Thought Leaders or Self-Replicating Media Nodes: the perils and possibilities of using social media as an academic

The text for a keynote I’m doing at the launch of the #ThinkList in London on November 28th.

The Internet Live Stats are my favourite way to start a conversation about social media. These real time estimates are produced from over 250 publicly available statistics, vividly conveying the speed and rythm of activity across a whole range of social media platforms. The numbers involved can induce a sense of vertigo. So far today there have been 3.4 million blog posts, 422 million tweets and 45 million photos published. To name three of the most popular platforms, there are 2.27 billion Facebook users, 1.5 billion YouTube users and 1 billion Instagram users. The project estimates that 8,279 Tweets, 882 Instagram photos and 1,437 Tumblr posts are sent in a typical second. This might pale in comparison to the 2,748,707 e-mails sent in the same unit of time but they are still remarkable figures. Not least of all when we remember how recent these innovations are, with the oldest of these corporations having been founded less than fifteen years ago.

It is astonishing how quickly they have become an integral part of daily life, in the process unsettling old assumptions and generating all manner of social and political controversies; ones which of course you will find widely discussed on the platforms themselves. The story of big tech’s domination of the economy extends far beyond social media, but it’s nonetheless a crucial element if we want to make sense of the global dominance of firms like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet, Facebook and Alibaba. There has been a remarkable transformation in the communicative infrastructure which holds the world together and it would be bewildering if this didn’t change how academics relate to themselves, to each other and to external audiences.

There are many reasons why social media might be appealing to academics. Their intrinsic speed contrast to the glacial pace of academic publishing. Their immediacy provides a satisfying release from the waiting which so often characterises the scholarly experience. They inevitably traverse the boundaries of the university, making it much easier to fall into conversation with our colleagues from different disciplines. The brevity of a platform like Twitter provides a respite from the protracted style of academic exchange. They provide remarkably powerful ways to navigate the knowledge system, prone as they are to generating information overload as a corollary of this power.

But most of all they promise visibility. When 82% of publications in the humanities, 32% in the social sciences and 27% in the natural sciences go uncited, it it easy to see why they would prove alluring. When journal articles which have been worked on for months or even years might be read hundreds of times at most, the ease with which a blog post can be read by thousands can prove intoxicating. When we’re increasingly tasked with coming down from the ivory tower, it can feel remarkably fortuitous to be presented with a set of tools which promise to help us do precisely this. For those preoccupied with the evident limitations of scholarly communications, it can be deeply exciting to consider how social media can be used by academics.

I’ve spent much of my time in recent years reading accounts of why we should be excited and what we should about it. Patrick Dunleavy talks about shorter, better, faster, free research communication. Jessie Daniels and Joe Feagin reflect on the possibility we can now curate our own ideal academic department. Daniel Little powerfully describes the value to be found in seeing ideas-in-motion. Once you begin to experience these benefits yourself, with a wide ranging network and expanded visibility, the idea of feeling content with old ways of working seems absurd. Social media diversifies the types of scholarly output in circulation. These platforms offer new ways to share work-in-progress, revealing the scaffolding that lies behind the carefully crafted reality of journal articles and monographs. They make it easier to reject scholarly formalities where these operate as rituals, marking inclusion and exclusion, rather than contributing to our shared intellectual endeavour. These are just some of the reasons why I find social media for academics exciting. But there also reasons to be cautious, ones which I often worry don’t receive enough attention by those advocating the use of social media.

