Friends and colleagues alike frequently ask me how I manage to find the time to remain so engaged with social media, to write for various blogs, and give media interviews at the same time. Doesn't my academic work take a hit, they wonder, aren't I behind on my dissertation? It occurred to me at some point that my answer could and should be a "teaching moment." Not because I am some paragon of knowledge but because I know too many brilliant people, toiling in virtual obscurity, to not share what I've learnt about engaged scholarship, for lack of a better term. The short answer though is "I find the time" because I consider media, social or otherwise, to be simply part of my job requirements. It just so happens that I really enjoy my job, granted.
Face facts: as far as less-than-ideal life choices are concerned, "a career in academia" increasingly ranks up there with indentured servitude, at least as far as some of the contemporary job market data would seem to suggest. For junior scholars, the prospects of obtaining stable, tenure-track employment, a comparative norm among our predecessors, are few and far between. As the academic labor market increasingly begins to resemble the precarious economy more broadly, with low-paid, part-time appointments drowning out fixed, well-paid positions, remaining sequestered in the proverbial ivory tower is for most only a guarantee of remaining working-poor.
For those of us still invested in the idea of at least trying to make a living in the academy, the task is to stand and be recognized. Establishing an academic profile as a young scholar or graduate student, however, is difficult. Making your work known to the reading public is difficult when your only means of publicity are paywall journals, obscure academic tomes, or overcrowded conferences. When confronted by overwhelming odds, the solution is simple, however: asymmetric warfare. For our purposes, this means harnessing the incredible potential of social media such as Twitter (and Facebook, to a lesser extent) to establish that much vaunted and necessary profile.
A basic primer then on social media for academics.
Specialize & Professionalize
If you're reading this, you've likely already got a Facebook profile though you may not necessarily have a Twitter account. Facebook, for all its popularity, is not a very good medium for gaining exposure. Your network is likely closed to your friends and acquaintances and, at the very most, numbers a few hundred people who run the gamut from high school friends to that one aunt in Virginia. In short, this is not your ideal audience. Twitter, on the other hand, when used properly is a truly dynamic marketplace of ideas and yet just minimalist enough to avoid Facebook's overload of information (and sheer noise).
Consider this: the Twitter account of Princeton University's Political Science program has (as of this writing) just under 1,900 followers. I have somewhere around 2,100. The Princeton account is part of a multi-billion dollar institution. I, on the other hand, am not. Yet our social media reach, in this respect, is very similar. This is significant.
I think of my Twitter account as an interactive business card. Over the past two years, especially, I have increasingly professionalized and specialized my account to more accurately reflect my academic interests. Where once I used to tweet about anything and everything I found vaguely interesting (essentially, a personality-driven profile), I now focus almost exclusively on a small number of professional interests (in other words, a knowledge-driven profile). In my case, this is mostly the former Yugoslavia, specifically Bosnia-Herzegovina, though I occasionally venture into international affairs more broadly.
Nevertheless, for most of my followers I am "the Bosnia guy." Call it the theory of comparative advantage, if you will, and it works. Princeton has the funds and labor power to be a literal department worth of experts and expertise. You or I cannot compete with that. But by specializing, you can become a trusted source of analysis in a very specific field, a luxury brand, as it were. Don't think of yourself as the Mom 'n Pop shop being squeezed out by the Wal-Marts of the world. Think of yourself as Ferrari: custom-made.
If the urge to share all the weird things you find online nevertheless compels you, keep it to your closed Facebook account. As a general rule, however, your social media profile, from Twitter to Facebook to your (forthcoming) blogs should be consistent. You're building a brand and it's not helpful to the growth of your brand if in one breath you're a serious post-colonial theorist and in the next there's cats, so many, many pictures of cats.
Share your Knowledge
Now that your Twitter profile is all set-up and you're letting everyone know about how important the finer points of Hungarian tax law are (as an example interest) it's time to transition from short-form to long-form writing. Think of it as the transition from undergraduate to graduate school.
When I began seriously blogging, I did so with a terrific little outfit called Politics, Re-Spun. I was so eager for the opportunity to have someone (anyone) read my writing that I produced the equivalent of free verse prose. As it turns out, there is something to be said for editorial constraints after all.
Nevertheless, the blog was a launching pad and as my focus increasingly sharpened on the Balkans, so did the attention I received, in turn. Suffice it to say, from there I moved on to more region-specific blogs which, in time, eventually led to some general interest publications.
In the process, I met wonderful people doing all kinds of wonderful things or otherwise just became aware of wonderful projects. For instance, one of my favorite Twitter accounts is @Medievalists. They have nearly 30,000 followers and tweet exclusively about the Middle Ages. On the face of it, an account dealing entirely with events from the 5th to the 15th centuries shouldn't be one of the most popular on Twitter but it is. Why?
