I’m tempted to start keeping a file of advice like this. Am I missing something obvious, or is it not incredibly creepy to identify people in advance, research their life history, write a script for an encounter and then practice it?

Research and assess
Research the guest professionals, their job descriptions and their current and past affiliations before you arrive at the conference. Most are on Google, PubMed, Linkedin, ResearchGate and even Twitter. Select those who really pique your interest, whether it’s their career, company or life story. Be strategic.

Prepare communications
Prepare a few questions pertaining to their work or career path that is relevant to your pursuits and goals. Write them down, even practise with another mentor, and bring them to the event.


Even if you don’t find it as creepy as I do, does it actually work? The ‘sample questions’ offered come across as really stilted:

“How did you land your first job?”

“What was your biggest challenge in your career path and how did/do you address it?”

“Does your company promote independent research projects? And how do they work into the business model?”

“If I want to transition into (whatever your interest is), what would be the best way to do so?”

“What do you like best about your current position?”

“What advice would you give a student like me?”


Does advice like this thrive online? Or is it just more conspicuous? I could see this as the WikiHow-ification of academic career advice: the imperatives of building an audience at low cost leading to advice that is overly general and hastily written. Somewhat unfair to University Affairs but I increasingly suspect there’s a general trend here. In the academic context, I think a particular orientation towards ‘professional development’ is intersecting with the imperatives of the social web to produce something that’s very problematic.

This is an extract from Social Media for Academics 

To talk of ‘networking’ raises the inevitable question of what your ‘network’ is and why it matters. This is a theme which cuts through the book given that the network is so crucial to social media: without a certain critical mass of users, it’s difficult for social media platforms to be useful to anyone. What’s the point of sending 140-character messages, sharing audio clips or self-publishing articles if no one is going to find them? Social media offer endless opportunities to communicate with your network and expand it in the process. But this doesn’t really answer the question of what the value of this actually is. In part, it can simply be a matter of the enjoyment of sharing things you’ve produced, something which the media scholar David Gauntlett (2011) conveys power­fully in his book on creative production, Making is Connecting, which situated this aspect of contemporary digital culture in terms of a much longer history of craft.

One of the difficulties with the notion of ‘networking’ is that it can seem to imply that such an activity is extrinsic to scholarly activity, such that one does one’s real work and then (reluctantly) looks outwards towards their connections. What this leaves out is the vast majority of academic work that involves collabo­ration in one form or another. Gauntlett expresses this nicely, suggesting three ways in which ‘making is connecting’:

  • Making is connecting because you have to connect things together (materials, ideas, or both) to make something new
  • Making is connecting because acts of creativity usually involve, at some point, a social dimension and connect us with other people
  • Making is connecting because through making things and sharing them in the world, we increase our engagement and connection with our social and physical environment

While Gauntlett is talking about creative production in general, the same points can be extended to scholarship. In fact his discussion of ‘craft’, a term not often used to apply to the work that goes on within the academy, offers a useful reminder of the genuinely creative work that is undertaken by academics (albeit frequently within conditions which frustrate that creativity or at least make it difficult to experience it as such). By this he means a process of discovery, often involving new ideas which emerge through acts of creation. This helps bring people together through their shared acts of creation, consolidating bonds between collaborators which take on a life of their own in the outcomes of this work together. This language of craft, which Sennett (2008) talks about in terms of doing things well for their own sake, provides a nice counterweight to some of the instrumentalising tendencies which the contemporary academy can give rise to.

Talk of ‘networks’ and ‘networking’ can be off-putting. I like Gauntlett’s account because it captures how networks are integral to creative work: making is connecting. It follows from this that connecting can be a preliminary to making. As Weller (2011: loc 172) puts it, ‘[n]etworks of peers are important in scholar­ship – they represent the people who scholars share ideas with, collaborate with on research projects, review papers for, discuss ideas with and get feedback from’. Networks are integral to scholarship. The possibilities which social media open up for networking can have hugely important implications for your schol­arship, though they also pose challenges which we’ll discuss. But first, it’s important not to forget your existing network when you begin to engage with social media.

‘Networking’ is a horrible term.  I’m sure I’m not the only person who hates it. It  nonetheless refers to something important, albeit perhaps pervasively misunderstood. The usual connotations of the term ‘networking’ are insincerity, instrumentalism and general creepiness. There have been a few occasions when I’ve been conscious of being ‘networked’ by someone else in a way that made me deeply uncomfortable. It’s worse when someone is really good at it, projecting enthusiasm for their encounter with you while nonetheless failing to engage with anything you’re actually saying: smiling plausibly while looking over your shoulder to check if anyone more useful has entered the vicinity.

