Nicole K. Stewart

The Public and their Platforms: Public Sociology in the Era of Social Media is a contemporary addition to public sociology, which was first introduced by Herbert Gans in 1988, and later popularized by Michael Burawoy’s 2004 American Sociological Association (ASA) Presidential Address, in which he declared “the world needs a public sociology.” In contrast, Mark Carrigan and Lambros Fatsis propose digital public sociology (DPS) to reconstitute the relationship between “intellectuals, publics and platforms of communication” (1). Strengthening public life and civic-oriented knowledge through DPS involves a threefold framework, which includes approaching platforms as assembly devices, moving towards a sociology in public, and re-educating scholars as public inter-lectuals (175). Taking the pandemic as a standpoint, I use DPS to discuss virtual conferences in the platform academy and the shift towards a sociology in public on social media. I conclude with commentary on how to use DPS for public pedagogy, providing the university course I taught over audio social media as an example.

Virtual conferences in the platform academy

The COVID-19 pandemic amplified the externalization of platforms in higher education. The radical transition of digital operations from internal systems to external providers illuminates the “contours of a change underway” (153). The ubiquitous shift from “network” to “platform” acknowledges the idea that social media is greater than a networking service, fueling concerns about platform capitalism (32) and data extraction. Public sociology on platforms like Twitter produces platform capital that can lead to academic capital. To underscore this point, I returned to Twitter after a five-year hiatus to join conference discussions during the pandemic. My presence on the platform not only augmented my connections to academics around the world, but also led to an increase in invitations to write reviews and participate in events and conferences. In short, my inactive Twitter handle made me an invisible scholar. This academic capital is precisely why graduate students are told to network on Twitter and permanent faculty are encouraged to tweet their way to tenure, following a recommendation by the ASA for postsecondary institutions to include public communication on social media in tenure applications. Of course, academic Twitter produces academic capital that differs from traditional institutional practices, which demands discarding preexisting assumptions about legacy scholarship without rejecting it (154).

The shift to cloud-based platforms by academic conferences coincided with an increase in calls for alternative submission styles, further challenging existing scholarship traditions. New conferences like The Post-Pandemic University asked for podcasts and blogs, while established conferences like AoIR requested video submissions and extended abstracts. Just as submission styles varied, so too did host platforms and engagement levels at conferences. One college administrator recently argued that virtual conferences are cost-effective and easier for people with family obligations, but amplify real losses around informal networking and the collapse of “being away.” The deeper structural impact of such benefits is that it culminates into barrier removal for parents and, more significantly, mothers in academia. As a graduate student and mother to two young children, virtual conferences have removed significant hurdles around international travel with children. Mother-scholars are at an enormous disadvantage as a result of the “motherhood penalty,” a phenomenon that illustrates how the nature of being a mother often disqualifies women in academia. Additionally, women tend to be underrepresented at academic conferences as a result of childcare challenges, which is worsened by the fact that conferences rarely offer on-site childcare, an issue that rarely impacts male academics who are also fathers. Conferences are critical to academic success, which is why collective and structural ideas, like providing virtual or hybrid options to conferences through platforms, are important ways to combat the “childcare-conference conundrum” that often holds women back.

Of the nine conferences I participated in over the past twelve months, the loss of informal networking was most notable at large-scale conferences like IAMCR, where opportunities to connect with participants and panelists in a live modality were absent. In comparison, small-scale conferences like Racialisation and the Media (RATM) and ICAE held Zoom sessions to facilitate workshops, working paper groups, and socialization hours. These online conferences encouraged vibrant discussions and debates on Zoom and Twitter, refuting overgeneralizations that online conferences lead to the demise of informal networking. At RATM, I met a scholar who has since become a research colleague, illustrating the potential of the digital undercommons, a concept adapted from Sefano Harney and Fred Moten. By approaching digital platforms as assembly devices in online spaces, it is possible to “encourage participation within and beyond them” (175), rather than simply existing in the social media machine.

