Open to Influence: Academic Influence on Twitter, The Short Version

The Preamble:
I am the sort of person who was born to be elderly and didactic. Deep in my nature lurks the spirit – if not the vocabulary – of a teeny, slightly melancholic sixth cousin of Marcel Proust hankering to wax pensively about the eternal nature of change and What Once Was. Inside my head, it’s all Remembrance of Things Past, all the time. Not because I’m nostalgic – je ne regrette rien! – but because this appears, even at midlife, to be my only wayfinding strategy; reflective recall is how I make sense of the world.

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So I cannot leap back onto the blog after four months of TOTAL SILENCE without spitting up metaphors. I am surfacing from the thesis. I am almost at the finish. I am beginning to get my voice back; my feet back under me. You would be forgiven for thinking I’ve been engaged in some kind of strange swimming marathon. Or drowning. Because both are true in the ways that matter even through really I’ve barely left my couch in three months. Back about mid-November I embarked on the gradual withdrawal from everything except my thesis (and working and parenting and – sadly – shovelling SEVEN FEET of %#&*(ing snow). And it is done and submitted, which is still surreal to me. It is three papers and another forty-odd pages and has itself a fancy title and will be defended in April, warts and all. It is about scholarship in the context of knowledge abundance and how online networked practices intersect with/assemble with institutional practices in terms of influence and engagement and attention, in particular. It is basically a slice of a particular cross-section of academic Twitter circa early 2014. And it is done (I never really actually thought it would be done). Done.

The first paper of the three that comprise the body of the thesis was actually finished and submitted back in July, which feels like a misty past now, The Time Before. That paper came out today and the pre-print is here if, like me, you don’t actually have access. And below I am going to break it down into the Very Short Version in case reading 38 pages isn’t what you’re on about.

But this is The Preamble and elderly didactic cousin-of-Proust me just wants to chew upon how different it all was when all my words were being lined up tidily for academic digestion. I nearly choked getting them out. I nearly choked on having no time to think in This Voice, because I had to give up most of my tweeting and all of my blogging to get the thesis finished and yet in doing so I gave up my primary wayfinding and sensemaking processes and that felt exactly as untenable as you would imagine and it was all *almost* as ironic, to me, as the fact that my first paper for the thesis is about openness and networks in a closed journal. But you may as well laugh as cry, right? I made each of these irreconcilable choices. These are the contradictions of our time and even researching them has not helped me navigate them remotely cleanly or well. I do not know what all this means for my future in whatever academia is becoming but I do know that writing in my own voice gives me joy and not writing in my own voice breaks my spirit and I do not think I want to slide so far away from the networked side of things again for awhile yet. And still.

Je ne regrette rien.

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The Paper, SHORT VERSION:
This paper is about what counts as academic influence on a platform like Twitter.

Influence is how we determine the reputation and credibility and essentially the status of a scholar. There are two ways we assess influence: first, there’s the teeny little group of people who understand what your work really means. Then there’s everybody else, from different fields, who piece together the picture from external signals: what journals you publish in, what school you went to, your citation count, your h-index, your last grant. Things people recognize and trust. It’s a complicated shorthand.

And now, in the mix – against a backdrop of knowledge abundance and digital technologies and the fact that nobody needs to go through a gatekeeping institution to contribute to knowledge anymore – Twitter. This paper explores what circulates or counts as influence and credibility in academic Twitter, and in networked participatory scholarship more broadly.

The paper concludes that scholars assess the networked profiles and behaviours of peers through a logic of influence that is – at least as yet – less codified and numeric than expected. Participants in the study did perceive relatively large-scale accounts as a general signal of influence, but recognizability and commonality are as or more important than quantifiable measures or credentials.

The paper suggests that the impression of capacity for meaningful contribution is key to cultivating influence and the regard of actively networked peers. The value and meaning of that sense of contribution is tied in part to the ways in which network signals operate individual to individual – more on that in papers #2 and #3 of the thesis, as well as its conclusion. The value is also, frankly, in the fact that we can see our signals received, in networks, in real-time. Never underestimate the power of people listening.

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Key messages from the findings of the paper:
1. Metrics matter, but not that much

2. Scale of visibility (ie having a large account and a large active reach) is a signal of influence but also a weird and complex identity space

3. The intersection of high network status with lower or unclear institutional academic status is also a weird and complex identity space

4. The perception of someone’s capacity for contribution is created and amplified by common interests, disciplines, and shared ties/peers

5. Institutional affiliations aren’t considered that important by active Twitter users (unless they’re Oxford)

6. Automated signals indicate low influence

7. Digital networks offer scholars a sense of being someone who can contribute…in ways that the academy does not offer. (The academy offers other ways. But this paper focuses on the signals and lived experiences of networks.)

If you want to read the rest, there’s lots. The official article is here, and the open pre-print is here. Your feedback and your thoughts and your ideas are very welcome. :)

The Post-script:
The fourteen participants and eight examplars who stepped forward to be a part of this research…I thank all of you hugely, for your time, and your teaching, and mostly for your trust.

Networks of Care and Vulnerability

This Thursday – November 6th at 1:30pm – I’m a guest in George Veletsianos’ #scholar14 open course, talking about networks as places of care and vulnerability. It’s a Google hangout, so the talk will be an informal back and forth, open (I hope?) to multiple voices if folks want to join in.

It may even be a little bit fraught, as George may have had a different concept of vulnerability in mind when he first suggested the topic. He frames vulnerability in terms of sharing struggles, which I’ll definitely talk about on Thursday; my online origins lie deep in the heart of that territory. But, the juxtaposition of care and vulnerability, as a topic, was rich enough it that it helped me grapple with some of the complexities I was trying to frame from my research study, and I took up vulnerability more through a lens of risks and costs. As I am wont to do, I ran with that lens, and ended up not only with the presentation below (liveslides from Alec Couros and Katia Hildebrandt’s EC&I831 class last month) but with half a research paper under that working title for my ongoing dissertation project. So. Yay for networks.

