Currently reading “Social media for academics” by Carrigan (2020)

I’ve been teaching about social media for academics in one way or another for a long time. I have recommended at least two books to read (links to my blogposts on “The Science of Communicating Science — The Ultimate Guide” by Craig Cormick, and “Communicating Climate Change” by A. K. Armstrong, M. E. Krasny, J. P. Schuldt (2018) — recommendations to read still standing!), and I remember how reading “Science blogging. The essential guide” gave me so much confidence because I felt that it legitimised this blog. And now I recently read another book that I found super enlightening, and totally recommend: Social media for academics, by Carrigan (2020). It might sound like a weird approach to read a book about using something that is changing as quickly as social media, and especially a book whose latest, second edition is already four years old. But I really appreciated the bigger and more analytical perspective, and lots and lots of nuggets of wisdom. My main takeaways below!

The book is refreshingly critical (for being basically a handbook on how to use social media, or at least for how to make decisions about whether or not, and if so how, to use them mindfully). While social media’s huge potential is made very clear, there are also a lot of warnings that while social media, and we, can contribute to make academia a “faster, fairer and freer place”, that does not have to happen just because we are using social media, if we aren’t aware of, and to some degree work against, the many different ways in which they are designed to not contribute to this.

The first part of the book focusses on different functions that social media can serve in an academic career (for scholarship, to publicise work, to network, to manage information, for public engagement). The second part of the book is then about specific challenges and how to deal with them (the “dark side”, creating an identity, effective communication, finding time). After a general introduction, my notes below follow the structure of the first part of the book.

But first: My 3 most important takeaways (obviously influenced by my own experiences and thoughts, so totally falling into the confirmation bias probably…):

1. Do what works for you and what you enjoy doing!

What works, and how people find time, is highly individual. If you have found workflows and habits that work for you, stick to them! And if not, look for small pockets of time (for example on a commute to work, or while waiting for someone) and use those to browse. There is definitely a risk of spending way too much time aimlessly consuming social media, and the platforms are designed to keep you stuck on them for as long as possible, because that is their business model. But as with everything, we can set boundaries there: it is always ok to take a sabbatical to disconnect completely for days or weeks or months, or only from certain platforms, or only for the 25 minutes of a pomodoro cycle. And there are tools to schedule and automate a lot of the workflow, so posting can be done in bulk and there is no need to even be online for active engagement. Lastly, what works is likely going to change over time, as we change and as the social media platforms themselves also change. Someone once told me that you get more out of a community that you are very much on the periphery than of one that you are not part of at all, and that stuck with me. It is fine to only dip in and out of social media; nobody has to commit to doing it full force forever!

2. Think about the who, how, why and what!

Who is your audience? “The public” does not exist, and trying to reach it will not work out, so be specific. And are there potential conflicts of interest when you post something on the internet for one audience, and someone else reads it? (Not that it was a problem then, but there was at least one case where students had read the punchline to an experiment on my blog before I did it in class. One exercise that I learned from Virginia Schutte is to come up with three words each how you hope your best friend / colleague / boss / random internet connection would describe you, and then consider which of these personas you put up on the internet) Next, how do you find your audience, and how do they find you? On which platforms, using which groups or hashtags or …? And then why do you want to engage with them? What is your goal, and how does it match their goals? Is there any reason why they would want to engage with you? Lastly, what are the practicalities of how much time and other resources you have available (and want to invest)? Obviously it makes a lot of sense to think about this before starting, but it is also a good idea to revisit these questions, and to evaluate effectiveness of social media efforts. One suggestion in the book, to “audition” your online identity, really resonated with me. I think I will start future courses on social media for science communication with letting people either search for themselves in a browser that does not have their browsing history, or assigning pairs where they each stalk each other and from that prepare a presentation of the other person. That should give very interesting information that might provide motivation to take ownership of what information is available about us online!

3. Become platform literate!

In almost all cases, what we see on social media, even if we actively try to seek out certain content, is shaped by algorithms that are designed, using a lot of behavioural science and user data, to keep us on the platform for as long as possible. Also, platforms reward frequent and provocative posting by showing those posts that are likely to get the most engagement to more people, so this leads to this behaviour becoming more common. This, in turn, does not necessarily help the quality of content/discussions, and it also leads to attention being very unevenly distributed just based on what algorithms think will create the highest engagement.

