Why academics should NOT make time for social media

Gabriel Egan laments the narcissistic craving for others’ approval brought on, he says, by the use of social networking websites

August 26, 2016
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How many friends have you got, and how many people do you know? If you use social media such as Facebook and Twitter you can probably quantify these things quite readily, but the answers will be wildly inaccurate as we all routinely overestimate these things.

What is more, the answers will be irrelevant to your work as an academic. We are all quite naturally obsessed with what our friends and acquaintances think of us and we crave evidence of the esteem in which we are held.

That we naturally crave this evidence does not mean that it is good for us to get it. Shaped by millennia of life experiences in which they were hard to come by, human beings also crave fats and sugars, but for half the world's population (roughly the same half that now has access to the internet) the relatively easy access to a fat- and sugar-rich diet is a serious threat to health. Social media are an equally serious threat to our mental health. That we can feed these cravings does not mean that we should.

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The computer revolution that started in the mid-20th century has much in common with the printing revolution that started in the mid-15th century. The first and second of these revolutions successively lowered the technical barriers to human communication and vastly improved our power to influence one another by packaging our ideas into writing and images.

The broadcast media (cinema, radio, television) that came to prominence in the first half of the 20th century enabled one-to-many communication on a vast scale. The internet, invented in the second half, and especially Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web, enabled not only one-to-many but also many-to-many communication on an equally vast scale. The global benefits of this are all around us and scarcely need to be mentioned.

The internet (which carries the data) and the World Wide Web (which makes it easy to package texts and images into "pages") are "free" in two senses.

First, when you are connected there is no charge for each unit of information that you wish to send or receive. Second, and most importantly, you are free to send and receive what you like, subject only to local laws about criminal behaviour. In universities, the entire internet infrastructure is, like the NHS, free of charge at the point of use. And so long as you stay within the law, you can send and receive anything you like. The educational opportunities are legion.

Social media are additional services that are layered on top of the internet and the World Wide Web, run by corporations that (when successful) accrue vast profits. They are not "free" in either sense: they generate income and restrict free expression.

Leaving aside the censorship, where is all the money coming from? It comes from the advertisers who want, most of all, to know exactly what you like and dislike, what kinds of products you are apt to buy, what kinds of films, food and music you enjoy, and just who you know and how much like you they are.

Before social media, advertisers' best source of this information was credit card payments, which by their nature generate giant pools of information about individuals and their purchasing preferences. But even by giving them to almost everyone who could conceivably use such a card – making them effectively free and highly convenient – advertisers could not gather all the highly personal data needed to maximise the targeting of their efforts.

Then came social media.

In return for feeding our desire for evidence of how we are doing in our social interactions – our narcissistic craving for others' approval – first Facebook and then a group of other social media corporations persuaded half of humankind to give up their most intimate personal details. The pernicious uses to which this information was to be put were not apparent at first, and it still takes a close reading of these services' long "terms of use" documents to discover the breathtaking scope of their intrusions into your private affairs.

And when did you last read the terms of use?

Young people, such as most students, are particularly susceptible to the cravings that social media satisfy, which is why they are the heaviest users. It is the professional duty of academics to help students to think beyond the narrow confines of their existing groups of friends, families and acquaintances.

My field is English literature, for which the primary objective must be to broaden students' horizons by introducing them to an enormous body of extraordinarily diverse human thought and expression. Students need to be helped to sever some of the ties that bind them to the people they already know and to discover new forms of connectedness in the shared writings of the wider world. Students must discover that it is OK not to be popular with the in-crowd, OK to be something of an oddball with unusual tastes, OK to prefer to spend the entire weekend immersed in a Russian novel or a medieval epic poem.

Students must be weaned off the social media that, like bad food, infantilises them by overfeeding their innate cravings.

Computers are the most liberating machines that humans have ever invented. They are, indeed, what Alan Turing called them: universal machines. There are many ways to use them to further the positive benefits of higher education.

The books and other writings that I teach ought not to be available to students only on printed paper: we should (where copyright law allows) be giving students these materials in digital form since that is the cheapest and most convenient way to read them.

We should be teaching students computer programming so that they can use these machines in ways limited only by their imaginations and effort. We should be discouraging them from wasting their days fretting over the trivial details of who thinks what about whom in their group, updating their "statuses", and sharing the pictures that they think puts them in the best possible light.

As academics we need to help our students to think more ambitiously about how they interact with the wider world. And for that we need to stop using social media and to wean students off them.

Gabriel Egan is professor of Shakespeare studies and director of the Centre for Textual Studies at De Montfort University.

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Reader's comments (12)

