There’s a lucid account in Crystal Abidin’s Internet Celebrity of how eyewitness viral stars, briefly famous for their recorded reactions to an event, generate money for a whole range of unconnected actors. From 772-792:

Eyewitness viral stars present an interesting form of internet celebrity in that at every stage of their fame cycle, several actors profit from the value of their unwitting content creation –such as news networks and print media through clickbait and follow-ups that extend public interest in the viral star, the production and hawking of bootleg merchandise whose sales do not directly benefit the viral star, and the circuit of social media content producers’ covers, parodies, remixes, op-eds, and meme performances that enjoys surplus value from the viral star and their image rights without any returns or rewards to them above and beyond a namedrop or hyperlinked URL.

Being picked up by mainstream media reduces their agency over this process even further. While this account concerns a specific subset of viral stars, it highlights the core questions which a political economy of them needs to be sensitive to. Who benefits? How do they benefit? How does this benefit impact upon the viral star? What control can they exercise over the approach? The participatory ideology of social media tends to obscure these questions, reducing a complex sequence of events into the ‘five minutes of fame’ gifted to an individual.

If we see the examples above as external actors capitalising on someone’s unexpected moment of visibility, it shouldn’t obscure the fact that viral stars can also capitalise on their own visibility. The example of Grumpy Cat on loc 883 is instructive:

However, despite such extensive dispersals and the spread of her online fame, Grumpy Cat’s owner also did well to consolidate her celebrity and establish origin outlets and ownership over the images. For instance, recognizing the growth potential of Grumpy Cat’s new fame, owner Bundesen quickly claimed the name of the meme and established digital estates on Instagram as @realgrumpycat where she has over 2.4 million followers, 178 on Facebook as “The Official Grumpy Cat” where she has over 8 million followers, 179 and on YouTube as “Real Grumpy Cat” where she has over 37 million views. 180

However the capacity do this is unevenly distributed. I was particularly interested in Abidin’s discussion of brand managers and digital communications experts who specialise in help viral stars capitalise upon their celebrity.

I’m currently in Zurich preparing for a panel on social media, organised by the CareerElixier group. I was sent some questions in advance and I’m writing up responses in order to gather my thoughts. 

Why is social media a subject for academics?

Social media is a subject for academics because it is a subject for everyone. How we all communicate is undergoing a profound change and this is something academics need to be aware of, if for no other reason than the students, administrators, funders, stakeholders and research participants are likely to be part of this change to varying degrees. At the very least, it is something academics need to have an awareness of and there are specific benefits which can be accrued if they wish to go further by using it in a professional capacity.

Why should they participate and use the channels?

There are lots of ways in which social media can be beneficial for academics. It can help increase your visibility within your field, encourage people to read your publications, keep up to date with developments, build wider professional networks and collaborate with groups outside the academy. But it also makes a more open, collaborative and interdisciplinary form of scholarship possible by empowering scholarly networks and leaving them less dependent on the traditional gatekeepers of academic life. Therefore I think we need to strike a balance between focusing on how individual academics might benefit from using these channels and how it might enhance scholarly culture as a whole.

How should they use these channels?

I don’t think there’s a single answer to this question. In fact the idea there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to use social media can often get in the way of people coming to an approach that is right for them. There are certainly things its best to avoid doing, such as berating your colleagues online. But beyond that it depends on what you want to achieve. Are you trying to build better connections with people within your field? Are you trying to make public groups more aware of your research in order to collaborate with them? Are you trying to draw out the political implications of your research in a public forum? What matters to me is helping people find a way to use these channels which is satisfying and sustainable for them.

Do you use social media for professional reasons?

The short answer to this question would be ‘yes’. The long answer would be that it depends on what you mean by ‘professional’. For instance I’ve used a blog for almost 15 years as a place to write on what I’ve been reading and thinking about. As I undertook a PhD, the contents of that blog became much more academic and I setup a new blog with a specific research focus around 8 years ago to reflect this. But even now I often use it for things which don’t relate directly to my work and yet would be recognised by many people as academic. I use social media to find, share and discus things I’m interested in. Many of those things relate to my work but others don’t. Increasingly, I try to sustain a common professional identity across the different social media platforms I use but there’s still lots of things which aren’t obviously ‘professional’ on there. Orthodox notions of what constitutes ‘professional’ are likely to be unsettled by social media so they are of limited use in guiding how we take up these platforms in our working lives.

Why do you use social media for these reasons?

