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this one’s for @DrR_Ed

The question was:

“Can anyone recommend academics that use social media well? And might tempt others to do so? (such as @tomabba)”

I asked: “@DrR_Ed in your field, or generally?”

And it was duly contextualised with:

“@tomabba Generally – just making a point that academics don’t need to shudder at the mention of twitter or blogging”

So. Here goes.

We should blog, use Twitter, Facebook, messageboards, etc. We should communicate because there’s no difference between us and the rest of the world. In fact, my just typing that implies a distinction that isn’t there. And shouldn’t be there, because it’s destructive and dangerous.

Let me clarify. Academics don’t live in ivory towers.

Despite the wishes of some of my colleagues (in the widest possible sense), the things that bother us, the issues around our jobs, our careers and the framework that those things exist in are no different to those experienced by 90% of the population (figure plucked from the air, incidentally). I’m pretty certain that I think about my work, my students, the course I run and those that I teach into in no different a manner than friends of mine who work in local government, private industry, home education, freelance design – name your field and I’ll bet that the concerns you have are largely the same as those that I do. I also think about my research – the field in which I work – but I’m not inclined to think that I’m really any more different than an HR Manager for a water purification firm. I’m worried about the funding for my research – how I’m going to do it, and how it’s going to be useful beyond my own narrow field of vision – my friend is thinking about politics and NGO needs and how he can get the right people in the right place and pay them to be useful beyond a similarly narrow field of vision.

I’m incredibly fortunate, though, in that I get paid to do this. I draw a salary that asks me to educate and inform, and conduct research that’s useful to society, that has an impact. I don’t think that impact (this bit’s aimed at anyone working in Higher Education) is a bad thing to be measured by – as long as it’s a sensibly applied measure that’s been thought about. A measure is a measure – whether it’s profit, productivity, readers, or any other arbitrary length of string. I live in the real world (most of the time) and someone assessing how well I do what I do is a fact of life (there’s a longer post in my head about sensible measurements and living with silly ones, but that’s for another day).

And if I’m going to live in the real world, then I’d better engage with it. The most useful ideas I come across day to day aren’t always found in peer-reviewed journals, regardless of how robust that process is. They come from people who communicate, who share and know that they’re part of an ecology of ideas that doesn’t respond to walls and barriers, but plays best when it’s public and open. I read twitter feeds from academics and writers, filmmakers and critics, actors and designers. They offer something (or I stop generally reading them) and that goes into a metaphorical cooking pot out of which I might grab an idea, or a theme, or a flimsy notion and turn it into a research project, a lecture, a tweet or post in reply. I’ve got no time for trolls, or people wont to criticise without creating anything of their own. I dislike anonymity (with some exceptions) and bemoan the tragedy of the commons.

I like ideas. And I like spreading ideas, and hearing ideas, and thinking about them. If there actually is a difference between my job and some of the others I’ve alluded to above (I’m reaching here, so bear with me) it’s that I get paid to just think sometimes. I’m incredibly lucky to do this for a living (proviso – I’ve worked rather hard to get to this point), and I like it. I tweet, blog (accepting that my blog has been neglected for a while, but I’d never remove it) because it’s often a better way of getting feedback than writing papers and waiting a year for them to pass the peer-review process and see print. That process is useful – it’s necessary – but it’s not the only way to get ideas out there. There’s this way, blogging, there’s twitter, there’s any number of platforms, both on and offline.

Who do I read – that count as ‘academics’, or, more properly, ‘thinkers’, though? Who can I call for the defence?

Sam Kinsley – Researcher in Cultures of Technology & Digital Scholarship.

Baldur Bjarnason – Digital Media, reading, Icelandic Banking critique.

PD_Smith – Guardian Reviewer, Writer, Photographer. Sharer of novelty.

William Gibson – Definite sharer of novelty. Also writes.

Clare Reddington - Incubator and enabler of good ideas and producer.

Sue Thomas – Really an academic. And a sharer of things.

That’s for starters, and in addition to missing out really interesting people on Twitter, I haven’t listed academic blogs, of which there are many many good examples. The important thing though, and the response to @DrR_Ed is that academics shouldn’t shudder at twitter, blogging etc. They simply shouldn’t. Shudder about running out of steam, or shudder about the stifling of informed debate in the world, or shudder at the NewsInternationalisation of culture, shudder about not having enough time to do really interesting things. But don’t shudder about talking, about exchanging ideas. That would be silly.


