Social media: the good, the bad and the ugly

With about one-third of Earth’s 7 billion inhabitants on a social network, it is an inevitable part of scholars’ lives. While many academics find Twitter and Facebook useful means of disseminating their research, Sara Custer finds that the addictive seeking of ‘likes’ has its perils

July 12, 2018
Twitter man

“OMG! I can tweet again! It’s been a few weeks that my account has not let me tweet…oooh, what will be my first rant?”

So tweeted Clare McGlynn, professor of law at Durham University and an expert on sexual violence, earlier this year. The 116-character post illustrates the intimate relationship some academics have developed with social media, such that the removal of their ability to post, share or like (in McGlynn’s case it was because of a glitch in Twitter’s programming) leaves them feeling as if they were sitting alone in a dark room.

And why not, you might ask. What scholar worth their salt would not embrace an open, cost-free platform on which to disseminate and discuss their work, encounter new ideas and, yes, even rant – especially in an era in which the impact of research beyond the academy is being valued increasingly highly.

“The main reason I started using Twitter a few years ago – and the reason why I think it’s so useful – [relates to] the non-academic impact of my work,” McGlynn tells Times Higher Education. “I do a lot of work around violence against women and I do a lot of work with survivors and organisations, government and MPs. Using Twitter to find out about things but also to let people know about things that I’m doing…has been really positive and beneficial.”

It is impossible to know how many academics use social media, but the CIA’s World Factbook estimates that about 33 per cent of the global population is on some kind of social network. And a look at sector-specific hashtags hints at how popular higher education-related topics are. In the span of a week, the hashtag #phdlife was mentioned almost 6,000 times on Twitter, Instagram, Google+, Weibo and Pinterest; #phdchat was mentioned more than 8,000 times and #highered was mentioned 17,000 times.

Then there are all the exchanges on the academic-specific networks developed so that scholars can share their research papers. Academia.edu claims to have more than 60 million users and Researchgate.net more than 15 million. A number of subject-specific networks exist as well. Such networks reflect the fact that as well as being means to communicate their research and expertise to the general public, social media also offers academics many professional opportunities. Academic conferences have long been seen as forums for academics not only to promote their research but also to network more generally with peers, particularly the senior ones who will review their manuscripts, grant proposals and job applications – not to mention decide who will be invited to give a keynote at the next conference. And even though a good proportion of senior academics – being members of the pre-digital generation – remain conspicuous by their absence from social media, younger academics are frequently advised that a strong social media “brand” and membership of influential online networks will reap as many career rewards as plodding the conference trail.

Indeed, there is a whole new industry of computer-savvy analysts assessing academics’ so-called alt-metrics, such as the number of endorsements their papers garner on social media. The advocates of such metrics regard them as early proxies for impact, both within and beyond the academy.

But social media also has its staunch critics. These include Jaron Lanier, a self-proclaimed technology philosopher and one of the pioneers of virtual reality. Among other things, he objects to the way that social media allows the interests of “bad actors” like corporations or foreign governments to modify behaviour, surveil users and create a false sense of society.

“The problem isn’t any particular technology, but the use of technology to manipulate people, to concentrate power in a way that is so nuts and creepy that it becomes a threat to the survival of civilisation,” he wrote in his latest book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. His argument carries greater weight in the wake of the recent scandal over the academically enabled use of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica, allegedly to influence the US presidential election and the UK’s referendum on European Union membership.

Indeed, the connection between Facebook and the rise of so-called fake news, particularly during the presidential election, has led some to question whether social media is contributing to a general erosion of the relationship between people’s views and what is actually true. This is clearly a big worry for academics, whose stock-in-trade is the kind of expertise that UK government minister Michael Gove infamously claimed, during the referendum campaign, that the British people had “had enough” of.

Even some of Facebook’s creators have admitted that their consciences are less than clear after witnessing the platform’s effects on human behaviour. Last year, Sean Parker, founding president of Facebook and co-founder of file-sharing site Napster, admitted that he hadn’t anticipated “the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or two billion people. It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

Susan Greenfield, a senior research fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford, is among those who have claimed that internet usage, including time spent on social media, is damaging children’s social and emotional development. However, her arguments are strongly disputed. So, too, are claims that internet usage is responsible for supposedly diminishing attention spans – which, if true, could have implications for the next generation of academics.

But there are other concerns. Last year, Brooke Erin Duffy, an assistant professor of communication at Cornell University, published a paper looking at how pressure to improve their metrics on Academia.edu – which some have dubbed “Facebook for academics” – can influence the work that early career researchers in particular pursue.

“Are people only going to be shaping their research trajectories to what’s going to appeal to more people on Academia.edu?” Duffy asks. “And how is this data going to be used in the future, when you can pay $10 a month and see every single person who’s accessing your paper and how much they read? [This] could have chilling consequences for knowledge production.”

Duffy has observed researchers packaging their work in such a way that will make it more marketable and appealing to larger audiences. This mindset of self-promotion is part of an increasing compulsion for academics to participate in what Duffy calls the “digital reputation economy” most commonly associated with fashion bloggers and YouTube stars.

