Social media for academics and the increasing toxicity of the online ecology

In the last few months, I’ve begun to seriously plan a much more sophisticated follow-up to Social Media for Academics, investigating the implications of social media for academic labour. A crucial aspect of this, which seems likely to become much more so with each passing year, concerns the toxicity of many of the online environments in which academics are participating. If academics increasingly find themselves expected to use social media as a means of demonstrating engagement or at least signalling engagement-willingness then the toxicity of these environments will become an increasingly central labour issue.

My fear is that we will have the worst of both worlds. Academics will be coerced outwards into these online environments under the sign of ‘impact’, while finding themselves blamed if anything they do online attracts disapprobation for their employer. It’s easy to imagine how the moralism we see lurking beneath the impact agenda (those who claim not to ‘get it’ should be ‘ashamed’ as I recently heard an extremely senior person say) could find similar expression in managerial expectation of social media use. On our present trajectory, the likely outcome will be an individualised one: take responsibility for your own engagement and take the blame if you bring about any perceived damage to the corporate brand. This problem is compounded because, as Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it “the risks and rewards of presenting oneself “to others over the Web using tools typically associated with celebrity promotion” (Barone 2009) are not the same for all academics in the neo-liberal “public” square of private media.” Far from counteracting exclusion in higher education, social media for academics is amplifying the risks for those already marginalised.

As an example of how this is developing, consider this dispiriting reflection on being an academic video blogger on YouTube which Philip Moriarty passed on to me:

One of the main reasons why I think the promise of YT as a place where intelligent life might flourish is failing is the well-documented level of trolling and hatred that permeates the site, and which threatens to silence any but the most obnoxious or innocuous voices. I stopped making regular videos a couple of years ago when the vitriol I was receiving for having the temerity to make unpopular content spilled over into my personal life. In addition to receiving the usual grammatically-challenged insults and thinly-veiled threats the university I was working at was also contacted several times by folk demanding my removal. Eventually these ‘downsides’ to being an academic on Youtube outweighed the benefits and I gave up making public videos entirely.

And it isn’t just me. Over the past three years I have known four other academics leave Youtube for reasons very similar to my own. These were folk who were similarly motivated to bridge the gap between ‘town and gown’, between universities (which are often seen as elitist) and the wider world represented on social media. These people wanted to contribute their knowledge and also to learn from the contributions of others. They wanted to find ways to speak and to listen in ways which were more inclusive, and which the diverse communities on Youtube seemed to be able to offer. These fine people, like myself, became disheartened by the inability of YT to foster anything but the lowest common denominator, the most clickbaity, the most provocative, the most crudely entertaining, and the failure of the platform to support those who wanted to raise the bar.

Some might say (and indeed have said) that this toxicity is just a natural part of the online ecology and we should grow a thicker skin, or not feed the trolls, or any of the other platitudes that are trotted out to excuse bad behaviour, but I don’t think that’s good enough. When the comment section under a video is two thirds insult or threat then the value of that comment section drops to zero. No one with anything to contribute wants to be part of it. When you have to wonder if your latest video will prompt some faceless anti-intellectual gonk to contact your employer then the chilling effect takes hold and you censor yourself, (God forbid you should talk positively about feminism, or BLM, or the representation of women in video games). The number of eyeballs on the site might increase but the I.Q. of the site goes down.

https://medium.com/@fredmcv/intelligent-life-on-youtube-aa46f4404861#.37wdwagtp

The architecture of these platforms militates against their sustained pedagogical use. It might be that, as Pausé and Russell put it, “Social media enables scholarship to be publicised more widely within the  academy,  and  in addition to that, it enables  scholarship to become part of broader  social conversations”. The problem is that the incentives of these platforms have over time proved to be generative of a dialogical toxicity which tends to be obscured by the high-minded rhetoric of public engagement. The promise that social media might “bridge the gap between ‘town and gown’” is proving to be rather misleading. A large part of my new project will be exploring the implications of this at the level of the institutional politics of the university, with a particular focus on what it means for academic labour.

The role of social media for academics discourse in obscuring these issues, mystifying the complex politics of social media in the university through breathless reiteration of the individual benefits to be accrued through engagement, means it will be a central object of critique for the project. But I want to avoid slipping into utopian/dystopian, pro/anti framings of social media for academics. I still believe in its scholarly importance and it’s capacity to inculcate solidarity and (in limited ways) flatten hierarchies. There’s a great example of the latter in this paper by Pausé and Russell which I’m otherwise pretty critical of:

Accessibility means individuals who are not academically trained are able to  learn  about  a  field  of  research  and  contribute  to  it,  bringing  their  own  ideas  and  experiences  to  the  table.†    And  accountability  has  enabled  greater  criticism  of  the  process  of  scholarship  and  research.    Through  connecting  on  social  media,  marginalised  people  have  been  able  to  gather  sufficient  force  to  challenge  the  conventions  of  research;  to  insist  on  an  intersectional  perspective.    The  lived  experience  of  a  Māori  woman  living  in  Aotearoa  New  Zealand  can  challenge  the  theorised understanding of an academic.‡ People have objected to being studied, and  have demanded the right to participate in framing the discussion.  For example, the  Health  at  Every  Size®  (HAES)  movement  has  largely  been  led  by  advocates  from  within  what  is  known as  the  Fatosphere  (Harding,  2007),  prompting  research  that  questions the basic assumptions made about the relationship between body size and  health by health scholars and those working in the health field. This both challenges  and enriches scholars’ research.  There is now a rich empirical literature on the efficacy  of HAES (Burgard, 2014).


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2 replies »

  1. Really interesting discussion Mark. Thank you for those perspectives. The capacity for both the common community good and for disheartening soul-destroying trolling is a wide pendulum of possible responses. Even in professional closed spaces on social media there is a capacity for horrendous misunderstanding and conflict riven discussion. The ability to slip into tribal discussions and ad hominem attacks is not limited to the wider public but even in moderated professional groups.
    I am constantly reflecting upon the capacity for this and have wondered about the use of largely text. The anonymity and protected virtual space from the usual social modifiers. We are safer from the consequences of our less than honourable behaviour than in the face to face setting.
    It’s almost like a giant Stanford Prison experiment.

    Not sure how to best manage it and so far in my online community Gender has been the most difficult compared with race or religion. This could reflect the nuances of my local context of course but I am still ruminating on that. I’m not sure if it is fair that we expect the world online to be any different from the real world tension and divisions that simmer. Perhaps the medium just allows what is ever present to be made more visible to more witnesses.

    Interesting times.

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