what counts as academic influence online?

Sometimes things shift when you’re not looking.

I woke up last Monday morning to discover that practically every Chronicle link on my Twitter feed related to my research area. Not in any elbowing-in-on-territory kind of way, but rather in a “whoa…serious synergy here” fashion.

Sometimes, when I get up in front of fellow educators and academics and say I study scholarship and…Twitter, I end up feeling like I’m doing stand-up comedy. Really? Twitter? say people’s eyebrows. I am becoming a great student of arched eyebrows.

Yet on Monday, casual academic readers of The Chronicle – and their eyebrows – would’ve been hard-pressed not to come away with the impression that academic identities in social media are actually Something To Care About, as a profession.

(Naturally, this will have backlash. People’s eyebrows generally do not LIKE to be beaten about the head with the idea they should care about something just because suddenly it’s the Flavour of the Month. Nor should they. I feel you, eyebrows of the world).

Still, the sense of critical mass is energizing to me. The work of research that is not legible to others always feels, rhetorically, like lifting stones uphill: constantly establishing premises rather than moving on to the deep exploration of that one particular thing.

The more the conversation about networks and identities and academia grows and pervades people’s consciousness, the less of that Sisyphean phase of the lifting I need to do.

Because this is not a Flavour of the Month, folks. This is a cultural shift, one part of the sea change in contemporary higher ed.

Dear arched eyebrows: this doesn’t mean you have to use Twitter. Or any other social networking platforms. Nor do you need to get personal online if you don’t wanna. But your concepts of academic identity and academic reputation do need to expand. Twitter and social media are now a part of scholarship, as modes of communication and of scholarly practice. So if I tell you I’m exploring the part they now play in academic influence…try not to arch so hard you hurt yourself.
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I had the privilege of giving a keynote at the University of Edinburgh’s E-Learning conference two weeks ago now, hot on the heels of the very good time my mother and I had at #nlc14 there this year. If you missed us, we were the really excited Canadians swooning at all the Scots accents. ;)

The theme of Edinburgh’s E-learning conference this year was authenticity…a word that makes me a little wary. Authenticity matters. But authenticity can also be a weapon wielded to defend the “real” (read: the non-digital, or the traditional, or the tidily, smarmily Hallmark-branded) against whatever binary or straw man it chooses.

So I talked about networked scholarship, exploring the question of what counts as authentic academic influence now.

Basically, it coulda been subtitled “How Do Scholars Use Networks And What Does That MEAN?” or…”WTF Is A Graduate Student From Another Country Doing Giving A Keynote, And How Did This Happen?”

In the talk, I outlined some of the preliminary findings from my research these past few months, including what scholars seem to use networks for and what kinds of patterns emerged from the tweets and RTs that flew through my timeline this past winter. The slideshow above gives a taste of some of the tweets I flagged during the last few months of research (note: not all are from my participants). But what I really talked about was influence.

The Math of Influence
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?

Here’s how.

Beyond Gatekeeping: Networked Influence Signals
Going online and talking to people you don’t know about areas of shared scholarly interest opens up your reach and reputation for what you do. It opens up your capacity to build communities of practice around shared interests. It opens up the possibility that when people in your field – the people reviewing your panel or on your next granting committee – hear your name, it will be one of those they already recognize and trust. Maybe. There’s a LOT of Your Mileage May Vary here.

Think of a Venn diagram – here’s how scholars traditionally share their work, here’s what people had for lunch – and in the middle there are scholarly ideas ON social media. What I’m trying to do in my research is to identify the implicit literacies involved in making sense of identities and reputations and credibility in this intersection. Because so long as senior scholars and administrators and tenure committees think Twitter is what people had for lunch, there’s a gap in our understanding of influence signals, especially in fields that are changing rapidly.

I’m finding patterns and commonalities in how scholars use Twitter, and the things they express there. In the slideshow above, you’ll see that the touted “it increases your dissemination!” factor is important in shaping scholars’ practices, but for many that’s reported more as a side effect than a reason in itself. Community and connection and space to address marginalities on many fronts factor more powerfully in participants’ accounts of their networked practices, particularly for those who use Twitter for more than broadcast purposes.

At the same time, networked participation and networked connections and their non-institutional logics also bring more fraught elements overtly into play in the influence equation.

Enter Capitalism
Now, let’s not pretend that academic institutions are not capitalist institutions. They are, and increasingly so: capital equations of scarcity and commodity are very much a part of the institutionalized and gatekept versions of academic influence signals that have gained traction over recent generations. But the individual scholar in these equations is, except in superstar instances, an institutional role rather than an identity unto him or herself. In networks, individual identity operates as a brand, particularly as the scale of attention on an individual grows.

This allows junior scholars and adjuncts and grad students and otherwise institutionally-marginalized identities to build voices and audiences even without institutional status or sanction. It allows people to join the conversation about what’s happening in their field or in higher ed in general; to make contributions for which channels do not exist at the local level. Networked platforms act as hosts for public resistance to the irreconcilable contradictions of contemporary academia, as well as society more broadly. But networked platforms are still corporate platforms, and should not be seen as neutral identity playgrounds. As Tressie MacMillan Cottom and Robert Reece ask in this sharp piece on hashtags and media visibility, “how radical can your resistance be when it both funds a corporation and is subject to the decisions of that same corporation?”

Power in Networks
Being visible in networks *can* create access to visibility and voice in broadcast media, which sometimes lends perceived credibility to the way a scholar’s work is taken up…or at least amplifies his or her name recognition. The power relations of scale are complex, though: the racism and sexism and heterosexism and able-ism and Anglo-centrism of our contemporary world are in many ways replicated in the ways voices get heard, online, and the backlash for women and people of colour who dare to speak can be vicious. The constant identity positioning and lack of transparency and understanding about how visibility works can also make the world of academic Twitter into mean streets, sometimes.

The biggest factor in building influence in networks – one that should assuage some of the arched eyebrows – is that it tends to take, like all scholarship, a great deal of time and work. Twitter is not a magical path to fame, or to celebrity academic status. In fact, on its own, it’s created few superstars: the traditional, institutional halls of power and high status still do far more to thrust scholars into influential circles of attention and public regard. Noam Chomsky’s speaking fees are not especially under threat from Twitter upstarts, and Twitter and blogging alone do not often result in New York Times gigs. But they are, now, indubitably a part of that picture, in ever-expanding circles.

I see the networked version of academic influence as what Audrey Watters calls “a cyborg tactic:” the illegitimate offspring of complex totalizing equations, and yet potentially subversive to them. This potential lies, as Haraway would put it, in the fact that illegitimate offspring are often “exceedingly unfaithful to their origins.” As a development in how scholars understand each others’ signals of credibility and reputation, networked influence is neither good nor bad, and certainly not neutral. But it is, and it is important to try to understand.

And to those who would raise their eyebrows at this assertion, I say: sometimes, folks, things shift when you’re not looking.