Friday, 5 August 2016

Social Media Thoughts

My blog celebrated its first birthday a couple of months ago.   But like a neglectful blog-mother, I passed over this momentous event without even a mention.  It might have had something to do with the fact that I was on sick leave at the time following intensive care treatment in hospital with horrible Influenza A and pneumonia.  But now seems a good time to reflect on the past year or so of blogging, and on my experience of social media more generally.  I don't as a rule engage in heated social media debates, and I try to be reasonable and polite wherever possible.  As the German poet and literary critic Friedrich Schlegel said in his 1799 work Lucinde and the Fragments:

But I was provoked to reflect on social media use for academics by an article I read in The Guardian newspaper, I am a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer. It stated, among other things, that academics: "should not have to parade ourselves on social media to please our employers or be considered enthusiastic."  And I agree with the point that social media use should not be something which one purely does in order to 'please'.  Whether individual academic want to engage with social media or not should be up to them, as should be the extent to which they choose to engage.  

However, I also found myself disagreeing with a number of points in the article. For example, I found the claim that academic social media use is part of a 'selfie epidemic' too simplistic, and the suggestion that scholars should not use social media to comment on important questions such as the recent EU Referendum, a troubling sign of repression.  

As a European academic working in Britain, social media to me presents a vital space for reaching out to like-minded individuals and groups. Social media is not simply a narcissist pastime. It can be about about support and resisting marginalisation.

Importantly, many academics use social media such as Twitter and blogs for teaching purposes, thereby engaging students and the wider world in module content and current debates in the field - which to my mind is commendable, not to do with narcissism. For example, Dr Emilie Whitaker uses an example of "When [she] got students to curate a Pinterest board to think about visual representations of 'welfare problems'" - clearly a useful conceptual activity. Or Dr Helen Rogers' fascinating blog on 19th-century prisons, Conviction - a great resource and absorbing read. 

More than anything, though, the Guardian article made  me appreciate again about important and constructive social media is to me, as an academic and a person.  It also reminded me how enjoyable I find blogging, as a form of writing.  Social media - Facebook, Twitter, and my blog - is not a not flippant distraction.  Social media provides me with ways of communicating with colleagues, friends and acquaintances, and staying connected with people and causes that interest me and are necessary to me in my work.  

Just as the oft-perceived dichotomy between 'serious' literary fiction and genre writing is much too reductive - so too the distinction between the non social media-using real-deal 'serious' scholar and the flippant social media-using 'hashtagging' academic is a simplistic distortion of a much more complex reality.  

(cartoon from

Having said that, I appreciate the Guardian author's attempt to raise questions around the articulation of an individual position on social media use for academics.  These discussions are both necessary and important.

Another recent article, in the Times Higher, called "Cats and Academia - a Short History", serves as a reminder of the fun side of social media, some light relief and a glimpse of the human (and animal) faces of scholars #AcademicsWithCats.  

Here's one of mine:  

Little Cleo 

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