In the last week, I’ve realised that I’ve made a fundamental error in how I’ve approached using Omnifocus over the last few years. What has always appealed to me is the flexibility it affords, enabling me to disentangle what I have to do from where and how I do it. If your working life consists of a whole range of different commitments (in my case a 3 day a week job, a 2.5 day a week job, a small freelance business and a whole range of projects) then this is really helpful because you can’t rely on the spatial and temporal organisation of a single workplace to structure your workflow.

The problem I’m realising is that it creates a tendency to assume your work fits around your hard calendar. You leave gaps which Omnifocus fills with tasks, presenting you with the most useful suggestions of what you could do depending on where you are and the equipment you have with you, represented as contexts in the software. This is where GTD advocates stress the importance of the weekly review. You have to structure your hard calendar in order to ensure you have sufficient time in the right context, as opposed to simply responding to the context you happen to be in and the time you happen to have available to you.

However this has rarely worked for me because of the weird time horizons involved in how my working life fits together. What I do is usually scheduled months in advance or days in advance, with little in between. This means that a great deal of coordination falls through the gaps of a weekly review, if indeed I manage to sustain the practice. The problem is not the brute availability of time in my life, as much as ensuring I leave enough time to get my core work done (recorded in the different Omnifocus contexts) while remaining open to scheduling social and work things at short notice. This is what a typical week in November now looks like for me:

The contexts are now part of my hard calendar to ensure I spend a couple of days at home each week and at least two days in the office. This inevitably involves restricting how much travelling I can do but my sense of overwork recently has been because I can’t co-ordinate the role of travel in my life, leaving me committing to more moving around than I can sustain given the amount of time I need to spend each week in specific places focusing on specific categories of things. I’m quietly confident this will solve the problem of over-work for me because the issue I’ve been having is about scheduling, rather than the time and energy I have available for it. My plan is to try and steer clear of Twitter for a bit while I try and embed these new routines:

https://twitter.com/mark_carrigan/status/1027880360229658624

It’s been useful to reflect on this because it’s helped me define my current priorities. I’m co-developing a fascinating strand of research at CPGJ on the platform university, providing the theoretical context within which I can pursue other activities concerning the institutionalisation of digital technology within the university and the social sciences. I’m more committed than ever to The Sociological Review after Undisciplining, increasingly aware of the importance of what we’re doing in terms of securing Sociology’s place both inside and outside the academy. I’ve stepped back from journals and edited books, in order to focus on a number of books which are either partially written or being carried around in my head that I seriously need to finish: Social Media for Academics 2nd edition, The Distracted People of Digital Capitalism, the CSO volume I’m co-editing, The Public and Their Platforms (with Lambros Fatsis) and The Sociology of Big Data (with Hamish Robertson and Jo Travaglia). There’s such a huge amount of work here that I’m increasingly aware of the necessity that I organise my life around it, which I’ve failed to do thus far, with any other commitments being minimised, including  only doing freelance work if it’s particularly rewarding (in multiple senses of the term).

It feels like I’ve been trying to sort this out in my mind for the last few months and that it finally seems clear to me. Though of course the real test will in the months and years ahead. But I’m now certain that I know what I want to do in the next few years and how I plan to do it. In the past, I’ve often been caught between so many interesting things that I was unable to choose between them, in the process doing far too few of them properly. That’s now changing and it’s a really pleasing feeling, even if it was quite tricky to get myself into this position.

For the next edition of Social Media for Academics, I’ve been thinking a lot about hybrid formats for presenting theoretical ideas through social media. A really powerful example of this is the video essay Camera Ludica by marco de mutiis which explores photography in video games through a three-part essay combining in game footage, plain text slides and screencasts of browsing scholarly material. Different sources are overlaid against a black canvas, providing a gripping collage of a debate playing itself out in real time. As well as finding the subject itself interesting, I thought this was a fascinating example of a powerful format which sufficiently creative academics could use with relatively little technical skill.

It reminds me of a project Margaret Archer tried to setup a few years ago looking at visualising social theory, using the affordances of digital media to develop ways of expressing theoretical ideas without depending on linear text or the idiosyncratic diagrams of theorists. If theoretical ideas are to survive in the attention economy then we need to become creative in how they are expressed. But there are immense opportunities here to find non-linear ways of exploring theoretical questions which might prove to be engaging to a much broader audience then is typically the case with theoretical publications.

