Why academics need to organise, collectivise, and ‘socialise’ social media

This news story from University of Cambridge Faculty of Education’s website is reproduced here with permission

A significant perception shift about how academics and universities share their research on social media is urgently needed according to new analysis which calls for a more ‘subversive’ approach to engaging audiences online.

The book, by researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and Brighton, encourages academics to move beyond treating social media as a tool for ‘broadcasting’ to the general public. Similarly, it questions attitudes towards social platforms within universities themselves, which typically assume that through them, they can get research ‘out there’ to mass audiences, thereby building public support.

The authors suggest that these ideas are largely fantasy, and fail to acknowledge that social platforms encourage behaviours which maximise profits for the firms running them, rather than public engagement. In reality, most researchers are probably reaching a tiny fraction of their imagined audiences online, where their work generally struggles to be ‘heard above the din’. 

The book is also critical of the general culture of social media use in Higher Education. It associates this with the ‘business bullshit’ surrounding these technologies in the corporate world, where conjecture about how to maximise their potential is treated as authoritative guidance, and limited metrics such as likes and shares are championed as measures of success, with little attention paid to what they actually signify or mean.

Far from rejecting the importance of social platforms as a means of sharing research, however, the study advocates a strategic rethink. The authors call for what they style a ‘Digital Undercommons’: collectives of academics working together to ‘claim’ online spaces where research can be freely discussed, stored and shared with anyone interested in it. Researchers could use these clusters to build links with community groups and campaigns, aiming for ‘rich engagement, rather than massive reach’.

“The heart of this is an attempt to re-theorise what we are doing publicly as researchers,” Dr Mark Carrigan, Research Associate at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, and the book’s co-author, said.

“The proclaimed ideology of social media – as YouTube once put it – is that you can broadcast yourself. In truth, these platforms constrain or enable users, usually according to the interests of firms in Silicon Valley. We need to get rid of some of the conceptual baggage surrounding them in order to use them effectively.”

The book, The Public and their Platforms, is written by Carrigan and Dr Lambros Fatsis (University of Brighton). Using their own discipline of sociology as a starting point, it explores how researchers might communicate more effectively online.

In general, universities have adopted social platforms faster than academics, of whom an estimated 30% use social media at all. Disseminating research online is, however, an increasingly common demand of academic life, featuring heavily in training courses, funding applications, and attempts to demonstrate ‘impact’.

Carrigan and Fatsis argue that it is a mistake to treat social media as ‘dissemination engines’ in this context. In reality, users who want to stand out from the crowd on these platforms need to comply with the specific types of interaction and behaviour they encourage, usually through opaque algorithms. While universities and some academics have gathered large numbers of followers, an estimated 1% of this audience actually sees most of what they post about their research.

The book also links the academy’s flawed use of social media as a transmission device to a deeper cultural problem, with academics assuming that ‘the public’ is a passive audience, waiting to be enlightened by their expertise.

“In its crudest form, this amounts to the idea that society’s problems could be fixed, if only everyone would listen to us,” Fatsis said. “We need to transform that into a reciprocal relationship, where researchers act as thinkers in dialogue with others. Just broadcasting research in the expectation that everyone will agree and send it viral completely misses the point.”

The authors call for a general mindset shift; in which research is communicated not to promote individuals or institutional reputations, but as a public good. Their ‘Digital Undercommons’ concept lays out how this might look: suggesting that academics start to treat platforms as ‘assembly devices’. It envisages groups of researchers organising on one or several platforms – including online magazines, community blogs, podcasts, YouTube channels, Facebook groups and Twitter profiles – to discuss broad areas of shared interest and concern.

Carrigan and Fatsis suggest that these clusters would build tightly-focused interest groups, rather than mass audiences, which would collectively set and run their agenda. Creating them, they argue, would reclaim as ‘social’ platforms which are more commonly used for self-promotion.

The groups themselves might be used for what the book calls ‘subversive learning’: with academics swapping course materials, distributing non-paywalled version of their work, testing ideas, or running free seminars. In addition, audiences could use them to access ideas and support for public-facing initiatives. Through these links, groups within the Digital Undercommons would therefore become hubs for advocacy, social justice campaigns, and efforts to highlight overlooked cases of misconduct, corruption and harm. 

“It’s a much more community-oriented, mission-focused vision,” Carrigan said. “We see it almost as a third space between universities and the general noise online.”

The authors also suggest that collectivising communities of interest around scholarship would strengthen resistance to the recent surge of online trolls and political and media actors apparently intent on demonising universities for so-called ‘woke-ism’. They acknowledge, however, that these attacks are sometimes an inevitable corollary of academic research, particularly in the social sciences, which often deal with themes such as race, gender, social justice, and the law.

Some academics have long-since started to use social media to form collectives, although these tend to be one-off cases. “Because they target communities of interest, most are generally sharing ideas under the radar,” Fatsis said. “The key is to leverage digital environments for communal ends. Scholarship can thrive on social media if we make this a shared undertaking, rather than an individual pursuit.”

The Public and their Platforms is published by Bristol University Press.

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