In the last few years, I’ve become increasingly preoccupied with the notion of ‘the literature’ and how it is invoked by scholars. I’m now rather sceptical of the way in which many people talk about ‘the literature’ and the role it plays in scholarship. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important to identify, engage with and record the existing work that has been done on a topic you’re working on. Rather I’m concerned that the invocation of its necessity serves a disciplinary function when scholarly literature proliferates at the speed which it now does, with an estimated 28,100 journals publishing 2.5 million articles a year. The problems which those who enthusiastically invoke the importance of ‘the literature’ are concerned with, such as perpetual reinvention of the wheel and a failure to recognise relevant work taking place in adjacent fields, have such obviously structural roots that to frame the solution in terms of personal practice seems to accord almost magical powers to the intellectual discipline of individual scholars.

My concern is that invoking ‘the literature’ increasingly functions as a conversation-stopper: it’s a disciplinary action which serves to curtail, though rarely halt, a line of inquiry. If we are inclined, as Richard Rorty once put, “to keep the conversation going” then we need to “protest against attempts to close off conversation by proposals for universal commensuration through the hypostatisation of some privileged set of descriptions” (377). Or in other words, we need to reject the idea that there’s only one way to talk about the topic in question. This is what the invocation of ‘the literature’ does, usually implicitly though sometimes explicitly. It implies a unified body of work which must be the reference point for scholarship on a given topic, even if the intention is to break away from it. In many cases, there’s perhaps no such unity in the first place, with its apparent coherence being underwritten by the most influential figures within the field have talked about ‘the literature’ in a way which performatively brings it into being by justifying the implication that much (potentially relevant) material exists ‘outside’. Judgements of salience aren’t written into the fabric of the knowledge system, they’re suffused with epistemic relativism: made from a particular standpoint, by a person with their own interests, reliant upon their own conceptual apparatus. Instead, behind apparent coherence, we have a complex network of citation cartels, ‘unread and unloved’ publications and influential beneficiaries of Matthew effects.

My point is not to dispute the value of reading and engaging with literature. I only want to situate invocations of ‘the literature’: made by people struggling with the problems of scholarly abundance, in relation to others similarly struggling with these problems. The idea of one definitive point of orientation becomes fetishistic when we all suffer from the vertigo of the accelerated academy. From Sustainable Knowledge by Robert Frodeman, loc 1257:

I feel like I am drowning in knowledge, and the idea of further production is daunting. Libraries and bookstores produce a sense of anxiety: the number of books and journals to read is overwhelming, with tens of thousands more issuing from the presses each day. Moreover, there is no real criterion other than whim for selecting one book or article over another. To dive into one area rather than another becomes a willful act of blindness, when other areas are just as worthwhile and when every topic connects to others in any number of ways. The continual press of new knowledge becomes an invitation to forgetfulness, to lose the forest for the trees.

Under these circumstances, our concern shouldn’t be to ensure everyone pays allegiance to ‘the literature’. We can assume this will continue to grow continuously while everyone feels compelled to write hyperactively, continually churning out publications with more hope that they are counted rather than that they are read. Instead, we should be asking how do we sustain the conversation under these circumstancesWhat kinds of conversations should we be havingWhat purposes do they serve? The well known problems of scholarly publishing mean traditional exchange in journals is becoming progressively less amenable to productive conversations, particularly across boundaries of field and discipline. How do we have conversations which serve, as Nicos Mouzelis puts it, to build bridges?

To be specific, there is little satisfaction with the present status quo where the boundaries between economics, political science, sociology and anthropology have become solid blinkers preventing interdisciplinary studies of social phenomena. But such compartmentalization will not be transcended by the facile and mindless abolition of the existing division of labour between disciplines.

[Instead we need] a painstaking process of theoretical labour that aims at building bridges between the various specializations. Such a strategy does not abolish social science boundaries: it simply aims at transforming them from impregnable bulwarks to transmission belts facilitating interdisciplinary research … what is badly needed today are more systematic efforts towards the creation of a theoretical discourse that would be able to translate the language of one discipline into that of another. Such an interdisciplinary language would not only facilitate communication among the social science disciplines, it would also make it possible to incorporate effectively into the social sciences insights achieved in philosophy, psychoanalysis or semiotics.

