I organised a Sociological Review workshop at the weekend with Jenny Thatcher, Pat Thomson and Inger Mewburn. I’m sufficiently snowed under at the moment that I don’t have the time/energy to reflect on it properly but here’s a sneak preview of the graphic produced by Julia Hayes (below), links to live blogging by Tyler Shores below and live tweeting by Zoe Walshe on the #socialmediaphd hashtag. I’ve also attached some photos of the charts participants produced which I want to come back to later and think about properly.

Live-blogging: Academics as social media curators

Live-blogging: Social Media and Doing a PhD — Problems and Opportunities

Live-blogging: Thesis Whisperer, Academic blogging, and social media

Live-blogging: Pat Thomson, Academic blogging, and social media

Live-blogging: Mark Carrigan and Academic blogging and social media

Live-blogging: Social Media and Doing a PhD, What Do you Need to Know

 

This is the most enticing call for papers I’ve seen in ages. My promise to focus exclusively on my (still horribly unfinished) books for the foreseeable future is getting severely tested:

Who’s a Bully? Civility, Authoritarianism, and Power in the Contemporary Academy

For its next volume, scheduled for publication in fall 2019, the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom seeks original, scholarly articles that consider how “bullying” is implicated in conflicts taking place around discourses of civility and academic freedom. How do admonitions of “civility” operate along lines of power? How do authoritarian cultural and political formations impact practices of academic freedom? We will consider any essay on the topic of academic freedom but are especially interested in the following:

  • Precarity, identity, and labor: How do discourses of civility operate in terms of social and labor hierarchies in the university? How do such conflicts travel along lines of race, class, gender, national origins, and sexuality? How does the increased precarity of academic labor effect issues of civility and power for students, administrators, faculty, and staff? How are these issues related to struggles over “sanctuary campuses”?
  • Campus discourse: What is the relationship between “civility” and academic freedom in the classroom, administration, and campus in general? Why are colleges and universities real and imagined sites for broader issues of civil comportment? How do conflicts around “civility” and power impact workplace democracy and faculty governance? How do these issues extend to K–12 education?
  • Globalization: What are the challenges for academic freedom in an era of globalization? How does the rise of popular and governmental authoritarianism affect academic freedom? Are conflicts around civility and power transnational? How might international solidarity movements respond to these challenges?
  • Social media and communications: How is social media an arena for conflicts around “civility” and power, and how does that impact academic freedom? How do these conflicts take shape in libraries and archives? How does the proliferation of university policies around the use of technology enact questions of civility and power?
  • Private consulting and university discourse: The rise of private educational consulting firms and their use by university and college administrations brings corporate discourse into key institutional decisions. This raises questions of power and civility from actors often not publicly represented in governance processes. How does corporate discourse impact questions of academic freedom?

Electronic submissions of no more than 8,000 words should be sent to jaf@aaup.org by March 1, 2019, and must include an abstract of about 150 words. We welcome submissions by any and all faculty, graduate students, and independent scholars. If you have any questions, contact me at rbuff@uwm.edu.

While this is an academic journal with submissions subject to peer review, we welcome innovative and journalistic prose styles. The journal uses the seventeenth edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, and authors should anticipate that, if an article is accepted for publication, it will need to be put into Chicago style. Read more about the Journal.

In the last public interview with Paulo Freire, he talks about tolerance as the means through which we realise the “the rich possibility of doing things and learning different things with different people”. Social media can provoke the curiosity Freire talks about, exposing us to a universe of difference but it also often generates irritation in the face of that difference, inclining us to dismiss rather than understand.

I was struck when reading this description of Donna Haraway’s work in Razmig Keucheyan’s Left Hemisphere of how useful the notion of détournement could be in navigating the contemporary politics of social media. As he writes on loc 4454:

Like a number of contemporary critical thinkers, Haraway subscribes to the strategic paradigm of détournement. Its origins go back to the artistic avant-gardes of the twentieth century, especially situationism. It consists in diverting an object or discourse from its original function in order to subvert its content and endow it with a politically or artistically new connotation. Thus, although cyborgs initially went hand in glove with capital, it cannot be excluded that they will make it possible to transcend certain aporiae in which advocates of a radical ecology and socialism are currently trapped.

What was once a position of untrammelled utopianism, in which the founding ideology of social media was uncritically reproduced in a fit of enthusiasm, increasingly heads towards its opposite. As the media sociologist John Thompson cautioned at an excellent event in Cambridge last week, it is dangerous to read back the characteristics of media by looking at their effects. If I understood his point correctly, the risk is that we end up ascribing causality to the media themselves which overlooks the many social and cultural factors operative beyond the platforms and the firms running then. Bad things are happening which involve social media therefore those bad things must originate with social media.

