The Challenge of Public Engagement Projects and the Role of New Intermediaries Like @Soc_Imagination and @TheSocReview

In a recent article on the LSE Impact Blog, Martha Henson reflects on the challenges which typify digital projects and the implications this has for the uptake of social media in higher education. She highlights a pattern which occurs with depressing frequency, in which “a failure to understanding digital marketing, and a failure to invest any serious time and effort in promotion” lead to otherwise laudable digital initiatives failing. The lesson she takes from this is an important one: “stop wasting money on digital projects if you aren’t prepared to promote them properly”. On one level, it’s hard to argue with the conclusions she has drawn:

Do NOT embark on any digital project if you aren’t going to at least make a decent effort to tell people about it or otherwise figure out how people are going to see it.

If you are going to make an in-gallery app but only have room for a small piece of signage and no budget or space for print promotion, do not bother. If you are going to create a game and put it on your website and think maybe your organisation might be able to muster up a single tweet and facebook post about it, give up now. If you are creating an amazing interactive video experience but the entire budget is going on production and you’ve run out of money to market it, stop.

Furthermore, if you think that a digital experience, be it mobile or online, game, video, or guide, is going to sell itself, and thereby itself be marketing for your TV show or exhibition, you are going to be sorely disappointed. Actually, I suspect this attitude is partly to blame for some of the failures in this area. There seems to be some confusion over whether these digital add-ons are marketing themselves but, by and large, it doesn’t work this way, things just don’t magically “go viral”.

But perhaps we need to interrogate these difficulties a little further. I’m sure Henson is correct in her diagnosis that in many cases “these digital projects *are* just seen as add-ons”, with the promotional activity therefore falling to the production team for the project. But in the context of higher education, I think there’s a more diffuse problem of what Oili-Helena Ylijoki calls ‘project time’:

First, project time entails a strict timeframe, defined in the research contract. Every project starts and ends at given dates, and there are milestones in-between. Thus, the project has an internal clock that determines how long research can take, what stages there are and what results need to be gained by certain dates. In this way, project time has fixed, pre-set temporal boundaries, which separate not only different phases within a given project but also one project from another, making it an entity of its own with a logo, an acronym and web pages (Vermeulen 2010).

The dominance of project time within higher education compounds the problem that Henson identifies (as I suspect it also will in other fields where the temporality of projects is dominant) because it means that building an audience falls within the temporal horizons of the project itself. It’s a time consuming task that is unlikely to succeed within the window of a project. Furthermore, it’s one which benefits from activity that engages with multiple audiences in a variety of ways i.e. something to which most projects will be unsuited. It’s labour intensive, iterative and long term.

Obviously, this is why promotional activity of the sort Henson bemoans the absence of is important. But this is also why the new intermediaries of social media for academics become so important: websites like The Sociological Imagination, The LSE Impact Blog, The Sociological Review and Open Democracy (and many more) have pre-aggregated a specialised audience relevant for many of the interesting projects that are emerging all around us. This leaves them obviously valuable as promotional partners but I’m suggesting we need to see them in a more fundamental way as platforms for public engagement. Initiatives like these are not something peripheral to the mainstream of public engagement but rather are a crucial component of any engagement project which seeks to utilise social media.

Categories: Digital Sociology, Social Media for Academics


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