Sociological Theory: What went Wrong?: Diagnosis and Remedies, By Nicos Mouzelis

A large part of my enthusiasm for social media comes from the possibilities it offers for having these kinds of conversations. But trying to resolve the problems of the accelerated academy through an invocation of the need for disciplined practice is taking us in the wrong direction.

There’s a powerful counter-argument that can be found here by Patrick Dunleavy, concerning the importance of citation. I want to think carefully about this but my instinct would be to add two additional columns: “how scholarly abundance complicates this role” and “how might this lead us to change practice“.


In 1988 Pierre Bourdieu chaired a commission reviewing the curriculum at the behest of the minister of national education. The scope of the review was broad, encompassing a revision of subjects taught in order to strengthen the coherence and unity of the curriculum as a whole. In order to inform this work, the commission early on formulated principles to guide their endeavour, each of which were then expanded into more substantive observations concerning their implications.

One of these stood out to me as of great contemporary relevance for the social sciences in the digital university. Their principle considers those “ways of thinking or fundamental know-how that, assumed to be taught by everyone, end up not being taught by anyone”. In other words, what are the elements of educational practice which are integral to it and how can we assure their succesful transmission in training? These include “fundamental ways of thinking” such as “deduction, experiment, and the historical approach, as well as reflective and critical thinking which should always be combined with the foregoing” and “the specific character of the experimental way of thinking”, “a resolute valuation of qualitative reasoning”, a clear recognition of the provisional nature of explanatory models” and “ongoing training in the practical work of research”. It extends this discussion to the technologies used in practice:

Finally, care must be taken to give major place to a whole series of techniques that, despite being tacitly required by all teaching, are rarely the object of methodical transmission: use of dictionaries and abbreviations, rhetoric of communication, establishment of files, creation of an index, use of records and data banks, preparation of a manuscript, documentary research, use of computerised instruments, interpretation of tables and graphs, etc.

Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action, pg 175

This concern for the “technology of intellectual work” is one from which we could learn a lot, as well as the importance placed upon “rational working methods (such as how to choose between tasks imposed, or to distribute them in time)”. It maps nicely onto what C. Wright Mills described as intellectual craftsmanship. When we consider the technologies of scholarly production – things like notebooks, word processors, index cards, post it notes, print outs, diagrams and marginalia – our interest is in their use-in-intellectual-work. The technologies become something quite specific when bound up in intellectual activity:

But how is this file – which so far must seem to you more like a curious sort of ‘literary’ journal – used in intellectual production? The maintenance of such a file *is* intellectual production. It is a continually growing store of facts and ideas, from the most vague to the most finished.

The Sociological Imagination, pg 199-200

If we recognise this, we overcome the distinction between theory and practice. The distinction between ‘rational working methods’, ‘technology of intellectual work’ and ‘fundamental ways of thinking’ is overcome in scholarly craft. The role of the technology is crucial here: if we suppress or forget the technological, transmission of these practices is abstracted from their application, leaving their practical unfolding to be something which has to be discovered individually and privately (“ways of thinking or fundamental know-how that, assumed to be taught by everyone, end up not being taught by anyone”). But places for discussion of craft in this substantive sense have been the exception rather than the rule within the academy.

Perhaps social media is changing this. It is facilitating a recovery of technology, now finding itself as one of the first things social scientists discuss when they enter into dialogues through social networks and blogs. But it also facilitates what Pat Thompson has described as a feral doctoral pedagogy:

Doctoral researchers can now access a range of websites such as LitReviewHQ, PhD2Published and The Three Month Thesis youtube channel. They can read blogs written by researchers and academic developers e.g. Thesis Whisperer, Doctoral Writing SIG, Explorations of Style, and of course this one. They can synchronously chat on social media about research via general hashtags #phdchat #phdforum and #acwri, or discipline specific hashtags such as #twitterstorians or #socphd. They can buy webinars, coaching and courses in almost all aspects of doctoral research. Doctoral researchers are also themselves increasingly blogging about their own experiences and some are also offering advice to others. Much of this socially mediated DIY activity is international, cross-disciplinary and all day/all night. researchers 

There can be problematic aspects to this. But when it’s valuable, it’s at the level of precisely the unity of thinking, technology and activity which the commission advocated. Social media is helping us recover the technology of intellectual work and it’s an extremely positive development for the social sciences.

Notes from this Webinar. I had to leave after the second speaker so they’re not complete.

