How do I use social media for networking?

By Mark Carrigan

‘Networking’ is a horrible term.  I’m sure I’m not the only person who hates it. It  nonetheless refers to something important, albeit perhaps pervasively misunderstood. The usual connotations of the term ‘networking’ are insincerity, instrumentalism and general creepiness. There have been a few occasions when I’ve been conscious of being ‘networked’ by someone else in a way that made me deeply uncomfortable. It’s worse when someone is really good at it, projecting enthusiasm for their encounter with you while nonetheless failing to engage with anything you’re actually saying: smiling plausibly while looking over your shoulder to check if anyone more useful has entered the vicinity.

In fact I think ‘useful’ is the key term to understanding the problem here. If you see ‘networking’ in terms of people being ‘useful’ to you then it will be a soul-destroying activity. You’ll either succeed in building a collection of ‘useful’ people around you (and destroy your soul in the process) or your confidence will be crushed by the feeling you’ve pervasively failed to do things properly (though your soul may very well be intact).

Rather than ‘useful’, we should think in terms of ‘interesting’: arousing curiosity or interest. Who do you find interesting? What do you share with them? What differences and commonalities are there in how you approach a shared interest? Setting out to build a network of people you hope might one day be useful to you is creepy and disturbing. Approaching academic life with the intention of having as many friendly conversations as you can with people who share your interests is incredibly rewarding.

Social media can be immensely powerful tools for networking in this sense. The first step to doing this successfully is to give people a clear sense of what it is you are interested in. This involves choosing facts about yourself, compiling them into a story and telling this story through your social media accounts. Here are the most common features of profiles like this:

  • Your institutional affiliation
  • Your research interests
  • Other accounts you’re involved with
  • Your personal interests
  • Hashtags you contribute to
  • An institutional disclaimer
  • An additional website

This will always be an ongoing process because yourself, your position and your interests change over time. It can be a helpful exercise to try using different formats to tell a story about yourself, what you’re interested in and who you’d be interested in talking to. Try having a go at crafting an online identity in each of the following formats:

  1. One paragraph
  2. 160-character Twitter bio
  3. 2–3 word tagline, intended as a pithy summary of yourself

The limitations on Twitter can seem restrictive but there’s a lot you can say in the 160 characters which Twitter allows for profiles.  My favourite example of this is the profile of Yanis Varoufakis below who positions himself in a vivid, memorable and detailed way. Other platforms give you much more room to tell a story, particularly if you’re using a blog. Though brevity will always be valuable in the distracting and distracted environments of social media. Choosing a picture and a header image is also important. What do you want to convey? Do you want people to be able to recognise you at conferences? What do other people in your field use for this?

Once you’ve given people a sense of where you’re coming from, networking becomes a matter of what you do with social media. Here are a few general strategies about using social media for this, with a bias towards Twitter simply because this is such an powerful means for networking in the sense in which we’re talking about it:

  1. Share what you care about online. In a recent book, the Sociologist Les Back suggests that Twitter sometimes facilitates our “inhabiting the attentiveness of another writer” by providing “signposts pointing to things going on in the world: a great article, an important book, a breaking story”. Through the things that others share, we sometimes enter into their world and participate in an economy of “hunches and tips” which is the “lifeblood of scholarship”. These provide pathways through the literature, allowing others to use them as guides into and through often difficult bodies of work. If you consistently share what you care about then other people to whom this matter will find you online. It’s in this subtle way that I think everyday use of social media can help mitigate the competitive individualism which dominates the academy.
  2. When in doubt, connect! The capacity of social media to flatten academic hierarchies is vastly overstated but there’s a kernel of truth to it: unless you’re a remarkably outgoing and talented networker, it’s much easier to approach well known academics online then it is in person. If you find yourself hesitating about whether to make contact with them, err on the side of connection. At worst they’ll ignore you & the architecture of social media is built from the ground up to encourage people to interact as much as possible. Furthermore, use community resources like hashtags to connect with others at a similar stage to you.
  3. Ensure you have a way of following people doing interesting work when you encounter them. At its most simple, this might be simply following them on a platform or adding them to a Twitter list. But if you use software like an RSS reader, it ensures that if you stumble across someone’s writing then you’ll always be able to come back to it at a later stage. People who share your academic interests now will almost certainly still be interesting later, even if they go on to do different things. This can include looking to see if people you see talk at conferences have academic social networking profiles (e.g. Academia.Edu), Twitter feeds or blogs and connecting with in this way. If you have a question about their talk then why not ask them online?