To be overly attentive to the media system in and of itself inadvertently reproduces precisely the utopian assumptions which we seek to overturn. I wonder if détournement in the sense of unweaving the participatory promise of social media (what I call the founding ideology above) from its embedding in a particular account of platforms could be a useful strategy for getting beyond this impasse? Rather than see domination as built into the structure of the platform itself, could the platform’s own ideology be usefully leverage in critique of the promised outcomes which its business model suppresses? Does the mood of cultural pessimism inadvertently exclude conversations about democratic governance and collective action orientated towards reform? Can these platforms be diverted from their original function?

I’m currently in Zurich preparing for a panel on social media, organised by the CareerElixier group. I was sent some questions in advance and I’m writing up responses in order to gather my thoughts. 

Why is social media a subject for academics?

Social media is a subject for academics because it is a subject for everyone. How we all communicate is undergoing a profound change and this is something academics need to be aware of, if for no other reason than the students, administrators, funders, stakeholders and research participants are likely to be part of this change to varying degrees. At the very least, it is something academics need to have an awareness of and there are specific benefits which can be accrued if they wish to go further by using it in a professional capacity.

Why should they participate and use the channels?

There are lots of ways in which social media can be beneficial for academics. It can help increase your visibility within your field, encourage people to read your publications, keep up to date with developments, build wider professional networks and collaborate with groups outside the academy. But it also makes a more open, collaborative and interdisciplinary form of scholarship possible by empowering scholarly networks and leaving them less dependent on the traditional gatekeepers of academic life. Therefore I think we need to strike a balance between focusing on how individual academics might benefit from using these channels and how it might enhance scholarly culture as a whole.

How should they use these channels?

I don’t think there’s a single answer to this question. In fact the idea there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to use social media can often get in the way of people coming to an approach that is right for them. There are certainly things its best to avoid doing, such as berating your colleagues online. But beyond that it depends on what you want to achieve. Are you trying to build better connections with people within your field? Are you trying to make public groups more aware of your research in order to collaborate with them? Are you trying to draw out the political implications of your research in a public forum? What matters to me is helping people find a way to use these channels which is satisfying and sustainable for them.

Do you use social media for professional reasons?

The short answer to this question would be ‘yes’. The long answer would be that it depends on what you mean by ‘professional’. For instance I’ve used a blog for almost 15 years as a place to write on what I’ve been reading and thinking about. As I undertook a PhD, the contents of that blog became much more academic and I setup a new blog with a specific research focus around 8 years ago to reflect this. But even now I often use it for things which don’t relate directly to my work and yet would be recognised by many people as academic. I use social media to find, share and discus things I’m interested in. Many of those things relate to my work but others don’t. Increasingly, I try to sustain a common professional identity across the different social media platforms I use but there’s still lots of things which aren’t obviously ‘professional’ on there. Orthodox notions of what constitutes ‘professional’ are likely to be unsettled by social media so they are of limited use in guiding how we take up these platforms in our working lives.

Why do you use social media for these reasons?

Two reasons stand out in my use of social media. Firstly, the endless opportunities for thinking out loud in a way liable to generate debate. Blogging has been incredibly valuable to me as a means of finding my academic voice, developing my intellectual outlook and practicing my writing. Particularly with the extended character limit Twitter has been a valuable outlet for testing out ideas in public and working up  hunches and intuitions into a form I can use elsewhere. My use of social media has helped provide intellectual coherence to what might otherwise have been a fragmented career, working on a range of what might seem to others to be unconnected topics (critical realist theory, asexuality, social media, big data, higher education) undertaken in a range of different roles. Secondly, its enormously powerful as a means of promoting events, helping reduce the time and energy involved in getting word out about events I’m running. I enjoy organising events and I’ve tried hard to build a network of people likely to be interested in and possibly attend what I’m working on.

A slightly more unusual reason is that I use social media as an academic in order to better understand how academics use social media. As a point of methodology, if we want to understand these platforms then it is important we have experience of using them, particularly when our research relates to a particular professional sector. For instance I began using Instagram and Pinterest largely because I felt it was important for me to understand how these platforms operated from the perspective of a user. In this sense, I have an auto-ethnographic orientation towards my own use of social media, though it often lags behind my own practice and involves making sense of the habits and routines I’ve fallen into.

What general benefits does the use of social media provide for academics?

As above: There are lots of ways in which social media can be beneficial for academics. It can help increase your visibility within your field, encourage people to read your publications, keep up to date with developments, build wider professional networks and collaborate with groups outside the academy. But it also makes a more open, collaborative and interdisciplinary form of scholarship possible by empowering scholarly networks and leaving them less dependent on the traditional gatekeepers of academic life. Therefore I think we need to strike a balance between focusing on how individual academics might benefit from using these channels and how it might enhance scholarly culture as a whole.

What kind of social media are useful in the academic context and for what purpose?

One of the defining characteristics of scholarly work is how much information we work with. Digital technology makes the problem worse, by contributing to an objective increase in what is available by lowering costs of publication and subjectively leaving us more aware of what we haven’t read or engaged with. Social media can help us filter this abundance by letting us follow people who provide recommendations about what is worth engaging with. Curation tools like Pinterest, Scoop.It, Padlet and Wakelet further help us organise what we find in a way which is useful to others. We need to adapt our information management practices to take account of the abundance of material available to us, otherwise we’re likely to be overwhelmed by social media.