Alt metrics are a complement to existing metrics, addressing some of the key issues posed by metrics: the lag time of citations, the limitations of impact factor, the time to publication and their focus on a niche audience. The intention of alt metrics is to expand the focus, in order to assess what a broader audience think about research. This has many aspects but one increasingly important one is blogging, currently encompassing 10,000+ blogs with over 1 million mentions of research, from 2006 to now.

Research commentary plays a crucial role in the public understanding of science. It mediates access to research, sometimes providing a more accessible articulation and other times providing a critical focus. The webinar gave an overview of four different types of blog which Alt Metrics are concerned with:

  • Newspaper blogs: often hosted on a subdomain, with a large and diverse audience.
  • Public education blogs: written by specialists and scientists, with public education as a main goal. They tend to have a social media presence and a large but specific audience.
  • Blogs hosted by academic institutions: a lab or department, often used for promoting that groups work, a narrow academic focus and act as a press release outlet for the group.
  • Research blogging platforms: these are a large collective domain, aggregating lots of different blogs, with an audience that tends to be researchers, helps build a research community.

One of the guest speakers, Rolf Degen, talked about how the internet has disrupted the work of freelance science writers. What were once 95 weekly science sections had become 34 in 2005 and 19 in 2012. He embraced social media in order to help build the audience for his writing, though encountered the problem of people not following links through to his article from his tweets. He tried to compress the complexity of a science story by taking a screenshot to post on Twitter, inciting readers to click through to the piece itself. Another problem is that people on Twitter like negativity, sarcastic comments and the tearing apart of established studies.

Nonetheless, it’s important to recognise that the ‘dirty side of science’ has been ignored by the media, who get most of their information from big science institutions and their press releases. Many of his followers are well qualified, prone to instantly criticising him if he makes a mistake. His editors have never been experts in his field, with criticism from readers being confined to letter to the editor. For this reason, the quality control is much higher than it has previously been. He argues that social media has created “an acquired taste for criticism” which is greatly beneficial for science writing. It’s creating a climate in which it’s just as much fun to find error in something, as to find great new insights, contributing to a turn away from the bias for positive results.

The next speaker, Neuro Skeptic, spoke about his experiences as a science blogger. He drew a sharp distinction between science blogging and science journalism. Blogs have become an accepted part of the media in a way that they weren’t until recently, leading people to talk less about blogs as they’ve become a normal part of the landscape. He discussed a really interesting case when Science Blogs lost many of its audience in protest over Pepsi Gate, leading this audience to disperse over the media ecosystem. He draws a distinction between science bloggers (as niche content creators and often research active or with research experience) and science journalists (as generalists with a science background). Blogs offer scientists a way to communicate directly with readers (stripping out press officers) but that means they can be used to push an agenda. He warns that we shouldn’t romanticise science blogging as a pristine way of ‘getting the science out’ because it’s agenda driven. This means we can’t take social media popularity as being an intrinsically good thing, because this might mean things are being celebrated within circles we would regard as unscientific.

Some interesting points about their policy for blog tracking which I’d like to know more about:

  • Their tracking is based on what they happen to hear about.
  • All blogs are weighted equally.
  • They are indexed by author, in order that multiple mentions of the same research by the same author will only be counted once.
  • They are filtered to ensure quality, in order to avoid counting spam blogs etc.

In his Uberworked and Underpaid, Trebor Scholz offers an important reflection on the cultural significance of blogging. While its uptake has been exaggerated, dependent upon questionable assumptions concerning the relationship between users and blogs, it nonetheless represents a transformation of and expansion of cultural agency which needs to be taken seriously. From loc 3825:

Web 2.0, to be fair, was incredibly successful as an ideology, a meme, and a marketing ploy with global effects. Already by 2004, the industry claimed that there were some 100 million weblogs. One didn’t have to be a skeptic of numerical reasoning to understand that the claim that everybody on this planet was blogging was based on shaky statistics. Clearly, some of these projections were blind to the digital divide, and overlooked the fact that many weblogs were set up but then never used again. But still, we need to acknowledge that more than a decade after its emergence, blogging had roped millions into a daily writing practice; it made them walk through their lives with the eyes of a participant, somebody who could potentially participate or insert her own perspective. 

