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provoked widespread controversy and Kansas University implemented a draconian new social media policy that was later withdrawn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.

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 21.02.25

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”?

This is a subject I’ve wanted to research for some time but have struggled to see how. I suspect we are seeing the very early stages of a backlash against the uptake of social media by academics – encompassing both the regulation of its ‘improper’ use and the incentivisation of its ‘proper’ use, with the latter being in practice no less pernicious than the former. This recent article in Inside Higher Education framed it as common sense that we need policies to clarify such an ambiguous situation:

From censored tweets to viral videos of professors’ partisan “rants,” numerous faculty members have found themselves in hot water over how they’ve used or been portrayed on social media in the past year. For faculty members at most colleges and universities, social media is a kind of “wild west” in which there are few – if any – articulated policies protecting professors’ right to tweet, post or otherwise share professional or personal thoughts (or to keep their thoughts private).

That’s a problem, said Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay and chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. He delivered the plenary address at AAUP’s annual conference here Thursday, aptly called “Can I Tweet That?”

“We need policies, but what we need are good policies,” said Reichman, emphasizing that faculty members and their elected leaders should be involved in drafting such social media policies “from the get-go.”

To be fair, the article contrasts (good) “faculty-driven policy” to (bad) policy formulated by university managers. But is this dichotomy really tenable? To discuss regulation admits the premise that such control would be legitimate – is this the case? If so then it needs to be argued for in principle, rather than be smuggled in surreptitiously in the guise of pragmatism about the potential implications of academic social media use. It’s not obvious that regulation is necessary, all the more so when we consider broader trends towards precarious work within the academic labour market.

I think this is a very complex issue. Much more so than anything I’ve read on the subject seems to acknowledge. This will be a large section of the final chapter of Social Media for Academics but I’m quite far away from being in a position to write it. My views on the issue are being shaped by some of the experiences that have been recounted to me in private – it’s difficult to know the extent to which these reflect a broader tendency beginning to emerge in UK higher education. If anyone has had experience of these issues and would like to talk then please do get in touch ( It goes without saying that any experience recounted to me will be treated in the strictest confidence.

There’s a great post by Kandy Woodfield on the NSMNSS blog. Do read the full post – it’s a panoramic yet concise overview of the current terrain. I’ve listed the challenges below for my own notes rather than as a substitute for reading the original post.

  1. The methodological challenge: “we have yet to fully address the fact that a high proportion of social media traffic consists of pictures not text”
  2. The collaborative challenge: “most powerful insight from social media research will come from transdisciplinary efforts drawing on the varied insights and skills of for example statisticians, qualitative researchers, digital curators, information scientists, machine learning experts and human geographers.” 
  3. The ethical and legal challenge: “the critical moments which will shape and define the ethical and legal frameworks for the use of social media data will probably not come from social research but from the use of social media data in the commercial world or media realm, these industries practices may shape our future access to research data. Are we engaging enough with these sectors and issues?” 
  4. The capability challenge: How many of us are really au fait with the worlds we are researching on social media platforms?”
  5. The contextual challenge:many methods lecturers, research supervisors, research commissioners, and research ethics board members do not feel adequately equipped to make rounded, informed decisions about the quality, ethics or value of social media research projects and proposals.”
  6. The synthesis challenge: “how if at all can new forms of research and findings map onto, elaborate or further inform conventional social research data?”

I was intrigued to see this great project by Emma Jackson and a collaborator on Kickstarter. It’s fantastic that it seems to have been so successful for them. Is this likely to become more widespread? I find this quite exciting in some respects but also quite worrying, in so far as that it could easily be seized upon as a rationale for intensifying the retrenchment of funding which an academic turn to Kickstarter would (partly) be a response to. Nonetheless, I’ve been wondering for ages whether to try this myself and seeing this project has given me a nudge towards finally doing it.

Lots of Planets have a North is a new project produced by sociologist Emma Jackson and artist Claire Biddles, exploring the North of England as it is lived, remembered and dreamed of. Bored of totalising accounts of a solitary man on a mission to uncover ‘the North’, ours is a communal project, made up of fragments, accounts, stories, poems and pictures collected from an open call for contributions early in 2014.

