Building Online Academic Community: Reputation Work on Twitter

Hazel Ferguson

Abstract


Introduction 

In an era of upheaval and uncertainty for higher education institutions around the world, scholars, like those in many in other professions, are increasingly using social media to build communities around mutual support and professional development. These communities appear to offer opportunities for participants to exert more positive influence over the types of interactions they engage in with colleagues, in many cases being valued as more altruistic, transformational, or supportive than established academic structures (Gibson, and Gibbs; Mewburn, and Thomson; Maitzen). 

What has been described as ‘digital scholarship’ applies social media to “different facets of scholarly activity in a helpful and productive way” (Carrigan 5), with online scholarly communities being likened to evolutions of face-to-face practices including peer mentoring (Ferguson, and Wheat) or a “virtual staffroom” (Mewburn, and Thomson). To a large extent, these accounts of scholarly practice adapted for digital media have resonance. From writing groups (O’Dwyer, McDonough, Jefferson, Goff, and Redman-MacLaren) to conference attendance (Spilker, Silva, and Morgado) and funding (Osimo, Priego, and Vuorikari), the transformational possibilities of social media have been applied to almost every facet of existing academic practices. 

These practices have increasingly attracted scrutiny from higher education institutions, with social media profiles of staff both a potential asset and risk to institutions’ brands. Around the world, institutions use social media for marketing, student recruitment, student support and alumni communication (Palmer). As such, social media policies have emerged in recent years in attempts to ensure staff engage in ways that align with the interests of their employers (Solberg; Carrigan). However, engagement via social media is also still largely considered “supplementary to ‘real’ scholarly work” (Mussell 347).

Paralleling this trend, guides to effectively managing an online profile as a component of professional reputation have also become increasingly common (e.g. Carrigan). While public relations and management literatures have approached reputation management in terms of how an organisation is regarded by its multiple stakeholders (Fombrun) this is increasingly being applied to individuals on social media. According to Gandini a “reputation economy” (22) has come to function for knowledge workers who seek to cultivate a reputation as a good community member through sociality in order to secure more (or better) work.

The popularity of professional social media communities and scrutiny of participants raises questions about the work involved in building and participating in them. This article explores these questions through analysis of tweets from the first year of #ECRchat, a Twitter group for early career researchers (ECRs). The group was established in 2012 to provide an opportunity for ECRs (typically within five years of PhD completion) to discuss career-related issues. Since it was founded, the group has been administered through partnerships between early career scholars using a Twitter account (@ECRchat) and a blog. Tweets, the posts of 140 characters or fewer, which appear on a user’s profile and in followers’ feeds (Twitter) are organised into a ‘chat’ by participants through the use of the hashtag ‘#ECRchat’. Participants vote on chat topics and take on the role of hosting on a volunteer basis. The explicit career focus of this group provides an ideal case study to explore how work is represented in an online professionally-focused community, in order to reflect on what this might mean for the norms of knowledge work.

Digital Labour 

The impact of Internet Communication Technologies (ICT), including social media, on the lives of workers has long been a source of both concern and hope. Mobile devices, wireless Internet and associated communications software enable increasing numbers of people to take work home. This flexibility has been welcomed as the means by which workers might more successfully access jobs and manage competing commitments (Raja, Imaizumi, Kelly, Narimatsu, and Paradi-Guilford). However, hours worked from home are often unpaid and carry with them a strong likelihood of interfering with rest, recreation and family time (Pocock and Skinner). Melissa Gregg describes this as “presence bleed” (2): the dilutions of focus from everyday activities as workers increasingly use electronic devices to ‘check in’ during non-work time. 

Moving beyond the limitations of this work-life balance approach, which tends to over-state divisions between employment and other everyday life practices, a growing literature seeks to address work in online environments by analysing the types of labour being practiced, rather than seeing such practices as adjunct to physical workplaces. Responding to claims that digital communication heralds a new age of greater freedom, creativity and democratic participation, this work draws attention to the reliance of such networks on unpaid labour (e.g. Hearn; Hesmondhalgh) with ratings, reviews and relationship maintenance serving business’ economic ends alongside the individual interests which motivate participants. The immaterial, affective, and often precarious labour that has been observed is “simultaneously voluntarily given and unwaged, enjoyed and exploited” (Terranova). This work builds particularly on feminist analysis of work (see McRobbie for a discussion of this), with behind the scenes moderator, convenor, and community builder roles largely female and largely unrecognised, be they activist (Gleeson), creative (Duffy) or consumer (Arcy) groups. For some, this suggests the emergence of a new ‘women’s work’ of affective immaterial labour which goes into building transformational communities (Jarrett). 

