Is social media becoming mainstream within UK sociology?

I wrote a short article for the BSA Teaching Journal last week arguing that we are seeing the early stages of social media use becoming mainstream within UK sociology. I’m interested to know what others think of this argument so here is the evidence I cited:

  • Almost 30 Sociology departments now have a twitter presence. Numerous departments have their own blogs.
  • This year’s BSA conference saw 1497 tweets from 328 users on the #BritSoc13 hashtag – compared to a handful of people discussing the passing tumbleweeds on #BritSoc12 the year before.
  • Many of the BSA’s study groups have twitter feeds (off the top of my head I can think of at least 8) and a number of the study groups have their own blogs.
  • On a purely anecdotal level there seems to have been an influx of sociologists to twitter and the blogosphere in the last 9 months or so. Though I recognise how tenuous and prone to confirmation bias an anecdotal observation like this is.

These clearly aren’t mainstream activities yet. But in the very recent past social media seems to have quietly become much more integral to the activity of UK sociologists than it was previously. I thought Dave Beer captured this quite nicely when he asked “Can academics manage without Twitter?” a couple of months ago (before almost immediately answering his own question by creating a twitter account) :

What I’m finding is that Twitter seems to have rapidly become the place to find out about what is going on in the academic world. It would seem that there is something about Twitter, more than any other social media, that seems to suit academics. The result seems to be that academic life is being remediate a on a large scale. Not only is information about opportunities (including job, publishing and speaking opportunities) passing around freely, but Twitter seems to be making aspects of academic practice more visible. We can see what is going on where, who has achieved what, where people are moving to, and so on. I’m wondering if this is going to increasingly mean that you need a good reason to avoid Twitter. I’m increasingly getting the sense that I’m likely to miss stuff, or that I’m likely to fall out of the loop. Plus, of course, there is the visibility that comes with an established Twitter profile. Maybe resistance is futile. Maybe this is the new space for academic life to thrive.

So, in full knowledge of the fact the only people likely to ever see this question are those who are using Twitter and reading blogs: is social media beginning to become a mainstream activity within UK sociology? What would it mean for it to become ‘mainstream’? What are the risks attached to such a process? What are the opportunities? I think Dave Beer’s post also highlights some of the important questions which need to be addressed if social media is becoming mainstream in this way:

But this remediation of academic life, and the underlying politics of data circulation, are going to need some attention soon. The ease with which Twitter has been absorbed into academic practice is interesting in itself. It will probably be worth thinking through the ways in which it is restructuring academic practice and communication – and how it amplifies certain voices amongst the noise of Tweets.

So even if academics can presently manage without Twitter, will this continue to be true in the future? If so do the implications of this trend vary across the career structure? For instance would it be easier for established professors to distance themselves from a mainstreamed academic twitter sphere than it would be for early career researchers or PhD students? If there are (soft) risks likely to be attached in future (missing out etc) to a lack of twitter presence then does this create a need for academic departments to work collectively to leverage the benefits of twitter for those within them? I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the way services like Rebel Mouse (which I use to automatically create this page which I’m extremely fond of but is nonetheless rather pointless) could be used at the departmental level to draw together the social media presence of all those within the department in ways beneficial to both the individuals and the department themselves.


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