Now that I’ve recovered from last week, it seemed the right moment to do a round up of the live blogging project Pat Thomson and myself initiated at The Sociological Review’s Undisciplining conference. There were 43 posts from 13 live bloggers over four days. This is a pretty substantial outpouring of thought and reflection over a relatively short period of time:

  1. #Undisciplining Day Zero: Preparing From The Cat Cafe – Mark Carrigan
  2. Live From Breakfast – Pat Thomson
  3. The Hive Begins To Form at #Undisciplining – Mark Carrigan
  4. Landing – Kate Carruthers Thomas
  5. What does it mean to reflect in real time? – Mark Carrigan
  6. Trying to Say Something Clever – Michael Toze
  7. the person/al and the structural? – Pat Thomson
  8. un-mining, (under-mining?) disciplinarity – Anna Davidson
  9. I am NOT a sociologist, get me out of here! – Julia Molinari
  10. sociology of art as a powerful way to reveal the social – Janna Klostermann
  11. making a sociological board game – Pat Thomson
  12. Being alone at conferences – Mark Carrigan
  13. Structure and Undisciplining – Catherine Price
  14. Questions from the geographical edges – Rosemary Hancock
  15. The Missing Links – interdisciplinary in sociological inquiry – Donna Carmichael
  16. A sociological walk of contrasts – Julia Molinari
  17. The Future versus Bureaucracy – Michael Toze
  18. Live blogging and the cinema experience – Catherine Price
  19. Time to Write – Kate Carruthers Thomas
  20. The dreaded conference dinner – Julia Molinari
  21. When a conference has a meta-conference – Mark Carrigan
  22. Care and the conference – Michaela Benson
  23. Echoes from Beyond the Edges of #Undisciplining – Jill Jameson
  24. Conference as home – Pat Thomson
  25. Beyoncé Vs Bev Skeggs – Donna Carmichael
  26. Knowledge production outside the university at #undisciplining – Mark Carrigan
  27. Why should anyone get paid to do sociology? – Mark Carrigan
  28. The feminist walk of the city – Catherine Price
  29. Making friends and changing the world – Rosemary Hancock
  30. The Rising Emotions of Asking the Panel A Question – Julia Molinari
  31. Too Too – Pat Thomson
  32. Not Knowing Why We Do What We Do – Michael Toze
  33. Time Out – Pat Thomson
  34. Outside/In Place – Kate Carruthers Thomas
  35. Undisciplining like a moth to a flame – Janna Klostermann
  36. Re-Sounding Edges: #Undisciplining – Jill Jameson
  37. A Fireside Chat: Defending the Social – Julia Molinari
  38. How does the sociological speak to/with/from the earth? – Anna Davidson
  39. Going Live? – Katy Vigurs
  40. Art! – Janna Klostermann
  41. Beyond the conference – Michael Toze
  42. Reflections on Live Blogging – Catherine Price
  43. Ending Where I Began #Undisciplining – Mark Carrigan

To what extent does this constitute a meta-conference? It was an organised process of asynchronous dialogue with a remit as wide as the conference itself, with the choice of topics being left to live bloggers as they made their way through the conference. To the extent live bloggers were reading each other and in some cases responding to each other, either directly in a substantive way or indirectly through riffing off themes such as awkwardness or isolation, it is clear the above is more than the sum of its parts.

It wasn’t simply individuals responding individually, with the live blog being an aggregate of these individual responses. It wasn’t a collective either but rather something in between the two. What is this in between and what can it tell us about conference sociality and how it can be extended and deepened using social media?

I’ve edited the final two paragraphs of this post for clarity because an awful lot of people read it and thought I was criticising quote tweeting rather than one particular use of it. 

Imagine you were sitting in a cafe having a conversation with a friend. You greeted each other warmly when they arrived, you ordered coffees and sat down to catch up. But something immediately began to feel a little off. Your friend appeared distracted, not quite there and continually looking at their phone. Worse than that, every time they said something to you they began frantically typing on the device. When you eventually questioned their distraction, the friend calmly explained to you that they are perfectly engaged in the conversation but they are transcribing it via e-mail for hundreds of people, many of whom you don’t know.

What would you think if this happened? Now imagine this was not a friend but a perfect stranger. Imagine you’d been having a conversation with someone you know, this stranger had overheard it and immediately sat next to you and inserted themselves into the dialogue. If this took place at an event designed to encourage mingling between people who don’t know each other then this might seem overly forward but not out of the ordinary. The problem would be the lack of introduction, their immediately jumping into the conversation, rather than that you didn’t know them.

