Academic social media

The means through which academics engage in communication and discussion of their ideas have changed significantly in the past decade through the rapid growth of the importance of social media in the dissemination of new ideas. Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Medium, Blogger, Tumblr, and WordPress have become important media for communication in a range of fields, from celebrity gossip to news flashes to the dissemination of new breakthroughs in particle physics. Blogging platforms such as Blogger, Medium, and WordPress in particular have become a highly accessible place for the expression of ideas, opinions, and social commentary. An idea posted on WordPress is instantly visible in most countries in the world (not including China). And because of the amazing coverage of search engines, that idea can be located by the academic researcher in Mumbai, Helsinki, Buenos Aires, or Des Moines within minutes of posting.

The challenge of social media as a channel for serious ideas and engaged debate is the fact that there are few of the badges of reliability provided by conventional media and academic journals associated with social media. So the hard question is whether social media channels can serve a serious intellectual purpose in terms of the dissemination of knowledge.

The appearance of a second edition of Mark Carrigan’s Social Media for Academics is therefore timely. Both young academics — well versed in the mechanics of social media — and more senior scholars will find the book interesting and provocative, and many will find useful new ways of presenting and discussing their work using the resources created by social media platforms. I’ve long been convinced of the value of blogging as a platform for developing and disseminating my work in philosophy and sociology, and I celebrate Mark’s efforts to help all of us figure out constructive, intellectually valuable ways of using the various media available to us.

It is interesting to reflect a bit on what an academic — a professor, a professional political scientist or literary critic or physicist — wants to accomplish with his or her writing, and whether social media can help with those goals. There are a number of possible goals that come to mind:

  1. to explore new ideas and get useful feedback from others about those ideas
  2. to achieve solid, well argued results on a topic that will be a permanent part of the corpus in one’s field
  3. To contribute to important contemporary debates through better insights into current problems (global climate change, war in the Middle East, the threat of rising nationalist-populism)
  4. to elevate one’s position in the status-hierarchy of the profession
  5. to create a “celebrity” reputation in a field that leads to invitations as commentator on public television or CNN

The first motivation is well suited to social media. If one can gather a small network of people with similar interests and a willingness to interact, a blog can be a very good mechanism for testing and improving one’s ideas. The second motivation can also be served by social media, in the sense that exposure of one’s ideas through social media can help to deepen and refine one’s thinking. In order for these ideas to become part of the permanent corpus of one’s field of study, it seems likely enough that the ideas and theories will need to find more traditional forms of academic expression — book chapters, peer-reviewed articles, and books. But these two goals are entirely consistent with being an authentic scholar and academic; they have to do with the pursuit of truth and insight. And they fall in the category of the “new collegiality” that Carrigan discusses (232).

The third goal is a respectable academic goal as well. It is entirely legitimate and appropriate for academics to bring their voices to bear on the issues of the day. Certainly some of the Twitter feeds I appreciate the most come from academics like Michael E. Mann (@MichaelEMann), Branko Milanovic (@BrankoMilan), Juan Cole (@jricole), and Dan Nexon (@dhnexon). And what I appreciate about their tweets is the honesty and relevance their ideas (and links) have in addressing topics like climate change, global inequalities, and issues of war and peace.

The final pair of goals — status, reputation, and well-paid television gigs — seem a bit antagonistic to the most important academic values. I suppose that Aristotle and Kant both would find these goals obnoxious because they are narrowly self-interested and unrelated to the virtues or duties of an academic — pursuit of truth and the advancement of knowledge. But, sad to say, it is clear enough how social media can support these goals as well, as Carrigan discusses in several places (136).

I am very glad that Mark has brought a discussion of the “dark side” of social media into the discussion in the second edition. Like all things digital, the hate-based Internet has moved rapidly since the first edition of this book, and it is now a very important part of the rise of right-wing populism in many countries. Likewise, the use of social media to bully and harass people in the most abhorrent ways is a plague that we haven’t learned how to control. And the weaponization of social media that has occurred since the first edition of the book is a genuine threat to democratic institutions.

Mark Carrigan is an astute and well-informed follower of the topic of the rising role of social media in the academic world, and the book is well worth a close reading. And it raises an interesting question: what would Socrates’ Twitter stream have looked like?

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