Yet, digital labour has not yet been foregrounded within research into higher education, where it is largely practiced in the messy intersections of employment, unpaid professional development, and leisure. Joyce Goggin argues that convergence of these spheres is a feature of digital labour. Consequently, this article seeks to add a consideration of digital labour, specifically the cultural politics of work that emerge in these spaces, to the literature on digital practices as a translation of existing academic responsibilities online. In the context of widespread concerns over academic workload and job market (Bentley, Coates, Dobson, Goedegebuure, and Meek) and the growing international engagement and impact agenda (Priem, Piwowar, and Hemminger), it raises questions about the implications of these practices. 

Researching Twitter Communities 

This article analyses tweets from the publicly available Twitter timeline, containing the hashtag #ECRchat, during scheduled chats, from 1 July 2012 to 31 July 2013 (the first year of operation). Initially, all tweets in this time period were analysed in anonymised form to determine the most commonly mentioned topics during chats. This content analysis removed the most common English language words, such as: the; it; I; and RT (which stands for retweet), which would otherwise appear as top results in almost any content analysis regardless of the community of interest. 

This was followed by qualitative analysis of tweets, to explore in more depth how important issues were articulated and rationalised within the group. This draws on Catherine Driscoll’s and Melissa Gregg’s idea of “sympathetic online cultural studies” which seeks to explore online communities first and foremost as communities rather than as exemplars of online communications (15-20). Here, a narrative approach was undertaken to analyse how participants curated, made sense of, and explained their own career stories (drawing on Pamphilon). Although I do not claim that participants are representative of all ECRs, or that the ideas given the most attention during chats are representative of the experiences of all participants, representations of work articulated here are suggestive of the kinds of public utterances that were considered reasonable within this open online space. 

Participants are identified according to the twitter handle and user name they had chosen to use for the chats being analysed. This is because the practical infeasibility of guaranteeing online anonymity (readers need only to Google the text of any tweet to associate it with a particular user, in most cases) and the importance of actively involving participants as agents in the research process, in part by identifying them as authors of their own stories, rather than informants (e.g. Butz; Evans; Svalastog and Eriksson).

Representations of Work in #ECRchat 

The co-creation of the #ECRchat community through participant hosts and community votes on chat topics gave rise to a discussion group that was heavily focused on ‘the work’ of academia, including its importance in the lives of participants, relative appeal over other options, and negative effects on leisure time. I was clear that participants regarded participation as serving their professional interests, despite participation not being paid or formally recognised by employers. 

With the exception of two discussions focused on making decisions about the future of the group, #ECRchat discussions during the year of analysis focused on topics designed to help participants succeed at work such as “career progression and planning”, “different routes to postdoc funding”, and “collaboration”. At a micro-level, ‘work’ (and related terms) was the most frequently used term in #ECRchat, with its total number of uses (1372) almost double that of research (700), the next most used term. Comments during the chats reiterated this emphasis: “It’s all about the work. Be decent to people and jump through the hoops you need to, but always keep your eyes on the work” (Magennis).

The depth of participants’ commitment comes through strongly in discussions comparing academic work with other options: “pretty much everyone I know with ‘real jobs’ hates their work. I feel truly lucky to say that I love mine #ECRchat” (McGettigan). This was seen in particular in the discussion about ‘careers outside academia’. Hashtags such as #altac (referring to alternative-academic careers such as university research support or learning and teaching administration roles) and #postac (referring to PhD holders working outside of universities in research or non-research roles) used both alongside the #ECRchat hashtag and separately, provide an ongoing site of these kinds of representations. While participants in #ECRchat sought to shift this perception and were critically aware that it could lead to undesirable outcomes: “PhDs and ECRs in Humanities don’t seem to consider working outside of academia – that limits their engagement with training #ECRchat” (Faculty of Humanities at the University of Manchester), such discussions frequently describe alternative academic careers as a ‘backup plan’, should academic employment not be found. 

Additionally, many participants suggested that their working hours were excessive, extending the professional into personal spaces and times in ways that they did not see as positive. This was often described as the only way to achieve success: “I hate to say it, but one of the best ways to improve track record is to work 70+ hours a week, every week. Forever. #ecrchat” (Dunn). One of the key examples of this dynamic was the scheduling of the chat itself. When founded in 2012, #ECRchat ran in the Australian evening and UK morning, eliding the personal/work distinction for both its coordinators and participants. While considerable discussion was concerned with scheduling the chat during times when a large number of international participants could attend, this discussion centred on waking rather than working hours. The use of scheduled tweets and shared work between convenors in different time zones (Australia and the United Kingdom) maintained an around the clock online presence, extending well beyond the ordinary working hours of any individual participant.

Personal Disclosure 

The norms that were articulated in #ECRchat are perhaps not surprising for a group of participants seeking to establish themselves in a profession where a long-hours culture and work-life interference are common (Bentley, Coates, Dobson, Goedegebuure, and Meek). However, what is notable is that participation frequently involved the extension of the personal into the professional and in support of professional aims. In the chat’s first year, an element of personal disclosure and support for others became key to acting as a good community member. Beyond the well-established norms of white collar workers demonstrating professionalism by deploying “courtesy, helpfulness, and kindness” (Mills xvii), this community building relied on personal disclosure which to some extent collapsed personal and professional boundaries.

