Should Academics Try Twitter?

Yes. Absolutely. According to this tongue-in-cheek chart. No, but seriously. You absolutely should  — at least — try it.

(Thanks, @amisamileandme for forwarding this chart to me)

At the beginning of August 2016, a Guardian article written by an anonymous PhD student attacked the use of social media for academic work. It was published under the patronising title “I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer”. It sparked a healthy and very interesting debate on Twitter under the hashtag #SeriousAcademic.

Many academics in various stages of their careers wrote tweets and articles contradicting this article. They mentioned many uses of social media for their work (as well as their social life and entertainment).

One of the most interesting and complete responses I’ve seen came from Jacquelyn Gill, an ice age ecologist at the University of Maine (Thanks, @kevinmarks for bringing it to my attention). Her two-tweet response and the discussions that ensued are worth a read.

Academics with blogs also reacted strongly.

Leigh Sparks (@sparks_stirling) from the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, offers My Serious Academic Use of Blogs and Twitter. This retail specialist summarizes lessons learned on the usefulness of social media to his career.

Dean Burnett (@garwboy), doctor of neuroscience, comedy writer and stand-up, parodies the original article. Doing so, he offers many links on the problems usage of social media in academia may address with I’m a non-serious academic. I make no apologies for this also on the Guardian platform. Social media provided him with alternative prospects since his field is oversubscribed.

Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf), a history professor at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa offers a rebuke to the original article and deconstructs the notion of “serious academic” in I’ve Got a Serious Problem with “Serious Academics”.

Main benefits of a presence on social media for academics put forth by these articles and tweets are:

  • Sharing enthusiasm and supporting each other
  • Adding researchers to your network and create stronger ties which might lead to cooperation opportunities
  • Exchange sources and references which may be useful for research and/or funny.
  • Increase the circulation and readership of your work (books, peer-reviewed articles, blog posts, quotes in the press, etc.)
  • Increase the odds journalists will contact you for stories.
  • Have control of your online image and not depend on your institution’s staff web pages.
  • Using it as a back-channel for conferences and other events to get noticed by participants and organisers.
  • Promoting your field and providing expertise to the general public simply by inhabiting those online spaces and having your exchanges archived. For the Liberal Arts and Humanities, such a presence makes it easier to present our disciplines in a positive light outside of the frame of crisis / being set aside that has been pervasive in the media these last few years.

Social media is only a drag if you try to control too tightly. You have to find and/or define boundaries, yes. However, most academics who report seeing benefits use social media as humans first and foremost because that is how you can connect with people. That’s the charm of social media. Again, don’t take my word for it:

If you do social media like this, you’ll reap benefits and it won’t feel like yet another professional task. Putting on a mask is orders of magnitude more complicated than learn to inhabit those spaces as yourself.

There’s a range of openness, of course. It is a matter of personal style, how visible and likely you feel to attract unwanted attention from racists and misogynists.

One thing is for certain, trying to remain 100% on-brand on social media will exhaust you and make you come across as fake. You should be yourself, inhabit the online public space as best you can and try to be a good online citizen. As long as you let your passion and your expertise shine, you’re on the right track.

Done well, your online presence can be about work, show a bit of yourself and feel genuine while you maintain boundaries that seem clear and healthy to you. Clara Nellist’s Twitter feed is a great example. I follow her because particle physics is cool (and she seems nice). Although we don’t interact directly, her tweets are full of value and the occasional glimpse into her life as a postdoc makes her relatable. Tweets about her travels or some of her outside activities make it easy and fun to connect. For example, learning that she finished the 20 kilomètres de Paris and seeing her proud selfie put a smile on my face.

The more human you are the easier it will be to make genuine connections with other humans. That’s why it’s called social networking. You can find out all about this approach in Stephanie Booth’s one-hour talk entitled “Be Your Best Offline Self Online“. (She helps people get started and manage their online presence in one-to-one and one-to-many workshops. She’s nice and very knowledgeable. I met her through her blog.)

If you feel motivated to start on social media, I would advise you to start with Twitter: Messages are short, it is public by default, there is very little to misunderstand.

The London School of Economics and Political Science published “Five minutes with Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Gilson: “Blogging is quite simply, one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now” on their IMPACT blog all the way back in 2012.

They also have a Twitter Guide that may be a bit dated as it is from 2011. More importantly though, they have a list of Twitter users active in the Humanities and Arts for you to follow.

What is social media anyway?

Technology might change and forms of communication might shift but, at its heart, social media is based on basic human impulses of sharing. Social media platforms are a space — most often extremely public — set up to share. Sharing interests. Sharing insights. Sharing questions to get answers or more interesting questions. Sharing to make friends and meet collaborators. Sharing to be a good citizen. Sharing to raise one’s profile in a group. Technical ability will always be secondary to social abilities and the beautiful impulse to share.

