Welcome Mark Carrigan, Mentor-in-Residence for November

Categories: Focus Series, MentorSpace, Other, Research Skills

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Who are “Mentors-in-Residence”?

Mentors-in-Residence are SAGE authors who are willing to share their expertise with MethodSpace readers. During a one-month stint, they contribute ideas and answer questions.  They also discuss their current SAGE books. We started this effort in October, with Bernadette Wright and Steve Wallis as our first mentors. You can read their posts about the use of mapping for evaluation and active research.

This month Mark Carrigan will be our Mentor-in-Residence. The important new edition of Mark’s book Social Media for Academics is quite literally hot off the press. Enter the code SAGE2019 for a discount on your book purchase. 

I “met” Mark online through his work with the Sociological Imagination blog. I wasn’t a sociologist before I started reading it, but by the time the blog came to the end of its life span, I was a convert. His interesting posts drew me in! He demonstrated the potential for academic blogging.

I am delighted to welcome him back to MethodSpace to discuss academic writing in the digital age. 

Meet Mark Carrigan!

JS. Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you become interested in the uses of technology for academic and research purposes?

MC. Technology had always been an important part of my life from my childhood onwards. I was a keen, if far from skilled, programmer in my early teens and I spent a great deal of time on bulletin boards and online forums. I began blogging in 2003 and have blogged continuously since then, even if I’ve quite deliberately deleted my early blogs. For approaching two decades it has been my “major way of thinking through the stuff that matters to me”, to quote science fiction author and blogger Cory Doctorow. But it was only when I started post-graduate education that it became something I saw in academic terms. This was a fairly organic process, as increasing amounts of what mattered to me was research related. Though perhaps this is a depressing reflection of how graduate school can take over people’s lives.

My interest in academic technology developed in a similar fashion. I began a part-time PhD in 2008 when social media was beginning to make its influence felt on wider social and cultural life. It was also a time when universities in the UK began to feel increasing pressure to demonstrate the impact of their research on wider society. The obvious confluence meant a whole range of small jobs began to open up within universities of a sort that were useful to help fund my PhD. A podcasting project with academics in my university, running a blog and Twitter feed for my department and helping a national disciplinary organisation setup a web presence are the early ones which stick in my mind. I performed a *lot* of roles like this, some paid and others unpaid, leaving me in the weird position of continually encountering Twitter feeds I used to run but have since forgotten about. It left me wondering if I wanted to work in research communication rather than research. But a period working full time at the London School of Economics’ Public Policy Group, managing their British Politics and Policy blog, left me aware that I wanted to undertake research at least some of the time.

Since then I’ve struck that balance in various ways, even though I’ve now decided that I want to focus on research in the longer term. But I’ve always seen myself as a research practitioner. In fact I think I’ve learned more about social media from training academics to use social media and managing social media accounts, particularly the larger ones like @TheSocReview and @LSEPoliticsBlog, than I have from academic writing. But it shouldn’t be a choice between them, even if there’s often a pervasive gap between theory and practice in the university.

JS. I originally came across your work through the Sociological Imagination blog. You converted me to sociology, and inspired me to take blogging seriously. Tell us about how and why you ran Sociological Imagination blog.

MC. The Sociological Imagination was a blog I ran with my friend Milena Kremakova and we were later joined by Sadia Habib as a co-editor. Milena and I once wrote about it as a Brainpickings or Boing Boing for sociologists: in essence a repository for things we found noteworthy and interesting. We featured essays and longer form pieces at points, with some astounding writing being featured on The Sociological Imagination over the years. But the majority of the content was curatorial, filtering and commenting on things we found that we thought our audience would find interesting. We posted daily from 2010 until we ran out of steam for various reasons in late 2017. This produced a *lot* of material. I recently put the archive of the site online as a PDF and it runs to an unwieldy 5000 pages.

We’re eventually going to select some of the longer form writing to produce a more manageable eBook that will be easier to read. It’s strange going through the archive now because the site as a whole was such a major part of my life for years. It kept me enthusiastic about what I was doing even when life as a part-time PhD student then part-time postdoc left me feeling alienated and frustrated by the accelerated academy.

JS. What did you learn from this experience?

MC. I learned that there’s an enthusiasm for curation, even if the term itself might divide opinion. In Jill Rettberg’s terms, Sociological Imagination was a filter blog: it selected from the overwhelming abundance of internet content in a way liable to appeal to a specific audience. At its best this is a enormously nourishing activity in which you indulge your fascination with the world in a way which resonates with the same fascination in others. But it’s hard to sustain this because the demands of the attention economy mean that it’s necessary to ensure a certain regularity of updates. When you have other demands on your time this means your engagement can easily become routine and formulaic, a case of ticking something off a to do list rather than really engaging with what you’re doing.

