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.

 

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.

I asked this question on Twitter earlier today. Here are some of the answers I got:

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The powerful thing about telling a story is that it gets beyond the level of sim­ply listing facts about yourself. Not that there’s anything wrong with this; in a way it’s like a story because you choose which facts you present and the order in which you present them. But telling a story places them in a wider context, giv­ing meaning and direction to things which people come to know about you. Nonetheless, listing facts is important. Yet what sort of facts are likely to be rel­evant for these purposes? Here are some suggestions:

  • Your institutional affiliation
  • Your research interests
  • Other accounts you’re involved with
  • Your personal interests
  • Hashtags you contribute to
  • An institutional disclaimer
  • An additional website

Read more in Social Media for Academics

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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.

Book Promo 1

It’s brilliant to find so many people tweeting about my book. I’ve attached some of the tweets below. If they convince you that you should buy a copy, this is the cheapest place to buy it online.

An interesting talk by George Veletsianos whose recent book, Social Media in Academia, I’ll review in the near(ish) future. I found it a thought provoking read but I want to critically engage with his conception of ‘networked scholars’ in order to better articulate why I prefer to conceptualise this quite straight forwardly in terms of ‘academics’ i.e. an occupational role within an organisation, the people who perform that role and the ensuing activities they engage in.

This interesting article (HT Nick Couldry) explores the challenge faced by Facebook in imposing standards on a user base distributed around the globe:

As Facebook has tentacled out from Palo Alto, Calif., gaining control of an ever-larger slice of the global commons, the network has found itself in a tenuous and culturally awkward position: how to determine a single standard of what is and is not acceptable — and apply it uniformly, from Maui to Morocco.

For Facebook and other platforms like it, incidents such as the bullfighting kerfuffle betray a larger, existential difficulty: How can you possibly impose a single moral framework on a vast and varying patchwork of global communities?

If you ask Facebook this question, the social-media behemoth will deny doing any such thing. Facebook says its community standards are inert, universal, agnostic to place and time. The site doesn’t advance any worldview, it claims, besides the non-controversial opinion that people should “connect” online.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/01/28/the-big-myth-facebook-needs-everyone-to-believe/

Their ‘global community standards’ are the mechanism through which the digital activity of over one and a half billion users is policed. But these regulations have an uncertain grounding in the normative judgements of the user base: the aggregate of users are far too heterogeneous (to say the least) to facilitate any layer of moral intuition which can reliably buttress the legitimacy of the global community standards. This problem is amplified by two factors:

Facebook has modified its standards several times in response to pressure from advocacy groups — although the site has deliberately obscured those edits, and the process by which Facebook determines its guidelines remains stubbornly obtuse. On top of that, at least some of the low-level contract workers who enforce Facebook’s rules are embedded in the region — or at least the time zone — whose content they moderate. The social network staffs its moderation team in 24 languages, 24 hours a day.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/01/28/the-big-myth-facebook-needs-everyone-to-believe/

Having moderators embedded in a region might help on occasion. But this would assume the normativity of the region is any less fragmented and, as the Centre for Social Ontology’s recent book explores, we cannot assume this to be true. What’s more likely is that this vast army of poorly paid moderators will exercise little to no autonomy over their tasks, with the Facebook standards nonetheless being inflected through their variable judgement i.e. they won’t try and deviate from the global standards but they inevitably will do, in an unpredictable way, as any individual evaluator necessarily does when imposing a rule in particular cases.

So companies like Facebook and Twitter rely on an army of workers employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us. And there are legions of them—a vast, invisible pool of human labor. Hemanshu Nigam, the former chief security officer of MySpace who now runs online safety consultancy SSP Blue, estimates that the number of content moderators scrubbing the world’s social media sites, mobile apps, and cloud storage services runs to “well over 100,000”—that is, about twice the total head count of Google and nearly 14 times that of Facebook.

