Social Media as Tools of Exclusion in Academia?

Authors

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1693

Keywords:

social media, academics, scholars, exclusion, career

How to Cite

Thiele, F. (2020). Social Media as Tools of Exclusion in Academia?. M/C Journal, 23(6). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1693
Vol. 23 No. 6 (2020): exclusion
Published 2020-11-28 — Updated on 2020-11-28
Articles

Introduction

I have this somewhat diffuse concern that at some point, I am in an appointment procedure ... and people say: ‘He has to ... be on social media, [and] have followers ..., because otherwise he can’t say anything about the field of research, otherwise he won’t identify with it … and we need a direct connection to legitimise our discipline in the population!’ And this is where I think: ‘For God’s sake! No, I really don’t want that.’ (Postdoc)

Social media such as Facebook or Twitter have become an integral part of many people’s everyday lives and have introduced severe changes to the ways we communicate with each other and about ourselves. Presenting ourselves on social media and creating different online personas has become a normal practice (Vorderer et al. 270). While social media such as Facebook were at first mostly used to communicate with friends and family, they were soon also used for work-related communication (Cardon and Marshall). Later, professional networks such as LinkedIn, which focus on working relations and career management and special interest networks, such as the academic social networking sites (ASNS) Academia.edu and ResearchGate, catering specifically to academic needs, emerged.

Even though social media have been around for more than 15 years now, academics in general and German academics in particular are rather reluctant users of these tools in a work-related context (König and Nentwich 175; Lo 155; Pscheida et al. 1). This is surprising as studies indicate that the presence and positive self-portrayal of researchers in social media as well as the distribution of articles via social networks such as Academia.edu or ResearchGate have a positive effect on the visibility of academics as well as the likelihood of their articles being read and cited (Eysenbach; Lo 192; Terras). Gruzd, Staves, and Wilk even assume that the presence in online media could become a relevant criterion in the allocation of scientific jobs.

Science is a field where competition for long-term positions is high. In 2017, only about 17% of all scientific personnel in Germany had permanent positions, and of these 10% were professors (Federal Statistical Office 32). Having a professorship is therefore the best shot at obtaining a permanent position in the scientific field. However, the average vocational age is 40 (Zimmer et al. 40), which leads to a long phase of career-related uncertainty. Directing attention to yourself by acquiring knowledge in the use of social media for professional self-representation might offer a career advantage when trying to obtain a professorship. At the same time, social media, which have been praised for giving a voice to the unheard, become a tool for the exclusion of scholars who might not want or be able to use these tools as part of their work and career-related communication, and might remain unseen and unheard.

The author obtained current data on this topic while working on a project on Mediated Scholarly Communication in Post-Normal and Traditional Science under the project lead of Corinna Lüthje. The project was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). In the project, German-speaking scholars were interviewed about their work-related media usage in qualitative interviews. Among them were users and non-users of social media. For this article, 16 interviews with communication scholars (three PhD students, six postdocs, seven professors) were chosen for a closer analysis, because of all the interviewees they described the (dis)advantages of career-related social media use in the most detail, giving the deepest insights into whether social media contribute to a social exclusion of academics or not.

How to Define Social Exclusion (in Academia)?

The term social exclusion describes a separation of individuals or groups from mainstream society (Walsh et al.). Exclusion is a practice which implies agency. It can be the result of the actions of others, but individuals can also exclude themselves by choosing not to be part of something, for example of social media and the communication taking part there (Atkinson 14).

Exclusion is an everyday social practice, because wherever there is an in-group there will always be an out-group. This is what Bourdieu calls distinction. Symbols and behaviours of distinction both function as signs of demarcation and belonging (Bourdieu, Distinction). Those are not always explicitly communicated, but part of people’s behaviour. They act on a social sense by telling them how to behave appropriately in a certain situation. According to Bourdieu, the practical sense is part of the habitus (Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice). The habitus generates patterns of action that come naturally and do not have to be reflected by the actor, due to an implicit knowledge that is acquired during the course of (group-specific) socialisation.