In the context of academics using social media, social media are often described as one huge, endless conference, where you can bump into exciting people and come across tons of new and cool thoughts, build relationships, share your own ideas, … Even though there are tons of different social media platforms, they generally have the shared characteristics of persistence, visibility, spreadability, and searchability, which make them even more useful than a traditional conference:

Persistence

Persistence means that content is available forever, or at least for a long time. There are some exceptions to this, for example Instagram stories that vanish after 24 hours unless archived, or snapchats that can be set to vanish either right after viewing, or in a defined time frame. But mostly, what is on the internet stays there. This is great, because people can access it forever! But it also comes with the challenge that there is an archive of content we create over time, and looking back, we might not be 100% happy with what we posted for example in 2013 when I first started this blog. And people might not always check the date on blog posts and hold you to ideas that are 10 years old and maybe even modified in later blog posts. But on the other hand, it is a great archive and portfolio of development. And this can also, the author argues, help in ownership disputes around potential plagiarism of ideas. If many of your peers have seen your ideas on social media long before they see them plagiarized somewhere, they will know where the ideas originally came from.

But part of platform literacy is also knowing that while everything(ish) theoretically stays available forever(ish) is that for example Youtube shows both new and years-old content to visitors (and hence you can build a platform there even if you don’t have an audience yet), whereas platforms like Vimeo depend on you somehow bringing an existing audience there. Or that Instagram only shows very new stuff and nothing older than a couple of days. And that this might change any day if platforms change their algorithms.

Visibility

The default on social media is that everything you share is visible to everybody else (on most platforms you can limit who can see your content, but that requires extra steps) — in contrast to visibility in physical settings, where you need to put a lot of effort into being visible, i.e. being in the spot where “everybody else” is, and then getting their attention during a small window of time where they might just want to catch up with people they already know.

But visibility comes with the risk that you are *actually visible*, and that people might react to your content, both positively and negatively, and with substantial feedback or completely misunderstanding the point. This might also happen to journal articles, of course, but since social media are so much more easily accessible, not behind paywalls, and people can react directly rather than first having to find contact information for authors, reactions come much faster and maybe not as thought-through as if they were submitted through more formal channels (although, who knows. Thinking of you, reviewer 2…).

Spreadability

Platforms are designed for sharing of content that other people have generated, so that is very helpful. However, the algorithmic timelines show content that is already viral or likely to go viral according to some secret algorithm, not just what people signed up for in chronological order, so even though it is easy to share something you find interesting, it is not actually a given that people following you will also necessarily see it just because they are following you (unless they go to your feed directly and check out what you, specifically, are posting, which is not how social media is typically being consumed).

Searchability

Searchability means that it is easy to find old and new content alike, for example through keyword searches, or through hashtags that people can follow. One example that I have personal experience with is the hashtag #KitchenOceanography, that I think Geli used initially, but that I started populating with a lot of my mini experiments using household items, and that is now quite well established and used by a lot of people, many of whom I have never met. I think following hashtags (like #KitchenOceanography) on topics I am interested in and seeing all the things people come up with related to that topic is what I miss the most about the times when I was still more active on Twitter.

But now on to the

functions of social media for academics

that I am most interested in:

1. Managing information

This first function very much resonated with me and how I am thinking about this blog: It’s a “public notebook”, where I do “writing for which there is no forum”. I created this blog after I had published pictures of #KitchenOceanography experiments on my Facebook, gotten a lot of interest and engagement there, and wanted something that I could structure better and refer back to more easily, not just about #KitchenOceanography, but about other things teaching that I did not have a good structure to archive otherwise. The email to self with a link to an article, or bookmark in a browser did not work too well, and also I wanted to capture my thoughts about why I thought they were worth saving archived along them. Nowadays, I often post pictures of my desk with summaries of things I have read (like on this post) in order to give me some more context of the situation I read things in, which then evokes more memories than I can capture in text. And even though I am not very structured with categorizing and tagging my posts, this blog is still working out better for finding things again than the tons of notebooks I used to use before (which I still have archived, and sometimes even refer back to).

I am also very much writing to think (and an example of that is a post I wrote on Saturday about how to cultivate and share my joy, passion, and purpose in teaching), and my blog is, again, an archive of those thoughts and how they developed over time.

2. Publicising work

While my main motivation for this blog is to write for myself in the way I am describing above, the “publicising work” function is also important to me. I have changed employers so many time that I really appreciate having this website that moves with me whereever I go. Plus I have complete autonomy in how I use it and am not bound to any templates or rules an employer would have. But, as stated in the book, there is an “intrinsic conflict between self-branding and corporate employment”.

Looking over this blog with 10+ years of archive, and the occasional changes in what facets of my career and myself I want to highlight, is also the opportunity to think about my professional identity, and to give a lot of context to my work that wouldn’t be visible just from my publication record.