Social networks like ResearchGate and Academia.Edu are becoming more popular and they clearly serve a purpose, in so far as people are using them to share pre-publication papers and navigate the scholarly literature. However I’m somewhat suspicious of them because we don’t know what their long term commercial strategy will be but we can be certain it will involve trying to make money from the work that academics have freely offered to these platforms. Furthermore, it risk detracting from non-commercial repositories which are surely a better avenue for sharing in the longer term. Mass market social networks might be a better bet, with Twitter being the obvious example but professional uses that can be made of Facebook and LinkedIn. These can provide low maintenance tools for keeping track of people whose work we find interesting & for allowing them to keep track of ours, including sharing links to our own pre-publication work where appropriate. Non-commercial alternatives like Mastodon or Humanities Commons are exciting projects but face the challenge of network effects, as the value of a platform is dependent upon the network of its users. By framing it in this way, I’m compounding the problem by imbuing it with an aura of inevitability but nonetheless it cannot simply be wished away.

While project management software like Slack, Basecamp or Trello aren’t usually categorised as ‘social media’, they have enormous potential to enrich how academics work together. My experience has been that it’s hard to get people to use these packages because they rely on all members of a team developing new habits at the same time. But there’s a potential to radically reshape how academics work together, in ways liable to save time and increase creative engagement between people working at a distance. Trello in particular is one I’ve become hugely enthusiastic about, depending as it does on defining a workflow within a team. I’ve found it surprising how much academic collaboration happens without an explicitly agreed workflow and suspect this would seem extremely strange to people in most other sectors. Taking advantage of project management software involves coming to terms with these challenges and I think this is a good thing, even if it can make it tricky to get started.

Which social media do you recommend using as an academic in particular?

I suspect most academics in the humanities and social sciences would benefit from having a research blog. Regularly writing about what you’re reading, struggling with or reflecting on can be enormously enriching for anyone who spends time working alone with ideas. It can also function as a personal website, providing you with an independent professional identity above and beyond your university affiliation. Use of a social network is going to be increasingly important, as a means of being visible to one’s peers and keeping track of developments but it depends on which social networks are most prominent amongst your academic community. Beyond that, I think it’s a matter of what you’re trying to achieve. I feel unhelpful saying that but I worry a lot of bad advice proliferates due to people over-generalising about their own academic community and institutional context.

What kind of ‘strategies’ do exist with dealing with social media? E.g. non-users, skeptical/passive users, enthusiastic users.

This is a really interesting question and we need to be really careful about how we answer it. For instance what’s seen as passive use might in fact be immensely active e.g. using it in a focused way as a tool for following conversations and developments. Characterising this as passivity might put people off using social media in a way which can be enormously beneficial for them. Lurking is a very scholarly thing to do, I think, even though it tends to lead to invisibility on platforms which hierarchise users in terms of the prominence of their speech. Likewise enthusiastic users might be characterised as unfocused users, drawn into the behavioural nudges through which platforms seek to continually increase user engagement to the detriment of their own work. How we characterise these strategies can often contain unacknowledged value judgements and encode understandings of what platforms are supposed to be used for. Nonetheless, I am concerned that what Zhu and Purdam call academic ‘super-users’ dominate discussions about how these platforms should be used by academics. Their experiences or motivations are not typical of most academics yet they are most heard in discussions about how academics should use social media, partly due to being cast in the role of advocates for social media and partly due to the attention economy of the platforms themselves.

Is the distribution of these strategies connected with social attributes?

This is a really good question and to the best of my knowledge, there’s not a clear empirical answer to this in the developing research literature. It might be possible to piece one together if one did a literature review with this specific question in mind. There is clear evidence of enthusiastic use amongst the extremely junior and very senior, with the strategies of the ‘middle’ being something which needs further research. I’m particularly interested in academics who join social media and then leave, as people whose experiences tend to be obscured by how empirical investigations inevitably focus on users or non-users.

If one decides to use social media professionally: is there a best-practice strategy?

I honestly don’t think there is a best-practice strategy because optimal outcomes depend so much on who you are what you want to achieve. Therefore the only best-practice strategy I could suggest would be to be clear about why you are using social media. What do you hope to achieve? The more clearly you can answer that question, the easier it will be to decide on what social media to use and how to use them. Beyond this, it’s just a matter of offering tips or guidelines: sharing things you care about, having a bias towards connecting with others, tell a story about yourself through your profile. Modelling other people’s behaviour can also help. If someone’s behaviour on social media  irritates you, can you articulate precisely why it irritates you? If you like someone’s behaviour, can you be clear about what appeals to you? These can be really useful questions to ask when trying to work out a mode of use which is right for you.

