Recap: Social Media for Activist Scholars Webinar with Jessie Daniels

In her May 9 webinar Social Media for Activist Scholars, Jessie Daniels recently made some really great points, which I wanted to type out here:

  • 2009 was the year when social media took off.
  • In 2014, 55% of academic faculty used social media in some way, shape or form, and 41% of them used it in their teaching. A majority of scholars use social media for self-promotion of work and connecting to other academics.
  • A 2012 study by X. Shuai and Pepe A. Bollen shows that about one-third of all academics use Twitter.
  • Social media isn’t just changing the job we’re doing as academics but also, of course, changing activism: Examples of thousands of people showing up at protests, organized by bloggers and social media users.
  • There are three kinds of scholar-activists, Daniels argues, the “dedicated,” the “border-crosser,” and the “accidental.”

    • Alondra Nelson exemplifies the dedicated scholar-activist, who has spent years and years of building relationships and trust with informants via social media. She says herself that she uses social media to reach both informants and audience for her research.
    • Zeynep Tufekci exemplifies the border-crossing scholar-activist, who uses social media to cross over from academic discourse to a journalist discourse. She says that “academics don’t pitch enough to media,” and is now writing a monthly column in the New York Times. Sometimes she gets up to 100,000 responses from readers. (Daniels reminds us: Keep in mind if you want to reach an enormous audience, that it opens up yourself to criticism and trolls, who will find every little mistake you make. It is NOT for the faint of heart, she says!)
    • David M. Perry exemplifies the accidental scholar-activist, whose identity as an academic is the primary identity. Activism is something that came through the social media itself. He crowdsourced Twitter for examples of academic job ads with ableist and illegal statements and then published a scathing article with Al Jazeera. Twitter can help encounter networks that you wouldn’t else have encountered.

Then Daniels spoke to some of the lessons learned from starting her popular blog around her research, in Racism Review (which she created in 2007). Here are the most important points to me:

  • Don’t start out thinking you'll blog every day. Rather, reflect on your long-term plan, especially if you want this to be a blog that will last for a long time.
  • Think about what your content is. If you’re an academic, you want to make sure you create content that counts toward tenure, etc. In Daniels’ case, she says that she has written tweets that have turned into a blog post, and eventually a peer-reviewed paper.

Daniels most importantly gave us her most valuable lessons learned from her own proliferate tweeting. Here are my favorites:

  • Choose a short handle for your account - easy to remember, to tag you in posts. Also, Daniels reminds us to create an account name that is not identified with your institution—not to distance yourself from the institutions, but what happens if you change? Are you going to create a new Twitter account?
  • Ask yourself what you have to contribute to the conversation: What do you bring to the conversation that is already happening—insights from your research or personal experiences? Then, tell your story by talking with people and not at them. Twitter is not for making advertisements for yourself. The thing that drives social media is storytelling.
  • Make tweeting part of your daily routine—go on Twitter when you have coffee in the morning, for instance. But analogously: know when to log off, close your laptop, and go for a walk.
  • Find people you want to connect with and reduce the “noise” (the stuff that fills your feed with the information you don’t want or need). If you don’t know how to connect with someone (a "key influencer" perhaps), retweet them with an added comment of yours. That’s a good tip, as that’s often how the first step in conversation starts.
  • Paradoxically (perhaps), Twitter can help you meet people face-to-face. For academics, it’s perfectly fine to recognize someone from Twitter and start talking to them at conferences. Make sure to look at hashtags for events, and say hello to people. Twitter can function as a great ice breaker.

Finally, Daniels made a crucial point. She reminded us that as academics, we need to think about how activists or anyone outside of academy will find, read, and share our work. We’re not usually trained in this. We’re just taught how to get published—not in thinking about the institutions that publish our work. If you publish your research on activism, for instance, behind a paywall, the activists who you may want to reach cannot read it without sometimes paying up to $60 for an article.

Daniels' solution? Choose open-access publishing, request information from your academic institutions about their publicly available institutional repositories, or put the research on your website. If you are publishing in a journal behind a paywall, can you share a pre-print version of your research? Most journals behind paywalls allow for this.