So much of my work in recent years has tried to explore this dichotomy (including a theoretical book about digital distraction I’ve been writing since 2015 but keep getting distracted from…) where something can sometimes be so inspiring yet on other occasions so banal. This is partly a story of the architecture of digital platforms in which engineers seek to maximise user engagement: leaving us returning more frequently, staying for longer and clicking on more links when we are there.

However it’s also a story about human beings and what matters to them. I think social media can be a powerful engine for assembling people around things they collectively care about, or at the very least find interesting. But the machinery it uses for doing this also poses many hazards, too easily locking us into a competitive struggle for attention which consumes our time, energy and attention. My overarching project is to understand how careful, creative and collaborative work (including but not limited to what we tend to think of as scholarship) can flourish under these conditions. This way of framing the problem isn’t entirely a consequence of The Sociological Imagination but I doubt I would have approached it in precisely the way I do without these experiences.

JS. Did managing and writing for Sociological Imagination motivate you to write Social Media for Academics?

MC. Not really. I’d initially planned to write a politically orientated book after my PhD which explored what social media means for the politics of the university. The potential I first perceived during my involvement in the Campaign for the Public University could be seen in a more developed form in the enormous strike action which briefly transformed the university sector in the UK in early 2018. I’ve never thought social media could be a political panacea but I remain convinced it is enormously significant for collective action, how we build connections and work together in our shared interest, even if I’m more conscious than I used to be of how *carefully* this needs to be done. I wanted to write a book mapping out this potential and developing ideas about how we could utilise it in campaigning within higher education, as well as more generally to make the academy a fairer and more pleasant place to work.

However I decided to expand the focus when I began to talk to Sage about a potential book. There are elements of my original focus which remain in the book, not least of all in the final chapter. But I realised there was a need for a book which helped guide people through the rapidly changing landscape which social media confronted scholars with. In a sense the book I originally imagined was preoccupied by one particular answer to the question of *why* you would want to use social media as an academic. Social Media for Academics instead tried to include a much broader range of answers, as well as spending a lot more time focusing on the question itself. In this sense I’ve always seen it as less a guide to using particular platforms, liable to become dated quickly, as much as an outline for being reflexive about the changing landscape of platforms and what it means for us as academics.

JS. As you note on the book site, much has changed since the first edition. In particular, the rising awareness of what you call “the dark side.” How do you address these concerns in your new edition?

MC. I made an effort in the first edition to include examples of academics being attacked, harassed or disciplined as a consequence of social media. It was important to me that I didn’t turn the book into a good news story about how social media will do nothing but improve higher education. However I realised that I still treated these as individual cases, without accounting for why they were happening and what was leading them to become more common.

By focusing on the ‘dark side’, a term I was a bit ambivalent about but felt like a better fit than ‘post-truth’, I tried to treat these issues a bit more systematically. I explored how social media was tied up in problems emanating from outside the university, such as political polarisation and the backlash against experts, as well as the problems it can create within the university, such as creating inequalities of attention between social media celebrities and ordinary academics who happen to use these platforms. In effect I was trying to make the book slightly more sociological without losing what most reviewers saw as its easy going feel. It remains to be seen how well I managed this but I’m convinced that we need what I’ve come to think of as *platform literacy*, an understanding of how platforms shape the activity taking place through them, if we want to use social media rather than be used by it. This includes understanding how the corporate interests of social media firms intersect with existing political problems such as racialised and gendered harassment to produce online environments which can often feel toxic. However as a middle class white male I’m simply not a target of this and I’ve been aware of how this shapes the experience I bring to the book. I hope my exploration of these issues is helpful, practically and politically, but I’m aware there’s much more work to be done and I’m probably not the best person to be doing it.

JS. You quoted Dijck’s (2013) categories of social media types. Do you consider academic blogs, that is, blogs by individuals, professional societies, or publishers to be user-generated or social network sites? Or do we need another category?

MC. I’ve never been particularly interested in how we define ‘social media.’ It is inevitably a porous category because it originated as a marketing term, replacing the much less catchy ‘web 2.0’, in order to demarcate a group of companies emerging from the rubble of the dot com crash as the next big thing coming out of Silicon Valley. In this sense I’m happy to define social media as whatever people conventionally describe as social media. In other words I’m using it in the everyday sense rather than as an analytical term. Most people have a sense of what can be categorised as social media, even if there are inevitably services which they haven’t encountered or examples at the edges, such as Slack, which they might be uncertain about how to categorise. However in a research capacity I prefer to talk about *platforms* because this designates a socio-technical infrastructure which facilitates interaction between a range of actors in pre-defined ways. In this sense I’d see blogging in terms of platforms, even if there are important differences in where and how the platform is hosted e.g. a WordPress installation on a university server vs an individual account on WordPress.com. Ultimately I’m more interested in what we do with these technologies rather than what we call them, though of course these blur in practice.

Stay tuned this month for more from Mark Carrigan!

Visit www.methodspace.com and log into the site to be automatically subscribed to receive new posts. Use the comment area to pose questions about his work. Since it is also Academic Writing Month, look for posts related to writing books here.

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