Join us Thursday for the fisticuffs over sharing v. risk. Or something like that. ;)

More seriously, I may have ended up in a somewhat different place than George envisioned, but it’s a place I think needs to be visited and explored.

The Risks and Costs of Networked Participation
I just spent a week almost entirely offline, for the first time in…oh…about a decade. Not an intended internet sabbatical, but a side effect of extended theme park adventuring with small children and a phone that turns into a brick when I cross the US border. Y’all were spared an excess of gratuitous commentary on the great American simulacra that is Disney, basically. You’re welcome.

Being disconnected from my network was kind of refreshing. No work, no ambient curation, no framing and self-presentation for a medium with infinite, searchable memory.

It didn’t mean I was magically present the whole time with my darling offspring: I remain a distractible human who sometimes needs to retreat to her own thoughts, online or off. Nor did it mean I missed out entirely on the surge of painful yet necessary public discussion of sexual violence, consent, and cultures of abuse and silence that bloomed in the wake of Canada’s Craziest News Week EVER. Still. Sometimes a dead phone is a handy way to cope with the overload and overwhelm of networked life, especially for those who both consume and contribute to the swirl of media in which we swim.

Because contributing and participating, out in the open – having opinions and ideas in public – has costs.
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Participation makes us visible to others who may not know us, and makes our opinions and perspectives visible to those who may know *us,* but have never had to grapple with taking our opinions or positions seriously (oh hai, FB feeds and comments sections hijacked by various versions of #notallmen, #notallwhitewomen, and #notalltenuredscholars).

Participation enrols us in a media machine that is always and already out of our control; an attention economy that increasingly takes complex identities and reduces them to sound bites and black & white alignments.

The costs are cumulative. And they need to be talked about, by those of us who talk about networks in education and in scholarship and in research. Because in open networks, a networked identity is the price of admission. The costs are what one pays to play. But they are paid at the identity level, and they are not evenly distributed by race, gender, class, orientation, or any other identity marker. And so with participation comes differential risks. This matters.

Bud Hunt pointed out in a (paywalled but worthwhile) Educating Modern Learners article this morning that October was Connected Educators Month…and also Gamergate. Two sides of the participatory coin. Audrey Watters doubled down on that disconnect this afternoon in Hybrid Pedagogy, riffing on Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm and asking edtech to take a good, hard look at what we ask of students when we ask them to work online:

“And I think you need to think about your own work. Where you work. For whom.

And then you must consider where you demand your students work. For whom they work. Who profits. Where that content, where that data, where those dimes flow.”
– Audrey Watters, 2014

So. This post comes, like Bud and Audrey’s pieces, from a growing dismay and uneasiness with what’s happening at the intersection of technologies and capital and education; a growing belief that the risks and costs of networked identity are an ethical issue educators and researchers need to own and explore. It comes from looking through my research data for what Audrey calls “old hierachies hard-coded onto new ones.”
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Attending to Each Other in the Attention Economy
But it also comes from the sense that there is more; that the ties created even in the most abject, hierarchical, surveilled online spaces tend, like good cyborg entities, to exceed their origins.

It comes not just from the formal research data collected over months of ethnographic observation and conversation, but also from some deep and powerful conversations that the research process created.

I didn’t know Kate Bowles especially well when I put out the call for participants in my dissertation project a year ago today. She didn’t know she had breast cancer when she agreed to participate. Somewhere along the road of the past year, our discussions of identity and networks and academia and self and life sometimes got beautifully tangled, as ideas actually do, freed from eureka-moment idealizations of authorship. And somewhere in the middle of one of those tangles, she reminded me that my sometimes grim vision of the attention economy is not the only way to conceive of attention at all; that its origins come from stretching towards and caring for each other.

“the attention economy…isn’t just about clicks and eyeballs, but also about the ways in which we selectively tend towards each other, and tend each other’s thoughts–it’s an economy of care, not just a map to markets.”
– Kate Bowles, 2014

I don’t know what to make of all that…but there’s hope in it that I’m not willing to abandon just yet. When I think about networked scholarship right now, it’s in terms of these contradictions of care and vulnerability, all writ large in the attention economies of our worst and better angels.

Maybe on Thursday, in the #scholar14 hangout, we’ll figure it out together and I’ll know how my paper should end. ;)

something is rotten in the state of…Twitter

I read another article yesterday on The Death of Twitter: they’re multiplying, these narratives, just like the fruit flies in my kitchen.

Like fruit flies, these lamentations for Twitter do not spontaneously generate, but are born from a process of decay: they are the visible signs of something left neglected, something rotting quietly out of sight.

Since I’m currently in the extended throes of researching Twitter for my dissertation, I read these articles like I used to read Cosmo back when I was twenty: half-anxious that Enlightenment will be contained in the next paragraph, half-anxious it won’t. When I was twenty, I had Cosmo to make me feel miserable about the gap between what I valued and what I saw reflected and valued by the world. These days, I have The End of Big Twitter.

I wonder about what it means to research something changing so quickly, so drastically. Will my dissertation end up being about the Twitter that was, rather than whatever it is in the process of becoming? Can a person become an historian by accident?

Is this all there is to say, anymore?
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Because once there was more, at least for me. Way back in the arcane days of 2006 and 2007, I went to live among another culture – participatory culture, in its heyday – and felt at home for the first time. A particular confluence of privilege and obscurity and the need to speak things I had no place to speak aloud contributed…and the experience was mostly good. Not always ideal, by any means, but networks and Twitter in particular opened for me whole worlds of conversations and ties that I would never – flat-out – otherwise have had access to. And those conversations and ties have shaped my identity, my work, and my trajectory in life dramatically over the last eight years. Yet I sense the conditions that made all that possible shifting, slipping away.