Two reasons stand out in my use of social media. Firstly, the endless opportunities for thinking out loud in a way liable to generate debate. Blogging has been incredibly valuable to me as a means of finding my academic voice, developing my intellectual outlook and practicing my writing. Particularly with the extended character limit Twitter has been a valuable outlet for testing out ideas in public and working up  hunches and intuitions into a form I can use elsewhere. My use of social media has helped provide intellectual coherence to what might otherwise have been a fragmented career, working on a range of what might seem to others to be unconnected topics (critical realist theory, asexuality, social media, big data, higher education) undertaken in a range of different roles. Secondly, its enormously powerful as a means of promoting events, helping reduce the time and energy involved in getting word out about events I’m running. I enjoy organising events and I’ve tried hard to build a network of people likely to be interested in and possibly attend what I’m working on.

A slightly more unusual reason is that I use social media as an academic in order to better understand how academics use social media. As a point of methodology, if we want to understand these platforms then it is important we have experience of using them, particularly when our research relates to a particular professional sector. For instance I began using Instagram and Pinterest largely because I felt it was important for me to understand how these platforms operated from the perspective of a user. In this sense, I have an auto-ethnographic orientation towards my own use of social media, though it often lags behind my own practice and involves making sense of the habits and routines I’ve fallen into.

What general benefits does the use of social media provide for academics?

As above: There are lots of ways in which social media can be beneficial for academics. It can help increase your visibility within your field, encourage people to read your publications, keep up to date with developments, build wider professional networks and collaborate with groups outside the academy. But it also makes a more open, collaborative and interdisciplinary form of scholarship possible by empowering scholarly networks and leaving them less dependent on the traditional gatekeepers of academic life. Therefore I think we need to strike a balance between focusing on how individual academics might benefit from using these channels and how it might enhance scholarly culture as a whole.

What kind of social media are useful in the academic context and for what purpose?

One of the defining characteristics of scholarly work is how much information we work with. Digital technology makes the problem worse, by contributing to an objective increase in what is available by lowering costs of publication and subjectively leaving us more aware of what we haven’t read or engaged with. Social media can help us filter this abundance by letting us follow people who provide recommendations about what is worth engaging with. Curation tools like Pinterest, Scoop.It, Padlet and Wakelet further help us organise what we find in a way which is useful to others. We need to adapt our information management practices to take account of the abundance of material available to us, otherwise we’re likely to be overwhelmed by social media.

Social networks like ResearchGate and Academia.Edu are becoming more popular and they clearly serve a purpose, in so far as people are using them to share pre-publication papers and navigate the scholarly literature. However I’m somewhat suspicious of them because we don’t know what their long term commercial strategy will be but we can be certain it will involve trying to make money from the work that academics have freely offered to these platforms. Furthermore, it risk detracting from non-commercial repositories which are surely a better avenue for sharing in the longer term. Mass market social networks might be a better bet, with Twitter being the obvious example but professional uses that can be made of Facebook and LinkedIn. These can provide low maintenance tools for keeping track of people whose work we find interesting & for allowing them to keep track of ours, including sharing links to our own pre-publication work where appropriate. Non-commercial alternatives like Mastodon or Humanities Commons are exciting projects but face the challenge of network effects, as the value of a platform is dependent upon the network of its users. By framing it in this way, I’m compounding the problem by imbuing it with an aura of inevitability but nonetheless it cannot simply be wished away.

While project management software like Slack, Basecamp or Trello aren’t usually categorised as ‘social media’, they have enormous potential to enrich how academics work together. My experience has been that it’s hard to get people to use these packages because they rely on all members of a team developing new habits at the same time. But there’s a potential to radically reshape how academics work together, in ways liable to save time and increase creative engagement between people working at a distance. Trello in particular is one I’ve become hugely enthusiastic about, depending as it does on defining a workflow within a team. I’ve found it surprising how much academic collaboration happens without an explicitly agreed workflow and suspect this would seem extremely strange to people in most other sectors. Taking advantage of project management software involves coming to terms with these challenges and I think this is a good thing, even if it can make it tricky to get started.

Which social media do you recommend using as an academic in particular?

I suspect most academics in the humanities and social sciences would benefit from having a research blog. Regularly writing about what you’re reading, struggling with or reflecting on can be enormously enriching for anyone who spends time working alone with ideas. It can also function as a personal website, providing you with an independent professional identity above and beyond your university affiliation. Use of a social network is going to be increasingly important, as a means of being visible to one’s peers and keeping track of developments but it depends on which social networks are most prominent amongst your academic community. Beyond that, I think it’s a matter of what you’re trying to achieve. I feel unhelpful saying that but I worry a lot of bad advice proliferates due to people over-generalising about their own academic community and institutional context.

