Last week, I wrote this post about why some academics participate in social media and others do not. I didn’t set out to suggest that I have any answers, rather, I was curious about what the possibilities might be and if there were already some established answers out there. After spending the day tweeting about the topic [context: I spent last Sunday on Twitter with my feet in a bowl of ice water because it was far too hot, and I was foolish enough to go cycling in that heat the day before], I will now reflect on the ideas that were shared. Since the conversation happened via Twitter, I will also include some relevant tweets.
In terms of defining the offline-academics, it was mentioned that there are degrees of participation. For example, some people might be more comfortable reading and commenting on blogs, but not really ‘get’ Twitter. Furthermore, there are many other ways to establish an online presence, such as profiles on LinkedIn, Academia.edu, and Researchgate. These are all useful ways of providing contact information and sharing research interests, which can also potentially be used to spark a public conversation, such as group discussions on LinkedIn. It is this public conversation which is key. For me, communication and engagement turn someone from an offline-academic to an online-academic; taking part in the online discussion and community, rather than just consuming information. However, someone with a Twitter account who only uses it for tweeting out links, without ever interacting, might also be considered ‘offline’ in that sense.
When you expand your network, broadcast to a wider audience, and interact with a larger pool, good things out to happen. #offlineac— Kamoun Lab @ TSL (@KamounLab) August 19, 2012
Many people were willing to testify to the benefits of using Twitter, such as an expanded network, article citations, hearing about job and grant opportunities, and so on. However, it also seemed like many of the benefits might be more relevant for junior academics with smaller, less-established networks. For example, some people discussed the idea that senior academics might already be inundated with requests for supervision and collaboration by e-mail, without the need to raise their profile further.
The benefits of social media seem self-evident for all of the people who I chatted with over the weekend. In some ways, the conversation itself is evidence of the power of platforms such as Twitter. How else could I have such a stimulating ad-hoc discussion with people from all over the world, from the comfort of my couch on a Sunday afternoon? However, it seems apparent from this discussion that more research is needed into the concrete benefits of social media use, and whether these are quantitatively or qualitatively different from what could be achieved by more traditional methods of networking. Evidence of concrete benefits of social media use could be persuasive for reluctant academics and institutions.
Barriers to starting
I've had Snr academics say they cannot understand what social media 'does'. Often asked "what's the point of it?" #offlineac— Marguerite Galea (@MVEG001) August 19, 2012
It is clear that if someone has no concept of how social media could be useful, they will be less likely to try it, or to stick at it. One theme that came up frequently during the discussion is the time and effort it takes to build up a useful and interesting following on Twitter. If the benefits of a social media following are not clear, this time and effort will probably not be invested, meaning the benefits do not become apparent.
Fear was another theme that came up when discussing barriers to social media use. The idea that academics might be cautious of having their opinions ‘immortalised’ online. Lack of confidence with technology, preference for traditional communication methods, and concerns about how social media use will be perceived by employers, are some of the suggestions that came up under this theme. The perception of my ‘online-life’ by my employer and future employers is something that I often think about. I started building an online presence with future job searches in mind, and it worries me that I could be doing more harm than good just by having a blog at all. This blog serves many purposes; it is a place for me to practice writing, a way of thinking things through out loud, a journal of my academic journey, and a way of seeking advice and opinions. In the short time I have been blogging, I feel it has fulfilled all these wishes and more. I think I could defend myself well if my choice to blog was challenged, and I don’t write about ongoing research, or other subjects that I think would put me in a difficult position with my employer or colleagues. Still, it seems a little bit of that fear has rubbed off on me, without any clear guidelines to fall back on.
I think we need very specific guides for social media for a ademics. “Who to follow” almost more important than “how to use it” #offlineac— Anne Osterrieder (@AnneOsterrieder) August 19, 2012
Perhaps the most important point that came up is the lack of guidelines for social media use. Although many (or most?) departments are taking steps to put appropriate guidelines in place, there still seems to be insecurity as to what is considered appropriate. Without clear, universal, and readily available guidance from institutions, many academics may be making a conscious decision to opt out of social media for fear of coming under scrutiny from employers or funders, or for fear of jeopardising future opportunities. In particular, social media guidelines must cover issues such as the student-teacher relationship, unpublished research, and confidentiality, in order to protect employers and employees and to give everyone the confidence to be able to participate freely.
It is easy to imagine how social media use could be problematic for academics, if used irresponsibly; but with careful use, clear guidelines, and encouragement from departments and universities, the possibilities for open and broad discussion increase the more of us participate. If you would like to read the Twitter conversation, you can view this Storify. To add your thoughts, tweet me (@KL_Wheat) using the hashtag #offlineac or comment below. I would be interested to hear your views by e-mail too, if you prefer.