For scholars, the process of socialisation in an area of research involves the acquisition of a so-called disciplinary self-image, which is crucial to building a disciplinary identity. In every discipline it contains a dominant disciplinary self-image which defines the scientific perspectives, practices, and even media that are typically used and therefore belong to the mainstream of a discipline (Huber 24). Yet, there is a societal mainstream outside of science which scholars are a part of. Furthermore, they have been socialised into other groups as well. Therefore, the disciplinary mainstream and the habitus of its members can be impacted upon by the societal mainstream and other fields of society. For example, societally mainstream social media, such as Twitter or Facebook, focussing on establishing and sustaining social connections, might be used for scholarly communication just as well as ASNS. The latter cater to the needs of scholars to not just network with colleagues, but to upload academic articles, share and track them, and consume scholarly information (Meishar-Tal and Pieterse 17). Both can become part of the disciplinary mainstream of media usage.

In order to define whether and how social media contribute to forms of social exclusion among communication scholars, it is helpful to first identify in how far their usage is part of the disciplinary mainstream, and what their including features are. In contrast to this, forms of exclusion will be analysed and discussed on the basis of qualitative interviews with communication scholars.

Including Features of Social Media for Communication Scholars

The interviews for this essay were first conducted in 2016. At that time all of the 16 communication scholars interviewed used at least one social medium such as ResearchGate (8), Academia.edu (8), Twitter (10), or Facebook (11) as part of their scientific workflow. By 2019, all of them had a ResearchGate and 11 an Academia.edu account, 13 were on Twitter and 13 on Facebook. This supports the notion of one of the professors, who said that he registered with ResearchGate in 2016 because "everyone’s doing that now!” It also indicates that the work-related presence especially on ResearchGate, but also on other social media, is part of the disciplinary mainstream of communication science.

The interviewees figured that the social media they used helped them to increase their visibility in their own community through promoting their work and networking. They also mentioned that they were helpful to keep up to date on the newest articles and on what was happening in communication science in general.

The usage of ResearchGate and Academia.edu focussed on publications. Here the scholars could, as one professor put it, access articles that were not available via their university libraries, as well as “previously unpublished articles”. They also liked that they could see "what other scientists are working on" (professor) and were informed via e-mail "when someone publishes a new publication" (PhD student). The interviewees saw clear advantages to their registration with the ASNS, because they felt that they became "much more visible and present" (postdoc) in the scientific community. Seven of the communication scholars (two PhD students, three postdocs, two professors) shared their publications on ResearchGate and Academia.edu. Two described doing cross-network promotion, where they would write a post about their publications on Twitter or Facebook that linked to the full article on Academia.edu or ResearchGate.

The usage of Twitter and especially Facebook focussed a lot more on accessing discipline-related information and social networking. The communication scholars mentioned that various sections and working groups of professional organisations in their research field had accounts on Facebook, where they would post news. A postdoc said that she was on Facebook "because I get a lot of information from certain scientists that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise".

Several interviewees pointed out that Twitter is "a place where you can find professional networks, become a part of them or create them yourself" (professor). On Twitter the interviewees explained that they were rather making new connections. Facebook was used to maintain and intensify existing professional relationships. They applied it to communicate with their local networks at their institute, just as well as for international communication. A postdoc and a professor both mentioned that they perceived that Scandinavian or US-American colleagues were easier to contact via Facebook than via any other medium. One professor described how he used Facebook at international conferences to arrange meetings with people he knew and wanted to meet. But to him Facebook also catered to accessing more personal information about his colleagues, thus creating a new "mixture of professional respect for the work of other scientists and personal relationships", which resulted in a "new kind of friendship".

Excluding Features of Social Media for Communication Scholars

While everyone may create an Academia.edu, Facebook, or Twitter account, ResearchGate is already an exclusive network in itself, as only people working in a scientific field are allowed to join. In 2016, eight of the interviewees and in 2019 all of them had signed up to ResearchGate. So at least among the communication scholars, this did not seem to be an excluding factor. More of an issue was for one of the postdocs that she did not have the copyright to upload her published articles on the ASNS and therefore refrained from uploading them. Interestingly enough, this did not seem to worry any of the other interviewees, and concerns were mostly voiced in relation to the societal mainstream social media.

Although all of the interviewees had an account with at least one social medium, three of them described that they did not use or had withdrawn from using Facebook and Twitter. For one professor and one PhD student this had to do with the privacy and data security issues of these networks. The PhD student said that she did not want to be reminded of what she “tweeted maybe 10 years ago somewhere”, and also considered tweeting to be irrelevant in her community. To her, important scientific findings would rather be presented in front of a professional audience and not so much to the “general public”, which she felt was mostly addressed on social media.

