December.1.2019

Are you an academic labouring for social media impact? Here’s a must-read

By Naomi Barnes

You don’t have to look far to find online blogs and essays encouraging educators to use social media. There are several on this EduResearch Matters blog. Advocating for the use of social media, particularly Twitter, is sound advice in this highly mediated world.

I am writing this essay to complicate the idea of academic use of social media by considering it in terms of digital labour.  I do not wish to discourage academics from using social media.  If academics stopped using it, I wouldn’t have anything to research. Please don’t! However, if use of social media is considered part of academic impact, then the labour involved must be given greater attention.

According to social media scholars Alice E. Marwick and danah boyd (intentional lower case), Twitter encourages digital intimacy where communication serves a social function by reinforcing social connections and maintaining social bonds. Generally scholars communicate on Twitter in a social capacity, which has been identified by digital humanities scholars Anabel Quan-Hasse, Kim Martin and Lori McCay-Peet as “invisible colleges”, or networks of people who engage in disciplinary conversations, collaborations and philosophizing.

The focus of this essay is when a scholar shifts to informational mode (providing information) by writing a blog post, publishing an academic paper, tweeting a thread of observations and findings, or presenting their work at a conference. This dissemination and translation is the focus of the impact and engagement agenda that has led to universities encouraging academics to use social media. However, unless an academic is already successful offline, for the informational to have traction, the social groundwork also needs to happen, making both activities digital labour.

The labour of translating academic research to social media publications

Research translation on social media might be informational but it is also a pedagogical act because it is an act of public education. Researchers engage in teaching practices by interpreting their deeply theorised, analysed, thoughtfully considered, and lengthily articulated research process and findings into a medium that encourages brevity and clarity. They also use carefully considering composition techniques intent on sparking engagement. I have watched education social media users bring all their deepest pedagogical powers to bear on social media. Just like pedagogy, different approaches work for different people.

In my current research I have noticed the following pedagogical (possibly also influencer) approaches: connecting with the audience using second person pronouns (you) or first person plural (we/us), claims to personal research and practical expertise, linking to the expertise of others, asking questions and engaging with answers. A significant amount of work also goes into gaining trust through “authenticity” labour. If positioned as an expert there is often an expectation from followers that what they post is well considered, logical and researched. So authenticity work helps humanise an academic beyond that narrow expectation.

A question I often ask myself: Is it possible for someone who identifies as an academic to tweet idly? What does that do to academic notions of expertise?

Developing effective research translation pedagogy is labour. These pedagogical techniques are developed through trial and error, responding to engagement by repeating approaches that spark responses through comments, retweets and likes.

A complication to this pedagogical act is that when “reading their room” an academic starting out on social media is reading someone they follow, not necessarily someone following them. So the practice of academic impact, until reaching a large enough followership, is aspirational and resembles those practices noted by researchers of microcelebrity.  The typical individual on social media who arguably has the highest impact is the microcelebrity, with generally between 10,000 and 30,000 followers.

In the rest of this essay I draw on a decade of literature into the evolution of online microcelebrity labour, to offer academics and those encouraging academics to use social media some points to consider.

The role of microcelebrities on social media

Microcelebrities are important elements of the platform ecology because they are perceived as more authentic than their influencer counterparts, according to assistant Professor of Communication and Media studies at Fordham University, Alice E. Marwick. Microcelebrity is not an identity. Microcelebrity is a practice that is concerned with presentation strategies, positioning of subjects, and labour. Academic use of social media for impact, like microcelebrity, is in the business of impression management. This approach means careful consideration of audience and aspiration to a potentially more influential audience.

What are the industrial practices of an education Influencer?

Social media labour is substantial if one wants to retain audience and become influential, which is the nuts and bolts of an engagement and impact agenda.

Swinburne University academic, Jonathan Mavroudis, explains how after noticing that microcelebrities tended to only respond to microcelebrities, he decided to pursue microcelebrity status so that they would respond to his requests for interviews. On achieving a following of over 10,000 followers, his requests began to receive responses. Mavroudis describes his and his participants extensive “fame labour” which on the surface might just look like communication:

  • He crafted a consumable image through critically considering which parts of himself he should put online;
  • Continuously updated his interests, monitored the activity of others, and paraded the success of other microcelebrities;
  • Coming up with content;
  • Creating content; and
  • Satisfying audience by constantly striving to maintain popularity.

What Professor of English at the University of Chicago, Lauren Berlant, labeled the cruel optimism, or the fantasy of a good life if success is achieved, is a key feature of platform capitalism, the economic model that underscores most social media. The aspirational labour of going from a regular user, to a microcelebrity then to influencer should also be considered in terms of academic use of social media. 

This practice involves working above and beyond the current level of influence in the hope of building followership. Building a social media following strong enough to be impactful takes time and energy beyond tweeting a few times per day.

An academic might also aspire to use social media “more critically” than a microcelebrity. However, this attitude dismisses the critical labour microcelebrities do every day as a part of content creation and attracting and maintaining audience. According to Marwick, microcelebrities consider the technology industry they are a part of, the affordances of the platforms which host their content, and ethical dilemmas related to social justice and capitalism. Have a look at the critical discussions around and the development of the influencer who identifies as a robot, Lil Miquela to consider this further.

Decisions to be made about ‘impact’

If an academic reaches microcelebrity status, and while they are on the road to it, they must consider whether their research is impacting their immediate circle or if it is reaching beyond. As Mavroudis indicated above, aspirational microcelebrities might only be looking towards established microcelebrities. This is not just about choices about audience a user makes, but also about how the algorithms broker audiences. Does your pedagogy of research translation rely on the endorsement of other influential online academics? Does your pedagogy need to be more “grassroots”? The less an academic relies on the trickle-down impact of being shared by an education microcelebrity or influencer, the more work is required for impact.

Dr Charlotte Barlow and Professor Imran Awan reported on how the hate speech directed at academics from minority groups disseminating their research on social media has led to the silencing of difficult and contentious research topics. Furthermore, Dr Mikaela Pitcan along with Marwick and boyd have also found that aspirational people from minority groups present themselves online as “vanilla” in order not to offend majority sensibilities. Power in digital environments may be flattened in many ways, but the same issues of equality that affect society offline, are well established online.

If newer and differently powerful academics are continuously looking towards social media success for clues on how to develop influence online and/or choosing safe topics for research to avoid vitriol, what implications does this have for the future of academic research?

If universities are serious about using social media to disseminate research for impact, then the hidden professional and emotional digital labour of building an academic social media profile must be given research attention – for what it might do to research and scholarship as well as academic workloads.

To those who are already on this journey, how do you already think through these ideas? Would you comfortably identify as an education influencer or microcelebrity? Is your social media pedagogy working? What type of labour goes into that impact?

Naomi Barnes is a lecturer in Literacy in the Faculty of Education in the School of Teacher Education and Leadership at the Queensland University of Technology. She teaches in Curriculum and Pedagogy and Specialist Studies in Education. Naomi’s research is in digital rhetoric. She focuses on qualitative critical network analysis and how multiple modes of communication are at play in online human networking. She is interested in the relationships humans have with each other online, particularly in social media, and the socio-cultural theories and philosophical traditions which help us better understand how technology has changed the way we communicate. Naomi is also interested in the policy and pedagogical implications of these changes in communication.

Naomi is chairing a session on Reasoning in Education: Bringing together four ways of thinking at the at the AARE 2019 Conference. #AARE2019

Hundreds of educational researchers are reporting on their latest educational research at the AARE 2019 Conference 2nd Dec to 5th Dec. #AARE2019 Check out the full program here

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