  • Social media can be enticing for scholars because of what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu described as their “excessive confidence in the powers of language”. It is easy to get sucked into social media in the belief that continuing to talk will improve the conversation. For instance, in an usual article the physicist Philip Moriarty vividly describes the grim realisation that half a million words of comment and response he’d produced as one of the most enthusiastic digital engagers I’ve met in academia produced nothing of lasting value for himself or for others. It can be remarkably easy to get sucked in, consuming vast amounts of time and energy while exposing yourself to the risk of abuse and harassment. To point this out isn’t a case against engagement, as much as a reminder that there are no intrinsic limits to how much time you can spend on this. There will always be more people who are wrong on the internet, as my favourite xkcd cartoon so memorably reminds us:
  • Unfortunately, it can be hard to set these limits because universities are increasingly enthusiastic about their staff using social media. There are many reasons for this but at its heart is the impact agenda. How can a university embed a culture of engagement liable to generate impact? No one really knows but encouraging staff to use Twitter seems like a good first step to many. The problem is that without a clear sense of how these platforms are used to generate impact, metrics begin to substitute for strategy. Follower counts become a proxy for impact capacity and digital engagement becomes a proxy for impact willingness. It becomes harder to set limits on your own engagement if you’re aware that more activity might improve your standing in the eyes of your current or future employers. Furthermore, the impact framing obscures the fact that the publicness of social media is often exaggerated. These platforms are profoundly segmented and what we share is only seen by a subset of a subset of our followers. If we see it in terms of getting our research ‘out there’ then this crucial nuance will be missed.
  • But the issue is much broader than impact because metrics are now a routine part of academic life, with staff at UK universities potentially subject to over 100 hundred different metrics. If critics are right and we have internalised these metrics, coming to care about the h-index, it leaves us primed to care about new metrics. If we are used to assessing our performance and comparing ourselves to others in metricised terms, a concern with the metrics which social media platforms introduce will come naturally. The notion of ‘popularity’ or ‘influence’ built into social media platforms could make an easy transition into thought and practice in everyday life within the university.
  • In the process academic culture risks delivering us into hands of social media firms. The application of behavioural science in social media design is now common knowledge, with a vast intellectual apparatus built around engineering a continual increase in engagement amongst users of platforms. As an early Facebook employee Jeff Hammerbacher infamously put it, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads”. Engagement in this sense has many facets: how long sessions last, how often a user returns, how many things they click on. But what unites these is a concern to encourage users to spend more time on the platform. This is crucial for presenting users with ads to click on and for generating the data which ensure the efficacy of these ads. The techniques are often crude when taken in isolation, operating at a statistical level rather than being dreamed up to engage a specific person. But their power lies over time and at scale, representing a remarkable infrastructure for shaping behaviour, albeit often in trivial and insignificant ways. If you are mindful of how platforms seek to encourage and incite, tempt and tease, it can be easy to resist these promptings. But running enthusiastically into their embrace makes it much harder and this is precisely what I fear academic culture leads people to do.

This is not a rant against social media. It is simply a reminder that the architecture of social-media platforms doesn’t differentiate between ideas that are circulating because of their intellectual merit and those circulating because they appeal on a baser level. Scholarly ideas often exist slightly uneasily within the ensuing environment. There are many examples of social media being used to great effect by individual scholars and by scholarly organisations, but the pursuit of visibility as an end in itself is in tension with a commitment to scholarly virtues like evidence, nuance and objectivity. If we’re not careful social media can lead scholars to some profoundly non-scholarly places, consuming a vast amount of time and energy in the process.

Unless we are careful about how we orientate ourselves to the visibility which social media promises then we risk being sucked in. Don’t pursue visibility as an end in itself, it will follow if you’re doing something which people find valuable. Don’t pursue influence, it will come if you can build meaningful relationships with people. Don’t obsess over the metrics, they get in the way of strategising more often than they help you formulate a strategy. The academy is already a highlight stratified place and if we simply reproduce that stratification through social media then it will be harder to realise the exciting opportunities these platforms offer to do scholarly communication differently.

Does this mean I think the #thinklist is a bad idea? No, because stratification online has another purpose. It isn’t just a device to suck us into social media, it’s also a mechanism to make social media manageable by filtering the vast torrents of content based on an algorithmic judgement of relevance. There is simply too much to read otherwise and little way to know how to get started. For all their many flaws, these mechanisms rely on user data and are built around relevance, even if this is construed in a narrowly behavioural way. If stratification on social media didn’t exist then you’d have to find some way way to invent it.

I think this is what the Think List is or at least could be. It provides a expertise-driven counter point to the computational generalisation of social media algorithms. But to realise this promise, contributing to making the space it addresses accessible and engaging, it needs to foreground fundamental questions rather than allowing them to be obscured behind metrics. What make someone relevant? What make their work valuable? What accounts for their influence? Why should we seek to be influential? These are questions which so easily get lost in discussions of social media for academics but which I’m convinced are essential if we intend to use these platforms rather than be used by them.