Doctor Who and my own little social media bubble 

Preparing the latest edition of my textbook on social capital, I became particularly interested in the way that social media are shaping our social connections. Judging by the research available, social media play a complex role in which they sometimes complement and sometimes compete with face to face relationships. And sometimes they mirror each other.

One way in which social media mirror face to face interaction is a tendency towards homophily. Most people like to follow others on social media who are broadly similar to themselves – just as they do in other social interactions. Yet the main benefit of social media is the opportunity they provide for interacting with those who are very different from yourself. And if you think that being challenged by different perspectives is beneficial, as I do, then you try to build social media networks that are broad and diverse.

And I thought that was what I had done. During the Scottish referendum I managed to get attacked by Tweeps from both sides; I follow UKIPPERs, Corbynistas, Remainers, Welsh Nats, Lib Dems, some Tories and a Cornish independence campaigner; I follow people from different countries and speakers of four European languages. Some even follow golf and motor racing, which I hate with a vengeance. I don’t think I follow any racists, and certainly none who are overt, but I do follow some people who think all whites are at best deeply inclined towards racism. So it’s hardly an echo chamber – but clearly I’ve been too smug by half.

The new Doctor Who


Today I woke up to aTwitter storm over the new Doctor Who. The long running BBC series will now be led by a woman, played by the wonderful Jodie Whittaker, and my timeline was full of people protesting vociferously against others who had complained about the role going to a woman. But not a single tweet appeared from the protesters, not a single one. 

UNow it is possible that actually hardly anyone is really upset by a female Doctor. This is hardly radical casting: we’ve had feminist sci-fi for decades – why would one more female lead bother anyone? I can imagine that one or two of the usual rent-a-pen journalists might perform anger in order to generate a bit of click bait for their employer (I’m not going to name them, because that is what they want). But perhaps they are on their own this time.

Or perhaps I’ve stumbled across the boundaries of my own social media bubble. And even this bubble reflects face-to-face bonds, because I realise that I don’t actually know anyone who watches or even cares a fart about Doctor Who. On reflection, though, I am inclined to return to my smug default setting: what Twitter has done is connect me with a community that was previously unknown to me. How diverse is that? 

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Do my Tweets reflect my own opinions?

I’m struck by how many people announce on their Twitter profiles that their comments do not express the views of their employer. This rather saddens me, as it implies that their managers might take a pop at them if they tweet something deemed ‘unfortunate’. It particularlyworries me when academic researchers include such statements, because higher education leaders have actively encouraged us to communicate our views on social media, as a way of engaging a wider public in our work.

New Picture (1)

I am sorely tempted to add my own announcement at the top of my Twitter feed. The first draft is far too long, but here it is:

All the views on this account are identical in every respect with those of the Vice-Chancellors of the Universities of Stirling and Warwick. They are also identical with the views of the Leader of Scarborough Borough Council, the First Minister of Scotland, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and the President of the European Commission. On the other hand, my tweets reflect neither my own views nor those of my mother.

Then I will sit back and wait for the first of these good and great individuals to berate me for my views.

Learned societies and social media: historians on Twitter

royal hist soc

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the ways in which learned societies in education were using social media, and Twitter in particular. Twitter matters because it is a way of engaging with a broad public audience while making often unexpected connections between researchers who have something to say to each other.

Education researchers, I thought, seemed to be finding Twitter a bit of a struggle. Some big societies didn’t have a Twitter account, some accounts were dormant, and none had a particularly impressive number of followers. Some people thought this was a bit unfair, so I decided to look at historians, to see how they compare. I picked historians partly because some of my own interests like in the history of education and training, and partly because they are a small (compared with education) but well organised research community.

learned soc hist I expected that historians would come out of the exercise looking good – or at least better than educationists – and so it seems. The peak societies are well-represented on Twitter, attracting much larger follower numbers than are their equivalents in educational research.

Specialist societies are also generally active, with the rather surprising exception of the Economic History Society. While only one education society had over 2,000 followers, and only two had more than 1,000, the table shows that such levels of support are common for learned societies in history.

So my main finding is that historians seem to be much more successful at network-building through social media than educationists. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that the peak learned societies for historians have been around for much longer than – say – the British Educational Research Association. It’s still interesting, though, that the historians have taken so readily to Twitter to maintain and build their networks.

I am also aware that historians have, over time, developed very close connections with a wider public that is keenly interested in historical issues, and social media are an obvious extension of this. My list reflects this with the example of History West Midlands, a local group with more Twitter followers than any educational society apart from BERA. It seems rather odd that education scholars, with their natural constituencies of teachers and learners, have so far failed to do the same.

