The Reciprocal Space of Social Media

In a bit of end of semester navel gazing last week I was contemplating the usefulness or otherwise of blogging. The first website I ever ‘ran’ was back in 1997 and it’s creation coincided with having reliable access to a computer and the internet on starting university. While it is long gone (I do still have printouts!), it was what would now be classed as a blog. Then came a series of blog-like websites with photos and tales of travels and then I discovered blogging ‘proper’ in 2006. That’s a long journey but not as long as the journey from then to here. In total, probably 7 or 8 websites/blogs, some still active, some long gone (beyond even the reach of the way back machine). It’s strange to consider the various versions of me that has inhabited online spaces.

I was jolted from this brief reverie by a tweet from a colleague:

I suggest that all new (UK) academic appointments should be encouraged to engage with social media! Comments?

@Robajackson, Twitter, 8:02 PM – 23 Jun 2014

My first response (although not one I tweeted, for 15 years on the internet will teach you a thing or two about off the cuff responses*) was ‘oh dear goodness me no, the last thing the world needs is a whole bunch of self-centred young academics running around on social media’. I’m aware that this is a highly uncharitable view and my second response (again not one I tweeted) was ‘when on earth would they find the time, doesn’t @robajackson appreciate just how. much. there. is. to. do. these days as a new academic? My third response was a more refined version of my first response: ‘yes, OK, I suppose it has its benefits but please someone teach them that it is about reciprocity and community.

Back in the ‘old days’ of blogging, before RSS readers became de rigueur, keeping up with the chemistry/academic blogosphere took effort. I remember countless hours spent hopping from blog roll to blog roll and I’m pretty sure I had a pre-defined route around my little neighbourhood on the net. I commented significantly more, I engaged with my own comments significantly more, I discovered new blogs at a far greater rate (I have no evidence to suggest rate of creation of blogs is now lower but it is harder to find new blogs), and I payed more heed to the diversity of those blogs in appearance, form and style. Now they all appear through an RSS reader and they all look the same, form and style being dictated by the RSS reader of the day.  Feedly’s recent outage prompted me to return to the old ways and I realised that I’d missed it. Blogs felt a bit more of a community back then, more conversation orientated and with a heap of carnivals and like minded people taking on issues collectively, there was always a strong sense of inhabiting some sort of reciprocal space. I can still name the person (pseudonym) that left the first ever comment on my blog and I can still remember the incredulity that someone had found and read it.

Why does that matter and how does it relate to the tweet? Well social media is now more diverse and there are a lot of forms to keep track of. There are a lot of utilities out there to help stream the social media and homogenise it. And those utilities make the broadcast aspects of social media ever easier. Type something, and one click later it is on multiple sites. But that’s not the strength of social media and anyone who thinks it is an excellent opportunity for self-promotion is missing out on about 80% of the point. Social media was, is, and should be a reciprocal space where it is possible to forge and maintain relationships in a different way to personal interactions. But it is about relationships and reciprocity. Without that, we might as well give every young academic a megaphone and permit them to yell about their achievements once per hour.  That would be…tiresome!

So do consider engaging with social media but please do not think that it is an easy route to fame or ‘impact’. The tools are powerful and with power comes responsibility.  You have a responsibility to learn to use them effectively. You have a responsibility to ensure your actions through social media do not harm others (particularly students and colleagues**) or yourself. You also have a responsibility to engage with others, to share their stuff as you would hope your own would be shared. It doesn’t work right otherwise.

But if in doubt, just don’t bother.

*I now operate a think thrice tweet once policy!

**You might as well get this straight from the start: you use social media, you will stuff up something. It will get you into some kind of bother at some point. At least be smart enough to figure out how to avoid the massive reality check moments from the start and leave the stuff ups to the realm of minor border skirmishes. You need to figure out how to handle interactions with different groups of people (students, family, friends, colleague, professional contacts) and how you will pitch your social media persona to cope with this. Sometimes social media can feel like everyone you’ve every known in any context in one room all talking to you. Think about that.


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