There are many platform specific issues we could discuss but it’s helpful to begin on this general level. It’s not something you have to think about in as much details as the awful language of ‘networking’ tends to suggest. If you see this as a case of building connections with other people who share your interests, in order to talk about those shared interests, it’s a relatively straight-forward matter even if the academic context can make it seem like a rather difficult thing.

The epistemic privilege of platforms

By Mark Carrigan

What is the relationship between platforms and their users? I’ve been thinking about this all morning while reading The Know‑It‑Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball, by Noam Cohen. On loc 277 he writes:

In fact, tech companies believe that through artificial intelligence tools they understand their users’ state of mind in a way few other companies can, and far better than any regulator. They can track, measure, and analyze the billions of decisions their users make, and they can detect even the most minor feature that may be turning them off. And rather than wait for problems, these companies can compel their users to express a preference by staging so-called A/ B testing, which involves showing groups of users slightly different versions of the site and measuring which group stays longer and is thus happier with the experience. Google famously went so far as to prepare forty-one shades of blue to test which was the best color for displaying links in its Gmail service.

This epistemic privilege is inflated but it nonetheless has to be taken seriously. There are forms of knowledge about users which platforms have unique access to, discerning real-time behaviour (including responses to planned stimuli) with a degree of granularity that would be difficult to match in any other context. What matters is how this epistemic relation is raised into a political claim: if we know our users better than any external party, how could regulation be anything other than incompetent?

This relies on a reduction of the salient characteristics of the user to their actions which register within the confines of the platform, representing the core of what I’ve written about in an upcoming chapter as the evisceration of the human: the reduction of real agency to its empirical traces. Furthermore, it is bound up with the conviction of transcending the murky mess of self-interpretation, offering apparent insight into what OK Cupid data scientist Christian Rudder memorably described as Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) in the subtitle to his book Dataclysm. This is bound up in a political economy which Mark Andrejevic identifies on loc 870 of his InfoGlut:

In this regard the digital era opens up a new form of digital divide: that between those with access to the databases and those without. For those with access, the way in which data is understood and used will be fundamentally transformed. There will be no attempt to read and comprehend all of the available data – the task would be all but impossible. Correlations can be unearthed and acted upon, but only by those with access to the database and the processing power. Two different information cultures will come to exist side by side: on the one hand, the familiar, “old- fashioned” one in which people attempt to make sense of the world based on the information they can access: news reports, blog posts, the words of others and the evidence of their own experience. On the other hand, computers equipped with algorithms that can “teach” themselves will advance the instrumental pragmatics of the database: the ability to use tremendous amounts of data without understanding it.

Does anyone know of ethnographic work which looks at how this epistemic relation is talked about in everyday labour within these firms? It must presumably be invoked constantly, in an everyday manner, during user interface design and similar activities. This could help elucidate the micro-structure for the inflation of epistemic privilege which I suspect Cohen is correct to identify as one source of hostility to regulation.

How do you find the time for social media?

By Mark Carrigan 

How do you find the time for social media? I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I have been asked this question over the years. I have often struggled to respond because I disagree with the assumption which often lurks behind the question. If we see social media as something scholars need to make time for, it assumes social media is something extrinsic to scholarship. It is framed as an additional burden, something to add to a to do list, rather than being a way of doing scholarship. Social media is scholarship, at least to a certain extent. This can seem like a profoundly counter-intuitive statement, reflecting the continued presence of many who see social media as irrelevant to or actively contrary to the real business of the university. But if we look at what scholars actually do on social media, we find many activities which are obviously scholarly. If we focus how social media is being used, rather than the platforms themselves, it becomes easier to see how they can be incorporated into day-to-day routines. If we can incorporate social media into our workflow, it no longer becomes a question of ‘finding time’ for social media but rather of the time which social media enables us to save.