But imagine they began transcribing the conversation via e-mail for an unknown audience. What would be irritating in the case of the person you know and like becomes unnerving and off-putting in the case of the stranger. This is what I suggest quote tweeting as a form of reply amounts to and I’m bewildered by people who do it.

For avoidance of doubt: I’m talking about people who consistently use quote tweets in lieu of the reply function, broadcasting their conversation to every single one of their followers. This isn’t an attack on quote tweeting but rather a query as to why some people persistently choose to use it rather than using the familiar reply functionality which has been part of the platform for a long time. Replies are only seen by people who follow both of you whereas quote tweets are seen by everyone follows you. It therefore increases the visibility of the exchange to the maximum possible extent, regardless of the context or intentions of the conversational partner. 

I find it unsettling to be on the receiving end of this behaviour and this short post is an attempt to think through and explain why it feels problematic to me. I find myself increasingly suspicious of people who persistently do this and in some instances, it strikes me as a red flag for some really unpleasant habits which can be found far too readily within the academic Twittersphere. 

Though Pat, Kate Thomas and I made initial contributions to the live blogging project yesterday, it really kicked off today when the main Undisciplining conference began. The day started with a short meeting for our co-researchers, before we all set off on our way through the conference. These are the results of day one:

  1. Trying to Say Something Clever – Michael Toze
  2. the person/al and the structural? – Pat Thomson
  3. un-mining, (under-mining?) disciplinarity – Anna Davidson
  4. I am NOT a sociologist, get me out of here! – Julia Molinari
  5. sociology of art as a powerful way to reveal the social – Janna Klostermann
  6. making a sociological board game – Pat Thomson
  7. Being alone at conferences – Mark Carrigan
  8. Structure and Undisciplining – Catherine Price
  9. Questions from the geographical edges – Rosemary Hancock
  10. The Missing Links – interdisciplinary in sociological inquiry – Donna Carmichael
  11. A sociological walk of contrasts – Julia Molinari
  12. The Future versus Bureaucracy – Michael Toze
  13. Live blogging and the cinema experience – Catherine Price
  14. Time to Write – Kate Carruthers Thomas
  15. The dreaded conference dinner – Julia Molinari
  16. When a conference has a meta-conference: reflections on the first day of live blogging at #undisciplining – Mark Carrigan (you didn’t think I was going to miss this off the list did you?)

What an incredible outpouring of creative energy. I hadn’t realised quite how much was written today because I retreated a bit, having my will to engage sapped by being tied up with a seemingly never ending series of tedious technical tasks. It goes without saying that I incorporated this into a blog, itself in part a response to someone who perfectly articulated what I was feeling (and a practical proposal relating to) on Twitter. Plus I found myself interpreting my later mood in relation to later responses. The whole thing is becoming chronically and almost overwhelmingly meta, compounding my own exhaustion but helping me interpret that and relate it to the conference as a whole.

There is a thread of reflectivity winding its way through the conference, increasingly showing signs of spiralling in upon itself as themes percolate outwards and onwards, across platforms and through the face-to-face. It has seemed increasingly obvious to me over the course of the day that the project needs more curation to feed back in on itself. It needs care and effort to frame the blogs and (re)present them undisciplining in a way that invites further responses. This might be through Twitter but it could also be face-to-face. I’ve struggled to do that during the day, with this project slipping to the back of my mind for long periods, though it should be a bit easier to focus tomorrow. But in a way that makes it more interesting because my fluctuating attention highlights the objectivity of what we’re doing, as something uncertainly begins to emerge from the aggregated iteration of the research team.

(I’m cross-posting this on my own blog first because I compulsively record everything that matters to me intellectually there and it’s dawning on me that I’m going to be thinking about this project a lot in the coming months, as much as my current focus is on the day-to-day of the conference. Plus I’m tired in a way that makes the familiarity of my own blog oddly comforting)

In the last year, I’ve become increasingly preoccupied by why we shouldn’t take social media metrics too seriously. In part, this preoccupation is analytical because following this thread has proven to be a useful way to move from my past focus on individual users of social media to a more expansive sociological account of platforms. The lifecycle of metrics from being a project of platform engineers, through to being a feature of platforms onto something which are meaningful and matter to users elucidates structure and agency as it pertains to platforms. As does the subsequent utilisation of these metrics, laden with meaning by users, in order to model these people and modulate the environment within which they act. By saying we shouldn’t take metrics too seriously, I’m drawing attention to the way they are used as a mechanism to mould the behaviour of users and the risk that uncritical embrace of them leaves us being enticed by platforms in a damaging way.

