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Academic Twitter & academic capital: Collapsing orality & literacy in scholarly publics



This chapter reviews the ways in which "academic Twitter" cultivates forms of expression that differ from conventional institutional practices, through a condensed review of an ethnographic dissertation study examining scholars’ open, networked engagement. The chapter outlines how oral and literate practices, in Ong's (1982) terms, are increasingly collapsed in academic Twitter and Twitter more broadly, and theorizes the implications of this collapse for scholarship, higher education, and notions of academic capital.
Academic Twitter & academic capital: Collapsing orality & literacy
in scholarly publics
This chapter reviews the ways in which "academic Twitter" cultivates forms of
expression that differ from conventional institutional practices, through a
condensed review of an ethnographic dissertation study examining scholars’
open, networked engagement. The chapter outlines how oral and literate
practices, in Ong's (1982) terms, are increasingly collapsed in academic Twitter
and Twitter more broadly, and theorizes the implications of this collapse for
scholarship, higher education, and notions of academic capital.
Pre-print citation:
Stewart, B. (Forthcoming, 2017). Academic Twitter & academic capital:
Collapsing orality & literacy in scholarly publics. The digital academic:
Critical perspectives of digital technologies in higher education,
D. Lupton, I. Mewburn & P. Thomson, (Eds). Routledge.
Introduction: The Twitter Watershed of 2014
When I was doing my doctoral research in 2013-2014, I took perverse pleasure in
telling people – from all walks of life, in the academy and beyond – that I was
studying scholarship and…Twitter. People’s first responses tended to posit social
media and scholarship as an incongruous combination. Some did meet the news
with enthusiasm and interest, but many expressed incredulity at the topic, in the
vein of “but Twitter’s where people talk about what they had for lunch!” Non-
academics sometimes received the information with an amused “wow, they study
everything at universities these days!” while a number of higher education
professionals expressed discomfort with the topic, disavowing any relationship
between the academy and the world of social media, at least in their own practices.
I saw the skepticism and dismissal not as personal, but as part of the backdrop to
my study; an articulation of the broader culture and contexts whose changes I was
investigating. I wanted to explore the forms of scholarly expression, connection, and
influence that circulated on Twitter, and make these legible to those for whom they
were unfamiliar. People’s responses to my research told me a great deal about the
work my dissertation would need to do in order to communicate its findings beyond
the “choir” who already understood the implications of networked communications,
as exemplified by the microcosm of Twitter, for scholarship and knowledge.
However, as 2013 wore into 2014 and beyond, and I prepared to defend and
disseminate my dissertation, I noticed a broad shift in the way individuals responded
to the story of my research topic. Increasingly, mention of Twitter generated a new
reaction, one that differed from the vague “Twitter is what people had for lunch”
and “Twitter is unrelated to academia” positions I’d originally encountered. By late
2014, Twitter had become a topic that generated a new intensity. People I
encountered began increasingly to say things like “oh, Twitter? I heard Twitter is
failing,” or “Twitter is abusive,” or “Twitter can get you fired.” Inside and outside of
higher education, my research topic had crossed a watershed, shifting from a not-
really-new novelty to an apparent political and professional threat, one on which just
about everybody had an opinion.
This shift reflected the increasing tactical and institutional usages of the platform
(Meyer, 2015), as well as scrutiny of Twitter’s first year as a publicly-traded
company1, all of which were visible in 2014’s dominant media narratives surrounding
Twitter. The December 2013 Justine Sacco case, in which the global head of
1 Twitter went public on November 7, 2013 and published its first results on February 5, 2014.
2 Twitter has been repeatedly charged with failing to address abuse and harassment, and even
communications for a digital media company, posted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t
get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” to her hundred or so Twitter followers just before
getting on a plane to Johannesburg, brought Twitter’s “callout culture” into
mainstream media. Sacco’s tweet, which she claims was ironic and intended to
skewer the ways in many perceive the ongoing AIDS epidemic in South Africa, was
picked up and retweeted at face value by a senior writer for Gawker with a sizeable
following (Biddle, 2014). It went viral. When Sacco’s plane landed in South Africa,
she found herself the object of international outrage and a trending hashtag, and
out of a job. The way in which Sacco was catapulted to notoriety and professional
abjection demonstrated the capacity of mass Twitter outrage to generate swift real-
world effects (Ronson, 2015), and made evident Twitter’s potential material and
professional consequences.