In fact I think ‘useful’ is the key term to understanding the problem here. If you see ‘networking’ in terms of people being ‘useful’ to you then it will be a soul-destroying activity. You’ll either succeed in building a collection of ‘useful’ people around you (and destroy your soul in the process) or your confidence will be crushed by the feeling you’ve pervasively failed to do things properly (though your soul may very well be intact).

Rather than ‘useful’, we should think in terms of ‘interesting’: arousing curiosity or interest. Who do you find interesting? What do you share with them? What differences and commonalities are there in how you approach a shared interest? Setting out to build a network of people you hope might one day be useful to you is creepy and disturbing. Approaching academic life with the intention of having as many friendly conversations as you can with people who share your interests is incredibly rewarding. Plus social media takes so much of the awkwardness out of it. But that’s an entirely different post.

From Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance, pg 10-11. I think this understates the degree to which ‘playing hard’ was driven by a potent mix of fear and aspiration. But it’s a nice overview of circumstances which intruige me:

And, in 2000, San Francisco had been over- taken by the boom of all booms and consumed by avarice. It was a wonderful time to be alive with just about the entire populace giving in to a fantasy— a get- rich- quick, Internet madness. The pulses of energy from this shared delusion were palpable, producing a constant buzz that vibrated across the city. And here I was in the center of the most depraved part of San Francisco, watching just how high and low people get when consumed by excess. Stories tracking the insanity of business in these times are well- known. You no longer had to make something that other people wanted to buy in order to start a booming company. You just had to have an idea for some sort of Internet thing and announce it to the world in order for eager investors to fund your thought experiment. The whole goal was to make as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time because everyone knew on at least a subconscious level that reality had to set in eventually. 

Valley denizens took very literally the cliché of working as hard as you play. People in their twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties were expected to pull all- nighters. Cubicles were turned into temporary homes, and personal hygiene was abandoned. Oddly enough, making Nothing appear to be Something took a lot of work. But when the time to decompress arrived, there were plenty of options for total debauchery. The hot companies and media powers of the time seemed locked in a struggle to outdo each other with ever- fancier parties. Old- line companies trying to look “with it” would regularly buy space at a concert venue and then order up some dancers, acrobats, open bars, and the Barenaked Ladies. Young technologists would show up to pound their free Jack and Cokes and snort their cocaine in porta- potties. Greed and self- interest were the only things that made any sense back then.

The idea I’m playing with is that a certain culture developed in this febrile atmosphere, before eventually becoming relatively autonomous from it through the mediation of tech books, magazines and blogs, as well as the diffusion of people into other aspiring tech hubs. The culture has become more extreme since then, while also becoming detached from the state of exceptionalism which initially licensed these extremes.

I usually tend towards the view that there’s no right or wrong way to use social media. These evaluations only make sense relative to some prior purpose and so I’m sceptical when blog posts pronounce on the right way to use Twitter or parallel claims with other platforms. However I realise there are a few things which I do see as intrinsically negative things to do on twitter, at least if you want to build positive connections with others working in your field:

  1. Don’t tweet everything you blog at people. It’s hard to build an audience as a blogger and a sense that no one is reading what you write can erode the enjoyment of blogging. But repeatedly tweeting links to new posts at people (i.e. “@soc_imagination my new blog post http://www.myblog.com”) is the digital equivalent of looking up phone numbers of people in your field and cold calling them to announce that you’ve done some writing. If there’s some particularly pressing reason why this one post needs to gain an audience then that’s fair enough but before you send it directly to scores of people, it’s worth thinking about whether you’d do this ‘offline’.
  2. Don’t tweet requests for people to follow you back once you follow them. Much as with the first point, I’m surprised at how frequently I see people do this and more so they’ve done it with scores of people in quick succession. I understand the impulse to do it in some cases but again consider the ‘offline’ equivalent to this. I can’t quite work out what it would be but I’m sure it would be slightly creepy.
  3. There’s no need to thank people for retweeting you. If you remark something in conversation and someone says “that’s interesting” would you say “thank you for finding my remark interesting”? Retweeting is usually some variant upon affirming that a tweet was interesting or valuable in some way. Thanking people for retweeting (or following for that matter) makes a momentary interaction feel creepily transactional to me.

What would you add to the list? If a certain number of people share an antipathy towards a way of acting on twitter then at what point should we start talking about these as norms?