Because the architects of @Medievalists care about their subject, they care about their field. They think it's the most important, coolest thing in the world. Presumably you, young academic, feel the same way about your field. Otherwise you wouldn't have spent the best years of your life in dimly lit libraries. You think what you do matters. But the only way it matters to other people is if they know about it. So, start writing.
Ideally, you'll jump on board with an existing venture, as I did with Politics, Re-Spun, but you can also start your own website--as I have since then--and make it a destination for everyone interested in your field. You're already writing, you're working on articles and chapters all the time. Why not share some of your work with the world? At worst, you may need to make the material marginally more accessible for a general audience, a valuable exercise in and of itself. At best, you're sitting at a conference and a tenured professor approaches you, telling you how they like your stuff. Or you get an email from a major news outlet asking you to write an op-ed for them on the subject at hand. Or a major news outlet asks you to do a TV spot or radio. And suddenly you're no longer a nameless commodity; you're an expert, an analyst, a scholar with name-recognition.
A final point on this subject bears repeating: keep at it. As with anything, success is unlikely to be immediate. But the odds are that there is an audience for whatever you're researching and sooner or later it's going to become topical--even if you're a Medievalist. You want to be ready for that moment. As a political scientist working specifically on the politics of participation and protest in southeastern Europe, for me that moment was the February protests in BiH. But crucial to seizing that opportunity was years of tweeting, blogging, and writing about BiH when, by comparison, hardly anyone in the English-language world cared about the country or the region. That's when you start.
With all that having been said, let's talk general principles, especially as it concerns Twitter.
- Write, just do it. Do it every day. Twitter is great for floating those first few atoms of an idea. Then you develop these into a blog. Then the blog becomes the basis for a journal article. That's the pipeline but it begins with that first, timid injection of energy and effort at the beginning. Start today.
- The medium is the message. Whenever possible, make your tweets coherent and simple and therefore attractive to read. Refrain from unnecessary abbreviations. If you still have four characters left, change that "u" to "you."
- Become a resource. Odds are, once you build a significant following (a few hundred followers), there'll be a few journalists in the bunch. These hardworking souls are your main audience as an academic attempting to broaden your impact. They need raw data, they need contacts, and they need insights. You can provide all three of those things for them. In turn, they can provide you with venues for your writing and likewise valuable media contacts. At its best, this is and ought to be a symbiotic relationship. Likewise, cut them some slack. I've spent an hour talking to some journalists only to have my name not even appear in the final article. That’s the nature of the game, there’s a pecking order. Your task is to hustle hard and make sure that the next reporter you talk to will think you important enough for inclusion. Simple.
- Learn the format. You learned the difference between APA and Chicago style citation at some point, now it's time to learn proper hashtag use. Think of hashtags as article keywords. As such, #thedecliningpopulationofBengaltigers is not a hashtag. #BengalTigers and #Tigers, however, is. As is #India and #conservation. Proper use of hashtags can mean the difference between four and four hundred people reading your article--and I won't even get into what it could mean for the tigers.
- Engage with your audience but pick your battles. Field genuine questions and critiques. Friendship and opportunity may lie at the other end--and certainly a publication. But refrain from feeding the trolls. Make ready use of the block button and move on with your life.
- Be civil. Twitter is a remarkable tool for interacting with the "celebrities" of your field. Occasionally, these are people whose policies or writing you may really object to. Nevertheless, diplomacy is an art form to be practiced daily. A mean-spirited put-down may feel great the moment you write it—but will it change the thinking or behavior of your interlocutor? And remember, you're performing for an audience. So while a well-composed critique may not convince your opponent, it's the crowd you're trying to sway, above all.
- People love pictures. If you're promoting a piece of writing, embed a picture with the tweet. It makes a significant difference to the amount of people sharing and re-tweeting the text in question. By the same token, if you come across a neat picture somehow related to your field, share it. Things you find interesting and are related to your discipline always make for terrific content, whether they're news articles, videos, or photographs.
- Be humble. Those first few opportunities to share your writing that come along may not be the high-profile platforms you were hoping for but they're only the first step. Credibility is something you can help to build, after all. Even the most upstart publication is a space, put your foot in that door, and ask if you can have a moment of your audience's time. Then show them that really incredible archival photograph you discovered and tweeted out moments earlier.
- Be generous and help your friends (and soon to be friends). Over the past few months, I've been approached by several media outlets asking me for a quote or a blog on a given subject. Either because I didn't have the time or because I really didn't think I was the best person for the job, I passed. But I always make an effort to respond by offering alternatives. Often, these alternatives are friends of mine. Sometimes they're just people I know from Twitter, who I barely interact with at all. But I've read their writing, I think they're smart, I know they're capable, so I pass their info along. Maybe one day they return the favor, maybe they don't. Regardless, pay it forward.
So, that's that. Hopefully some of this advice will prove useful to you. If it does, share it with your friends and if you have questions, let me know in the comments below. Now, go on, show us what you've been working on—I bet it's awesome.