I do not know what comes next, at this strange intersection. This post is My Own Private Fruitfly: its lifespan short and humid. It may be dead or obsolete in fifty days. But it is what I see, here and now, on the heels of a sweltering and disturbing August.
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“The Death of Twitter” is Not About Twitter
I’m no great fan of their recent platform changes and even less of the likelihood that they’re about to make what I see in my feed far more algorithmically-determined, a la Facebook. But I don’t think a new platform will arise to save what’s getting lost and lamented about Twitter. The issue all the articles point to is about Twitter As We Knew It (TM) as a representation of an era, a kind of practice. At the core, it is about the ebbing away of networked communications and participatory culture – or at least, first-generation participatory culture as I knew it, as Jenkins is perhaps best-known for describing it.

It is also about the concurrent rise of what I *hope* is peak Attention Economy.

(Of course, the founding premise of the Attention Economy is there’s no such thing as too much Attention Economy, so yeh, I’m probably wrong on the peak front .)

Consolidation of the Status Quo
Some of this is overt hostile takeover – a trifecta of monetization and algorithmic thinking and status quo interests like big brands and big institutions and big privilege pecking away at participatory practices since at least 2008.

Oh, you formed a little unicorn world where you can communicate at scale outside the broadcast media model? Let us sponsor that for you, sisters and brothers. Let us draw you from your domains of your own to mass platforms where networking will, for awhile, come fully into flower while all the while Venture Capital logics tweak and incentivize and boil you slowly in the bosom of your networked connections until you wake up and realize that the way you talk to half the people you talk to doesn’t encourage talking so much as broadcasting anymore. Yeh. Oh hey, *that* went well.

And in academia, with Twitter finally on the radar of major institutions, and universities issuing social media policies and playing damage control over faculty tweets with the Salaita firing and even more recent, deeply disturbing rumours of institutional interventions in employee’s lives, this takeover threatens to choke a messy but powerful set of scholarly practices and approaches it never really got around to understanding. The threat of being summarily acted upon by the academy as a consequence of tweets – always present, frankly, particularly for untenured and more vulnerable members of the academic community – now hangs visibly over all heads…even while the medium is still scorned as scholarship by many.

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You’re Doing It Wrong 
But there’s more. The sense of participatory collective – always fraught – has waned as more and more subcultures are crammed and collapsed into a common, traceable, searchable medium. We hang over each other’s heads, more and more heavily, self-appointed swords of Damocles waiting with baited breath to strike. Participation is built on a set of practices that network consumption AND production of media together…so that audiences and producers shift roles and come to share contexts, to an extent. Sure, the whole thing can be gamed by the public and participatory sharing of sensationalism and scandal and sympathy and all the other things that drive eyeballs.

But where there are shared contexts, the big nodes and the smaller nodes are – ideally – still people to each other, with longterm, sustained exposure and impressions formed. In this sense, drawing on Walter Ong’s work on the distinctions between oral and literate cultures, Liliana Bounegru has claimed that Twitter is a hybrid: orality is performative and participatory and often repetitive, premised on memory and agonistic struggle and the acceptance of many things happening at once, which sounds like Twitter As We Knew It (TM), while textuality enables subjective and objective stances, transcending of time and space, and collaborative, archivable, analytical knowledge, among other things.

Thomas Pettitt even calls the era of pre-digital print literacy “The Gutenberg Parenthesis;” an anomaly of history that will be superceded by secondary orality via digital media. 

Um…we may want to rethink signing up for that rodeo. Because lately secondary orality via digital media seems like a pretty nasty, reactive state of being, a collective hiss of “you’re doing it wrong.” Tweets are taken up as magnum opi to be leapt upon and eviscerated, not only by ideological opponents or threatened employers but by in-network peers…because the Attention Economy rewards those behaviours. Oh hai, print literacies and related vested interests back in ascendency, creating a competitive, zero-sum arena for interaction. Such fun!

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Which is not to say there’s no place for “you’re doing it wrong.” Twitter, dead or no, is still a powerful and as yet unsurpassed platform for raising issues and calling out uncomfortable truths, as shown in its amplification of the #Ferguson protests to media visibility (in a way Facebook absolutely failed to do thanks to the aforementioned algorithmic filters). Twitter is, as my research continues to show, a path to voice. At the same time, Twitter is also a free soapbox for all kinds of shitty and hateful statements that minimize or reinforce marginalization, as any woman or person of colour who’s dared to speak openly about the raw deal of power relations in society will likely attest. And calls for civility will do nothing except reinforce a respectability politics of victim-blaming within networks. This intractable contradiction is where we are, as a global neoliberal society: Twitter just makes it particularly painfully visible, at times.

Impossible Identities
Because there is no way to win. The rot we’re seeing in Twitter is the rot of participatory media devolved into competitive spheres where the collective “we” treats conversational contributions as fixed print-like identity claims. As Emily Gordon notes, musing about contemporary Twitter as a misery vaccuum, the platform brings into collision people who would probably never otherwise end up in the same public space. Ever. And that can be amazing, when there are processes by which people are scaffolded into shared contexts. Or just absolutely exhausting. We don’t know how to deal with collapsed publics, full stop. We don’t know how to talk across our differences. So participatory media becomes a cacophonic sermon of shame and judgement and calling each other out, to the point where no identity is pure enough to escape the smug and pointless carnage of petty collective reproach.

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Somewhere, Donna Haraway and her partial, ironic, hybrid cyborg weep, I think.

