So I just read an excellent blog post by Kerry Pinny about use of social media in academia and it’s a really interesting piece. I’ve written before about using social media platforms such as blogging to communicate research and I’ve taught extensively about blogging, Twitter and lots of other permutations of social media use to students, researchers and librarians over the years.
Kerry’s post was originally something she was going to write anyway but it morphed into a response to this delight in the Guardian called ‘I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer’, written in August 2016 (bit late to the party I realise) by a self-described young PhD student, and not your typical grumpy older academic (even though this stereotype is often unfair in my experience as I know lots of older academics doing amazing stuff online!).
If you want to see how (ironically) social media responded to this article, then #seriousacademic is a lovely goldmine on Twitter.
As someone who teaches regularly about this sort of thing and who is actually really passionate about people using social media to communicate their work and research openly, as well as using social media to collaborate and connect with other interested folk, seeing someone be so negative about social media as a tool made me quite sad. Now I should say, and Kerry makes this point too, it is entirely down to personal choice. You are completely entitled to not use social media. That’s totally fine. But don’t judge other people who do.
If you want to use social media to communicate your stuff then go for it! Or, if you don’t want to post lots of stuff, use social media as a knowledge gathering tool. All those pesky people tweeting at conferences are actually doing several things.
Yes, they’re promoting the fact that they’re at the conference. Yes this is an important ‘hey I’m engaged!’ thing. I have made many connections at conferences because people have seen that I’ve been tweeting and have then sought me out in person during a refreshment break.
But, those tweeters are also sharing knowledge with the outside world. I have followed conferences online that I haven’t been able to attend in person and have got so much from the experience. Yes you do sometimes get the same soundbite about fifty times from different people, but you also get the brilliant photos of a slide or a link to a report that the speaker just cited.
People do wonderful things with live-tweeting and to be quite frank, most speakers will now expect people to be live-tweeting their talks and if they have a problem with that then they might need to reevaluate the purpose of their very public activity of sharing their ideas with a room full of peers. Once that information is out there, it’s out there, whether someone tweets in real time or blogs about the event after the fact. If you’re not comfortable with this reality then that’s on you.
[As a caveat, I have been in talks that have involved images of medical scans and human remains which a speaker has specifically asked that people do not take photos of for sensitivity and ethical reasons. That is totally different.]
Social media is not about impressing people, as the Guardian article author states. It’s about sharing your work and ideas, which arguably should speak for themselves. I remember giving a LinkedIn 1-2-1 consultation with a student a while back who was deeply uncomfortable with the idea of promoting themselves through their LinkedIn account. It went against everything they were used to and was a bit of a social faux pas back in their home country. My response was that you’re not tooting your own horn in an obnoxious way, you’re just presenting facts about you. Your skills, your experiences, things that are documented and real. You can do that without also shouting ‘omg I’m so awesome look at my skillz!’
Just like I mentioned about my social media teaching experience at the start of this post…I didn’t do that to show off, I just did it to give some form of evidence that I’ve supported people in using social media in academia which is why this issue is important to me. Simple. Twitter (and other social media) is exactly the same. You can share nonsense, you can share research, you can share photos of your dinner. It doesn’t matter what you do, but perhaps more how you do it. I personally respond more to Twitter accounts that are honest, brutal and open. Yes, I get a lot from the various experts in different fields that I follow who share cool resources, but I also love seeing something completely innocuous from them too…like some random weird thing they spotted while doing their Tesco shop. It makes them more human, more engaging approachable, and quite frankly more interesting to follow and make contact with.
On an institutional level, I don’t think anyone should be forced to be on social media but if you are in a role that teaches or uses social media extensively, it would be strange if you’re not using it in some way. For example, if I just gave a teaching session on Twitter but my students couldn’t then follow my account and see if I put anything I just told them into practice, I would be being pretty disingenuous. But that is also just the way that I work and teach. I try to lead by example and I don’t always get it right, but that’s ok too.
The Guardian article mentions that there is often encouragement to tweet a picture of something, and I read this as coming from an institutional level. Well yes, of course your institution will want you to do things on its behalf. As an employee, we are all representatives of our respective institutions whether we like it or not. So of course those institutions would love for us to help them with some promotion, especially if they’re publicly funded. There’s nothing more genuine than a tweet about something cool from a person as opposed to from a generic institutional account. People connect more with faces than brands. Again, if you’re not comfortable with this then fine but there is often something more than ‘just take a picture’ behind those sorts of requests. By contributing to the social media output of an institution, you’re opening up more opportunities for potential students, researchers or employees to see what that institution is about and if it is the sort of place that they want to invest their time and money in, whether through paying fees or applying for a job. While arguably this role should not always fall to academics, they do make up a good part of the ecosystem of an institution and it is something that many people are happy to help out with which is why those requests exist.
Finally, the Guardian article voices concerns about strong opinions being voiced, potentially alienating the very people we’re trying to connect with on social media. I agree completely with this point and anything you put on social media will be viewed by everyone, something some people do sometimes forget. However, that doesn’t mean that strong views should necessarily be edited. Sometimes having an expert in a certain field speaking frankly about something they have knowledge and experience of can be incredibly refreshing and useful when more formal channels, such as news media, are being extremely edited in their approach for whatever reason. Be sensible on social media, but then that applies with anything really.
By being engaged online and communicating what you do doesn’t necessarily make you and better or worse researcher than someone who doesn’t. But it does make you more open, approachable and (hopefully) a good ambassador for your discipline. It might also make you better at your research as you make more connections with fellow researchers, the public, get calls from the press for comment through social media and much much more.
If you’re publicly funded, remember that the very people who are funding your research are the people who might never have a chance to reap the benefits of that research. Paywalls blocks access to research for the keen non-researcher and super specific research is sometimes difficult to digest for the average reader. By tweeting about your work, process and anything else, you are allowing for the finer and more accessible points of your world to filter out so people can understand and appreciate the overall work.
Also, just imagine for a second that the dreaded newspaper misinterpretation of your work happens. A popular newspaper oversimplifies and misreports what you found. People can’t get at the original article for whatever reason. How do you issue some clarity on the topic? Social media. It’s open and democratic so anyone can search for you and get the real meaning of those years of hard work that you spent in the lab that have been stripped down to a catchy click-bait headline and not much else.
The key thing with social media that I think the Guardian article author has missed slightly is that social media is NOT ABOUT BROADCASTING! If all you’re doing is pushing information out and not giving a damn about what is coming back, you’re doing it wrong. Social media is a two way street where you tweet something interesting and start conversations with others, creating something new and engaging for others.
So that’s my two pence on the topic. Lots of other people have said lots of other things all of which is worth a read.
TL;DR: do social media if you want, don’t if you don’t. But do it well if you do ok?
Header image: Barn Images