A week or so ago, a young PhD student wrote a piece in the UK’s Guardian newspaper entitled “I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer”. It has, as Sjoerd Levelt jokes, “got academic twitter back from holiday”. The hashtag #seriousacademic has exploded, with Google finding 5,730 results already at the time of writing – an average of about one mention every 2 seconds since the article posted. Responses have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous (pies, fancy dress, academic Olympics, swimwear, skeletons on the loose, snack drawers, ducks, and of course, cats).
What emerges is a clear message: social media is not a thing apart. It’s a conference (“a meeting of people with a shared interest“). It’s a publication (“the action of making something generally known“). It’s a discussion group. It’s a journals club. It’s media engagement, it’s public engagement. It’s simply a different way of facilitating the same fundamental behaviors that have always driven academia. Social media is now woven into the fabric of how we communicate.
And sure, not everyone uses it. But not everyone watches television, or listens to the radio, or writes letters, or chats on the phone; not everyone can get to conferences. Choosing not to use a communications medium does not mean that medium has no value. I’ve written before about why I think social media is useful at conferences, and #seriousacademic has brought out some other useful discussions about that. There are stories about how social media has helped academics, from giving lone rangers a community to connect with to helping debunk some of the myths about what it means to be an academic (and let’s not forget the list we compiled here, shortly before this furor kicked off, of the role of social media in scholarly publishing). Ultimately, many agree with Maxine Mackintosh that “Knowledge is useless unless shared and disseminated. To not engage in modern platforms of information exchange not only prevents you from being a ‘serious academic’, I would argue that it also makes you a bad researcher.”
Still, the original “serious academic” is not alone. In among the backlash there are supportive voices (not surprisingly, I couldn’t find any tweets representing this group — the closest to a supportive tweet being the dry reminder that “taking selfies is NOT necessarily ‘public engagement’”). So why do some academics choose not to engage with social media? I think there are three primary issues:
Social media has really only been mainstream for at most 10 years — likely less, in many academic communities. Despite many studies suggesting correlation between social media and improved impact (of varying kinds), it’s difficult for an individual academic to see clear connections between communications efforts and meaningful results — the results they seek are a few steps removed from the actions they take. Since many academics are, by nature, skeptical of rhetoric and preferring of evidence, it’s not surprising that many are still to be persuaded that social media is worthy of their limited time. Enabling better correlation between communications data and publications data is my own passion, and the systems we’re developing at Kudos help connect the dots between communications and publications and show that small efforts can have worthwhile results. In addition to this data-oriented approach, I’m working with Stacy Konkiel from Altmetric on a project to explore “social media intent” — what does it mean for a researcher to “like” something on Twitter, to “reshare” a Facebook post, to “bookmark” something to Mendeley? Which of these should be correlated more or less closely with readership, or citation? The outputs from this ethnographic approach will also help academics, and all those involved in scholarly communications, understand more clearly the role and potential of social media — and all these studies together begin to form the corpus of evidence required to help higher-level decision makers determine whether and how to recognize communications in decisions around things like funding and tenure.
Liz Neeley from The Story Collider has written beautifully about the “deep-seated belief that while the work of content creation is noble, the work of drawing attention to that content is distasteful if not in fact degrading. It’s an emotional reaction, exacerbated by the suspicion that the usual advice for increasing traffic — repetition, jumping into comment threads to mention your post, direct requests to retweet — can indeed annoy the very people you hope to impress”. She goes on to point out that it is possible to communicate about your work without bragging, and that “it’s a false dichotomy to set up silence as the only alternative to obnoxiousness.” She also picks up on another classic canard — “I want my work to speak for itself” — which is understandable, but seems optimistic in this era of information overload and millions of academic works being published each year. Cameron Neylon’s #seriousacademic response cuts to the heart of this: “Anyone who wants an academic career needs to make their work visibly stand out from crowd.” As an academic, you are the best-placed person to know who will be interested in your work, and it could be argued that your final duty to any project funder is to ensure that the work is found and applied by the widest possible audience.
Playing to your strengths
Sean Ryan touches on this in his Twitter chat with Jacquelyn Gill (“social media are helpful, but not necessary. Best scientists think, write, & build. We have sci journalists for a reason.”). Most of us prefer to spend our time doing things we’re good at, rather than things we feel less good at. As a wordy, musical but decidedly unsporty child, I remember the shame of sports days and cross-country runs where my incompetence was on display for all to see. I can see that for some academics, social media is sports day, every day. I sympathize with people choosing lab over field. But I have to admit, looking back, that school sports not only kept me healthy, but also taught a cocky brainiac some useful lessons – humility, resilience – and I wonder whether reticent academics might similarly benefit from exercising their communications muscles.