However beyond this concern, we shouldn’t lose sight of how easily they can be fudged and how unreliable they are. This is a concern which Jaron Lanier powerfully puts forward on pg 67 of his new book:

First, why believe the numbers? As discussed in the previous argument, much of the online world is fake. Fake readers, fake commenters, fake referrals. I note that news sites that are trying to woo advertisers directly often seem to show spectacularly greater numbers of readers for articles about products that might be advertised—like choosing your next gaming machine—than for articles about other topics. This doesn’t mean the site is fudging its numbers. Instead, a manager probably hired a consulting firm that used an algorithm to optimize the choice of metrics services to relate the kind of usage statistics the site could use to attract advertisers. In other words, the site’s owners didn’t consciously fudge, but they kinda-sorta know that their stats are part of a giant fudge cake.

It’s not so much that they are meaningless as that their meaning is often unstable. There are occasions in which it might be necessary to engage with them but we have to do this carefully. One of my projects in the next year will be to try and produce guidelines about this interpretation which reflect what we know about the sociology of platforms while nonetheless recognising that metricising our activity on social media can sometimes serve as strategic purpose.

This is Jaron Lanier’s memorable description of social media in his new book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Social media is a technology for asshole amplification. To be clearly seen in the fact that “since social media took off, assholes are having more of a say in the world” (pg 43). His point is not that social media is a haven for trolls because it’s “not helpful to think of the world as being divided into assholes and non-assholes or if you prefer trolls and victims”. On pg 44 he cautions that each of us has our own inner troll:

It’s like an ugly alien living inside you that you long ago forgot about. Don’t let your inner troll take control! If it happens when you’re in a particular situation, avoid that situation! It doesn’t matter if it’s an online platform, a relationship, or a job. Your character is like your health, more valuable than anything you can buy. Don’t throw it away. But why, why is the inner troll there at all? It’s such a common problem that it must be a deep, primal business, a tragedy of our inheritance, a stupid flaw at the heart of the human condition. But saying that doesn’t get us anywhere. What exactly is the inner troll? Sometimes the inner troll takes charge, sometimes it doesn’t. My working hypothesis has long been that there’s a switch deep in every human personality that can be set in one of two modes. We’re like wolves. We can either be solitary or members of a pack of wolves. I call this switch the Solitary/ Pack switch. When we’re solitary wolves, we’re more free. We’re cautious, but also capable of more joy. We think for ourselves, improvise, create. We scavenge, hunt, hide. We howl once in a while out of pure exuberance. When we’re in a pack, interactions with others become the most important thing in the world. I don’t know how far that goes with wolves, but it’s dramatic in people. When people are locked in a competitive, hierarchical power structure, as in a corporation, they can lose sight of the reality of what they’re doing because the immediate power struggle looms larger than reality itself.

The evolutionary language here can seem off-putting to a sociologist. But it can be recast in terms of internal and external goods. Sometimes we are driven by the rewards internal to what we are doing while at other times we are driven by rewards external to what we are doing. What makes social media platforms so insidious is their tendency to, as Lanier puts it, make “social status and intrigues become more than immediate than the larger reality” (pg 49). I don’t agree with his account of why this is so but I think the underlying direction of his argument is correct. Social media is asshole amplification technology because it lends such force and vivacity to external goods, particularly recognition and reputation, leaving internal goods hard to sustain.

We often do sustain our relationship with these goods, as can be seen in the continued existence of thoughtful and intelligent exchange online. But we do so in spite of rather than because of the asshole amplification architecture of social media. It’s grasping the bivalent nature of this relationship, as internal and external goods co-mingle within platform architectures which are continually modulating in response to our (ambivalent) actions, which is crucial if we want to understand and perhaps even overcome the asshole amplification propensities of social media.

Undisciplining Social Media Guidelines
@TheSocReview www.undisciplining.org #Undisciplining

Social media has been central to our journal in recent years, helping us build a new relationship with our readers and expand beyond our traditional audience. We enthusiastically embrace it as a means to promote sociological thought, as well as a way to work towards a more engaged and open culture within the academy. But making good on this promise requires that it is treated carefully. For this reason, we have included this document in each delegate pack, offering some principles and guidelines to inform your use of social media at Undisciplining. We have a few non-negotiable requirements, included after careful deliberation within our team, but mostly what we have included are pointers we hope will improve everyone’s social media experience at the conference.

