Putting the social back into social media

We need to work against the grain of platforms that incentivise us to behave in unscholarly ways, argues author

七月 17, 2021
Social media illustrating academics using platforms effectively
Source: iStock
Academics should use social media to reach out rather than for sheer visibility or pointless polemic

A focus on how individual academics can benefit from social media neglects their crucial role in building new communities and audiences.

That is the argument of Mark Carrigan, a research associate in the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education. Many scholars, he claimed, were “ill-equipped to deal with the pitfalls of platforms which effectively seek to manipulate their users…We may think we are countering falsehoods or introducing seriousness into the debate, but if we do so in a scattergun, disorganised fashion, we are just adding to the cacophony of platforms [such as Twitter].” Far better was to “find ways for academics to collectively use platforms rather than individually be used by them”.

Dr Carrigan explores such themes in The Public and Their Platforms: Public Sociology in an Era of Social Media (University of Bristol Press), co-written with Lambros Fatsis, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Brighton.

The real value of social media for academics, he told Times Higher Education, was in “building sustained relationships with journalists, policymakers, charity staff and activists”. Video series on YouTube, podcasts or blogs in online magazines might individually attract limited numbers of people, but together they made up “a really vibrant publishing space” with a huge cumulative audience and now formed “a major part of how academia is engaging with the wider world”.

While there was clearly a place for academics to use social media as what his book describes as “nonsense filters” and “conduits for nuance”, Dr Carrigan urged them to do so carefully and collectively.

When individual academics “got sucked into exchanges on issues of scientific fact”, he suggested, they often sounded “haughty and distant. They can approach online interactions as if their expertise ought to be recognised, as if they have a special right to speak compared to other citizens.

“Any platform can be used in scholarly ways,” Dr Carrigan added, citing the ways that visual sociologists and anthropologists had taken to Instagram. The key was to avoid the pitfalls that manufacturers’ commercial imperatives have built into them.

Twitter, for example, “incentivises polemic” and while Dr Carrigan understood the impulse for academics to “tweet out frustrated responses” to ill-informed comments, he urged them to be “much more strategic about how they act on that impulse”. A more promising option was “a podcast series that looks at common myths circulating about a topic and goes into more detail about them”.

Twitter threads could also be used effectively to “slow down conversations and give a record of where current research is at” on topics such as epidemiology or the fine print of the Brexit negotiations.

“If you get into an angry exchange with the person who shouts the loudest,” Dr Carrigan pointed out, “you are missing out on the people who are much less outspoken but might be more interested and more amenable to what you are saying.”




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