I have been involved with a few conversations in the last month that basically went along the lines of social media is ruining X. It got me thinking is that really true?
The first conversation was about twitter and how it is ruining conferences. The thesis was that people don’t listen to the talks as carefully because they are too busy tweeting about them. Therefore the question periods suffer from this lack of in-depth attention. Hmm.
The second conversation was about PhD student morale. Basically that thesis was that students share too much these days (like on facebook) and this over sharing leads to them feeling down about their research/chances in academia/etc. Hmmm.
Both conversations left me a little dissatisfied, although neither was really in-depth and the second was a bit tongue in cheek. But is social media ruining our academic lives? I could see some valid points raised but those arguing against the practice of social media in these contexts were not users themselves. So is it just the case that from the outside these tools seem like distractions but really aren’t? Or are the users so blinded by their near addiction to the mediums that they can’t see how they are harming themselves and others?
I’m not sure I’m the best person to address this issue as a blogger and tweeter and facebook user. Scratch that, I’m definitely not. I have had too many positive outcomes* from these on-line ways of connecting with people that I won’t give them up and am pretty convinced that they aren’t ruining anything. Given that stance, I certainly don’t think social media is for everybody and there are plenty that don’t participate in certain platforms because it doesn’t work for them. But just because a platform doesn’t work for you doesn’t make it useless or even bad. I like the comments on this DynamicEcology post about conference hashtags. I think this highlights how different people feel about the use of these kinds of social media tools and gives a broad perspective of how something that doesn’t seem relevant to some can be really useful to others.
Arguments about use of social media/smart phones/etc are certainly not limited to academia but it strikes me that they are often polarized. Maybe we can move beyond the dichotomy of “things were much better in the past, this new stuff makes everything horrible” and “the new stuff is great, you’re just being a fuddy duddy”. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
I’m not sure I had put forth a good argument in either conversation that social media can be a force for good because I also think that it can ruin everything. The key is that social media, twitter, facebook, or what have you can be used poorly. Smartphones can distract you from what is going on in real life right in front of you and tweeting during a conference might mean that you don’t pay the same kind of attention to a talk that you would otherwise. Facebook might make you feel more disconnected and comparatively a loser when your achievements are stacked against your peers but I would argue coffee room chat could do that same. But negative outcomes are not necessarily the result of the tools but how we use them.
I guess I am more interested in conversations about how we can use these tools to improve our academic lives rather than black and white stances on their merits. We should also appreciate that, like for most things, different people have different ways of working and what works for them. A more inclusive academic life will find ways to accommodate these different styles and tools. Even better, we can help teach those around us how to use these tools effectively if they want to.
*For example, my on-line community has been a great support this last year. I’ve spent most of the year unemployed after my contract position ended and none of the options I applied for came through. The unemployment and associated stress of focusing on getting a position is mostly why you haven’t seen much of me here but I hope to change that! I got good news this week that my grant was funded and my on-line community have made my celebrations even sweeter.