General principles:

Be clear about what you are doing and why. It can be easy to slip into using social media in a habitual way, particularly when you’re waiting for a coffee break. But the more concrete you can be about your aims, the easier it will be to ensure you are using social media effectively. The table below provides an overview of conference social media activities and common reasons why these might be undertaken. It is by no means exhaustive so please don’t worry if you intend to use these platforms in a way we haven’t listed here but please talk to us if you have any doubts about its appropriateness after reading these guidelines. There are possibilities we haven’t listed here, such as live streaming and recording audio-visual material, which we request that you don’t use at the conference for reasons explained below.

Remember that people can have different interpretations and will bring different knowledge to the same situation. This might sound obvious but social media can make it hard to remember this by stripping interactions of context and presenting isolated units of communication in a way that is easy to misinterpret.

Source: xkcd. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License

We want people to be critical of the arguments they encounter but please try to be civil and give other conference goers the benefit of the doubt. People have a right to know what you are saying about them so please ensure you tag other users if you are talking about their contributions to the conference. Likewise please ensure you credit people appropriately, including relevant affiliations (most academic departments now have Twitter accounts) if the person in question does not have their own feed.  

Social media can often magnify disagreements and multiply misunderstandings. To paraphrase our favourite xkcd cartoon, if it begins to matter to you that someone is wrong on the internet then that’s a sign you should put down your phone or tablet and engage with the conference without social media for a bit. We want to use social media to help people at Undisciplining connect with each other and the last thing we want is for people to spend the event falling out over social media. We’ve worked hard to create a friendly, engaging and welcoming event so please do your best to approach each other with that ethos when you interact through social media.

Requirements:

  • Please ensure you use the #undisciplining hashtag on Twitter and Instagram. This will allow us to keep track of what’s happening on social media and curate this material before, during and after the event. We are keen to help people connect with each other and connect to other conference goers, so if you’d like us to recirculate something to other participants at the conference please tweet the request to us or e-mail community@thesociologicalreview.com.
  • Please follow the instructions of chairs concerning social media. While we encourage social media at the conference as a whole, speakers and organisers establish what they are comfortable with in their sessions. Therefore please listen to the guidance of the chairs and respect any concerns or requests made by speakers to this end.
  • Please refrain from using live streaming services like Periscope or Facebook Live during the conference. Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of being live-streamed and its immediacy can create problems, even for those who might be comfortable with the idea in principle.
  • Please refrain from recording audio or video at the conference. We have put a lot of time and energy into planning the multimedia being produced at the event. We want to ensure that we capture the event in the most effective way and ensure everyone is comfortable with the finished outputs.
  • Please be considerate in your use of photography at the conference. Photography is ok in the main auditorium unless otherwise specified. Please aim for crowds and avoid foregrounding individuals when taking photography outside of sessions. Avoid photography in workshops unless told it is ok.

If in doubt about something, please ask at any point. Tweet or DM us @thesocreview, e-mail our Digital Engagement Fellow directly at community@thesociologicalreview.com or speak to one of the conference team who can direct your query accordingly.

Thanks to the many people on Twitter I talked to directly and indirectly about these while planning them. 

I knew curation had a root in ‘look after’ but I’d framed this in terms of organise or sustain. The role of care in it makes the notion take on a completely different intonation.

In TroubleMakers, Leslie Berlin summarises the notion of Class 1 and Class 2 disputes propounded by Bob Taylor, founder and manager of Xerox PARC’s famous Computer Science Laboratory. Part of his renowned capacity to build community within the lab involved turning what might have been destructive disputes into constructive ones. On pg 105 Berlin explains how:

Taylor distinguished between what he called “Class 1 and Class 2 disputes.” In the first, the two sides are so estranged that they cannot even hear, much less understand, what the other is saying. In Class 2 disputes, the two sides disagree but understand each other. Taylor’s goal was to move all Class 1 disagreements to Class 2, even if resolution was not possible.

What would this look like on social media? I can conceive of particular instances where thoughtful interventions, with the right timing, might succeed in shifting disagreements from Class 1 to Class 2. Having said this, I struggle to think of any concrete examples but perhaps these are events likely to fly beneath the radar unless you are party to them yourself. Nonetheless, any instance I can imagine seems intensely particularistic, rather than representing a general category. I can imagine Taylor being able to offer general strategies, as well as specific tactics through which one might seek to shift Class 1 disputes into Class 2 disputes. We could also imagine generalisations about the conditions under which such a shift is likely to be possible. But I struggle to imagine any comparable strategy or tactics for disputes which occur through social media, as opposed to situational responses which might contingently work. Furthermore, I find it difficult to imagine how we might build up a body of knowledge about the conditions under which such a shift is likely to be possible because the dynamics are liable to be so specific to the interaction between the parties.

