Social media for academia: some things I have learnt

2012 was the year of my big experiment: trying out various forms of social media for academic purposes. I was in many ways a social media novice when I began, as I had only really dabbled in Facebook, Academia.edu and LinkedIn before my period of experimentation began. But around the middle of last year I made the decision to jump in with both feet and try as many social media platforms as I could, all in the name of sociological experimentation as well as personal interest in what I could achieve using these tools.

Here are some of the things I have learnt thus far:

  • Twitter is an invaluable tool for academics. Through using Twitter I have made wonderful connections with a range of people I never would have encountered otherwise across a diversity of countries. I have had fascinating conversations in real time not only with other sociologists but also bioethicists, philosophers, nutritionists, anthropologists, fat activists, medical practitioners, graduate students, health care administrators, people working in digital technology development for medicine and  health  … the list goes on. Using Twitter I have been able to share not only links to my own research and blog posts, but also to many other news items, blog posts and academic articles and have benefited enormously from other people’s sharing of such information.
  • Starting my own blog has also been a great decision. My posts have allowed me to share some thoughts quickly and easily with anyone who cares to read them, and to engage in a conversation with those who have taken the trouble to comment. Allowing my research and ideas to reach a much wider readership has been a major benefit of blogging.
  • I discovered Pinterest, and have used it extensively to gather material for research purposes. Several of my recent publications have now included hyperlinks to one or more of my Pinterest boards to allow readers to view the materials to which I refer. I recently presented at an academic conference using two of my Pinterest boards simply by calling up the links on the laptop provided on the podium and showing relevant images as I talked.
  • I have found that uploading my PowerPoint presentations to SlideShare works well to give others ready access to them. I now try to upload the slides to SlideShare before my presentation, so that when I deliver it I can include in my final slide the links not only to my blog and Twitter account, but also to the SlideShare of the talk I had just presented. Audience members can then access the slides immediately if they so desire. I then tweet the link so anyone else who might be interested can take a look.
  • Curating tools like Delicious, Scoop.it or Bundlr are essential for collecting posts and news items from the web under topics that you have specified. Here again these collections can be used in academic publications as useful links to further information. You can also tweet the links or post them on Facebook etc. so that others know about them.
  • Specialist Facebook pages can be made to link to others working on or interested in a topic and build a community. I made three such pages last year.
  • Storify is a useful tool that you can use to quickly gather material from the web, including Twitter posts and Instagram images, and collate a ‘story’ by bringing a diverse array of such material together. I made several ‘stories’ last year using this tool, several of which I have used in the same way as I have used my Pinterest boards and Scoop.it and Delicious collections, by gathering research material and also linking to the ‘stories’ in my publications. As part of researching my new book The Social Worlds of the Unborn (due to appear later this year in the Palgrave Pivot series) for example, I made a Storify on news coverage of the announcement of Kate Middleton’s pregnancy late last year. I was able to tweet the link to the Storify the day after the announcement, then use a link to it in a blog post and have included it in my new book as well (along with links to my relevant Pinterest boards and Scoop.it collections on the unborn).
  • A curating tool that you can program to automatically bring together articles from certain websites or by topic is a boon. I use Prismatic for this.
  • I have also learnt about ‘strategic tweeting’: that is, selecting the best time of the day to tweet when people will be likely to be checking their feed, taking into account different time zones. Although I am based in Australia I have many followers in the northern hemisphere, so I have learnt to allow for this when tweeting. If there is something that you really want to catch people’s attention with, you will probably have to tweet it several times at different times of the day or on different days.
  • You can use the ‘altmetrics’ provided by social media tools (eg. number of Twitter followers, number of views of your blog) along with the more usual metrics on citations produced by Web of Science or Google Scholar to demonstrate in job or grant applications that you are participating in engagement with the public as well as making an impact on your field.

Using the tools I mention above has allowed me to keep on top of developments in my current areas of research interest, many of which are rapidly changing as new research or technologies emerge.

As a final observation: I have learnt that the immediacy and range of digital publishing is a feature that no academic should discount. If you want your research findings and ideas to stay behind paywalls, accessed largely only by the relatively small number of academics in your field, and wait for months or even years for even these readers to be able to do so while your material proceeds through the publication process, then avoid using social and other digital forms of publishing. If you would like to see your findings and ideas instantly available to a wide range of readers, then using digital media is the way to go.

See also my previous posts A sociologist’s adventures in social media land and Digital sociology part 2: professional digital practice.

How sociologists (and other social scientists) can use Pinterest

English: Red Pinterest logo

English: Red Pinterest logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have recently discovered Pinterest, a social media platform which has recently become very popular. The concept of Pinterest is overwhelmingly visual and draws upon the idea of older techniques of collage or scrapbooking: collecting interesting images, grouping them together under a theme and displaying them to others. As a visual bookmarking site, self-described as a ‘virtual pinboard’, Pinterest allows users to ‘pin’, or transfer digital images to an interest ‘board’, or webpage that they make themselves and give a title to. The images are then collected together on this board and made available for others to see. Users may ‘repin’ images from other people’s boards, pin images they have found on other websites or use images of their own (their own photographs or infographics, for example). A wealth of high-quality and diverse images are available to use for Pinterest purposes.

One important feature of the site is that each pinned image has a commentary box below it which allows the user to provide details of the image or comment on it. There is quite a bit of space provided for such commentary: up to 500 characters. The website is set up so that pinning or repining is extremely quick and easy. Users can install a ‘Pin It’ button (bookmarklet) on their computer so that when they come across an image they wish to use it is simply a matter of clicking on the button and the image is added to one of their specified boards. Other people may ‘follow’ boards, comment on them and may be invited to contribute pins to them.

