Social Media Training for Academics: What not to do

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A guest post by Emma Kennedy of Queen Mary, University of London

I’m sure many readers have seen the Guardian’s recent Academics Anonymous piece, entitled, “I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer”.  I was struck especially by the piece’s defensive tone. I suspect that behind much ridicule of social media lies a fear about the increasing demand for multiple skills in the academic job market – meaning academics are forced to develop skills they didn’t expect to need when they entered the profession.

The writer protests against ‘careers advice gurus’ telling them that ‘potential employers could be Googling your name right now, keeping an eye on your social media timelines’ – he or she has clearly heard some advice, somewhere, that a strong social media presence is necessary for an academic career – and that the only worthy readers are potential employers. How dispiriting!

It’s likely that few people are actually advising this, but we need to make sure that nobody is doing this, and – more importantly – that the people we want to come to our training don’t turn up expecting this. In this post, I’m going to show why the advice quoted in the Guardian is bad advice for anyone looking to get started with social media.

The first mistake is to assume that social media is a place to show off. True, social media is a great place to showcase what you’re doing. But that’s not its only use. Dave O’Brien, quoted in Mark Carrigan’s Social Media for Academics points out: ‘imagine if you were in conversation with someone and all they did was robotically, every two or three hours, tell you they were speaking at a seminar or had a book out’. There’s a paradox here. Using social media exclusively for self-promotion is such a self-evidently bad strategy that those who are told to do so rightly dismiss it out of hand. However, many still believe that this is what social media consists of.

I’m hoping that most who do such training have a more nuanced and accurate idea of what social media is actually like. This equips them to carry out my alternative advice: find out what your audience actually wants to do with social media. Do they want to get their work to someone interested? Show them how to identify and connect with that group of people. Do they want to use it for political activism? Show them how to find activist networks and help them to find people who successfully link an academic career with political protest. They might just want to create broader networks, in which case help them find ways to build those networks. Don’t just give them one (implausible) use for social media – this demeans social media and will either turn them off at the start or disappoint them in the end.

The second mistake that our mythical guru has made is to advise the author to ‘Tweet regularly’ – this, he claims, will prove that the author is ‘truly dedicated to the world of science’. Aside from the issue that it doesn’t prove this – not in the same way that a PhD in science will – this insistence on regular posting is another pitfall. It’s not an inherently bad strategy – regular posts keep you in the minds of your network. However, it ignores the massive skills gap that can face academics staring down the barrel of a new social network. To the uninitiated, a daily Tweet can feel like an enormous chore: Are you kidding me? You mean I have to log in to this thing and finagle the keyboard and come up with some kind of content every dang day?

I tweet multiple times a day. It doesn’t take much effort. But that’s because I have the pre-existing momentum, network and the habit to enable me to do so. For someone who doesn’t do this as a habit, it doesn’t come so quickly. If they start out with a small network, posting can feel a bit like shouting into the ether. Asking people to go from posting nothing to posting daily creates a huge gap between what they can do now and what they feel they’re expected to do. End result, as we know: they just give up.

So what can we do instead? We can be much more realistic about what’s possible and how to get started. Mark Carrigan has the excellent suggestion that people should start with people they already know (Carrigan 2016, 44): this helps get over the ‘fear factor’ of having to connect with strangers and also means that posting feels less like shouting into an empty ether and more like starting a conversation with people one knows.

We can also introduce Dave White’s useful concept of ‘elegant lurking’ – following key people but not saying anything, just listening – which in White’s words ‘allows individuals to tune into the ‘dialect’ of a particular network or community so that when they first decide to say something they’re reasonably confident it will be in an acceptable tone’ (White, 2015). Letting people know that it’s ok to just listen, and to start with the odd interjection here and there, meets them much closer to where they’re starting and stops social media from becoming just another unattainable professional development goal.

As learning technologists and academic developers, we’re in a privileged position. True, there’s not a lot we can do to make the job market easier or to make academics less anxious about their place in it. What we can do, however, is find ways to share our skills that help them to develop their own in ways that are distinctive to their needs. Hopefully this will result in more people combining the roles of ‘professional Instagrammer’ and ‘serious academic’ – and fewer defensive screeds in The Guardian.

References:

Anonymous (2016). ‘I’m a serious academic – not a professional Instagrammer’. The Guardian. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2016/aug/05/im-a-serious-academic-not-a-professional-instagrammer . Accessed 25/08/16.

Carrigan, M. (2016) Social Media for Academics. London: Sage.

White, D. (2015). Elegant Lurking. URL: http://daveowhite.com/elegant-lurking/ Accessed 25/08/16.

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