Social media for Academics and Early Career Researchers: An Interview with Dr Mark Carrigan

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DOI: 10.17863/CAM.34886
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Cambridge Open-Review Educational Research e-Journal
Vol. 5, November 2018, pp. 104-110
104
Special Paper
Social media for Academics and Early Career Researchers: An
Interview with Dr Mark Carrigan
Maria Tsapali & Tanya M. Paes
Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, UK
corerj@educ.cam.ac.uk
Social media is becoming an integral part of academic life and more academics utilise platforms such
us Twitter to communicate about their work. But how can social media platforms be used most
effectively and what are some of the common pitfalls? How can early career researchers develop an
academic narrative through social media? In this special paper, Dr Mark Carrigan, author of Social
Media for Academics, will outline how academics and early career researchers can use social media to
create an academic identity, promote their work, generate impact, and engage the public with their
research.
Mark Carrigan is a digital sociologist at the University of Cambridge and The Sociological Review
Foundation. His research explores how the proliferation of platforms is reshaping social life,
particularly in relation to the social sciences and their role within and beyond the university. He is
internationally recognised as a leading expert on the role of social media within higher education. He
is social media editor of the International Journal of Social Research Methodology and associate editor
of Civic Sociology. He is a member of the editorial boards of Discover Society, Applied Social Theory
and Social Research Practice. He is a trustee of the Social Research Association, a research associate
at the LSE’s Public Policy Group and a member of the Centre for Social Ontology.
INTRODUCTION TO SOCIAL MEDIA
In this section Mark introduces the audience to social media, gives examples of commercial
and non-commercial social media platforms designed for academics and talks about their
rapidly evolving role in academic life.
Given your experience in social media and the second edition release of your book Social
Media for Academics, how would you define social media?
It is one of those phrases that everyone uses, and most people know what is meant when they
encounter its use, yet it’s quite a difficult term to define. If media are something which mediates
between people in some way, then how could media be anything other than social? It is also
often used in a way that loses sight of predecessors to what we now call “social media” such
as bulletin boards and mailing lists which are still popular and prominent within the academy.
I would like to define social media in a way that can encompass all that. However, in terms of
how social media tends to be used, it is typically restricted to a certain cluster of commercial
platforms which all intend to facilitate the transmission, circulation and reception of content.
There are some non-commercial alternatives, such as Mastodon and Humanities Commons,
which have been developed in part and in response to these mass commercial platforms. But
the commercial platforms largely define the common understanding of social media.
What are the current main social media platforms that academia can use?
There are the popular platforms which are intended for a general audience and many academics
might use in a private capacity. For instance, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest or
Instagram. When they use them in a more professional way, it tends to be a specific use of a
Social media for Academics and Early Career Researchers
105
service designed to be used in different ways by different kinds of people. There are also
specifically academic social networking platforms like academia.edu, and Research Gate,
Mendeley to a lesser extent and, as mentioned, Humanities Commons, a non-commercial social
media platform. There are three subtypes of social media platforms: (i) non-commercial
platforms designed specifically for academics; (ii) commercial platforms designed for
academics; and (iii) commercial platforms designed for everyone.
What is the evolving role of social media in higher education?
The evolving role of social media is very interesting because when I started a PhD in 2008, it
was still in its infancy and was largely invisible within universities, beyond interaction in peer
networks. Now it is increasingly prominent. I am very interested in how we utilize it at events
such as conferences where there are numerous ways in which we see social media in a room,
even if indirectly. Increasingly, particularly in in some fields and disciplines in UK universities
and more widely, people feel expected to engage on social media and that is an interesting
change from when it was something people had to advocate for in the face of mass scepticism.
Increasingly it is coming to be seen as, if not something that everyone does, the kind of thing
that scholars should do.
WHY SHOULD ACADEMICS USE SOCIAL MEDIA?
In this section Mark outlines how social media can be used by academics to publicise their
work, build networks, manage information and demonstrate impact.
How can social media be beneficial for academics?
There are lots of ways in which social media can be beneficial for academics. It can help
increase your visibility within your field, encourage people to read your publications, keep up
to date with developments, build wider professional networks and collaborate with groups
outside the academy. But it also makes a more open, collaborative and interdisciplinary form
of scholarship possible by empowering scholarly networks and leaving them less dependent on
the traditional gatekeepers of academic life. Therefore, I think we need to strike a balance
between focusing on how individual academics might benefit from using these channels and
how it might enhance scholarly culture as a whole.
