The false dichotomy of digital hermits and digital champions

In a memorable turn of phrase Patrick Dunleavy once wrote about academic hermits “sitting alone on top of a pillar somewhere in academia and doing their level best to not communicate in any way with the outside world, or let any information about their work leak out”. It was informed by the findings of the empirical research project associated with the LSE Impact Blog but it also expressed a common sense which could be found amongst enthusiastic academic users of social media in the early 2010s. We are here a lot. There are others who are here a bit. But there are many more still who are nowhere to be seen in this exciting landscape of social media. Where are they? What are they doing? Why are they so resistant to change? These are the ways in which I suggest digital champions (enthusiastic power users) are inclined to think and talk about digital hermits (though who refuse to use). This is how Dunleavy characterises the changes which the latter group need to make in their working lives:

I hope that this is evidence enough that a significant fraction of academics and researchers still need to reassess their stance and to try systematically to reverse years of quiet solitude by going out into the digital world and making their name and works as well known as they can possibly be. There is no point at all in undertaking research, and authoring papers and books about it at great pains and over many months or years, but then not doing your level best to communicate your corpus of work to professional and wider audiences.

Obviously as someone who has spent 10+ years support academics to use social media, I agree with the thrust of this sentiment. In my book with Lambros Fatsis, The Public and Their Platforms, we argued that scholarly publishing in its legacy form does not make public* in the way it once did. It’s not enough for something to be visible in journals for it to achieve a readership because we now exist in such a state of informational hyper-abundance that things have to be actively pushed in order. There are exceptions to this relating to the writer (do they have a pre-existing audience?) and the venue (does it have a pre-existing audience?) but the point we are trying to make is that there has been a shift towards a much more competitive attention economy for scholarly work. This matters for securing an academic readership, with the promise of citation it carries, but it also matters for the possibility that “professional and wider audiences” might find value in that work.

The problem is that “making their names and works as well known as they can possibly be” takes time and energy. These things are in short supply in universities where overwork and exhaustion have long been the norm. There’s also no upper limit to these conditions. At what stage does the self-promotion of my existing work begin to undermine the conditions which make new work possible? It has certainly been my experience that there can be a profound tension between these activities which is difficult to negotiate in practice. It also requires a skill set which academic training rarely equips one for and which many in the humanities and social sciences lack the disposition to embrace in an enthusiastic manner. Addressing this skills deficit in turn takes time and energy, before the real work of self-promotion can even begin.

I can easily see why many would revolt at the prospect that they need to embrace a fundamental shift in their working life in order to justify their existence as a research. Clearly it’s an exaggeration to say “there is no point at all” in doing research which you don’t promote. Ideally, this might be something our institutions would promote for us or the journals to which we hand over our gift labour in multiple capacities. But this model doesn’t scale as a pathway to relevance, as much as it might be effective in some cases. So while there is still a point in doing research which you don’t self-promote, the reality that no one else will do it for you is something which should be taken seriously. There’s a risk that you research will languish in obscurity without someone to turn the spotlight onto it, regardless of whether that person is you or someone else.

This has been my pragmatic response to the point Dunleavy makes over recent years. I see it much less enthusiastically than he does but I nonetheless have tended to accept the underlying logic of the argument. It occurred to me today though what an untenable dichotomy it is to distinguish digital hermits (completely absent) from digital champions** (doing everything possible). There’s a whole range of possibilities between these two extremes and practical steps which can be taken to achieve them. To be fair that’s exactly what the post I linked to does by introducing five digital locales (albeit labelled as ‘essential’) which are effectively low effort in ways one can setup a minimal online presence. But it still rests on the rhetoric of essential, the fear of being left behind and the sense that one ought to engage in all this self-promotional label. The cultural politics of digitalisation make it frustratingly difficult to map inhabit the space between these two extremes

**This is my term rather than his.

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