"How do you find the time to use social media?"
It’s a question I’m frequently asked as an academic — and one I’ve never been certain of how to answer. There are a lot of assumptions packed into that question: Social media is a challenge that has to be negotiated. Social media is a drain on your time. Social media is a distraction from "real work."
Some of those assumptions are certainly true. Social media can be a black hole into which time and energy vanishes, never to be seen again. But there is no reason why that needs to be true. There are useful tools — like Freedom, RescueTime, and Be Focused — designed for the purpose of managing your online time, and they ought to be used more widely than they are.
Furthermore, we need to get away from the underlying assumption that social media is extrinsic to scholarship. That widely held view sees social media as distinct from legitimate academic work. It’s something beyond the day job, a perhaps unwelcome addition to already overlong to-do lists and already overburdened professional lives.
If that were true, it would be a wonder any faculty members use social media at all. In reality, much of what academics do with social media is scholarship. It might look different, using tools which are new, but the activities themselves are familiar: finding opportunities, exploring publications, developing our ideas, responding to current events, and discussing what we are doing with colleagues and collaborators.
Of course not everything that faculty members do on social media is scholarship. But then, not everything we do at academic conferences involves research either, and we don’t see them rendered as intrinsically unscholarly.
It might help to give an example. Before I created a research blog, I used to carry a series of ornate notebooks in which to record my ideas, reflect on what I had read, and sketch out my plans — or rather I tried to carry them. Inevitably I forgot them at the most inopportune moments, reducing me to scribbling notes on scraps of paper, only to fail to transcribe them at a later date. Even when I managed to record my notes, my overly-enthusiastic scrawls often proved indecipherable when I came back to them.
In contrast, my research blog is accessible to me wherever I have a mobile phone or computer. The expectation that others might read my notes forces me to work out what I am trying to say, rather than scribbling down in shorthand ideas that might feel meaningful to me at the time but are often confusing later.
Sharing those blog posts through my social-media feeds often leads to useful conversations — at a much earlier stage in the research process than would otherwise be the case. It creates an awareness of what I’m working on, and has often been the first step in eventual invitations to speak or collaborate. The fact that I can categorize and tag my online notes helps me see connections between different projects I am working on, highlighting emerging themes and deepening my understanding of how the topics fit together. Having my notes online also makes them extremely easy to search, providing a fantastic resource when I am writing papers and chapters.
My point is not that everyone should use a research blog. There are many reasons why it might not be suitable for you: (1) Without a smartphone, a blog would be much less useful; (2) some people find that writing by hand actually helps, rather than hinders, the creative process; and (3) many academics are uncomfortable with sharing work-in-progress online with an unknown audience.
Exactly which technology works for which person will depend on many factors. But in my case, moving from a research notebook to a research blog helped me become a more efficient and effective scholar. Rather than being an unwelcome drain, social media has helped me use my time more effectively.
There are many other instances where this has proved to be the case:
- Sourcing suggestions of relevant literature on new topics.
- Getting feedback on ideas I’m experimenting with.
- Promoting events I’ve organized.
- Keeping a community I’m conducting research with informed about what I’m doing.
- Ensuring that journalists and broadcasters are able to find out about the work I’m doing.
- Promoting my work once it has been released.
Social media hasn’t made those things more difficult — it’s made them easier. A lot easier. And those are only a few of the activities that social media has allowed me to undertake with a speed and effectiveness that would simply be impossible otherwise.
That doesn’t mean social media doesn’t take time, only that it can also save time. If we see Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other online media in a zero-sum relationship with our scholarship — inevitably eating into the time we have allotted for "real work" — we’ll fail to see these opportunities when they emerge. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution because scholars are as diverse as the work that they do. But what’s clear is that social media offers an exciting range of opportunities to work in new and different ways, some of which can undoubtedly make us into more efficient and effective researchers.
Approached with that attitude, it is much easier to use social media in a focused way. Rather than seeing it as an additional item to be placed on already overly-long task lists, it becomes a background feature of your everyday work life. It’s something we use because it enhances activities we would otherwise be undertaking, rather than as an end in itself.
I recognize that this distinction might not always be so clear in practice, but it’s a crucial one if we aspire to use social media in a purposive way. There’s always the possibility of getting sucked into one thing (like the latest news or online outrage) when we are trying to do something else. Social media always risks becoming a distraction. These platforms have been designed for that purpose, in order to maximize the time and attention users spend on them. That’s why it is so important to reflect on what we are doing with them, and why, in order to determine how we can best use them rather than slipping into counterproductive habits.
If you want to ensure that you are using these platform — rather than being used by them — write a list of the scholarly activities you engage in each week. How many of them have you tried using social media to support? The more you are able to use social media to support your existing activities, the easier it becomes to be actively engaged with professional and public audiences without it taking up too much of your time. It will also be more fun and helpful than simply doing it because you feel you ought to.