What kind of ‘strategies’ do exist with dealing with social media? E.g. non-users, skeptical/passive users, enthusiastic users.

This is a really interesting question and we need to be really careful about how we answer it. For instance what’s seen as passive use might in fact be immensely active e.g. using it in a focused way as a tool for following conversations and developments. Characterising this as passivity might put people off using social media in a way which can be enormously beneficial for them. Lurking is a very scholarly thing to do, I think, even though it tends to lead to invisibility on platforms which hierarchise users in terms of the prominence of their speech. Likewise enthusiastic users might be characterised as unfocused users, drawn into the behavioural nudges through which platforms seek to continually increase user engagement to the detriment of their own work. How we characterise these strategies can often contain unacknowledged value judgements and encode understandings of what platforms are supposed to be used for. Nonetheless, I am concerned that what Zhu and Purdam call academic ‘super-users’ dominate discussions about how these platforms should be used by academics. Their experiences or motivations are not typical of most academics yet they are most heard in discussions about how academics should use social media, partly due to being cast in the role of advocates for social media and partly due to the attention economy of the platforms themselves.

Is the distribution of these strategies connected with social attributes?

This is a really good question and to the best of my knowledge, there’s not a clear empirical answer to this in the developing research literature. It might be possible to piece one together if one did a literature review with this specific question in mind. There is clear evidence of enthusiastic use amongst the extremely junior and very senior, with the strategies of the ‘middle’ being something which needs further research. I’m particularly interested in academics who join social media and then leave, as people whose experiences tend to be obscured by how empirical investigations inevitably focus on users or non-users.

If one decides to use social media professionally: is there a best-practice strategy?

I honestly don’t think there is a best-practice strategy because optimal outcomes depend so much on who you are what you want to achieve. Therefore the only best-practice strategy I could suggest would be to be clear about why you are using social media. What do you hope to achieve? The more clearly you can answer that question, the easier it will be to decide on what social media to use and how to use them. Beyond this, it’s just a matter of offering tips or guidelines: sharing things you care about, having a bias towards connecting with others, tell a story about yourself through your profile. Modelling other people’s behaviour can also help. If someone’s behaviour on social media  irritates you, can you articulate precisely why it irritates you? If you like someone’s behaviour, can you be clear about what appeals to you? These can be really useful questions to ask when trying to work out a mode of use which is right for you.

What do academics need to know to communicate effectively via social media?

Feeling comfortable with these platforms is a crucial precondition for communicate effectively and it often tends to get overlooked. One reason I’m so preoccupied with dispelling the idea there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to use social media is my concern it gets in the way of people finding their own voice. How do you find a way to communicate which is comfortable for you, consistent with your professional ambitions, leaves you feeling able to post without agonising over each sentencers while not leaving you so informal as to be taking unnecessary risks? It’s a tricky process and I think few people achieve it, with hasty generalisations about effective communications producing all manner of stumbling blocks. Therefore I think we should restrict ourselves to tips and guidelines, such as being sensitive to the norms of the platform you are using (e.g. avoid posting animated GIFs on LinkedIn, avoid posting your CV on Twitter) and taking the time to explore what it will let you do and what it won’t let you do (e.g. Instagram only provides extremely limited ways of pointing people beyond the platform).

How do you handle multiple audiences? E.g. future employers, academics, multiple publics

This is a really tricky one. We’re used to deal with these different groups in specific contexts yet on social media they all come together in a way that can be really challenging. A message meant for one group, assuming certain background information, can be read by all the others who might not share those assumptions. Furthermore, we can’t know how far a message might percolate outwards, completely leaving behind its original context. The key thing is understand these risks and finding ways to manage them, because the only way to avoid them completely is to either avoid social media all together or cultivate a sufficiently anodyne style that we never say anything that could possibly be misinterpreted by anyone. Thus we would stand little chance of ever saying anything at all. Therefore we need to map out who are audiences are and try to understand what conflicts, if any, exist between them. For instance people often skip over stuff that is irrelevant to them, as long as it doesn’t constitute the bulk of what they see. I’ve always like Paul Krugman’s strategy of simply labelling certain posts as for other economists and policy professionals, as opposed to his usual readership which has a broader interest in politics.

Using social media can take a lot of time. How do you see the discrepancy between using time for social media presence versus time for your research?

