Social media isn’t the only way to have public impact

Quitting Twitter lost Christopher Schaberg some connections. But the pleasures of in-person interaction far outweigh the regrets

December 17, 2022
Two hands making the shape of a bird, mimicking the Twitter logo
Source: iStock

I recently visited the University of Montana to run a public writing workshop, where, among many other aspects of reaching wider audiences, we discussed the pros and cons of social media.

That subject is very close to home for me since – as Tom Williams’ recent Times Higher Education article on academic Twitter describes – I recently quit Twitter, disillusioned with the level of discourse it was able to offer. Tom’s article mentioned that I experienced some guilt about quitting Twitter, but it’s more accurately a tinge of sadness that I feel for the connections I made there over the years – connections that I now realise primarily existed on the platform.

But in no way do I feel less engaged with public-facing scholarly work. In fact, I would say that being off Twitter has made me reappreciate the public-facing work I am involved in. The Montana event was a good example. Doing that kind of workshop in person, with eager scholars, is thrilling and fulfilling. And it isn’t the only example.

At my home institution of Loyola University New Orleans, my colleagues and I have launched a new Center for Editing and Publishing, where we prepare our diverse students for internships and jobs at trade, academic and indie presses alike. The results have been gratifying and inspiring (no more “What will you do with an English major?”). My book series, Object Lessons (about the hidden lives of ordinary things), is another vibrant realm of public-facing work, in which I’m constantly collaborating with a team of authors, editors and designers.

I’m also involved in a community-based reading series called Witness to Change, funded by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and taking place across our state. I am serving as a scholar-facilitator for four in-person meetings, each arranged around a book that deals with the effects of climate change and rising sea levels in our region. This speaks to a real public: ordinary people from our communities who want to read books and discuss them in dialogue with a scholar.

If I want to follow currents and hot topics across higher education, I have sources such as this publication (and daily email updates) to keep me in the loop. If I want to promote my recent publications, I can send a note to the communications director at my university or to my publicity contact at my publisher, or even post news on my blog. (I have found the slower pace of my old blog refreshing to return to after my departure from Twitter.) True, one doesn’t get the same endorphin rush from these things – there’s nothing like pushing that pill-blue Tweet button and watching the likes, replies and retweets flood in. But to think that it’s a zero-sum game is plain wrong.

For scholars who really commit to Twitter, the truth is that it takes an inordinate amount of time to keep up with it. I don’t think scholars like to admit what a time sink Twitter is, but I am quite sure that a lot of blown deadlines have Twitter to blame, other variables aside. What I have found since leaving the platform is that I was spending so many minutes of my life on it, in the false belief that everything (or everything worthwhile, socially, academically and politically) was happening there.

Twitter also incorrectly equates bigger with better, as if the more followers one has, the more publicly engaged one is. But we know that celebrity status does not bring a person (really) closer to the masses, and maintaining an echo chamber of hundreds of thousands of like-minded followers doesn’t exactly mean that public audiences are being engaged.

There are more ways than Twitter to have public impact. And thanks to growing recognition of public scholarship as a valuable metric, there are all sorts of institutional support systems for this type of work: grants for public humanities programmes, centres that host workshops on public-facing writing, service-learning pedagogies and so on. In fact, there has never been a better to time to do public-facing scholarly work. And while social media can certainly play a part in this, it may be less significant than it seems from within the resounding interiority of their platforms.

As my colleague Ian Bogost recently pointed out at The Atlantic, there’s something fundamentally tautological about Twitter: its purpose is to tweet. Its outsized sense of self-importance is what reinforces its perceived significance. We don’t have to swallow the hype.

Public squares thrive beyond Twitter. But they take real time to cultivate – and that time is not easily compatible with the incessant demands of social media.

Christopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown distinguished professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans. His new book is Fly-Fishing, out from Duke University Press in March.

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