These are some notes in preparation for my participation in this panel next week.
I like the title of the event because it neatly raises something which I’ve been preoccupied by recently and is a key theme in the final chapter of my long overdue book about academic social media. My sense is that there’s been a dramatic change in how social media is received within UK higher education in the space of little more than a few years. I’m less sure about other national contexts but I don’t see any reason why this would be restricted to the UK.
My impression is that what was once seen as a waste of time at best, seriously questionable at worse, now finds itself increasingly regarded as a necessary activity for researchers. Whereas once people felt the need to justify their use of social media as a scholarly activity, it’s now more likely that they’ll feel the need to justify not using social media. In higher education, it’s perhaps becoming the case that ‘social media is the new black’. At the very least, it feels like the ‘coming social media revolution in the academy’ which Jessie Daniels and Joe R. Feagin wrote about in 2011 has now arrived.
However I wear multiple hats. When I take off my ‘social media geek’ hat and put on my ‘sociologist’ one, it strikes me that that I’m being rather hyperbolic. Of course it ‘feels’ like the social media revolution is here to me: my working life increasingly revolves around social media in a variety of direct and indirect ways. It doesn’t take a network scientist to observe the inevitability that this brings me into contact with many others who are similarly orientated towards social media, intensifying the impression that social media is transforming the very nature of academic life. Could it be possible that we’re just ratcheting up expectations amongst ourselves about this ‘social media revolution’ while the rest of the academy goes on with business as usual?
It’s worth seeing this question in terms of the broader influence of digital technology within academic life. How many people still read paper journals? How many people’s first recourse for searching a literature is to physically visit the university library? Could the modern university function without e-mail? These examples are so ubiquitous as to seem trivial but this ubiquity illustrates the extent to which academics are already digital academics, before we even begin to think about social media and how its being used. Given this, it seems unlikely to me that academics en masse were ever likely to be hostile in social media in a sustained way, at least if they perceive clear benefits to themselves from using these tools.
Here are some of the benefits that get cited most frequently:
- Increasing the ease with which you can build meaningful connections with others within your field and discipline
- Increasing your public profile and helping find opportunities for collaborations with people outside of the academy
- Increasing the likelihood that your paper will be read and cited
- Increase your skill at communication with those outside of your specialist area
What bothers me about how these benefits are presented is how what are ‘outcomes’ increasingly get presented as ‘aims’. These are things which can result from engaging with social media as an academic but I think these engagements change in important ways if these are the reasons motivating the engagement. Part of my suspicion also stems from the fact that these potential benefits will meet with the approval of managers within most universities.
In a climate where universities are felt to need to justify their position within a changing society, it’s becoming increasingly important for academics to demonstrate the capacity for their research to make an ‘impact’, even if the precise way this is understood might vary between national contexts and remain contested in most of them. In a competitive academic job market (a term I hate), a greater capacity to ‘network’ (a term I hate even more) and more people reading and citing your papers will be equally welcomed outcomes, helping increase the profile of research done within a university in an over-crowded intellectual market place.
But it’s this over-crowding which is part of the problem. The more people dive into social media with these aims in mind, the louder the whole sphere gets and ever more work is necessary to be heard above the din. The more communication takes place, the more communication is necessary to keep up with it. The more people are promoting their papers through social media, the more work is necessary to try and ensure your papers attain any sort of prominence. If some people are scheduling 20 tweets a day, it creates a natural incentive for someone to schedule 30 in order to try and capture more of the sparse and increasingly fragmented attention span of the target audience. But this in turn creates an incentive for someone else to supersede that. Not necessarily by assessing what others are doing and deliberately surpassing it but simply by experimenting with what works and acting upon it. There’s a process of escalation at work here, on all channels, which is potentially open-ended.
Much like any other field in which viral marketing becomes the name of the game, it’s easy to find examples of people who’ve succeeded and to seize upon these as exemplars of a radical levelling which is in actuality anything but. People have differing capacities to meet these growing demands and the success of those who can do it contributes to the demands placed upon everyone. This is particularly problematic when we consider that this success might make it easier to accumulate the resources necessary to trade prestige for less administrative duties and thus more time to engage in this activity. Or even to hire someone to do it for you.
The fact managers encourage this stuff simply adds to the problem. If you’re doing it because you feel you have to, it’s unlikely that you’ll enjoy it or really derive all that much from it. I’m really interested in the extent to which people do increasingly feel it’s expected of them to use social media in higher education: any thoughts or experiences you’d like to share about this would be really welcome. My impression is that it’s a pervasive expectation but this is ultimately just an impression. However it’s easy to see why this would become so given:
– how central social media is becoming to debates about impact and public engagement
– the growing frequency with which training is offered in universities, though possible to overestimate this
– the message this implies about the desirability of engagement
– people seeking contributions for things like collective blogs: I love these but it hadn’t occurred to me until recently that the sudden visibility of calls for blog posts might expand the scope of things people feel they should be producing
– universities, departments and research centres seeking contributions for such projects obviously has an additional dimension to it
– stories about career success founded on an online presence: a sense that this stuff is crucial for career opportunities, without anyone being able to specify quite why this is the case, perhaps propped up by a few mythical cases
– the anxiety about not missing out on opportunities which inevitably abounds within an unhealthy job market.
Or to put it another way: if you find yourself at a conference where everybody seems to be ‘live tweeting’ and you have no idea what this is, it’s probably going to create some anxiety in you and perhaps lead you to try it. It might also lead you to reject it entirely and this is a position I increasingly respect and would perhaps like to study.
This is a shame because I think it’s possible to enjoy this stuff a lot. Much of the appeal for me has been about blogging as a form of research notebook: constituting a sort of open-source scholarship in which you develop ideas in the open, accumulating visibility and esteem as a by-product of sharing ideas rather than deliberately seeking to win through additional activities over and above your core duties.
This makes the time commitment a lot easier because in some cases it can make your working more efficient: a trivial example would be the ease with which I can look up fragments of thoughts on my blog compared to the difficulty I had deciphering (or even finding) old notes when I wrote by hand. A less trivial example would be the way in which it helps you see connections based on how you’ve tagged and categorised material, identifying themes in your own work and patterns in your interest through what you recurrently feel moved to blog about and how it is then laid out of the screen.
To me this is an organic way in which social media can be integrated into the ‘research life cycle’. It’s possible to be both effective (in instrumental terms) but also personally enjoyable and intellectually valuable. My fear is that if ‘social media is the new black’, something which everyone is expected to do, it becomes harder to sustain this because instrumental concerns will come to squeeze out the more nebulous joys and satisfactions which can be found at present.
I also think that social media can help short-circuit some of the temporal pressures will lead to incivility or at least a lack of collegiality within academic life: it’s easy to be helpful on Twitter because what constitutes ‘help’ is often little more than a few hundred characters. It doesn’t quite have the same feel as yet another e-mail to answer or, worse yet, a request that will take up valuable face-to-face time as we go through our days checking items off a to-do list that grows faster than we’re able to clear it. There’s a real promise to social media which I’m increasingly concerned could be lost if it becomes something obligatory rather than optional.