One of the risks is that social media becomes a black hole for your time. From the perspective of the firms running these platforms, the more time you spend on them the better because they’re reliant on your time, energy and data to make money. Therefore it’s important to avoid falling into these traps, for instance getting too preoccupied with pursuing followers at all cost. In my experience, the people who use social media most effectively, in the sense that they get a lot out of it both personally and professionally, have made it part of their workflow. It’s part of their normal working routines (e.g. they do the initial preparation for a panel for a blog post, crowd source information via Twitter or share a draft slide deck through Slideshare to get comments) as opposed to be something outside their usual work. If you start putting ‘write blog post’, ‘send tweets’ on a to do list then you’re unlikely to be enjoying what you’re doing or get much out of it. Other things will inevitably intrude in this case. Using scheduling software can also be an important strategy here, though that’s a big topic in its own right and it feels a bit weird to do it for personal accounts in my experience.

How do you handle the fact that content normally connote be deleted and leaves long-term traceable information about one’s person?

There are things you can use to address this problem, such as using a service like TweetDelete to automatically all tweets past a certain date or archiving old blogs and taking them offline. But these can’t ensure the content has been deleted. For instance others might have saved it or might be available through a web archiving project. One crass response to this is to say that you shouldn’t share anything you wouldn’t stand by later. But the problem is that we don’t know we will change or how society will change in the future, making it hard to identify those things which prove problematic at a later day. To follow through in a truly cautious way would risk leaving us unable to say anything online. Therefore it becomes a matter of managing risk: occasionally auditing your profiles with a critical eye to see if there might be things which you would later regret, recognising the public character of what you share even if it feels like you are sharing it with a close group or having a statement of purpose which illuminates the context of what you are sharing e.g. noting that a blog ism or sharing work in progress.

However these are fairly unsatisfying when you really begin to think through the problem. Academics have always been made statements which they are held to, the problem is that social media personalise those statements (contrary to centuries of scholarly norm), archive them by default and do so in a way which is potentially searchable. After an argument with staff at a right-think tank on Twitter I once found a prominent journalist looking back through years of tweets and retweeting examples of Marxist academia. It’s unnerving when this happens and I’m aware my status as a white middle-class man who mostly talks to other academics makes it unlikely I’ll ever be a major target of it. There’s a huge change underway where which we need to grapple with in the academy and beyond, relating to how we conceive of responsibility and ownership. It’s a matter for political theory as much as it is for social media.

Is social media use becoming an obligation for academics? If yes, how can academics evade it?

I think it is in the UK but there are quite specific reasons for this, relating to the pressure to demonstrate research impact and the fact there’s still relatively little understand of how to install this at an institutional level. I’d love to find out more about the situation in Switzerland, as I’m aware most of what I understand relates to the American, UK and to a lesser extent Australian contexts.

How to handle (public) critique and trolls effectively?

This is a really good question and distinguishing between them at the outset is important. Even if many academics spend a lot of their time talking to each other on social media, sudden encounters with the public are always possible and they’re often unpredictable. It can be jarring to realise external groups might not only be uninterested in our research but in fact be actively hostile to it. I’ve seen countless incidents where academics have responded to what might be deemed critique by others and labelled it as trolling. The ‘troll’ is an ambiguous category and in some ways its an unhelpful term, having changing from the deliberate trickster of internet culture to a. catch-all term for someone whose online behaviour we object to.

Nonetheless, the risk in suggesting academics might sometimes not take critique well is that we understate the problem of harassment which is huge and growing. As the educational technologist Audrey Watters has argued, online harassment reflects offline harassment but it also reflects design features of platforms which have incentivised and amplified this behaviour. If you haven’t encountered these toxic cultures, type ‘social justice warrior’ into YouTube and look through some videos and comments threads. This is a huge problem and I’m conscious when discussing it that I’m never going to be on the receiving end of it, simply because it is massively targeted at women and people of colour rather than beardy white middle class theory bros. In the context of this, my making practical suggestions such as looking for red flags in someone’s behaviour (for instance are they tweeting similar comments to many others? does their behaviour suggest a genuine interest in debate?) and blocking proactively seem like trite responses to a societal problem. We need to make this issue prominent though, not least of all because mainstreaming social media within university creates an economy of reward in which white men will be doubly privileged because they can be ‘engaged academics’ without having to deal with the vast amounts of emotional labour and psychic assault which others endure.

What are the main legal issues and issues regarding data protection?

