Why we shouldn’t take social media metrics too seriously

By Mark Carrigan

In the last year, I’ve become increasingly preoccupied by why we shouldn’t take social media metrics too seriously. In part, this preoccupation is analytical because following this thread has proven to be a useful way to move from my past focus on individual users of social media to a more expansive sociological account of platforms. The lifecycle of metrics from being a project of platform engineers, through to being a feature of platforms onto something which are meaningful and matter to users elucidates structure and agency as it pertains to platforms. As does the subsequent utilisation of these metrics, laden with meaning by users, in order to model these people and modulate the environment within which they act.

By saying we shouldn’t take metrics too seriously, I’m drawing attention to the way they are used as a mechanism to mould the behaviour of users and the risk that uncritical embrace of them leaves us being enticed by platforms in a damaging way. However beyond this concern, we shouldn’t lose sight of how easily they can be fudged and how unreliable they are. This is a concern which Jaron Lanier powerfully puts forward on pg 67 of his new book:

First, why believe the numbers? As discussed in the previous argument, much of the online world is fake. Fake readers, fake commenters, fake referrals. I note that news sites that are trying to woo advertisers directly often seem to show spectacularly greater numbers of readers for articles about products that might be advertised—like choosing your next gaming machine—than for articles about other topics. This doesn’t mean the site is fudging its numbers. Instead, a manager probably hired a consulting firm that used an algorithm to optimize the choice of metrics services to relate the kind of usage statistics the site could use to attract advertisers. In other words, the site’s owners didn’t consciously fudge, but they kinda-sorta know that their stats are part of a giant fudge cake.

It’s not so much that they are meaningless as that their meaning is often unstable. There are occasions in which it might be necessary to engage with them but we have to do this carefully. One of my projects in the next year will be to try and produce guidelines about this interpretation which reflect what we know about the sociology of platforms while nonetheless recognising that metricising our activity on social media can sometimes serve as strategic purpose.

Social media habits and routines

By Tyler Shores

Over the past few weeks Mark Carrigan and I have been running a series of sessions on social media for academics at the Faculty of Education. One of the purposes of this series has been to try and develop a shared conversation amongst those in the Faculty who are interested in such topics: why to use social media in the first place; how to get the most out of social media; what social media practices mean for us as academics; and other related issues.

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Mark did an excellent post in advance of our May 1st session, talking about how he integrates his social media use into his everyday practices — using social media for teaching, for writing, and for thinking.

I started thinking along related lines, in terms of what our social media use means to us on a day to day basis. For example, the average adult is spending around two and a half hours to almost three hours on social media per day by some estimates. Those figures really don’t feel terribly surprising. That is a lot of time on social media, either in dedicated blocks of time or interstitial moments that we manage to fill in between other tasks and our other non-social media things. One point that I took away from our session as well as the lively discussion was that it could be quite helpful to think more about our everyday routines; in this case, are our social media habits working for us? If not, why not?

As busy academics, many of us also worry about how much of a time suck social media can be on our seemingly already quite overburdened lives. For me, I find myself occasionally prone to bad (or perhaps more accurately, less helpful) social media habits and then become very mindful about wanting to fix them. Habits and routines are incredibly useful for our daily productive. Except of course, when they aren’t.

Not to mention social media apps are very, very good at making us want to use them and creating those kinds of habit loops:

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Essentially, this formula breaks down to something like the following:

1) Cue = I am bored,

2) Routine = check Twitter, check Facebook, check email, repeat

3) Reward = sense of connection, sense of accomplishment getting rid of those notifications, positive reinforcement of getting likes!

There are a few quite useful apps that can help give you a distractions audit. A quicker and easier (but more approximate) way to get a more objective account on the most time-consuming apps is a quick check of the battery usage breakdown for iOS or for AndroidFor instance, I found myself checking social media out of sheer boredom more often than I would have liked (note: it was a lot). Therefore, I started to think about the kind of routine this was and what it meant for my day to day routine.

It’s not always easy to change those kinds of habits and routines that become so automatic. But I’ve found that taking even one initial moment to think about what and how you engage with social media can make a helpful difference. For me, time posting and engaging with others on social media felt purposeful, so I mentally have categories of social media use in mind whenever I pick up my phone:

  • Posting and engaging on both personal and professional accounts
  • Checking for news and/or information
  • When I’m bored and want to be distracted

I’m not anti-distraction by any means. I don’t even think it’s that realistic to try and do away with boredom and taking distraction breaks completely, but even the simple act of being aware of your different purposes is something I’ve found to be surprisingly liberating.

If you’d like to check out some of the things we touched upon, you can find a collection of links here.

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.