This might sound far fetched so an example would be useful. How do you prepare for talks? This blog post is being written to prepare for a short talk at the start of the first drop in session which myself and Tyler Shores are running in May 2018. I went on a night time walk, mulling over potential topics for the session before coming back and writing the blog post in one sitting. Tomorrow morning, I’ll read back over it before the session. The blog post is an integral part of preparing for a talk. The immediacy with which I release it out into the world, the expectation of a response and the familiarity of the WordPress interface make it much easier to gather my thoughts and prepare an argument than it would otherwise be. I find a blog post of 500-750 words to be a fantastic way of preparing for a short talk of 10 minutes or so. It also saves me time. It documents the session Tyler and I are doing as a by-product of preparing for it. It also allows me to gather my thoughts more quickly than other methods I’ve tried, though perhaps less reliably for longer talks. For more complex talks, I often need a multi-stage process, such as a Twitter thread followed by a blog post. Twitter threads can also be a superb way of reflecting on a talk after it has taken place. The tweet below is the first in a thread picking up arguments I made at the CPGJ work in progress seminar, giving me an opportunity to finesse my understanding of  them following the responses to my talk:

What activities do you undertake in a typical working day? On the day I’ve written this post, I’ve prepared a statement of support for a funding application, planned and promoted upcoming events, designed the outline for an upcoming workshop and wrote this blog post. Not all of these activities could be conducted through social media. But there are always ones which could be. If you find yourself trying to find time for social media, I recommend looking carefully at how you use social media at present. What are you using it for? Then consider the scholarly activities you engage in each day and see if there are ways in which social media could be incorporated into these. If it becomes an item on a to do list, it’s likely to be a burden and it probably won’t be one you prioritise. Whereas if you find ways to incorporate it into your everyday working life, it will be immediate and enjoyable, as well as perhaps saving you time.

Is there such a thing as ‘centrist’ higher education policy?

By Jana Bacevic

This Thursday, I was at the Institute of Education in London, at the launch of David Willetts’ new book, A University Education. The book is another contribution to what I argued constitutes a veritable ‘boom’ in writing on the fate and future of higher education; my research is concerned, among other things, with the theoretical and political question of the relationship between this genre of critique and the social conditions of its production. However, this is not the only reason why I found it interesting: rather, it is because it sets out what may  become Conservatives’ future  policy for higher education. In broader terms, it’s an attempt to carve a political middle ground between Labour’s (supposedly ‘radical’) proposal for the abolition of fees, and the clear PR/political disaster that unmitigated marketisation of higher education has turned out to be. Differently put: it’s the higher education manifesto for what should presumably be the ‘middle’ of UK’s political spectrum.

The book

Critics of the transformation of UK higher education would probably be inclined to dismiss the book with a simple “Ah, Willetts: fees”. On the other hand, it has received a series of predominantly laudatory reviews – some of them, arguably, from people who know or have worked in the same sector as the author. Among the things the reviewers commend is the book’s impressive historical scope, as well as the additional value of ‘peppering’ with anecdotes from Willetts’ time as Minister for Universities and Science. There is substance to both: the anecdotes are sometimes straightforwardly funny, and the historical bits well researched, duly referencing notable predecessors from Kingsley Amis, through C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis, to Halsey’s “Decline of Donnish Dominion” (though, as James Wilsdon remarked at the event, less so the more recent critics, such as Andrew McGettigan). Yet, what clearly stood out to me, on first reading, is that both historical and personal parts of the narrative are there to support the main argument: that market competition is, and was, the way to ‘solve’ problems of higher education (and, to some degree, the society in general); and that the government is uniquely capable of instituting such a market.

The development of higher education in Britain, in this sense, is told as the story of slow movement against the monopoly (or duopoly) of Oxford and Cambridge, and their selective, elitist model. Willetts recounts the struggle to establish what he (in a not particularly oblique invocation) refers to as ‘challenger’ institutions, from colleges that will become part of the University of London in the 19th century, all the way until Robbins and his own time in government. Fees, loans, and income-contingent repayment are, in this sense, presented as a way to solve the problem of expansion: in other words, their purpose was to make university education both more accessible (as admittance is no longer dependent on inherited privilege) and fairer (as the cost is defrayed not through all taxpayers but only through those who benefit directly from university education, and whose earnings reflect it).

