Arguments for social media engagement

In a comment on a previous post my colleague Chris Jones argued that establishing an online identity wasn't suitable for everyone:

What of the bulk of other academics interested in research and
publication? They may move to open access routes for publication but
will they want to spend their time in developing a public persona? I am
not sure they or I will. I haven't yet developed a blog, though I
follow others, including yours. I am not sure that digital scholarship
covers all or even the main aspects of intellectual endeavour.
Sometimes it is a lone academic quarrying away obscurely on a narrow
point that makes a difference. Some of the dynamics of intellectual
life require a position outside of the public gaze.

I've pulled Chris' quote out because it is worth discussing in detail I think. Chris is not someone who objects just for the sake of, or from a resistance to technology, but from a more considered standpoint. His argument is that he has a very well established, and effective, way of engaging in scholarly discourse and activity, and in order to develop the type of online identity and reputation I was suggesting he would need to give up doing something. I think it is easy for those of us who spend a significant amount of time in the online, participatory media world to think its attractions are obvious, and undeniable. But Chris raises some valid objections here that bear consideration. I think there are four responses one might make, which range in levels of evangelism.

The argument of recognition – the softest response is to say that I am not proposing that everyone should, or needs, to develop an online identity. What I am arguing is that there is a monopoly on the types of activity and outputs that are currently recognised in the scholarly system, and that we should be able to expand upon this to include the more digital scholarship work, alongside the normal work.

The argument of simplicity – this takes the proposal a touch further and says that not everyone needs to spend a great deal of time and effort in becoming a 'podstar' or blogging celebrity, but there are sufficient number of easy to use tools available such that everyone can easily create an online presence. This doesn't really require you to give up any other activity, it is a byproduct of what you do anyway. Creating a presence using Tumblr for example is a quick way to have an online identity.

The argument of benefit – in his autobiography Martin Amis asks of the humourless 'how do they raise children? How does it get done without a sense of humour?' I sometimes feel the same about social network/web 2.0/participatory media (call them what you like) and being an academic. How does it get done without using these tools every day? I can't imagine finding resources as readily without the links and filtering my network provides, or the analysis they provide, or the feedback I get from them, or the responses to help they give me. I set out a few benefits in the talk on online identity. For me this is one of the strongest arguments – it makes things better.

The argument of imperative – this is the most forceful argument, and an extension of the argument of benefit. Not only does online activity provide you with benefits as an academic, but it is fundamentally key to what you should be doing. The argument here goes something like 'how can you be relevant to students, operate as a scholar if you're not engaged with the most powerful research/communication medium ever?' I'm not sure I'd go this far, because you can use various online services effectively within your research without it necessitating establishing an online identity, but, if one thinks this social media stuff has any relevance, then I maintain that the only way to really understand it is to do it.

Have I missed any, and are any of these really compelling enough? And do they apply across all domains eg. could I argue the same for, Art History, say?

6 Comments

  1. I do find this interesting and relevant as a student, and as a research aware practitioner.
    As a tutor with students starting out in Higher Education, electronic ‘persona’ is vital: it is part of what draws them in and how they know me and each other.
    As a student I feel included in a relevant community without having to move my body to a particular institution. This sort of inclusion is what is happening right here.
    It seems far from certain that this benefit comes at no cost, in fact ‘floating around’ on line takes up time, but then so does poking around in the library stacks. Making entries takes time, and whilst we can make use of things already written it is also those just for that moment, almost serendipitous comments that make the on-line presence ‘personable’. But then if we engage with others either virtually or in the flesh time to give a personal sparkle is what makes for a research and learning environment that is attractive.

  2. I am not sure that I argued that establishing an online identity wasn’t suitable for some academics and I think my comment was reacting to an idea of digital scholarship which is a somewhat different thing.
    Like most if not all academics I have an online identity, for example represented in a university home page with a list of publications and detailing other aspects of my academic work and providing contact details. I also have an online identity that is loosely linked to my working life, in my case a Facebook profile, a Twitter stream and a number of online networks such as Plaxo and Linkdin. The existence of an online identity is not the same thing as having an academic online identity.
    My comment was about the way digital scholarship seems to assume a role online rather like that exemplified by the traditional public intellectual.
    As to Martin’s arguments I think they blur this distinction. As an example let’s take his argument of recognition – This argument suggests that academics require an online identity but then it goes on to argue that the current kinds of academic recognition are too narrowly drawn and exclude digital scholarship.
    My point is that the first argument for an online identity for academics does not relate to the second argument about academic recognition and digital scholarship. I have an online identity but I do not think I am engaged in digital scholarship.
    I am not sure that there is a clear notion about what digital scholarship might entail and I will illustrate this by examining he use of scholarship in debates in my own university. Currently at the Open University the idea of scholarship arises in a number of contexts with different definitions and implications. For example in relation to the ‘scholarship of teaching and learning’ and in discussions following the research assessment exercise that seem to suggest a role for full academics in terms of scholarship as an alternative for those excluded from the research assessment exercise. Even without exploring the digital aspect of scholarship the idea of scholarship alone is politically charged, used in a variety of ways and lacking any real clarity.
    Digital scholarship could refer to the use of digital and networked tools to assist in doing scholarly work. This could be a relatively solitary task with a digital scholar sat in a connected but cell like isolation. The aspects of scholarship Martin seems to emphasise are the ways digital technologies can be used to disseminate ideas or to create new ideas in cooperative or collective enterprises.
    I have no objection to these developments but I think it may generalise a minority position, that of the public intellectual, and downplay another important aspect of academic work, the pursuit of a relatively solitary or narrowly understood intellectual project.

  3. I think that the argument of imperative makes a lot of sense in the following context: Students who feel like they have a relationship with their professor will perform better. They will contribute more to the conversation and think more deeply about the topic. Now, instructors do not have the time to develop real personal relationships with their students in the traditional sense. Having a visible social media presence (and Facebook doesn’t count because I can’t see you till I befriend you) is the only viable means of accomplishing this relationship. University home pages and even personal websites do not count as they often strip all aspects of humanity from the instructor unless they are being continuously updated with content that contains a personal tone.

  4. Interesting but I wonder if we know what we mean by ‘traditional scholarship’ and if we do do our meanings agree with each other?

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