(I’ve been asked to speak about social media and academic careers to the Pre-Fix event at the CSAA conference. In the post that follows I’ve chosen to speak almost exclusively about Twitter, for various reasons, not least I think because my presence on Twitter is the reason the organisers asked me. But in comments and questions at the event I am happy to discuss the many other platforms I spend too much time on.)
People close to me – people whom I love and respect – have assured me that I come across as a massive jerk on Twitter. And when I read back over my feed I realise that they are absolutely correct. I obsessively tweet about mundane topics – for example national politics – in a way that adds little value or insight. I unattractively flaunt my membership in various online cliques and in-groups. My linking behaviour reveals middlebrow reading habits, conventional opinions and a pedestrian sensibility. In discussion, I make superficial and tendentious arguments. Only rarely do I talk about my scholarly work in a way that’s informative, as opposed to self-promotional. And on Twitter, as now, I am constantly talking about myself.
I could protest that my on-Twitter persona is different to the “real me”. But you’re all too sophisticated to believe that there is a “real me” apart from the succession of performances I mount in various contexts. I might say instead that my Twitter feed is a particularly unattractive performance of my self. But maybe it’s just the only one of its kind that’s conveniently archived and open to evaluation. We come to social media in various, transitory frames of mind – various chat applications ask us to foreground our “current mood”, and Facebook and Twitter are hardly less explicit in offering that imperative – but I feel like my Twitter performance is generally improvisatory rather than studied. So it’s possible that I’m a jerk across a range of contexts and it’s just that I don’t currently have the resources to understand that. Either way I’ve managed to create an unpleasant impression of myself in the minds of some people who matter to me. And yet I have attracted 3,684 followers, most of whom I don’t know, whether IRL or in more mediated ways. It’s an above average follower count, although there are Australian academics with more. But I suspect it’s partly that number, and partly that I’ve been on Twitter for five years, and various online forums for years before that, and maybe because I’ve published research on how others use Twitter that I have been asked to talk with postgrads and ECRs about it today.
I’m not proposing to tell those of you who are experienced social media users how to suck eggs. If you’re Twitter and your enjoying yourself, you’re probably using it at least as effectively as I am. I would also congratulate those of you who have made a principled decision not to use social media, or to avoid particular platforms. I am not here to evangelise any of this stuff, and I usually find it embarrassing when people do this. (Though I do think that avoiding social media altogether will get more and more difficult, as I explain further on). To those in the middle, I offer not so much advice as personal impressions developed over time. I am not going to pretend that I know any surefire ways of attracting large numbers of followers, apart from already being a bona fide transmedia celebrity. I can’t show you a guaranteed method for using Twitter effectively in easily replicable ways in a training day format. (And I think that some of the people who do claim to be able to reliably do these things, or to help effectively build your “personal brand”, are either lying or themselves deluded. Risk management, perhaps, is a different, easier matter). Whatever I can contribute to the conversation today is based on having spent over five years using Twitter in more or less professional contexts, which have more or less coincided with the five years of my technical existence as an ARC-defined ECR.
And I’ll start that conversation by claiming that social media is not primarily informational. Many academic accounts of social media treat it as a symptom and a vector of information abundance, which can be reliably used as a gauge for the progress of events in the world, and even for their relative importance. We are told how its speed and efficiency are disrupting traditional media because it spreads information more effectively than centralised print or broadcast media can. We’re told about its utility in organising political activism. We are told that analysis of the patterns of data emitted from social media might, perhaps already do shape election campaigns, product marketing, and disaster responses. This is all no doubt true, but it’s not very meaningful in understanding what many everyday users do, and how they interact, and what you should do as a user. People often study Twitter at a distance from which social media is better exploited rather than enjoyed. For users, even reflexive, informed ones, it’s difficult to form an impression about social media platforms beyond the limits of our particular networks, or to make that meet up with macro perspectives. And – as Ben Abraham reminded me once again last week – users deliberately disrupt and interrupt the informational character of Twitter with play and excess.
Drawing on my own experience, and my research where I actually talked to users about what they do, I would say that although information obviously flows across Twitter, for many users the medium is primarily characterised by relentless, reflexive performativity. New information frequently serves to ground the dramatic enunciation of subjective responses. This is something that is echoed in my research on Twitter. A colleague in conversation recently described Twitter as “theatrical”, and I think that’s right. What you’re in there for are affects, impressions, fights, laughs. The most valuable information – information you need to respond to, information that enriches your work, information that helps your career – will get to you in other ways. And to pretend you can just approach it as an information medium and black out the playful stuff is folly. You can’t.
So how does our non-informational social media use mesh with the early stages of a profession which is allegedly all about knowledge? Tl;dr – for early-career academics, social media is simultaneously (1) valuable, (2) unavoidable, (3) risky and (4) a gigantic waste of time. For the remainder of this piece I’ll develop these thoughts.
If I am honest I have to say that I have derived a lot of value from social media. I have made what I suspect will be lifelong friendships online, including in social media. On the one hand there is a small overlap between those friendships and enduring collegial bonds. Some of those good friends are professional colleagues and together we muse on the spectacle what Jussi Parikka recently summarised perfectly as the “corporate climb-the-ladder assholism” of others (and it’s always others, naturally). We chuckle over the mind-bending, perpetual crises of our higher-educational institutions. On the other hand, most of these friends I’ve made have nothing to do with universities. Every conversation with an intelligent person which is not an institutionally directed collaboration, or whose value is not immediately captured by your institution or your field is a blow for good mental health, if not for civilisation.