Tactical uses of Twitter continued to emerge into public consciousness throughout
2014. The hashtag #gamergate erupted in the spring of that year, generating public
discussion of Twitter as a space for gendered abuse and harassment. Then, in
August, the police shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson
MO sparked the hashtag #Ferguson and prompted unprecedented US discussion
on extrajudicial killing and race. The discussion stemmed primarily from Twitter,
whereas on Facebook’s more heavily-filtered algorithmic feed, the discussion
remained hidden from view far longer (Tufecki, 2014). Activism around #Ferguson
eventually led to the birth of the ongoing #blacklivesmatter movement (Solomon,
2014). In academic circles, during that same summer of 2014, news also spread of
the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s revocation of newly-appointed
professor Steven Salaita’s tenured position due to his outspoken public tweets in
opposition to Israeli military operations (Jaschik, 2014). As my research wrapped up,
mainstream media articles began to emerge with analysis, backlash, and eulogies
for Twitter itself (Cooper, 2014; LaFrance and Meyer, 2014; Yang, 2014).
In September 2014, in the wake of both the #Ferguson protests and Twitter’s almost
immediate announcement that feeds would become more algorithmically-
determined, I fretted aloud on my blog “[W]ill my dissertation end up being about
the Twitter that was, rather than whatever it is in the process of becoming? Can a
person become an historian by accident?” (Stewart, 2014, para. 4). Since my study
emphasized academic Twitter as a socio-material and cultural space, an alternative
public for knowledge creation and dissemination (Stewart, 2015a), I had expected
the social norms and memes that constitute in-group behavior within academic
Twitter and Twitter more broadly to shift…but not as dramatically as they appeared
to in 2014.
However, a couple of years further down the road, with Twitter still a relatively
viable social platform in spite of regular media pronouncements of its imminent
death, I conclude that what became visible in 2014 was a logical – if problematic –
manifestation of the platform’s sociomaterial and cultural constitution. Specifically,
as this chapter will examine, Twitter’s collapse of oral and literate practices and
expectations makes it a particularly fraught type of scholarly public, but one with a
great deal to teach us about the status quo of scholarship and where change may
be desirable.
Conceptual Frameworks: Networked Publics, Networked Participatory
Scholarship, and the Visitors and Residents Typology for Online
The substantive goal of my dissertation research was to create an ethnographic
portrait of how scholarly engagement and influence operate within the open,
participatory, networked spaces at the boundaries of the official cultural unit of the
academy. Twitter was the primary site as well as the topic of my investigation
(Stewart, 2016b), though all of the 13 participants in the daily ethnographic
observation process also blogged and used other social networking sites (SNS) in
addition to Twitter. I engaged in daily participant observation on Twitter and any
other platforms volunteers identified, in addition to conducting extensive interviews
and collecting reflective and analytic written information on participants’ daily social
media use and their perceptions of other volunteers’ academic Twitter profiles.
Participants and volunteer profiles were recruited through my blog and social media
channels, and were selected for maximal diversity of geographic locales, identity
markers, and academic positions within English-speaking academic Twitter. Nine
were female, four were male; four identified as gay or queer. Their ages ranged
from twenties through fifties, and their Twitter followers ranged from a few hundred
through 15,000.
The emphasis on Twitter was due to its dominance as the platform of choice for
networked scholars: Lupton’s (2014) study of 711 academics using social media
found that 90% reported using Twitter for professional purposes, while nearly 50%
used, 40% Facebook, and over 30% personal blogs (pg. 14).
However, just as “the academy” refers, imperfectly, to a broadly-understood
confluence of practices, norms, and outlooks as well as to the historical public
concept of the university, so a participatory subculture of scholarly networks –
referred to as “academic Twitter” – was invoked in my research to identify both a
conceptual space and the practices that distinguish it. Neither term was intended to
refer to any single representative entity but rather to a particular form of social
imaginary, or what Taylor (2003) called “that common understanding that makes
possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy” (p. 23).
In order to frame the social imaginary of academic Twitter, my study drew on
three key concepts related to digitally-networked practice. The first was
networked publics, which are both “the space constructed through networked
technologies, and the imagined collective that emerges as a result of the
intersection of people, technology, and practice” (boyd, 2011, p. 39). Both
material and conceptual, networked publics are enacted via blogs and public
social networking platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
The second was what Veletsianos and Kimmons (2012) call networked
participatory scholarship (NPS), or the “complex techno-cultural system” (p. 773)
by which academic communications and dissemination take place within
networked publics. The connections, identities, and reputations formed via NPS
do not, of course, remain confined to online spaces, but intersect with the
material prestige arena of academia via keynote invitations and media mentions
(Stewart, 2015a), among other things. This can sometimes create institutional
tensions for highly successful networked scholars whose paths may not be
considered legitimate by more traditional peers. Although social media
participation has been demonstrated to increase scholarly visibility and
academic citations (Terras, 2012; Mewburn & Thomson, 2013), networked
practices have thus far largely remained on the margins of the tenure and
promotions systems which mark academia (Ellison & Eatman, 2008; Gruzd,
Staves, & Wilk, 2011).