Our project is a showcase for the stuff that gets missed out of the bricks and smoke, brass band, Hovis advert-style North of popular representation (although we have nothing against red brick, or smoke, or brass bands). The Glam North, Queer North, Missed North, Uneasy North, Dreamed of North, and lots of other Norths that aren’t explored often enough.

Here’s a few selections from the project – you can see more on our project blog, too.

Reena Makwana - Haworth Pub


Are you an academic? Are you interested in social media? Given you’re reading a blog post with the title ‘Social Media for Academics’ then I’ll assume that you are. In which case I hope you’ll be interested in the book that I’ll be spending much of this year writing. I’m due to deliver it to Sage next January to be published later that year. Here’s the current blurb for the project:

This practically minded book will provide an accessible introduction to the opportunities and challenges social media presents for academics. It will situate the fast-changing landscape of social media in terms of the existing  needs and priorities entailed by a career in the contemporary academy: publicising research, building networks, managing information and engaging with wider publics. It is intended as a ‘best practice’ guide, applicable to anyone working within higher education who seeks to better understand and utilise the opportunities offered by social media. Adopting a practical approach throughout, it will frame discussion of platforms and tools in terms of the  concerns, projects and practices more broadly applicable within higher education. Though comprehensively informed by the growing research literature on social media, it will not in itself form part of that literature, but rather contribute to the practical application of the knowledge generated by this expanding field of inquiry.

In keeping with the ethos of the book, I’ll be doing much of the work which goes into it here on my blog (i.e. the ‘social media for academics’ item on the menu bar). Much more to follow over the next nine months.

It took a while but the book is available for pre-order! See here for the cheapest place to buy it online, as well as table of contents & summary

This question has been on my mind a lot this week. Largely because it occurred to me that I have yet to encounter a non-trivial answer to it. Sure, it’s easy to say academic blogging is blogging by academics. But what does this really tell us? Martin Weller has an interesting discussion along these lines in his book the Digital Scholar:

‘Scholarship’ is itself a rather old-fashioned term. Whenever I ask someone to think of scholarship they usually imagine a lone individual, surrounded by books (preferably dusty ones), frantically scribbling notes in a library. This is somewhat removed from the highly connected scholar, creating multimedia outputs and sharing these with a global network of peers. Scholarship is, though, a sufficiently broad term to encompass many different functions and so has the flexibility to accommodate new forms of practice. It is not only focused on teaching, or research, but also on a wide range of activities. In fact, a rather tautological definition of scholarship is that it is what scholars do. And a ‘scholar’ can be defined as a learned person or a specialist in a given branch of knowledge.

Traditionally we have tended to think of scholars as being academics, usually employed by universities. This is the main focus of this book; it is the changes to university and higher education practice that will form the main discussion and research. However, digital scholarship broadens this focus somewhat, since in a digital, networked, open world people become less defined by the institution to which they belong and more by the network and online identity they establish. Thus a well-respected digital scholar may well be someone who has no institutional affiliation. The democratisation of the online space opens up scholarship to a wider group, just as it opens up subjects that people can study beyond the curriculum defined by universities.

A simple definition of digital scholarship should probably be resisted, and below it is suggested that it is best interpreted as a shorthand term. As Wittgenstein argued with the definition of ‘game’ such tight definitions can end up excluding elements that should definitely be included or including ones that seem incongruous. A digital scholar need not be a recognised academic, and equally does not include anyone who posts something online. For now, a definition of someone who employs digital, networked and open approaches to demonstrate specialism in a field is probably sufficient to progress.

Similar ambiguities obtain with the term ‘academic blogging’. I guess my fear is that that, unless this is more widely recognised, certain possibilities about what it could be taken to entail might be foreclosed i.e. ‘academic blogging’ comes to be defined as only one of the many specific activities that are currently subsumed under this rather vague term. I think there’s a real need for empirical research into how academics are using blogging platforms – looking at their intentions behind the activity, the practical results of it and developing taxonomies to better capture how these tools are actually being used (as well as the relative frequency of these uses and their distribution across disciplines) rather than taking the categories already in circulation as being heuristically useful for understanding this emerging field of activity. My fear is that the term ‘blogging’, as well as having all sorts of negative cultural connotations, actually obscures more than it reveals when used as an interpretive category.