If you want others to appreciate eccentricity and other forms of non-conformity, then it needs to be on ready display, which means engagement with social media. Diversity is not promoted by hiding it, because once it's encountered in the offline world, it will be resisted even more strongly -- and the perpetrators can then claim ignorance as their defence.
Steve Fuller says "on ready display ... means engagement with social media". Really? What about the free (in both senses) WorldWide Web? What about traditional publication? What about all the other cultural forms including books, cinema, and theatre? We're not short of means of ready display.
You're neglecting the fact that social media is 'meta-' to the other things you mention as offering opportunities for public display. Social media are increasingly the first port of call and hence frame of reference for how people deal with what they find in the offline world.
Steve Fuller writes that we have to accept social media because they are "increasingly the first port of call" when someone wants to communicate. By that kind of logic, we would have to accept that crisps and a chocolate bar are the first port of call for a hungry child and not seek to change this behaviour. Because something currently "is" the case does not mean that it "ought" to be the case. I draw the parallel with bad food for the reasons given in the article.
But your food analogy is wrong -- but in a telling way. The reason 'junk food' came to dominate was that the high-minded culinary artists and nutritionists didn't take 'fast food' seriously and hence failed to intervene in the market as it was developing. The result is that we do indeed have a segmented market -- i.e. the people who go to McDonalds and the ones who don't. Your analogy presumes that we're already there with social media vis-a-vis more verbally extended forms of communication. I'm more optimistic.
Steve Fuller blames the predominance of junk food in so many people's diets on the failure of "high-minded culinary artists and nutritionists" to "take 'fast food' seriously" and so "intervene in the market as it was developing". This explanation makes sense of one assumes that free markets are the best way to decide what we eat. There is plenty of empirical evidence that markets aren't in fact the best way to decide such things. We human beings are apt to become addicted to things that are bad for us. Wherever there is a free market in tobacco, for example, millions of people quickly become addicted to a habit that kills about half of them. In the UK we enjoy the benefits of a highly state-restricted market in tobacco, with the avowed aim of controlling this addictive behaviour. I'd be very interested to hear from anybody (including Steve and Julia) who wants to argue that social media are not highly addictive and are harmless, as all the evidence I've seen suggests that they are addictive and harmful. That's what the article is about.
The food analogy is entirely wrong because the phrase 'junk food' is negative by definition; social media is not negative by definition because the key (or televant) word in the phrase 'social media' is 'social', which is not a bad modifier but one thst signifies complexity and requires us to approach media use through a sociological lens that draws attention to what such media afford, both in terms of opportunities and constraints; the key word in 'junk food' is 'junk', which pre-fixes the meaning of the phrase in such a way that it can only mean that this kind of food has constraints and no oportunities, ie it 'bad' by definition. And I don't think social media is bad by definition. It is where I get much research fodder!
According to Julia Molinari, "social media" are good because that phrase begins with the word "social", and being social is a good thing. If this logic made any sense, we'd have to say that "social unrest", "social disease", "social exclusion", and "Social Darwinism" are all good things for the same reason. Contrary to this logic, the names of things aren't reliable guides to how good they are.
No, I didn't say 'social media' was 'good': I said it wasn't bad by definition, in the same way that 'junk food' is. I also said that social media affords both constraints and opportunities, and that it needs to be approached through a sociological lens, not blanket condemnation. Your article flattens all this nuance and argues that social media is a negative phenomenon; I don't think is.
Okay, Julia, would you care to identify some of the positive aspects of social media that become visible when we look with a sociological lens? I can start the list off with "1) helping news dissemination (esp. when trying to get around the limitations imposed by tyrannical governments)", "2) helping form virtual communities of like-minded people across vast distances". And ... that's about it. Most importantly, social media only provide these goods because the WorldWide Web and Internet already do so. Social media don't add anything significant to those remarkable powers we already had, although I acknowledge that they have made it slightly easier for the technologically ignorant to do (1) and (2). But not by much, and it's not worth the terrible price--in intrusions into privacy and in young people's mental health--that is being paid for this ease-of-use.
The contention, here, is with your thesis that social media is, over all, nefarious. Your argument by analogy with junk food is fallacious for a range of reasons, including those that both Steve Fuller (above) and I have been pointing out. If argument by analogy is needed here, then I would argue that social media is more akin to public spaces such as parks, playgrounds, piazzas, and trade fairs: in essence, the agora. As with all public spaces (res publica), there are opportunities and there are constraints; there is structure and there is agency; there are push and pull factors. Which is why my own personal and academic/professional use of social medial is guided by this understanding: for me, and many others like me, social media is neither dangerous nor addictive in the way that junk food is; it is a place of public debate that affords opportunities which in turn depend on social mores of (n)etiquette to guide and model respectful interactions; it is also a place/space that requires social responsibility, self-discipline and knowledge of the medium (the ‘space’ itself), just as knowing where to go in a public park and who talk to are instrumental in learning to enjoy all that the park affords in terms of opportunities. Anyone with children will have, at some point, had this conversation as their child ventures off for the first time, alone and out of sight! But as with all public spaces, including the current one we are having this exchange on, social media is subject to the abuses or exploitations of private enterprises who advertise and sell their goods in parks and playgrounds or of drug dealers peddling their wares to vulnerable teenagers. It is in this sense that social media needs to be understood and researched through a sociological lens. As for tracking our private data, well! Ever since cash machines hit the high street, my bank has known where I am and how much I spend. Issues of data protection and privacy are in no way confined to social media use. The fact is, social media exists, and in addition to the 2 advantages you generously concede, there are many more, including those highlighted in the riposte to your article by @andymiah. My own personal engagement with social media has added to - rather than detracted from - my professional and academic networks, and like many others, I am still learning to make the most out it, despite its constraints.
Dear Julia, if social media were truly analogous to "public spaces" (parks and the like) then they wouldn't be owned by large US corporations, wouldn't require you to sign a contract to get in, wouldn't exist to generate wealth for private shareholders, and wouldn't have their own rules of censorship that are stricter and more socially conservative than the rest of society. You allow that "private enterprises ... advertise and sell their goods in parks and playgrounds" but that entails a contradiction, since your analogy already supposed that the parks themselves ARE the social media. That tangle in your analogy arises because you've confused the Worldwide Web and the Internet (which truly are like parks) with social media, which are in fact more liked "walled gardens" that private corporations have been allowed to build within the parks. These "walled gardens" are a private, profiteering encroachment on the common public good. Those who are intoxicated by the addictive plants grown in these "walled gardens" need to be given a lift up to see over the wall into the broader, free space beyond. It's academics' duty to provide that lift.