Recently, the Guardian published this piece bemoaning the growing importance of social media in the academic experience, and while I did throw in a quick quip on Twitter, I felt compelled to write a longer response, in the form of an open letter to the anonymous PHD student who penned the piece.
Dear Anonymous PHD student who is, by your own testimony at least, not “…some cranky old professor harking back to the Good Old Days.”
Your piece that was recently published in the Guardian has given me cause to think over the role of social media within the confines of academia. While I wanted to initially dismiss what you had to say (primarily based on how you chose to say it, but I’ll address that later), you did raise some valid questions on how services such as Twitter have changed the academic dynamic are worth looking at.
I should also clarify that I am a mere Undergrad student, and would not label myself as a “Serious Academic”, so please take that into consideration.
Early on in your piece, you state that, “We are in the midst of a selfie epidemic.” and that, “…this culture has infiltrated the world of academia.” As a matter of mere courtesy, I’d point out that implying the usage of social media in academia is somehow reminiscent of some bygone plague, in all likelihood targeted at those within academia who use social media, is far from the best way to ingratiate yourself to your readers (during my first attempt at reading your letter “Selfie Epidemic” was the point that I stopped reading).
However, I’m not writing to debate the tone that your word usage implies, rather to discuss whether your point that academics are too focused on their social media presence. While you may lament it, the fact of the matter is that social media has become an integral part of everyday life. The article’s subheading, “We should not have to parade ourselves on social media to please our employers or be considered enthusiastic” bothers me. After some digging, I was unable to find any meaningful statistic on the effects of social media in employment related specifically to academia. Suffice to say, under normal circumstances I doubt either you or I will ever be denied a tenured position because of how enthusiastic we are on Twitter, or whether or not we have Twitter. I will, however, concede that there is an academic faux-pas surrounding usage of electronic devices in lectures, and I can see how it might be perceived as disrespectful to the person who put their hard work into the conference. However (as I will point out later), I do believe that there are benefits to this process.
But what are the merits of social media? Well, based purely on my own experience, here’s why I personally use Twitter. Firstly, because I enjoy it. I’m not seeking any kind of greater fame, I just outright enjoy it. I enjoy the instantaneous nature of Twitter and the feeling of seeing events unfold via the seconds old reactions that are presented. I also enjoy how the 140 character limit helps to keep me concise while trying to make a point, and how that has helped me in my own writing.
Secondly (and far more importantly), it serves as a medium to facilitate interaction with people in my field who are far more intelligent than I am. However, you make a point of being skeptical about one of the reasons that I find social media to be brilliant. You state that, “Some advocates argue that social media provides a form of dissemination – a way to share the conference with those who are unable to attend. For some tweeters, I am sure that is the case. But it appears that the majority perform this ritual as proof of their dedication to the profession, as if posting a picture marks them out as more enthusiastic than their peers.” I simply need to ask, how would you have any idea whether these feelings are genuine or not? Even giving you the benefit of the doubt that you can psychically reach into the minds of the conference goers using Twitter to post at conferences, does it truly make a difference if the end result is the same? The revolution of online media has made the transmission and dissemination of information far easier than ever before. It has allowed people to access the collective minds of people far smarter than them, make personal connections with other members of their field from across the world, and grow the collective knowledge of their field through these interactions. I believe that these benefits far outweigh the brief disrespect of using a cellphone during a conference.
I do not want to take away your personal choice, for as you say you are a professional academic, and should not feel obligated to tweet or post on Instagram if you do not feel like it. As for me, I will continue to enjoy using these as a means of enjoyment and as a means to connect with people in my field from across the world and increase my own personal knowledge. I have no delusion that this letter will ever find its way to you, but I hope that despite your decision to disconnect you are enjoying whatever you are doing, and I wish you luck in your PhD.
“I’m a Serious Academic not a Professional Instagrammer” the Guardian. Last Modified August 5, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2016/aug/05/im-a-serious-academic-not-a-professional-instagrammer?CMP=share_btn_tw
Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Twitter_(login,signup_page).jpg