This is an extract from Social Media for Academics by Mark Carrigan
The ‘marketplace of ideas’ is a term I found irritatingly trite when I first heard it. I’ve since come to think it captures something important, namely the environment in which ideas of whatever sort are communicated and received. It is incidental as to whether your share my initial irritation or begrudging acceptance of this terminology, what’s more pressing here is the question of how this environment is changing and how academics could, or should, respond to the new pressures which these changes bring. Academics are far from being the only professionals whose working lives are subject to new pressures. In early 2014 an internal report on digital strategy produced by the New York Times was leaked and became the subject of widespread analysis online. It began with the claim that while the venerable newspaper was ‘winning at journalism’ it was failing at ‘the art and science of getting our journalism to our readers’. What concerned the authors of the report was not the familiar fear about the long-term consequences of digital technology to journalism itself, but rather their capacity to ensure their quality journalism thrives in a marketplace of ideas saturated by digitally native publishers.
This is a much bigger topic than social media alone. But it is nonetheless an important element in it, with implications for how academics utilise social media and the environment they encounter when they do. The key question here is how what van Dijck (2012) calls the popularity principle might influence the behaviour and practices of academics as they embrace social media. As she defines it, the popularity principle holds that ‘the more contacts you have and make, the more valuable you become, because more people think you are popular and hence want to connect with you’ (van Dijck 2012: loc 310). This concept is coded into the architecture of social media platforms in a way that is impossible to avoid, reflecting the broader attention economy in which ‘attention means eyeballs or (unconscious) exposure, and this value is an important part of Internet advertising
in the form of banners, pop-ups, and paid ad space on websites’. There’s money to be made from popularity, or rather turning popularity (often, as van Dijck points out, equated with values of truth, trust and objectivity) into a quantifiable commodity (van Dijck 2012: loc 1281). It might feel like you would be immune to this, but if you encounter a popular Twitter feed, previously unknown to you, how does the high follower count influence your perceptions of it in the absence of any other information? At the very least, it’s likely to factor into a sense that there’s something authoritative or valuable about the account. After all, surely those followers must have arrived for a reason? The popularity principle is insidious and it is built into social media platforms themselves. Value comes to be quantified in terms of the accumulation of followers, likes, retweets and reblogs. Yet as van Dijck (2012: loc 1360) notes, the ‘concept of “liking” pushes popular ideas or things with a high degree of emotional value … “difficult sociality’, only adds to the pressures inherent in the popularity principle around which social media platforms are structured (van Dijck 2012: loc 1391).
The centrality of the popularity principle may be most pronounced in the case of Facebook but it’s far from being unique to it. One of Amazon’s most groundbreaking innovations was the extension of their initial Hot 100 bestseller list to encompass everything on the site, drawing authors into a neurotic fixation with where they ranked on this all-encompassing list (Stone 2013: 75). The choices YouTube users make are heavily guided by selection mechanisms, including search engines and ranking algorithms, which inevitably favour some producers over others. Selection of the ‘most popular’ videos is the most pronounced manifestation of this but the guiding of user choices is built into the interface of the platform itself (van Dijck 2012: loc 2328). In part this can be fairly attributed to the practical challenge of dealing with the sheer scale of the content uploaded to YouTube. Without filtering it would be difficult to find relevant content in the 3000 hours of video that have been uploaded in the ten minutes or so I’ve been writing this paragraph, let alone the entire content of the site’s archive. But contrary to the rhetorical focus on the blurring of boundaries between viewers and producers, evidence suggests that the site’s architecture is designed to favour their official partners, allowing some professionalised amateurs to make a living out of the system and entrenching a sense of possibility that one will be ‘discovered’ through YouTube (van Dijck 2012: loc 2396–2610). The most obvious example however is the ranking facilitated by Google, a service which has sought to identify the most popular content from the outset. As Vaidhyanathan (2012) asks, ‘Does anything (or anyone) matter if it (or she) does not show up on the first page of a Google search?’. The simplicity of the interface and the objectivity of its ordering belie the biases (‘valuing popularity over accuracy, established sites over new, and rough rankings over more fluid or multidimensional models of presentation’) that are built into it (Vaidhyanathan 2012: 7).
However, perhaps the most pertinent examples for academics using social media can be seen with Twitter. As van Dijck (2012: loc 1569) puts it, ‘[t]he sheer number of followers has become a barometer for measuring popularity and influence, ascribing more power to few users in the twitterverse’. The potential implications of this can be seen by examining what might initially seem to be an extremely obscure feature of the culture emerging around academics using social media. One of the most striking developments in the last year has been the emergence of natively academic viral marketing accounts. I discussed two of these, Nein Quarterly and Shit Academics Say, in terms of their distinctive approach to but important” is not a judgement prompted by social media sites’. In using social media, academics are entering into an attention economy heavily structured around the popularity principle.
