My Social Media Story, Part 2

In Part 1 of this essay, I discussed why I engage in social media as a scholar and academic. Here I’d like to pick up that story by explaining what my online profile looks like today and what all of this effort has meant for me.

My profile has developed over time but has become relatively consistent over the past two years. I set up this site (i.e., as a static repository for my professional work, a place that Google would pick up as a landing spot for people interested in my writing, my CV, my teaching, and so on. In the past year and a half, I’ve also begun to use this site actively to bring my students for course-related materials rather than Blackboard (which is a topic for another day). These days I mostly write at The Junto, with the occasional foray elsewhere.

I’ve been using Twitter (@jmadelman) for about five years, and it was actually on Twitter this past weekend where I finally came to a metaphor that I think works for me to describe how I use Twitter:

I also wrote what I like to a call a “two cheers for Twitter” post at The Junto a few years ago. Those are the places I engage most frequently and actively. I also have Google+ and LinkedIn accounts, though like many in academia I can’t for the life of me figure out what to do with them other than to occasionally broadcast something I’ve done elsewhere.

What has this all meant for me?

On the selfish level, being engaged online has helped my career in several ways and made for improved work in others. On Twitter especially, I’ve gotten into contact with people I never would have found otherwise (in particular scholars working outside the United States and those working in fields that are related, but not enough for us to ever be at the same conferences). That’s been useful in the most general way for thinking about my own scholarship, finding scholarship to read or teach, and just generally building a community. Twitter is also enticing because it’s such a flat social structure – every once in a while, if you get someone responsive, you can find yourself in conversation with someone famous or otherwise important. That’s always fun.

Twitter and social media have been particularly important for me in my first years of teaching as I think about how to become a better teacher and work out my pedagogy on the fly. I’ve been able to write about it at length, have conversations with other teachers, and even snag an assignment idea or two (the commonplace book assignment in the US survey, about which I’ve written previously, is the most important example for me). My department and campus have many great teachers who are eager to talk, but of course we’re all busy, and so having the additional outlet and frankly the additional variety can be extremely helpful.

Social media has also opened up publishing opportunities, including what now has become a second book project. To make a long story short: I wrote a blog post about Internet privacy laws for Publick Occurrences. An editor at The Atlantic saw the post via Twitter and asked me to expand/revise it for their website, which I did. That was pretty cool, so a few months later I pitched an essay about the Post Office and that got published too. A press editor saw that essay (again via Twitter), and initiated a set of conversations that turned into my project on the Post Office. (At this point in the live presentation on campus this was proclaimed “a Twitter success story”). The connections were all serendipitous, of course, but they also owed a great deal simply to being out there on social media and engaging in the slow work of discussion.

As may seem obvious from the descriptions above, social media can be a time suck. I often remind my students, who lead busy lives, that no matter what we only have 168 hours per week to distribute to our various activities. There’s an allure to trying to keep up with the Twitter firehose, and I’ll freely admit that there have been times when I haven’t been the best at controlling it. But I have now a few strategies to deal with it. First, I’ve limited my use of them to basically one device and pulled passwords etc. from all others. Second, I’ve simply given up on the idea of comprehension. And third, this is my phone:

How does it count?

This is still, to my mind, one of the big questions about using social media because of the fluid and variable nature of what happens online. I firmly believe two things: first, it should count; and second, it should be specific to the scholar and his/her contributions. At my own university, I’m fortunate that the faculty contract defines scholarly contributions relatively broadly, so I have a fair amount of opportunity to think about these questions.

The major issue as I see it is education. One of the real dangers of being active on social media is the illusion that everyone else is too. But we know that’s not the case. For instance, I’m the only active social media user in my department; a few of my colleagues have accounts, but only use them to follow a few people, not engage actively. Most of my department isn’t involved at all, and I think that’s a fair representation of academia more broadly. But that means that those of us who are engaged actively cannot take for granted that everyone supports the work, sees it as a real scholarly contribution, or even if they do support and see as a contribution, understands how to contextualize that work in the scope of what faculty do. That’s compounded by the fact that social media does have a generational component: it will be a while, I think, before most tenure and promotion committees are made up of colleagues who are themselves active on social media. That makes a difference, and it means that we need to engage, explain, and encourage at all times, and never take for granted.

So that’s my story, at least as it stands in March 2015. I look forward to continuing the conversation either here or elsewhere online.


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