Who are the offline-academics?

Lately, I have been participating in a lot of interesting discussions and live chats on Twitter. The purpose of this post is not to sing its praises; first, because you probably came to this blog via Twitter, and second, because lots of people have already done a great job of that (see this journal article, or blog posts here and here, to name a few). Rather, I have been thinking about all of the people, particularly academics, who are not on Twitter (or other social networks). Who are they? These are my (non-evidence-based) musings, but if you know of some research on this please do share it.

The offline-academics

I will call this hypothetical group the ‘offline-academics’, by which I mean, academics who are not engaging regularly with any form of social media, such as writing a blog, participating in LinkedIn discussions, or tweeting. Having a profile page, twitter handle, or personal webpage, does not exempt someone from being labelled as an offline-academic, in this case, unless they actually use it as a form of communication and build a following or network. An offline-academic would, however, be expected to use e-mail; not necessarily even reluctantly. They probably read journal articles online, receive notifications of new journal articles or citations, and use online databases. Perhaps they read news sites and possibly even a blog page or two, but they never comment. The offline-academics do not live in a bubble without the internet, but (for whatever reason) they do not use the internet as a means of public two-way communication with their peers or the wider-world.

Why are they not engaging?

I wonder if it is choice or circumstance that keeps the offline-academic away from social networking. I can imagine that some people with family commitments feel like they haven’t got time for online networking in an already jam-packed schedule, but having a family is not the defining characteristic of the offline-academic (just look at blogs here and here for example). Of course, feeling too busy doesn’t have to be limited to those with families, but I get the impression that many online-academics also feel time pressures from many angles (the live chat topic of #ECRchat today was work/life balance), so busyness doesn’t seem to be the defining feature either.

Have they tried engaging with social media and realised it isn’t for them, or are they unaware of the possibilities? Just a few months ago I was an offline-academic and now I couldn’t imagine giving it up (setting time constraints, yes). I had played around on twitter a little, but didn’t really get much out of stalking celebrities. I used Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family, but I wasn’t extending my reach beyond people I knew in real life. I consumed information via the internet but I didn’t make my own mark. Once I decided to make that mark, I quickly realised (and am still realising) the value of sharing, discussing, and exploring ideas online, rather than just soaking them up. Partly I was shy about blogging before I tried it, but mainly I had never considered it in any depth. Are the offline-academics tentative and need a gentle push, or oblivious to the online discussion they are missing?

Are they different from us?

Can offline- and online-academics be separated on other dimensions? Do we have different needs and desires? Are there measurable differences between us, such as publishing rate, impact factor of journal articles (I’m not going to debate the value of this metric here), H-index (another debatable academic metric), number of citations, and so on. I am not going to suggest that either group would ‘win’ a comparison like this, but I would be interested to know how it would turn out. More importantly, how would we go about measuring it at all? Even comparisons of these standard metrics would be extremely difficult given that there is no unique identifier for a particular author, especially not one that is also linked to their social media accounts (or absence of them). Some academics choose to participate in the online debate anonymously, which would mean their data would be wrongly labelled as offline-academic. Self-submitted data could get around this, but how would the offline-academics know to take part?

When asking any question online (whether via Twitter, a blog post, or another forum) the answer will always be biased towards the response of the online-academic. The question is whether this online-academic comes from a representative sample of the academic population, from a skewed sample of the academic population, or from a completely separate population. If you have the answer (or how to find it), I am very interested to know.

What is our common language?

Ultimately, the online-academics and the offline-academics live in the same world. We are affected by the same global issues, such as funding cuts. So what are our common forums? Obviously we see some of the offline-academics face-to-face in our workplaces and at conferences. Departmental coffee mornings, meetings, seminars, and invited talks, all provide a platform for online- and offline-academics to share, discuss, and explore common problems and ideas. However, none of these mediums allow the offline-academic to expand their network or access information as rapidly as social media can. For established academics with a long history of publications, conference presentations, and permanent academic posts, this probably isn’t a problem; they will already have a wide-reaching network through which to access and influence the key debates without social media. What about junior academics with smaller and narrower networks? How can we engage them in the global debate?

The social media digest

How can we engage academics in the global debate despite reluctance, time pressures, shyness, lack of awareness, family commitments, and otherwise ‘having a life’? My solution is the ‘Social Media Digest’; a person (or group of people) who take part in social media on behalf of a department or lab. The Digest would be more than a group Twitter account or website. A company or departmental Twitter account typically tweets outwards to let the world know what is going on inside. A Digest would carefully curate the relevant information and debate and deliver it inwards by e-mail, RSS feed, or even better, by seminar or coffee-club. The Digest could become the connection between a hub of offline activity and the wider world, opening up a two-way discussion by feeding snippets of the debate in both directions. There are many critical issues facing academia that deserve open discussion, not just by those who turn up online (see this blog series on the ‘PhD problem’, for example). How do we make sure everyone hears about the problem and can put their view across?

These are just my wonderings on the topic, so I would love to hear your views. Please share them in the comments below or tweet me about it. I would especially love to hear from you if you know of some related research or researchers (though it’s a long way from the type of research I do, but that’s topic for another post).


  • K. A. Laity

    As I steel myself for the return to my department, I hope to see some changes in the previously disengaged faculty, but I’m not holding my breath. They generally regard online interactions with contempt as frivolous.

    • KatieWheat

      Thanks for your comment. I find it really interesting that so many academics view social media in such a negative light. Are you planning on engaging more of your colleagues online, or do you feel it is safer to keep your online life quiet?

