From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: Social Media and the Early Career Scholar

From Gutenburg to Zuckerberg, via Tim McCormick

From Gutenburg to Zuckerberg, image via Tim McCormick

A senior academic colleague asked me recently if I thought that he should start using social media. We’d been discussing my blog and he was curious about its impact. He wanted to hear about what I’d gained from being visibly online. As I began to rhapsodize, I started thinking about the doors that social media has opened for me. From Facebook to and ResearchGate, there are so many options, so many opportunities to publicise, develop, and discuss research. Equally, there are many questions and anxieties in a digital world that is still relatively new.

     A recent busy week’s research in the British Library a fortnight ago ended pleasantly with an unexpected meeting with two friends. These friends are two of the most engaging users of social media that I know. We adjourned to a restaurant to catch up and began to chat about Twitter. We were wondering: what is an appropriate use of social media professionally? How do we go about ‘self curating’, so that the messages that we put online are the ones that we want others to receive? How might our social media choices be reflected in the opinions of potential employers and members of the public? I do not think that we came to any conclusions …. anyway, the food arrived and the conversation floated on. I think that the only conclusion to be reached is that academics’ use of social media is just as variable as academics themselves. Not only that, but ‘an academic’ is not just that, but instead a human with a range of aspirations, potential career paths, and viewpoints outside of their professional capacity.

     As social media platforms develop, and their users ebb and flow within them, the way that we use them morphs. As we become more experienced and move from doctoral studies into one research project and then another, our use of these technologies changes. Unlike the traditional printed modes of publication, our mistakes are more immediately visible and more easily responded to. As a result, if I scroll through my Facebook timeline, I see a transition from the undergraduate I was to the postdoctoral researcher that I am now. Any element of retrospective self-curation would be false and probably useless.

Each to their own

     Social media allows us a voice online when we may not feel comfortable pronouncing words out loud. A graduate student at a plenary lecture might tweet their response whilst remaining physically silent. He or she may become an admirable Twitter voice whilst balking at speaking to others in person. Twitter, unlike oral speech, gives introverts time to think and to string words into a sentence. And nobody can see our red faces, or the beads of perspiration on our foreheads, as we panic about sounding stupid. Social media also allows us to generate a digital presence that reflects the nuances of our offline personalities. The bold can engage in lively discussion whilst the non-confrontational can listen to the opinions of others, absorb them and respond carefully. Social media is not always an aid to the introvert though; it can be difficult to find the right tone. I firmly believe in not forcing yourself into a social media presence: if you don’t enjoy blogging, don’t feel pressured to do it – there are other ways of getting your voice heard. I avoid writing posts when I am not feeling inspired. Blogs are an informal mode of communication, and a lack of inspiration – for me anyway – usually channels itself into dull words.

     Since my doctoral years, I’ve made the conscious decision that social media is a crucial element of my research. As a result, I have made decisions about how to use it. Some of my choices have been active and others more passive, based on intuition and experience. These principals all reflect what I enjoy doing – what makes me feel comfortable and what I think other people are interested in. I do not regularly live-tweet conference papers because I find listening and typing simultaneously very difficult. The computer on my knee feels like a barrier and my smartphone is not good enough to type rapidly. That said, I enjoy reading other people’s tweets as the paper progresses. They challenge my perspectives and help me to develop responses to the speaker’s words. However, another academic told me that she finds tweeting whilst listening an effective method of retaining concentration and aiding her memory. Each to their own.

Don’t let it take over

     I try to see updating social media as work, so that it does not upset my work-life balance. However, this is difficult to enforce. As I said, social media can be inspiring, fun –  light relief from the formalities of writing journal articles and job applications. Writing a blog post is a good opportunity to get a coffee and let the creative juices start to flow. Engaging with others via Twitter is exciting. There’s a certain thrill to be had when an academic in Canada or New Zealand responds to your thoughts about an obscure medieval scribe. Also, one of the great things about academic life is that it can be flexible: I’m writing part of this post at 6.40pm to catch up, because I took some time off, earlier, to do some chores.

     However, social media is still work. Early career academics – especially those in the first couple of years after graduation – are prone to punish themselves with extra-curricular work. There’s teaching to be done, publication portfolios to be boosted, and job applications to be made. All in addition to earning  money to pay the bills. It’s tempting to write blog posts after hours because it seems like an ‘added extra’ – not a number one priority. On the contrary, blog posts and Twitter updates are an effective way of stimulating exciting work, and – of course – making research available to members of the public. So, I allow myself time within the working day to do public engagement and social media activities. Usually it’s around 2-3pm, when writing a blog post is a lovely prospect, but editing footnotes is a chore. Equally, I try to disconnect when I have difficult ‘offline’ tasks to do.  Social media is so interesting that it can be a distraction from more arduous, but crucial, tasks. By making social media an official academic activity, we give it the status that it deserves as a research tool.

Know the value of the different platforms

     What should I use Facebook for? How should my tone differ on Twitter? These were other questions that my friends and I raised over dinner. Again, there were no easy answers to be had. This is also the question that other researchers are asking – with interesting revelations, as this article in Nature recently revealed. The fact that the prestigious journal Nature is publishing inquiries into social media use is testament to the pertinence of the following questions: which social network platforms are academics using? How often? For what?

     Before I became an avid user of Twitter, I put everything on Facebook, from pictures of kittens to reports about my academic research. My ‘friends list’ on Facebook is an eclectic mixture of old school buddies, pals from my undergraduate days, and professional colleagues of various types. As a result, I’m suffering an identity crisis. I occasionally confuse myself about the appropriate tone and focus of Facebook posts. As a result, I’ve developed an informal approach to Facebook. Whilst I avoid posts that are outrageously embarrassing, I work with the assumption that Facebook is a largely-personal arena. I believe that if you become ‘friends’ with someone on Facebook, you are entering an informal social contract with them. You accept that you may see personal updates, amusing anecdotes, or even the odd update about what they have had for dinner. Though you will undoubtedly make judgements about him or her – as that is the nature of human beings – I believe that you should use alternative means of judging their professional capability.

     Twitter, on the other hand, is an entirely public arena (unless you make your account private, which people seldom do). As a result, I treat it entirely differently. Where Facebook is a place for happy procrastination for me, Twitter is a work tool. I have made professional contacts on Twitter, found job advertisements, and learned about exciting upcoming conferences. I think it is important to curate your Twitter presence – as my friend said: ‘stay on message’. If you’ve decided that your Twitter feed will be personal, then tweet away about whatever interests you. However, if you’ve elected to make it a kind-of online CV, then you may want to limit your tweets to relevant subjects. If you are advertising yourself as ‘a medievalist’, you may decide to limit your posts about basketball! Otherwise, you may find that other medievalists are unfollowing you. There are no hard and fast rules, though – this is just my personal approach. I know several scholars who tweet about anything and everything, and I admire the range of their interests and expertise!


      Social media is still a new world, and as an academic I am finding it an exciting place to explore. With each new follower on Twitter, I see potential for novel collaborations . With each article I write on my blog, I experience a little buzz wondering who will read it. It is for that reason – that novelty and element of fun – that I encourage scholars to get involved. Take a break from the books and tweet your thoughts, as you never know whom you might engage in a discussion.


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