Posts Tagged ‘social media’

Marathons and Mayonnaise: Digitally Mediating Academic Lifestyles

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Many of us have developed sufficiently sophisticated media ‘literacies’ to recognise that TV programmes, magazines articles and advertising about cooking, interior design and other recreational pursuits rely heavily on a narrative of constructed lifestyles, often directly linked to key protagonists. So much so, that the term ‘lifestyle’ is often adopted as a catch-all to collectively describe the genre.

Whilst academics have no doubt discussed their recreational activities with colleagues for many years, through idle chat in university corridors or over conference lunches, we are the first generation using social media to partly do so in globally distributed environments. I’ve been thinking about how this emergent practice might be mediating ‘academic lifestyles’ and how it might be contributing to a (re)shaping of their cultural norms.

To be clear, the performative context I’m talking about here is not one based on formal (or indeed informal) academic achievement or professional status, but one which relates to public profiles and digital footprints that increasingly include lifestyle revelations beyond purely academic roles and activities. These provide an everyday insight into readily shared selves that are also becoming increasingly quantified. Some of us may even adopt a form of online ‘life laundering’ that is almost confessional, warts and all, and tags such as ‘micro-celebrities’ have been assigned, disparagingly and often uncritically, to relatively high-profile and high-volume users of social media, including some academics.

It is only natural that we annotate the sharing of aspects of our professional practice with recreational footnotes, such as the perks that go with travelling to overseas conferences. In addition, emergent ‘life hacking’ exercises – with their focus on tricks, shortcuts and skills to increase personal well-being and productivity – constitute an interesting and increasingly visible subset of academic ‘lifestyling.’ But I’m increasingly aware how these can (consciously or unconsciously) involve the nurturing and (re)constructing of the self, often (re)affirming one’s social and cultural capital.

Academics are generally well versed in online identity management, and often at the forefront of advising students over digitally mediated threats to personal and professional reputations. Drunken Facebook photos and inappropriate tweets have become clichés of the genre. In the main, academics are content to adopt modest, balanced and guarded approaches to the way they present personal aspects of their lives and their recreational activities – in particular, making conscious decisions over the identification and participation of spouses, children and other non-professional relationships – whilst adhering to the expectations of professional conduct and confidentiality regarding aspects of their studies and work.

The way I see it, most forms of academic shared practice are not overtly prescriptive, dictatorial or self-promotional, but can be viewed as contributing to a wider communal resource from which others can make informed decisions about the usefulness and relevance of individual contributions. And whilst I’ve previously expressed concerns about the potential for cultural hegemony, most of these are motivated by genuinely altruistic instincts and ethics. Further, many academics are often deliberately self-effacing and self-depreciating online. There are plenty in my Twitter feed who admit to unproductive days, unhealthy eating and excessive bouts of procrastination. In doing so, we are reassured that they are presenting more rounded, authentic and honest personas.

But how much might we admit to certain activities, personal traits and lifestyle choices to the point that we may consider it compromising professional reputation or career progression? Instinctively, it doesn’t do us any harm to project ourselves as confident, fit, healthy, efficient, productive, socially well-connected and culturally rich individuals. Ok, it’s unlikely that anyone’s professional status will be significantly enhanced by accounts of running marathons or making their own mayonnaise. But do we run the risk of contributing to increasingly narrowly defined cultural norms of what constitutes ‘ideal’ scholars, creating academic lifestyles that are increasingly ritualised and consensual? Further, do these reinforce lifestyles associated with predominant academic demographics (you know, the usual suspects).

From the moment we enter university, we conform to social and cultural norms of behaviour and self-representation. Yet progression towards postgraduate and doctoral studies requires increasingly important work in establishing one’s own professional identity/ies. In comparison to many workplaces (and I’ve worked in quite a few), an academic environment remains a generally supportive and inclusive working environment; one that embraces diversity and is tolerant of multiple perspectives, even if, as some would argue, these values are being increasingly inhibited by neoliberal and managerialist agendas. Crucially, academics are also contributing to a wider sociocultural shift in scholarly discourse beyond core practices, highlighting – and indeed personalising – important issues related to the academic environment, such as mental health, everyday sexism and the precarity and exploitation of academic labour.

Digitally-mediated academic lifestyles increasingly constitute expressions of individuality and performativity that challenge existing work-life binaries, institutional roles and formal professional identities. We should ensure they remain authentic, diverse and inclusive.

Lori Emerson: An Interface Perspective

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

In an interesting interview with Furtherfield, Lori Emerson summarises her new book to explain how she is using the metaphor of the ‘interface’ to critique technological consumerism. Most interestingly, Emerson uses her Mcluhan-esque approach to technological mediation to discuss how we are increasingly ‘locked into’ using dominant social media brands.

“corporations are making it as difficult as possible to perceive these interfaces and to see how they’re mediating and even determining our experience.”

It seems to me that these corporations have established dominance not necessarily through their technological superiority but through the aggressive acquisition of successful social media start-ups and by then imposing restrictions on how they are connected. As Emerson indicates, these increasingly narrow options are then fed back to us through a culture of branding, in which “words like “seamless” and “natural” are code for “closed.””

