepy and instrumental, treating other people as latent resources waiting to be mined to your own advantage through the efficient application of social skill. It frames people in terms of their utility to you, encouraging the networker to seek out people who might prove useful and maximise their potential advantage while investing the minimum quantity of effort.

However there’s another way of looking at networking. Rather than ‘useful’, we should think in terms of ‘interesting’: arousing curiosity or interest. Who do you find interesting? What do you share with them? What differences and commonalities are there in how you approach a shared interest? Setting out to build a network of people you hope might one day be useful to you is creepy and disturbing. Approaching academic life with the intention of having as many friendly conversations as you can with people who share your interests is incredibly rewarding. Social media is an incredibly powerful mechanism for building networks in this way. Share what you care about, what matters to you, what fascinates you and you will find your way to others who share these concerns. But doing this requires that you approach social media with an honesty and straight-forwardness which is unlikely if you are overly concerned with being perceived as ‘professional’.

What’s the alternative to ‘professionalism’? 

Suggesting we should be sceptical of the language of professionalism is not the same thing as advocating unprofessionalism. Many of the behaviours which might be labelled as such are ones we have other reasons for rejecting. They might be rude, careless, unhelpful, self-absorbed, discriminatory or abusive and we should regard them as such. I’m also not suggesting there’s something wrong with wanting to cultivate a professional identity that is good for your career. It would be naive to suggest we can escape any strategic considerations concerning our self-presentation. My point is that a preoccupation with ‘professionalism’ will allow you to do this more enjoyably and effectively than would otherwise be the case

My suggestion is that professionalism is the wrong way to look at our online identity. It carries a great deal of baggage with it and leaves us enmeshed in a relationship with our institutions which leaves them defining standards managerially which should be the object of conversations which take place between us collegially. It encourages us to think of online identity in terms of impression management, with the aim of cultivating a successful brand through repeated encounters. An alternative approach is to consider what we do online in terms of autobiography. This is how the sociologist Ann Oakley describes the autobiographical dimensions to constructing an artefact like the CV:

A c.v. is an autobiographical act, a life composed and presented according to certain conventions, a story designed to hide, exaggerate, downplay or boast about aspects selected from the immense and muddled curriculum of one’s whole life. Because I’ve mostly made my living as an academic, my c.v. is dominated by publications, presentations, lists of research grants, committees and so on. It doesn’t tell the story behind these lists. For example, behind each of the books is a story of why it came to be written and how, in what order its chapters got themselves assembled and juggled about, how much agonising and rethinking and reworking went on, whose advice was taken (or not taken) on the path to its final form.

My experience has been that social media allows those untold stories to find public expression. To be an academic in an age of social media involves learning to overcome the restrictive conventions of the c.v. and publications list, building a broader identity which is composed iteratively across platforms. If we see academic identity in these terms then questions of ‘branding’ and ‘networking’ appear not so much wrong as irrelevant, akin to judging a novel by its sales figures rather than its artistic merit. It keeps us grounded in our scholarly craft: why we do what we do, why it matters to us, what we hope to achieve. This has always been at the root of academic identity and if we can remain connected to it, we’ll be in a strong position to use social media in a way that is rewarding and enjoyable.

4 responses to “What does it mean to have a professional identity in an age of social media?”

  1. Hi Mark, if you go for the alternative to professionalism, this seems to be good practice for academics who have good intentions but how does this apply to activism and the potential risk of inappropriate communication? I am just wondering how the alternative does not ignore the ‘dark side’. Best wishes, Christa (I am researching social media of academics and am in my final Ph.D. year and I cite some of your books and papers.)

  2. It’s a big question but one I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about! Ch 6 of 2nd edition of social media for academics and pretty much the whole of The Public and their Platforms is an attempt to answer this question.

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