Statistiques: la croissance de Pinterest

Statistiques: la croissance de Pinterest (Photo credit: La Fabrique de Blogs)

When I first investigated Pinterest it seemed that it was simply a forum for people to collect and post images of cute children or animals, fashion outfits, holiday options, objects they would like to buy, home décor, wedding ideas, recipes and so on. These do indeed seem to be among the most popular of board topics and the website’s own description of what it offers focuses on these kinds of uses. However the platform is becomingly increasingly used not only used for private purposes, but also to publicise commercial enterprises or sell goods, create employment resumes and even for political campaigning. I notice that school teachers have also begun using Pinterest to display lesson plans and collect relevant material for their work to share with other teachers or with their students.

It seems that few academics are using Pinterest at the moment, or have even heard of it. But closer inspection and reflection on the capacities of the platform led me to think that Pininterest had the potential to be a very useful tool for sociological research and teaching (as well as for other academics in the humanities and social sciences).

Because of its emphasis on the visual, it is most relevant for the purposes of curating and displaying images that are related to the subject matter one is researching or teaching about. Pinterest boards can be used by sociologists for the following purposes:

  • To display images which are related to the topic of a book or research article you have published. The weblink for the relevant board can be given in the article or book so that interested readers can view the images which you have collected on that topic. The commentary box allows you to provide some analysis or contextualising material under each image.
  • To display infographics: data represented as graphs, tables, social maps, flow-charts and figures relevant to the board topic.
  • As a repository for images you have collected that can be used and analysed as part of a current or planned research project.
  • To display images of book covers written by others on topics related to your boards that you have found especially useful or interesting.
  • Boards can be used to publicise and promote your own academic writing. This only really works with books and blog posts or website pages, given that Pinterest is overwhelmingly a visual medium and has limited space for text. However if you wanted to promote your research article, you could include an image of the journal’s cover and give the title of your article in the commentary box below, along with a link to its online version.
  • Universities or individual academic departments or research groups can set up their own Pinterest sites and use boards to promote research and teaching initiatives.

Some ideas for university teaching include:

  • Giving your students access to a set of images that are related to the unit subject are teaching. The images can be displayed on your computer during class-time, or the link can be provided to students for them to view the boards out of class time. You can use your own boards or others’ boards. (If there is a good board already existing on a particular topic there is probably no point replicating yourself unless you curate a substantially different set of images or one specifically tailored to the content of the subjects you are teaching.)
  • Engaging students and promoting their understanding of the visual and cultural dimensions of a topic by asking them to make their own boards and curate images relevant to a topic, or together contribute to one big shared board. Part of this activity could be asking students to provide analytical commentary for images, or to write an accompanying essay that analyses the images or contextualises them in relation to academic scholarship on the topic.
  • Collaborating with other academics to share ideas and resources for teaching.

Last, there is the opportunity for sociologists and other social scientists who are interested in researching digital cultures or commodity culture to use Pinterest boards that others put together as a source of research data. The questions of why Pinterest is currently so popular, what types of photographs and topics are selected by users and what all this may imply for concepts of identity and the presentation of the self, media use, social relations and so on offer great potential for academic research.

Some commentators on blog sites and newspaper opinion pages have already begun to speculate about how and why users are using Pinterest. One commentator has argued that using Pinterest to display commodities one would like to buy is a kind of ersatz consumption, satisfying the desire for the real thing and therefore replacing consumption (‘Can Pinterest and Svpply help you reduce your consumption?’). Others have commented on the representation of women’s bodies on Pinterest boards (‘Pinterest’s  Thinspiration problem’ ) and how women use Pinterest (‘Pinterest and feminism’). It has been suggested that Pinterest allows users to display their taste to others (‘The real reason Pinterest is so popular’) and engage in creative pursuits involving the collection of striking or beautiful images, just as people once enjoyed making collages, photo albums, scrapbooks or collecting and displaying stamps (‘A picture gets a thousand likes’).

So far I have made seven boards of my own on Pinterest. Each of them is related to a recent or current research topic. For example, the third edition of one of my books, Medicine as Culture: Illness, Disease and the Body, was recently published. The book discusses the ways in which medicine, health and illness are understood, represented and experienced via social and cultural processes. There are many examples in the book of the ways in which medical practitioners, patients and particular illnesses or diseases have been represented in popular culture. I have created a virtual pinboard that I have entitled ‘Medicine as Culture’ and collected images there that are relevant to the subject matter discussed in the book. Images on this board include an 18th century wax anatomical model of a skull, doctors from medical television shows, doctors working in a surgical theatre in different historical eras, contemporary and historical anatomical drawings, plastinated bodies from the BodyWorlds exhibition, digital m-health technologies, artistic representations of the body, anatomy and illness, health promotion campaign materials and the pages from a latter-day doctor’s journal. I also included images of the cover of my Medicine as Culture book and other related books I have published, as well as books by others which were seminal to my own work in this area.

Some other interesting Pinterest boards on sociological topics I have discovered include:

  • The Sociological Cinema: many boards, including ‘The Environment”, ‘Social Theorists’, ‘War and Military’, ‘Gender and Physical Violence’. ‘Teaching Sociology’ and ‘Bodies’.
  • Sociological Images: includes a range of boards on topics such as ‘Racial/Ethnic Objectification’, ‘Deconstructing Disney’,’ Social Construction of Everything’ and ‘Social Construction of Race’.
  • LSE Review of Books: boards include such topics as ‘Sociology and Anthropology’, ‘Politics and International Relations’, ‘Philosophy and the Humanities’ and ‘Urban Studies and Architecture’.
  • Prof Jess: her boards include ‘Sociology of Emotion’, ‘Sociology (Music)’ and ‘Sociology of Sport(s)’.

Further information about Pinterest for beginners can be found here.