This is reminiscent of the appendix to The Sociological Imagination, in which C Wright Mills offers practical advice about ‘keeping one’s inner world awake’. It would be overstating matters to claim blogging is intrinsically tied to the sociological imagination, but the propensity to “insert her own perspective” in a life more likely to be lived “with the eyes of a participant” is something we should take seriously, while refraining from assuming that this flows inexorably from the adoption of blogging as a regular activity. 

In the 30+ talks I have done about social media in the last year, I have discussed many things. But the one theme that has been most prominent is the extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, complexity of the subject matter. There is nothing inherently challenging about how to use social media. Any practical or technical difficulties are well within the realm of what has become habitual for most within late modernity. What creates the challenge is negotiating the novelty of its enablements and constraints within a particular context.

However it is this novelty which also makes it difficult to exercise our reflexivity in the way we would about any comparable matter. This novelty gives rise to a species of what Jacob Silverman describes as ‘internet exceptionalism’:

What we call the Internet—and what web writers so lazily draw on for their work—is less a hive mind or a throng or a gathering place and more a personalized set of online maneuvers guided by algorithmic recommendations. When we look at our browser windows, we see our own particular interests, social networks, and purchasing histories scrambled up to stare back at us. But because we haven’t found a shared discourse to talk about this complex arrangement of competing influences and relationships, we reach for a term to contain it all. Enter “the Internet.”

The Internet is a linguistic trope but also an ideology and even a business plan. If your job is to create content out of (mostly) nothing, then you can always turn to something/someone that “the Internet” is mad or excited about. And you don’t have to worry about alienating readers because “the Internet” is so general, so vast and all-encompassing, that it always has room. This form of writing is widely adaptable. Now it’s common to see stories where “Facebook” or “Twitter” stands in for the Internet, offering approval or judgment on the latest viral schlock. Choose your (anec)data carefully, and Twitter can tell any story you want.

Much as “the Internet” gives us “a rhetorical life raft to hang onto” when discussing a subject that is vastly overhyped and invested with all manner of hopes and fears, so too does “social media” become a semantic crutch when making sense of the complex changes being brought about by digital communications within a particular institutional sphere. It’s similarly “easy, a convenient reference point” through which we gloss a complex set of changes in which technological possibilities are only one causal factor. By exceptionalising social media in this way, we “fail to relate this communication system, and everything that happens through it, to the society around us”.

This tendency seems even more pronounced when we talk about something as specific as the academy. The more we talk about “social media” as something which all academics should (or shouldn’t do) the more we obscure the changes it entails for academic labour and the organisations which academics work within. My ambition as someone who has written a book called Social Media for Academics? To get academics to stop talking about social media.

I’ve just finished reading the excellent This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things by Whitney Phillips. It offers fascinating insights into the evolution of ‘trolling’ as a practice, leading from its original form of sub-cultural self-identification to the diffusion of the label across the entire spectrum of online activities deemed to be anti-social. Her overarching thesis is that trolling is framed as an aberration relative to the mainstream culture, when in fact it represents the logic of that culture taken to its extreme. Trolling only makes sense against a background that facilitates it, such that trolls should be read as an inditement of contemporary culture rather than a threat to it. This diagnosis is most acute when it comes to broadcast media, with trolls expertly hacking the media for their own amusement in a way that takes advantage of the media’s propensity for those very things (misleading information, lack of understanding, morbid preoccupations and a deep need for attention) which trolls are seen as embodiments of.

Her operationalisation of ‘troll’ as a self-identity is an important part of the book. The problem I have with the contemporary use of troll is that it subsumes a wide range of behaviours into a singular pathologised description. To point this out is not to defend any of these behaviours, only to remind that we should not assume people do similar, or even the same, things for the same reasons. The diversity of trolling behaviours gets obliterated by the seemingly straight-forward designation of ‘troll’, something which I suspect many people now think they unproblematically recognise when they see it. But underlying ‘trolling’ we might find the urge to incite and manipulate for amusement (i.e. ‘troll’ in the self-identifying sense), online activists who see themselves as fighting a culture war through their keyboards, outpouring of hatred reflecting a generalised contempt for other human beings, the desperate externalisations of someone unable to cope or any number of other things. We need to recognise this variety at an ontological level while nonetheless remaining attentive to the epistemological and methodological problem of how, if at all, we are able to read back ‘offline’ motivations from ‘online’ behaviour.

