In the 30+ talks I have done about social media in the last year, I have discussed many things. But the one theme that has been most prominent is the extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, complexity of the subject matter. There is nothing inherently challenging about how to use social media. Any practical or technical difficulties are well within the realm of what has become habitual for most within late modernity. What creates the challenge is negotiating the novelty of its enablements and constraints within a particular context.

However it is this novelty which also makes it difficult to exercise our reflexivity in the way we would about any comparable matter. This novelty gives rise to a species of what Jacob Silverman describes as ‘internet exceptionalism’:

What we call the Internet—and what web writers so lazily draw on for their work—is less a hive mind or a throng or a gathering place and more a personalized set of online maneuvers guided by algorithmic recommendations. When we look at our browser windows, we see our own particular interests, social networks, and purchasing histories scrambled up to stare back at us. But because we haven’t found a shared discourse to talk about this complex arrangement of competing influences and relationships, we reach for a term to contain it all. Enter “the Internet.”

The Internet is a linguistic trope but also an ideology and even a business plan. If your job is to create content out of (mostly) nothing, then you can always turn to something/someone that “the Internet” is mad or excited about. And you don’t have to worry about alienating readers because “the Internet” is so general, so vast and all-encompassing, that it always has room. This form of writing is widely adaptable. Now it’s common to see stories where “Facebook” or “Twitter” stands in for the Internet, offering approval or judgment on the latest viral schlock. Choose your (anec)data carefully, and Twitter can tell any story you want.

Much as “the Internet” gives us “a rhetorical life raft to hang onto” when discussing a subject that is vastly overhyped and invested with all manner of hopes and fears, so too does “social media” become a semantic crutch when making sense of the complex changes being brought about by digital communications within a particular institutional sphere. It’s similarly “easy, a convenient reference point” through which we gloss a complex set of changes in which technological possibilities are only one causal factor. By exceptionalising social media in this way, we “fail to relate this communication system, and everything that happens through it, to the society around us”.

This tendency seems even more pronounced when we talk about something as specific as the academy. The more we talk about “social media” as something which all academics should (or shouldn’t do) the more we obscure the changes it entails for academic labour and the organisations which academics work within. My ambition as someone who has written a book called Social Media for Academics? To get academics to stop talking about social media.

In her superb The Monsters of Educational Technology, Audrey Watters makes a convincing case that innovation in educational technology has been dominated by the trope of ‘content delivery’. New technologies are seen to improve content delivery in a variety of ways: scale, speed, cost etc. But this is a limited and limiting conception of education, access and innovation.

Is there a risk that social media use by academics comes to be framed in these terms? What I’ve written about as the fallacy of amelioration is relevant here. The assumption that there are vast stores of untapped knowledge which could be used to straightforwardly fix social problems, if only people would listen to us. 

If I’m right about this conceit then there’s an obvious compatibility between it and the ‘content delivery’ trope. We can see the marginalisation of academic knowledge production as a failure of content delivery, susceptible to rectification through shiny new delivery mechanisms which we must all now embrace as a matter of urgency. In doing so, we would fundamentally mystify the implications of social media for the academy.

An interesting extract from Conflict In The Academy, by Marcus Morgan and Patrick Baert. From loc 556-569:

As Wyn Grant has noted in reference to the history of the discipline of Political Science in the United Kingdom, ‘intellectual openness and tolerance of eclecticism has its merits, but if it is allowed to become too uncontrolled it can lead to a lack of rigour in the deployment of methodologies and techniques, which undermines the systematic comparison that the subject has to offer if it is to be distinguished from polemic or idle speculation’ (2010: 24). Similarly, English Studies appears to have been attempting to maintain this precarious balance between pluralism and innovation on the one hand, and coherence and continuity on the other. In reference to John Beer’s suggestion in the Senate House (SHD: 355) that five separate strands of scholarship had emerged in the Cambridge English Faculty (traditional, international, close reading, analysis of literature in social and cultural contexts and an alignment of the study of literature with more popular media), Bergonzi writes that In one sense such pluralism is admirable, a fine instance of the multiplicity of interests and the free play of minds which one expects in a great university. Yet not all approaches can easily coexist; choices may have to be made, and voices imply exclusions … What looks like desirable diversity from inside a subject can seem mere fragmentation and incoherence to those outside it, or not very securely within it. (1990: 16) Institutionalising and sustaining the coherence of disciplines within the humanities, which are by their very nature ‘fissiparous disciplines’ – inherently prone towards internal division, may involve far more selfconscious ‘disciplining’, in Leavis’s sense, than is necessary in the more commonly mono-paradigmatic sciences. Secondly, even though many of the theoretical

Does this adequately describe contemporary sociology? I think it does, at least in the UK. But the question that really interests me is how a changing infrastructure of scholarly communication, in which interventions happen across a variety of platforms with all the temporal multiplicity that entails, might change this picture. How does self-conscious disciplining happen? What are new ways for it to be enacted? What determines the efficacy of such attempts? These are all changing in ways which raise complex empirical and conceptual issues.