This doesn’t mean I’m leaving Twitter. I’m not leaving Twitter. If this post is a fruit fly signalling rot, it is likewise the testament of a life dependent on the decaying platform for its sustenance. The fruit is still sweet, around the rotten bits. And there is no other fruit in the basket that will do so well.
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Perhaps it is not rot. Some would call it inevitable, part of the cycle of change and enclosure that seems to mark the emergence of all new forms of working and thinking together. I’m not so sure: that still smells to me like high modernity. Either way, I will miss Twitter As We Knew It (TM)…but I wonder: what am I not seeing yet? What paths of subversion, connection, hybridity are still open?

I’m over by the fruit bowl, listening.

academic influence on Twitter: the findings

So. Since last November, I’ve been researching how networked scholars ‘read’ each others’ credibility and influence, when they encounter each other and each other’s work outside of the formal system of academia. I’ve been curious about the patterns running through the logics by which we make sense of each other; curious about what counts as influence in open networks. In a post a few months back I wrote:

Influence is a complex, messy, slightly socially-discomfiting catch-all equation for how people determine the reputation and credibility and essentially the status of a scholar. There are two ways influence tends to get assessed, in scholarship: there’s the teensy little group of people who actually understand what your work really means…and then there’s everybody else, from different fields, who piece together the picture from external signals: what journals you publish in, what school you went to, your citation count, your h-index, your last grant. It’s credibility math, gatekeeping math. It’s founded in names and organizations people recognize and trust, with a running caveat of Your Mileage May Vary.

And now, in the mix, there’s Twitter. And blogs.

How can something that the general population is convinced is about what people had for lunch be a factor in changing what counts as academic influence?

Well, here’s how. For real, with details and the permission of participants, the first run of findings from my ethnographic dissertation study of 13 actively networked scholars from various English-speaking parts of the globe. This is an excerpt from a larger paper currently under review…but this is the part I wanted open and out, now. “Findings” seems like such a funny word, suggesting this stuff was all laying out in the open to be stumbled over. In a sense, it is, always, every day, even on the days academic Twitter feels like crossfire. Yet it is also constructed, and situated, and ever-shifting. Feel free to post your caveats in the comments section.

WOOT. Onward.
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WHAT COUNTS?

The central theme that ran through participant data was that scholars do employ complex logics of influence which guide their perceptions of open networked behaviours, and by which they assess peers and unknown entities within scholarly networked publics. More specifically, all scholars interviewed articulated concepts of network influence that departed significantly from the codified terms of peer review publication and academic hiring hierarchies on which conventional academic influence is judged.

While these concepts diverged, and I’ve attempted to be responsible to those divergences and diffraction patterns by sharing some breadth of the “history of interaction, interference, reinforcement, and difference” (Haraway, 1998, p. 273) within the space available here, they nonetheless suggest webs of significance specific to open networks. These webs of significance are, of course, situated knowledges, related to the stated and enacted purposes for which specific, variously-embodied participants engaged in open networks and the value they reported finding in them. Yet a number of patterns or logics emerged vividly from the data, in spite of the fact that participants had little in common in terms of geopolitical location or academic status positions. This suggests that alternative concepts of academic influence circulate and are reinforced by the operations of open, scholarly networked publics, particularly via Twitter.

It is important to note that participants’ stated reasons for engaging in open scholarly networks generally exceeded the instrumental “this will increase your dissemination and citation count” impact narrative. This may be in part because the study required that all participants had been active Twitter users for at least two years prior to the beginning of the study in November 2013: a review of higher education publications suggests the strategic narrative did not become prominent until after 2011. In any case, participant observation suggested that while some participants did primarily use Twitter in particular for broadcasting their own and others’ work, all participants in the study appeared to be engaged in curating and contributing resources to a broader “conversation” in their field or area of interest rather than merely promoting themselves or their work.

Among the 10 participants interviewed and the 12 who completed the profile assessments of other scholars (9 did both), there was consistent indication of an individual logic of purpose and value served by networked participation. In cases where participants reflected on their own changing practices over time, I observed a pattern indicating that an emergent sense of their own capacity to contribute to this broader conversation was part of the value participants attributed to networks. Particularly for those marginalized within increasingly rationalized institutions, and for those for whom the academic “role” does not cohere with a full sense of identity, reciprocal networked engagement can be a powerful way to extend beyond institutionally-sanctioned terms of circulation and value. In relation to the influence of others within open networks, participant responses suggested that they were able to perceive and ‘read’ influence outside their own areas of interest or the corners of the ‘conversation’ they perceived themselves contributing to, but were unlikely to follow people whom they perceived as disconnected from that particular part of the conversation, regardless of the apparent influence of those others.

Below are key emergent elements in these webs of significance, outlining what appears to count as a network version of academic influence in open scholarly networked publics. While both participants and exemplars gave permission for me to identify them by Twitter handle in all research publications resulting from the study, I have anonymized specific quotes from participants in relation to exemplars and identifiable others.

“She sure has a following” – Metrics matter, but not that much
A primary finding of the research was that metrics –the visible numbers attached to social media profiles and blogs – are seldom taken up in isolation. Participants showed a nuanced and relatively consistent understanding of metrics: the higher the number of tweets, the longer a profile was assumed to have been active, and the higher the ratio of followers to following (Twitter does not require reciprocal ‘friending’ in the way Facebook does), the more likely the person was to be perceived as influential. Yet equally consistent across the data were caveats of context, in which participants made clear they seldom interpret the metrics of public Twitter profiles as a final indicator of a scholar’s influence or potential value to their own network.

@socworkpodcast: “Status does play into my decisions to follow someone, if I see someone with a huge following, whose bio suggests this is a thought leader or a person of influence online/offline. I will look through the feed to see if the most recent 100+ tweets seem like things I could benefit from professionally, or that my followers might value.”

@antoesp: “I find it intriguing to discover how we all are able to provide a defined aspect of our multiple self through the micro-portrait in the personal twitter account. Usually I don’t choose to follow someone only on the basis of this micro-portrait, but I follow the link to his/her blog/SN profile (if provided).”