What do academics need to know to communicate effectively via social media?

Feeling comfortable with these platforms is a crucial precondition for communicate effectively and it often tends to get overlooked. One reason I’m so preoccupied with dispelling the idea there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to use social media is my concern it gets in the way of people finding their own voice. How do you find a way to communicate which is comfortable for you, consistent with your professional ambitions, leaves you feeling able to post without agonising over each sentencers while not leaving you so informal as to be taking unnecessary risks? It’s a tricky process and I think few people achieve it, with hasty generalisations about effective communications producing all manner of stumbling blocks. Therefore I think we should restrict ourselves to tips and guidelines, such as being sensitive to the norms of the platform you are using (e.g. avoid posting animated GIFs on LinkedIn, avoid posting your CV on Twitter) and taking the time to explore what it will let you do and what it won’t let you do (e.g. Instagram only provides extremely limited ways of pointing people beyond the platform).

How do you handle multiple audiences? E.g. future employers, academics, multiple publics

This is a really tricky one. We’re used to deal with these different groups in specific contexts yet on social media they all come together in a way that can be really challenging. A message meant for one group, assuming certain background information, can be read by all the others who might not share those assumptions. Furthermore, we can’t know how far a message might percolate outwards, completely leaving behind its original context. The key thing is understand these risks and finding ways to manage them, because the only way to avoid them completely is to either avoid social media all together or cultivate a sufficiently anodyne style that we never say anything that could possibly be misinterpreted by anyone. Thus we would stand little chance of ever saying anything at all. Therefore we need to map out who are audiences are and try to understand what conflicts, if any, exist between them. For instance people often skip over stuff that is irrelevant to them, as long as it doesn’t constitute the bulk of what they see. I’ve always like Paul Krugman’s strategy of simply labelling certain posts as for other economists and policy professionals, as opposed to his usual readership which has a broader interest in politics.

Using social media can take a lot of time. How do you see the discrepancy between using time for social media presence versus time for your research?

One of the risks is that social media becomes a black hole for your time. From the perspective of the firms running these platforms, the more time you spend on them the better because they’re reliant on your time, energy and data to make money. Therefore it’s important to avoid falling into these traps, for instance getting too preoccupied with pursuing followers at all cost. In my experience, the people who use social media most effectively, in the sense that they get a lot out of it both personally and professionally, have made it part of their workflow. It’s part of their normal working routines (e.g. they do the initial preparation for a panel for a blog post, crowd source information via Twitter or share a draft slide deck through Slideshare to get comments) as opposed to be something outside their usual work. If you start putting ‘write blog post’, ‘send tweets’ on a to do list then you’re unlikely to be enjoying what you’re doing or get much out of it. Other things will inevitably intrude in this case. Using scheduling software can also be an important strategy here, though that’s a big topic in its own right and it feels a bit weird to do it for personal accounts in my experience.

How do you handle the fact that content normally connote be deleted and leaves long-term traceable information about one’s person?

There are things you can use to address this problem, such as using a service like TweetDelete to automatically all tweets past a certain date or archiving old blogs and taking them offline. But these can’t ensure the content has been deleted. For instance others might have saved it or might be available through a web archiving project. One crass response to this is to say that you shouldn’t share anything you wouldn’t stand by later. But the problem is that we don’t know we will change or how society will change in the future, making it hard to identify those things which prove problematic at a later day. To follow through in a truly cautious way would risk leaving us unable to say anything online. Therefore it becomes a matter of managing risk: occasionally auditing your profiles with a critical eye to see if there might be things which you would later regret, recognising the public character of what you share even if it feels like you are sharing it with a close group or having a statement of purpose which illuminates the context of what you are sharing e.g. noting that a blog ism or sharing work in progress.

However these are fairly unsatisfying when you really begin to think through the problem. Academics have always been made statements which they are held to, the problem is that social media personalise those statements (contrary to centuries of scholarly norm), archive them by default and do so in a way which is potentially searchable. After an argument with staff at a right-think tank on Twitter I once found a prominent journalist looking back through years of tweets and retweeting examples of Marxist academia. It’s unnerving when this happens and I’m aware my status as a white middle-class man who mostly talks to other academics makes it unlikely I’ll ever be a major target of it. There’s a huge change underway where which we need to grapple with in the academy and beyond, relating to how we conceive of responsibility and ownership. It’s a matter for political theory as much as it is for social media.

Is social media use becoming an obligation for academics? If yes, how can academics evade it?

I think it is in the UK but there are quite specific reasons for this, relating to the pressure to demonstrate research impact and the fact there’s still relatively little understand of how to install this at an institutional level. I’d love to find out more about the situation in Switzerland, as I’m aware most of what I understand relates to the American, UK and to a lesser extent Australian contexts.

How to handle (public) critique and trolls effectively?