Notes for my talk at the Accelerated Academy on Friday 

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how the social sciences are proving too slow in catching up to developments in digital technology. This means that engagements with new possibilities are often piecemeal and ad hoc, pushing the threshold of innovation in methods while methodological and theoretical discussion lags further behind. We see changes at the level of platforms, infrastructures, devices and practices which allow new techniques to be developed but discussion of the implications of these techniques, how we should understand what they’re doing and how they fit with older and more established techniques struggles to catch up.

I’ve argued that the reasons for this are largely to do with the structure of scholarly communication. The proliferation of publications, with an estimated 28,100 journals publishing 2.5 million articles a year, encourages specialisation in both writing and reading. I’ve watched this happen first hand with the asexuality literature, something which has grown from literally a handful of articles seven or eight years ago to a topic which would have to now be my primary focus to ‘keep up with the literature’. This is a microcosm of a much broader trend which I think it’s important for us to understand.

This is compounded by a norm for much longer articles in many social science disciplines vis-a-vis scientific reports. The imperative to ‘keep up with the literature’ militates against exploration and experimentation, while established forms of social scientific writing make it difficult to get important technical details included in substantive articles in mainstream disciplinary journals. Furthermore, publication is slow and this compounds the inter-journal competition which inculcates intellectual conservatism all around by discouraging epistemic risk taking on behalf of those seeking to be published in the highest status journals and instrumental strategies from lower status journals seeking to raise their impact factors. The more that’s published, the more markers of prestige get fought over in order to ensure that one’s intellectual wares stand out in a crowded market place.

Established structures of scholarly communication engender slowness in catching up with technical developments. Is the solution therefore to find structures which facilitate faster communication? Two obvious examples stand out here: open science practices and social media. It’s surely a positive thing that open science is becoming better established within the social sciences, such as a journal like Big Data & Society requiring authors to publish datasets and self-archiving of pre-prints becoming an established practice now mandated in the UK in the case of papers. Likewise I think it’s a good thing that social media has been taken up by so many social scientists. It reduces the opportunity costs of exploring outside one’s own area e.g. it’s much less onerous to follow a data science blog then it is to keep up with the latest data science papers. As a corollary, it also makes it easier to form connections outside one’s own circles, both by making it easier to have things in common to talk about and also simply making contact with these people in the first place.

But the idea these practices would fix the problems of scholarly communication appears to me to rest on a fallacy: ‘slow’ communication is problematic because it entails friction and lag in what would otherwise be ‘fast’ communication. If we break down the barriers, will everything flow more freely and these seemingly intractable problems might be solved? There’s a rich imagery of ‘fast’ & ‘slow’, ‘open’ and ‘closed’, lurking in the background here which we need to be critical of on a political level. But in a more prosaic sense, I think it straight forwardly distracts from the fact that the problem with slow scholarship isn’t simply a structural matter, such that the established system of scholarly communication (aided and abetted by the incentive structures of the contemporary academy) moulds academics to be ‘slow’ and that if we ‘hack the system’ then it might then mould academics to be ‘fast’.

Under present conditions, I can see how ‘open science’ might lead to all sorts of new pathologies, particularly if the transition from ‘filter then publish’ to ‘publish then filter’ is tied up with the commercial logic of platforms like Academia.Edu, Mendeley and now SSRN. If monetisation of these platforms is dependent on user attention and user data, it stands to reason that engineering strategies serving to maximise both will become a commercial imperative, if they’re not already (and we shouldn’t underestimate how long tech companies can be propped up with capital while making zero profit). The in itself entirely reasonable proposition that non-traditional forms of influence should be incorporated into scholarly metrics is likely to compound such a move, naturalising the algorithmic black boxes of social media and open science platforms and creating new forms of prestige available for fast scholars.

These mechanisms might not dominate the platform, but the idea of fast, free, open scholarly communication allowing a million flowers to bloom away from the disciplinary structures of the contemporary academy is a dangerous illusion. It represents the common sense of the ‘market’, the epistemic superiority of the crowd, creeping into how we view scholarship. We can need to be profoundly critical about how attention, reward and hierarchy work on these new platforms without jettisoning their affordances entirely in our rush to critique. I’m not saying we shouldn’t use social media, only that we shouldn’t culturally embrace it as the superior ‘new’ in relation to the inferior ‘old’. It should be both/and rather than either/or. This is something which I think will be much harder if we continue to think in terms of ‘fast’ and ‘slow’, at least as an abstract dichotomy we apply to complex systems.

Nonetheless, I do think we need to in some way hack the structures of scholarly communication if the social sciences are going to reliably keep up in anything more than a narrowly technique-driven way to emerging technologies. But rather than ‘fast’ and ‘slow’, we should perhaps see this in terms of ‘collaborative’ and ‘atomised’: resisting the algorithmic incentives of platforms while embracing the affordances they offer for new forms of working together, even within the constraining structures of the accelerated academy.

I’ve just started working my way through this series of books produced by UCL’s massive Why We Post project. The past work of the project team is fantastic and I’m hopeful this will prove to be an important series of books, breaking new anthropological ground in our understanding of how and why people use social media. Not all of the books are released yet but these are the ones currently available:

They’re also freely available in PDF! This is a wonderful innovation from UCL’s Press and one we’ll hopefully see more of in the future.

