I was having lunch yesterday with a friend, and something we were chatting about got me thinking about the pros and cons of different social networks for academics.
I’m an independent academic historian, unable to work in academia due to a progressive neurological disease, though I have an honorary research fellowship. So I’m essentially non-affiliated, and don’t have, for example, a departmental contact address.
Because of this I’ve made a conscious effort to set up an online presence for myself. I have a web page. You can tell I’m a former computer scientist: like most academic computer scientists it’s remarkably simple HTML coding, and looks quite retro. But it’s functional, and describes my credentials, and interests, and gives links to other things.
But I’ve also reached out to various social networks. Linkedin is nice for keeping a contact method with people I’ve known in the past and more recently. And I quite like getting the update emails, on people’s new jobs and so on. But I don’t find it very useful for keeping up to date with people’s research, and, for example, publications. I’ve found that most Linkedin members don’t update their profiles that often. It’s more a handy keep-a-contact method for me.
Academia.edu has often been lauded as the most appropriate social network for academics. But I find it the least useful. Again the problem is that most people don’t update their profiles that often. Also it tends to only favour completed research, where it’s been written up, and, for example, published as a paper. Research in progress is less likely to be mentioned. I do like the weekly emails I get telling me about new papers in my areas of interest. But even these are just a drop in the ocean, since most members on the site don’t update their profiles that much. And I don’t find following other academics has been terribly useful. I also don’t like the site’s tendency to over email. I’ve fiddled with my settings, so I no longer get an email every time someone looks at my profile etc. Oh and can I just note how irritating it is that I don’t seem to be able to set up a secondary affiliation for my honorary research fellowship. As soon as I do that it clobbers my primary independent academic status. And vice versa. Aarrgghh!
The most useful social network I find for following academics is Twitter. This only works for academics who tweet regularly, but I follow a lot of historians, and archivists, and many of them tweet about their research in progress, interesting conferences, and new publications. On the downside following these tweets takes time, regularly. I follow nearly 1000 people on Twitter (not just academics), and given how knocked out I am I can’t see all their tweets. But I put a bit of time in each day to follow them, using Flipboard on my iPad to browse hours of recent tweets in a nice way. And I find the time put in is well rewarded with the info I get back. I also tweet myself. I describe myself on Twitter as an “Academic historian, genealogist, former computer scientist, and Doctor Who fan”, which pretty much sums up the subject pattern of my tweets. But I find tweeting rewarding, and often make good contacts, and have good discussions on Twitter, with fellow academics and researchers.
I’m also on Google+, again as a sort of storefront for my academic identity. My Google+ profile is handy for linking to all my other online presences. But it’s a bit of a ghost site, and although I use it, and post to it, I don’t make many contacts with academics there.
The major social network I haven’t mentioned so far is Facebook. I don’t find that useful for being in touch with academics. It’s more for keeping in contact with friends and family. And of course it’s a closed network, not open to general readers unless they are Facebook members. Even then I have my settings set so only my Facebook friends can see my posts. It has a role, but not for academia for me.
For independent scholars like me I would strongly recommend cultivating an online presence. But, as I’ve argued, Twitter is likely to be the most useful academic social networking tool you can find, and the one that gives most rewards for the time you put into it. Even following a few key active academics in your field is likely to reap rewards.