Most participants reported scrolling through tweetstreams and looking at blog links before making decisions about following: a few noted that profiles without links to external sites “for ideas in more than 140 characters” are profiles they generally avoid following.

The exemplar profiles with the largest number of followers and ratios indicating a high scale of attention did tend to be assessed as more influential. High tweet numbers indicate longevity on Twitter and appeared to factor into many participants’ assessments of others: some noted they were more likely to invest in following an established profile with many tweets because they could assume ongoing contribution rather than an account that might go dormant. This was particularly true among participants who appear to maintain a cap on the numbers of users they follow: this may indicate impression management regarding their own follower/following ratios, as well as efforts at signal/noise control. However, low tweet counts or relatively even follower/following ratios did not necessarily result in dismissal of influence: it was noted by participants that accounts with smaller followings can simply reflect relative newness within the Twittersphere. One participant noted, of small accounts, “Might just mean they haven’t done anything ‘viral’ yet. But I’m more concerned with content and interests.” Profiles that had not been adapted or personalized at all, though, were commonly interpreted as signaling a lack of value.

@miken_bu: “I check their twitter profile, read some recent tweets and perhaps check out their blog or web site… I do try to follow folks who have differing views or from differing backgrounds to reduce the echo chamber. I rarely follow anyone who has an egg image and no profile info, though, unless I know them already.”

@katemfd: “Sometimes…I’ll choose someone with twenty followers, because I come across something they’ve managed to say in 140 characters and I think… “oh, look at you crafting on a grain of rice.”

In terms of how participants amplify other voices in their own Twitter timelines, however, metrics appear to count to some extent. During participant observation, the majority of participants were more likely to re-tweet (RT) users whose scale of followers was higher than their own. Even where participants clearly made themselves available to engaging in discussions with users of all stripes and sizes, the tendency to amplify larger voices was consistent among all but the largest accounts in the study.

“A rolling stone gathering moss”- Identity at scale
While size or scale of account was not taken up as a direct indicator of influence or value, there did appear to be a critical mass at which those who are visible in open networks to become ever more visible. A number of interviews – with participants of varying scale – noted that for large accounts identity and reputation can become “a thing,” and the reciprocal communications upon which many participants build their networks becomes difficult to sustain.

@catherinecronin: “Large nodes in a social network have more visibility, their network activity gets amplified, and they become larger yet. In Twitter this happens in many ways – through RTs, through publication of “top educators to follow” lists, etc.”

@wishcrys: “I think when someone is a Twitter personality with a Twitter reputation, regardless of their content people are just going to like it – reputation comes to overshadow content. At that point you’re no longer a content producer, you’re probably just a Twitter personality…everything you say is Gospel Truth. Whereas when you’re lower down and trying to gain some form of connection, recognition, some sort of following, your archive and content are what leaves a mark.”

Participants who had reached significant scale with their own Twitter accounts, blogs, and digital identities tended not to speak about size of account as a benefit or goal, but more as an identity shift; one that involves challenges, adjustments, and responsibilities, as well as privileges.

@raulpacheco: “(January 2014) –I find when I have conversations on academic Twitter my brain starts absorbing information on data and learning, new ways of looking at things. I’m addicted to my mentions tab – I love hearing people react to what I say.” (July 2014: Skype chat) – “I’ve reached peak tweetage. I can’t answer every single @ reply as I used to (related to how much my follower count has grown).”

@readywriting: “I make sure that I amplify a lot of adjunct voices now. I think that’s really important. POC, other marginalized people…I recognize my privilege and want to use it for some good, even if it is just amplification.”

“Status baubles” – The intersection of network influence with academic prestige
The intersection of high network status with lower or unclear institutional academic status was a recurring topic in interviews, in reflections, and in public Twitter conversations. Participants indicated that the opportunities sometimes afforded junior scholars with network influence can create confusion and even discord within the highly-codified prestige arena of academia, because the hallmarks of network influence can’t be ‘read’ on institutional terms. Networked scholars were acutely aware both of network and academic terms of influence and appeared to codeswitch between the two even on Twitter and in other network environments. However, they noted that colleagues and supervisors tended to treat networked engagement as illegitimate and, in some cases, a signal of “not knowing your place.” Of the alternate prestige economies that intersect with academia, participants reported media exposure as the most coherent to their less-networked academic peers.

@tressiemcphd: “It’s the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Ed…I get emails from my Dean when that happens, when I show up there. With the Times I get more from the broader discipline, like a sociologist from a small public school in Minnesota – people not so much in the mix prestige-wise, but they see someone thinking like them, they reach out. But the Chronicle gets me the institutional stuff: I’ve got a talk coming up at Duke, and the person who invited me mentioned that Chronicle article three times. It’s a form of legitimacy. It shows up in their office and so they think it’s important.”

@thesiswhisperer: “I’ve grown this global network sitting on my ass and it offends people. And I’m really interested in that, in what’s going on psychologically with that, they say “it’s not scholarly” but it’s really just not on their terms. It has success. But when you’re the one getting keynotes people who’ve bought into older notions of success, they feel cheated.”

I value their work, so value by association” – Commonality as credibility and value
When it came to indicating whether they would personally follow a given account, participants appeared to give less weight to metrics and perceived influence than to shared interests and perceived shared purpose.Most participants appeared to be actively attempting to avoid what Pariser (2011) calls a ‘filter bubble’ in their networks. Rather, many reported seeing themselves as responsible to their own networks for some level of consistent and credible contribution, and so sought to follow people who would enrich their participation via relevant resources or common discussion topics.