This is a really good question and distinguishing between them at the outset is important. Even if many academics spend a lot of their time talking to each other on social media, sudden encounters with the public are always possible and they’re often unpredictable. It can be jarring to realise external groups might not only be uninterested in our research but in fact be actively hostile to it. I’ve seen countless incidents where academics have responded to what might be deemed critique by others and labelled it as trolling. The ‘troll’ is an ambiguous category and in some ways its an unhelpful term, having changing from the deliberate trickster of internet culture to a. catch-all term for someone whose online behaviour we object to.

Nonetheless, the risk in suggesting academics might sometimes not take critique well is that we understate the problem of harassment which is huge and growing. As the educational technologist Audrey Watters has argued, online harassment reflects offline harassment but it also reflects design features of platforms which have incentivised and amplified this behaviour. If you haven’t encountered these toxic cultures, type ‘social justice warrior’ into YouTube and look through some videos and comments threads. This is a huge problem and I’m conscious when discussing it that I’m never going to be on the receiving end of it, simply because it is massively targeted at women and people of colour rather than beardy white middle class theory bros. In the context of this, my making practical suggestions such as looking for red flags in someone’s behaviour (for instance are they tweeting similar comments to many others? does their behaviour suggest a genuine interest in debate?) and blocking proactively seem like trite responses to a societal problem. We need to make this issue prominent though, not least of all because mainstreaming social media within university creates an economy of reward in which white men will be doubly privileged because they can be ‘engaged academics’ without having to deal with the vast amounts of emotional labour and psychic assault which others endure.

What are the main legal issues and issues regarding data protection?

At least in the UK context, there’s still a naiveté concerning publishing online. Many people seem to see it as something informal or pre-legal when it really isn’t. Increasing contestation of academic speech might drive awareness of these issues as people begin to recognise the potential consequences to online action. The thankfully declining sense of ‘online’ as a virtual space distinct from ‘offline’ will help in this regards. In terms of data protection, I think GDPR principles are likely to filter down and they provide excellent common sense ways of making sense of data protection even beyond their sphere of application. But my understanding would be there aren’t specific data protection concerns applying to social media under GPDR, unless you’re scraping profile data to be stored in a database, as the firm itself is the responsible entity.

Would you use social media in an activist sense – what are the pros and cons?

A colleague I interviewed for my book, Gurminder Bhambra, said something about this which really stuck with me: what’s the point of having a political opinion which is private? I think she’s right and social media provides an enticing forum for this, providing a platform for academics to talk in a way orientated towards audience outside the academy.  Nonetheless, we have to be clear about what we mean when we talk about using it it an ‘activist sense’. What is it we’re trying to achieve exactly? There’s a risk that social media becomes an echo chamber, in which our opinions are reflected back to us. It can be a powerful tool for building solidarity and sharing information but its activist value comes as part of a strategy which extends beyond it.

Is it academics’ responsibility to communicate via social media with the public?

There’s a softer version of this claim which often gets overlooked. Rather than it being a responsibility to communicate via social media with the public, it is a responsibility to make work open in a way that members of the public can find it if they’re interested. This shift towards openness is less of an undertaking than a claim of responsibility for active communication and it’s more easily supported by institutional provision. I’d subscribe to this but I’m not sure how I feel about basing that claim in terms of government funding which is often how it’s made in the UK. I’d much rather frame it in terms of rendering public goods (potentially) accessible, a radical extension of what teaching has always done. If we present it as a quid pro quo for government spending then we’ve already conceded a great deal of political ground.

 

I found this review of Trump and the Media by Nicholas Carr in the LA Review of Books immensely thought-provoking. His focus is on the book’s historical contribution, contextualising the enthusiasm with which social media was greeted in terms of long term concerns about the centralisation of mass media. We can’t understand the ideal of a radically decentralised media without understanding the anxieties provoked by its initial centralisation:

Trump’s twitter stream may be without precedent, but the controversy surrounding social media’s political impact has a history stretching back nearly a century. During the 1930s, the spread of mass media was accompanied by the rise of fascism. To many observers at the time, the former helped explain the latter. By consolidating control over news and other information, radio networks, movie studios, and publishing houses enabled a single voice to address and even command the multitudes. The very structure of mass media seemed to reflect and reinforce the political structure of the authoritarian state.

It is against this backdrop that social scientists began to “imagine a decentralized, multimedia communication network that would encourage the development of a ‘democratic personality,’ providing a bulwark against fascist movements and their charismatic leaders”. Fred Turner traces these initial speculations from their originators, through the 1960s counterculture and the incipient computer industry, before it became an article of faith within present day Silicon Valley:

In the early years of this century, as the internet subsumed traditional media, the ideal became a pillar of Silicon Valley ideology. The founders of companies like Google and Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, promoted their networks as tools for overthrowing mass-media “gatekeepers” and giving individuals control over the exchange of information. They promised, as Turner writes, that social media would “allow us to present our authentic selves to one another” and connect those diverse selves into a more harmonious, pluralistic, and democratic society.

