Mark Carrigan and Lambros Fatsis
This is an extract from The Public and Their Platforms, published by University of Bristol Press in June 2021.
The research literature on social media in higher education has tended to be preoccupied by how individuals take advantage of the affordances of these platforms or struggle with their constraints. We can see the same tendency in research on social media in education, described as Selwyn and Stirling as preoccupied by ‘good news, “best practice” and examples of “what works”’ reflecting an underlying hope that social media will prove ‘capable of initiating significant shifts in how people learn and engage with education’. Even the growing evidence base produced by empirical research which is being undertaken with greater frequency largely ignores the question of collective use, reducing it to networked scholarship or the power of connection. The reasons for this absence are easy to grasp if we consider them from a methodological perspective, reflecting a reliance on sample surveys to grasp the extent to which a new technology is diffusing within a specific population that is compounded by how established the method is within educational technology and information science.
However, from a theoretical standpoint it is more puzzling, as to use social media as a collective represents a distinct form of engagement, with its own creative potentials and relationship to the organizational context in which it is being taken up. What’s particularly interesting for our purposes are those projects which come to be well established, taking on an existence over and above their initiators and coming to enjoy an identity which is more or less independent of them. There is a rich ecology of collaboration emerging across networks of academics using social media regularly, one we are unlikely to see anything but a fraction of unless we are deliberately searching beyond the boundaries of the niches we have come to occupy by virtue of our field, discipline and interests more broadly.
We suggest these initiatives can be usefully thought of in terms of building platforms: collegial projects which utilize the affordances of social media to pursue a collective agenda. The forms these take are familiar: Facebook groups organized around a particular topic, multi author blogs devoted to a field of inquiry, online magazines committed to making academic research more accessible, podcast series which explore a topic in a specific way or YouTube channels which collect academic talks in a given area. In some cases, these are funded but in many they are not. There are many examples of universities or research funders providing the financial support needed to keep the project going, something which seems likely to increase with time albeit in an uneven way. For example, it remains to be seen whether funders will prove to be content with what they might perceive as the relatively low return on investment, in terms of viewing figures which often fail to exceed the low hundreds, though this underscores the need for scholarly platforms of the sort we advocate which can help make these public. With so much content being produced, there’s an increasing need for bodies with a wide purview (funding councils, learned societies or scholarly publishers) to provide resources for platforms which aggregate, organize and promote this material. In some cases, these are run directly by the university, something which we have no desire to dismiss but that in an important sense becomes a different undertaking, with unique objectives and constraints, to those we are examining here. The projects we are most interested in for present concerns are initiated by collectives, operated by collectives and pursuing an agenda defined by collectives. They represent a crucial part of the digital landscape which has yet to be fully appreciated.
There are a number of reasons for the significance we accord to them. Firstly, they represent a collegial bulwark against the bureaucratization of social media, ensuring the existence of projects which are at least to some extent driven by motivations that evade and exceed the prevailing incentives of the accelerated academy. Secondly, they are a barrier against some of the more destructive tendencies to be found in the contemporary digital landscape, ensuring to some extent that challenges are not borne by isolated individuals but rather can be negotiated by a group. Thirdly, they jointly constitute a source of novelty which inspires other projects, ensuring that platforms are populated by organized groups who through their sheer presence unsettle the assumption that social media is used by influenceable individuals whose behaviour leaves them ever more open to analysis and intervention. Fourthly, insofar as they are sustained and recognized, they come to constitute the archetypes through which the utilization of digital media in higher education is understood by others