A sociology in public on social media

Using social media as a digital undercommons presents a way to reimagine how sociologists can use platforms in public spaces on the internet to publish sociological knowledge (175). As Carrigan and Fatsis indicate, social media is routinely used as a tool, which dilutes insights into how social media can or cannot contribute to public sociology (7). Scholars increasingly use social media sites like Twitter for public sociology, but often do so in a limited capacity. Academics use Twitter to disseminate knowledge, promote research projects, and share retweets, but rarely engage with publics. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many panels and conferences became accessible, streaming on platforms like Facebook Live. Social media platforms play an integral role in disintermediating communication between scholars and publics, leading to a movement from public sociology to a sociology in public. Fundamental to jettisoning “patronizing assumptions” that public sociology is a branded good, designed to elevate profiles, prestige, and advancement, a sociology in public discourages situating scholars as “visiting dignitaries rather than as coexisting members of the public” (175). Achieving a sociology in public calls for a re-education of scholars as public inter-lectuals “who converse with their fellow citizens instead of expecting them to be converted into our intellectual habits” (175). As lines between private/public and inside/outside the university increasingly blur, this type of technological reflexivity informed by platform literacy has become urgent (175).

Pedagogy of public sociology on audio social media

Third-wave marketization, the corporatization of the university, and the commodification of education has underlined the importance of DPS. A logical extension to the call for DPS is for re-educated public inter-lectuals to use social media as assembly devices for public pedagogy. Research often neglects how public sociology and teaching practices intersect. Traditionally, public pedagogy encourages teaching and learning outside of institutionalized educational environments. A pedagogy of public sociology should engage with a multitude of publics. Burawoy outlines three types of dialogues, including between teachers and students, amongst students, and finally, with students as a public among other publics. The idea of encouraging pedagogy in public with publics is what led me to teach a course on audio social media. 

After teaching thirteen classes between January 2020 and April 2021, any sanguinity that students would willingly show up to synchronous classes or office hours like the title sequence from The Brady Bunch was superseded by my thumbnail professor icon coaxing students out of the black boxes of the Zoom abyss. By March 2021, Zoom fatigue hit my students in full force, and while my attempt to create cool, interactive courses on inflexible learning management systems placated some students, it was clear to me it wasn’t live enough for others. I decided to teach my Summer 2021 course over audio social media, an idea that came to me while presenting research on Clubhouse at the RATM conference. 

Early May 2021, I submitted a question to Clubhouse Townhall, letting co-founder and CEO Paul Davison know my desire to teach a fourth-year university course on the platform, detailing some of the hurdles, which at the time included the invite-only nature of the platform, the need for event links, and the absence of an Android application. Davison noted that he hadn’t considered the platform for a university course, but eagerly added, “That’s awesome. That’s very exciting, and I love that. I want you to teach that also.” In his response, Davison outlined Clubhouse’s plans to roll-out these features over the next few months. 

As many features wouldn’t be available at the start of the course, I decided to run the first half of the course on Twitter Spaces and the second half of the course on Clubhouse, using WhatsApp as a backchannel. On Twitter Spaces, professors and graduate students from our network did drop into the class but didn’t speak. When we moved to Clubhouse, the public attended the class alongside students. In one case, a cricket player from India raised his hand and joined the speaker’s floor; the individual participated in the hour-long seminar along with the students. 

DPS illustrates the potential for participation between intellectuals, intellectuals and students, intellectuals and publics, as well as students and publics. By re-educating scholars as public inter-lectuals, platforms can be used as assembly devices through which intellectuals and the public converse, achieving a more meaningful sociology in public. DPS can help tackle issues of accessibility, participation, collectivisation, socialisation, and more. The example of teaching over audio social media presents an example of how to extend DPS to pedagogy to improve public life and foster civic-related knowledge transmission. 

Photo by Lee Easton on Unsplash

Nicole Stewart is a PhD Candidate and Sessional Instructor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University (SFU). She is also a Community-Engaged Research Initiative Graduate Fellow at SFU. Her research focuses on digital skills, domestication, platforms, media applications, and software.

1 comment

  1. While there is scope to experiment with new teaching techniques, when the pandemic hit I reminded my colleagues that online learning was not new and there were proven approaches to it (I had been teaching and studying online for ten years). From a large body of research, and direct experience, it was clear from the start that this would not be like “The Brady Bunch” and creating cool, interactive courses was the wrong approach. Also learning management systems work fine, provided you know how to use them for what they were designed for: all the boring stuff. One approach I suggested was to use the LMS for all the boring administrative, asynchronous stuff. Then send the students out to do fun stuff somewhere else, but check in periodically on the LMS for grades and the like. I will be discussing some of this in my next “Keep Calm and Carry Online” webinar, 1pm Wednesday 20 October from ANU:


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