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:
- One paragraph
- 160-character Twitter bio
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.