What does it mean for the academy if increasing numbers of academics become ensnared within the twittering machine? Many people have experienced social media in a way which suggests it overturns existing hierarchies, eliminating the status distinctions that we continually encounter in academic life. There is a superficial plausibility to this claim. As Drezner notes, ‘Senior scholars who join social media to advertise their scholarly work must confront the reality that despite their hard-earned academic prestige, there will be graduate students with more Twitter followers’. Furthermore, the platforms themselves make it easier to interact across these status distinctions, lessening the anxiety involved in approaching a senior scholar that might be felt if this were being done at a conference. However, it would be a mistake to infer from this that social media is making the academy a less hierarchical place.
I suggest that two things are happening here. Firstly, the culture encouraged by social media platforms is increasing the informality of interaction between academics, at least when this takes place online. Secondly, social media is introducing new hierarchies into academic life, with social media popularity supplementing the established hierarchies of standing amongst your colleagues and measurement of your publication record. The relationship between these forms of standing is far from straightforward. As we have seen, standing amongst your colleagues doesn’t automatically translate to social media popularity. But social media popularity can translate into measurement of your publication record, at least if it is deployed for the promotion of your papers, by making it more likely that others will download, read and cite them.
There are many questions here which ought to be a focus of research over the coming years. If increasing numbers of academics pursue social media popularity, as a consequence of internalising the popularity principle through the habits they build up as platform users and/or pursuing the career benefits taken to ensue from social media popularity, it seems likely to create a number of problems. Firstly, the popularity principle fuels a competitive escalation in social media activity, making it necessary for people to shout more loudly and more often in order to be heard. As Veletsianos puts it, ‘remaining visible on a social networking and fast-moving platform such as Twitter means that one has to share often and frequently, or else one’s voice and presence are diluted in the sea of information that is already present’.
If posting more frequently or posting more provocatively are discernible as techniques through which a user can make their voice heard, as opposed to fading into the background cacophony, others will be encouraged to do the same because the platform will become faster moving and more provocative as a consequence of users following this logic. Secondly, the popularity principle risks having unwelcome effects on academic culture because what happens online is unlike to stay online. The form which these effects take is likely to vary between disciplines. For instance consider Dean’s (2017) worries about political science: ‘the emergence of short term punditry as a benchmark of one’s status within the profession’ leaves political scientists pursuing ‘hot takes’ in response to breaking news in a manner which risks squeezing out slower and more reflective forms of analysis.
My concern is that pursuit of social media popularity is liable to have all manner of effects, both in terms of who gets heard and how they speak. The key question here is how what van Dijck calls the popularity principle might influence the behaviour and practices of academics as they embrace social media. As she defines it, the popularity principle holds that ‘the more contacts you have and make, the more valuable you become, because more people think you are popular and hence want to connect with you’. This concept is coded into the architecture of social media platforms in a way that is impossible to avoid, reflecting the broader attention economy in which ‘attention means eyeballs or (unconscious) exposure, and this value is an important part of Internet advertising in the form of banners, pop-ups, and paid ad space on websites’.
There’s money to be made from popularity, or rather turning popularity (often, as van Dijck points out, equated with values of truth, trust and objectivity) into a quantifiable commodity. It might feel like you would be immune to this, but if you encounter a popular Twitter feed, previously unknown to you, how does the high follower count influence your perceptions of it in the absence of any other information? At the very least, it’s likely to factor into a sense that there’s something authoritative or valuable about the account. After all, surely those followers must have arrived for a reason? The popularity principle is insidious and it is built into social media platforms themselves. Value comes to be quantified in terms of the accumulation of followers, likes, retweets and reblogs.