Where commonality appeared even more important to participants, however, was in peers or shared networks: when a logged-in Twitter user clicks on another user’s profile, the number and names of followers they have in common is visible. This visibility serves to deploy shared networks as a signal of credibility in an environment where identity claims are seldom verifiable. Many participants spoke to the importance of shared peers over metrics or other influence factors in terms of whether they choose to follow. In assessing a full professor with more than 1,300 followers, one participant noted that the metrics did not sway him: “Looking at the number of followers and tweets, it would seem as if this person has some ‘gravitas’ in the field.  Just judging from his profile – I would not be particularly drawn to following him because his field is chemistry. I searched his profile online, and looked at his tweets, and he tweets mostly about non-academic issues e.g., coffee, football, etc.” Whereas the same participant then indicated he would follow another profile with only 314 followers, due to shared networks: “she is followed by a number of people whom I respect and follow. So I will give her a try.”

Participants tended to look for common interests on top of common peer networks, however. One mentioned, “I often follow people who others I follow also value – after ‘checking them out’ via looking at some tweets, profile, etc.” Another echoed, “I see that we share 65+ followers, so there are obviously many connections. (Her) interests match mine somewhat, she shares resources as well as engaging with many people…I also see that…(her) use of these particular hashtags tells me that (her) interests are closely linked with mine.”

Commonality was also overtly valued where participants used networks as ways of connecting with other scholars for support, encouragement, and specialized information: this was common both among PhD students and early career scholars in the study, as well as among those who use open networks for ongoing learning. One PhD candidate reflected on the value of another PhD student account, “As a PhD student, she is a colleague studying topics close to my interest. I am likely to follow her for a sort of…solidarity among peers, beyond the actual contribution she could bring.”

Being connected with Oxford adds to the reputation”Recognizability as a way of making sense of signals
The value placed on shared peers reflects a broader pattern observed within the research: recognizable signals have a powerful impact on perceived influence and perceived credibility. In the same way that recognizable journal titles or schools or supervisors serve as signals of conventional academic influence, so do both conventional and network factors of recognizability carry weight in assessments of network influence. Thus, shared peer networks matter, as do visible acknowledgements such as mentions and retweets; additionally, familiar academic prestige structures such as rank and institution can add to impressions even of network influence.

One of the most vivid examples of this was the workplace listed on one exemplar’s profile: Oxford University. The vast majority of participants who were shown this exemplar noted the Oxford name, and there was an overwhelming tendency to rate the account as influential. However, as previously noted, influence did not carry as much weight as commonality when participants were asked to weigh whether they’d follow a user: one participant reflected, “Is based at the University of Oxford – signaling for me a possible gravitas/expertise in the field. Looking at his tweets, he does not tweet a lot about academic issues – so he is most probably not, in my opinion, a very ‘useful’ person in my network.”

The Oxford exemplar also raised the issue of reciprocality and the ways in which its likelihood is minimized by scale of metrics and by prestige. One participant was frank: “This person seems like a very successful academic and is doing forward-thinking work at one of the oldest and most prestigious institutions in the world…(but) I have not followed him and couldn’t imagine he’d follow me.” Another was more overt about the ways in which influence is generally understood to affect engagement: “Clearly a more discerning twitter denizen (note the number of people following him vs who he follows), which would tell me he might not be big on interaction.” Thus, imbalance of scale does not necessarily fit with the purposes of connection and tie-building that many scholars turn to their networks for.

Outside the Oxford example, institutional affiliations or lack thereof did not have much effect on participants’ responses to exemplars, presumably because few institutions in the world carry the recognizability and prestige that Oxford does. Still, institutional affiliations can operate as credibility signals even where prestige structures are not involved.

@exhaust_fumes: “I care a bit about institutional affiliation in profiles…less that the actual university matters or rank matters, but that people are willing to put any institutional info up makes me more inclined to follow because I find relative safety in people who are clearly on Twitter as themselves as academic-y types and therefore aren’t likely to be jerks without outing themselves as jerks who work in specific places.”

Willingness to openly signal one’s workplace can operate not only as a verifiability factor but as a promise of good behavior of sorts. However, signals of institutional academic influence were also read as indicators of identity and priority: in reference to a profile that opened with the word “Professor,” one participant commented, “When a profile leads with institutional affiliation, I assume that is his primary role on social media. The rest of the cutesy stuff is there to humanize but he is signaling who and what he is in the traditional power structure.” Scholars who emphasize their conventional academic influence signals may limit the level of network – or “born digital” influence they are perceived to wield.

“A human who is a really boring bot” - Automated signals indicate low influence, especially in the absence of other signals
One clear indicator of a lack of network influence was automated engagement. Three exemplar identities had automated paper.li or Storify notifications in the screen-captured timelines that were shared with participants; one exemplar’s visible tweets were all paper.li links, or automated daily collections of links. Responses to the paper.li were universally negative, even where the exemplar was otherwise deemed of interest. “Potential value to my network – she tweets relevant stuff so probably I should follow her! On second thought, she has a Paper.li, and by definition I unfollow anyone who uses that tool.” Other participants were equally direct: “The only negative for me was the link to a daily paper.li. I tend to find those annoying (almost never click them!)”

Storify was not interpreted to indicate the same level of low influence or awareness, but its automated tag feature was still a flag that participants mentioned: “This is on the fence for me since Storify takes some effort to be engaged with things and maybe she didn’t get that she can opt out of those tweets informing people that they’ve been “quoted.”

My digital networks provide me with some sense of being someone who can contribute” – Identity positions and power relations
Participants’ nuanced sense of influence in networks was particularly visible when aspects of marginality and power were explored. While none perpetuated the narrative of open participation as truly or fully democratic, many did note that networks have created opportunities and access to influence in different ways than their embodied or academic lives otherwise have afforded.

@raulpacheco: “In a very bizarre way, having a well-established academic and online reputation makes me feel pretty powerful, despite being queer and Latino…both elements which should make me feel handicapped. My thoughts are well received, generally, and my stuff gets retweeted frequently.”