“For me as an academic I won’t get paid by a brand for how many followers I have but that [figure] certainly gets translated into things like having a [convincing] tenure statement and making sure my work gets visible,” she says.

Then there is the impact of social media usage on teaching and learning. In 2017, for instance, two US academics found that students who used laptops in classes scored between 0.27 and 0.38 grade points lower, on a four-point grade point average scale, than those who took notes manually. The authors were unable to definitively determine why, but they suspect that the distractions of the internet play a major role.

Recent studies have suggested that students with a high fear of missing out are particularly likely to access social media during lectures. One of those studies, published in 2013 in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, found that first-year students with a high fear of missing out “tended to use Facebook more often immediately after waking, before going to sleep, and during meals” and were “more likely to use Facebook during their university lectures”. The paper’s lead author, Andrew Przybylski, associate professor, senior research fellow and director of research at the University of Oxford’s Oxfo rd Internet Institute, says that while the reliability of existing research on the use of laptops during lectures is disputed, it is “reasonable to say that social media in class, like anything else, can be distracting”.

Facebook and Twitter face

But why is social media such a compelling distraction?

In his interview, Parker also confided that the architects of Facebook consciously devised a platform that would “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible” by offering “a little dopamine hit…[every time] someone liked or commented on a photo or a post”. Facebook is a “social-validation feedback loop” – which is “exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology”.

Concern about the addictive nature of social networks has been rising over recent months, particularly in relation to its effect on the mental health of teenagers and students. Most recently, the children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, called on social media firms to remove features that make their platforms particularly addictive to children. But serious research into social media addiction is understandably nascent. Facebook has only been in our lives since 2004 and Twitter since 2006. Psychiatrists and neuroscientists don’t agree on a definition of “social media addiction” or what its usage threshold would be.

But one person who has looked into the issue is Ofir Turel, associate professor of information systems and decision sciences at California State University, Fullerton. He has found that the neural behaviour of people at risk of social media addiction is similar to that of gambling or video-game addicts (“gaming disorder” – addiction to video games – was recently recognised by the World Health Organisation as a mental health condition).

Turel likens the brain’s reward system to a car, with an impulse system that acts like an accelerator pedal, and an inhibitory system, responsible for long-term planning and reflection, that acts like a brake, moderating behaviour that is undesirable or inappropriate. “If you have a very sensitive accelerator and a brake system that doesn’t work, this is not going to end up very well in a car-driving situation,” Turel says. “It is the same with [brains]: if they have a very strong impulsive system and a very weak self-control system, they basically lose control over their addictive behaviour.”

His research suggests that the brains of compulsive social media users do indeed have this characteristic, resulting in the typical addict’s curse of requiring ever greater levels of stimulus to maintain the same level of reward. But he is unclear whether some people are predisposed to addiction, or whether over-stimulation from the use of social media provokes changes to the way the reward system works: “Both are reasonable explanations and probably both are in place.”

In other studies, Turel has found that social media usage has as distorting an effect on people’s perception of time as smoking or binge-eating does. “Most people think the time they spend on social media is shorter [than it really is] because it’s so enjoyable. They lose track of time…[In a study] we asked people to abstain from social media use while completing a survey, and these periods seemed much longer for them – especially if they’re at risk for addiction. This time distortion really drives people to keep using whatever they’re using. [The phenomenon] is very common in obesity research: obese people think that the time between meals is longer than it actually is, so they feel that it’s now time for them to have a second meal.”

This sense of time distortion could well contribute to Parker’s “weird ways” in which Facebook interferes with productivity. The self-discipline required to establish an academic career – not to mention to handle the workload encountered once that career is established – may be incompatible with the worst extremes of time-wasting behaviour. However, when it comes to conducting or writing up their research, academics and students often lament the perils of procrastination – and social media is a ready-made consumer of time when deadlines are vague and far off.

Moreover, even if academics only use social media with a hard-nosed, self-promotional mindset, there are further questions about how to approach it. One relates to the difficulty of catering to multiple audiences at the same time – students and peers, friends and enemies, to name but four – without upsetting or boring anyone.

For instance, Santa Ono, president of the University of British Columbia, was recently criticised by the university’s student newspaper, Ubyssey, for blurring the lines between his personal social media presence and university business – especially around sensitive topics such as sexual misconduct. Ono’s more than 17,000 Twitter followers have been treated to more than 12,000 tweets that mix official statements from the university with selfies and dog pictures.

“It’s unclear what separates a random Twitter thought or a kind comment on Facebook from an official statement on behalf of a university of nearly 62,000 students, staff and faculty,” the editorial contends. “That opens [Ono] up to blunders, intentional or not, that make the line between policy and post terribly ambiguous.”

For Tony Rao, a psychiatrist and visiting researcher at King’s College London, social media is a means by which academics’ opinions can garner wider influence. At best, he says, this occurs “through a simple reference to an academic publication”. But social media can easily become “a vehicle for lobbying on a controversial theme with a sparse evidence base”. Such misuse “has the potential to damage a person’s academic reputation or even the reputation of the academic institution in which they work”.