Early notions of Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) challenged existing monolithic platforms and institution-centric models of content delivery, yet subsequent forms of PLE reification coincided with the emergence of largely commercial and increasingly monopolised social media.

Perhaps some of the original notions of PLE live on in the guise of the technologically facilitated ‘life-hacks’ and ‘tool-kits’ that are routinely shared on the blogosphere, typically oriented towards increased personal productivity and workflow efficiency. Yet whilst some offer the potential for work-arounds, which may traverse the ‘locked in’ operability between multiple platforms described above, it seems many are often almost exclusively limited to Apple and Google products.

Perhaps a shift in thinking from a ‘personal’ paradigm to that of the ‘community’ is required here, but whilst Emerson acknowledges the alternatives offered by the rise of maker and hacker communities, she suggests these are also becoming increasingly corporatised.

Emerson advocates a shift away from an obsession with efficiency and productivity, towards more creative and ‘poetic’ adaptations of technology. However, it seems to me that such pursuits often remain limited to an elite; to the technology enthusiast or professional, with any attempt at scalability for the rest of us inexorably negated by the political and economic constraints of the organisations and systems in which they operate.

What is it with the dark social…?

Saturday, October 19th, 2013

I can understand using the term in relation to its original and specific context of web analytics. However, I see it increasingly adopted as an alternative buzz phrase for those familiar and ubiquitous communication channels that were around before social media (such as e-mail), which seems nothing more than a rebranding exercise. If anything, this reveals a continued failure to contextualise new technologies and practices with those that are pre-existing and predominant.

Feeding the Fish: Peripherality, Social Media and Doctoral Enterprise

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

During my workshop at the Research Practices 2.0 event on Saturday, we discussed some of the fundamental questions about sharing work online.

What?

  • What type of research work / activities / content etc?

Where?

  • What type of social media / online spaces?

When?

  • During what stages of PhD / study / project?
  • How might this support / compromise ‘formal’ dissemination?

How?

  • What types of format / media etc.

Who (to/with)?

  • Audience – size, demographic?
  • Identifiability – real or ‘imagined’?

I had a great group, who were not given anywhere near the time they deserved to discuss these sufficiently. But they responded brilliantly, generally embracing the idea of research dissemination beyond text-based formats and reporting of findings.

In following up these questions – particularly the ‘What?’ and the ‘When?’ – I referred to my interpretation of Jakob Bardram’s (2007) Fish Model. This plots the student’s engagement in theoretical and empirical work (which I crudely termed the ‘Research Scope’) with the duration of the PhD.

This highly conceptual model is hardly an authentic representation of anyone’s actual PhD, but it does usefully indicate at-a-glance the broad ‘focusing out’ and ‘focussing in’ periods that commonly describe the doctoral research trajectory.

I extended this model to incorporate how, as PhD students; we might at least maintain the scope of academic engagement and learning expansion (represented by A). Indeed, there is justifiably an argument to go beyond a process of mere sustainability in favour of a continuation of the ‘focusing out’ trajectory (as represented by B). Or, crucially, do we relinquish the agency for continued expansive learning to adopt a ‘blinkered’ approach that conforms to the reductionist constraints of ‘finishing the thesis’ without compromising direct disclosure of ideas or findings before ‘formal’ publication.

Holistic models of doctoral practices provide more authentic representations of what doing a PhD actually entails, and the complex socio-educational structures that underpin it – what Cumming (2010) refers to as ‘doctoral enterprise’. Such approaches incorporate activities, forms of intellectual enquiry and social interaction beyond those parameters defining thesis-development, to those that are more attributable to exploring the general research field, and engaging in multiple practice contexts.

For the purposes of the workshop, this was a simple way of demonstrating the ‘dialogical’ relationship between what McAlpine et al. (2009) distinguish as the ‘doctoral-specific’ and the ‘academic-general,’ which describes the potential interrelatedness and influence between the core and the peripheral.

This blog post itself partly represents an example of such a dialogue. It references an event and a project, which can be seen as peripheral activities not directly linked to my PhD research. However, my activities in the project have (not surprisingly) been informed by my research into doctoral practices and social media. Additionally, I may chose not to reference Bardram’s Fish Model in my thesis, but some of the conceptual ideas it has helped describe will be explored. Articulating these ideas in this way is contributing to my process of understanding and conceptualising that will benefit my thesis.

Similar dialogical processes between thesis-development and peripheral activities (such as teaching) may not necessarily involve social media. But it’s taken me a while to realise in my own PhD research, that it is fundamentally the nature of this dialogue – which is social, contested and in a state of flux – that is key to understanding the cultural aspects of social media adoption and use.

References

Bardram, J. E. (2007). The Art of Doing a PhD. Doctoral Colloquium. UbiComp 2007. Innsbruck, Austria.

Cumming, J. (2010). Doctoral enterprise: A holistic conception of evolving practices and arrangements. Studies in Higher Education, 35(1), 25-39.

McAlpine, L., Jazvac-Martek, M., & Hopwood, N. (2009). Doctoral student experience: Activities and difficulties influencing identity development. International Journal for Researcher Development, 1(1). 97-109.