A common joke in Saudi Arabia these days is that “Twitter is parliament”. There’s much truth in this, as social media are proving to be a powerful modernising force in a country that now has one of the world’s highest internet penetration rates, alongside one of its most traditional and authoritarian political systems.
Probably half of Saudi adults and doubtless nearly the entire youth population have some sort of online presence and, as many of them are quickly discovering, it’s a fresh, open space for sharing ideas above and beyond the government’s best efforts to censor and control. But, as we are becoming painfully aware, it is also a battleground, with extremist propaganda and ideas - most notably from the supporters of the media-savvy Islamic State - fast gaining traction.
If you haven’t guessed already, my field is Middle East politics, and without doubt my scholarship must now delve into the cyber world as much as the real world if I have any hope of following and making sense of the region’s seismic shifts and key debates. Twitter, so far, is easily the best platform as it allows for mass peer-to-peer communications on a scale never seen before. Over the past year or two I have witnessed and participated in huge, sweeping discussions on political Islam, terror, citizenship, identity and countless other topics that in previous years were firmly off-limits - publicly, at least. According to the latest Twitter analytics, more than 90 per cent of my 120,000 followers are from Arab states, with about 50,000 from Saudi Arabia itself. So while I still firmly believe that nothing can replace visiting, living and working in the countries one focuses on as an academic, it is readily apparent that mastering social media tools has become an essential parallel foundation for area studies research.
Beyond my own humble work, I have also observed countless other academics and students from across the social sciences and beyond making Twitter work for them, too. And social media are going to become only more important as such platforms - and their inevitably even more powerful future incarnations - have an ever greater impact on how humans interact with each other and the world around them. Whether it is gauging public opinion on key government policies, gaining insight into public protests, assessing the damage wreaked by a hurricane or understanding the thoughts of a hitherto isolated religious community, the scholarly possibilities are enormous.
In my experience – especially with Twitter and, to a lesser extent, Facebook - using social media also offers a host of other practical benefits to the modern academic or public intellectual. Powerful tweets that supply original analysis, theoretical insight or historical context are often quickly seized upon by journalists, thinktanks and even government officials. Probably half my media requests from broadsheet newspapers or international TV networks come via social media – as do many of the conference, lecturing and consultancy invitations I receive. On a basic level, Twitter also gets people, including non-traditional audiences, reading your work. Recently I posted a link to my latest journal article, and I am confident that many of the resulting readings and citations would never have occurred if I had relied on the publisher or the university’s traditional methods of dissemination.
I’m hopeful that, in my field at least, social media will also rejuvenate interest in modern languages. One of the great myths about the internet is that English is slowly swallowing up other languages, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Social media offer viable alternatives to the once overwhelming forces of Westernisation. Arabic tweeting is exploding, for instance, and I have certainly had to up my game over the past year to connect with new audiences, make sense of fresh slang and stay accurate.
But it is important to mention the potential pitfalls that the tweeting academic may face. Nobody, I am sure, wants to see protracted Twitter rants by esteemed professors; at the very least, such rambles break their spell of scholarly esteem and authority. Equally, nobody wants to see academics engaging in unceasing and largely valueless tit-for-tat altercations with colleagues or members of the public. My biggest piece of advice for established colleagues is to apply the “billboard test”: imagine that anything you tweet is going to be put up on a sign for the world to see. If you are happy with that, go ahead. If not, hold back and “mute” the provocateur – literally, in fact, as Twitter now has a mute function that allows you to filter someone’s tweets without their knowing it.
For junior colleagues, there’s certainly less to lose, but can you imagine introducing yourself at a conference to a member of your field with a terse rebuke or pithy one-liner? I thought not. The temptation to get noticed is understandably powerful, but doing so within a 140-character opening gambit is high‑risk stuff.