Carr frames Trump and the Media as “orbiting” around “the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy”. These are the terms in which I’ve recently tried to analyse ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’, as solutionist framings by technological, media and political elites which circumscribe a much broader set of transformations and shape likely responses to them. It’s often struck me that these represent a peculiarly populist form of reasoning in their own right: isolating an incoming element which is seen to undermine a previously stable system, whether this is ‘populism’ or ‘social media’ itself. In the process, the claims of populists and social media firms are taken at face value, vastly inflating the power they have:

One contentious question is whether social media in general and Twitter in particular actually changed the outcome of the vote. Keith N. Hampton, of Michigan State University, finds “no evidence” that any of the widely acknowledged malignancies of social media, from fake news to filter bubbles, “worked in favor of a particular presidential candidate.” Drawing on exit polls, he shows that most demographic groups voted pretty much the same in 2016 as they had in the Obama-Romney race of 2012. The one group that exhibited a large and possibly decisive shift from the Democratic to the Republican candidate were white voters without college degrees. Yet these voters, surveys reveal, are also the least likely to spend a lot of time online or to be active on social media. It’s unfair to blame Twitter or Facebook for Trump’s victory, Hampton suggests, if the swing voters weren’t on Twitter or Facebook.

This is not to say that social media doesn’t exercise influence, only to dispute the assumption that it works through one-to-many communication. The media elites bemoaning the rise of fake news and filter bubbles in the dawning post-truth age are themselves complicit in the dynamic they see as being ‘out there’:

What Hampton overlooks are the indirect effects of social media, particularly its influence on press coverage and public attention. As the University of Oxford’s Josh Cowls and Ralph Schroeder write, Trump’s Twitter account may have been monitored by only a small portion of the public, but it was followed, religiously, by journalists, pundits, and policymakers. The novelty and frequent abrasiveness of the tweets — they broke all the rules of decorum for presidential campaigns — mesmerized the chattering class throughout the primaries and the general election campaign, fueling a frenzy of retweets, replies, and hashtags. Social media’s biggest echo chamber turned out to be the traditional media elite.

What this short review suggested to me is the necessity of revisiting basic concepts (such as centralisation, gatekeepers, publics and influence) in response to the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy. We need a bleak social theory for bleak times and if it doesn’t begin by examining the assumptions inherited in core concepts, as well as their implications for making sense of the present conjuncture, it is unlikely to get very far.

Even if I wasn’t a supporter, I’d have been fascinated by Labour’s use of social media in the last election and how this built upon prior successes in successive leadership elections. The new book by Steve Howell, deputy director of strategy and communications during the election, contains many fascinating snippets about this that I hadn’t encountered anywhere else. Perhaps the most interesting is the Labour leadership’s embrace of social media outriders which I’d seen speculated about but never confirmed. From loc 818 of Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics:

But, if I was ever frustrated by some of those early discussions, one thing that would always lift my spirits was the irrepressible activity of what were known in LOTO as ‘Jeremy’s outriders.’ There were dozens of them on Twitter and Facebook who, day in and day out, were pumping out great material exposing the Tories and putting across many of our arguments. I include in this organised groups such as JeremyCorbyn4PM and Momentum, but mostly they were people acting on their own initiative out of sheer personal commitment. And some of them, such as @Rachael_Swindon and @ScouseGirlMedia, have suffered a fair bit of abuse and harassment for their trouble. The two outriders I had most contact with were Eoin Clark and Peter Stefanovic. Eoin will be known to many people for his @ToryFibs Twitter feed and its forensic rebuttal of Tory claims and attacks in detailed memes. Peter specialises in hard-hitting videos on the NHS, on the miners’ compensation, and in support of the WASPI campaign against the raising of the state pensionI  age for women born in the 1950s. When I suggested to Jeremy that we should invite Peter in for a chat, he was very enthusiastic. The meeting was one of the highlights of those early weeks. Peter’s passion for what he was doing was inspiring and infectious. He had given up his day job as a lawyer to spend a year campaigning and was eager to persuade the groups he was working with that a Corbyn-led government would address their issues. “That was an incredibly important meeting,” he told me recently. “We discussed what might be included in the manifesto and that allowed me to go back to WASPI, the miners, and the junior doctors to tell them what Labour would do.”

What does this mean in practice? It’s hard to say but it seemingly reflects the most prominent examples of a much broader spectrum of engagement, extending as far as Howell having regular exchanges via DM with independent activists who provided on the ground perspectives of unfolding events which couldn’t be reached through the party machine. The importance of this could be overstated but I’m interested in how it strengthened their conviction to drop or downplay tactical aspects of political communication which were held as certainties by those within the party organisation. It’s also easy to imagine this activity being seized upon in the event of a poor result as an example of the leadership’s willing embrace of a filter bubble.

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.

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.