2 comments for “this one’s for @DrR_Ed”

  1. Hehe. Being called a critic of Icelandic Banking is a bit like being a woolly mammoth trainer, an important ingredient in the job description is a few centuries in permafrost away from being ‘lively’.

    But… (There alway is a ‘but’ in a comment, isn’t there? Otherwise there wouldn’t be a need to comment, hence the ‘but’ is a comment staple.)

    I’m ambivalent about twitter, which seems weird given how much I use it, but that is more of a testament to how twitter is a perfect implementation of a virtual Skinner box.

    Twitter has several characteristics that limit its use for academics. Doesn’t make it useless, but does limit:

    1. You can’t debate on twitter. Discussions resort to symbols and rhetorical proxies, words become codewords that boil extensive and complex issues into a single, socially agreed upon symbol. A twitter debate resembles a Catholic catechism more than an active, reasoned discussion. It is based on prior knowledge, and the arguments form entirely around preexisting factions. Even relatively clear-cut tech terms like ‘HTML5′ turns into a near-religious totem. Anything more complicated is turned into a parody of itself. This isn’t a function of the 140 character length, although the limit does reinforce it. Twitter could expand the limit tenfold tomorrow with no change to the nature of twitter ‘discussions’.

    2. It’s useful insofar as the community you are a part of on twitter points to outside of itself. These are mostly just exercises in social confirmation, though, liberals pointing at pro-liberal pieces, conservatives at pro-conservative pieces, etc. It is the worst place to go for a three dimensional view of a subject, unless you go out of your way to become a part of several diverse twitter communities. But that causes problems of its own because…

    3. Twitter is a social confirmation engine. Most tweets are short pieces containing simple statements or links to easily summarised writing and most of them are little more than acts of identity construction. You belong to a social group, you tweet ideas, links that you think demonstrate your participation in this social group, the group confirms or denies. Little of this is conscious of the exact mechanism at play, but because twitter is a purebred, 100%, bona fide social network, everything posted there has a social dimension and motivation.

    4. Subjects that have no broad social consensus devolve into factional totems. This is a repeat (partly) of point one, but bears emphasising because you just don’t discuss on twitter things like global warming, peak oil or the fact that we’re witnessing a western resurgence in fascist authoritarianism as a style of government. While you could discuss these subjects in books and, partly, in blogs (although blogs have their own set of substantial and near crippling limitations) mentions of subjects like these on twitter are little more than a declaration of faith and a denunciation of the heretics rolled into one pithy statement.

    5. It has the epistemology of TV. It presents non-sequiturs as consistency and atomised, incoherent gossip as information. Being ‘informed’ is less about erudition, more about your capacity for memorising gossip. Like TV, it has nothing to do with creating meaning in your life or communicating your desires, fears, emotions and ideas, but is entirely about surrounding yourself with the people and gossip that you would like to be like and virtual facsimiles of the communities you’d like to be a part of; art, rhetoric and creativity are replaced by tactics for identity construction.

    Blogs actually suffer from all of these problems, just to a slightly lesser degree.

    My advice any academic, based on this is, is that they should view twitter and blogs as light-weight community building tools and to use them to connect with social groups that are relevant to their research but would otherwise be impossible to access. Their useful as well to build a community of like-minded academics but more as a social grooming tool – to raise your Dunbar number, so to speak – than as a forum for intelligent debate.

    Because you’re not getting intelligent debate on twitter, and if you think you do, then you’re definitely in an echo chamber and just exchanging fatuous courtesies with other members of your social group, about as meaningful as apes picking lice off each other.

    IMHO, as always.

    Posted by Baldur Bjarnason | September 12, 2010, 4:16 pm
  2. Baldur – agreed.

    Although I think you’re starting from a different perspective with regard to twitter and academics – I don’t think it’s a debating chamber, never have. You’re right about the echo chamber in that matter.

    It’s a novelty box – and a good one, and in that light it’s inevitable that the social / political bias will be a significant factor. Personally – I don’t care and quite like it that way. Your tweets are a pointer to a set of ideas that interest me, but I know they come from your perspective, what I need to do if I’m going to use them effectively is start from there and research for myself too.

    Posted by tom | September 13, 2010, 8:41 am

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