Academics and Social Media
| Peter Klein |
At this week’s Strategic Management Conference in Madrid I participated in an interesting session on Media Innovations, along with Will Mitchell and Wiley’s Caroline McCarley. My remarks focused on academics and their use of social media. How (if at all) can professors use blogs, videos, wikis, and other social media products to disseminate their research, to improve their teaching, and even to discover new ideas? Are social media and “serious” activities like research and class preparation substitutes or complements? Should untenured faculty avoid such distractions?
I began my remarks — where else? — with Kim Kardashian. Biologist Neil Hall made a bit of a splash a few months back by introducing the Kardashian Index, basically the ratio of an academic researcher’s Twitter followers to citations in peer-reviewed journals. (For a rough approximation, just divide Twitter followers by Google Scholar cites.) Someone with a very high K-index, the story goes, has a large popular following, but hasn’t made any important scientific contributions — in other words, like Kim, famous for being famous.
Science published a rejoinder suggesting that the K-index gets it wrong by implying, incorrectly, that popular and scholarly influence are inversely related. Indeed, among the top 20 natural scientists, by Twitter followers, are some scientific lightweights like Neil deGrasse Tyson (2.4 million Twitter followers and 151 citations), but also serious thinkers like Tim Berners-Lee (179,000 followers and 51,204 cites) and Steven Pinker (142,000 and 49,933). I haven’t run the numbers for economists and management scholars but I think you’ll find the same general pattern. E.g., among the biggies on the LDRLB Top Professors on Twitter list you find a mix of practitioner-oriented writers with modest academic influence (Bill George, Richard Florida, Stew Friedman, Gary Hamel) and scholars with huge citation counts (Mike Porter, Clay Christensen, Adam Grant).
I went on to emphasize (as usual) that, for the most part, these issues are nothing new. Scholars and thinkers throughout history have used whatever media are available to disseminate their ideas to wider audiences. In the 17th-19th centuries there were pamphlets, handbills, newspapers, and lecture halls; in the 20th century radio, magazines, TV, and other outlets. Classical economists like John Stuart Mill published anti-slavery tracts; the Verein für Socialpolitik took positions on important social issues of the day; the American Economic Association was founded to combat lassiez-faire; C. S. Lewis gave his famous wartime radio lectures; Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman dueled in the pages of Newsweek, and Friedman took to the airwaves for the PBS series “Free to Choose.” So academic bloggers, Tweeters, Facebookers, YouTubers, LinkedInners, and Instagrammers are following in a grand tradition. Of course, what’s new today is the scale; without a contract for a newspaper column or TV show, any of us can set up shop, and have the potential to reach a very wide audience.
So what exactly can one do with blogs and other social media? I see at least four roles. The first is disseminating one’s research and other professional activities to a wider audience, including colleagues, students, and the general public. “Check out my latest article.” “I’m giving a lecture on December 12.” “Please submit a proposal to this conference.” One could do the same by posting to an academic or professional listserv, or simply emailing colleagues and students, but using social media is more efficient and usually more convenient. Second, a blog or Twitter feed or whatever is like a professional journal. I often ask myself, “What was that article on X I read a while back?” and then search the archives of O&M or my Twitter feed to find it. Sharing academic and professional interests and activities via social media is a good way of keeping track of what you’re thinking and doing and, as long as your thoughts don’t include naked selfies, are probably useful and appropriate for public consumption as well. Other people might be interested in your thoughts as well!
Third, I often think of social media as water-cooler conversation. I have some great colleagues at Mizzou and NHH and Mises that I see in person on a regular basis, but via O&M, Twitter, Facebook, etc. I can shoot the (professional) breeze with far more. “What did you think of so-and-so’s article?” “Did you see that piece in the WSJ?” “Are you going to the XYZ conference?” “Does anybody know how to use the Z technique?” “Should I read this book?” “Are your students also driving you crazy?” The possibilities are endless! Via social media I have the opportunity to interact, on a variety of formal and informal levels, with far more interesting thinkers, writers, and teachers than I’d ever meet in a professional lifetime. And, importantly, it’s a two-way street. I’m not just sharing my thoughts, I’m learning from my colleagues. In fact, I get far more useful professional (and general) news from Twitter, Facebook, and my favorite blogs than I get from CNN or the New York Times!
The fourth, and perhaps most obvious, use of social media is public outreach. If I think my research or teaching or other activities could have some effect on the world, by influencing public policy, or inspiring students and practitioners, or simply changing the wider conversation on some issue or problem, then why not share it? The cost of such sharing is low, and you never know what kind of influence you might have.
Now the big question, one I’m frequently asked. How much time does all this take? Or, in other words: Wouldn’t your time be better spent writing refereed journal articles? Aren’t you damaging your reputation as a serious scholar? Who do you think you are, Kim Kardashian? Well, we don’t have much systematic evidence on this, but for me, at least, social media and “serious” activities are generally complements, rather than substitutes. I can’t spend 8 hours straight working on an article. I need some breaks, and I’d rather spend them in virtual water-cooler conversation than reading comic books or playing Freecell. And I learn a lot about my profession, about the literature in various fields, about new topics, techniques, and debates, about new teaching techniques, and other valuable bits of information from social media. I think this makes me a more well-rounded scholar, a better teacher, and a more creative and better thinker. Incidentally, I know many cases of junior scholars at high-pressure, public-or-perish institutions who did just fine in the tenure process, despite (or because of?) an active social media presence. Again, this is only anecdotal evidence, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest that (appropriate) engagement with a larger audience via social media is in any way harmful to one’s career.
Of course, everyone is different, so choose the path that’s right for you. But be aware of the potential benefits of these tools and consider using them, albeit wisely.
Update: Science came out with a revised ranking featuring a broader set of scholars, including economists. Unfortunately the citation numbers are way off, at least for a few I spot-checked (e.g., Sachs has > 60K cites, not 112; Noah Smith has < 10, not 5,483). The RAs who compiled the citation data obviously didn’t check the names very carefully. So the rankings for natural scientists are probably off too.