The third framing concept was White and LeCornu’s (2011) visitors and residents
continuum of digital engagement. Drawing on visitors and residents as a core
concept enabled me to consider networked participation qualitatively, without
relying on numeric metrics such as how many followers a participant had or how
many times they had tweeted in order to determine their eligibility for the study.
Developed as a counter-typology to Prensky’s (2001) generational “digital
natives/digital immigants” conceptualization of web use, the visitors and
residents continuum posits that visitors to a particular digital environment will
tend to approach it in tool-oriented or instrumental terms, as a task-oriented
space. Residents, on the other hand, are framed as users who conceive – and
engage – given platforms as relational and social spaces, and thus will approach
those platforms for connection rather than specific instrumental purposes. I
chose to study academic Twitter users whose approach to networked
participatory scholarship and to Twitter fell on the resident side of the
continuum. As I was investigating scholarly connection and influence in social
media spaces, I needed to access users who perceived these spaces as social,
relational environments rather than merely tools.
In the end, the study investigated the practices and perceptions of participants
who approached Twitter and networked participatory scholarship as a collegial,
social endeavour, and who integrated the networked public of academic Twitter
into their scholarly identities. In that sense, the three framing concepts taken
together serve to delineate the limits of the study, in that they emphasize and
center the relational, social practices being explored as a collapse of oral and
literate traditions within digital and networked scholarship.
Orality, Literacy, and Academic Twitter
Together, these practices also suggest the emergence of a new kind of public
within contemporary scholarship, one that involves less gatekeeping than
conventional academia, and operates more like that of an oral than literate or
print-based culture. In my study analysis I delved briefly into Walter Ong’s (1982)
foundational work in media and communications, specifically on orality, literacy,
and the later mediated phenomena Ong calls secondary orality (1982) and
secondary literacy (Kleine & Gale, 1996). At the core of this work is the premise
of a meaningful relationship between forms of human communications and
societal characteristics and interactions. The final paper to emerge from my
dissertation posited academic Twitter as a phenomenon in which oral and
literate traditions and expectations become collapsed, creating a scholarly
public that opens participants to very specific risks, vulnerabilities, and
experiences of connection and care (Stewart, 2016a). In this chapter, I delve
more deeply into this idea of academic Twitter as a collapsed public, framing
Twitter as an intersection of oral and literate cultural traditions within the context
of knowledge production and scholarship.
Ong’s (1982) seminal text, Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word,
focuses on how the shift from orality to literacy creates new forms of identity and
thought, reflected in resulting social structures. His work characterizes human
interaction within primary oral cultures – those with no knowledge of writing – as
situational, participatory, and empathetic, polarized by conflict-based or
agonistic forms of engagement, and by fulsome, rhetorical praise. In orality, Ong
notes that words cannot operate as labels or tags because they are ephemeral
and contextual. In literate, typographic cultures, on the other hand, words
operate as “written or printed tags imaginatively affixed to an object named”
(Ong, 1982, p. 34). Literacy therefore introduces a capacity for abstraction,
separating “the knower from the known” (Ong, 1982, p. 45) and setting up the
conditions for what academia tends to call objectivity.
According to Ong, literate cultures are marked by distanced, innovative
discourse in which thought is interiorized and direct interpersonal struggle is less
central. While memory plays a core role in orality, as demonstrated in the agile
feats of bards and oral poets (Ong, 1982, p. 58-59), oral cultures are
homeostatic, focused on the present and maintaining equilibrium “by sloughing
off memories which no longer have present relevance” (Ong, 1982, p. 46).
Literacy effectively freezes thoughts out of context, fixing ideas for as long as the
technology used – be it stone tablet, scroll, newspaper, or floppy disk – remains
functional and decipherable.
In developing this capacity to communicate across time and context, literate
cultures also develop the capacity for the precise, indexical analysis foundational
to academia. Lists, as Ong points out, have no oral equivalent, and eventually,
printed typographic indexes fully disengage words from their contexts, making
post-manuscript print books “less like an utterance and more like a thing” (1982,
p. 123). Ong posits modern science as a consequence of the exact replication
that print made conceptually possible, and to the emphasis on visuals and
exactness that it normalized. As he frames it, literacy is “necessary for the
development not only of science, philosophy, explicative understanding of
literature and any art, and indeed for the explanation of language (including oral
speech) itself” (1982, p. 14).