How can academics use social media to promote their work?
The most obvious way to use social media to promote your work is simply to use it to tell
people about your work. The problem is this often is not very interesting. For instance, when
more senior academics take to social media for the first time this is very common with
Twitter, for instance you will see people announcing events which they are going to be
keynoting at or loudly informing people about their new book which is coming out. There is
nothing wrong with that, but it misses something significant about the character of the
conversations on these platforms, which is that they reward substance. If you are talking solely
about something you have already done, it doesn't have that substance. Social media can
certainly be used by academics as a way of increasing the flow of information. You are helping
ensure that people know that you have done this thing they might be interested in. However,
there is a huge layer of potential activity beyond that, which is much more interesting and
involves sharing what you are doing, putting it in context, sharing the evolving story of the
work you are engaged in and why it matters to you. Rather than simply saying, "I have done
this, you should look at it”.
Social media for Academics and Early Career Researchers
106
How can social media be utilised to build networks and get in touch with colleagues or
people who are interested in your work?
Many academics have a distaste for self-publicising, in the same way they do for the notion of
networking. I understand this, and I share it. One of the exciting things about social media is
that it allows you to network without being creepy or inauthentic. The term networking
often has the connotation of seeking out people who are useful to you, standing at a party while
looking over the shoulder of the people you are talking to in case someone more useful to you
walks into the room. For all the problems there are about how social media platforms are
designed, one valuable feature is the way in which it encourages convergence between people
who share similar interests. I have always found that the best way to build an audience on social
media is to talk in whatever format fits the platform (style, tone, length etc) about what you are
doing and why it matters to you. If you are talking through social media about what matters to
you, all other things being equal, you will start to find other people to whom these things also
matter. Certainly, there are many issues about the attention economy which condition who gets
heard and by how many people, but I maintain the underlying trend is nonetheless real. This is
really interesting because I think it quite easily opens up a kind of networking that is based on
shared concerns and commitments rather than reciprocal usefulness. In a very instrumentalised
and metricised academy this can be a powerful bulwark against competitive individualism. It
helps foreground the things that we share, the reason we get up in the morning, and the reason
we do our research. In some ways, it is the opposite of networking in the aforementioned sense
of self-interested manipulation.
Do you think social media can also be used by teachers and educators to engage the
public?
The potential is there, and this is one of the reasons why social media is being encouraged in
many universities. There is the necessity of being seen to produce societal impact through
research, and then quantify and demonstrate that impact. Many people see that social media
has some role to play there but the question is what is that role? It is often overstated, and I am
concerned that people have excessive expectations that will inevitably be dashed by the
mundane reality of using social media as an academic. Social media can be used effectively to
engage with publics if you have a very concretely defined audience, with a clear sense of why
they would be interested, and what you are trying to do with them. It’s necessary to have a
strategic plan about the way in which you are using it to build a connection with them over
time. Crucially, it will likely be more powerful when used to support face-to-face engagement
rather than being an end in itself. I worry that some people see themselves as using social media
to be a public intellectual; using social media to write a blog post or send out tweets and
imagining themselves to be talking to the public at large. That is problematic because it is
inaccurate you are not talking to the public at large, you are talking to a subset of a subset of
the people you are connected to on a given platform. It also inculcates a certain way of
approaching social media, that we are intellectuals offering opinions from on high. It is rarely
an effective strategy for building a following on a platform because it is often not very
interesting to see people do this.
WHAT TO BE CAUTIOUS OF WHEN USING SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS
In this section Mark illustrates the common risks and pitfalls associated with the use of social
media by academics including pressure to use them, lack of commonly agreed standards for
their use, potential lack of public engagement and navigating their professional identity and
busy schedules.
Social media for Academics and Early Career Researchers
107
Have you identified any pitfalls or risks when using social media platforms?
The one that I was preoccupied by for a long time was simply that people are overly enthusiastic
and have expectations of what they will get out of it which are unlikely to be met; or,
conversely, that people feel pressured into doing it thinking that this is what everyone is doing.
Social media platforms are often presented as vast, fast-moving, vibrant spaces and this helps
construct them as something which academics need to do in order to keep up to date. Over-
enthusiasm is a problem but so is a false sense of digital engagement as something necessary
and unavoidable. The way we talk about social media is important for these reasons, as it often
contributes to these unhelpful understandings of how academics should approach them. We
also need scholarly standards, and this will help address the second pitfall, which is a sense of
normlessness. We often oscillate between assuming there is a right and a wrong way to use
these platforms and that everyone knows it other than us. There is a recognition of chaos that
emerges when we see that actually there are not any commonly agreed upon standards, whereas
there is almost a universal consensus on something like peer review within the academy. There
is nothing akin to that although there are competing views about what is appropriate for social
media.