  • http://twitter.com/SmallCasserole Ian

    Perhaps academics are simply hitting the old 1:9:90 ratio of active participation:read-only participation:non-participation for online media. I work in industrial R&D based in the UK (non-IT) and the same applies there. I’ve spent a good deal of time encouraging colleagues to participate in things like Yammer and internal wikis and found it an uphill struggle.

    Uptake of Linkedin and Facebook is higher than twitter so maybe a route in via linkedin is the way to go, Facebook being seen as a “family and friends” service.

    I used to be an academic and I really wish I’d been blogging and tweeting then – I can see huge benefits for teaching, outreach and research, there are serious issues for doing similar in a corporate environment.

    • Katie

      Thanks. That’s a very good point about the 1:9:90 ratio. I wonder what (if anything) can predict which category people will fall into for any particular type of social media. Do you know of any research on this?

  • http://twitter.com/DoctorZen Zen Faulkes

    Some of the people I know who are offline are there by choice: they want to be “off the grid” as much as possible. This is mostly good ol’ paranoia.

    For most, though, I think being online is like following a sport. They know it’s out there, they know lots of other people like it, but it just doesn’t call to them. And we’re going to have as much luck persuading them that it’s worth their time as you have persuading someone to start watching following football all year round, and not just at premiership time. Which is to say, not much.

    I’ve held for a while that the only way to convert those offline to join our reindeer games is to show that online engagement leads to traditional rewards: more opportunities for publication, grants, etc.

    • KatieWheat

      I fully agree that being able to demonstrate the concrete rewards of social media is important. I think this is persuasive both as a justification for the investment of time and as encouragement for new people to join in. Do you have any thoughts on how to collect this evidence?

      • http://twitter.com/DoctorZen Zen Faulkes

        Nothing substantive. Honestly, the only way some people will pay attention to this is when grant reviews come back saying, “We rejected your application because you have no online outreach component.”

  • ethanperlstein

    Nice post, Katie! I have nothing particularly revelatory to add to what’s already been said about why academics aren’t taking online interaction seriously. My diagnosis aligns with the prevailing view: academics don’t think engaging online about science adds value.

    Like Zen said, as far as making converts in concerned, mere enthusiasm isn’t effective, and the people like you who are intrinsically receptive before being exposed to the online scientific community are not, alas, in the majority. But I think a plurality of offline academics could be persuaded by an argument based on solid metrics. That’s why I’m excited about altmetrics. I also lead by example by using Google Analytics to monitor traffic data for my new lab website (http://perlsteinlab.com), which informs my online behavior.

    However, that last point raises a serious barrier to entry: the stagnation of the laboratory website, which I believe is the natural locus of one’s scientific online identity. If more academics actually breathed life into the their websites by blogging, sharing unpublished data and actionable protocols, organizing online journal clubs, etc, then the rewards of online interaction would begin to accrue quite rapidly.

    • KatieWheat

      Thanks for your comment. I also think altmetrics is a really interesting area of possibility.
      I agree that there are so many stagnant pages that could become a useful and rewarding community if attended to. I think it is a combination of a lack of awareness of the potential and the perceived time cost that puts people off. Also, as was mentioned via the #offlineac hashtag, when senior academics are already known and inundated with requests for supervision and collaboration, they may be unwilling to invite even more by drawing attention via social media.

  • KatieWheat

    Thank you for recommending that post. I also wonder if age and/or career stage contribute to how open a person is to trying it out. There are some interesting views on this unfolding via the #OfflineAc hashtag on twitter. I am planning another post on this conversation later.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=4935606 Richard Menke

    Can someone be “semi-online”? I find twitter hard to love, but I think the idea of a “social media digest” is brilliant.

    • Katie

      Different levels of participation were mentioned on twitter today. The true definition of offline for me is someone who doesn’t take part at all, i.e., no blogging, or even commenting on blogs. Strictly a consumer of information, rather than taking part in a conversation.

  • http://twitter.com/Wandedob Crazy Scientist

    How can you define offline as someone that does not comment blogs? I would rather define offline as someone that does not READ blogs or twitter at all.

    In my case there are two explanations to why I seldom comment:

    There are extremely few blogs that match my interests

    I don’t feel that I gain something by commenting, I would rather send an e-mail to the author, or even better, have coffee

    • Katie

      I appreciate that my rather black-or-white description of an offline academic may not fit with everyone’s idea of the term. As was discussed on Twitter yesterday and in some of the comments here, there are different levels of participation, rather than an online/offline distinction. The deciding factor, for me, is whether a person uses any form of social media as a communication/sharing/networking tool.
      Reading a blog and then sending the author an email or meeting for a coffee are very private ways of expanding ones network. I don’t debate the benefits of this, however, my main interest is what pushes a person towards more public/social interaction, and whether this really has added benefits over and above more traditional networking methods.
      I am specifically not advocating one over the other, although I feel I am befitting from a more social approach. Instead, I am calling for research showing who are actually doing it better; the ‘onliners’ or the ‘offliners’.

  • KatieWheat

    Apologies if your comment is not posted immediately. I am having some technical problems with the sync between the WordPress and Disqus comment systems and with the Disqus spam filter. I have replied to all of the comments below, but my reply might take some time to appear. Please tweet me if your comment is missing (@KL_Wheat), thanks.

  • Pingback: #uklibchat, #ECRchat, #PhDchat, #Socialchat and Other Tweetchats « UK Web Focus

  • Pingback: Social Media for Academics: A Twitter Discussion | Life After Thesis

  • Pingback: The Scienceblogging Weekly (August 26th, 2012) - News of 2012 | News of 2012