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5 February: Academic Uses and Abuses of Twitter

Published onJul 09, 2019
5 February: Academic Uses and Abuses of Twitter

‘Modesty was not [Auguste] Comte’s strong suit’, writes Wolf Lepenies. Comte, the architect of the cold science of positivism was as much an ascetic as he was a workaholic. Regardless of his prodigious work rate, Lepenies points out in his history of the rise of sociology that even Comte’s most devoted followers would concede that he was not a great writer. In his will, Comte decreed that after his death his house should be undisturbed and left as it was when he worked in it. Visitors today can still see the desk that stands against a wall where he coined the term ‘sociology’. Above it is a large mirror as wide as the writing desk. As Comte wrote a sentence he could pause and look up and admire himself. There is perhaps no better symbolic image of academic vanity than Comte’s mirror.

After reading this I felt the urge to share it. Having become a devotee of the social network Twitter, I decided to send a message. Twitter allows short messages of 140 characters to circulate among your network of followers. The structure is simple: you access the messages of the people you are following on your phone or laptop and reply or ‘like’ them. In turn other members of the network can follow and reply to yours and this is how the network of connections is built. So, I sent out a message describing Comte’s mirror. Almost immediately I received a reply from @AviGoldberg who wrote wryly, ‘Today, he’d check Twitter?’ Avi put his finger on something. In the digital age, has Twitter become a new medium for academic vanity, the digital equivalent of Comte’s mirror?

I started to notice Twitter being used only as a broadcast medium by some ‘celebrity academics’ who were just advertising themselves: ‘something else written by me’, ‘a brilliant review of me’, ‘PhD scholarships that I will handing out’, etc. Universities are doing this too where their Twitter feed is little more than a long and tiresome exercise in institutional boasting. The lack of interest in dialogue or interaction is often revealed where there is a disparity between the large numbers of followers a particular academic star might have and the small number of people that are actually following.

Another criticism is that academic Twitter feeds the culture of audit within university life through a kind of enforced visibility. Academics increasingly have to demonstrate and evidence their profile, audience and impact on the world. Large numbers of Twitter followers provide a convenient metric of academic celebrity and standing. Caroline Knowles and Roger Burrows write:

In this context the high vis academic tweets, blogs or otherwise makes visible every thought and activity in the new domains in which value is judged. Department Websites, Twitter accounts and blogs ‘buzz’ with our labours in ways that can be seen by ever-new audiences. It’s not what we do that matters but what we are seen to do by those who count or who can be counted.

More than this, there is a shadow game of academics watching each other on Twitter to see who is going to blink or react. It seems clear that Twitter has become a new weapon in the dark academic arts. This was particularly evident around the announcement of the results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. This can take very different forms. Triumphant Heads of Department or Vice Chancellors gloated on Twitter about the success of their institutions, while other professors tweeted little in order not to draw too much attention because they had sat on the REF panel.

We cannot blame Twitter for academic vanity. Doesn’t scholarship contain an inherent conceit as the point of writing anything contains the temerity of the appeal to be read? Twitter allows for that audacious request – contained in all writing – to be circulated at a new scale and frequency. If the hubris of writing in the first place is forgivable then tweeting about it must be equally excusable. Taking all this into account I would like to make a modest defence of academic Twitter.

What I like about academic Twitter is that it allows me to follow the fascinations of others. Tweets are often like signposts pointing to things going on in the world: a great article, an important book, a breaking story. It allows for a circulation of hunches and tips, which is the lifeblood of scholarship. There is something so valuable in the possibility of inhabiting the attentiveness of another writer. All writing does this but the twittersphere offers access to an author’s preliminary and ephemeral notes. This is not about ‘being them’ in some vicarious way but rather an outward looking impulse, finding interest in what they are interested in.

While Twitter offers universities a medium for corporate publicity it can also flatten academic hierarchies. It brings professors into dialogue with GCSE students and provides a medium in which academic researchers can interact with political activists or local councillors. Very often Twitter creates a sphere in which a citizen sociology can come to life, albeit fleetingly. This is particularly the case where tweets are linked to online publications or podcasts that are freely available. It allows for the democratic circulation of ideas outside the expensive pay-walled academic journals.