Am I being too bleak? This certainly seems like a gloomy conclusion to draw. But in a context like the lab, it’s possible to make all sorts of assumptions which would obviously be mistaken on social media, concerning factors such as the motivations of parties and their description of the situation. Social media has the propensity to throw people together, with the most minimal relation between them, inciting interaction in the absence of many of the cues which ensure orderly conduct in everyday life. Not only are Class 1 disputes likely on social media, a potential shift to Class 2 disputes becomes less likely with time because continued interaction multiplies the possibility for interpretive failure. The dialogue becomes self-referential, as internal cues come to substitute for the external stabilising influence that would often kick in were the same interaction to unfold in an offline setting.

I’m writing these notes for the Imagine 2027 project which has a relatively specific remit. Not all of these points will be uniformly valid and there are some things I don’t cover (e.g. the consent of speakers) but I’m sharing them here in case people find them useful:

  1. Begin the live tweeting by introducing the speaker, with a photo and tagging them on Twitter if applicable, using the hashtag e.g. “Full room for tonight’s #imagine2027 with @speaker, talking on how we can have a more equal society by 2027”.
  2. If the speaker is on Twitter, try and tag them as you live tweet but be careful not to start a tweet with their twitter handle. This has to be in main body of the tweet rather than at the start to ensure the message is visible to the full list of followers.
  3. Try and convey the gist of the speaker’s argument rather than capturing every detail of what they’re saying.
  4. Listen out for powerful phrases the speaker uses and tweet these as quotes e.g. “Important message from @speaker at #imagine2027: “powerful phrases they used”.
  5. If they ask any thought-provoking questions then be sure to tweet these out e.g. “What does ‘equality’ mean? Important question by @speaker at tonight’s #imagine2027”
  6. Look through the hashtag #imagine2027 and retweet audience members throughout the talk.
  7. Don’t quote particular audience members when it comes to the Q&A but it’s fine to summarise the topics which are coming up in questions.
  8. Close the session with a tweet thanking the speaker and the audience.

In the last couple of years, I’ve done around eighty talks on a variety of topics across a whole range of different settings. The biographical, professional and intellectual reasons why I’ve done so many are a topic for another post. What concerns me at the moment is how I prepare for them. To talk in public requires preparation and I’m in the process of experimenting with how I undertake that preparation. For much of this time I’ve relied on Artefact Cards for talks. As I described them in an earlier blog post recounting how I used them to collate ideas for my social media book:

The card themselves are designed to “help you craft better ideas, create new idea combinations by moving, shuffling, stacking, dealing and matching them”. In essence they’re just blank playing cards, with a look and feel which has obviously been the subject of much thought, which can be filled using the supplied Sharpie. They’re perhaps slightly overpriced but it’s hard to begrudge an individual creator this for a product that so much love has clearly gone into.

These small colourful cards allow you to scribble down a few ideas, depending on how large your writing is and how fine grained a sharpie you use. Sometimes I try and fit too much on the cards, prompting me to squint at them in the middle of a talk in a way which always makes me cringe when I see it on video. I have occasionally experimented with the extra large version of artefact cards, around twice the size, in the hope of countering the problem. Unfortunately, this tempts me to simply write more on the cards rather than writing a much larger version of what I would anyway.

My aspiration has always been to write a single word or phrase on then card, though sometimes I over-prepare. My general rule of thumb has been to prepare 8-12 cards for a 30 minute talk, though this varies. I usually mull over a talk in my mind for a couple of days, sit down with a cup of coffee and write out the cards in one go. I then practice once or twice to check something coherent comes out and that it remains roughly in the allotted time period. In this way, I usually prepare a talk in anything from one hour to four hours. If I’m travelling, I will usually run through them once at home before doing it again on the morning of the talk. I’ve written them on trains and planes, in bars and restaurants, but I prefer to prepare them on my own at my dining room table. For reasons I’ve never understood, I usually find myself doing them late in the afternoon at the end of my working day. Being on the verge of tiredness, propelled primarily by coffee, proves oddly fitting for what is essentially an exercise in externalising ideas from my mind to the cards.