It’s hard to write at length about social media without pondering this question seriously. This post offers the most articulate answer to this question I’ve come across: use the plural when you’re talking about a collection of social media channels and their characteristics, use the singular when you’re talking about the cumulative effects of social media as a whole.

Notes for my talk in Leeds tomorrow

It is increasingly hard to move without encountering the idea that social media is something of value for academics. The reasons offered are probably quite familiar by now. It helps ensure your research is visible, both inside and outside the academy. Many of us might be sceptical of the dominant discourse of impact within which such a concern for visibility tends to be expressed. I certainly am in many ways, worrying that this is irrevocably tied up in the instrumentalisation of research, the declining autonomy of researchers and the marketisation of the Academy within which research takes place. Nonetheless the imperative to make and demonstrate impact is already an entrenched characteristic of the research economy and looks likely to stay that way.

In this short talk, I will make the case that social media in general and blogging in particular represent a way to expand academic autonomy, improve the quality of our scholarship and nonetheless meet the demands of what I have elsewhere called the Accelerated Academy, all at the same time. This might seem implausible, so please bear with me. If it seems overly optimistic, let’s talk about this at the end because my actual view of the research economy is pretty grim and depressing. My enthusiasm for social media comes in large part because I see it as something that can, at least potentially work to ameliorate a whole series of problems that afflict those within the contemporary research economy.

A good way into this is to consider some of the other benefits increasingly held to obtain through academics using social media. I already mentioned visibility, internal to the academy and outside of it. Related to this, is the chance to practice communication with nonspecialist audiences. It’s a faster way to get your research findings out. It allows you to build an audience for future publications, in advance of their actual release. In doing so, it allows you to find people who share your research interests, as connections more or less inevitably form on the basis of what you publish and what you read online.

But the advantage that I’m most interested in and the one that will be key to the argument I’m making here, is that the more you write, the easier writing gets. The more you think, the easier thinking gets. My enthusiasm for social media in general, as well as blogging in particular, stems from the endless occasions they offer for thinking and writing.

But isn’t thinking and writing what we do anyway? Well yes, on one level, it is. Though I think there are important questions to be asked about how the accelerating pace of working life in contemporary universities impacts on the time and energy available for thinking and writing. But talk today is not about that.

It’s this presumably everyday quality to academic thinking and writing  which has increasingly left me confused about one of the most common concerns, even objections, to academic social media: isn’t it just one more thing for already busy people to do? On the surface, this makes complete sense. This is certainly true for some people. It’s almost certainly true for everyone at least some of the time. But much of what academics do on social media  should not be something extrinsic to their scholarship but instead should be constitutive of it. As the sci-fi author, digital rights activist and blogger Cory Doctorow puts it: blogging is “my major way of thinking through the stuff that matters to me”. This is true of myself as well. I think it’s true of many academics using social media, even if they don’t recognise it. Furthermore, I think much of the value that social media has for academics within the contemporary research economy won’t be actualised until this has become a ubiquitous feature of how we talk about the way we can use social media as researchers.

There’s a lovely extract of the Academic Diary in which Les Back reflects on the life and work of the social theorist Vic Seidler. Remarking on the vast range of topics on which Seidler has written, Les suggests that this deeply committed man “writes not because his academic position expects it but because he has something to say and communicate”. For someone like Seidler, writing is something a person does because they are “trying to work something out”.

This captures what I see as the promise of academic social media. It’s a platform for trying to work things out. More so, doing it in the open grants each of these attempts a social existence, one that comes with undoubted risks but also enormous rewards. Little bits of thought shrapnel, brief attempts to make some sense of the ‘feel of an idea’, come to enjoy their own existence within the world. They’re mostly forgotten or even ignored from the outset. But there’s something quite remarkable about occasions when these fragments resurface as someone sees something of value in them, perhaps when you saw no value in them yourself.

In this way, it attunes you to the impulse to write because you have “something to say and communicate”. This isn’t always the case and I worry that the metricisation of scholarly blogging will prove immensely destructive of it. But there is at least for now something deeply rewarding about seizing on an inchoate idea, developing it and throwing it off into the world to see what others make of it. For no other reason than the pleasure inherent to it. Whether this non-instrumental exploration of ideas remains the norm or could be sustained in the long term is a different question – as I’ll come on to, I think there are reasons to worry that the research economy is inimical to this.

What does this all mean practice? I’m talking about quite straight forward practices which all of those conducting research engage in to differing degrees. I’ve often used the term ‘public notebook’ and the existence of non-public notebooks is the most obvious point of comparison here. Prior to starting a research blog early in my PhD, I use to scribble notes in a succession of moleskin notebooks – ones I would later struggle to decipher due to my scrawled handwriting. The radical sociologist C Wright Mills wrote a wonderful appendix to his famous The Sociological Imagination about scholarly craft: he argued for the necessity of keeping a ‘file’ in order to ‘keep one’s inner world awake’.

