Social media for academic practice

decorative image: social media network

Last week I ran a workshop on the opportunities presented by social media for academic practice (specifically teaching, research and public engagement). It follows on from running a great many workshops, events and building social media strategies for academic and professional staff, and HE projects in my previous institution. I haven’t run one for a few years now, and I decided to take a different approach to my usual ‘this is how you get started’.

My take is that if you can use a word processor, you can use a social media tool. Just like Microsoft Word social media apps can contain a whole depth of features, but you don’t need to know all these to make effective use of the tool, you learn when you need to perform a task and learn from seeing what others do. There is a whole heap of training online to learn to use a particular social media platform if you want to be trained. The difficulty if we focus on the training aspect is that it masks the complexities and challenges that are present when using social media in academic practice. Social media has significantly changed the landscape of scholarly communication. Online, our communications and our work are openly visible, searchable, spreadable (Boyd 2014), they have a greater presence and remain long after actual words are uttered (a great example of this is the growth of Twitter at academic conferences). What really matters  is developing the skill and confidence needed to negotiate the landscape of social media and make decisions about what you want to do and establish boundaries about what you don’t want to do.

The first important point to understand when using social media in a personal-professional context is that it is not simply a marketing tool. Of course it’s lovely to share posts from your institutional social media accounts about the great work going on, but if this is all you do, without commentary or personal insight, it’s unlikely that you will build a useful network or people will find you interesting. So, pushing the marketing aspect aside, what remains is a space to build an online presence which benefits from and gives benefit to disciplinary and cross-disciplinary communities. Sharing links to research, publications, events, reporting on conferences, problem-solving – all linked together by an array of disciplinary hashtags. This academic gift economy is one of the reasons why the sector has really embraced social media. Knowledge is something that is collectively built and we are now able to be part of much wider networks to facilitate this.

It’s important to acknowledge the risks as well as the opportunities that social media poses, particularly for the academic community. Workshop participants identified the following areas of concern regarding engaging in social media:

  • It isn’t news that online harassment and abuse exist on social media sites and if your area of work is controversial in the public sphere then it may well attract unwelcome attention or media.
  • In academia it is quite often research, ideas and discoveries that build careers. There is nervousness around engaging in open communication because of the risk plagiarism or perception of trivialising the integrity of work.
  • Social media can be time-consuming, either because we get sucked in or because it is not sustainable when it becomes something we do ‘on top of’ our existing work.
  • Terms and conditions of social media platforms, privacy, and security pose as obstacles not just for ourselves but also for our students if we would like to make use of social media in teaching.

What followed was a series of discussions and debates addressing a range of topics such as:

  • What does it mean to be public?
  • Has being discovered replaced being published?
  • How do we negotiate the boundaries of public and private to build an authentic online presence?
  • How and should we control what leaves the room?
  • How do we find who and what is relevant to our work in an increasingly endless array of connections, misinformation and fake news?
  • How can social media give shape to, and  increase the effectiveness of, work we already  engage in?

All these questions and concerns can be managed and explored. However,  I am now reaching the end of what is an acceptable length for a blog post! I’ll follow up  with a series of posts over the next few weeks  looking at how social media can be integrated into specific areas of academic practice:  research, teaching and public engagement.