Survey on academics’ use of social media

In January I conducted an online survey to find out how academics are using social media sites and tools. A total of 711 faculty members and postgraduate students completed the survey, mostly from the UK, Australia/New Zealand and North America.

The complete report can be accessed here.

Here is the abstract providing an overview of the findings:

This report outlines findings from an international online survey of 711 academics about their use of social media as part of their work conducted in January 2014. The survey sought to identify the tools that the respondents used, those they found most useful and the benefits and the drawbacks of using social media as a university faculty member or postgraduate student. The results offer insights into the sophisticated and strategic ways in which some academics are using social media and the many benefits they have experienced for their academic work. These benefits included connecting and establishing networks not only with other academics but also people or groups outside universities, promoting openness and sharing of information, publicising and development of research and giving and receiving support. While the majority of the respondents were very positive about using social media, they also expressed a range of concerns. These included issues of privacy and the blurring of boundaries between personal and professional use, the risk of jeopardising their career through injudicious use of social media, lack of credibility, the quality of the content they posted, time pressures, social media use becoming an obligation, becoming a target of attack, too much self-promotion by others, possible plagiarism of their ideas and the commercialisation of content and copyright issues. The report ends by contextualising the findings within the broader social and political environment and outlining areas for future research.

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.