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:


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



Book Promo 1

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.

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.

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

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
  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.
  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.
  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
  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”.
  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
  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. 
  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.
  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.
  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. 
  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.
  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)

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.

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.

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 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 – & – 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 – &

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 comfortable

That’s the challenge I’ve set myself for the next three months. The remaining sections of Social Media for Academics exist in embryonic form within this wallet. Each of the cards has an idea or theme written on it, functioning as a prompt for what I’m guessing will be 300-1000 words of writing. As well as pulling together the near finished chapters in order to send them off to my editor, I’ll be aiming to do 1000+ words per day from these cards. The wallet will be going with me everywhere I go (in the next month: Manchester, New York, Dubrovnik, Oxford, London x 2, Edinburgh, Manchester) to ensure that I get plenty of writing done while I’m travelling. I don’t normally travel this much and I was concerned it would break my writing rhythm. Whereas now I’m confident I’ll actually get a lot done. There’s going to be a weird combination of structure & minimalism in how I’ll be writing (a wallet & an iPad with no laptop in sight) that I’m actually quite looking forward to.

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As I wrote earlier this week, I’m really taken with my Artefact Cards. I’ve only had them for a week and I’m already convinced they’ll be a permanent part of my writing life. There’s a subtle permanence to the cards which lends a really useful sense of fixity to the ideas inscribed upon them. It really does feel like the rest of my book is contained in this wallet.

In his A necessary disenchantment: myth, agency and injustice in a digital worldNick Couldry argues that transitions in media infrastructure are facilitating the emergence of a new myth of collectivity:

A new myth about the collectivities we form when we use platforms such as Facebook. An emerging myth of natural collectivity that is particularly seductive, because here traditional media institutions seem to drop out altogether from the picture: the story is focused entirely on what ‘we’ do naturally, when we have the chance to keep in touch with each other, as of course we want to do.

This is coming to replace an older sense of media as the point of access to the centre of society. The reliance on media organisations to access flows of content helped constitute an understanding of centre and periphery, with the media facilitating access to the (mythical) centre of value, knowledge and meaning for the majority who experienced themselves as peripheral to it. The rapid diffusion of the internet, mobile computing and social networking engenders a new form of mediation, by ‘us’ rather than content producing media organisations, which helps shatter this previous myth of the ‘mediated centre’ and substitute it with a vision of human networks, animated by natural sociability, dispersed across national boundaries. As I understand Couldry’s argument, the power of this new myth derives in part from its displacement of the old: once our reliance on the old media organisations is seen to be shattered, our sociality is unbound, revealing a naturally co-operative inclination towards discussion, creation and sharing (see for example Clay Shirky’s theory of ‘cognitive surplus’). Obviously, the perception is erroneous and it serves vested interests: media organisations haven’t ceased to be party to communication, either in the sphere of content-production or facilitating communication, it’s only that their role has shifted with a change in the logic of their competition. This obfuscation serves the interests of platform providers in particular, as they drift towards being seen solely in terms of the provision of infrastructure rather than as corporate actors with increasingly vast lobbying operations.

Couldry’s concern is that “we must be wary when our most important moments of ‘coming together’ seem to be captured in what people happen to do on platforms whose economic value is based on generating just such an idea of natural collectivity”. Social media platforms present themselves as providing new enablements for and eliminating old constraints upon ‘natural collectivity’: their business model simultaneously relies upon monetizing the crowd which they have encouraged to gather, profiling behaviour in a manner susceptible to inference and allowing the growing data mining industry to do further work to this end. Their concern becomes less a matter of reaching as many people with adverts as possible (on occasions of mass attention driven by shared spectacle) but reaching the right people all the time. This is why ‘big’ data analytics are so tied up in the broader transformation of the media: the process itself demands innovation in order to extract the value it promises to generate. However this genuine computational challenge, as well as the economic interests which partly drive it, stand obscured behind the ‘myth of big data’ which Couldry takes aim at:

Myth works, as I’ve often argued following Maurice Bloch (1989) and Roland Barthes (1972), through ambiguity: through sometimes claiming to offer ‘truth’ and at other times to be merely playful, providing what, in the George W. Bush era, was called ‘plausible deniability’, but here at the level of claims about knowledge claims! So Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier, on the one hand, say big data bring ‘an  essential enrichment in human comprehension’ (2013: 96). They go further, proposing a large project of ‘datafication’ that involves quantifying every  aspect of everyday phenomena to enable big data analysts to find its hidden order: the result will be ‘a great infrastructure project’ like Diderot’s 18th- century encyclopaedia: ‘this enormous treasure chest of datafied information . . . once analysed, will shed light on social dynamics at all levels, from the individual to society at large’ (2013: 93–94, emphasis added). The world too will look different: ‘we will no longer regard our world as a string of happenings that we explain as a natural or social phenomenon, but as a universe comprised essentially of information’ (2013: 96, emphasis added). On the other hand, when the moral consequences of acting on the basis of ‘big data’ arises – for example, arresting people for offences they are predicted to commit but haven’t yet – they back off and say that big data only provide probabilities, not actualities, and worry about ‘fetishizing the output of our [data] analysis’ (2013: 151)

It’s the final points which will be so crucial to understanding the trajectory of ‘big data’ in a social world rapidly acclimatising itself to these forms of intervention. The mythical sociability of ‘us’ stands in sharp contrast to the quantity and quality of the interventions we are potentially susceptible to in virtue of our participation in (digitised) social life: we stand exposed, fragmented and scrutinised before a diffuse and inscrutable power. Under these circumstances might we come to cling to the myth more tightly than ever for the security it provides? As Couldry points out in relation to big data, “we too are involved in its reproduction, supplying information (to government and countless other collectors, including social media platforms) about what we do, as we do it, allowing that information to supplant other possible types of information about ourselves, what we say, and how we reflect”. He goes on to call for an ethical engagement with these questions and the implications that they have for the social order:

The CEO of a big-data-based sentiment analysis company, sounds reasonable when he says that ‘if we’re right 75% to 80% of the time, we don’t care about any single story’ (quoted Andrejevic, 2013: 56). 4 . 4 But if the big data model works by equating our only forms of social knowledge with such probabilities, then we have already started organizing things so that the single story – your story,my story – really doesn’t matter. That raises fundamental questions about individual voice, and the way voice is valued in our societies.

He doesn’t develop the point but it strikes me there’s a contradiction between the myth of ‘us’ and the myth of big data which could provide a focal point for resistance. In reality, the networked ‘us’ makes ‘big data’ possible. However symbolically, the reality of big data serves to negate the imagined promise of the ‘us’: can we reclaim an impulse towards networked sociality and co-operation in a way that resists corporate capture? Could the very force of the myth of ‘us’ be something that can be drawn upon to mobilise resistance to a world in which, as Couldry puts it, “corporate interests and the state seek to know us through big data”?