‘A Smaller Audience than the Kardashians’: social media for academics with Prof Stuart Elden and Dr Mark Carrigan

both2 The Landscape Surgery group was pleased to welcome Professor Stuart Elden (Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick, and founder of the Progressive Geographies blog) and Dr Mark Carrigan (digital Sociologist, social media consultant and author of the recently published book Social Media for Academics).

The aim of the session was to share knowledge about how to productively use social media platforms in an academic context – even though none of us will (probably) ever have a social media audience as big as the Kardashians, as our speakers pointed out.

Academic Blogging
Stuart shared some advice from his own personal experience of blogging…

1) Be Useful to Yourself
What is the blog for? How will it be helpful for you? The primary goal should always be that blogging is something that is useful to you as a researcher: whether this is a way of thinking things through, sharing ideas and thoughts, or a way to connect to a wider research community. For Stuart, Progressive Geographies started out as a kind of public notebook or digital archive – a way to keep track of the research process and thoughts. Some academics also say that it helps with writers block – the practice of just writing something can spark off new ideas and perspectives and get the creative juices flowing!

2) Be Useful to Others
Secondarily, you can think about whether it might be helpful to someone else – because if you want people to read it, then this is what they’ll come back for. Equally, no reader will be interested in everything, so try to index posts into categories once you have a bit of a library of past content. That way, people can navigate easily and find what they might need.

3) Be Nice
If you want to avoid internet confrontations and have productive dialogue, just be nice. Stuart tends to post on things that he likes or enjoys; and if you need or want to be critical, be constructive and diplomatic: in short, being nice will save you a lot of time and energy!

So in summary… stay grounded in what you want to do and why. A blog isn’t a replacement for academic publishing or other forms of communication, but it can sit alongside those things in a useful way.

The Politics of Social Media
Mark focussed more on the politics of social media in academia, pointing out the huge variation in institutional social media policy in higher education, and also some personal tips for making the most of social media as a resource. His starting point was that the scale and the speed of the internet is fascinating – and also slightly terrifying (see here, and let your mind be boggled…)

1) Whilst it feels great to use social media productively, always keep productivity in mind – ‘digital distraction’ is really common and can be a huge drain on your time.

2) Don’t uncritically accept the ‘popularity principle’ – i.e. just because someone has a lot of followers, that doesn’t mean they are saying anything necessarily good (see blog-post title re the Kardashians… although on a tangentially related note: for an interesting take on the Kardashians and social media see here for a piece by Dr Meredith Jones who organised the academic symposium, ‘Kimposium!’ last year.. and yes, it is what it sounds like it is).

3) Social media use questions the divide between what counts as academic labour and what doesn’t. It’s almost a process of making-visible our ideas in motion, and Mark called this a democratisation of the academic process. It can be great for people to see the kind of academic labour behind the publications and other more formal outputs – and it reminds us that it’s always a process… you don’t just wake up one day having written a book!

4) Social media engagement seems to be problematically implicated in the impact agenda. Its a hot skill set, but does engagement = impact? (Mark used the example of Twitter metrics – often you can see that more people have retweeted a link than have actually clicked on the link (see here for an article that claims that 60% of people share links without reading them at all); or the widely-believed claim that at best, most people will only read a portion of online articles and so on). This also says something about the way that we read things on social media. It seems to have a different kind of logic than other more classically ‘academic’ outputs which is something to be aware of. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but do be conscious of choosing the right places for your content: spaces that you think will work for what you’re trying to do.

Discussion and Q&A points…

Building an audience?
The key thing, it seems, is the regularity of posts. This is something that will help you build an audience, if that’s what you want. And its not about being a prolific writer, but just a regular writer… take the example of Derek Gregory’s Geographical Imaginations blog: he will post perhaps once every two weeks, but what he posts will always be worth reading!

Making blogs look professional?
We kept coming back to the point that the quality of content should always matter over the quality of design/presentation, particularly in an academic context. This may sound like common sense, but it’s a good grounding principle (especially at this point, when the editors of this very blog have spent hours trawling through WordPress themes for a ‘new look’!) The moral there is always to just produce something helpful, or interesting, and that will usually speak for itself.

Managing social media in your work routine?
Social media and work routine came up in discussion initially as a fascinating question about a potential rhythmanalysis of blogging. In more practical terms, the answer from both of our speakers was that its just something you have to integrate into your daily routine. Stuart admitted that he spends far less time on the blog than people seem to think he does (which gives me hope – as new as I am to social media, I am a very slow blogger…) This also highlights again that you should only really be blogging if its helpful to you. Mark added that if it becomes a chore or loses its value, then it might be time to rethink your aims or approach.

Social media and confidence?
There are also some issues not only to do with institutional positioning, but also with blogging and social media as a very personal, emotional experience. It also requires a certain level of confidence, but this is something that can always be built up. It’s worth saying that positive experiences on social media tend to far outweigh the negative ones when you’re putting academically interesting content out to what is (usually) an audience of genuinely interested people.

A final note….
The session ended on a warm note, with the group concluding that social media use in academia – and blogging in particular – is a practice which should come from a sense of generosity. That is, a generosity in sharing your research practice, research outputs; or even just your tangential thoughts as a researcher. If it’s useful to you it may be useful to someone else, and ultimately (although social media can be misused or become a distraction rather than a tool) it can – when used in positive ways- offer a wonderful platform to connect, discuss and discover; especially in an academic context.

Mark is currently a Digital Fellow at The Sociological Review and recently completed three years as Research Fellow in the Centre for Social Ontology at the University of Warwick. He is an assistant editor of Big Data & Society, associate social media editor of the International Journal of Social Research Methodology and a founding member of the editorial boards of Discover Society and the Journal of Applied Social Theory.

Stuart, in addition to his post at the University of Warwick (where he is a member of the Authority and Political Technologies research network), also holds an adjunct position as Monash Warwick Professor in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University, Australia. An award winning author, Stuart authored The Birth of Territory which won the AAG Meridian Book Award in 2014, as well as Terror and Territory (2009) and multiple books on Michel Foucault and Peter Sloterdijk for Polity Press. He was also editor of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space between 2006 and 2015 and is one of the founding editors of Foucault Studies.

And… if you’ve bucked the trend we mentioned about partial-readings of posts on social media and made it all the way through this post, here is a reward for you…
Stuart’s extra blogging tip: to maximise new content views globally, 2pm GMT seems to be the best time to post. America is waking up, its working hours in the UK and most of Asia is still awake.



2 thoughts on “‘A Smaller Audience than the Kardashians’: social media for academics with Prof Stuart Elden and Dr Mark Carrigan

  1. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    A report on the discussion on social media and blogs which Mark Carrigan and I had with the Royal Holloway Landscape Surgery last month.

  2. […] short piece about how and why scientists use social media fits just perfectly in with my perspectives and […]

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