A third question for academic social media users relates to the sheer amount of time that maintaining a social media presence takes up. “Like other forms of labour it’s a privileged individual who has the time and energy to devote to this,” Cornell’s Duffy notes, citing those on part-time or temporary contracts. In an article for Times Higher Education last year, Duffy admitted to unease about redirecting scholarly energy into maintaining a social media presence. “Is it affecting my scholarship?” she asked. “And I wonder whether I should continue to prod PhD students to create websites and blog about their research. Is it really the best use of their time?”

Mark Griffiths, a psychologist and director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, also acknowledges the impact of social media use on work output. “For an academic, any time you’re doing something else is taking away from time when you could be working,” he argues. “If you’re spending up to an hour a day on social media, that’s an hour a day that you could have been writing grant proposals, working on a paper or doing lots of other things.”

Griffiths stopped using a smartphone about five years ago to increase his productivity, and his verdict is that it is “probably the best thing I ever did”.

Stuart Elden, professor of political theory and geography at the University of Warwick, is another academic who has taken selfcontrol measures to limit his time on social media. “I deleted my Facebook account two months ago and I haven’t looked back,” he says.

“I’ve taken Twitter off my home office computer, I’ve taken it off my work computer, because it’s a distraction,” he says. “It breaks concentration and it’s harder to get back that concentration after you’ve followed a couple of links or been annoyed at something, or found something interesting.”

He’s even installed a plug-in on his browser called “Waste No Time”, which keeps his viewing time of social media to a prescribed limit.

Social media as a weapon

One worry for Griffiths is that the immediacy of responses on social media could affect academics’ resilience to criticism of hard-won conclusions and months of research. In the past, such criticisms would have taken months to receive, via feedback at conferences or traditional correspondence – by which time feelings were not so raw.

“You put out your paper and within a couple of hours someone has responded to you on Twitter and said: ‘I completely disagree with this,’ ” he says.

The other side of the coin is that the emotional rewards on social media can also come thick and fast. “I see it a lot with teenagers,” says Griffiths. “They find that the number of ‘likes’ they get on a particular post can really influence their whole day. If you put up a photo and people criticise it, it can make you feel bad for the whole day. Are academics susceptible to that? Of course.”

Still, very few academics would be considered addicted to social media by Griffiths’ definition, which would include knowing that you need to cut down on usage but finding yourself unable to do so, and being compulsively drawn to social media for mood enhancement, relaxation or escape.

Both Griffiths and Turel speak of addiction as existing on a continuum. “All people have the symptoms of addiction,” Turel says. “It’s just that most of us have them at low levels that don’t…meet the at-risk classification criteria. Most of us would have some symptoms of withdrawal if we are prevented from using social media for a week, but for people at risk for addiction, the withdrawal symptoms would be much more severe.”

McGlynn’s first tweet after not having access to Twitter for a few weeks hints at feelings of withdrawal, and she is aware of the perils of addiction: “I remember over the summer trying to come off it for a while,” she says – adding that her attempt was unsuccessful.

But more than impairing her productivity, her concern is the extent to which content related to her field of sexual violence can affect her mood.

“People talk about the echo chamber and, for me, I’m often on Twitter and I can feel utterly despairing simply because I’m reading and seeing so much about things that are going wrong,” she says. “I use social media because I’m interested in changing things for the better. But it does mean that it can be quite disheartening. Maybe I need to look more at the cute pet pictures.”

McGlynn also admits that opening yourself up to “all the abuse on social media” can make academics – especially those working on contentious topics – “feel more threatened”. Still, her view is that, on balance, the good of social media outweighs the bad, and any negative impacts on productivity or mood are manageable. That said, she also insists that “you don’t have to be on social media to be a good academic. And you can come off social media and you’re still a good academic.”

Griffiths also believes that social media is a net boon, noting that the capacity it offers for self-promotion can have a direct impact on the number of citations a paper achieves – his own total, according to Google Scholar, is more than 48,000.

“I didn’t get those [citations] through being inactive and not using social media. Over 25,000 of my citations have come in the last five years; I started using social media at the end of 2011,” says Griffiths – who also has an h-index of 112, according to Google Scholar, meaning that he has published 112 papers that have at least 112 citations each.

But he can envision a future in which universities adopt regulations on social media usage similar to those on smoking or drug use.

“Social media use is likely to [become one of those regulated areas] because it is so pervasive,” he says. “Universities will have to have some kind of policy on what’s acceptable and not acceptable within the working environment.” 

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Print headline: The #good, the #bad and the #ugly

Reader's comments (2)

A few months ago, I deleted my Twitter account and significantly improved my mental health. I do not miss the constant stream of mostly useless tweets at all. I have not signed up to Facebook and cannot see any reason to do so. Unfortunately, LinkedIn seems to be becoming a social media site rather than a professional networking site with routine stages in professional life trumpeted as if they were research breakthroughs. Luckily, I am old enough for none of this to matter in my career but I do worry about the effect on younger academics.
I have got SO much out of social media, so many good connections/networks, jobs, opportunities to work on papers, feedback, encouragement, all sorts. The media narrative is consistently one of addiction and despair.... :-(

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