Who maintains the social infrastructure we need for scholarship?

The announcement of Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has sparked considerable anxiety amongst those in the academy who have fallen into the habit of using the platform as a conduit for the exchange of announcements, ideas and recommendations. While the mainstream status Twitter now enjoys within higher education might once have seemed unlikely, it can be plausibly argued to be a critical (though not essential) communications infrastructure which allows academics to consolidate networks outside of their own institutional milieu in an efficient and often enjoyable manner. This includes networks of collaborators where Twitter serves to link people together beyond and between face to face meeting at events, though it extends much more broadly to encompass engagement with other professional groups within higher education, formal & informal interactions with students and public engagement with stakeholders outside the academy. While there are considerable individual and institutional problems which Twitter poses such as online harassment, spiralling time demands and the difficulty of managing professional identity, it has become a platform which is widely valued within higher education (Carrigan 2019: ch 6).

For this reason the prospect it might become the plaything of a billionaire with opaque intentions has created understandable concern. My intention in this commentary is not to analyse the implications of the takeover or the social or political questions raised by it. Instead I want to take the anxiety it has generated as a starting point in order to analyse the role of mass commercial social media in the infrastructure of scholarly communications, as well as to consider how we might take steps to reduce its centrality without eliminating it entirely. The reason for avoiding its complete elimination are the much invoked network effects which emerge from having such large concentrations of users present on a single platform. In the case of higher education, the simple fact so many academics have already gathered on Twitter alongside countless other groups for whom academic knowledge has potential relevance, creates possibilities for communication and collaboration which would be difficult to replicate with another platform. This is not to say we should be content with Twitter, particularly if Musk’s takeover goes ahead as planned. But it does give a reason for caution as the impulse to find an alternative risks fracturing the academic networks which have coalesced through Twitter rather than leveraging them to work towards a more strategic approach to communications infrastructure.

What would a strategic approach look like? I suggest it would involve developing a clearer conception of the role social media can and should play in knowledge production. The tendency has been to approach this question in terms of the instrumental benefits which can accrue to individual academics through their use of social media: wider networks, increased visibility, research impact etc. Early adopters have been positioned within institutions as champions of digital scholarship who make the case to colleagues in terms of the personal benefits which can be immediately realised through the embrace of social media (Carrigan 2021). To the extent it is an object of concern for university management, social media tends to be seen as either a black box for public engagement or a source of repetitional crisis (Carrigan and Jordan 2021). What gets lost in both cases is a sense of the underlying function being served for academics by social media, above and beyond the instrumental value they individually realise through it and the extent to which management regard it as either threat or opportunity.

I find the sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s (2018) concept of social infrastructure helpful for thinking about this issue, identifying the physical spaces where we assemble and the organisations which shape what we do there. In this sense we could think of academics conferences, seminars and workshops as social infrastructure for scholarship drawing together research networks and physical venues in order to facilitate academic sociality. Learned societies often play a crucial role in the development and maintenance of this infrastructure by generating opportunities for networks to develop outside of the institutional milieux within which academics typically reside. As Platt (2003: loc 119) puts it in her history of the British Sociological Association, “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”. This draws attention to the parallel role of journals and publishers in facilitating (virtual) assembly by allowing scholarly dialogues to take place across institutional boundaries. By facilitating assembly between and outside of individual universities, social infrastructure for scholarship creates the conditions which makes knowledge production possible, by facilitating the exchange of ideas and the development of networks orientated towards this end.

In Carrigan and Fatsis (2021) we suggest academics have tended to take a relatively passive role in relation to this infrastructure, with what are ultimately a minority of academics (at least at any one period in time) taking leadership roles in professional organisations and publishing but for the most part relying on organisations outside higher education (i.e. learned societies and scholarly publishers) to maintain this infrastructure. This has often manifested itself in a form of complacency, in which it is assumed the infrastructure will remain present and functioning in the absence of significant input, in spite of the real possibility that a range of interlocking factors (the impact of plan S, declining event income during Covid-19, reduced memberships driven by cost of living pressures) could lead to significant erosion of this infrastructure in the coming years.

There are understandable reasons for this infrastructural complacency. To the extent it involves taking responsibility for a process which was previously led by others, it risks an intensification of work in the sense of being expected to do more with the same amount of time. While this can be mitigated by the incorporation of infrastructure work into the workload models used by universities, this appears to be something of a rarity. Furthermore, even if it were done consistently these models often fail to adequately represent the temporal pressures involved in dynamic and often changing work (Vostal 2014). This is why it’s important we don’t see infrastructure work as exclusively an academic matter, in the sense of fitting neatly into a familiar portfolio of teaching, research and service. There’s a specialised activity underway across a range of domains which tend to be subsumed under the category of service or citizenship to the extent it is recognised at all.

