Notes for a talk at this event on Saturday.
In the not too distant past, the use of social media in higher education was seen as a curiosity at best. Perhaps something to be explained or inquired into but certainly not something deemed relevant to scholarship. Yet it’s now increasingly hard to move without encountering the idea that social media is something of value for academics. The reasons offered are probably quite familiar by now. It helps ensure your research is visible, both inside and outside the academy, helping build an audience for your publications and an impact for their findings. It expands your professional networks. It makes research more open and researchers more accountable to the people who ultimately fund their work.
If not quite at the level of ‘common sense’ yet, I suspect these points soon will be regarded as such, at least by young scholars. On the surface, we seem to have witnessed a fairly significant change, but is it a positive one?
In many ways I think it’s not because so much of this discussion is preoccupied by individuals and how social media can help their careers. It becomes one more facet in the ideal package of academic skills which are seen to be necessary to thrive in the contemporary academy. Bring in your grants. Publish highly cited papers in high impact journals. Get good teaching reports. Build an audience on social media. The unspoken corollary of social media helping build careers is how being unwilling or unable to engage in it might harm your career. Through their social media use, academics signal their orientation towards accumulating visibility for their institution and generating impact through their research.
At least this is how I think research mangers are beginning to see social media: as a signal for impact willingness and a proxy for impact capacity. A demonstrable capacity to build an audience with social media becomes just another characteristics of what Liz Morrish recently described as the upwardly mobile young ‘Trump academic’ liable to thrive under contemporary conditions.
This way of thinking about social media for academics positions it as ‘just one more thing to do’. You do your research and then you spend time ‘networking’, developing your ‘brand’, building an audience and disseminating your research. It’s seen as an additional demand, above and beyond the many other responsibilities people are already subject to. You do it as a means to an end, in order to help meet demands placed upon you at work.
On this level, it’s a clear example of what the anthropologist Melissa Gregg describes as ‘function creep’: the tendency of new technology to increase the demands placed upon people at work without any comparable increase in reimbursement or recognition. Bit by bit, the job gets more demanding, often in subtle ways which escape our notice on a day-to-day level. We have more to do. We feel tired more frequently. The bottom of our to-do list seems further each on each successive day. But the job market is unwelcoming and self-branding of this sort can feel ‘career protection in uncertain times’ as one particularly off-putting social media guru put it a few years ago.
This instrumental approach to social media is one which universities are beginning to encourage through the training they offer, their expectations of staff and the implicit messages which permeate institutions. It’s one which the rise of alt-metrics risks intensifying, as the responsibility increasingly falls to individual researchers to demonstrate that they’re able to win attention for their publications online (and empowers those journals who are able to help ensure this is the case, supplementing the existing hierarchy of ‘impact factor’ with a new hierarchy of ‘alt metric factor’, rather than breaking down these boundaries).
The problem is that winning attention for your work doesn’t take place in a vacuum. As Melissa Gregg puts it, “even uniqueness starts to sound the same when everyone is trying to perform”. If everyone is seeking to build an audience and stand out from the crowd then the challenge of achieving these aims spirals ever upwards, excluding ever more people from the process in gendered and classed ways while this subordination is masked by the powerful rhetoric of openness.
To give one example of trend, George Veletsianos found in a study of educational tweeters that “the top 1 percent of scholars have an average follower base nearly 700 times that of scholars in the bottom 50 percent and nearly 100 times that of scholars in the other 99 percent” (loc 1162-1708). Rather than undermining old hierarchies, social media supplements new ones, with complex emergent effects: sometimes allowing the already celebrated to quickly amass a social media following or to allow those with a big social media following to translate this into academic capital.
The problem is that the encouragement to conflate value with popularity, as demonstrated through the metrics built into the platforms themselves, isn’t something new. It’s an extension of the endless metrics to which academics at UK are subject to in every other aspect of their working lives. This is ‘open’ in the sense of rendering individual workers transparent to their employers. Open in the sense of measuring all aspects of their performance in order to calibrate the precise balance of carrots and sticks they will be subjected to in their workplace. Open in the sense of holding them accountable if any of their actions reflect badly on the university or somehow run contrary to this month’s strategy for the corporate brand.
It’s not a desirable form of openness and we should be critical of it. We should be critical of an account of social media for academics which encourages behaviour that fits with it: using social media to signal your value to your institution, demonstrate your understanding of your employer’s priorities and to accumulate as much prestige for yourself as quickly as you can (obviously to be measured in terms of citation counts, alt metrics scores and follower counts).
But there’s another form of ‘openness’ we can see in how academics use social media. A relational, collaborative and solidaristic mode of engaging across boundaries. This is a mode of engaging which doesn’t see social media as ‘just another thing to do’ but rather as a way to do what we do anyway in a newly open and shared way. While the horizontal regulation of peer review, informal and otherwise, is increasingly being surmounted by the vertical regulation of metrics, there’s a possibility for new forms of shared engagement through social media that should’t be dismissed. They may not change higher education but they can provide a bulwark against some of the more deleterious tendencies we see within it, at least if we resist the pressure to individualise and instrumentalise our use of it.
In a recent book called The Academic Diary, Les Back writes that Twitter sometimes facilitates our “inhabiting the attentiveness of another writer” by providing “signposts pointing to things going on in the world: a great article, an important book, a breaking story”. Through the things that others share, we sometimes enter into their world and participate in an economy of “hunches and tips” which is the “lifeblood of scholarship”. At risk of ruining a nice metaphor, a truly open approach to social media can help lifeblood of scholarship circulate much more widely and freely than it would otherwise. At a time of ever-increasing managerialism, intensifying demands and ever more granular monitoring this feels like something we need to try and protect.