These are activities we all engage in but which, rather interestingly, tend not to feature in public discourse: the daily minutae of scholarship. Notebooks, filing cabinets, file cards, newspaper clippings, print outs, drawings, marginalia in books, annotated papers, reading lists etc. Modern digital equivalents involve tools like Evernote or OneNote. These have many of the advantages of using social media – they can also of course be integrated with them, for instance by quickly sharing notes from Evernote or automatically clipping content you discover on social media into the appropriate Evernote folder. But as with social media use, they have the advantage of mobility, in so far as that one can use them across devices and across contexts – rather than the careful work of keeping physical files or the necessity of ensuring one always has one’s physical journal and never, under any circumstances, lose it.

The features I discussed earlier might all sound individualistic. But it’s in considering how the use of social media differs from contemporary alternatives like Evernote that it becomes apparent how the benefits of social media are intrinsically social. Later in the book I mentioned earlier, Les Back suggests that Twitter sometimes facilitates our “inhabiting the attentiveness of another writer” by providing “signposts pointing to things going on in the world: a great article, an important book, a breaking story”. Through the things that others share, we sometimes enter into their world and participate in an economy of “hunches and tips” which is the “lifeblood of scholarship”. These provide pathways through the literature, allowing others to use them as guides into and through often difficult bodies of work.

It’s in this sense that I’m arguing social media increases the autonomy of researchers, both individually and collectively. If we accept the argument that metrics necessarily entail the evisceration of self-governance, with hierarchical regulation replacing horizontal norms, then this new horizontal space of collaboration and cooperation begins to looks exceedingly valuable. It’s a new kind of space and one which could be easily destroyed if we too easily accept that what we do within it should be measured and incorporated into the logic of career advancement.

The kinds of scholarly communities of practice we can see perpetually coming to life online are obviously not confined to the digital sphere. But academic social media is at present profoundly generative of them, whereas the broader research economy is increasingly characterised by a competitive individualism which works to preclude them However I think this not just important within the academy but also in the relationships between academia and other institutional spheres. For instance, academic social media is changing how journalists and academics interact: it’s easier to identify academics, but it’s also easier to make demands upon them which might be unreasonable or unwelcome, often with only a cursory understanding of what they hope to achieve through such a potential collaboration. It’s also changing the relationships between social scientists and the communities they research, as organised groups increasingly monitor and engage with academic research, in ways that can throw up all such of problems. This is why the nature of the ‘third space’ of academic social media is so important.

There are all sorts of instrumental gains to be had through engaging with social media: increasing your visibility, expanding your network, ensuring your work is widely read, engaging with non-academics publics and making an impact outside of the academy. But there are gains to scholarship which are more important and perhaps more diffuse than this. What increasingly interests me is the tension between them the two tendencies: how the instrumental use of social media, encouraged within the contemporary research economy, might imperil the gains which I’ve suggested can be made on the level of craft and collaboration.

I’ve suggested that the value of social media for academics can be seen in terms of craft and careers. These two dimensions often overlap but I think it’s useful to separate them analytically: contributions to individual and collaborative scholarship on the one hand, contributions to the development of careers on the other. Obviously the former usually takes place in the context of the latter – though the rise of the ‘alt-academic’, pursuing scholarship without pursuing a traditional academic career, can be seen to break this link. But the relationship between them isn’t always clear. For instance, in recent work, myself and Filip Vostal have been exploring the manner in which the accelerative pressures found in the contemporary academy militate against good scholarship. If people are asked to do more with the same or less, then what effect does this have? If we construe it in traditional terms, particularly as something conversant with and contributing to ‘the literature’, then good scholarship becomes structurally difficult 28,100 journals publishing 2.5 million articles a year. Under such circumstances we come to encounter surface writing rather than depth writing, rearranging ideas rather than developing new ones: scholasticism on the one hand, empiricism on the other. My point is not to explore the accelerated academy here but simply to flag up how institutional changes complicate the link between craft and careers. This is the environment within which the latent value of social media for academics comes to be actualised along either dimension.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m particularly interested in how time pressure figures into the developing discourse about social media for academics. On the one hand, I think the idea of social media being ‘just one more thing to do’ is straight forwardly a mistaken way of understanding what academics do on social media. On the other hand, I think the temporal pressures to which academics are subject in their institutional lives will inevitably shape the character of their social media use:

  1. Time-pressure can be a symbol of status and flaunting it can represent one of the few socially acceptable forms of conspicuous self-aggrandizement available (Ian Price)
  2. Time-pressure can reduce the time available for reflexivity, ‘blotting out’ difficult questions in a way analogous to drink and drugs
  3. Time-pressure can facilitate a unique kind of focus in the face of a multiplicity of distractions: past commitments ‘choose’ for us
  4. The accelerative pleasures and creative inducements of ‘binge writing’ and working to a deadline (Maggie O’Neill)
  5. Time-pressure can leave us feeling that we are living life most fully. If the good life is now seen as the full life then living fast feels like living fully (Harmut Rosa)

These all contribute to a broader context in which speed becomes problematic within the academy. It comes to enjoy an immense psychic charge as something which feels like, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, the cause of and solution to all life’s problems:

Coupled with intense competition within the academic career structure, as well the broader spectre of redundancy which Bauman argues characterises academic life as a whole in late modernity, it’s inevitable that what Ruth Müller theorises as anticipatory acceleration arises as a situationally logical strategy: going faster without specific goal in mind, seeking to outpace competitors given limited positions available for a cohort. As I understand her argument, which I really recommend reading directly, this gives rise to a subjugation of present pleasures to anticipated future rewards, with a contraction of alternative futures envisaged by the subject. The more hyper kinetically you commit yourself to career advancement, pursued through anticipatory acceleration, the more difficult it becomes to climb off the treadmill because your horizons narrow to the next goal. Though her empirical work has focused on post-docs in the life sciences, the scope of her concepts seem broader than this, both in terms of discipline and career stages. The conditions she describes in the condition from post-doc to faculty surely also obtain in the transition from lecturer to senior lecturer, from senior lecturer to reader and from reader to professor.

The ensuing dynamic of competitive escalation is crucial to understanding labour in the contemporary academy. It is a social mechanism driving the intensification of labour and destroying solidarity, tied up in a life-destroying feedback loop with the systems of audit which work to replace the horizontal regulation of professional standards with the vertical regulation of metrics. The value of social media for academic craft can mitigate these effects by grounding individuals in non-instrumental motivations for their work (curiosity, playfulness, exploration) and facilitating collaboration between such individuals outside the rubric of competitive individualism. But how likely is this to continue? I’m interested in how what Jose Van Dijck calls the popularity principle intersects with the competitive individualism of the accelerated academy: will the metrics of social media become just one more way in which academics can evaluate themselves in relation to others and be evaluated as they proceed through an increasingly rigidly defined career structure? If the logic of careers comes to dominate academic social media, can the logic of craft survive? If not then what does this mean for the broader conditions of academic labour? The institutionalisation of alt-metrics seems likely to be the most important vector through which the answer to these questions will begin to unfold. How will social media activity be measured and how will this new process of measurement intersect with existing processes of measurement? Will alt-metrics unsettle existing hierarchies or simply lead to dual hierarchies that might converge upon the same academic celebrities who dominate the intellectual attention space?

However there are other substantive areas in which these issues are currently being played out: online harassment of academics, social media policies within universities, institutional reaction to online academic speech, regulation of the corporate brand, social media training and support offered by staff. I think the way in which the benefits of social media are coming to be framed is particularly interesting and we’re likely to see this come to be dominated by the language of ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ on the one hand, ‘academic citizenship’ and ‘academic civility’ on the other. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these things but what gets squeezed out in the middle is scholarship. I’ve not really talked about substantive cases in these areas today. There’s a few reasons for this: some of them are very contentious and I’m more comfortable writing about them then speaking about them, doing them justice requires a lot of empirical detail and would take a long time, it’s easy for this reason to get lost in detail and miss the broader picture. After all, it’s this broader picture which interests me. Social media is tied up in all manner of ways with the transformation of the university, as well as the transformation of the universities place within wider social life. There are many other factors, but the institutionalization of social media is a key vector in these unfolding changes. One which, I’ve tried to argue and hope we can discuss further, has important ramifications for academic labour.

Notes for my talk at the ESRC North West DTC tomorrow

Social media has changed a lot since I began my PhD. But what’s notable about this is that I didn’t start my PhD particularly long ago. When I began in 2008, my blogging was a personal hobby which I couldn’t possibly conceive of as relevant to my research. But by the time I finished in 2014, social media had come to shape every aspect of my developing research career. It’s possible I’ve been an outlier in this respect, but the same transition can be seen within my discipline. At my first British Sociological Association conference, the event’s hashtag felt like it was dominated by digital tumbleweeds and a few lonely voices speculating about how few sociologists were using Twitter in the UK. By the time of the most recent British Sociological Association conference, the event’s hashtag had become a thriving hub of activity, as scores of sociologists attending the conference live tweeted their way through the event. These are personal experiences, grounded in my own career and my engagements with my discipline in the UK, but they are representative of a broader transition. What was once a fringe pursuit, regarded with disinterest at best or suspicion at worst, increasingly finds itself seen as a central part of what academics are expected to do. What might once have been a curiosity about how a particular academic conducts themselves looks increasingly likely to be incorporated, formally or otherwise, into the expectations to which academics are subject in their professional lives.

This is a recipe for anxiety. Something that moves so fast, as can be seen in the hypnotic resource that is Internet Live Stats for which I’ve only attached a screen shot, can be bewildering. So much happens in what we might call an ‘internet minute’ that it can be hard to make sense of the sheer scale of the activity, let alone determine how to make the most of it. But it’s this speed and scale which has created so much attention because of the sheer size of the audiences which can be found through social media. On paper, the possibilities seem tremendous: free, open, accessible platforms that allow us to access hundreds of millions of users. In practice, the reality is more complex: how can we actually ensure that we’re heard above all that noise? How do we negotiate the already competing demands upon our time when engaging on social media is added to them? How do we square the requirements of visibility online with the most conventional expectations about how researchers comport themselves offline? In other words: how do we make the most of social media?

