Why do platforms matter for public sociology?

It can seem obvious that there’s some relationship between social media and public sociology. These are platforms which offer free, instantaneous and immediate access to seemingly vast audiences around the world. They hold out the promise of engaging immediately, outside of traditional structures and without relying on the intermediaries who have tended to be involved when academics interact with the non-academic world.

For these reasons we saw an increasingly loud chorus of voices over the 2010s proclaiming that social media could play a crucial role in building a more open and engaged intellectual culture which was responsive to the wider world. I was one of those tech-enthusiasts, making those arguments in sociology, driven by my experience of running online engagements projects with large audiences while I was still doing my PhD. It felt like social media opened up an exciting world that could transform the prospects of public sociology, if only we could get to grips with what exactly these platforms are and how to use them effectively.

This has been the focus of my work over the last 5-6 years and it led to this collaboration with Lambros in which we sough to understand publics, platforms and the relations between them. The fact I deleted my personal Twitter account in the later stages of writing this book speaks volumes about what we found.

I’m now extremely critical of the tech-enthusiasm I once advocated, not just because it fails to represent what social platforms actually are but also because in doing so in it makes it more difficult for us to use them effectively for public sociology. In the book we explore how social platforms are imagined within higher education: as powerful dissemination engines which will ensure our ideas get from ‘in here’ to ‘out there’, circulating ever more widely to ever more vast audiences. This view of social media helps introduce new status hierarchies into the academy, intensifies already overwhelming workloads and increases the likelihood staff will be subject to the racist and sexist abuse which is pervasive on these platforms.

This isn’t an argument against social media. The point of our book is that public sociology must get to grips with social media because it’s not going away. There are tremendous opportunities for public sociology opening up here but realising them requires that this body of work deepen its engagement with questions of technology and power, as well as rejecting the orthodox ways of imagining social media in higher education. It means we’re going to have think deeply about how the sociology of publics is being transformed by the proliferation of platforms, as well as what this means for how we practice public sociology.

We argue it needs to be a collective rather than individual undertaking, building projects together which persist and avoid the fleeting character of individual use. We need to find ways of sharing the burdens of platforms and negotiating the pathological dynamics which are built into their design. Most of all it entails being clear about what we take publics to be and what it means to be orientated towards them.

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