By disclosing individual struggles, anxieties, and past experiences participants contributed to a culture of support. This largely functioned through discussions of work stress rather than leisure: “I definitely don’t have [work-life balance]. I think it’s because I don’t have a routine so work and home constantly blend into one another” (Feely). Arising from these discussions, ideas to help participants better navigate and build academic careers was one of the main ways this community support and concern was practiced: “I think I’m often more productive and less anxious if I'm working on a couple of things in parallel, too #ecrchat” (Brian).

Activities such as preparing meals, caring for family, and leisure activities, became part of the discussion. “@snarkyphd Sorry, late, had to deal with toddler. Also new; currently doing casual teaching/industry work & applying for postdocs #ecrchat” (Ronald). Exclusively professional profiles were considered less engaging than the combination of personal and professional that most participants adopted: “@jeanmadams I’ve answered a few queries on ResearchGate, but agree lack of non-work opinions / personality makes them dull #ecrchat” (Tennant). However, this is not to suggest that these networks become indistinguishable from more informal, personal, or leisurely uses of social media: “@networkedres My ‘professional’ online identity is slightly more guarded than my ‘facebook’ id which is for friends and family #ECRchat” (Wheat). Instead, disclosure of certain kinds of work struggles came to function as a positive contribution to a more reflexive professionalism. In the context of work-focused discussion, #ECRchat opens important spaces for scholars to question norms they considered damaging or at least make these tacit norms explicit and receive support to manage them. 

Affective Labour 

The professional goals and focus of #ECRchat, combined with the personal support and disclosure that forms the basis for the supportive elements in this group is arguably one of its strongest and most important elements. Mark Carrigan suggests that the practices of revealing something of the struggles we experience could form the basis for a new collegiality, where common experiences which had previously not been discussed publicly are for the first time recognised as systemic, not individual challenges. 

However, there is work required to provide context and support for these emotional experiences which is largely invisible here, as has typically been the case in other communities. Such ‘affective labour’ “involves the production and manipulation of affect and requires (virtual or actual) human contact, labour in the bodily mode … the labour is immaterial, even if it is corporeal and affective, in the sense that its products are intangible, a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement or passion” (Hardt, and Negri 292). In #ECRchat, this ranges from managing the schedule and organising discussions – which involves following up offers to help, assisting people to understand the task, and then ensuring things go ahead as planned –to support offered by members of the group within discussions. This occurs in the overlaps between personal and professional representations, taking a variety of forms from everyday reassurance, affirmation, and patience: “Sorry to hear - hang in there. Hope you have a good support network. #ECRchat” (Galea) to empathy often articulated alongside the disclosure discussed earlier: “The feeling of guilt over not working sounds VERY familiar! #ecrchat” (Vredeveldt).

The point here is not to suggest that this work is not sufficiently valued by participants, or that it does not parallel the kinds of work undertaken in more formal job roles, including in academia, where management, conference convening or participation in professional societies, and teaching, as just a few examples, involve degrees of affective labour. However, as a consequence of the (semi)public nature of these groups, the interactions observed here appear to represent a new inflection of professional reputation work, where, in building online professional communities, individuals peg their professional reputations to these forms of affective labour. Importantly, given the explicitly professional nature of the group, these efforts are not counted as part of the formal workload of those involved, be they employed (temporarily or more securely) inside or outside universities, or not in the paid workforce.  

Conclusion 

A growing body of literature demonstrates that online academic communities can provide opportunities for collegiality, professional development, and support: particularly among emerging scholars. These accounts demonstrate the value of digital scholarly practices across a range of academic work. However, this article’s discussion of the work undertaken to build and maintain #ECRchat in its first year suggests that these practices at the messy intersections of employment, unpaid professional development, and leisure constitute a new inflection of professional reputation and service work. This work involves publicly building a reputation as a good community member through a combination of personal disclosure and affective labour.

In the context of growing emphasis on the economic, social, and other impacts of academic research and concerns over work intensification, this raises questions about possible scope for, and impact of, formal recognition of digital academic labour. While institutions’ work planning and promotion processes may provide opportunities to recognise work developing professional societies or conferences as a leadership or service to a discipline, this new digital service work remains outside the purview of such recognition and reward systems. Further research into the relationships between academic reputation and digital labour will be needed to explore the implications of this for institutions and academics alike.  

Acknowledgements

I would like to gratefully acknowledge the contributions and support of everyone who participated in developing and sustaining #ECRchat. Both online and offline, this paper and the community itself would not have been possible without many generous contributions of time, understanding and thoughtful discussion. In particular, I would like to thank Katherine L. Wheat, co-founder and convenor, as well as Beth Montague-Hellen, Ellie Mackin, and Motje Wolf, who have taken on convening the group in the years since my involvement. 

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Keywords


social media; research workforce; working cultures; digital labour



Copyright (c) 2017 Hazel Ferguson

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