More pragmatically, perhaps, social media does offer ways to get to know people, and for people to get to know you as a scholar. Colleagues come to understand you as someone who is “on social media”, which believe it or not can still give you some institutional capital. You can link up with people who inspire you, and help you remember why it’s all worthwhile at the end of a bruising semester. Again here, the important thing here is that social media can help you break through the walls of your own institution and find good people beyond it. This has happened to me recently in my experience of Twitter’s role in the CODE conference, where people who I’d previously only encountered on social media suddenly materialised in an even I found genuinely inspiring, even life-changing. Also, to the extent that you have followers, there is also a slightly increased chance of people reading your stuff, which is always nice. And I think that the potential wider readership starts you thinking about how you might communicate more widely as well.
I also really do think social media is valuable in improving your writing. Clarity and concision are improved by time spent communicating on Twitter. These are good qualities for any writer to develop. Academic training in the humanities can encourage the development of a style that is not well-adapted to communicating with a more general audience. I am not the kind of journalistic oaf who insists that everything be intelligible at the level of a Saturday supplement. We should reserve the right to communicate with one another, and with students, in specialist vocabularies that help us to explore difficult ideas. That’s what at least some of us are here for. But the capacity to explain ourselves more broadly has already become, in my view, a matter of industrial survival. Twitter allows you to practice this.
Even were social media not valuable, in many ways it is now largely unavoidable. I am old enough to remember the point, some time in the late 1990s, after mobile phone ownership had stopped being the mark of a wanker and became the norm, when suddenly it was the absence of a phone that became problematic. We’ve reached the point where all our relatives have Facebook accounts, our colleagues have Twitter accounts, and where every research project, department and theorist has a social media presence. It’s not just a baseline industrial reality, it’s daily life in the developed world. I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from choosing to resist the imperatives underlining all this. But it is now a matter of resisting – in Lovink, Rossiter et al’s terms – the givenness of social media. I am not sure whether the worst thing about resisting it under those circumstances is acknowledging its givenness, or having to take it seriously.
Twitter is also risky not least for the reasons I started this talk with. It’s possible, over time, that because of characteristics of your Twitter performance, you slowly confirm a negative impression of yourself in people who, had they met you under different circumstances, may have been better-disposed towards you. I bring this up not because I am particularly exercised about what strangers think about me per se, but because I find myself to be inestimably sad in thinking that there may be people with whom my offline self may have had good, revelatory and mutually illuminating contact with, but for whom my online self was unbearable. It is in banalising the disjunction between mediated and unmediated selves that Twitter has brought us closer to the experience of people who are celebrities. It brings us closer to the experience of politicians by making the “gaffe” a common, everyday experience. Many of us drink or indulge in other intoxicants; many of us simply have tempers. The availability of mobile clients for social media increase the dangers. In a moment we can attach an ill-advised comment to our names forever These more dramatic forms of reputational death are an ongoing risk in an industry where reputational assets become more important all the time. The immediacy of social media makes the dangers different even from the era of blogs in terms of downside risk.
Lastly, I do need to reinforce my strong belief that in many ways social media, and Twitter in particular, is an enormous, extravagant, unprecedented waste of time for anyone, let alone emerging intellectuals. It is almost the perfect weapon for the destruction of writerly productivity. It takes its capacity to distract to the brink of evil by binding it intimately with the the things- writing, reading, discovery – that give our lives and work meaning. It is like an intellectual auto-immune disorder, which causes the mind to attack and consume itself. Many arguments there are conducted as if in a goldfish bowl – there is little advance as conversations circle endlessly around a familiar landscape, and participants forget information revealed in antecedent conversations. Many serious and extended arguments seem to involve little more than the clumsy, intemperate exegesis of some cliche, but this makes sense when we realise that it is an environment in which cliches take on argumentative force. It rewards blowhards, sloganeers and organised mobs. The most lasting outcome of most Twitter-based activist campaigns is a the data exhaust that enables marketers to find a new niche. The platform’s tendency to support recreational outrage has caused some people to go pro in this area, and the performance of, in particular, grief for celebrities, can become almost competitive.
But disappointment with Twitter is constitutive of the experience of using it. (It certainly informs many daily performances on the platform.) And anyway, who wants the impoverished life of an atomised utility-maximiser. If you did you probably wouldn’t be bashing your head up against the wall of this profession. Wasting time, being irritated, and exposing oneself to the foibles of others is the price of membership in a community. I am not saying you’ll find community on Twitter, but if you don’t, there’s probably not many other solid reasons to be there. You can tick the social media box for career purposes by simply opening an account and using it in a desultory fashion. My experience tells me that hiring committees will be much more concerned with things like how many refereed publications you have, and whether or not you appear to be someone they’d enjoy working with. Being on Twitter may actually damage your standing in these areas. Technology is changing the sector in a range of ways, and the mass uptake of social media is certainly playing a part here. Until there is a sane response to this, it pays to be cautious, and save the real talk for secret Facebook groups or locked-down ADN chats or beers with friends. But being on Twitter might help to keep you sane, and help you meet interesting people. That’s the best reason for using it, and in this way my remarks echo Mel Gregg’s some years ago on academic blogging.
Despite having once risibly quit the platform, and written up this flounce at length for an ABC website, you’ll still find me there (Remember – you haven’t been on Twitter until you’ve quit in a huff). As a specimen of the social media jerk, I think I’m worth a follow.