Unfortunately, there are no universal right or wrong answers to these questions. There are general tips which apply to all researchers engaging online, as well as common issues that those in the academy face when they use social media. But so much still depends on the individual scholar, what they’re comfortable with, what they hope to achieve and the environment within which they’re working. What I’ll do today is to offer some general tips & address these common issue. But my main focus is on how to address these deeper underlying question of why you want to use social media and what you want to do with it, because I firmly believe that if you address these questions of ‘what’ and ‘why’ then the ‘how’ questions become much clearer. Deciding on which platform is right for you, how you wish to use it and how you wish to combine these as part of a much broader range of activities you’re committed to becomes much easier once you’re animated by a clear understanding of what you’re setting out to achieve and why it matters to you. Ultimately, existing platforms change so fast and new ones spring into being with such rapidity, that a preoccupation with the platforms themselves can just be confusing. Plus remember MySpace as a timely reminder of the capacity of hugely popular social media platforms to die.

Instead, I think it’s useful to think in terms of scholarly activities and the various ways in which different sorts of technologies are used to enact these, helping or hindering them in the process. The radical sociologist C Wright Mills wrote a wonderful appendix to his famous The Sociological Imagination about scholarly craft: he argued for the necessity of keeping a ‘file’ in order to ‘keep one’s inner world awake’. These are activities we all engage in but which, rather interestingly, tend not to feature in public discourse: the daily minutae of scholarship. Notebooks, filing cabinets, file cards, newspaper clippings, print outs, drawings, marginalia in books, annotated papers, reading lists etc. My favourite example from my own experience is the fixation on Moleskin notebooks which dominated the early stages of my PhD. I loved these notebooks, still do in fact. I would enthusiastically scrawl ideas as I was travelling, record notes of what I was reading and try to develop a research journal to track my engagements over time. I’d then proudly place these notebooks on a shelf, admiring the odd sense of solidity they conveyed when I stacked them up near my computer. In my more pretentious moments, I found myself thinking about the weight of the ideas contained within them and how satisfying this was.

The problem was that I could rarely read my own hand writing, couldn’t search them and as much as I admired them aesthetically, they were pretty useless to me as a research journal. Plus as many people will tell you, they are by definition quite easy to lose if you carry them with you all the time. I never experienced this because I didn’t carry them with me all the time. This in itself caused problems because I’d often find that I had an idea or insight that I wanted to record, but I didn’t have my current notebook with me. I’d sometimes record it on a scrap of paper, hoping that I’d add it into the notebook when I got home but I rarely succeed in this. On other occasions, I’d hope I remembered the thought once I was home. I never did. In contrast, the research blog I soon started, replacing my older blogs filled with rants about politics and song lyrics I liked, could be found wherever I had internet access. The very fact of other people, at least in principle, reading what I wrote forced me to elaborate upon fleeting thoughts in order to make them legible for others. Tagging and categorising these notes, as blogging platforms encourages you to do, quickly built up a living archive of my scholarly engagements that I’ve since got into the habit of frequently tracing back. It enabled me to connect with others that shared my interests, as well as building up an audience for publications long before I’d actually published anything. It became for me how one of my favourite science fiction authors, Cory Doctorow, describes his own blog: “my major way of thinking through the stuff that matters to me”. This is exactly what I hoped my Moleskine notebooks would do but they never quite did.

But this isn’t for everyone and my point in telling this story is not say that you should all use blogs as research journals. Many people, including myself, wouldn’t be comfortable blogging about field work and data in such a journal. Many people would prefer to fully work out their thoughts before making them public, though I do think the risks entailed by this are overstated because, as the philosopher Daniel Little puts it, people enjoy seeing ‘ideas in motion’. Many people would prefer the option to share a note on social media, something which digital journals like Evernote provide very effectively, rather than sharing by default. I think it’s a mistake to assume social media platforms and digital tools are necessarily an improvement. In fact, I don’t think such a judgement makes sense in the abstract. A particular social media platform is only going to be useful to someone in a particular context for a particular purpose. The key to negotiating the world of social media as an academic is to develop clarity about what you’re doing and enough familiarity with social media platforms and digital tools then you can think clearly about how they might help or hinder particular tasks. These tasks are manifold: locating literature, reading literature, analysing data, conducting field work, networking within your field, engaging with publics outside the academy and many more. Social media can be used for all of them, in all manner of ways, but how to do this is likely to be confusing unless we’re specific about what we want to do and why we want to do it.

