Admittedly, I’m still new to the social media scene. I only joined Twitter in January, and Facebook in December 2016. I have some opinions on the subject now, especially as an academic who sat on the sidelines of social media for a long time and has now entered it. I started thinking about the topic more and more after I had a Twitter discussion with a fellow academic and I have arrived at some personal takeaways. Others may not agree with me of course, but these are my own personal observations and feelings on the subject.
For starters, I joined social media more out of a feeling of necessity than anything else. My views might then be skewed because I felt compelled to be involved in it rather than eager to join it, and ever since I haven’t really enjoyed it. Why compelled? Because I honestly felt like it was a necessary part of having people know about you and your research particularly in a tough academic job market. But now that I’ve entered, and tried it, I have to question the value in terms of making a public contribution. I’ll focus on Twitter right now since that is my latest entry. Twitter I found to not be a good place for any kind of debate or discussion. The mere fact that people have to reply to their original tweet to go over the 140 character limit speaks to this. To draw on Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message,” and in the case of Twitter that 140 characters really does dictate what you can and cannot say. The medium favors snappy comments, not nuance, and all too often many people begin starting their Twitter debates in anger, whether it’s responding to someone, or to a news article. The medium favors knee-jerk reactions, and quick replies. In other words, the complete opposite of reasoned and intellectual debate and discussion. It brings out the worst in people, myself included. I found myself wondering if Twitter is how “newspeak” begins as I contribute to destroying words to make the character limit and I also contemplated when the “quacking” would begin, the ultimate goal of newspeak. These “debates” I found often start in an antagonizing manner and end with either people agreeing to not agree, or whomever gives up the assault first. It’s also fairly easy I found for the “discourse” to end in insults. Here’s a Twitter confession: I find myself also retweeting stories or sending out initial Tweets about stories I haven’t read but the title seemed about right, and I’m quite sure many others have done the same, since reading every single news article takes time, too much time. What also takes time is going through everyone’s feed that you follow. How many of you have muted others because it’s too much or you just don’t want to unfollow. I’ve done both, unfollowed and muted and sometimes I’ve refollowed someone I unfollowed. Once I discovered “mute” I’ve stopped unfollowing people. The problem for me tended to be the most prolific Twitter users could be the most difficult to follow because they crowd out your feed. Now we can just mute, whew! But if you use mute, what’s the point then of following other than to be part of group?
The biggest problem I find with Twitter is that I find Twitter to be a giant echo chamber. And it’s this reason I question the academic value of it. If your followers think like you, and you follow others who think like you, your feed quickly becomes filled with people either patting you on the back, or you patting others on the back. The exceptions to this I found were when the angry attacks begin by the “outsider” to a group who is shouted down or encouraged to leave, all while attracting bystanders who weigh in with “likes” about who took the win, not unlike the old school yard fights that attract onlookers who then retreat back to their own circles once the exchange ends. So as a public good I question the value of this as it appears to me to encourage the creation and defending of “camps” more than reasoned exchanges of information and dialogue with people who hold different views. I don’t see much bridge building but rather – wall construction. Speaking of which – consider this, why does everyone have a problem with the President of the United States using Twitter as his medium of choice for public engagement? It just seems wrong. Ask yourself why.
I wish other mediums were different but I haven’t found that to be the case. Facebook pages can be similar, except the owner has more control over what takes place and same with your own website of course. I have found social media apps to be most useful when used for their original intent, connecting people, and also for making people aware of issues and events and what you’re up to. I’m not sold on the academic value yet.
The other big issue is time investment. This is all unpaid work (some outlets do pay for material, worth pointing out) and it’s work that takes away from other work, like academic publishing, which is still the standard form of recognition in academia and the one your peers will be judging you on the most, especially for younger scholars. Write all the articles you like for news magazines, newspapers, online news sites, blogs, etc., but at the end of the day, it’s the academic ones that will still be the only ones that matter the most for your profession (at least in most disciplines) and this is especially the case for junior scholars. It’s very easy to become a journalist whose salary is mostly paid by a university or if you’re a sessional contract worker, the work is mostly free. Depending on your level of engagement, this can be a serious time investment and a lot of work, and while universities are happy for good publicity, it often doesn’t translate into more pay through your university so you have to evaluate what it is you’re able to do and what you can’t do. This as I said, often depends on where you are in academia.
Another factor is that some academics are highly active on social media in order to be noticed by mainstream media. This ties into the previous paragraph. While it’s great for adding some informed comment for the public, it’s also (let’s be frank here) a form of self-promotion for your “brand.” I do it, others do as well. But let’s be critical about those informed comments too. The problem, as I see it, is the speed at which you have to be ready to comment and that speed takes away sometimes from your ability to accurately assess the situation. This is where the boundary between social media and mainstream news media converges for academics. I found that when you are constantly involved in trying to comment quickly, and reading up on what others have said about a breaking story, the “rush” to provide comment leads to the comments sounding not all that original, and not all unlike what other journalists or experts have already said, and then if you’re being objective, what really is original or novel in the comment from you – the expert? In other words, getting involved quickly in a media story and in social media, for me at least, tends to have a conservative effect on your critical thought. The result is that you don’t really sound all that different from any other journalist who specializes in the material they write on. I’ve seen it time and time again where so many people, academics and journalists, tend to coalesce around the same idea or opinion and then it becomes the “correct” interpretation about something. The more critical comments, and sometimes the most unique ones, are too unique and don’t sound like perhaps what viewers and the majority may want to hear, even if it’s right. I think you could argue this is true of academia and media without social media, and I think that’s true, perhaps I feel social media amplifies the effect.
My concluding comments are that I’m really not certain how much longer I will maintain a social media presence. If I was more convinced that this media furthered the public good and encouraged a changing of ideas and reasoned debate, I’d be inclined to stick with it. But so far I’ve seen the opposite, the creation of camps where all members think mostly alike which reduces engagement with people who actually need to engage with others, a hardening of ideas, and quite the opposite of informed and respected discourse. This obviously isn’t the case for everyone, and I don’t seek to paintbrush and over-generalize but just speak from my own observations and experiences. I have also met some great people online, and I’ve met some new faces that I’m not sure I would have had a chance at meeting otherwise and that was awesome. I want to stress I’m more concerned with the medium overall, not the people, and the ways in which the medium structures us to conform to the technology or to certain ways of thinking and acting. But there’s also the other less polite individuals and sides of us the technology helps bring out. I so far have found online interactions much different than in-person ones, which suggests that the behavior of some individuals online would not be tolerated in an in-person setting and this point has been made before. The bravado that comes with speaking online I think is very real, not unlike a form of “road rage” perhaps. Maybe that’s also a worry of mine, that this kind of shouting-down style of speaking, so common on apps like Twitter, becomes accepted as real-world “debating” and becomes the norm, spilling over into all in-person interactions permanently. It certainly appears that way in the political profession. If it continues, I had better brush up on my quacking skills.