This work is increasingly done in the Philippines. A former US colony, the Philippines has maintained close cultural ties to the United States, which content moderation companies say helps Filipinos determine what Americans find offensive. And moderators in the Philippines can be hired for a fraction of American wages. Ryan Cardeno, a former contractor for Microsoft in the Philippines, told me that he made $500 per month by the end of his three-and-a-half-year tenure with outsourcing firm Sykes. Last year, Cardeno was offered $312 per month by another firm to moderate content for Facebook, paltry even by industry standards

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/01/28/the-big-myth-facebook-needs-everyone-to-believe/

Is there any accountability here? It’s certainly possible to influence the global community standards but, as the article notes, this influence is profoundly opaque. Meanwhile, there are good reasons to think that challenge and adjudication simply couldn’t work at this scale. How would it operate? Given it seems content moderators might compromise as much as half the workforce of social media sites, it’s worth thinking about how labour intensive a potential appeals process would be. Why go to that trouble when you can err on the side of simply taking down something on the grounds that someone thinks it’s offensive? Without finding some way to solve the normativity problem described earlier, how to underwrite legitimacy within an aggregate characterised by low social integration, there’s also no obvious ethical counter balance to this organizational tendency.

From The Boy Kings, by Katherine Losse, loc 184:

The interjection of distant voices on friends’ walls was always vaguely unreadable, unpredictable, illicit. “Let’s play this weekend,” a girl would post on the wall of a guy I knew, suggestively, and it felt weird to read, not because I didn’t think girls liked him but because the utterance didn’t actually reveal anything that was particularly relevant or useful. A girl wants him, I now knew, but I already knew that. Lots of girls did. The technology invited me to speculate about whether he wanted this girl back and whether they would go out and what would happen next, offline, all of which was really, in the end, irrelevant to be speculating on in advance. If two people like each other, they’ll hook up, if not, they won’t. All this noise was just noise, but a very present noise, a noise that we all, now, needed to consume, whether we cared to or not.

From Liquid Surveillance: a conversation by Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon, pg 22-23. I heard Bauman make these arguments at re:publica earlier this year and was rather impressed. As ever with him, it’s immensely impressionistic but I think he identifies something important that has been substantiated by other work, most obviously Alice Marwick’s ethnography of the tech scene in Silicon Valley: the fear of exclusion, anxiety in the face of the prospect that we fail to make the cut in occupational structures that increasingly reward only the superstars and doom the rest to a lifetime of precarity, engenders a neurotic embrace of possibility in the hope that we become somebody, rather than being consigned to life as a forgotten nobody.

On the one hand, the old panoptical stratagem (‘you should never know when you are being watched in the flesh and so never be unwatched in your mind’) is being gradually yet consistently and apparently unstoppably brought to well- nigh universal implementation. On the other, with the old panoptical nightmare (‘I am never on my own’) now recast into the hope of ‘never again being alone’ (abandoned, ignored and neglected, blackballed and excluded), the fear of disclosure has been stifled by the joy of being noticed.

Having one’s own complete being, warts and all, registered in publicly accessible records seems to be the best prophylactic antidote against the toxicity of exclusion – as well as a potent way to keep the threat of eviction away; indeed, it is a temptation few practitioners of admittedly precarious social existence will feel strong enough to resist. I guess that the story of the recent phenomenal success of ‘social websites’ is a good illustration of the trend.

And on page 27 Bauman further expands upon the moral psychology of publicity in ‘liquid modernity’: again, it’s rampantly impressionistic and the way he writes obscures a profound empirical variability he seemingly has no interest in recognising, but he offers an important insight into a socio-cultural trend:

These days, it is not so much the possibility of a betrayal or violation of privacy that frightens us, but the opposite: shutting down the exits. The area of privacy turns into a site of incarceration, the owner of private space being condemned and doomed to stew in his or her own juice; forced into a condition marked by an absence of avid listeners eager to wring out and tear away the secrets from behind the ramparts of privacy, to put them on public display and make them everybody’s shared property and a property everybody wishes to share. We seem to experience no joy in having secrets , unless they are the kinds of secrets likely to enhance our egos by attracting the attention of researchers and editors of TV talk shows, tabloid front pages and the covers of glossy magazines.