Towards the end of the book, Phillips talks about her experience of out-trolling trolls. She recognises that this runs contrary to familiar advice “don’t feed the trolls”, something which I’ve always found to work just as well as face-to-face as on the internet:

This strategy—of actively trolling trolls—runs directly counter to the common imperative “don’t feed the trolls,” a statement predicated on the logic that trolls can only troll if their targets allow themselves to be trolled. Given that the fun of trolling inheres in the game of trolling—a game only the troll can win, and whose rules only the troll can modify—this is sound advice. If the target doesn’t react, then neither can the troll.But even this decision buys into the trolls’ game. The troll still sets the terms of their target’s engagement; the troll still controls the timeline and the outcome. (pg. 160)

I don’t quite follow the reasoning here. A refusal to engage only leaves the troll in control in a formal sense of the term. In practice, there isn’t a timeline or an outcome, with an enormous caveat I will get to later in the post. Instead, she details a strategy of out-trolling the trolls, performing an earnest response to their attempts at engagement in a way which reveals their own investment in trolling.

The dynamic shifts considerably if the target counters with a second game, one that collapses the boundary between target and troll. In this new game, the troll can lose and, by taking umbrage at the possibility, falls victim to his or her own rigid rules. After all, it’s emotion—particularly frustration or distress—that trips the troll’s wire. In most cases, the troll’s shame over having lost, or merely the possibility that he or she could lose, will often send the troll searching for more exploitable pastures. I frequently utilized this strategy in my own dealings with random anonymous trolls, particularly on my quasi-academic blog. (pg. 160)

I’d like to have seen more example of what she means here but I find it an intriguing idea. As I understand it, her notion of ‘trolling rhetoric’ entails seeking to provoke another person to express their concerns in a way deemed to be excessive, revealing what is taken to be their over-investment in their online activity. Underlying this is a belief that “nothing should be taken seriously, and therefore … public displays of sentimentality, political conviction, and/or ideological rigidity” are seen as a “call to trolling arms”, with the ensuing trolling often understood in an explicitly pedagogical way. The lulz enjoyed through this represent a “pushback against any and all forms of attachment” but, as she notes, trolls themselves are deeply attached to lulz (p. 25). There’s a power in revealing this attachment, inciting trolls to perform it through the very rhetorical strategies through which they seek to dominate others. Ignoring them leaves the troll unmoved, engaging in this way reveals the deep paradox at the heart of their behaviour.

Phillips recognises how contentious such a strategy can appear, honestly recounting her own ambivalence about the possibility. It nonetheless has a certain appeal though, specifically the idea that we might “troll better, and to smash better those who troll us”But there are two huge caveats to its employment in the academic context within which and for which I’m writing. Firstly, how would university departments and communications offices respond to examples of ‘out trolling’? The evidence we have suggests not very well. Secondly, do we have any reason to assume that those who are increasingly targeting academics online represents trolls in this self-identified sense? I think the argument offered by Phillips is deeply plausible but suspect it only holds true for those who share this sub-cultural identity. Those who, for instance, see what they do as activism are much less likely to be moved by it and engagements of this could be deeply counter-productive.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve started blogging again at a rate I haven’t in a number of years. The reason for this is to try and abate a growing problem with my writing.

In the last year or so, I’ve found myself feeling increasingly overloaded and lacking mental bandwidth to a degree I hadn’t experienced previously. The result has been that my writing had started to feel stilted and difficult, largely because it was unavoidably reduced to the status of ‘task’ to be ticked off a list.

This leaves writing as an externally-orientated process. It becomes an obligation to be fulfilled. An action to be completed in order to meet an external requirement. Whereas writing has only ever worked for me as an internally-orientated process, clarifying what I think through the process of expressing my inchoate thoughts: thinking-through-writing.

When externally-oriented, I find myself preoccupied by word counts, deadlines and the other things I have to do. When internally-orientated, I don’t ‘find myself’ at all because I’m just writing.

The problem has it origins in choices that I’ve made. For instance, there were 39 events that I organised, facilitated and/or spoke at last year. This now seems obviously incompatible with writing in the way I aspire to. I’ve been reevaluating my priorities and trying to change things to reflect them.

In the meantime though, simply setting aside time each day in order to blog is helping a lot. But sorry if you’re one of the many people I owe writing to. I’m getting there. Promise.

