The labour of building an online audience

Mark Carrigan

If you are a regular user of social media you will undoubtedly be familiar with colleagues asking “how do you find the time?”, occasionally with complete earnestness but more often than not in a way which implies they think you are wasting your time rather than doing real work. As I’ve written previously, it is a frustrating question which misunderstands what academics do when they use social media: social media is scholarship. It might not be a familiar form of scholarship, but so much of what academics do online involves sharing ideas, debating issues and reflecting on literature. This goes hand in hand with opportunities to engage with audiences outside the academy, such as journalists and activists, in ways which often combine scholarly exchange and public engagement in a manner that previously wasn’t possible at all. Asking how you find the time for social media misses the point, with the real question being how do you integrate social media into your working life in a way which maximises effectiveness and minimises distraction.

However there is one challenge which users of social media face that unavoidably takes time: building an audience. When you first start using social media, it can feel like virtual tumble weeds greet everything you post. If the purpose of these platforms is communication then the relative lack of it which invariably characterises these early stages can make it feel like the activity is pointless. Who wants to shout into a void? The irony is that it is only through such apparently pointless activity that it becomes possible to accumulate an audience. Once you’ve been using social media for a while, it’s easy to forget those early stages in which you were tossing ideas out into space with little idea of whether anyone was listening. They certainly weren’t replying. The experience changes when you begin to build an audience on whichever social media platforms you have chosen to use. Suddenly what you share begins to provoke a reaction, you find yourself drawn into conversations and there’s a growing realisation that people are listening to you. In an important sense, it starts to feel social.

However it’s important to remember this is a feeling which social media firms are trying to create. It is that feeling of being in touch, having an audience and being heard which is at the heart of what these platforms are promising their users. The reality might not live up to the rhetoric. As impressive as it might seem to have thousands of followers, it might be that few people are engaging with what this ‘influencer’ is sharing. The opposite could be true of course, with countless fans hanging on there every word. In most cases, their influence will probably exist somewhere between these two extremes. But it’s important to recognise the distinction because it helps us avoid getting sucked in, chasing follower counts for their own sake rather than seeking to build relationships and ensuring our ideas circulate widely. There are many places where followers can be bought across the whole range of platforms. For a small payment, these shady firms will propel you into the social media stratosphere, boosting your follower counts in a way that will leave you perceived as being an ‘influencer’. So they claim at least. The reality is more questionable, with these followers not only contributing nothing to your experience of social media and perhaps even detracting from it, not least of all because the fake followers can be glaringly obvious to those who are familiar with the norms of a platform. 

It’s something which I’ve noticed academics do on Twitter on a number of occasions, usually established professors who acquire a few thousand followers overnight having briefly used the platform without making much of a splash. It’s difficult to know for certain but tools like provide a way of assessing whether this intuition is correct. The tell tale signs are a predominance of follower accounts without profile pictures and/or only a handful of tweets. These are give aways for the work of the click farms where these fake followers are mass produced. So why do people do it? It’s hard for us to be sure, as we still lack research into the question. Furthermore, it will be a difficult topic to research, as it’s tricky to conclusively identify academics who have bought these followers and there’s a risk they are going to be unwilling to talk about why they did, even under conditions of anonymity. But it’s an interesting question nonetheless because it highlights follower counts as a form of status and prompts us to think about how this is becoming a currency within the already heavily stratified world of higher education.

It’s unlikely follower counts will replace other forms of prestige, such as one’s standing amongst colleagues within a field or citation measures. But it is likely to supplement them in complex and confusing ways. For instance someone with an engaged online following can easily leverage this to increase readership of their publications. The causal chain which links discovery to downloading to reading to citation means this might not be as straight forward as some would assume. It’s also easy to overestimate how many people are reading something shared on social media for the reasons we’ve already seen. But even with these caveats, online popularity can still be used to ensure others are more likely to be aware of and read what you publish, with all this entails for the likelihood of citation and its impact upon your standing within your field and discipline. This is why it’s important that our use of social media as academics is informed by an understanding of online popularity: what it is and what it isn’t, what it does and what it doesn’t do, what it means and how it’s achieved.

The problem is that building an audience takes time for everyone. It is as much a matter of the frequency of your activity as it is the sheer quantity of it. It’s hard to develop an audience for a blog unless you’re writing on a regular basis. It’s difficult to be heard above the cacophony on a platform like Twitter unless you are tweeting a few times per day. If you’re posting less than daily on Instagram then you’re likely to fade into the background for many of the people who are following you. There’s a risk of overstating the point and it’s certainly possible to post too frequently on social media. But we shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which social media involves seeking to grab the attention of an audience and retain it through regular interaction with them. There are other aspects to it as well, but this dynamic is at the heart of what is often described as the attention economy. There are lots of ways in which you can grab this attention but most of them necessitate a certain regularity of activity. For many users this regularity soon becomes habitual and it ceases to feel like a deliberate undertaking, even more so if what you are sharing produces a positive reaction in others and an audience begins to build around you. 

But we shouldn’t miss the fact that it is work, increasingly expected of junior academics in particular. It is work which is easier for some rather than others, with rewards often going to those who are already well known and highly regarded. There are undoubtedly many examples of marginalised academics using social media to rapidly rise to prominence, with important opportunities for minority scholars and others disadvantaged within the contemporary university to be seen and to be heard. But the fact that social capital can be accumulated online by those who have tended to be denied it offline doesn’t negate the fact that those who already have it offline find it easier to accumulate it online. The reality is that it’s much easier to do this work if you are already well known. It’s much easier to be heard above the din, as the sociologist David Beer once put it, if people already know who you are and are keen to find out more about what you are doing.

Photo by Kevin Oetiker on Unsplash

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