But there are, inevitably, things which bug me immensely about this text. For instance he draws upon a lengthy quotation from a book edited by Nicole Aubert, L’Individu hypermoderne, describing remarks published in 2004 as ‘recent’ observations, implying they tell us things of interest about social media that basically didn’t exist at the time of their writing and intimating they are grounded in substantial empirical consensus which he makes no effort to convey. 

It’s just lazy scholarship and I’m increasingly bothered by the manner in which Bauman gets applauded for it, all the while crowding out other voices through his endless capacity to riff upon a metaphor of liquidity which even on the most charitable interpretation has nothing more than heuristic value. To any critics bridling at this: I’ve probably read more Bauman than you (I’ve read upwards of 15 of these cover to cover) so, if you think I’m being unfair, offer some textual justification of this before you have a go at me. I don’t want to repeat the tedious exchanges about Zizek I got locked into a couple of years ago.

I take Bauman’s fundamental point to be a familiar one about the necessity of self-marketing under contemporary circumstances. As he writes on page 31 and 32:

They are simultaneously promoters of commodities and the commodities they promote . They are, at the same time, the merchandise and their marketing agents, the goods and their travelling salespersons (and let me add that any academics who ever applied for a teaching job or research funds will easily recognize their own predicament in that experience). In whatever bracket they may be filed by the composers of statistical tables, they all inhabit the same social space known under the name of the market . Under whatever rubric their preoccupations might be classified by governmental archivists or investigative journalists, the activity in which all of them are engaged (whether by choice or necessity, or most commonly both) is marketing . The test they need to pass in order to be admitted to the social prizes they covet demands them to recast themselves as commodities : that is, as products capable of drawing attention, and attracting demand and customers .

As with the earlier material, I find the broad brush strokes used by Bauman rather dissatisfying. But I think he offers suggestions about something important: the moral psychological mechanisms underpinning branding and self-promotion. Fear of redundancy drives us to embrace usefulness, embodied in the relentless articulation of our instrumental value in the broader scheme of things.

The final stages of Social Media for Academics are giving me flashbacks to the end of my PhD. I’ve drunk so much coffee that I can barely sit down, I have Forces of Victory on repeat and I’m alternating between thinking the nearly finished work is brilliant and concluding that it’s utterly shit. Over the weekend, I expect this will degenerate into symphonic power metal and energy drinks as I force myself to do the manuscript preparation & tidying up in one go. This led to a remarkably unpleasant 36 hours during my PhD which was nonetheless a very good idea, given my capacity for procrastination.

However I’m actually quite enjoying it, in a masochistic sort of way, which is rather different to how I felt at the end of my PhD. There’s a diffuse sense of nostalgia about it. After all, it’s the second time I’m doing something which I hope to do many times over the course of my life.

I think I’ve written a good book, with some significant weaknesses – most of which could have been addressed by being much more systematic with my writing and reading process over the last year and a half. For instance, it has little to no grounding in the ed tech literature, which I’m sure will irritate a fair number of people, but I’ve never intended it to be a contribution to this literature so I’m not sure I mind that much. I also think there needs to be a disclaimer on it: “warning, does not contain anything substantive about teaching and social media”.

More positively: I think there are a lot of ideas in the book, covering an extremely wide range of topics. I think I set academic social media in a broader technological and institutional context in an interesting and engaging way. I don’t think it lives up to the rather precise pedagogical vision I had at the start, but I’m confident I’ve written a very useful book. I’m also confident people will find it a thoughtful book. But that’s rather the problem. My thoughts on this subject are still changing on a daily basis. It’s why I find academic social media so interesting. Hopefully readers of the book will accept the invitation to come find me on Twitter & read this blog.