The different ways in which we can use social media to publicize work include

3. Networking

Continuing on with the last point of meeting people: Academia is abbout collaboration, and meeting good people can make higher education feel (and be) more friendly and collegial. This has also been a very important function of social media, for me! Blogging, and Twitter, are “opening up a space of interest-driven exchange that can often no longer be found in a stressed and stresful academy”. Yes! This! And especially during the pandemic, this was so so so important. Many connections that I made onlune have led to me working in international teams and on advisory boards of projects with people who I have never even met in person, just because we connected about #KitchenOceanograpy. And in addition to making new connection, social media is also great at maintaining connections with people who are interested in some of the same things.

One tip in the book that I have never followed but probably should: Help people find you by adding social media to your email signature! But this is where I see the above-mentioned conflict between self-branding and employment — while my employer is supportive of my blogging, I do this on my own time and it is a personal project for me. Being active on social media lets people see each other in a more multi-dimensional way, and I enjoy that. And I often point to my social media when I am teaching, but somehow using my email signature to advertise them feels wrong. Need to explore this more!

But one side of the coin is people finding us, the other is us finding people. We have control over who we follow (even though some platforms make it difficult for us to just see the people who we find interesting. Looking at you, facebook, with all the suggested content). If in doubt, then connect, you can always unfollow again. Although this, again, is more difficult on some platforms than others, since for example Facebook tends to act as “semi-permanent address book of former co-workers, high school friends, ex-boyfriends and girlfriends, distant family members, and other acquaintances whom users may rarely see”. But that creates a dilemma of audiences being interested in very different things, and us maybe not wanting to share everything with everybody!

One very interesting part of the book deals with live tweeting as a backchannel during a conference and a way to let people connect to conferences they aren’t attending, which is something I really enjoyed what seems like many years ago now, when Twitter was still Twitter…

4. Public engagement

For me, anything regarding public engagement is really very much about being very clear about who you want to reach and why. In the book, it says that “even the most obscure topics have a potential audience outside the academy and these new communications technologies offer a newfound capacity to form these connections” — true, but you really need to think about how to find them and why they should want to engage with you! Be very careful that communication isn’t just broadcasting, but contains a lot of listening and engagement; and work on cultivating relationships.

Another interesting point: Public engagement can also mean engaging with (current) students!

And a warning: If public engagement leads to being contacted by journalists, it is good to know that media often work on a very different timeline from what we might be used in academia. From the first email contact to an interview is is often only a matter of hours! (As I experienced with this interview about wave watching, which I gave while travelling through Voss!)

And another very important point: Running social media is really difficult if done for a group or department! It might easily widen the gap between already visible people, whose content is easily reposted and therefore gets more visibility, and other people, who don’t see the potential and therefore also don’t reach out to a social media manager. Sourcing and compiling information is really time intensive, so it is very easy to fall into this trap!

So far so good, this were my notes from reading the book.

I read this book when in a bit of an essential crisis on how to teach my social media course after the changes that happened in the last year or so. I used to be very active on Twitter and it was so meaningful to me, but that changed when Twitter became X, all my integrations and workflows broke down, and I did not put in the effort to figure out if I could set something similar up again, also because I really dislike algorithmic timelines where I don’t have full control over whose content I see. And I am struggling with a question that the book’s author, Mark Carrigan, mentions on his blog: While for me, social media has been extremely beneficial while I was actively engaged, and I continue to benefit from the networks I built back then because people are still reading my blog and engaging with me on other channels; my visibility is already there, even now that I spend my time differently, mostly on this blog and in direct conversations and teaching (which is actually also what Carrigan describes about how his social media use changed, so I am feeling a bit validated here), how are new academics supposed to be able to build a similar platform now, when many of the more established colleagues are not actually engaging on social media any more? And I think my answer is that there will be new algorithms, new networks, new platforms, new ways of communicating. Maybe they are there already and I am just not aware yet. But I see that many of my old Twitter buddies are organising themselves on other platforms, and while that is still messy and spread out at the moment, I am pretty sure that one will crystallise over time and become the new place to be. I hope? I will keep looking around and keeping up my “platform literacy”, and if I find the new place to be, I’ll let you know :-)

(Just kidding! Of course it depends on your who, how, why, and what, what the place to be is for you! But if I start engaging somewhere, I am sure you will know, same as you cannot escape my #WaveWatchingWednesdays…)


Carrigan, M. (2020). Social media for academics.

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