In recent months, I’ve become preoccupied by how we make sense of the experiences of academics being harassed or trolled when using social media. My initial interest in this was in my capacity as a trainer and consultant. One of my roles is to encourage, train and support academics in their use of social media. The apparent rise of this experience necessitates a response. We need to know how to prepare academics for this experience, as well as be able to advise on potential responses and their likely efficacy.
However as a sociologist I’m dissatisfied with the idea that we leave trolling framed solely as a risk encountered in public engagement through social media. There is something more complex happening here, as a new media infrastructure changes the real and imagined relationship of academics to the wider public. It would be a mistake to frame this in terms of disintermediation: social media changes the role of previous gatekeepers to publics (e.g. journalists, broadcast researchers, think tank staff) while opening up opportunities to work with them in new ways. Their gatekeeping function becomes less straight forward. But it also empowers platforms themselves as gatekeepers, with mediation now being in large part enacted through the architecture of each social media platform.
This can produce what feel like unmediated meetings with the general public. It is imperative that we realise this is not the case and ensure a wide understanding of how platforms mediate interaction, as well as how we can collectively work to exercise an influence over these processes in order to ensure public engagement has a chance of succeeding. But it also invites us to call into question some of the assumptions about publics and our relation to them which were allowed to develop under the conditions provided by the older media infrastructure. I really like the account Jana Bacevic offers of these assumptions in this recent essay:
In assuming a relatively benevolent reception of scientific knowledge, then, appeals such as Chis and Cruickshank’s to engage with different publics—whether as academics, intellectuals, workers, or activists—remain faithful to Popper’s normative ideal concerning the relationship between reasoning and decision-making: ‘the people’ would see the truth, if only we were allowed to explain it a bit better. Obviously, in arguing for dialogical, co-produced modes of knowledge, we are disavowing the assumption of a privileged position from which to do so; but, all too often, we let in through the back door the implicit assumption of the normative force of our arguments. It rarely, if ever, occurs to us that those we wish to persuade may have nothing to say to us, may be immune or impervious to our logic, or, worse, that we might not want to argue with them.
What fascinates me about these encounters is how unprepared we seem to be for the possibility that ‘the public’ could be disinterested or even actively hostile to what we are doing. I don’t think online harassment can be reduced to such hostility, far from it, but I do think it’s often an important component of it. This is even more the case with trolling, though drawing a principled distinction between the two is a (challenging) topic to another post.
We urgently need to prepare for these encounters, including avoiding the dispiriting trap of drawing too sharp a contrast between old and new. We have not left behind an old world of mediated engagement where we can imagine pliant publics to enter a new world of unmediated engagement where we directly encounter hostile publics. There is still mediation and we still imagine our publics. But we now have the possibility of somewhat random, largely unpredictable interactions which I want to argue have important implications for the sociology of knowledge.