The internet was always social: even before it had pages to access via web browsers (like Firefox or Internet Explorer). Groups had synchronous communications via chat rooms on IRC servers and asynchronous communications via newsgroups on Usenet.

Web pages to access via browsers and interconnected with hyperlinks date back to Christmas 1990 (only!) when Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist working for CERN near Geneva in Switzerland, invented the web. His invention spread over the whole internet during the first half of the 1990s.

Not long after, the first blogs started appearing. “Blog” is the contraction of the words “web” and “log”. These publications are defined by their format: a series of entries in ante-chronological order. They were varied in their styles, tone and lengths. Early bloggers chronicled their discoveries on the still relatively young world wide web, they shared insights about their interests, some were diarists or journalists… People started pouring their passions in this format.

In the early days, blogging required knowledge of code and web servers. In 1999, easier to use services such as LiveJournal and Blogger.com launched. Using these services, running a blog got easier. In the following years, there was an explosion in the number of blogs. By 2004, blogs became mainstream.

Most bloggers are read by few people. Social media is, among other things, characterized by smaller readership / viewership. Mass circulation and audience metrics aren’t the point. As you may know, mass media and their pretences of objectivity are recent (and crumbling) historical phenomena. Early in the eighteenth century, opinionated publications like The Spectator (1711) and Tatler (1709) circulated in small numbers and flourished. People read and debated them in coffee shops. They wrote and published in agreement or disagreement. Vigorous debate and fecund struggles shook the public square. In many respects, early social media was a return to these days. Bloggers knew each other and published articles in reaction to other articles frequently.

In 1999, Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger wrote the Cluetrain Manifesto. The Manifesto is a series of 95 theses insisting that the web enables global conversations between people in which the polished/cold language of organisations feel foreign. It says organisations will have to adjust and join these conversations with a genuine human voice or risk becoming irrelevant.

What the Cluetrain Manifesto observed and prophesied did happen. Online conversations influence people in big decisions such as choosing a university and a degree; or for whom to vote in elections; as well as in purchasing decisions such as choosing a refrigerator. We are more suspicious than ever when we face messages in traditional one-way channels. We base purchasing decisions more on our peers’ recommendations and on online searches.

Although blogging remains a great way to disseminate longer forms of writing, the quicker and more spontaneous sharing started happening more and more on the various social media sites which have emerged. Let us resume our little historical overview.

Social networks as we know them today with interconnected user profiles started in the late 1990s. We could go through the evolution of Friendster, the rise of MySpace, etc. It would stoke my nostalgia but it would not give you much value. If the subject interests you, there are many resources out there. Any history that I might offer would also centre around the US and/or Europe. In other regions of the world, other social networks held dominion. Suffice it to say there were many options and rapid evolution.

The most popular ones today — around here — are Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.  That’s where the party happens and everyone meets.

  • Facebook is 1.71 billion monthly active users (June 30, 2016) and 14,495 employees (June 2016)
  • Twitter is 313 million active users (June 2016) and 3,860 (June 2016)
  • LinkedIn is 106 million active users (March 2016) and 9,732 employees (March 2016). Figures come from Wikipedia.

Is WordPress indie web? Should I publish on Medium?

We spend more and more of our time in walled gardens owned by private companies: still love Twitter, ever ambivalent about Facebook, on LinkedIn out of obligation to HR departments everywhere, reading on Medium. Yet, I still think we should maintain independent spaces. So I blog here (albeit not regularly enough).

But. Is this important? Does it really make a difference? I use the default theme of WordPress. WordPress, even though it is open source, is heavily influenced by its parent company Automattic. It is becoming a default because it powers about a quarter of all websites and plans to conquer more. It is convenient but it is eating the web too and its open source nature isn’t enough to give me warm fuzzy feelings about it any more.

Waterhouse, John William; A Mermaid; Royal Academy of Arts; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/a-mermaid-149322
John William Waterhouse, A Mermaid (1900).

I hear the sirens of Medium.com calling. Their song is loud and melodious. 300 people follow me over there without me having published a word on the platform. When I compare these numbers with the analytics of this site, the potential seems very clear.

Am I shooting myself in the foot? If I were to make the jump, what would I publish here and what on Medium?

Because one does write to be read. Sometimes, you know, readers are nice.

I could scrap WordPress, transfer all the worthy content to a flat-files CMS like all the webdev hipsters do. Would that be roots enough to satisfy that part of me? Would it make a difference in the grand scheme of things? It might make my site faster for sure but it would do zlitch to get me more readers.

It all comes down to two questions: Is self-hosting WordPress indie web? If not, what would be? Are these concerns genuine or am I just hiding?