Twitter can also be a very effective medium to humorously cut academic pomposity down to size. Anonymous feeds like @academicmale fictionally document the worst excesses of academic masculinity. Another very funny account is Shit Academics Say @AcademicsSay which quotes faculty clichés and re-mixes them. These hilarious tweets read like actual overheard senior common room conversations and leave no doubt whose expense the joke is at. They offer compensation to those who otherwise have to suffer in silence the company of such academic personality types.

The openness and permeability of Twitter makes it a power mechanism to reconnect with former students, colleagues or fellow travellers. This has happened to me time and time again. Students have got back in touch via Twitter sometimes after twenty years, often giving inspiring news about how their degrees made a lasting influence and put them on a course in life. It can bring risks and vulnerabilities too, of course. A number of colleagues have needed to find ways to protect themselves from harassment and digital stalking on Twitter. Where people are speaking out on contentious political issues this kind of vulnerability brings real dangers. Twitter can also be a place for reconciliation.

Published writing is indelible – once it is in print you cannot change your mind. Writing fixes thought. While digital communication has similar qualities – there are plenty of cases where tweets have been held against their authors – it does offer the opportunity to augment or revise keyboard judgements. The value of this became clear to me in 2011 when I was just finding my way around Twitter. I received a message from someone who was tweeting from an anonymous account. It read: ‘I gave one of your books a really bad review and I just wanted to say that I think you were right. That bad review has given me a lot of sleepless nights.’

I replied to the tweet and said that criticism was part of our vocation and a scholarship without it wasn’t worth its salt. I never found out which review it was or what book had been mauled by it. I am sure it hurt at the time like all bad reviews. This anonymous message was a reminder that even the most avid critics sometimes change their mind. Without Twitter this circuit of communication and the lesson contained within it would not have been possible. It served as a reminder that the critic has to live with the review as much as the author who is dissected by it.

My last defence of Twitter is that it can make scholarship more sociable. This sociability is not always a matter of distraction. Quite the reverse: the academic sociability I am thinking of here produces a kind of collective focus even when our scholarly work is a profoundly individual matter. The best example of this is Dr Siobhan O’Dwyer’s Twitter network Shut Up & Write Tuesdays @SUWTues that coordinates writerly discipline among academic researchers.

The idea of writers getting together to focus on writing – hence ‘shut up and write’ – began in San Francisco. Dr Inger Mewburn – aka the Thesis Whisperer – brought the idea to Australia where Siobhan O’Dwyer participated in ‘shut up and write’ sessions ‘in-person’ in Brisbane. She explains: ‘One day I tweeted that I was on my way to one of these sessions and one of my followers said she was keen to write that day, so I suggested that I could tweet each time we started and stopped and she could join in virtually. And thus the idea was born!’

Siobhan started Twitter-coordinated Shut Up & Write Tuesdays in late 2013. At first they were weekly sessions where people participated from all over Australia. They tweeted at the start of the session and then signed off with a tweet when they’d had finished writing. It has been incredibly successful. As well as in Australia, there has been interest in the idea in the UK and other EU states and in the US. The time zone differences made international coordination difficult. The result is that Dr Rebecca Jefferies agreed to host Shut Up & Write Tuesdays UK and Jen Goff recently expressed interest in hosting Shut Up & Write Tuesdays North America, which both started in 2014.

Under pressure due to the level of interest, Siobhan now limits the sessions in Australia to the first and third Tuesday of every month.

Today writing is something we do individually but not necessarily alone and that is one of the benefits of Twitter and the example of Shut Up & Write Tuesdays emphasizes this point. There is some consolation in the knowledge that there are other writers at their desks just like us struggling to find the right words. While Twitter might be prone to the same kinds of academic vanities that Comte and others indulged in, it also offers the possibility to make thinking more democratic and accessible. It enables thought to move differently and make not just contemporary connections but also links to past students and much wider traces of an academic life that would otherwise remain unknown. All this is no small achievement in just 140 characters.

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