Last week, an anonymous PhD student published a brief opinion piece in The Guardian entitled "I’m a Serious Academic, not a Professional Instagrammer.” Here is a flavor from this piece:
"We are in the midst of a selfie epidemic. We document every moment of our lives – the places we visit, the people we meet, the things we achieve. And now this culture has infiltrated the world of academia. ... When did it become acceptable to use your phone throughout a lecture, let alone an entire conference? No matter how good you think you are at multitasking, you will not be truly focusing your attention on the speaker, who has no doubt spent hours preparing for this moment. Perhaps I’m naive, but I need to believe that employability is not directly correlated to how many likes you get on your Instagram posts. I appear to be in the minority, however."
Yeah, I think so too.
Needless to say, the piece stirred an outcry on social media where researchers used the hashtag #seriousacademic to launch jokes and satirical takedowns about the article's naivety and harmful, outdated Ivory-tower mentality.
Upon closer inspection, however, it seems that the issues raised by the serious and not so serious academics are two sides of the same coin.
First of all, making jokes about #seriousacademic is always easy. Who could realistically deny in 2016 that social media is both fun and indispensable to scholarly reputation building?
Banging the social media drum too much, however, yields a number of potentially negative side effects, particularly for young scholars.
For example, you are reading my blurb right now on my blog. What you may not see is that this blog accounts for less than 1% of what I'm doing with my time. The other 99% go into doing #seriousacademic things. So a far less popular argument about integrated scholarship is equally true: First comes the scholarship, then the integration. Not the other way around.
It may be a problem when, say, a senior researcher has a very strong publication record but has failed so much at changing discourse and practice outside of his or her research circles that even finding a hi-res portrait shot of that scholar on Google is challenging.
It’s far more problematic, however, when someone builds a thriving social media presence at the cost of conducting the research that actually builds that person's reputation in the first place.
Unfortunately, too many top scholars are unknown to anyone outside of their immediate cabal. But there are also too many scholars-in-the-making these days who think that collecting followers and likes, making active contributions to this or that debate online, or even creating a blog are substitutes for actual scholarship. They are not.
To condense this to a simple formula that I wish would play a more prominent role in the current #seriousacademic debate: No matter where you stand, academic social media work doesn’t start online. It starts in top-notch academic journals. Doing outstanding scholarship is the necessary first step for any convincing social media strategy.