This is the only way I can get myself to declare Social Media for Academics finished and send it along to Sage: it’s a crystallisation of a lived engagement, objectifying ideas that are still very much in motion. Otherwise the fixity of a book frustrates me.

<goes to make more coffee>

Harry Quebert: “A book is a battle” 

An overview of the things that I’ve been reading this morning. I’ve been focusing on this today because I think this section of the book is a little weak, despite it being one of the most important and interesting issues I cover.

  1. A useful essay reflecting on the David Guth case, in which a professor’s tweeted anti-NRA comments provoked widespread controversy and Kansas University implemented a draconian new social media policy that was later withdrawn http://academeblog.org/2015/04/01/can-i-tweet-that-academic-freedom-and-the-new-social-media/
  2. An overview of the Steven Salaita case, in which an academics controversial tweets about Israel led the University of Illinois to rescind their job offer to him. Various important factors: donors complained, there was the accusation that his tweets were anti-semitic, the university fell back on ‘civility’ defence and cited the form taken by his tweets. http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/14/university-of-illinois-censured-for-pulling-steven-salaita-job-over-anti-israel-tweets
  3. An overview of the case, as well as first and second apology post by Martin Hirst, an Australian journalism professor whose profanity laden tweets were published on the Herald Sun website after a spat with a right-wing journalist and various others on Twitter. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/30/journalism-professors-job-safe-despite-troll-tweet-raising-andrew-bolts-ire
  4. An interesting opinion and summary of the legal situation by the National Educational Association. Makes a nuanced case about the need for regulation to ensure online harassment doesn’t undermine the capacity of some to speak (particularly citing female scholars and harassment they can be subject to) while nonetheless ensuring that regulation of social media doesn’t erode academic freedom http://www.nea.org/home/59780.htm
  5. Brief but revealing piece of advise to department heads, stressing the necessity that they communicate institutional policies to academics within the department. As they put it, “All too often, university faculty assume that academic freedom means a blank check to do and say what they want with no restrictions, whether in class or elsewhere”. Succinctly summarises the problem as being an ‘increased potential for harm’ rather than anything legally distinct as far as communication goes. Offers useful advice that “Rants, grievances, and pent-up frustrations should not find their release on such public forums as provided by social networks”. http://www.departmentchairs.org/QuickTipsandPracticalAdviceDetailPage/what-should-chairs-know-about-social-networking-and-academic-freedom.aspx
  6. An interesting essay by Daniel Nehring, which discusses recent  events at Warwick (Thomas Doherty, the Warwick Tone of Voice, questionable advice by SGH Martineau) and considers it in terms of more general trends concerning academic freedom. Speculates that draconian social media policies may lead us to pass a point of no return, at which stages the absence of academic freedom will be something that upcoming scholars are simply socialised into and don’t question  http://www.socialsciencespace.com/2015/05/whats-wrong-with-academic-freedom-in-the-uk/
  7. An account in the THE by Carole McCartney, reader in law at Northumbria University, describing how she was reprimanded while working at the University of Leeds for posting tweets critical of Theresa May. She was eventually instructed to remove her affiliation from her Twitter profile, after a lengthy exchange of views with the university ‘web master’ (would like to know whether she means someone in IT services or someone in comms) who had initially claimed that the tweets were unacceptable because they were linked to the university. https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/university-of-leeds-lectures-legal-scholar-over-political-tweets/2015272.article 
  8. The UCU statement on academic freedom reiterates the 1988 Education Reform Act’s establishment of “the legal right of academics in the UK ‘to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or the privileges they may have'”. Highlights a wide range of factors (e.g. research assessment, anti-terrorism, managerialism) which contribute to a climate within which academic freedom is under threat. Stresses that “hindered or impeded in exercising their civil rights as citizens” and the role of “security of employment in the profession” as a crucial safeguard of academic freedom. http://www.ucu.org.uk/academicfreedom
  9. An article by Henry Reichman, vice president of the AAUP, warning that “Some politicians and ­university leaders now act as though the principles of academic freedom should not be ­applied when it comes to ­social media”. Stresses the need for management to work with faculty to develop appropriate policies for governing social media: balancing the need to recognise necessary restrictions (citing the example of revealing confidential student information on social media) with the right of faculty to address the wider society. Finishes with claim that universities which fail to defend academic freedom harm themselves through doing so. http://www.edtechmagazine.com/higher/article/2014/05/when-academic-freedoms-and-modern-media-collide
  10. Important article by Index for Censorship on international threats to academic freedom, from committees accusing Ukrainian academics of ‘separatist attitudes’ to draconian regulation of the minutiae of everyday academic life in Turkey. https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2015/06/shades-of-mccarthyism-academic-introducing-our-global-academic-freedom-report/ 
  11. Thomas Doherty puts brand management and ‘tone of voice guidelines’ (represented at Warwick, Manchester and Plymouth amongst others) in the context of security-driven erosion of academic freedom within the UK and around the world. As he puts it, “If one speaks in a tone that stands out from the brand – if one is independent of government at all – then, by definition, one is in danger of bringing the branded university into disrepute”. It occurs to me reading this that tone of voice needs to be read alongside civility and academic citizenship in terms of the emerging framework of regulation for academic freedom. https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2015/06/magazine-fear-terror-offence-pushing-criticial-voices-out-uk-universities/
  12. Speaking in his second year of a tenure-track job, Eric Grollman questions the mentality that tenure will guarantee academic freedom. The particular focus here is on the Saida Grundy case, in which a college student who sought to launch a Conservative buzz feed style site, attacked the Professor who was due to start in a tenure track position at a different university. Her analysis of race and privilege led her to be accused of being a ‘bigot’. There’s an overview here. The college president expressed “concern and disappointment” about her tweets while defending her right to express these opinions. As Grollman puts it, it seems “Her work, public engagement, and perspective are all protected so long as it does not negatively affect the university”. Grollman makes a really useful distinction between (engaged) academic freedom and (disengaged) academic tolerance: the university begrudgingly performed the latter but made no attempt at the former.
  13. The Religious Studies professor Anthea Butler has created a Tumblr site documenting the abuse she receives online (HT Eric Grollman) http://nosecretsonthenet.tumblr.com/page/2