During the Covid-19 pandemic when physical meetings have been untenable for large periods of time, there has been a deeper focus on the capacity for virtual assembly which high speed internet access and contemporary video platforms afford. In comparison to the slow pace of (even now comprehensively digitalised) academic publishing which had previously been the only method of virtual assembly, there’s a new found immediacy in how academics are able to come together across institutional boundaries in order to address matters of shared concern. For this reason I think we need to attend to the specificity of Digital Social Infrastructure, as well as the forms of expertise involved in building and maintaining it. Part of the shock generated by Musk’s takeover of Twitter has been the widespread recognition that Twitter has become an important part of the digital social infrastructure we use within higher education.

What I often refer to as my second postdoctoral position, Digital Engagement Fellow at The Sociological Review Foundation, was in fact a hybrid position in which I was responsible for developing a cross platform presence for the journal and its associated charitable undertakings such as an events programme, funding schemes and research grants. Over the five years I was in the roll this encompassed Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Soundcloud and a range of other platforms (such as Audioboom and LinkedIn) which we experimented with on occasion. It could easily have been regarded by an outside observer as a marketing & communications position but what made it specifically academic was the orientation towards a disciplinary community and their research outputs. Much of the role involved acting as, to use the QANon Anonymous podcast’s wonderful phrase, a ‘content sommelier’ (https://soundcloud.com/qanonanonymous/episode-187-libsoftiktok-feat-taylor-lorenz) : finding op-eds, blog posts, podcasts and videos which would be of internet to the journal’s audience. After getting somewhat burnt out in the final stages of my part-time PhD it was almost therapeutic to find myself paid read blogs and listen to podcasts. However it served a serious purpose in consolidating an audience for the journal (over 75,000 followers across platforms by the time I left the role) but more importantly becoming a nodal point for the consolidation of the wider disciplinary community.

Recognising these emerging roles and providing resources for them is crucial if we want to build and maintain the social infrastructure we need for scholarship. There are a number of them which have emerged in recent years which overlap with traditional academic roles: blog editor, content sommelier, research comms postdoc, social media editor. In many cases these are voluntary roles which are undertaken (perhaps with a small honorarium attached to them for a social media editor of a journal) but what I’d like to focus on here are those which are occupational roles in their own right, though obviously ones which given the reality of the contemporary academy will be fixed term and/or part time. The people undertaking these roles have (or are in the process of doing) PhDs and in some cases move into more traditional academic careers, as I have in the last year. Their research adjacent nature is part of what makes them so effective, as being part of an intellectual community makes it possible for them to act knowingly in relation to that community. But it also makes it more difficult to ensure recognition for them, as they can easily fade into the background as temporary expediencies which an academic engaged in before they moved on to doing ‘proper’ work. But what these roles have in common is a shared orientation to social infrastructure at different levels: research comms initiatives, scholarly journals, research projects.

These roles are crucial for doing research communications effectively through digital platforms. The specialisation involved makes it possible to develop the platform literacy which is a necessary condition for using social platforms effectively rather than being drawn into self-defeatingly reactive and algorithmically steered patterns of use. It makes it possible to intentionally cultivate intellectual communities and make informed decisions about how to facilitate forms of discussion and exchange which reflect the underlying intentions of the project. But they’re also crucial for the wider set of intellectual communities (the transdisciplinary meta community?) because without them the social infrastructure for scholarship on digital platforms doesn’t get maintained.

This is why I think learned societies should be funding these roles. Much as their pre-digital mission straight forwardly involved bringing people together across institutional boundaries (through scholarly journals and national conferences) when the logistical costs involved meant this was a prohibitively burdensome activity for lose networks of academics, there’s a need to properly resource the task of cultivating social infrastructure on digital platforms. In its absence our use of these platforms, increasingly mandated by universities, becomes an enormous time sink characterised by a twitchy passive aggression and a significant likelihood of exposure to hostile audiences for those who aren’t white male academics. With the required social infrastructure in place, our use of these platforms can be enormously enriching and leave us with the realistic prospect of thought provoking daily interaction with intellectual communities who share our motivations and preoccupations. This is what I’ve been trying to gesture towards throughout my work on social media for academics while being frustrated that the conversation inevitably slides back into a discussion of individual academics and the personal benefits (and risks) which can accrue through the use of social media. But there’s a much broader landscape here which I think we urgently need to talk about particularly given the longer term trends in universities and learned societies (the two domains of social infrastructure which preceded digital media) which mean we can’t rely on them as organisations to which we can largely outsource our scholarly need for social infrastructure, part of the infrastructural complacency I hinted at earlier in this post. There’s a significant possibility for learned societies to reinvent themselves here, to overcome what I strongly suspect is a long term decline driven by a mismatch between the media environment they developed to work within and the media environment they now confront.

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