That ties into the third pitfall which is the risk that as academics embrace social media,
particularly with a view to public engagement, they may find that actually the public not only
might not be interested in what they are doing, but actually might be actively hostile to it. This
might be a response to who academics are rather than what they are doing. The risks here are
faced much more by some than others; as a middle-class white male, I very rarely get trolled
online. Women and people of colour engaging online are much more likely to, at the very least,
have to deal with a barrage of implicit requests to justify their status and attempts to explain to
them things which they already know. This can escalate into really obscene forms of abuse,
which are in some cases, straightforwardly criminal. If we see social media in an individualised
way, then individual academics bear these risks themselves. We need scaffolding to support
and surround this kind of activity. The way in which social media tends to be talked about isn't
helpful for this at all.
How do academics maintain their professional identity if they use social media? Is it an
easy thing to navigate?
I have never found it easy to navigate simply because the dichotomy between personal and
professional has never completely made sense to me. I have always tended to see it more as a
case of different zones of my life. There are some I’m inclined to talk about online, there are
some I am willing to talk about if it is relevant and there are some that just are not things I want
to share. In some ways this cuts across the boundary between public and private. When people
do try to enforce that distinction, they often do it by using different platforms with different
purposes. A platform like Facebook is often seen as obviously private, whereas Twitter is
regarded as more public-facing. The danger in this is that it multiplies the platforms that we try
to engage on and diminishes the time we have available for it. It is also quite tricky in practice
and this points to an interesting sociological shift in how personal life works. As personal
networks become more diffuse, particularly as we work in different contexts and we move
around a lot, the boundary between someone who is a colleague or a friend, for instance, can
be tricky to maintain in practice. It is not that it cannot be enforced, it is that it takes work to
enforce it and if you want to do it, you have to think from the outset about the categories, who
fits in them, under what conditions will you allow someone to follow you or not. The more
prepared you are to answer these questions, the easier it is to enforce this distinction.
Social media for Academics and Early Career Researchers
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Given time constraints, how can social media be built into an academic’s professional
schedule?
If it becomes something you to add to a to do list, you are unlikely to enjoy using it and you
are unlikely to sustain it. The more it can be part of what it is you do, the more it can be built
into activities themselves, the easier it is use it in a sustainable way and it can often save your
time. Two of my favourite examples are organising events, and the kind of prewriting processes
that involves reflecting on things that you are reading. For organising events, if you build a
social media following with plenty of people who are interested in the topic of the events you
are organising, it can save enormous amount of time. For pre-writing, reflective writing through
blogging that precedes more formal writing, I find that the more immediately I do this the
quicker it becomes. This is often the most enjoyable writing I do. It is really quick, because
when you have that idea in your mind, you can often just knock it out, externalise your thoughts
onto the page in an almost automatic fashion. It lays the groundwork for longer form writing
and gives concrete form to what would otherwise be a diffuse process of thinking things
through.
In both cases, social media has saved me time rather than taken it up. This is a combination of
the properties of the platforms and how they’ve become routine parts of my working life.
Nonetheless I became very interested in the question of when in the day academics use social
media because I often find it intrusive when writing. The fact that it is there, and it is accessible
means you can always find yourself drifting towards it. It can be something that encourages
distraction and procrastination and a lot depends on how you control the use of it. The more
you can ensure you use it at times that work for you and you do not fall into using it at time
that are getting in the way of what you are trying to do, the more likely is that you will enjoy it
over time and it will not cause problems. That is a difficult balance to strike particularly because
these platforms were designed to encourage us to use them more. They are intended to be
rewarding, they are measuring the extent of our engagement, the ups and downs over time, and
in many ways, we are working against the system if we are trying to be cautious about the time
we spend on these platforms. Tools like Freedom and Moment can be exceptionally helpful if
you’re struggling with this. But unless you understand your own habits, it’s hard to use them
effectively.
ADVICE FOR YOUNG RESEARCHERS
This section is dedicated to graduate students and early career researchers who want to start
utilising social media to promote their academic identity. Mark gives practical advice on how
to cultivate an online presence by building a personal website.