@katefmfd: “Networking online has enabled me to create a sustaining sense of my identity as a person, in which my employment in a university plays a part, but isn’t the defining thing…my networked practice is much more closely aligned to my personal values, and much more completely achieved.”

@14prinsp: “My identity intersects with a particular (South African) view of masculinity and patriarchy – there’s vulnerability here. I’m out as a scholar, and I’m also HIV positive and am out in my department…I was very sensitive when I started blogging that if I said something stupid it would be there til death do us part, but I’m very aware that I manage my identity, I make very critical choices. It’s reputation management, it’s brand management, not in a superficial way: there is definitely some authenticity in it but it is carefully chosen.”

Particularly among PhD students and early career scholars, the norms of open online participation helped minimize academia’s hierarchies for participants.

@andreazellner: “I feel like Twitter is the Great Equalizer. Take a recent back and forth with the Dean my college…I am too intimidated to talk to him and he has no idea who I am, and yet on Twitter he posted about being at Microsoft Research and I started asking him questions. He ended up tweeting pictures of things I was asking about, etc., and we even traded a few jokes.”

@tressiemcphd: “My position in the prestige structure didn’t always match my ambitions and what I felt I could do, felt compelled to do. (Networks) allowed me to exist without permission: I was never going to get institutional permission, there was no space there.”

@wishcrys: “I’m far more likely to tweet to my academic superheroes or superiors: I’m not very likely to walk up to them and go “hey, great book!” I definitely feel much more comfortable doing this on social media…people aren’t going to remember my research five years down the road but they may remember that nice PhD student who sent out a nice tweet at 3am.”

Finally, it was noted that the relational connections created in open networks nonetheless reproduce many of the power relations of institutions and society, even while challenging some of their hierarchies. Networks were reflected as an alternate status or influence structure that intersects with academia, rather than as truly open fields of democratic interaction.

@readywriting: “I’ve consciously worked to follow people outside the class/race/gender norm: one of the evaluative things I do when I encounter a new person on Twitter is ask myself  “is this person a little outside of the norm? Great. I want to learn from him/her.”

@catherinecronin: “Twitter is ‘flatter’ than some other networks/media, but power relations exist on Twitter — there is no doubt about that. The online very often reproduces and amplifies what occurs offline. However, open online platforms can also subvert the usual power dynamics. Those without access to conventional public communication channels can use social media to build networks and influence outside of institutional and cultural power structures.”

***
So that’s a start. There’s so much more data that I’m beginning to realize I’ll never do it all justice, the rich conversations, the mountains of Twitter favourites, the backchannels, all these signals that constitute a body of research just as they constitute the water many of us swim in, as networked scholars. My next paper will take this on from a literacies perspective, rather than strictly from an influence perspective. I keep learning.

The Old School – Sexism, Social Media, Campus Culture, and Identities

Mostly, when I write and talk about social media, the riskiest thing I’m doing is destabilizing a few people’s dearly-held concepts about the ways in which scholarly influence operates and circulates within academia.

This past weekend, though, I had the privilege of doing something that felt much more dangerous – I talked about the culture of sexism and sexualized violence on campuses and in society at large. In a keynote, on a campus where last year’s student orientation chant about non-consensual sex hit Youtube and made national and international news. The audience, mostly from Maritime Canada higher ed institutions, were lovely. Designing the talk was terrifying.

Not because I was talking particularly outside my field: I wasn’t. I talked about it all through the lens of social media, as both a symptom of and contributor to the problem. I talked about #yesallwomen and about the UCSB shooting and Men’s Rights Activism sites and about how social media amplifies all aspects of who we are and what we think and believe, and reflects society’s power relations as much as it also actively tries to shape them. I talked about how the stories we tell ourselves about technologies are often deterministic, even scapegoating, focusing blame on gadgets rather than on ourselves. It was a culture talk, a structure talk, and a history talk, in addition to being a social media talk. I was proud of it.

And it went well, though I can’t entirely credit my carefully-crafted navigation of the semiotic landscape of gender and power. It worked in part because I didn’t actually have to introduce the topics of conversation or carry them into the arena for discussion: I followed on the heels of the very sincere and very illustrious Wayne MacKay, whose bio features his Order of Canada and the fact that he chairs committees and councils on cyberbullying and sexualized violence on campuses and is a lawyer and professor and former President of my undergraduate institution.

(My bio, on the other hand, pretty much mentions that I have a Twitter account. To thine own self be true.)

It wasn’t punching above my weight that felt dangerous. It was the in-between space of the topic: the fact that what is sayable about the reality of gendered identities and sexual politics these days is fraught and limited. The fact that – and this is at the core of everything I tried to say – they have ALWAYS been fraught and limited. The fact that as a 42 year old grown woman with a big-ass vocabulary, using the word “patriarchy” in a public conversation – online or in person – still makes me nervous. Because I don’t much enjoy being diminished and abused, full stop, and while correlation may not be causation, I tend not to stick my hand back on the stovetop after a burn.

When high-status white males lend their voices to framing these conversations, it’s easier. Their very presence does the discursive work of legitimating the topic, making it a Very Important Thing and not an attack from the margins. In the case of Saturday’s conversation, it also helped that we were addressing college and university student services professionals who live and walk the talk of diverse, inclusive campuses far more adeptly and viscerally and vigilantly than many in higher ed. But Wayne and the gentleman who opened the day also introduced terms like misogyny and rape culture to the conversation, leaving me free to deepen that conversation rather than spend my hour trying to justify having it in the first place. Their acknowledgement of sexism and sexual violence as problems within campus cultures was key.

But the very identity positions that enable white Boomer males who sit at tables of power to speak of sexism and sexual violence without being seen as accusing also allow them to reify frameworks that neutralize and distance these phenomena, whether they mean to or not. Talk of hookup culture and social media and values serves to make this a “kids these days” conversation, not a conversation about the imbalance of power and identities in our culture. It makes the problem new. It makes us – the grownups – less complicit.