In the last few months, I’ve begun to seriously plan a much more sophisticated follow-up to Social Media for Academics, investigating the implications of social media for academic labour. A crucial aspect of this, which seems likely to become much more so with each passing year, concerns the toxicity of many of the online environments in which academics are participating. If academics increasingly find themselves expected to use social media as a means of demonstrating engagement or at least signalling engagement-willingness then the toxicity of these environments will become an increasingly central labour issue.

My fear is that we will have the worst of both worlds. Academics will be coerced outwards into these online environments under the sign of ‘impact’, while finding themselves blamed if anything they do online attracts disapprobation for their employer. It’s easy to imagine how the moralism we see lurking beneath the impact agenda (those who claim not to ‘get it’ should be ‘ashamed’ as I recently heard an extremely senior person say) could find similar expression in managerial expectation of social media use. On our present trajectory, the likely outcome will be an individualised one: take responsibility for your own engagement and take the blame if you bring about any perceived damage to the corporate brand. This problem is compounded because, as Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it “the risks and rewards of presenting oneself “to others over the Web using tools typically associated with celebrity promotion” (Barone 2009) are not the same for all academics in the neo-liberal “public” square of private media.” Far from counteracting exclusion in higher education, social media for academics is amplifying the risks for those already marginalised.

As an example of how this is developing, consider this dispiriting reflection on being an academic video blogger on YouTube which Philip Moriarty passed on to me:

One of the main reasons why I think the promise of YT as a place where intelligent life might flourish is failing is the well-documented level of trolling and hatred that permeates the site, and which threatens to silence any but the most obnoxious or innocuous voices. I stopped making regular videos a couple of years ago when the vitriol I was receiving for having the temerity to make unpopular content spilled over into my personal life. In addition to receiving the usual grammatically-challenged insults and thinly-veiled threats the university I was working at was also contacted several times by folk demanding my removal. Eventually these ‘downsides’ to being an academic on Youtube outweighed the benefits and I gave up making public videos entirely.

And it isn’t just me. Over the past three years I have known four other academics leave Youtube for reasons very similar to my own. These were folk who were similarly motivated to bridge the gap between ‘town and gown’, between universities (which are often seen as elitist) and the wider world represented on social media. These people wanted to contribute their knowledge and also to learn from the contributions of others. They wanted to find ways to speak and to listen in ways which were more inclusive, and which the diverse communities on Youtube seemed to be able to offer. These fine people, like myself, became disheartened by the inability of YT to foster anything but the lowest common denominator, the most clickbaity, the most provocative, the most crudely entertaining, and the failure of the platform to support those who wanted to raise the bar.

Some might say (and indeed have said) that this toxicity is just a natural part of the online ecology and we should grow a thicker skin, or not feed the trolls, or any of the other platitudes that are trotted out to excuse bad behaviour, but I don’t think that’s good enough. When the comment section under a video is two thirds insult or threat then the value of that comment section drops to zero. No one with anything to contribute wants to be part of it. When you have to wonder if your latest video will prompt some faceless anti-intellectual gonk to contact your employer then the chilling effect takes hold and you censor yourself, (God forbid you should talk positively about feminism, or BLM, or the representation of women in video games). The number of eyeballs on the site might increase but the I.Q. of the site goes down.

The architecture of these platforms militates against their sustained pedagogical use. It might be that, as Pausé and Russell put it, “Social media enables scholarship to be publicised more widely within the  academy,  and  in addition to that, it enables  scholarship to become part of broader  social conversations”. The problem is that the incentives of these platforms have over time proved to be generative of a dialogical toxicity which tends to be obscured by the high-minded rhetoric of public engagement. The promise that social media might “bridge the gap between ‘town and gown’” is proving to be rather misleading. A large part of my new project will be exploring the implications of this at the level of the institutional politics of the university, with a particular focus on what it means for academic labour.