When it works best, I barely look at the cards. It’s reassuring to have them there if I need them and their compact size, as well as the motion of dispensing with each card as I work my way through the talk, proves weirdly reassuring. This means I sometimes miss details, often not important ones but sometimes omissions I have regretted, such as explaining how much a particular person’s work influenced the analysis I’m offering, even if I’m not directly citing them. This is a useful reminder that improvisation can lead to things which are effectively ethical lapses, even if mild ones. Carefulness isn’t just a restraint on creativity and the impulse towards spontaneity can sometimes work against it.

This is the routine I’ve had for over two years. Sometimes it works well, other times it works brilliantly and occasionally it goes wrong for what are usually unrelated reasons. However in recent months, the routine has stated to feel, well, routine to me. The sheer familiarity of what I am doing has left the process failing to ignite my creativity in the same way it once did. What still works as a preparation to talk has stopped being reliable as a preparation to think. Furthermore, my ambition that the talks would sometimes be reusable has proved ill founded. I often can’t read my writing when I come back to it later, raising the question of how on earth I understood it at the time of giving the talk. Even if it is legible, the contents of the card seem inert to me, as if their intellectual vitality came from the context in which I used them, rather than the words written on them. I occasionally pick up individual cards which serve as prompts when creating new cards for upcoming talks. But I’ve never reused them in the way I once expected to, something which occasionally feels like a frustrated ambition when I notice my subliminal tendency to pile the cards up neatly in stacks for each talk as if I would one day pick them up again as a whole.

Nonetheless, some of the components have become so familiar that I am able to recite them off the top of my head. In fact, I occasionally do so involuntarily, slipping into fluent passages about a particular topic when I hit a keyword, in spite of it not being  part of expected or intended material for a talk. But more often they become hollowed out through over-use, echoing what I have said on past occasions with more force, rather than being iterations through which I get closer to what I am trying to say. The process reminds me of my experience with asexuality research, particularly formal writing and media work. In both cases, my invitations to write and speak came to outstrip what a relatively small empirical project had left me trying to say. In an important sense, I became worse with practice and I found the experience an unnerving one, ultimately motivating me to leave the topic in search of new challenges.

Now I find myself in a comparable predicament, feeling less confident about my public speaking as I become more experienced at it. The best way I can think to respond to this is to experiment. For this reason, I’ve decided to explore alternative methods of preparing for talks and plan to document the process as I go. Thus far, I’ve used blog posts for a keynote where I consulted a text which I had practiced before hand (40 mins and 4000 words) and a short talk where I simply used the post to order my thoughts (10 mins and 750 words). I since slipped back into the Artefact card routine out of convenience but over the course of the year, I plan to experiment with alternative methods. I’ve listed these in the thread attached to the Tweet below:

https://twitter.com/mark_carrigan/status/984822554539020288

I hope to blog about the experiment but whether I feel comfortable writing about each individual case remains to be seen. This is potentially taking my commitment to honestly documenting my practice in public a little too far, given the potential for awkwardness with people who have invited me to speak and dishonesty if I exclude aspects which are relevant to the experiment in the name of ensuring good relations with people. But the possibility the experiment would encourage others to do the same is an appealing one and certainly counts in favour of sustaining radical transparency. I offer this blog post and subsequent ones in the spirit of scholarly craft and a commitment to open discussion of it.

Towards the end of his life, Pierre Bourdieu underwent an activist turn and offered a public sociology which I’ve long thought we can learn much from. In his Firing Back, he offers important ideas about how academics and social movements can work together. He maintains that “the work of academic researchers is indispensable to disclose and dismantle the strategies incubated and implement by the big multinational corporations and international bodies” who are able to “enlist unprecedented scientific, technical and cultural resources” to their cause (pg 46). He goes on to explain how such cooperation necessitates that activists and academics overcome their differing orientations:

Though they are different in their training and social trajectories, researchers engaged in activist work and activists interested in research must learn to work together, overcoming all the prejudices they may harbour about one another. They must endeavour to cast off their routines and presuppositions associated with membership in universes governed by different laws and logics by establishing modes of communication and discussion of a new type.

One of many things which has fascinated me during the recent university strikes has been how academics participate as activists in a quintessentially academic way. This is how I put it earlier in the week:

https://twitter.com/mark_carrigan/status/973623941033025536

I suspect I’ll be trying for some time to analyse and articulate the characteristics of the social media commentary which seems to have played such a significant part in this dispute. This has spanned multiple genres: auto-ethnography, investigative journalism, quantitative analysis, organisational documentation. But they are all “modes of communication and discussion of a new type” relating to events taking place within higher education which are of concern to all parties to the exchange, as opposed to being specialised communication within a narrow subset of academics about events taking place ‘out there’.