What are the implications of this attention economy for scholarship? The risk is that, as the political blogger Ezra Klein (2015) puts it, ‘[t]he incentives of the social web make it a threat to the conversational web’. The increasing reliance upon social media to drive traffic to blogs encourages certain ways of writing posts. The most obvious manifestation of this can be seen in the rise of viral content websites but there are more subtle manifestations as well. Klein’s point is that ‘the social web’ encourages an atomisation of content because individual posts circulate on their own rather than relying on readers’ repeated visits to the author’s blog. He presents this as a negative thing because it mitigates against the intensely conversational style that used to characterise the political blogosphere in which arguments were developed through mutual engagement across whole sequences of blog posts. While he may be undervaluing the conversations which emerge on social media in response to blog posts, he nonetheless makes an important point about the implications of content needing to ‘travel’ in a way that was not formerly the case. Obviously these pressures aren’t inexorable but their influence can be surprisingly effective, as the obvious desire of bloggers to gain an audience for their posts gradually chips away at a principled opposition to changing how they write in order to better solicit a readership. The growing reliance upon social media to drive traffic to blogs, something which is compounded by Facebook’s desire to be ‘a gateway to social content, a toll road to a data infrastructure that facilitates all forms of online commercialized
communicating visually and what can be learnt from it. The former is inarguably aphoristic in a manner that has a clear philosophical pedigree, utilising social media as part of ‘[a]n aesthetic and intellectual experiment only slightly less pretentious than it sounds’. In contrast, the latter relies upon viral content of a form likely to be familiar from non-academic contexts, though the selection and execution of it is undoubtedly hugely effective. Yet a recent account with a comparable approach, Grad School Elitist, found itself embroiled in controversy at the point I was completing this book. Accused of plagiarising the content on the account, accusations backed up with substantial evidence, the person controlling the account began to block anyone who questioned their authorship of the material they posted (including myself). My point here is not to intervene in this debate, which is likely to be tedious to the overwhelming majority of people who are less immersed in social media than I am, but simply to highlight this trajectory and what it might suggest about the tensions between scholarship and the logic of popularity built into social media platforms.
Each successive academic viral marketing account seems to have less intellectual value than the last, relying mechanically upon content likely to have the most impact through retweets and favourites, thus contributing to the progressive growth of its follower counts. Virality can soon become an end in itself. The problem arises because, as van Dijck (2012: loc 1569) notes, users ‘quickly learned how to play the system and accumulate a lot of clout on Twitter’. In some cases, discussed further in the next section, this might involve straightforwardly copying and pasting content that can be seen to be popular – a judgement that’s easy to make because each tweet has its metrics incorporated into its own presentation. But the more subtle aspect of this concerns the manner in which popularity accumulates in a winner-takes-all-manner: ‘the more people follow someone, the trendier he or she becomes; the more people retweet a quote, the more impact it has in the twitterverse’ (van Dijck 2012: loc 3227). It’s in the interests of social media platforms to ensure the prominence of those users with a proven capacity to generate engagement on their site. After all, this amounts to more traffic for advertising, more buzz to draw users into the site, and higher statistics with which to appeal to the markets for more capital. These incentives, and the ease with which they can be accommodated within algorithms which serve other more immediately practical purposes, leave some users objectively positioned as more valuable than others within the platform (van Dijck 2012: loc 2353).
This doesn’t mean that all roads inevitably lead to BuzzFeed. It also doesn’t mean that academics using social media will inevitably entail the deterioration of
scholarly standards, as a neurotic preoccupation with the accumulation of influence (as measured in follower counts and retweets) increasingly encourages simple communication likely to prove popular at the expense of complex ideas which may not thrive because of their difficulty and ambiguity. Using social media doesn’t mean academics will inevitably come to talk in TED soundbites and forego things of intellectual worth. But the risk of a drift in this direction is there and that’s why it’s important to be aware of this at the outset, not least of all in order to reflect on your motivations if you find yourself engaging online with some regularity. It also helps us to be critical of the rhetoric of democratisation, such that it is assumed social media will ‘disrupt’ the hierarchies of academia. It won’t. It might however make them more complex, as influence and esteem accumulate through a more diverse set of mechanisms than was formerly the case. But, as I discuss later in this chapter, it’s easy to see how academics might get drawn into the logic of self-evaluation through metrics: if your h-index can be understood as tracking success then is it really a stretch to imagine the same being true of your quantity of Twitter followers? More worryingly, it’s easy to imagine managers embracing such measures as an attempt to evaluate a capacity for impact and engagement.