Social Media Knowledge Exchange at Cambridge University


Some thoughts from a gathering of academics familiar with the tools of social media

I applied for, and was granted a place for what was a very intense 2-day long event hosted by the Centre for Research in Arts Social Sciences and Humanities at Cambridge University.  The Social Media Knowledge Exchange (SMKE) project is an interesting attempt at bringing together post-graduate researchers with people who are already using social and digital media in public-facing capacities. Apart from having Puffles with me, one thing that differentiated me from many of the people there was that I was not part of an institution – something that I cover later on.

The changing nature of academic research in the arts and humanities

I guess the stereotype of the ‘non-science’ researcher is someone who goes into an academic library or a series of archives for a few years and comes out with a thesis. That’s what I used to think anyway. All of these intellectual political thinkers forever cross-referencing to each others’ work & telling everyone they must be right because it was referenced in what someone else wrote ages ago. It was when I went to the National Archives in Kew over a decade ago that one of the archivists told me that they had a huge amount of documents that had been archived but not read by anyone with informed and specialist knowledge in the area. The anecdote they gave was that many golden nuggets of information were found in files a civil servant had labelled as ‘miscellaneous’. It makes me worry about the poor souls who will have to unpick the mess that are electronic filing systems in most organisations when it comes to historical research for events post-1990. At least the paper filing systems had something of a structure!

The impact of progress in computing and communications technology

Compared to where we were a generation ago, two big changes that have impacted academic research in these fields are the massive growth in data collection and processing power, and the ability to communicate with much wider audiences beyond established academic and subject communities. One of the things the historian in me ponders is how the former Soviet bloc would have managed its economies had it had the data collection, processing realtime feedback systems that we have today.

Pressures from funding organisations

The acronym ‘REF’ kept on coming up – one that seems to be mentioned more frequently these days. I assumed it meant something important – to do with money – given the hushed terms within which it was mentioned. REF relates to the Research Excellence Framework. The reason why it is important – and controversial in some areas – is that it provides a framework of accountability to the taxpayer. There are positives and negatives with it. In one sense, it risks putting constraints on research as researchers and institutions follow the grant funding rather than where the research and knowledge takes them. On the other hand, it creates a much more open and transparent culture for knowledge exchange and communication with the wider public. One of the points I have repeatedly made is that researchers in receipt of taxpayer support have a public duty to communicate the results of their research.

Who needs what skills?

During my time in the civil service, I often said my style of writing changed with the audience. With my own personal creative writing, the style would be different to that of an academic essay I had written, which would be further different to a ministerial submission paper I had drafted. With social and digital media, there are also different styles of writing. How you would write for a standard web page (for example for your faculty or research project) is likely to be different to how you write for a blog. Ditto for how you write using a microblog such as Twitter, or in a post for something such as Facebook, Tumblr, LinkedIn or even on message boards.

Furthermore – and this is something I’m procrastinating over at the moment – there are huge opportunities with digital audio and digital video too. I just hate the sound of my voice and despise how I come across on digital video. I prefer other people to be the face and sound of things. (It’s one of the reasons why there are far more photographs of Puffles on the internet than there are of me!)

The reason why digital audio and video are important is because people have different accessibility requirements and lifestyle preferences. I found on my later commuting years that Twitter was brilliant because it killed time while allowing me to engage in conversations with people that had similar interests. Rather than being ‘dead’ time it was something that I found to be reasonably productive while not disturbing anyone. On accessibility too, not everyone may be able to read standard text. I worked with a number of talented civil servants over the years who were partially sighted but whose insights and judgement were phenomenal. Also, having a guide/assistance dog having free rein of our office (having got everyone’s consent first) did wonders for stress reduction. The point is: How you communicate your work matters. You could unwittingly be cutting off some of the very people you need to engage in your work.

How do academics learn these skills?