The role of social media for academics discourse in obscuring these issues, mystifying the complex politics of social media in the university through breathless reiteration of the individual benefits to be accrued through engagement, means it will be a central object of critique for the project. But I want to avoid slipping into utopian/dystopian, pro/anti framings of social media for academics. I still believe in its scholarly importance and it’s capacity to inculcate solidarity and (in limited ways) flatten hierarchies. There’s a great example of the latter in this paper by Pausé and Russell which I’m otherwise pretty critical of:

Accessibility means individuals who are not academically trained are able to  learn  about  a  field  of  research  and  contribute  to  it,  bringing  their  own  ideas  and  experiences  to  the  table.†    And  accountability  has  enabled  greater  criticism  of  the  process  of  scholarship  and  research.    Through  connecting  on  social  media,  marginalised  people  have  been  able  to  gather  sufficient  force  to  challenge  the  conventions  of  research;  to  insist  on  an  intersectional  perspective.    The  lived  experience  of  a  Māori  woman  living  in  Aotearoa  New  Zealand  can  challenge  the  theorised understanding of an academic.‡ People have objected to being studied, and  have demanded the right to participate in framing the discussion.  For example, the  Health  at  Every  Size®  (HAES)  movement  has  largely  been  led  by  advocates  from  within  what  is  known as  the  Fatosphere  (Harding,  2007),  prompting  research  that  questions the basic assumptions made about the relationship between body size and  health by health scholars and those working in the health field. This both challenges  and enriches scholars’ research.  There is now a rich empirical literature on the efficacy  of HAES (Burgard, 2014).


I’m a big advocate of the research journal as a key part of doing a PhD. I think blogs are wonderful for this but I realise this might not be for everyone. The important thing is uniting reflection and engagement as an habitual part of the research process. Patter has some great ideas here about topics and prompts to help get this process started in the early stages.

In the last few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about online harassment. Even writing that sentence, I come face-to-face with my own privilege, as ‘online harassment’ is something I’m able to elect to think about rather than an unavoidable feature of my use of the internet. But the evidence is clear that online harassment is ubiquitous. A 2014 Pew Study found that 73% of adult internet users have seen someone be harassed in some way online and 40% have personally experienced it:

  • 60% of internet users said they had witnessed someone being called offensive names
  • 53% had seen efforts to purposefully embarrass someone
  • 25% had seen someone being physically threatened
  • 24% witnessed someone being harassed for a sustained period of time
  • 19% said they witnessed someone being sexually harassed
  • 18% said they had seen someone be stalked

The witnessing figure from this US study interests me because it suggests that most internet users must be aware of the reality of online harassment, even if they seek to explain it away to whatever extent. The study makes a distinction between two categories of online harassment:

In Pew Research Center’s first survey devoted to the subject, two distinct but overlapping categories of online harassment occur to internet users. The first set of experiences is somewhat less severe: it includes name-calling and embarrassment. It is a layer of annoyance so common that those who see or experience it say they often ignore it.

The second category of harassment targets a smaller segment of the online public, but involves more severe experiences such as being the target of physical threats, harassment over a sustained period of time, stalking, and sexual harassment.

The Pew study found the distribution of these experiences to be structured by gender and age. Young adults (18-29) as a whole are more likely to experience either category of harassment but young women (18-24) are overwhelmingly the targets of the more extreme behaviours:


But the gendering of these experiences, shouldn’t lead us to dismiss the ‘lesser’ category of harassment. This too can be gendered, in its cumulative and ubiquitous character, as Audrey Watters conveys on loc 1771 of her Monsters of Educational Technology:

I speak from experience. On Twitter, I have over 26,000 followers, most of whom follow me, I’d wager, because from time to time I say smart things about education technology. Yet regularly, men –strangers, typically, but not always –jump into my “@-mentions” to explain education technology to me. To explain open source licenses or open data or open education or MOOCs to me. Men explain learning management systems to me. Men explain the history of education technology to me. Men explain privacy and education data to me. Men explain venture capital funding of education startups to me. Men explain online harassment to me. Men explain blogging to me. Men explain, they explain, they explain. It’s exhausting. It’s insidious. It doesn’t quite elevate to the level of harassment, to be sure; but these microaggressions often mean that when harassment or threats do occur, women like me are already worn down. Yet this is all part of my experiences online. My experiences. Women’s experiences. My friends’ experiences.

