Social Media Are Social

I didn't see this before yesterday's post about Twitter, but over at SciLogs, Kirk Englehardt gets evangelical, offering a very chipper list of "Ten Reasons for Academic Researchers to Use Social Media." I'll just put the item headers here, though each of these has a more complete description, with links to lots of other stuff:

10. You’re in the Driver’s Seat
9. It’s About the Network
8. It’s Newsy and Trendy
7. Promotion (may) = Citations and Downloads
6. Spreading Your Love of Science
5. Setting the Record Straight
4. Sharing Interesting Things
3. Enhancing Your Research
2. It’s Easy
1. It’s Fun

By and large, I agree with most of what he says. However, I'm in kind of a grumpy mood re: social media at the moment, so I feel compelled to note that many of these have a flip side, as well. Because, you know, social media are social, and while that has aspects that are fun and positive, it also brings in a fair amount of the usual bullshit that comes with dealing with people.

So, yeah, social media does provide an easy way to share your interests with a wide audience. I have significantly more followers on Twitter than there are students at Union, so anything I post there is put in front of a much bigger audience than I could ever hope to reach with my day job. And if I post something really good that gets shared around, it can reach a vast number of people.

At the same time, though, it's all about the network. Which is to say, the actual reach of what you post depends on who follows you, and how they respond. Which recapitulates all the pathologies of the prestige networks that afflict offline academia. It's a completely different hierarchy, with different sorts of people in the crucial network nodes, but it's the same game in a lot of ways. If you're someone who flinches when you hear the word "networking" in a social context, you're not going to avoid that by moving your activities online. You still need to cultivate relationships with the "right" people to really benefit from the network, and if your interests or opinions differ too much from theirs, you can be shut out just as effectively online as in traditional social networks.

The social nature of social media also turns up in the "newsy and trendy" side, again in ways that replicate both good and bad features of offline culture. You'll spend a lot of time reading stuff that is, frankly, kind of baffling, in the same way that pop music or general celebrity can be baffling. Again, social-media celebrity accretes around a different set of stuff than offline celebrity, but the end result is very much the same. And if your personal tastes and interests don't happen to align with the whims of the network, you'll spend a lot of time frustrated at great stuff going largely unrecognized while total crap gets praised to the skies. You'll slave for hours crafting the perfect treatment of some problem, and get no response, but a dashed-off joke about, say, squirrels chewing the wiring in your car will become a fluke juggernaut.

And, of course, your ability to promote particular activities and results is subject to the caprices of the news cycle. If you've got a great new paper to talk about, but you're unlucky enough to post it to the arxiv or your blog on the day some random shitstorm breaks, well, you're pretty much out of luck. Everybody will be talking endlessly about the outrage of the moment, and almost nothing you can do will break through. And, of course, by the time the outrage subsides, whatever you had to promote is old news.

Again, all of this stuff is very natural and unavoidable, because it's social. This stuff is just what happens when you put large groups of people together; it's not good or bad, it's just there, like the weather. At the same time, like the weather, it can be incredibly frustrating to deal with when you hit a bad run of luck.

Now, I think there are absolutely benefits to be gained from being active on social media, and I agree that anyone interested in communicating science (or anything else) to a broader public should at least give it a try. But go into it with a realistic understanding of what's involved. You're not going to set up a Twitter account and get a quarter-million followers before you've finished picking the perfect thumbnail to go next to your tweets, any more than you can sign on with a research group and win a Nobel Prize the next week. Social media engagement can be tremendously rewarding; it's also weird, cliquish, frustrating, unpredictable, hard work to wrangle. And it's not to all tastes, so if you find it more irritating than beneficial, go do something else.

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Hi Chad.

I love this piece. You provided a nice 'ying to my yang.'

I wrote my piece, mainly, to take issue with the assertion that academics 'aren't told why' social media is important. The information exists everywhere, as I prove with all of the resources and links I stuck in the post.

You're right, social media isn't for everyone. Those who aren't comfortable should skip it and focus on other things. I would never push anyone into it. It has to be driven by the user's desire to connect and share more broadly. Of course, we all know a lot of people for whom this isn't a priority - and that's okay.

I love the 'gets evangelical' reference too. You nailed it. I know my piece emphasizes the positive, but I fully recognize the negative aspects of social media too. I'm glad you focused on that side in this piece. I'm looking forward to sharing it far and wide.


By Kirk Englehardt (not verified) on 20 Feb 2015 #permalink

People tend to underestimate how long it can take to make it work, and how much of it is luck. I frequently get asked how do I get my blog to be read, how do I get people to come to our great site, and so on. The answer is, I don't know. I can just tell you I didn't wake up one morning and had 2000 twitter followers and a few thousand or so (who knows) people reading my blog. I've been doing this since 9 years now, word spreads, people click.

I like to think the main point is providing interesting content. You can't do that on twitter, you first need to have something worth sharing.