Thursday, 12 October 2017

Performing Academia on Social Media

This past Wednesday I had the pleasure of attending the talk “Writing Yourself into Being as an Academic: The Affordances of Social Media” given by Dr. Quan-Haase at the Western Teaching Assistant Professional Development event.  To be completely honest, I didn’t expect much from the talk at all, but to my surprise it ended up being really fascinating.  As such I’ll share some of the highlights in a discussion here, since it’s very much related to what we’ve been discussing in class.

Dr. Quan-Haase argues that the first step of “writing ourselves into being” at the individual level on the internet involves creating a profile on any variety of platforms, after which we can write ourselves into communities, and thus communities into being, by becoming entangled in online networks.  It was interesting for me to see her utilize the term “performativity”, which was popularized in anthropology by Judith Butler (1990) in Gender  Trouble with regards to gender and sexuality, in relation to the digital/online self, because I had never considered this term in relation to this context.  This performative process of subject formation also relates to Goffman’s (1990) sociological work on the presentation of self that he sets forth in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.  Goffman (1990) suggests that performers (read individuals on the internet) can be fully convinced by their own acts, with reality being created when the audience responds in agreement, and are convinced by the acts of others. 

A complicating factor is introduced, however, during online interactions that was highlighted by Dr. Quan-Haase.  While Goffman’s work assumes that individuals are interacting face to face, making it easy to know one’s audience, this is not the case on social media.  Dr. Quan-Haase suggests that academics utilizing social media platforms have very little idea of who their audience is, making evaluating the potential benefits and outcomes of posting and engaging difficult.  This ambiguity often leads to the creation of what I would call “imagined audiences”, when academics are forced to make educated guesses as to who their content is reaching, and thus how to best cater to these communities. 

But how much work should academics put into creating ourselves in the digital world?  Every tweet, Facebook post, and other page update, takes time and effort, the risk/reward ratio of which is hard to quantify.  This is especially relevant when we reframe how we view this sort of online interaction, which is increasingly being demanded by people both within and without academia, as unpaid labour.  The alt-metrics for papers that are tweeted out or posted on Facebook indicate that they receive significantly more downloads than those that are not shared on social media platforms.  Dr. Quan-Haase was right to compare the academic reward system that this plays into to Bourdieu’s (1996) concept of the “game”, with academics accruing social capital through unpaid self-promotion on social media.

What do you think, are academics performers in an exploitative theater that demands their unpaid time be devoted towards the curation of digital selves in order to reap the benefits of a demanding and rewards based system?

1 comment:

Joanna said...

I've never really thought about performativity in the context of social media, but now that you've shared that it seems so apparent as it is a constructed identity. I'm reminded of the correlation between social media and depression, with one of the possible explanations being exposure to highly idealized representations of peers:

I do personally find an expectation to curate profiles to be concerning, especially when considering the ratio of effort to benefit (I've yet to experience even one fruitful networking or job connection via LinkedIn, which skews more toward servicing large corporate sectors). It's even more problematic when considering the potential impact of social media companies monetizing academic work (such as Academia Plus, buying higher rankings for profiles, etc.). The benefits I've had have been connecting with other researchers easily to exchange papers, which I find invaluable, but the promotional aspects elicit much more mixed feelings.