Let me be very precise. This is not new…it is old school, in the most literal sense. We are simply forced – by virtue of an immersive and intrusive news culture and the rise of risk management and institutional optics – to talk about it.

I talked about this in terms of stories. Stories are the ways in which we understand who we are, and our stories of culture and technologies right now are failing to give us any tools we need to develop productive identities for the world we’re in.

I told a story about obscene phone calls. When I was nine or ten, my mother and I had a caller who harassed us for months before the threat of being traced finally got rid of him. Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 9.32.07 PMEarly on, before my mother banned me from answering, I heard the deep, heavy breathing on the other end of the line. I suspect he said more to my mother, because I remember the sharp staccato of her voice, fearful and indignant. I knew from my friends that if we’d only had a man in the house he could’ve gotten on the line and scared the caller into going away. I decided that when I got old enough to get my own phone line I’d put it in my initials, not my name…because I was female. I also began cultivating the deepest, most rumbling voice I could. I wanted to be heard.

Of course, by the time I got old enough to have a phone line of my own, call display had largely wrecked the obscene phone call market and its capacity to assert power and create fear without actually facing personal consequences. The heavy breathers had to go underground and wait for the Internet, for underbelly pockets where they could congregate, no longer isolated, and reflect and amplify each others’ fledgling desires to exert power without consequence, to create fear in vulnerable others. The desires are not new. The technologies of our time regulate and constrain the identities we get to try on for size.

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 10.13.55 PM

Mount Allison women’s rugby, 1993

So do our cultural artefacts, and our frames of reference. I  told a story about the chant that scandalized Canadian higher ed last fall. I said that while I shared Wayne’s dismay at the fact that it was part of orientation in 2013, I didn’t share his shock: I knew the words. Twenty years ago, at the university where Wayne was later President, I learned that chant at a rugby game.

The student leaders interviewed last fall about the chant said they’d never really listened to the lyrics. I had. I’d heard and understood, just as I understood the rest of the songs that made up the raucous rugby identity: I just didn’t know what the hell to do with any of it, because I did not know if I could object and still belong. The rugby club was the first mixed-gender space I’d found where I did not feel diminished by the fact that I did not interact like a *lady.* Rugby didn’t take itself too seriously, and I thought I had to not take myself too seriously, either. So I sang along and I drank along and I tried to straddle the cognitive dissonance of it all, and mostly I failed and felt prudish and then tried harder. I did not even know it was supposed to be different. I did not know how to get outside it. It was called a tradition and it appeared to be the water we swam in and so I joined in and perpetuated it because I wanted that sense of belonging and I had no role models for a different discourse. And that is not new, either…but in the smallest ways it is shifting. Because peer-to-peer media don’t just de-isolate the heavy breathers, but those on the other end of the line. They allow outpourings like #yesallwomen as much as they allow forums for MRAs and PUAs. They allow those of us who work on campuses to connect and engage and try to set different frames of reference for campus identities, different examples, different discourses for belonging. They will not magically solve anything. But used well, they can be the kind of signal that enables people – male, female, whomever – to begin to be able to think about objecting, and changing traditions, without having to give up hope of belonging.

Or so I said Saturday. In the end, that talk didn’t feel nearly so risky in the delivery as I’d feared and I was heartened and for a minute I even thought, “maybe it’s not so hard to have this conversation after all.”

Then George Will popped up in The Washington Post yesterday. And I laughed at my naivete and realized this conversation has barely begun.
***

You’ve probably seen the article by now, deriding “the supposed campus epidemic of rape: aka “sexual assault.” Note the scare quotes. That’s the tone of the whole piece: “micro-aggressions” and “survivors” get the same contempt. The article conflates the recent trigger warning kerfuffle with an overall moral panic about how progressivism has made everyone on campuses “hypersensitive, even delusional, about victimizations.” Will asserts that victimhood is a coveted status on American campuses, one that now confers privileges.

I won’t bother to explain that it is not a privilege but a human right to assert that one is not just a sexual object, even when one is treated that way. I won’t bother to explain that when one DOES assert this right one is often treated to the very questionable privilege of being publicly excoriated and shamed by people like Will himself.

(I will bother to explain – to all of us, even the most active in peer-to-peer communications – that when the surge of people talking about structural grievances like racism and sexism and rape threats and able-ism and the right to speak from identity positions we do not happen to fully understand, share, or agree with begins to sound like victimhood as privilege, we might want to hold that judgement. Because yes, identity and power politics are messy and conflated right now. Yes, it can make some of us with actual structural privileges in the matrix of societal domination feel unfamiliarly – even unfairly – silenced in arenas we are unaccustomed to, and yes, some people will navigate these new discursive regimes in ways that are sensationalist or distasteful or whatever. This is the price of a performative public sphere. Nobody gets to be neutral).

But the privileges of victimhood are not the conversation Will is actually in. He’s in the conversation about who has the right to do what to who; the conversation about what we uphold as unwritten codes of whose bodies and actions and decisions count. This is smack in the middle of Todd Akin “legitimate rape” territory. This is about the privilege to exert power without consequence, to maintain stability in the categories of who counts as a vulnerable Other. This is an old conversation, but one we didn’t have to have publicly for a long ol’ time because respectability politics is powerful, silencing stuff and belonging has long been the price of speaking back.

So I’d like to thank George Will for prompting me to take my keynote from Saturday public. Again, let me be very precise. This issue is not new, and the only privilege here is the privilege that Will is daring us to wrest from him, in Charlton Heston “from my cold, dead hands” style. He may dismiss the #survivorprivilege hashtag that arose in response to him. But he cannot silence it. And as someone who has worked on higher ed campuses for the past fifteen years, I see that as a positive beginning.