#DQComm2018 The Deliberative Quality of Communication Conference 2018
Citizens, Media and Politics in Challenging Times: Perspectives on the
Deliberative Quality of Communication

November 8 – 9, 2018
Mannheim Centre for European Social Research (MZES), Mannheim, Germany

Keynote Speaker: Kaisa Herne (University of Tampere)

Roundtable on the Future of Deliberation Research with:
André Bächtiger (University of Stuttgart)
Céline Colombo (University of Zürich)
Christiane Eilders (University of Düsseldorf)
Hartmut Wessler (University of Mannheim)

Call for abstracts

Western democracies nowadays face a number of challenges induced by
political developments. These challenges have been affecting the way in
which citizens, the media and political elites communicate about politics.
Critical observers witness a deteriorating quality of political
conversations between ordinary citizens. It appears no longer possible to
discuss politics normally. A high-choice media environment facilitated by
online and in particular social media enables citizens to refrain from
exposing themselves to counter-attitudinal information and engaging in
cross-cutting political talk. The polarization of opinions within society
is promoted by increasingly fragmented media systems and a reporting style
that favors sensational and scandalous over a balanced and multifaceted
reporting. Rapid media cycles shorten time for balanced and thorough
argumentation and media outlets are steadily confronted with the accusation
of producing fake news. Political actors adapt to the media logic by
employing ever more simplified and emotionally arousing communication.
Instead of deliberating publicly on complex problems and finding
compromises or solutions, political elites rather prefer to communicate
through short soundbites and populist messages to promote their positions
and eventually attract voters at election time. Overall, these dynamics
indicate a deteriorating deliberative quality of political communication
among and between citizens, the media and political elites. While this
phenomenon has caused concern among scholars from both political and
communication science, it still needs further empirical substantiation and
demand a reflection on extant theories.

This conference aims at addressing the deliberative quality of
communication among and between citizens, media and political elites.
Within this research context, we welcome both theoretical, empirical and
methodological contributions focusing on the deliberative quality of
communication. The proposals can address – but are not limited – to the
following questions:

* To which extent does ordinary citizens’ talk about politics come close to
the genuine type of deliberation? Who participates in political talk, who
does not and why? Do citizens talk to those with viewpoints that conflict
with their own? What are the underlying motives and condition that give
rise to homogenous or heterogeneous talk about politics? Which variables
affect the quality of informal civic discussions? Do citizens’ daily
exchanges resemble reasoned and well-argued debates or harsh fights at the
expense of proper justification?

* To which extent does the online sphere of political communication promote
respectively impede deliberation? Are platform interventions (e.g.,
Facebook’s proposed policy of removing hate speech and fake news) a panacea
to improve the quality of online deliberation and to save deliberative
democracy?

* To which extent do different features of the media systems influence
mediated deliberation? How does the increased polarization and
fragmentation of media environments translate into the deliberative quality
of the media? How deliberative is the media system as a whole? How
deliberative are individual media types, formats, or programs?

* How do political, national and cultural climates shape deliberation? To
which extent do different types of the political system affect the
deliberative quality within the public sphere? How does the increased
polarization of the political environments affect formal deliberation? How
do political elites engage with populist actors who decline to engage in
reasoned and constructive dialogue?

* Which opportunities and challenges do big data offer for the analysis of
deliberation? What are the methodological challenges and pitfalls when
measuring deliberation? To which extent, and if so how, may computational
methods help in identifying the criteria for deliberation?

Submissions are due by June 15, 2018 (23:59 CET) and must be submitted via
this Google Form.

https://goo.gl/forms/xazX7B2E9C64drhB3

Abstracts must not be longer than 500 words (excluding title and
references). A committee composed of communication and political science
experts in deliberation will review each abstract. Only one proposal per
first author can be accepted. Notifications of acceptance will be issued in
July 2018. Limited funds are available to cover accommodation and travel
expenses of conference presenters. In order to host a family-friendly
conference, the parent and child room of the University of Mannheim can be
used for self-provided childcare.

Further questions, please visit the website
http://mzes.uni-mannheim.de/DQComm2018/

or contact the organizers directly: dqcomm2018@mzes.uni-mannheim.de

Christiane Grill, Anne Schäfer, Charlotte Löb and Chung-hong Chan
Organizing Committee of The Deliberative Quality of Communication
Conference 2018

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.

March 8th, 2018 9:30am to 5:00pm Wellcome Collection, London

After last year’s successful ‘Introduction to tools for social media research’, the SRA and #NSMNSS are teaming up again to deliver this one-day conference.

As social media research matures as a discipline, and methodological and ethical concerns are being addressed, focus is increasingly shifting on to the role that it can and should play in the social sciences.

The packed event will include keynote presentations from Steven McDermott and Suzy Moat, and examples from eight expert speakers of how social media research can provide insight into research questions in novel ways. It is aimed at social researchers who want to find out more about what this new methodology can offer, and see how the promises of social media research can be actualised.

Our speakers come from a range of backgrounds, including government and academia, presenting examples on topics such as politics and health, with data from Twitter, Facebook, blog sites and other platforms.