The professor mentioned that she had been on Facebook since she was a postdoc, but decided to stop using the service when it introduced new rules on data security. On one hand she saw the “benefits” of the network to “stay informed about what is happening in the community”, and especially “in regards to the promotion of young researchers, since some of the junior research groups are very active there”. On the other she found it problematic for her own time management and said that she received a lot of the posted information via e-mail as well.
A postdoc mentioned that he had a Facebook account to stay in contact with young scholars he met at a networking event, but never used it. He would rather connect with his colleagues in person at conferences. He felt people would just use social media to “show off what they do and how awesome it is”, which he did not understand. He mentioned that if this “is how you do it now … I don't think this is for me.”

Another professor described that Facebook "is the channel for German-speaking science to generate social traffic”, but that he did not like to use it, because “there is so much nonsense ... . It’s just not fun. Twitter is more fun, but the effect is much smaller", as bigger target groups could be reached via Facebook.

The majority of the interviewees did not use mainstream social media because they were intrinsically motivated. They rather did it because they felt that it was expected of them to be there, and that it was important for their career to be visible there. Many were worried that they would miss out on opportunities to promote themselves, network, and receive information if they did not use Twitter or Facebook. One of the postdocs mentioned, for example, that she was not a fan of Twitter and would often not know what to write, but that the professor she worked for had told her she needed to tweet regularly. But she did see the benefits as she said that she had underestimated the effect of this at first: “I think, if you want to keep up, then you have to do that, because people don’t notice you.” This also indicates a disciplinary mainstream of social media usage.

Conclusion

The interviews indicate that the usage of ResearchGate in particular, but also of Academia.edu and of the societal mainstream social media platforms Twitter and Facebook has become part of the disciplinary mainstream of communication science and the habitus of many of its members. ResearchGate mainly targets people working in the scientific field, while excluding everyone else. Its focus on publication sharing makes the network very attractive among its main target group, and serves at the same time as a symbol of distinction from other groups (Bourdieu, Distinction). Yet it also raises copyright issues, which led at least one of the participants to refrain from using this option.

The societal mainstream social media Twitter and Facebook, on the other hand, have a broader reach and were more often used by the interviewees for social networking purposes than the ASNS. The interviewees emphasised the benefits of Twitter and Facebook for exchanging information and connecting with others.

Factors that led the communication scholars to refrain from using the networks, and thus were excluding factors, were data security and privacy concerns; disliking that the networks were used to “show off”; as well as considering Twitter and Facebook as unfit for addressing the scholarly target group properly. The last statement on the target group, which was made by a PhD student, does not seem to represent the mainstream of the communication scholars interviewed, however. Many of them were using Twitter and Facebook for scholarly communication and rather seemed to find them advantageous. Still, this perception of the disciplinary mainstream led to her not using them for work-related purposes, and excluding her from their advantages.

Even though, as one professor described it, a lot of information shared via Facebook is often spread through other communication channels as well, some can only be received via the networks. Although social media are mostly just a substitute for face-to-face communication, by not using them scholars will miss out on the possibilities of creating the “new kind of friendship” another professor mentioned, where professional and personal relations mix. The results of this study show that social media use is advantageous for academics as they offer possibilities to access exclusive information, form new kinds of relations, as well as promote oneself and one’s publications. At the same time, those not using these social media are excluded and might experience career-related disadvantages. As described in the introduction, academia is a competitive environment where many people try to obtain a few permanent positions. By default, this leads to processes of exclusion rather than integration. Any means to stand out from competitors are welcome to emerging scholars, and a career-related advantage will be used. If the growth in the number of communication scholars in the sample signing up to social networks between 2016 to 2019 is any indication, it is likely that the networks have not yet reached their full potential as tools for career advancement among scientific communities, and will become more important in the future.

Now one could argue that the communication scholars who were interviewed for this essay are a special case, because they might use social media more actively than other scholars due to their area of research. Though this might be true, studies of other scholarly fields show that social media are being applied just the same (though maybe less extensively), and that they are used to establish cooperations and increase the amount of people reading and citing their publications (Eysenbach; Lo 192; Terras). The question is whether researchers will be able to avoid using social media when striving for a career in science in the future, which can only be answered by further research on the topic.

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Author Biography

Franziska Thiele, University of Rostock

Franziska Thiele is a communication scholar working at the Institute of Media Research of the University of Rostock. Her research focuses on scholarly communication, power relations and media effects.