I use social media for the fun of it – the joy of communicating, but also as an academic. In that respect, I am part of an academic minority in my choice of media. Most academics steer clear of social media as a distraction from their core work and traditional academic outlets, such as the refereed journal article or book. This is unfortunate. The use of the Internet and social media can transform and complement scholarship, even though they are too often viewed, mistakenly, as a tradeoff.
Of course, academics can find many ways to distract themselves from writing, doing field research, going to seminars, and other aspects of traditional scholarly work. But social media can be used to support scholarship, and is actually transforming nearly every aspect of scholarship, such as by giving academics the means to write or write locally – to their department, university, or conference audiences – but also reach globally. Social media are circumventing old constraints on you sharing ideas, papers, lectures, and all scholarship with a global audience of one or many who are interested in your topic.
So it has been good for me to see some books coming out on social media in academia, such as Mark Carrigan, Social Media for Academics (Sage). My colleagues and I put together an edited book on the ways in which the Internet and computational analytics, and social media, were transforming scholarship, when we were studying digital social research. It was entitled World Wide Research (MIT Press 2010). Digital social research using social media, the Internet, big data and more are changing nearly every phase of academic research and teaching.
However, even positive views of social media in academia often miss the transformative potential of this shift. Social media are more than simply electronic tools for doing what you’ve always done, such as networking, managing information, and publicizing your work. It really will involve a change in culture or mindset within academia. Everything you do, from brainstorming to data collection and analysis is being transformed. For example, everything you write, every lecture you give, every communication you have of significance can be shared globally.
I’m a senior academic – as in old – so I still write notes on paper with my fountain pen. But as soon as I get to the point of communicating my ideas beyond myself, I think of how to best share them. I can blog a photograph of my notes, I can blog, tweet, or post the text of my working paper to a repository, and then share links to the piece. This is a shift in my mindset, which I realize when I see other faculty spending their time communicating with themselves, and not posting information in a way that is easy for others to share via social media.
Take, for example, colleagues who still pride themselves in adopting the Chatham House Rule, asking participants in a discussion not to quote anyone’s contribution. This is culturally at odds with a sharing culture. Seldom do I ever hear anything in a seminar under the Chatham House Rule that merits such secrecy. Instead, it is counter-productive tradition in the digital age.
Of course, there are problems. You can spend too much time blogging, and you can confuse social and work related posts – the so-called context collapse. Your friends are not interested in your work, and vice versa, your work colleagues may not be interested in your vacations and family.
On time management, you can spend too much time reading, or chatting with colleagues, or you can manage your time. On context collapse, you can have social media, such as a blog or social networkings site, devoted to more social and entertainment roles versus your academic role. I have several blogs for different purposes and audiences. You can create contexts, and not collapse them.
And, the grand criticism is that you can’t possibly communicate your ideas in 140 characters. Well, that is changing, even with Twitter, but it is a ridiculous point in the first place. Academics always have a title for their books, and they are well under 140 characters. And to a short tweet, you can link to the encyclopedia, or a video of your lecture. There is hardly any traditional limit – pages, words, color, motion – on what can be communicated online. That is not a good excuse for avoiding social media.
In our research on attitudes toward the Internet and social media, time and again we have found that those who are most critical of the Internet and social media, are those you have not used them, or used them less. They are ‘experience technologies’.* As you gain experience with social media as an academic, you gain an understanding of how to use it effectively, not to advance your career, but to do what academics should do – conduct and share their work with whomever is interested. I worked with several colleagues for years to help bring the ideas, people, and visitors in Oxford to the wider world, what we called Voices from Oxford (VOX).
But habits and cultures change slowly. It will take time, if you are not part of digital social research. But think about changing the way you do what you do as an academic, and take what your elder colleagues say about social media with a grain of salt. It is most likely that they have never used the new media.
*Dutton, W. H., and Shepherd, A. (2006), ‘Trust in the Internet as an Experience Technology’, Information, Communication and Society, 9(4): 433-51.