The public role of academics in a social media era

It’s difficult to be precise about how many academics use social media, as it depends on what is meant by ‘use’ and ‘social media’. For example how do we draw a consistent boundary between personal and professional use when social media tends to complicate this distinction in all manner of ways? Furthermore what counts as ‘social media’ and how do we distinguish this from older forms of media which are themselves obviously social? Nonetheless, there is now a substantial evidence base which finds a significant trend in academics using social media for seemingly professional purposes. There are good reasons to expect this will continue to grow, reflecting the entrenchment of social media within wider social life, the competitive dynamics which ensue when some people gain benefits from it and its perceived relevance to the third mission of the university beyond teaching and research. This has important implications for how we think about the public role of academics and I’d like to suggest a few points for discussion as part of our session at the Doxa summer school:

  • What does it mean to make scholarly ideas public? If it’s more than a matter of simply disseminating knowledge to a wider audience than would read a scholarly journal, can we say what this additional element is? There’s a common sense here which tends to see it as a matter of removing constraints on the circulation of ideas i.e. taking research out of paywalled journals, removing scholarly jargon which makes things difficult to read, addressing real world problems. But could this be a matter of supply when the real question is demand. Who wants to use the knowledge which has been produced and what do they want to use it for?
  • What does social media mean for scientific objectivity? The ideal of objectivity has involved the removal of the personal from public interaction whereas social media encourages its insertion. See for example the later chapters of this excellent book by William Davies for an exploration of what this means for expertise. The public pronouncements of academics can be seized upon for their apparent bias. Arguments can be more easily attached to personalities in a way which undercuts the established norms of scholarly exchange. There’s a fundamental tension which raises questions about how academics use social media. Should they strive for a detached professional image in order to preserve objectivity? Or can we embrace the personalisation which social media encourages and try to adapt scholarly norms and practices to it?
  • Particularly within the critical social sciences, there is a tendency to invoke the ‘public’ as a politically salient force. But what happens when academics have unplanned and unpredictable meetings with members of this public through social media? How do they respond when people are not interested in what they do? How do they respond when people are explicitly hostile to it? How do they cope if attacked by reactionary forces? What support is available under these conditions?
  • If social media makes it easier for academics to work with the media, how do these collaborations unfold in practice? At what point does understandable fear of vulgarisation become a unjustified rejection of the expertise of print journalists or broadcast researchers who understand the constraints of mass communication much better than academics do? The public role which social media affords involves encounters with other forms of expertise for which academics might be poorly equipped.


2 responses to “The public role of academics in a social media era”

  1. And what about all the people that will have an opinion but who don’t really understand the issue?

    I’d like the idea of a partition; the work of knowledge occurs behind a wall that is semi permeable, and what comes back through the wall from the public sphere is considered and taken with some salt. Thought of for what it actually is. But I think this happened even without SM, come to think of it.

    Then there’s the notion that intellectual discourse never approaches the “public”. The public just does shit regardless, and the intellectual discussion about it thinks itself into what the public is doing, but never actually reaches it. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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