But I think there are other, more hands on, pointers which apply to most if not all:

  1. Use the opportunities afforded to you as an ESRC funded researcher. Sign up to their e-mail alerts and engage with the digital opportunities contained within them. Engage with the ESRC on social media platforms. For instance, add your status to your Twitter profile and they’ll follow you back. Tag @ESRC when you’re discussing your activities and making announcements.
  2. Share what you care about online. In a recent book, the Sociologist Les Back suggests that Twitter sometimes facilitates our “inhabiting the attentiveness of another writer” by providing “signposts pointing to things going on in the world: a great article, an important book, a breaking story”. Through the things that others share, we sometimes enter into their world and participate in an economy of “hunches and tips” which is the “lifeblood of scholarship”. These provide pathways through the literature, allowing others to use them as guides into and through often difficult bodies of work. If you consistently share what you care about then other people to whom this matter will find you online. It’s in this subtle way that I think everyday use of social media can help mitigate the competitive individualism which dominates the academy.
  3. Try not to get hung up on the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to behave on social media platforms. These norms are not so different from the rest of your life, something which the contrived opposition of ‘offline’ and ‘online’ often works to obscure. Are social media platforms ultimately that different to an academic conference, albeit on where the words linger on in the room after being spoken? Each profile is a spot on the internet that’s staked out as yours. What you do with it is up to you. Some people choose to wander over to their podium every now and again, make an announcement and then wander off. Some people give their presentation at the podium and then leave, only returning when they want to give another. Some do their presentation but thrive on the Q&A afterwards. Some might not like the feel of the podium and eschew a formal presentation to go and chat more directly with their audience. Likewise some people just want to listen and ask questions of other speakers. Others would rather ditch the conference and go straight to relaxing at the pub.
  4. But if you’re unsure about how to behave, the best thing to do is to seek out exemplars, both positive and negative. Do you like how someone engages on a particular platform? Try and articulate precisely what you like about it and whether it’s right for you. Conversely, if someone frustrates or bothers you, don’t just get irritated. Instead try and clarify exactly what it is you don’t like in order that you’re better able to avoid this. In this way, it becomes easier to develop a deliberate sense of how you feel you ought to behave online, rather than be plagued by a diffuse anxiety that you might be ‘doing it wrong’.
  5. When in doubt, connect! The capacity of social media to flatten academic hierarchies is vastly overstated but there’s a kernel of truth to it: unless you’re a remarkably outgoing and talented networker, it’s much easier to approach well known academics online then it is in person. If you find yourself hesitating about whether to make contact with them, err on the side of connection. At worst they’ll ignore you & the architecture of social media is built from the ground up to encourage people to interact as much as possible. Furthermore, use community resources like hashtags to connect with others at a similar stage to you. As well as #PhDChat, which I found almost indescribably comforting at many points during the last year of my PhD, there’s #ECRChat and #ESRCPhD as well as many other localised to particular fields of practice. Plus don’t forget all the people you already know. Add your social media profiles to your e-mail signature and look for your friends and acquaintances when you try a new platform.
  6. Tell a story about yourself using your profile. This can feel narcissistic but in an information saturated world, these snippets of biographical information are key to allowing people to know where you’re coming from. This isn’t just a matter of people within the academy. Social media radically increases the ease with which academics can be found by those within the media, government and civil society. But they need to know who you are and why they might want to talk to you for those conversations to begin.

Much as there are practical tactics which work for most, if not all. There are common issues academics face when they engage online. Social media collapses the boundaries between the different groups which we engage with and poses the question of how to manage overlapping relations between them: for instance, are you ok with your students reading material you’ve shared with your friends? One response to this problem is never to say anything online that you wouldn’t be happy with everyone in your life hearing. Another is to try and mark out particular material as being for different audiences, perhaps even by having separate profiles. My own approach has been to assume everyone in my life realises there are different facets to me and if something I share online seems confusing to them, they probably weren’t my intended audience. But then again, this might be why all my non-academic friends unfollowed me on Twitter a long time ago.

There’s also the more unpleasant side to social media. Sometimes, this might be a matter of getting drawn into pointless arguments. For instance, I’m as enthusiastic about Twitter as one can be, yet I’ve never seen any evidence that meaningful debate is possible within 140 characters, though it’s certainly possible to have constructive discussions amongst people who share things in common. As a general rule, if it feels important to you that someone on the internet is wrong, that’s the time to step away from social media. On the other hand, there’s a much darker world of online harassment, far beyond the simple matter of academic egos and cantankerousness. This is a big topic, one which most social media platforms are failing to do enough about. The only general advice I can offer is to be aware of the issue, particularly if you’re working on a very politicised topic. Also familiarise yourself with the facilities each platform offers to ban and block and don’t hesitate to use them if you feel the need.

There’s the ever present risk of time wasting. I think this issue can be overstated and it’s often framed in terms of an assumption that social media is just ‘one more thing to do’: scholarship is assumed to be something prior to what scholars do on social media. But the more that you’ve embedded social media in your everyday activities, the less this is true because what you’re doing on social media is scholarship. Nonetheless, sometimes it can be a bit compulsive and tools like Anti-Social, Freedom and Rescue Time all provided effect mechanisms for carving out time away from social media to immerse yourself in other things.

But the most important thing is to try and enjoy it. You’re unlikely to make the most of social media if you don’t. My experience has been that the promise of academic social media lies in its use as a platform for trying to work things out. More so, doing it in the open grants each of these attempts a social existence, one that comes with undoubted risks but also enormous rewards. Little bits of thought shrapnel, brief attempts to make some sense of the ‘feel of an idea’, come to enjoy their own existence within the world. They’re mostly forgotten or even ignored from the outset. But there’s something quite remarkable about occasions when these fragments resurface as someone sees something of value in them, perhaps when you saw no value in them yourself.