Competition, competition, competition

Those familiar with the political economy of higher education will probably not have problems locating these ideas as part of a neoliberal playbook: competition is necessary to prevent the forming of monopolies, but the government needs to ensure competition actually happens, and this is why it needs to regulate a sector – but from a distance. I unfortunately have no time to get into this argument ; other authors, over the course of the last two decades, have engaged with various assumptions that underpin it. What I would like to turn to instead is the role that the presumably monopolistic ‘nature’ of universities plays in the argument.

Now, engaging with the critique of Oxford and Cambridge is tricky as it risks being interpreted (often, rightly) as a thinly veiled apology of their elitism. As a sociologist of higher education with first-hand experience of both, I’ve always been very – and vocally – far from uncritical endorsement of either. Yet, as Priyamvada Gopal noted not long ago, Oxbridge-bashing in itself constitutes an empty ritual that cannot replace serious engagement with social inequalities. In this sense, one of the reasons why English universities are hierarchical, elitist, and prone to reproducing accumulated privilege is because they are a reflection of their society: unequal, elitist, and fascinated with accumulated privilege (witness the obsession with the Royal Family). Of course, no one is blind to the role which institutions of higher education, and in particular elite universities, play in this. But thinking that ‘solving’ the problem of elite universities is going to solve society’s ills is, at best, an overestimation of their power, and at worst a category error.

Framing competition as a way to solve problems of inequality is, unfortunately, one of the cases where the treatment may be worse than the disease. British universities have shown a stubborn tendency to reproduce existing hierarchies no matter what attempts were made to challenge them – the abolition of differences between universities and polytechnics in 1992; the introduction of rankings and league tables; competitive research funding. The market, in this sense, acts not as “the great leveler” but rather as yet another way of instituting hierarchical relationships, except that mechanisms of reproduction are channeled away from professional (or professorial, in this case) control and towards the government, or, better still, towards supposedly independent and impartial regulatory bodies.

Of course, in comparison with Toby Young’s ‘progressive’ eugenics and rape jokes, Willetts’ take on higher education really sounds rather sensible. His critique of early specialisation is well placed; he addresses head-on the problem of equitable distribution; and, as reviews never tire of mentioning, he really knows universities. In other words: he sounds like one of us. Much like Andrew Adonis, on (presumably) other side of the political spectrum, who took issue with vice chancellors’ pay – one of the rare issues on which the opinion of academics is virtually undivided. But what makes these ideas “centrist” is not so much their actual content – like in the case of stopping Brexit, there is hardly anything wrong with ideas themselves  – as the fact that they seek to frame everything else as ‘radical’ or unacceptable.

What ‘everything else’ stands for in the case of higher education, however, is rather interesting. On the right-hand side, we have the elitism and high selectivity associated with Oxford and Cambridge. OK, one might say, good riddance! On the left, however – we have abolishing tuition fees. Not quite the same, one may be inclined to note.

There ain’t gonna be any middle anymore

Unfortunately, the only thing that makes the idea of abolishing tuition so ‘radical’ in England is its highly stratified social structure. It makes sense to remember that, among OECD countries, the UK is one with the lowest public and highest private expenditure on higher education as percentage of GDP. This means that the cost of higher education is disproportionately underwritten by individuals and their families. In lay terms, this means that public money that could be supporting higher education is spent elsewhere. But it also means something much more problematic, at least judging from the interpretation of this graph recently published by Branko Milanovic.

Let’s assume that the ‘private’ cost of higher education in the UK is currently mostly underwritten by the middle classes (this makes sense both in terms of who goes to university, and who pays for it). If the trends Milanovic analyses continue, not only is the income of middle classes likely to stagnate, it is – especially in the UK, given the economic effects of Brexit – likely to decline. This has serious consequences for the private financing of higher education. In one scenario, this means more loans, more student debt, and the creation of a growing army of indebted precarious workers. In another, to borrow from Pearl Jam, there ain’t gonna be any middle anymore: the middle-class families who could afford to pay for their children’s higher education will become a minority.

This is why there is no ‘centrist’ higher education policy. Any approach to higher education that does not first address longer-term social inequalities is unlikely to work; in periods of economic contraction, such as the one Britain is facing, it is even prone to backfire. Education policies, fundamentally, can do two things: one is to change how things are; the other is to make sure they stay the same. Arguing for a ‘sensible’ solution usually ends up doing the latter.