David Carr has an interesting piece in the NYT concerning a CNN journalist who was suspended over a Twitter post which got me to thinking about the implications of this event for those in higher education. Academics are all over the board with respect to social media like Facebook, Twitter, and personal blogs or websites. Some scholars don’t have an online presence at all while some (like me) have electronic footprints that zig zag all over the place. Furthermore, on an institutional level there is great diversity–some schools are ambivalent about social media while others practically make a Facebook account a condition for further employment because they see it as a recruiting tool.
Let me tell you a little about my experience with this stuff and then I’ll list a few ideas how I think social media can compliment scholarly activity.
I started this blog years ago upon the advice of the Chief Creative Officer of an ad agency I employed. I had just started my PhD and wanted a way to differentiate myself and get my name out there. It was a great idea and at the time I had no idea how it would help me. I’ve met tons of really great people and fantastic scholars through the blog and through these connections I’ve been asked to join publishing projects, editorial boards, received recommendation letters for various academic endeavors, and a university president even read my blog and offered me a job because it. I joined Facebook a few years later and then I just signed up for a Twitter account a few weeks ago. Facebook has built similar relationships as did my blog except I keep up with people much more regularly on it. These tools are not just silly little things that time wasters use–they are platforms that have vastly helped my professional career and have given me opportunities and relationships that I would never have had otherwise. Think of it as a professional meeting that instead of convening four days a year is always on 24/7 365 days a year (You don’t go to SBL and AOS for the papers do you? You go for the coffee breaks in between and during sessions and for the dinners and nights on the town after they are over.)
But, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. I’ve stepped into hot water on several occasions. Most of the time it has been inadvertent–I’ve posted a joke and because tone of voice doesn’t come across in text it has been taken the wrong way. Sometimes people do a cursory reading of a post and think I’m saying something I’m not. On a couple of occasions I have purposely caused a controversy. I think that one of the roles, maybe even the role, of a scholar is to tell the truth, at least as well as one understands it at any rate. And, sometimes power structures don’t like the truth. It comes with the territory, especially if you engage in biblical studies as I do. But, if you’re a scholar and no one is upset at you you probably aren’t doing your job.
In any case, some of these more unfortunate instances were caused, at least as I see it, from different expectations concerning what communication should look like in different mediums. Here is how I picture it:
- Peer reviewed material whether in electronic or dead tree form. This is the most formal style of writing in which I have to conform to the expectations of the guild. Furthermore, it means that journal articles must be boring (I’ve actually had a referee say an essay was too fun to read) and books are not boring per se but vanilla. Primarily I try to develop new ideas and put them into fully supported and persuasive packages.
- Blog. For the most part, I keep this space focused on stuff that is professionally relevant. However, the tone is more casual, I use hyperbole to make a point, and occasionally I interject some attempts at humor. Here I try out new ideas that I’m still batting around, pass through information or links that might interest other scholars, and get people to think in fairly substantial yet often more amorphous ways.
- Facebook and Twitter. This is a complete blend between my personal and professional life. I do two things on this space. 90% of my posts here are merely intended to make people laugh. Life has its challenges and we can all use a smile once a day and this is my gift to you (I try at least). The remaining 10% is mainly me trying get people to think, often through farce and sarcasm–like Jonathan Swift but not as profound.
Now, I totally get what Carr is saying in his piece regarding the fact that we all have to be thoughtful about how we engage in social media and we don’t get an unrestricted pass when we say something stupid or hurtful and claim, but, hey, I was racist on Facebook so no biggie. Organizations hire people and people in turn reflect upon organization so don’t be surprised if your employer gets upset if you say something boneheaded.
Yet, please don’t let this danger prevent you from being funny, thoughtful, and provocative. I have read plenty of completely boring blogs and Facebook and Twitter feeds. And you know what I do with them? I ignore them and so does most everyone else. And, if you’re the author of these bland passthroughs of nothingness you are wasting your time and they are not helping you professionally at all. People just assume that you’re boring.
Also, I don’t separate my “personal” interactions from my “professional” ones–they are all the same to me (and to Keith Ferrazzi
where I developed this idea). So, in one minute on Facebook I am joking with someone about their kids and the next we are talking about Akkadian or Hebrew. But, this is how life is. I interact with *people* not with robots who I use only for their knowledge of a particular subject. Again, there is fear that employers may not like your personality if it comes through in social media but if you teach your personality is a *huge* part of the classroom experience. I joke a lot and don’t take myself too seriously on Facebook and guess what, I’m the same way in the classroom–this is probably one of the reasons why I have really incredible student evaluations; who likes sitting for hours in front of an uptight boring person who thinks too highly of him or herself?
So, I’ll pause here and in the next post I’ll try to give some more detailed ways in which scholars can use social media to complement more traditional aspects of their work and build their professional network.