Thus, academia can be seen as an instantiation of what Ong (1982) calls ‘high
literacy’ (p. 38), with its “different contours from those of orally sustained
thought” (p. 38). In both form and symbolism, the academic curriculum vitae
(CV), in which scholars list publications and other expressions of what Bourdieu
(1984) called academic capital, is emblematic of high literacy and its emphasis
on indexical thinking and representation of the past as “itemized terrain” (Ong,
1982, p. 96). Bourdieu (1986) defined capital as “accumulated labor...which,
when appropriated on a private, i.e., exclusive, basis by agents or groups of
agents, enables them to appropriate social energy in the form of reified or living
labor” (p. 241). For Bourdieu, the assumption that all capital can be reduced to
economics or mercantile exchange is a mistaken one that fails to account for
much of the functioning of what he calls the social world. In the academy,
academic capital functions to imbue prestige and status upon scholars based on
indexical listings of publications and institutionally-sanctioned awards and
Twitter is different. There are audible echoes of Ong’s characterization of oral
cultures in the ways in which Twitter operates, particularly since the watershed of
2014. While Twitter does occasionally play host to extensive public lists, these tend
towards the rhetorical and the agonistic; a litany of points or grievances, rather than
a detailing of achievements. The widespread tactical use of Twitter hashtags by
marginalized groups, as well as the tactical amplification or citation of tweets with
the aim of having people removed from non-Twitter-related jobs, both reflect
participatory, conflict-based and agonistic forms of engagement. In the course of
my study, I observed parallel agonistic interactions within academic Twitter (Stewart,
2015b), but also relational empathic engagement and rhetorical praise, hallmarks of
orality, both of which were reported by participants as exceeding their experiences
of care and praise within academia (Stewart, 2016a).
These differences in techno-cultural systems and social realities, both of which are
inhabited by self-identified scholars, are meaningful distinctions. Academia’s
conflation of high literacy with academic capital and professional influence denotes
scholarship – and cultural capital generally – as belonging to the territory of literacy,
thus rendering spaces like academic Twitter inherently marginal or illegitimate. The
use of high status higher education platforms to decry social media use as a
narcissistic waste of time (Egan, 2016), or as antithetical to being a “serious
academic” (Anonymous, 2016), has accompanied the watershed of awareness
around Twitter and other scholarly social media spaces. However, in-depth
examinations of the ways in which Twitter and other SNS platforms represent
alternate forms of scholarly influence, capital, and knowledge structures are only
beginning to emerge. This consideration of Twitter as a collapsed public, combining
orality and literacy and thus representing a threat to traditional forms of academic
capital, is one contribution to that emerging realm of study.
Secondary Orality/Literacy and Collapsed Publics
It is important to note that this chapter’s claims about Twitter and orality are not
meant to indicate a space or scholarship truly separate from literacy. Ong’s work
made clear that societies built on the typographical thinking that literacy makes
possible are different from primary oral cultures, even if the spoken word gets re-
centered through technologies such as radio and television. In positing academic
Twitter as an intersection of orality and literacy, I am not suggesting that the
hallmarks of orality visible in scholars’ Twitter engagement come from any residual
proto-oral culture, but rather that the affordances and social norms of Twitter and
academic Twitter specifically re-introduce meaningful elements of orality back into
the high literacy culture of academia.
Ong himself explored different ways in which technologized communications shape
cultural practices. With the rise of electronic media and communications, Ong
identified a phenomenon he called secondary orality, which generated communal,
rhetorical performances of orality and its “participatory mystique” (1982, p. 136),
though with less of the redundant, agonistic emphasis that marks oral engagement.
The re-emergence of orality that Ong identified as secondary orality is an effect of
the communications medium and its operations, even on already-literate subjects
acculturated to typographic thinking.
Bounegru (2008) appears to have been the first scholar to connect Twitter to
secondary orality. She identifies its participatory structure, wherein the “text” of
Twitter (as with other SNS platforms) is contributed entirely by users, as a hallmark
of orality. She suggests that Twitter users may identify with the broad audience
group that the medium generates, as oral listeners would around a campfire, but
that as individuals Twitter users nonetheless possess the interiorized sense of self
fostered in print culture, and thus remain self-conscious in regards to the
permanence of text.
Ong himself offered an additional framing for understanding the reintroduction of
hallmarks of orality into literate cultures, long before Twitter existed. In a 1996
interview, he clarified that while he saw radio and television producing a particular
type of technologized orality, he felt that text-based electronic communications
were experienced with the immediacy of orality, but might be better represented by
the term ‘secondary literacy’.
