Twitter’s Echo Chamber and Academia

Sometimes, in an absent-minded moment of unexpected positivity, I think about the advice I’ll give doctoral students I’m supervising in the future. It seems inevitable that part of that advice – indeed, part of the expectation of the terms of supervision – will be about creating a brand or identity for themselves, and the key role that social media plays in that. ‘Well back in my day, we used Twitter!’, I’ll say, puffing on my vape-pipe. They’ll probably blink, only vaguely able to comprehend a world that existed before ThoughtSpeak existed.[1]

I signed up for Twitter just before I started my M.St., loudly and grumpily declaring I was getting it ‘because I had to.’ This is probably not true. I am the sort of person who deletes Facebook, loudly declaring it the death of humanity, but then reactivates it three months later and surreptitiously checks it far more regularly than I’d ever care to admit. I suspect Twitter would be the same, and using it is certainly my own choice and not a requirement. Despite this, there does seem to me to be a growing emphasis on using social media in academia. My experience of using Twitter as an academic has mostly been very positive, and whatever I say should not detract from that fact. However, at times I have also found it to be a negative space, and it’s that negativity I want to briefly address.

Networks and opportunities

If one posed the simple question, ‘Is using Twitter as an academic a good thing?’, the short answer for many would be yes. They have a point. For me, one of the best things Twitter does is make some sort of preliminary contact which stops conferences and events being so bloody foreboding. Before attending a conference I can get very nervous, and this is never more the case than the first time I ever did so. I was anxious about interacting with a number of people I’d never met, and almost all of whom were senior to me in experience. After tweeting about it, I found others who were attending. Suddenly there were familiar, humanised names and faces to latch on to in the crowd, and armed with that information, I was less anxious.

I’ve discovered calls for papers, conferences, research networks, libraries, and many researchers at other institutions that I almost certainly would have missed if it were not for Twitter. I’ve even met and made friends with researchers at my OWN institution through coming across them on Twitter. This is incredibly helpful, and a powerful tool when used correctly (which I would think is somewhere not quite at the level of procrastinatory nonsense I employ it for).

Similarly, I think the overwhelming goal for academics on Twitter (at least, the ones I follow) is to be helpful. A few days ago whilst working in the archives, I absent-mindedly tweeted wondering if anyone had worked on something that was interesting me but I was unfamiliar with – within an hour I had a flood of replies offering sources, or putting me in contact with others who had knowledge. This is wonderful, and creates a positive environment of reciprocity which is central to a healthy working environment and culture.

The echo chamber

All of the above being many elements of the great positivity I get from Twitter, at the same time, sometimes my experiences on Twitter have left me feeling very demotivated and unhappy, for a variety of reasons. I think this is partly because of the echo chamber that it provides. When I was following the recent campaigns for the referendum on membership of the European Union,[2] it was peculiar to watch the country vote the way it did when everyone I seemed to know or follow was strongly, strongly against it. I couldn’t understand how more than 50 per cent of voters had chosen to leave when it seemed that everyone wanted to stay. Certainly it wasn’t Twitter that made me unhappy that day, but at times it can perpetuate the feeling that everything is shit by creating an echo chamber where the views and sentiments of a group of people who follow each other because they are similar bounce off each other, gaining in noise each time.[3]

This is particularly the case in academia where I think the majority of doctoral researchers with aspirations to an academic career work with a quiet anxiety about the job market which awaits their completion. Whilst I appreciate those who are brave enough to share their experiences of struggling to get a job after the doctorate, I’m also frequently very demoralised by it.

In part, this is due to the respect I hold for the people who are struggling, and which comprises another element of the negatives of the echo chamber: the idea that everyone else is doing more than you are. I think for myself, as is the case for many, my expectations of the productivity I can extract from myself are frequently unrealistic. This is exacerbated at times by fellow students I follow on Twitter seeming to be doing so much more than I am. If they can’t get jobs after, what hope do I have?

This problem is not created by, or confined to, Twitter. During my undergrad, before Twitter, there were always other students who seemed to be doing so much work than I was, even if I felt like I was doing as much as I could. They’d done 12 hours in the library yesterday, and been there since 9 this morning, they’d say. I’d be demoralised, even if I’m sceptical they ever did work this hard. I think we all naturally want to emphasise the positives; it perhaps doesn’t make much sense to tweet out ‘Had a slightly less productive morning than expected and paper wasn’t accepted to a conference I applied to #phdchat’.