At least in the UK context, there’s still a naiveté concerning publishing online. Many people seem to see it as something informal or pre-legal when it really isn’t. Increasing contestation of academic speech might drive awareness of these issues as people begin to recognise the potential consequences to online action. The thankfully declining sense of ‘online’ as a virtual space distinct from ‘offline’ will help in this regards. In terms of data protection, I think GDPR principles are likely to filter down and they provide excellent common sense ways of making sense of data protection even beyond their sphere of application. But my understanding would be there aren’t specific data protection concerns applying to social media under GPDR, unless you’re scraping profile data to be stored in a database, as the firm itself is the responsible entity.

Would you use social media in an activist sense – what are the pros and cons?

A colleague I interviewed for my book, Gurminder Bhambra, said something about this which really stuck with me: what’s the point of having a political opinion which is private? I think she’s right and social media provides an enticing forum for this, providing a platform for academics to talk in a way orientated towards audience outside the academy.  Nonetheless, we have to be clear about what we mean when we talk about using it it an ‘activist sense’. What is it we’re trying to achieve exactly? There’s a risk that social media becomes an echo chamber, in which our opinions are reflected back to us. It can be a powerful tool for building solidarity and sharing information but its activist value comes as part of a strategy which extends beyond it.

Is it academics’ responsibility to communicate via social media with the public?

There’s a softer version of this claim which often gets overlooked. Rather than it being a responsibility to communicate via social media with the public, it is a responsibility to make work open in a way that members of the public can find it if they’re interested. This shift towards openness is less of an undertaking than a claim of responsibility for active communication and it’s more easily supported by institutional provision. I’d subscribe to this but I’m not sure how I feel about basing that claim in terms of government funding which is often how it’s made in the UK. I’d much rather frame it in terms of rendering public goods (potentially) accessible, a radical extension of what teaching has always done. If we present it as a quid pro quo for government spending then we’ve already conceded a great deal of political ground.

 

In a wonderful London Review of Books piece, the composer Nico Muhly reflects on the challenge of being ready to think. If our work is embedded in a particular environment, scaffolded by the equipment we have within an office, it can be difficult to think when on the move. But even if we can take our equipment with us, it doesn’t mean we are ready to think. There is always refocusing required and this can take time and effort:

When I plan out a year’s work, I can see in advance that I’ll need to be writing certain pieces across several trips, and I seek out ways to keep my focus on work rather than the constantly changing environment. If the work were only saved on a computer, it would take me hours to refocus after a long trip, whereas if I bring a slim folder, the minute I see it on the desk or at the foot of the bed, I’m immediately ready to think about it again.

The folders accompany me everywhere; even if a piece is an unfertilised egg of an idea (‘Corpse Road’ is the title of an empty folder in my satchel right now), it is with me in my bag every day. At home, I save vegetable scraps and post-spatchcocking chicken necks and backs in a container in the freezer: a physical reminder that something can always be done with them. The folders, too, are a reminder of the endless possibility of what they might become.

https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n20/nico-muhly/diary

How do we realise this promise of being immediately ready to think? I’ve been thinking about this since reading Andrew Abbott’s advice in Digital Paper about the necessity of tagging and categorising research materials because time and energy spent searching for an item is time and energy not spend working on it. He stresses the importance of this work because it constitutes the analytic categories of your research project, as opposed to being clerical labour standing outside the lofty world of ideas which scholars are inclined to see themselves as embedded within.

This relationship between the ideas we we are working and the tools we use to work on them is one which fascinates me, not least of all because digital tools and digital platforms makes it more complex than it has ever been. Firstly, the relationship becomes imperceptible (though not immaterial)  because it is mediated by devices, giving a new valence to handwriting in the process and sparking resurgent handwriting cultures. Secondly, the ease of working with digital files means attentiveness has to be cultivated rather than being something which (mostly) flows organically from the physical process of undertaking the work. Thirdly, the vast array of tools and platforms with which we can work, as well as the changing ways of relating platforms which are themselves in flux, means a higher level of reflection is required, often subsumed under a notion like workflow.

The ideas we are working with are materials in the same sense as the tools we use but their realisation is dependent on those tools. There’s something important here about our ideational materials being at hand and the subtle alignments necessary in order for this to be true of the tools we use to access them. Adjusting our devices, habits and habitats in order to get our workflow right can feel like a distraction but in actual fact it is a crucial part of creative work. So much of what matters about creative work rests on what Nico Muhly describes as being “immediately ready to think about it again”. Unless we choreograph our digital routines, distractions multiply and we work in spite of rather than because of the tools we are using.