I have written several times on this blog about the benefits and possibilities of engaging as an academic in using social media and other digital media. I have recounted my experiences of using social media for professional purposes, outlined the reasons for why I blog, discussed why I think academics should write for Wikipedia and advocated for open access publication.
I have also discussed some negative implications for academics using social media, including the possibility that academics will become increasingly subjected to metric assessments based on their success in using social media (via altmetrics) and the reluctance of some to take up new activities in an already very demanding working life. Academics may also find confronting the lack of control they are able to exert over their digital writing once it has been released onto the internet.
In this post I want to elaborate some more on what might be called the risks of online academia, something I have been thinking about in working on my forthcoming book Digital Sociology.
Academics who engage in such activities of public engagement, as part of receiving wider public attention may be subjected to public criticism, unfounded or legitimate, of their ideas. Early career researchers are more vulnerable to trenchant criticism of their views at a time when they are still establishing their careers and seeking employment. More than established academics, who have less to lose, such junior academics are caught in a double-bind. Using social media such as blogs can be an important way to establish a foothold in a field, get one’s name and research known, establish valuable networks with colleagues and demonstrate to potential employers that one is engaging with the public in approved ways. On the other hand, however, some early career academics, particularly if they also come from marginalised social groups or are working in less prestigious universities, may find their opinions open to attack in ways that more senior and socially privileged academics may not.
The phenomenon of ‘trolling’, or the posting of deliberately malicious comments about individuals online, has been experienced by some academics. Those who express their opinions on controversial issues or who challenge powerful institutions or commercial interests are often the target of comments questioning their professional integrity (as well abuse related to more personal attributes). This has happened frequently to a colleague of mine, Simon Chapman, a public health advocate who has received a high level of public attention for his work in confronting such corporations as Big Tobacco and the gun lobby (see Chapman’s account of his experiences here).
There may said to be a ‘politics of digital engagement’, in which academics, particularly those who are members of marginalised social groups (women, minority ethnic or racial groups, gays or lesbians, with disabilities) or who are junior academics seeking tenure or those in short-term employment contracts, may need to be very cautious about the types of opinions they express in open digital forums (see Fullick on these points). Academics from marginalised minority groups can use social media networks as systems of support, but at the same time these very tools, in their public nature, can be sites of attack.
Sexual harassment has been experienced by some female academics who have engaged in debates in public forums or who have used social media to communicate their research findings. Some women have detailed their experiences of their appearance and their sexual attractiveness being remarked upon by anonymous commentators in often hurtful or threatening ways (see Beard and Mitchell on this). I have observed that female academics who engage in fat activism using online forums or traditional media outlets are frequently targeted by vituperative comments about their appearance, lack of self-discipline and the like. (Ironically, these comments often serve only to demonstrate further the contentions of these academics concerning fat stigma and discrimination.)
Abusive and overly racist, misogynistic or homophobic comments, which are often on public display and can be accessed via search engines, may be very confronting and disturbing for their targets, particularly if sexual violence or other violent acts against the targets are suggested. This is a wider problem of the affordances of online technologies: anyone who engages online is open to abusive comments that cannot easily be removed from internet archives.
It is vitally important that universities develop systems for protecting and supporting academics, particularly in the context in which they are increasingly expected and encouraged to engage in public engagement as part of their work. As Cottom Mcmillan notes, ‘While universities are quick to promote public scholarship they are loath to extend their responsibility to refereeing the behavior of academics in the public sphere’. There is a need for guidelines to be drawn up for engaging online in public spaces as an academic, including not only the type of content one disseminates or creates, but also how one interacts with other academics in response to their content. Academics should be supported by their institutions to build online networks and communities but also need to be protected against the risks of engaging as a digital public scholar.