That’s the intriguing question which George Veletsianos addresses in this post. He suggest an approach centred around issues and tools:

Networked scholarship curricula will need to balance a focus on tools and issues. The teaching of tools could instill future scholars with the abilities to use networked technologies productively. For instance, networked scholars might employ the services of text-mining techniques (e.g., Google Alerts) to track mentions of their name, areas of research, or publications such that they can keep track of and participate in discussions mentioning their work. Many trends, including the publication of journals in digital form, the pervasive use of institutional profiles, and the use of social media services for personal reasons combine to make it highly likely that scholars are already searchable and findable online. Thus online presence is assumed to exist regardless of whether a scholar has taken any steps in cultivating such a presence, and the teaching of tools to manage one’s presence may be necessary. The teaching of issues pertaining to networked scholarship is also significant. Scholars would benefit from making sense of issues such as networked societies, context collapse, alternative metrics, honophily, filter bubble, open access publishing, digital literacies, and community-engaged scholarship. For instance, doctoral preparation curricula might problematize the fact that while Twitter might allow researchers to follow one another and discuss topics of interest, such discussions may go unchallenged, if scholars are only followed by those who have similar educational training and beliefs to them. http://www.veletsianos.com/2015/07/21/teach-neatworked-digital-scholarship-curricula/

I’ve taken a slightly different approach in Social Media for Academics. I’ve structured the book around activities (publicising your work, networking, managing information, public engagement) and challenges (communicating effectively online, managing online identity, finding the time for social media). In doing so, I’ve hopefully conveyed how social media is used to enact and augment existing activities, rather than constituting something radically different from them. I address some of the practical questions these pose in the four activities chapters before moving on to discuss them more systematically in the three challenges chapters.