I have also heard the term ‘secondary orality’ lately applied by some to
other sorts of electronic verbalization which are really not oral at all—to
the Internet and similar computerized creations for text… the network
message from one person to another or others is very rapid and can in
effect be in the present. Computerized communication can thus suggest
the immediate experience of direct sound. I believe that is why
computerized verbalization has been assimilated to secondary ‘orality,’
even when it comes not in oral-aural format but through the eye, and thus
is not directly oral at all. Here textualized verbal exchange registers
psychologically as having the temporal immediacy of oral exchange. To
handle such technologizing of the textualized word, I have tried
occasionally to introduce the term ‘secondary literacy.’ (Kleine & Gale,
1996, p. 80-81).
Ong died in 2003, so never saw the rise of social media. However, his work offers an
important conceptual apparatus for grappling with the challenges of networked
publics, NPS, and resident digital scholarship. Ong’s extensive detailing of orality,
literacy, and the cultural implications of the continuum between the two allows for
an analytic lens on Twitter and networked scholarly practice that de-naturalizes the
connection between high literacy and legitimate forms of knowledge, and instead
posits a broad, more contingent historical frame that, to an extent, collapses orality
and literacy and their attendant practices into a new form of academic public.
The ways in which Twitter and other SNS collapse audiences and contexts has been
well-documented by Wesch (2009) and boyd (2011) in the phenomenon they call
‘context collapse.’ In instances of context collapse, personal connections tied to
separate aspects of an individual’s identity, such as familial, social, and professional
ties, are all present in a single communicative space and common audience. This
collapse of disparate audiences challenges people’s capacity to direct their self-
presentation and communications, forcing an individual to anticipate the “nearly
infinite possible contexts he or she might be entering” (Wesch, 2009, p. 23) before
However, the idea of context collapse does not necessarily fully conceptually
address the issue that literate persons – and certainly scholars, whose professional
status is dependent on particular forms of high literacy behavior – face when
confronted with SNS as social spaces for public engagement. The issue is not only
the presence or potential presence of audiences for whom a given communication
may not be legible, the issue is that resident networked publics do not operate – as
social spaces – on the communicative terms of high literacy. I posit cultural spaces
like academic Twitter as ‘collapsed publics,’ (Stewart, 2016a) comprised of highly
literate subjects interacting socially according to the participatory and sometimes
agonistic tenets of orality, but with the digital capacity to capture, circulate, and
make viral the contributions of others regardless of their intended contexts and
As Ong (1982), following in the steps of McLuhan (1962), notes, the sense of closure
and fixed point of view that print make possible created the distancing and
consistency of tone required for a ‘reading public’ (p. 132) to come into being. This
reading public, according to Ong, is “a sizeable clientele of readers unknown
personally to the author but able to deal with certain more or less established points
of view” (1982, p. 132.) This differed from the pre-existing necessity of addressing
an audience directly and adapting performatively to their sensibilities. Similarly, with
the rise of academic Twitter and networked scholarship, I suggest that a new,
networked scholarly public, unknown personally to the author but potentially open
to establishing relational connections, is emerging. Not only is that public able to
deal with established points of view, but to infer identity and positionality from
fragmented and sometimes decontextualized communications. This new public
collapses the oral practices of Twitter and networked engagement with the high
literacy practices of academia, bringing greater responsive, performative demands
into the writer-readership relationship than many writers have been accustomed to,
and blurring the boundaries between writer and reader. Whereas reading publics
tend to remain largely unknown and impersonal, except in rare instances,
readerships and publics in networked environments, with their capacity for
immediate response and virality, can challenge fixed points of view instantaneously.
This can turn what were once soapboxes into conversations and potential collegial
relationships relatively quickly, but it can also devolve into the mob responses that
mark Twitter’s call-out culture at its worst.
Collapsed Publics and Orality in Academia
What “counts” as influence or academic capital in a collapsed scholarly public
cannot, almost by definition, be the same as what counts within the high literacy
confines of academia. My study examined how networked scholars signal their
influence on Twitter and in NPS more broadly, and the ways in which they interpret
the influence or academic capital signaled by peers (Stewart, 2015a). I found that
within the alternate public sphere of Twitter, ideas and resources often get shared
either without or in advance of formal peer review and publication, thus the
influence or status that is conventionally conferred by affiliation with recognizable
publishers – an indexical, high literacy form of academic capital – carries significantly
less status and importance in NPS practices, even among scholars who fully
understand and deploy these signals in more formal contexts or for non-networked
publics. What networked scholars highlight on CVs and tenure applications is
seldom what they highlight on Twitter bios or in their relational interactions with
network peers.