You could hire a consultant like me at one end of the scale, through to using free learning materials that are out there. (I commissioned these step-by-step video guides that I made with some of my younger talented Twitter followers). You might even go to a free social media surgery, or through your university organise some yourself for your academic community. My general point on social media consultants is that you should not be spending money paying people to teach you how to tweet. You can get that for free if you ask someone nicely enough. You get best value for money with consultants if they can help change behaviours, systems and processes to the extent that they become self-sustaining. This means planning is important – which I cover in the next section.

The current generation of students in their early 20s graduating from university are already entering the post-graduate world with social media use being the ‘default’ position. The bigger challenge tends to be from people and institutions with insular mindsets. With many of the younger people I interact with online, they don’t separate between offline and online. It’s all one and the same thing. This became abundantly clear to the audience during a talk by Claire Ross. Quite understandably, she was referring to communications as incorporating social media. In the mindsets of some of the people asking questions, they viewed social media as being this ‘add-on’ rather than being integral to the research.

The importance of planning in learning these skills

Looking at it from an an institutional perspective, having some sort of a vision of what you want to become say in five years time helps focus your actions. For example, if you want to become an institution that is having an impact on government policy, you need to be aware of the move towards open policy making. What skills and competencies will your academics and researchers need in order to engage with what are very public policy debates? To what extent will your research be influenced by the feedback it gets from social media engagement? How compatible are your existing systems and processes – and even the behaviour of individuals – with this new world?

There’s also the planning stage of research proposals – this was where I felt Claire Ross was particularly strong with her messages. How you communicate matters greatly. What’s the point in doing all of that research if all that happens is the knowledge is left gathering dust on a library shelf or locked behind a paywall that no one can access? How much research has to be repeated because a researcher has not had access to someone’s past research, whether due to a paywall or whether due to having a very small network to source from? In this regard, using social media in a reading and listening matters.

Intellectual property – who owns the research?

Actually, this is a very important point. I stated above that researchers have a public duty to communicate their research where they are in receipt of a taxpayer-funded grant. But when it comes to blogs and Twitter accounts, where does the intellectual property reside? This comes back to planning at an institutional level – ensuring that you have sound social media policies and strategies to deal with this. (Advising on things like this is how I help pay my bills!)

There is also the issue of copyright – something that Eleonora Rosati gave a very challenging and thought-provoking presentation on. She’s part of the IPKat team that blogs here. As I tweeted via Puffles at the time, intellectual property in an academic/research context is something that would be good for the Government’s Good Law Project to look at.

Giant Haystacks

I was introduced to the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaborative – HASTACs. I pronounced the acronym “Hast-aks” so didn’t make the connection when several people started talking about something they called “Haystacks”. I thought it was something to do with this chap. It is a mindset change and one that represents a move towards a multidisciplinary world in academia. Although primarily US-based, a number of UK academics, in particular those whose research doesn’t sit easily within existing institutional silos. One of the things it highlights is its focus on rethinking how we learn given the technology that we now have available to us.

The reason why the re-thinking of how we learn is of interest to me is because much of my formal education was at the tail end of what I can only describe as pre-internet models of learning and research. Textbooks, handouts, lectures and homework were the order of the day. And for what purpose other than to pass exams? During my undergraduate years I experimented with emailing a couple of high profile economists – and to my surprise I got responses back from both of them. But the mindset within academia and within my university at the time for undergraduates wasn’t one where you were encouraged to go far beyond the borders of the textbooks in the library. I went beyond the borders anyway – coming to the conclusion that economics as a subject field was corrupted and riddled with conflicts of interest long before the banking crisis. Hence this very angry blogpost.

The future academic world?

For researchers, I conclude with this:

  • Expect to have to learn the basics of subject areas far beyond your area of expertise: law, politics, sociology, economics, history, statistics, scientific method, communications technology and so on
  • Expect to be challenged more frequently by people far beyond your academic specialism – but welcome this challenge & engage with it positively
  • If you and your colleagues can use social media in a manner where your impact is greater than the sum of their parts, who knows what you’ll discover next?

Food for thought.


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