But these are decisions I’ve made for a book. They’re also ones I’m pretty committed to at this point. I really like the suggestions Veletsianos makes for what an actual curriculum would look like. Particularly the concern to “prepare scholars to work in an increasingly uncertain world: What challenges will scholars face at their institutions or in the broader culture as they enact networked practices?”

In their enthusiasm for the pedagogical uses to which social media can be put, academics sometimes don’t stop to question whether students actually want to interact with them on social media. This is sometimes referred to as ‘the creepy treehouse problem’: requiring students to interact with you on what they perceive as a private platform, or at least one divorced from their involvement in the university. It’s this perception which also creates problems for institutional social media policies that incorporate all student social media use within their remit. This is a good overview of the temptations of pedagogical social media and the risks inherent in it:

The problem with just jumping into Facebook, Twitter, or MySpace, and forcing your students to be your friend/follower/contact/etc is a perceived invasion of their online privacy.  Now it may seem like a good idea at the time, especially since these tools are already populated by the majority of your students, have a low impact learning curve, and have built-in communication tools, and contact management that may rival most commercial Course Management Systems.  However, these tools started out and are perceived by students as their personal social playground and bending the tool to make it fit into an educational framework may cause panic, and discomfort from the student perspective.

https://www.purdue.edu/learning/blog/?p=210

The problem is that building a propriety platform is unlikely to succeed, at least if success requires sustained engagement by students who log in regularly. This to me is why social media platforms are so pedagogically attractive. The author of the above post suggests a couple of alternatives and offers interesting examples of how this can work:

Ning.com – Ning is a social networking site that allows users to create their own communities based upon their interests and needs.  These communities are user created, and managed with permission control options allowing read/write access by the whole world, or just a select group determined by the creator.  Ning has seen a jump in adoption in education circles due to ease of use, and potential.  Best examples – http://www.classroom20.com/ & http://education.ning.com.

Elgg.org – Elgg is a similar platform to Ning, in that it allows users to create their own social network, monitored, maintained, and updated by individual users.  However, Elgg is completely community driven in development, and offers the ability for users to personally host their network.  Best examples – http://eduspaces.net/ & http://community.brighton.ac.uk/

https://www.purdue.edu/learning/blog/?p=210

I’m still sceptical but actively reflecting upon it at present. It seems self-evident to me that the creepy treehouse effect is more likely to be operative with Facebook than Twitter. But unfortunately more students will be regular users of the former than the latter. Furthermore, as Emma Head recently told me, her recent (not yet published) research with Keele students found some students with an explicit preference for engagement on Facebook. It’s a complicated picture. Jason Jones at ProfHacker offers some helpful suggestions for good practice:

We both think that there are spaces that have less “creepy treehouse” aspects than others: wikis, for example, or certain uses of blogs.  Twitter, as Alex says, “is a weird space,” since people tend not to dabble in it–they either avoid it wholesale, or go all in. One way I’ve tried to minimize the creepy treehouse aspect in some of my social assignments is to encourage class-related personas, and to have assignments be a kind of game.  That way, there’s never a sense that I’m trying to elicit information about their lives and so forth–which does seem creepy.

Alex came up with four best practices for faculty who want to use social media (and we should!) and who want to avoid this problem:

  • Be transparent.  Explain why it’s required, what students will be graded on, etc.  Explain the tool’s ownership and logistics.  If you’ve set up a class Twitter account, consider sharing it with at least some students.
  • Encourage self-organization.  There’s no need for you to create that Facebook group!  Let them do it.  (In my experience, Facebook groups I’ve created haven’t gotten much participation, but ones students have created about my classes have often gone well.)
  • Deputize worthwhile ad-hoc groups.  This encourages the perception–which hopefully is accurate!–that the class’s social media usage is bottom-up, and not top-down.
  • Be nimble.  Notice how students are interacting with your course material, and put resources where they feel most comfortablehttp://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/the-creepy-treehouse-problem/2302