This collapsed public has significance for scholarship and academic practice,
because it overtly introduces qualities that Ong would call oral into what has
traditionally been a bastion of high literacy. The immediacy of social media
communications – especially as compared to the academic publishing cycle as a
core driver of professional communications and dissemination – brings elements of
orality into academic practice, for those who engage as NPS residents. This
contributes to the challenge the existing system of peer review and academic
publishing faces from open access advocates and from that system’s own
increasingly-recognized profit monopoly (Fox, 2015; Schmitt, 2015) and backlog
(Morrison, 2012).
However, the fact that alternate channels exist for sharing academic knowledge
does not necessarily mean that all scholars are interested in using networked
channels such as blogs or even pre-print sites to disseminate their work. The social
imaginary of academia, with its tradition of precise and analytic abstract thought,
embodies Ong’s high literacy, which can render Twitter’s contextualized, immersive,
performative and often-mundane stream of expression foreign and illegitimate by
professional standards cultivated in the distanced register of high literacy.
NPS and academic Twitter foster participatory and relational rather than indexical
means of acquiring influence or academic capital with scholarly peers (Stewart,
2015a). These ‘collapsed publics’ make communications immediate, personal, and
performative, and create social norms that value humor, hyperpersonal expressions
of connection, and capacity for rhetorical emphasis (Stewart, 2016a). Successful
long-term engagement in these collapsed publics therefore tends to favor
individuals who present with the “fluency, fulsomeness, volubility” (Ong, 1982, p.
40) of highly-skilled oral performances. While my dissertation research concluded
that networked scholarship did indeed align with all four of Boyer’s (1990)
components of scholarship (Stewart, 2015c), these components are expressed
differently in NPS. On Twitter, for example, a self-identified scholar’s contributions
are as likely to be valued based on their content and on the scale and visibility of
those who share them as they are on any institutional or journal status, outside of
those most widely-recognized.
In academia, on the other hand, gatekeeping is central to the social imaginary – and
the prestige economy – that the academy embodies. Scholars are deeply
acculturated to a system that is exclusive by design; the persistent mythology of
academia as a meritocracy in which failure to complete a Ph.D or win tenure is a
sign of individual rather than structural deficit continues to inform a great many
contemporary comments in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Journals, schools,
and academic roles are all part of complex status hierarchies signaled through
indexical, externally-referenceable means. This close affiliation between markers of
literacy and academia’s sense of itself mean that the value of both Ph.Ds and peer
review can be perceived as under threat from the open circulation of knowledge
and influence that academic Twitter generates. This reality may address part of the
reason my announcement of Twitter as a research topic was received by many non-
networked colleagues with discomfort, even where their work contexts placed value
on social media.
However, my research indicates that scholars who are resident on Twitter are not
simply replacing one set of academic capital criteria with another, but rather
navigating a collapsed social imaginary that incorporates both versions of prestige
or capital simultaneously. A hallmark of the academic Twitter users I studied was a
sort of double-consciousness, wherein they were able to engage in playful and/or
agonistic in-the-moment manners, while nonetheless recognizing that all tweets
leave a potential long-term trace or searchable, scalable artifact that can be taken
out of context. In addition to being conscious and discerning regarding both oral
and literate forms of engagement, participants in my study were equally conscious
of their institutional status – or lack thereof, in some cases – as well as of their
relative reach and reputation on Twitter. They simultaneously inhabited both sites of
scholarship and understood quite well the differential ways in which they were
perceived in each. For some, there was dissonance between the influence wielded
in the two spaces; those who were graduate students and early career scholars in
particular tended to note that Twitter and NPS had often afforded a sense of
opportunity to contribute in a way that the academic hierarchy had not, at least to
date (Stewart, 2015a). But even those saw themselves as having more parallel status
positions in both sites of scholarship were clear that the terms of which the two
operated were different.
The collapsed publics of academic Twitter also foster a particular performative
register that academia does not tend to reward; a voice of the collapse’s double-
consciousness, in a sense. Distinct from more formal, depersonalized academic
communications, this voice tended to straddle the personal and professional, and to
generate far more signals of attention in terms of likes and retweets than strictly
formal or high literate forms of communications did on the networked platforms I
observed. Participants and exemplar identities in my study who used this register
tended to be perceived by peers as having higher status or belonging within the
academic Twitter environment. Many but not all of the active and high-status users
in the academic Twitter-sphere are therefore scholars, professors, or Ph.Ds who can
be assumed to communicate relatively effectively on the academy’s high literacy
terms. Some even list tenured positions in their Twitter bios. But most also have a
corpus of searchable, replicable tweets available under their names and public
identities wherein they crack jokes, contribute to conversations, and share mundane
stories from their daily lives. This body of what might not formally be called “work”
represents the emotional labour and presence which the hierarchy of conventional
academia tends to negate or make invisible when counting academic influence or
capital. Thus the fact that a space like Twitter is not only inhabited by a broad
constellation of professionals and scholars but is used and valued as a scholarly
network (Stewart, 2015c) by many participants does indeed pose a genuine and
important challenge to the status quo of higher education practices.
