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.