A good example of the echo chamber in practice happened only recently, as news of the #sternreview was published. The guidelines outlined are unquestionably rubbish. We understandably rushed to complain to our peers who understand and empathise, noting that change will likely result in even more pressure on ECRs to publish more, to do that faster, and to do it constantly. Checking Twitter whilst eating my sandwich at lunch after a long stint reading minutes in the archive, I wondered why I was flogging myself to do something which seemed difficult, simply to present myself with the opportunity to compete for a job I won’t get, the pay of which is going to be awful, and the expectations and conditions of which are going to be even worse. By the end of the day, I was fairly despondent.

Of course, there is a catharsis in this complaining. The Stern Review really does appear to be pretty bad, and pretending it isn’t so won’t prevent that. Conditions for ECRs are often poor and there’s frequently a culture which needs to be addressed. The REF… well, let’s not get started. Certainly I don’t think that Twitter would be a better place if these complaints were curtailed, because instead I’d be sitting wondering if I was taking crazy pills and the only one able to see how bad things were.[4] The echo chamber is good here. It lets you know you’re not the only one angry. Nor would I ever wish to cut out the highs or the excitement our research can bring; most of us do what we do because, at its best, it’s a joy. That is certainly better when it’s shared.

Yet, I think for me, I need reminders that the middle ground is a place that’s occupied too. We perhaps need to emphasise that it’s ok to not be working non-stop all the time. We need to emphasise that it’s ok to sometimes not love your thesis, or not be excited about doing history, and that watching trash TV doesn’t make one a less capable academic. Faced with the constant nagging feeling that there’s a lot of work to do, and I’m already not doing enough, it doesn’t help to flick open my phone and see colleagues talking about being in the library on a Saturday. The positive benefits of a weekend off don’t receive much attention on my Twitter timeline; the importance of dropping the PhD for a few days and that being a normal and healthy thing to do don’t seem to come up much.[5]

Some academics on the other side of the doctorate are particularly good at doing this already: Daniel Grey (@drjgrey), Matt Houlbrook (@tricksterprince), and Rachel Moss (@menysnoweballes) are names who immediately spring to mind for me, although I’m sure I’ve missed others. I’m very thankful to them.

So… what?

So if Twitter is bad or upsetting, why not just turn it off? Delete your account and get rid of the app, why don’t you? To do so would somewhat miss the point I’m clumsily making in a hastily written blog. Twitter is good. I would advise my mythical students of the future to get it, or whatever its future equivalent is. I’ve learned so much, and met so many great people through it. But at times, I wish we thought about the echo chamber a little more, and were brave enough to admit that the PhD isn’t quite what we want it to be right now, or that we’re taking a few days or a week off because we’re tired and it’ll still be there when we’re back after binge-watching The Wire back-to-back whilst eating ice-cream directly from the tub. Without that sort of candid sharing too, we’re left with huge highs (I’m delighted my friend is writing an article for publication but terrified I’m not!), or huge lows (if they can’t get a job what hope do I have, and what’s the point of me even doing this?).

I think we need to be more ready to recognise the way in which sharing social networks with our colleagues begins to blend the work and private space even more, and that academics at all levels – but perhaps particularly doctoral students who have to set their own hours entirely – can suffer from this bleeding of boundaries. Perhaps for me the answer lies in deleting Twitter from my phone, but I’d rather think of an answer that’s less drastic than that.

So if I tweet that I’m not working today, you’ll know why. I’m not lazy, I’m just trying to be honest about the experience I’m having.[6] I’m going to try and admit when I’m not working hard, and admit when I’m taking time off. Because I think there’s a chance it’s not just me who’ll benefit, but others too, who might find some reassurance in the knowledge that they don’t have to work all the time; don’t have to be brilliant all the time; don’t have to pursue lofty intellectual goals all the time. In fact, it’s important not to.

I don’t use Twitter because I have to, but because I want to. But if it really is a requirement for the modern academic, I can at least say I once wrote a blog post about using social media, and what more could you possibly want?

Thanks for reading. I’m off to eat ice-cream from the tub and watch Harry Potter.

 

Calum

[1] ThoughtSpeak is a future social network. It assumed the combined roles of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram by allowing everyone to broadcast literally everything they think constantly, whilst also automatically posting a picture of every meal consumed to every follower. If you think about it, it was inevitable.

[2] I bloody refuse to say Brexit because it’s a disgusting word.

[3] This is notwithstanding the fact that, the day after the Referendum, pretty much everything really was shit.

[4] Did you wonder if that was a Zoolander reference? It was. Because this is a blog, and that’s allowed here.

[5] Incidentally, and perhaps ironically, one of the academics who made me realise this point the most was Selina Todd, who uses Twitter but rarely to tweet about academia and probably isn’t using it at weekends. To me, this does rather emphasise the point that the Twitter experience isn’t representative of the whole, but can often seem to be.

[6] Right, now I’ve said that I really ought to get back to work.

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