Sometimes this double-consciousness of mixed oral and literate performativity can
make it difficult for scholars to reconcile the conflicting interests of the collapsed
publics they navigate. In the Twitter watershed of 2014, institutional observation of
Twitter and tactical and agonistic uses of the platform to achieve visibility all
became more mainstream within a brief span of time. Data collection for my study
was taking place during this period, and a number of participants referenced that
they’d learned – both personally and from observation of others – that casual tweets
or NPS exchanges can be interpreted with a gravitas usually culturally reserved for
the written word. Codeswitching – or addressing networked communications to
different registers of depending on topic and audience – was common among
participants (Stewart, 2015a) throughout the study; day-to-day interactions were
often casual and reflective of oral cultural norms, while public tweets sharing
research or educational resources were more likely to include formal signals of
scholarly or high literate practice. But as Twitter became more visibly and overtly an
agonistic and conflict-based space, and Steven Salaita’s loss of a tenured position
became a widely-reported cautionary tale, participants’ concerns reflected Costa’s
(2014) assertion that digital scholarship is often perceived, institutionally, as a
trajectory of deviance. They were able to adeptly navigate two separate registers of
speech and forms of academic capital, but addressing searchable, replicable,
scalable digital speech to the collapsed public of academic Twitter became harder
for many as that public became increasingly broad and unknown.
Nonetheless, the majority asserted that resident networked practices – including
oral, relational approaches to the development of capital and connection with
geographically-diverse colleagues – were important to their own sense of
themselves as scholars and contributing members of scholarly communities.
Twitter’s asynchronous and profile-based structure had enabled them to connect
with unknown peers on the basis of shared attributes or interests, and most
expressed significant appreciation for the care and community they’d found as a
result of these connections. In an era when the increasingly rationalized,
managerial, and precarious professional culture within higher education
(Clawson, 2009; MacFarlane, 2011) enables fewer and fewer to find belonging or
at least job security in academia’s hallowed halls, the belonging experienced in
networked publics and NPS can make a difference. Quinn (2016) calls belonging
a domain where definitions are generally agreed upon, with a stable if
evolving framework of relations between people and things, and a means of
negotiating them” (para. 4). The stable if evolving framework of relationality and
oral and literate collapse that academic Twitter and other NPS platforms enable
offers networked scholars a geographically diverse, relatively heterarchical
collection of colleagues with whom they can explore ideas, and build ties,
academic capital, and care (Stewart, 2016a). This can have professional as well
as personal benefits; the media exposure and connections that can come from
developing a trusted scholarly voice via blogging, Twitter, or other visible,
public NPS participation can open professional doors as well as offer support
and a sense of community.
So, if academic Twitter and NPS bring a semblance of orality into the sanctuary of
academia and scholarship via new collapsed publics and forms of academic capital,
what does this really mean for the academy and higher education? Two years after
the watershed of 2014 made academic Twitter appear to be a quick way to get
fired, if not hired, reactions to my area of research have become more muted once
again. While I still encounter educators and academics convinced Twitter is a space
for harassment or a litany of what people had for lunch – both of carry elements of
truth2 – increasing numbers of colleagues appear to perceive Twitter as an informal,
ongoing professional development space where they could, at least, stay up to date
on higher education news and developments.
This development is interesting, as the social imaginary that is academia does not
truly have a communications platform or channel by which its many diverse and
often opposed epistemological camps can establish any version of the “stable if
evolving” framework for belonging described by Quinn (2016) above. If academic
Twitter or NPS gained enough ground among mainstream higher education
professionals, the disciplinary silos that are in part enforced by that lack of broad,
cross-disciplinary communications and vision could potentially be undermined. This
might actually be a positive development for innovation and the creation of new
knowledge; Parise, Whelan, and Todd (2015) found that when Twitter users actively
fostered diverse professional networks and sought out ideas and experts different
2 Twitter has been repeatedly charged with failing to address abuse and harassment, and even
with building capacity for abusive trolling behavior into its design (Warzel, 2016)
from those within their comfort zone, they were found to generate ideas rated as
higher-quality in a series of anonymous experiments.