In doing so, it moves beyond the limitations of critique as it is conducted within the academy where, as he puts it on pg 21, “it enchants itself without ever being in a  position to really threaten anyone about anything”. We can see here the outlines of a reconstruction of the “whole edifice of critical thought” driven by the immediate need by academics for intellectual self-defence in the face of a disingenuous and calculating onslaught. Is there an emergent subject to be found in this activity? This would be an immense overstatement but this is the question I feel we should be orientating ourselves towards. As Bourdieu writes later on the same page:

This is where the collective intellectual can play its unique role, by helping to create the social conditions for the collective production of realistic utopias. It can organise or orchestrate joint research on novel forms of political action, on new manners of mobilising and of making mobilised people work together, on new ways of elaborating projects and bringing them to fruition together. It can play the role of midwife by assisting the dynamics of working groups in their effort to express, and thereby discover, what they are and what they could or should be, and by helping with the reappropriation and accumulation of the immense social stock of knowledge on the social world with which the social world is pregnant.

This is not where we are but it is where we could be. There are many questions to answer about the campaign of the last four weeks, as well as further struggle in a fight which is far from over. But we should take stock of the gains that we have made, as well as the spontaneous methodologies which have contributed to them. I’m convinced something very important happened with how social media was used by academics in the last four weeks, driven by:

  1. a mass harmonisation of intellectual attention
  2. emergent cooperation and distributed creativity by workers usually bound in to hyper-individualised temporal regimes
  3. the necessity of intellectual self-defence

How can we ensure this activity survives when these conditions are not present? To put it crudely, it seems obvious it was in part an expression of people having much more discretionary time available when their usual daily obligations were absent. But there is more to it than this and we need to understand what this supplement is, how we can nurture it and how we can apply it to maximal effect.

It was perhaps inevitable that I would find myself obsessing over the role of social media in the current strikes. In my academic life, I’m a sociologist studying how social media is used within universities and how this is changing the academy. In my non-academic life, I’m a digital engagement specialist at a charity and a social media consultant. Since the start of the strike, I’ve been helping out with the social media for the Cambridge UCU branch while running the #FromThePicketLines campaign for The Sociological Review. This has left me fascinated by how the strike is being represented, co-ordinated and responded to through Twitter.

The most enjoyable aspect of this has been an outpouring of multimedia creativity which has quickly been circulated through these channels. In part, it is easier to produce such material as barriers to production have lowered with each successive generation of smart phones and a rapidly consolidating culture of amateur multimedia production. But there has also been a mimesis effect, as initial examples have spurred other branches and campaigns to produce their own multimedia project. This also reflects the visual turn in social media, initially driven by Pinterest, Instagram and Snapchat before older platforms expanded their visual capacities to avoid losing users to these newer competitors. For instance, 1,582 tweets were made with the hashtag #GIFusourpensions after the first week of the strike, using the animated GIFs now built into the Twitter platform to illustrate the evolving strike using extracts from popular culture. These 720 users produced 3,265,401 impressions between them (occasions on which a post was seen by a user). There have also been creative uses of tools which streamline the process of generating social media content, such as meme generators and caption makers, with my favourite example being a vice-chancellor themed Hitler bunker parody. As the strike has progressed, we have seen increasing numbers of videos being produced, ranging from serious attempts to explain the concept of the picket line through to comedic offerings which gently satirise the privilege of those who appear in them. While any one example is probably insignificant, the aggregate effect represents an expansion of symbolic participation in the strike, itself significant for knowledge workers without many material correlates to their labour or its withdrawal.

What fascinates me about this is how it has arisen spontaneously, without prior coordination or any meaningful sense of what one does with social media under these circumstances. It would obviously be mistaken to imagine that branches were previously insulated from one another, acting in institutional silos while only the national organisation linked all the nodes together. To a large extent, we have seen activists around the country taking up these social media platforms as tools, perhaps informed by their past professional and/or activist experience of them, finding uses which are enjoyable but also finding receptive audiences. The fact these audiences are often made up of other activists, as well as a broader academic community which has in effect taken to activism en masse, incites them towards similar action. For all that popular debate has been concerned with ‘filter bubbles’, we see the other side of online community here, as people with converging motivations inspire each other in pursuit of common aims.

These are just speculative thoughts, informed by helping with the social media of my local UCU branch and running a #fromthepicketline social media campaign as part of my (non-academic) day job during the strike. But there are a great many empirical questions which have been raised by the role of social media in this strike, inviting answers which would have a double significance as matters of union strategy but also as empirical social science.