Let us think about young researchers now and imagine someone who wants to start using
social media as an outlet for academic scholarship. What are the first steps or which
platform would you recommend early researchers start with?
It is easy to forget the importance of university webpages in this kind of discussions. One of
the powerful features of university websites is that it has a very high Google ranking. This
could be a base where you lay out something about yourself and you link to social media
profiles. This is an important way to ensure that if someone searched for your name, they will
be able to find you. However, there are problems with university websites because they are
often very restrictive. In some places you cannot do the updates yourself, so it is good to have
your own website as well. In the creative industries, this has been common practise for a long
time. You know any aspiring artist, photographer, film maker will have their own website and
it is strange that the practice is still relatively rare amongst early career researchers in academia.
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To have your own website with your own domain name can be very powerful. There are a
whole range of ways of doing this. Google Sites is something straightforward but aesthetically
not so pleasing. Services such as Squarespace or Wix allow you to quickly build your own
website that can be very attractive. Wordpress is an immensely flexible option, even if you
don’t want to use the site as a blog.
What content would you include in a personal website of an early career researcher who
may not have many publications?
You can talk about what you are doing, why you are working on this topic rather than others.
You have to create a narrative about yourself that works for you. It can be a trial and error
process to do this. Have a go at telling a story about your research for the first time and you’ll
get a sense of whether this story feels right to you. Does it feel inauthentic to you? If so, you
can have another go until you construct a narrative which feels like it conveys something of
what motivates you as a researcher. This kind of writing often feels new to people who do it
but it’s not. Your CV is a kind of a biography, as is the publications list you build up, albeit an
alienated one conveying what you have done but not why you have done it. What’s key to
developing a sense of professional identity is how you locate yourself in relation to disciplines
and fields, in relation to intellectual movements, in relation to objects of research. It is going
to change over time but the more you can practise writing this kind of narrative, the better. It
can be the bedrock of a website which you supplement over time with things you do publicly
that you can point to as you do them. If you are a senior professor, it might make sense for the
website to be full of content. For instance, if someone was looking at the sociologist Jeffrey
Alexander’s website, they would find an enormous list of publications and links to
downloadable PDFs for almost all of them. If you’re going to Jeffrey Alexander’s site, you
likely already know who he is, and you are looking because you want something from it so that
focus on the content is very useful. The more junior you are, the more important the narrative
becomes, and the narrative becomes the context in which you can add in this content as you
produce it.
CONCLUDING REMARKS
In this section Mark offers the final pieces of advice to academics about how they can
incorporate social media in their research and find further resources, as well as stresses the
importance of reflecting on their aims of using social media.
What other resources can academics consult should they want to develop their social
media presence and learn more about it?
There is a small literature opening up in this area. My former colleagues at the London School
of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Amy Mollett, Cheryl Brumley, Chris Gilson, and
Sierra Williams wrote a book called Communicating your Research for Social Media, which
has a particular focus on research communication. Arlene Stein and Jessie Daniels wrote a
book called Going Public for Social Scientists which extends beyond social media. I also
recommend a book called The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the
World by Mary Virginia Lee Badgett. There are also other books that offer a lot of insight in
this area. The Ideas Industry by Daniel W. Drezner refers to how what the author terms the
marketplace of ideas is being transformed and throughout the book there are some very useful
insights that are applicable to academics using social media. The Research Impact Handbook
by Mark S. Reed is specifically about research impact, with a useful section on social media.
As well as books, the LSE Impact Blog has many resources that are new and interesting. There
are two blogs called ProfHacker and GradHacker that have a lot of useful ideas. Conditionally
Social media for Academics and Early Career Researchers
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Accepted is a blog about inequality in higher education, and regularly has some really
important information about social media. Two more blogs that have a more doctoral focus and
extends beyond social media would be Pat Thomson’s blog Patter, and The Thesis Whisperer
edited by Inger Mewburn. In both blogs social media is not the main focus but they often have
wonderful insights into social media and sometimes write directly about the topic.
If you had to give one and only one piece of advice to academics about their use of social
media, what would you say?
Reflect on what you are doing. If you are not clear about why you are doing what you are
doing, then the risk is it will be a waste of your time. This is quite significant and the clearer
you can be about what it is you want to achieve, the more likely it is you’re going to achieve
it. The most mundane risk of social media for academics is simply getting drawn into activity
which does not really help you in any way and which you do not get much out of. In other
words, it might all prove to be a waste of your time if you’re not careful.
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