By Mark Carrigan

I’m (re)reading this important paper by Tressie McMillan Cottom in advance of a talk on the dark side of (digital) public engagement. I was asked to suggest a reading for the session and this immediately occurred as the most suitable. It’s a insightful, careful and honest appraisal of the underlying tension in how digital engagement is framed within the contemporary university: calls for public engagement frame it as an unalloyed good for all concerned in spite of the fact “we have not fully conceptualized or counted the costs of public writing from various social locations”. It is assumed that “when writing for publics, actors are individuals simultaneously embedded in institutions and dislocated from stratified status groups” whereas the reality is that “microcelebrity and attention do not operate in the same way for all status groups”.

The way in which we tend to talk about digital engagement is sociologically naive and politically dangerous, unable to come to terms with the complexity encountered when engaged scholarship blurs into academic microcelebrity or prepare people for the challenges this can generate. It is easy to negotiate this tension for some because “all press is good press for academic microcelebrities if their social locations conform to racist and sexist norms of who should be expert”.

With technological diffusion, critically engaged scholarship has embraced digital platforms to communicate, diffuse, and archive. Scholars who are also members of marginalized groups disproportionately take up this kind of engaged scholarship, often without commensurate credit from university administrators or colleagues (Ellison and Eatmen 2008; Park 1996; Stanley 2006; Taylor and Raeburn 1995; Turner et al 2008; Villalpando and Bernal 2002). Those activities look very similar to those associated with cultivating academic microcelebrity. There is a sense of a “public” to which we are in service. There is the ethos to disseminate scholarship and to leverage technology to de-institutionalize information.

One of many things I really like about this paper is how it identifies this tension at the individual level while framing in terms of the institutional incentives of corporate universities for whom digital engagement often equates to brand awareness. Universities have little incentive to address the complexity of digital public engagement and many incentives to look the other way while inciting their academics to march out into the digital public square. This complexity is something which is rarely encountered by those already privileged, able to rely on being read as intellectual even when their online activity falls outside of academic norms.

Were I white or male or of a higher class, it is possible that I could leverage the adage that all press is good press. The negative effects of microcelebrity are transformed into positive attention when made legible through bodies and identities more closely aligned to the assumed “natural” embodiment of rationality, intelligence and ability. That is to say that the difference between a black woman muckraking with an academic library card can be read differently than muckraking by white elite graduate students at new media outlets like Jacobin or in the public rendering of Evgeny Morozov. These persons’ social locations conform to the hegemonic (“natural”) embodiment of intellectual critique. This affords them a legitimacy rooted in academic authority even when they are not yet, or are still, academics.

But for those who without this structural privilege, visibility brings harassment and ‘success’ in micro-celebrity terms becomes something different considered in terms of the other facets of the micro-celebrity’s existence. The paper has a fascinating analysis of the challenges to expertise which ensued from Tressie’s public blogging, encompassing fellow academics, specialist readers and non-specialists alike. 3/4 of the negative comments from a total of 5,552 “call into question my academic affiliation, the merits of a university that admitted me, and explicitly or implicitly cite affirmative action as the reason that I am in a PhD program”.