In this way, it attunes you to the impulse to write because you have “something to say and communicate”. This isn’t always the case and I worry that the metricisation of scholarly blogging will prove immensely destructive of it. But there is at least for now something deeply rewarding about seizing on an inchoate idea, developing it and throwing it off into the world to see what others make of it. For no other reason than the pleasure inherent to it. Making the most of social media can help develop your career, build your network and make an impact. But more importantly, it can deepen your enjoyment of what you do, keep you connected to the curiosity which animates your research, help you connect with others who care about the same things as you do and build up opportunities to work together enjoyably in an environment otherwise dominated by competitive individualism.

This looks like a superb special issue:

Very happy to announce the publication of “A Decade of Web 2.0: Reflections, Critical Perspectives, and Beyond”, a special issue of First Monday, co-editted by Michael Zimmer and Anna L. Hoffmann.

The issue includes an impressive set of diverse contributions revisiting the topic of critical engagement with Web 2.0:

“Web 2.0 User-knowledge and the Limits of Individual and Collective Power” by Nicholas Proferes

“Many (to platform) to many: Web 2.0 application infrastructures” by Jack Jamieson

“Constructing and Enforcing “Authentic” Identity Online: Facebook, Real Names, and Non-Normative Identities” by Oliver Haimson and Anna Lauren Hoffmann

“Rethinking Social Change: The Promises of Web 2.0 for the Marginalized” by David Nemer

“The Domestication of Online Activism” by Mathias Klang and Nora Madison

“The Rise of Speculative Devices: Hooking Up with the Bots of Ashley Madison” by Ben Light

“Read Only: The Persistence of Lurking in Web 2.0″ by Scott Kushner

“DIY Videos on YouTube: Identity and Possibility in the Age of Algorithms” by Chris Wolf

“Share Wars: Sharing, Theft, and the Everyday Production of Web 2.0 on DeviantArt” by Dan Perkel

“The Blogosphere and Its Problems: Web 2.0 Undermining Civic” by Alex Halavais

In Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation, he writes of how interns voluntarily subjugate themselves in order to ‘be noticed’, even if they have little expectation that their internship will lead to a permanent job. From loc 1997:

There is rarely much reason to believe that internships in the public sector or at nonprofits will convert directly to permanent employment—they seldom do—so the best one can hope for is to make an impression, be noticed, position yourself for something down the road.

This coheres nicely with arguments Bauman has made recently about social media. The imperative to be noticed, the extroverted mirror image of the spectre of uselessness, thrives in an environment when occupational opportunities contract. People find themselves locked in an upward spiral of competitive escalation in their desperation to claim what are correctly felt to be a diminishing number of possibilities to claim the life long security and stability which post war capitalism was able to offer most of their parent’s and grandparent’s generations.

What I mean by ‘contracting opportunities’ is best conveyed by a U.S. treasury official (and former intern) the author quotes on loc 2063: “There’s so much demand for this kind of career path and such a limited supply, so we’re able to dictate how to get into the process.” Internships can be an escape strategy, a desperate attempt to break out of a cycle of precarious work – with the number of job shifts by young people continuing to increase – into the receding upper echelons of secure and rewarding employment. But internships themselves reflect this precarious work, as hopeful interns are increasingly forced to undertaken chains of unpaid or barely paid internships in the hope of breaking into full time work.

Part of the problem with internships is they further intensify this problem, making ensuing jobs more glamorous and exciting by allowing the transfer of administrative functions to the interns, as well as contracting the supply of entry level positions as organisations replace permanent staff with interns. Plus, as he succinctly observes on loc 3035, the internship system as a whole allows privileged children access to opportunities denied to others:

For well-to-do and wealthy families seeking to guarantee their offspring’s future prosperity, internships are a powerful investment vehicle, an instrument of self-preservation in the same category as private tutoring, exclusive schools, and trust funds.

A comparable strategy to internships and social media self-promotion is discussed on loc 2519:

Staking everything on a career-launching internship, as sociologist Mark Granovetter points out, is not unlike working unpaid for shares in a Silicon Valley start-up: “There are a surprising number of people willing to work just for 50 or 60 thousand shares of a company that may never see the light of day … Unless they think that what the company is doing is the best thing since sliced bread, then they probably have no better alternative.” Interns at start-ups, such as “Nora,” often work for the possibility of getting an equity share in a company.

This is apparently growing rapidly: why pay staff to do this when you can get desperate graduates to do it for free?

Want to jump start a social media marketing campaign for your business but don’t have the time or social media savvy in Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs or similar sites? Try this twist on the traditional summer internship – a “Twinternship.” A Twintern is a newly minted term for a summer intern (paid or unpaid) whose job is to Twitter or handle other social media tasks on behalf of your business. For little cost, you could bring on a young adult (recent college or high school grad or current student) who may already be experienced at using a variety of social media.