There’s a complexity to this behaviour which the Pew study doesn’t capture. It recognises that these behaviours are much more common on such platforms than others, but it doesn’t attempt to look at these divergences demographically in terms of use of platforms. It’s important to recognise that certain online environments are what we might think of as ‘harrasogenic’ in a way that’s susceptible to explanation, including though not limited to deliberate choices by the companies in question to calibrate the architecture of their platforms to maximise attention, engagement, return etc in line with commercial incentives:

  • 66% of internet users who have experienced online harassment said their most recent incident occurred on a social networking site or app
  • 22% mentioned the comments section of a website
  • 16% said online gaming
  • 16% said in a personal email account
  • 10% mentioned a discussion site such as reddit
  • 6% said on an online dating website or app

The mechanisms available within a platform to respond to harassment are a clear function of those choices, as well as shaping the character of the platform through parameterization of harassment and responses to it. The Pew study found that low-level harassment tended to lead to single-step responses and high-level harassment tended to lead to multi-step responses. Surprisingly, 75% of those who responded thought their decision made the situation better, though it raises an obvious question of the distribution of this experience between the two categories.

  • 47% of those who responded to their most recent incident with online harassment confronted the person online
  • 44% unfriended or blocked the person responsible
  • 22% reported the person responsible to the website or online service
  • 18% discussed the problem online to draw support for themselves
  • 13% changed their username or deleted their profile
  • 10% withdrew from an online forum
  • 8% stopped attending certain offline events or places
  • 5% reported the problem to law enforcement

When seen against this background, the drive within universities to incite academics to engage online can seem rather problematic. As Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it “the risks and rewards of presenting oneself “to others over the Web using tools typically associated with celebrity promotion” (Barone 2009) are not the same for all academics in the neo-liberal “public” square of private media.” The increasing levels of political polarisation, as well as the specific problem of organised conservative and alt-right groups seeking to highlight what they deem to be problematic academic speech online, reveal how this issue is intensifying. Given, as Tressie observes, universities use “engaged academics as an empirical measure of a university’s reputational currency” online harassment must be seen as a central issue of academic freedom and academic labour.

We need to understand this issue in terms of broader structures of oppression, while also recognising the specific characteristics of digital environments that set the parameters of its online manifestations. From loc 1677 of The Monsters of Educational Technology by Audrey Watters:

Harassment – of women, people of color, and other marginalized groups – is pervasive online. It’s a reflection of offline harassment, to be sure. But there are mechanics of the Internet –its architecture, affordances, infrastructure, its culture –that can alter, even exacerbate what that harassment looks like and how it is experienced.

From loc 1843-1865 she takes apart some of the facile responses this issue can receive:

The answer can’t simply be to tell women to not use their real name online. If part of the argument for participating in the open Web is that students and educators are building a digital portfolio, are building a professional network, are contributing to scholarship, then we have to really think about whether or not promoting pseudonyms is a sufficient or an equitable solution. The answer can’t be simply be “don’t blog on the open Web.” Or “keep everything inside the ‘safety’ of the walled garden, the learning management system.” If nothing else, this presumes that what happens inside siloed, online spaces is necessarily “safe.” I’ve seen plenty of horrible behavior on closed forums, for example, from professors and students alike. I’ve seen heavy-handed moderation, where marginalized voices find their input is deleted. I’ve seen zero moderation, where marginalized voices are mobbed. The answer can’t simply be “just don’t read the comments.” I would say that it might be worth rethinking “comments” on student blogs altogether –or at least questioning the expectation that students host them, moderate them, respond to them. See, if we give students the opportunity to “own their own domain,” to have their own websites, their own space on the Web, we really shouldn’t require them to let anyone that can create a user account into that space. It’s perfectly acceptable to say to someone who wants to comment on a blog post, “Respond on your own site. Link to me. But I am under no obligation to host your thoughts in my domain.”

In her superb The Monsters of Educational Technology, Audrey Watters makes a convincing case that innovation in educational technology has been dominated by the trope of ‘content delivery’. New technologies are seen to improve content delivery in a variety of ways: scale, speed, cost etc. But this is a limited and limiting conception of education, access and innovation.

Is there a risk that social media use by academics comes to be framed in these terms? What I’ve written about as the fallacy of amelioration is relevant here. The assumption that there are vast stores of untapped knowledge which could be used to straightforwardly fix social problems, if only people would listen to us. 

If I’m right about this conceit then there’s an obvious compatibility between it and the ‘content delivery’ trope. We can see the marginalisation of academic knowledge production as a failure of content delivery, susceptible to rectification through shiny new delivery mechanisms which we must all now embrace as a matter of urgency. In doing so, we would fundamentally mystify the implications of social media for the academy.