While I don’t anticipate the complete normalization of resident NPS practices into
institutional scholarship over the short term, the ongoing creep of orality’s
relationality and performativity into academic circles and publics certainly warrants
ongoing observation and analysis. The ways in which academic Twitter cultivates
forms of expression and academic capital that differ from conventional institutional
practices points out to all of us invested in higher education that many of the
traditions and outlooks we – or our colleagues or students – may take for granted
are not inherent to the pursuit of knowledge, but are products of print and its
assumptions and limitations. As digital and networked practices enable us to
expand scholarship beyond those limitations, my study offers a portrait of new,
more relational publics for knowledge production and scholarly engagement, with
what Ong would call a distinct oral residue in its otherwise highly-literate terms of
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... This collapsed networked audience arguably makes audience design and thus language choice in social media challenging (Androutsopoulos 2014). However, Stewart (2018) observes that context collapse does not accurately capture academics' engagement in social media. She shows how academic Twitter instead provides an intersecting space for a partially defined audience, what she calls a "collapsed scholarly public", possessing voices that are highly literate and educated but also understand the informal register on Twitter that is usually more playful and personalized than conventional academic genres. ...
... The academics in our study were constantly crossing boundaries of public and private spheres, where private media become "unintentionally public" (Darics 2015), as in the case of WhatsApp groups for students, and WeChat for research collaborations. When private media are reappropriated for collapsed publics, new interactional norms, and as a result, new social identities emerge (Stewart 2018). We have shown that in academic social media such as ResearchGate, the ambient co-presence (Madianou 2016) of like-minded people allowed our participants to manage relationships with their distant and global academic networks. ...
... We argue that our participants, through polymedia involvement, also presented themselves as multi-voiced people who seamlessly move between a plethora of private, public, and semi-public media for various academic purposes. In addition to their immediate social networks, the digital scholar consistently interacts with professional, literate, and well-informed micro publics (Barbour & Marshall 2012;Stewart 2018). Some participants' awareness of their fellow professional audience also resulted in their hesitation in using nonstandard language or in sharing their half-baked ideas in their public writing. ...
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Academics' use of social media platforms is widely recognized and often understood as an extension of traditional academic practice. However, this understanding does not account for academics' use of pseudonymous Twitter accounts. We used a combination of computational and human-driven methods to examine the activity of 59 anonymized, self-identified academics on Twitter. Our computational analysis identified five broad topics: discussing academic life, discussing British news and affairs, discussing everyday life, surviving lockdown, and engaging with academic Twitter. Within these broad topics, we identified 24 more specific codes, most of which were concentrated in individual topics, with some cross-cutting codes. These codes demonstrate how the pseudonymous accounts considered in this study can be considered “authentically academic” even if they do not conform with widespread expectations of academic social media use.
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This chapter explores the use of Twitter as a platform for – and subject of – academic research. While Twitter practices and societal impacts are the subject of increasing research interest, Twitter is also a viable and flexible means of engaging in the research process. Twitter offers a rich environment for the examination of social and material practices within the digital sphere, and generates public and private data that can be analyzed via a variety of methods and methodological approaches. This chapter explores emergent uses for the platform as a tool, technique, or process in the pursuit of research goals.
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This paper outlines ways in which scholars build identity and connection on open networked platforms such as Twitter, and considers the risks and benefits of networked participatory engagement. The paper reports the findings of an ethnographic study examining the digitally-networked practices of scholars from a range of disciplines, identity positions, and geopolitical locations, and explores participants’ experiences of care and vulnerability within open, networked academic systems. The paper draws on White and LeCornu’s (2011) visitors and residents continuum, Veletsianos and Kimmons’ (2012) concept of Networked Participatory Scholarship (NPS), and Ong’s (1982) theories of secondary orality and secondary literacy to explore networked scholars’ practices and experiences. It examines ‘academic Twitter’ as a phenomenon in which oral and literate traditions – and audience expectations – are collapsed, creating a public that operates on very different terms from those of academia. The paper’s findings examine the risks of this collapse, yet also show that networked engagement – in which personal identity signals, humor, and expressions of commonality are found to be the dominant means by which scholars build networks ties – can result in opportunities and affinities that institutional scholarship may not offer. The substantive goal of the paper is to offer a portrait of networked scholars’ experiences and practices related to engagement, and to consider the tensions these practices raise within the contemporary academy.
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A piece about the economics and social systems of academic publishing, featuring quotations from Birkbeck academic, Martin Eve.