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.
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).