Register online here: http://the-sra.org.uk/event-registration/?ee=626

What is the relationship between social media and individualism? It is often claimed that these platforms engender a preoccupation with the self, easily cast in terms of individualism. But it is a preoccupation which is just as often claimed to be profoundly social, in so far as that it involves a concern with how many facets of the self are perceived by others, as mediated through social media platforms. It occurs to me that de Tocqueville’s distinction between individualism and egotism could be useful in helping clarify this issue. Though egotism and individualism are commonly assumed to go together, such that individualism as a cultural force will foster egotism in individuals, de Tocqueville saw the distinction rather differently:

Our [European] fathers were only acquainted with egotism. Egotism is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with his own person, and prefer himself to everything in the world. Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from [others] so that, after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. Egotism originates in blind instinct: individualism proceeds from erroneous judgment … Egotism blights the germ of all virtue; individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but, in the long run, it attacks and destroys all others, and is at length absorbed in downright egotism.

In the new year, I’ll be giving a talk at the Arctic University of Norway on using social media as a social theorist. This post is an initial attempt to get my thoughts on paper before the break, in order to make it easier to get the talk written when I get back from holiday. It might seem that using social media as a social theorist would be little different from using it as a sociologist or as an academic. For this reason, I’d be inclined to start with an introduction to social media for academics, before turning to the opportunities and challenges attached to social theory in particular. Here are the immediate ideas that have occurred to me but I’d hugely welcome further suggestions about topics it would be useful to cover:

  1. On an intellectual level, social theory cuts across fields and disciplines. On an institutional level, social theorists are embedded within existing networks and particular departments. The opportunities which social media offers to facilitate connections across disciplinary boundaries, the possibility to “curate the ideal academic department”, becomes even more valuable because of this intellectual/institutional tension. The talk will cover cross-platform strategies for building these connections and integrating them into everyday work routines.
  2. Many social theorists face a pressure to be more than a theorist, demonstrating empirical and/or methodological proficiency in order to ensure their employability. Social media can be a release vale which helps cope with the internal and external tensions generated by this demand. It also offers opportunities for those who “may toil in relative isolation from others who share their immediate interests”.
  3. The fragmentation of social theory creates practical challenges, as the opportunity costs of scholarship mean that mastery of a particular area can make it difficult to keep up to date with wider developments. Social media can provide invaluable in keeping up with new developments, drawing on much wider networks which can be built. It also provides accessible routes into new areas, as other social theorists reflecting on what they are reading can serve as a valuable bridge into a new literature.
  4. The opportunities which social media offers for pre-publication and post-publication exchange reduces reliance on the journal article, with all the limitations which this format has tended to entail for theoretical scholarship. It also facilitates meaningful intellectual exchange which isn’t tied to the publication process at all, extending conversations which might have previously taken place within closed networks (e.g. friends, collaborators) and providing the occasion for entirely new ones to take place. The fact these tend to be open by default means they are potentially a resource for others and even an invitation to join in.
  5. There might be pitfalls which are particularly pronounced for social theorists. Social media can amplify existing tensions or create new ones, with the risk that existing tendencies towards dogmatism are made worse. Therefore it’s important to understand what one considers a useful exchange (or otherwise) to be and how to orientate oneself towards ensuring this takes place.

I’ll try to illustrate each of these points with examples of social theorists using social media in this way. I might also introduce a couple of extended case studies (probably Daniel Little) to flesh out these points towards the end of the talk. Any further suggestions are much appreciated. It’s likely I’ll run this session in the UK later in the year, if it gets a good reception.

These are points I feel I reach relatively frequently, as identifiable discursive predicaments lead discussions between people who might otherwise agree to instead break down:

  1. Agreement with an argument in principle but concern about the practical implications of that agreement. For example if a particular issue has suddenly become prominent in public debate, it will inevitably be argued that there are other issues worthy of attention or other facets of the issue in question that might be rendered invisible by the currently dominant framing. This is a problem if, for instance, there are others seeking to suppress the issue which is now visible and recognising the current framing as lacking comprehensiveness might inadvertently strengthen the case of those seeking to engage in this suppression.
  2. Agreement with a argument in principle but concern about the context within which it is being made. There might be a critique of a current state of affairs which is persuasive on its own terms, while nonetheless being liable to lead to action which will bring about less desirable outcomes than the original state of affairs. The context qualifies the agreement with the argument but it is still agreement, at least in principle.
  3. Regarding an argument as intrinsically prone to overstatement, while nonetheless accepting a kernel of truth at its core. The argument is usually made in a hyperbolic way, often for self-interested reasons but one of the things that explains this repetition is the fact there is a degree of accuracy to it in at least some contexts.

These discursive predicaments can often be negotiated in face-to-face communication, with initial misunderstanding giving way to an appreciation of the subtle forks in the road which prevent unqualified agreement. However this is much less likely to happen on social media. Would have terms to describe these discursive predicaments contribute to a marginal increase in the likelihood that the conversation would continue?