What I haven’t done, of course, is look here at the ways in which different societies use Twitter. That would be an interesting exercise, and of course the simple numbers can only be a rough guide to the level of engagement that is involved. And the table also suggests that while historians as a group punch above their weight on Twitter, there are also gaps and unmet potential; some of the smaller accounts seem to be dormant. Scholarly engagement through social media remains in its early days.

Wow, I could be a Super Professor!

An email tells me that “Your name has been submitted for Super Professors, which is part of Faculty Row’s global academic network”. The signatory is Jeffrey Finder, who describes himself as the ‘Academic Director’of an organisation called Faculty Row Corporation, with head offices in Madison Avenue, New York.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Image from Wikimedia Commons

I can’t pretend to have been thrilled. A colleague had received a similar invitation, with identical wording. And all academics receive a steady flow of emails making fabulous offers. Faculty Row, with its offer of ‘official super professor’ status, hope to appeal to our vanity and our awareness of the value of networking. So what services does it offer?

According to their website,

Faculty Row is a Private Network originally developed for educators and researchers to connect, collaborate, and share ideas nationally. Faculty Row is now the leading network of experts for over 100,000 academics globally.

The main services it provides are a news update, apparently culled from the web; press releases promoting new publications and other activities; an online networking facility; and access to information on new career opportunities from what it describes as its ‘partner’, the open website Jobs.ac.uk.

Most of its current members appear to be based in the USA, but I found one who describes himself as a ‘Lecturer’ in the philosophy department at St Mary Immaculate College, part of the University of Limerick. I could not find his name on the department’s website, so presumably he is not a full time academic. Another turned out to be adjunct professor at Hamline University, in Minnesota, a third an associate professor in New Mexico.

In exchange for these services, you pay a fee. The rates vary depending on circumstances, but a one year subscription for US Faculty will cost you $199, while academics outside the USA can pay £399 for a three-year membership.

So what do you think? Value for money, or candy for suckers? And perhaps more seriously, which social media site is most productive for scholars?

Social media and social capital

I am constantly surprised by just how new the new media are. This was brought home to me today while I worked on the next edition of my book on social capital.

James Coleman was dead before the first ever SMS message was sent on 3 December 1992, and Pierre Bourdieu did not live to see the integration of cameras into mobile phones. Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone five years before Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook. In short, the main lines of the debate over social capital were laid down long before today’s highly mediated social connections came into being.

It isn’t surprising that most early writing about digitised social bonds was highly speculative, and often pessimistic. During our early discussions over what later became an edited book of critical perspectives on social capital, Tom Schuller used to alarm me with his descriptions of an atomised society of individuals, each plugged into their own Walkman, and sharing nothing of their tastes with their neighbours.

Social research invariably lags behind innovative forms of behaviour, and only now can we see a significant body of evidence about how people understand relationships that are mediated by networks such as Facebook. Most of this early evidence comes from western societies, particularly the United States, and quite a lot is based on studies of highly educated young people who are still at college. And for both ethical and practical reasons, we still have relatively little evidence of the dark side of the new social media.

I’m still reviewing this growing mountain of research. At this stage, I reckon that most of the empirical studies suggest that most young people use social media partly to maintain existing social bonds (for example, with old school friends now studying elsewhere, or between young emigrants and their friends back ‘home’) and partly to exchange hot information with a wider and more disparate network. In short, social media can in these cases help sustain existing bonds, while extending them for specific purposes.

If this is born out by subsequent studies, then we don’t need to worry too much about the future social capital of our societies. It will change somewhat in composition, but the underlying bonds of reciprocity and trust will still be there. Sometimes people will use these networks to spread ill-will and hatred rather than enlightenment and joy, but that is also true of face-to-face ties, as you can hear for yourself in almost any pub. Every nationalist knows that it helps to bind people together if you can also give them someone to hate.

This is, then, a rather dull conclusion. It is unlikely to satisfy critics like Sherry Turkle, a veteran student of digital cultures who now laments the corrosive effects of email and texting for giving us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship, undermining the reciprocity and learning that occur through face-to-face interaction, compromising our privacy, and favouring novelty over substance.

But I see it as offering some clear pointers to the future of regulation over social media, the development of appropriate rules of ‘netiquette’, and the extension of social media across existing digital divides between the knowledge-rich and knowledge-poor. If social media can indeed help build social capital, we should do it in ways that are inclusive and socially sustainable.