What would wholesale academic adoption of social media look like?

A large crowd of people

Crowded out?

Last week, the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog was asking for its readers and followers to nominate their favourite academic tweeters.  This got me thinking.  While that’s a sensible question to ask now, and one that could create a valuable resource, I wonder whether the question would make as much sense if asked in a few years time?

The drivers for academics (and arguably academic-related types like me) to start to use twitter and to contribute to a blog are many – brute self-promotion; desire to join a community or communities; to share ideas; to test ideas; to network and make new contacts; to satisfy the impact requirements of the research funder; and so on and so forth.  I think most current PhD students would be very well advised to take advantage of social media to start building themselves an online presence as an early investment in their search for a job (academic or otherwise).   I’d imagine that a social media strategy is now all-but-standard in most ESRC ‘Pathways to Impact’ documents.  Additionally, there are now many senior, credible, well-established academic bloggers and twitterers, many of whom are also advocates for the use of social media.

So, what would happen if there was a huge upsurge in the number of academics (and academic-relateds) using social media?  What if, say, participation rates reach about 20% or so?  Would the utility of social media scale, or would the noise to signal ratio be such that its usefulness would decrease?

This isn’t a rhetorical question – I’ve really no idea and I’m curious.  Anyone?  Any thoughts?

I guess that there’s a difference between different types of social media.  I have friends who are outside the academy and who have Twitter accounts for following and listening, rather than for leading or talking.  They follow the Brookers and the Frys and the Goldacres, and perhaps some news sources.  They use Twitter like a form of RSS feed, essentially.

But what about blogging, or using Twitter to transmit, rather than to receive?  If even 10% of academics have an active blog, will it still be possible or practical to keep track of everything relevant that’s written.  In my field, I think I’ve linked to pretty much every related blog (see links in the sidebar) in the UK, and one from Australia.  In certain academic fields it’s probably similarly straightforward to keep track of everyone significant and relevant.  If this blogging lark catches on, there will come a point at which it’s no longer possible for anyone to keep up with everything in any given field.  So, maybe people become more selective and we drop down to sub-specialisms, and it becomes sensible to ask for our favourite academic tweeters on non-linear economics, or something like that.

On the other hand, it might be that new entrants to the blogging market will be limited and inhibited by the number already present.  Or we might see more multi-author blogs, mergers etc and so on until we re-invent the journal.  Or strategies that involve attracting the attention and comment of influential bloggers and the academic twitterati (a little bit of me died inside typing that, I hope you’re happy….).  Might that be what happens?  That e-hierarchies form (arguably they already exist) that echo real world hierarchies, and effectively squeeze out new entrants?  Although… I guess good content will always have a chance of ‘going viral’ within relevant communities.

Of course, it may well be that something else will happen.  That Twitter will end up in the same pile as MySpace.  Or that it simply won’t be widely adopted or become mainstream at all.  After all, most academics still don’t have much of a web 1.0 presence beyond a perfunctory page on their Department website.

That’s all a bit rambly and far longer than I meant it to be.  But as someone who is going to be recommending the greater use of social media to researchers, I’d like to have a sense of where all this might be going, and what the future might hold.  Would the usefulness of social media as an academic communication, information sharing, and networking tool effectively start to diminish once a certain point is reached?  Or would it scale?


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2 Responses to What would wholesale academic adoption of social media look like?

  1. It seems to me that there are already plenty of examples of very crowded blogspaces – politics, mummyblogging, personal effectiveness, for instance – and in all cases I am aware of certain highly influential sites emerge. But given the way that blogging and tweeting work, this won’t necessarily squeeze out new entrants. Indeed it may provide opportunities. Look at the example of Peter Frase gaining sudden notoriety for an academic blog with his ‘anti Star Trek’ thought experiment (http://www.peterfrase.com/blog/).

    of course influential sites may shape culture and direct attention, but this is already a big problem with the internet (compare http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wii and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lipstick), so we have to live with it now.

  2. Pingback: What would wholesale academic adoption of social media look like … | Web Tech News

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