Social Media Was Consuming Me — But I Took Back Control!

In this post, I reflect upon the use of social media as a part of my attempt to build an academic career — Twitter and LinkedIn are useful depending where your audience is, but avoid being drawn into the algorithmic games of Facebook.

Recently, I started feeling that instead of me consuming social media, my presence on the platforms was consuming me. The algorithms that run the show in social media are not public, yet there are mounting indirect evidence that especially Facebook is tailored to make us feel the urge to check the newsfeed as often as possible whether that is good for us or not. So, I started asking myself:

Why do I let social media chip away the most important asset I have, that is, my attention?

To begin with, I would ideally want to use social media for three purposes.

Why social media?

First, I need to build an audience for my academic work. It’s not anymore publish or perish for academics. It’s tweet or perish. In order to survive in academic competition, we need to publish high-quality work but also draw attention to our work. Social media is a great tool for building a personal audience. For instance, my colleague Jason Thatcher has written a very useful post on how to build an audience for academics.

Second, I need to keep an eye on the latest developments in the fields of research that are relevant to my research. There are many ways to do this and social media is by no means the only solution; nevertheless, it can provide an effective view into recent insights and studies that academics feel are worth making noise about. For this purpose, I find social media particularly useful with respect to studies just outside my own discipline that are not present in my conferences and journals.

Third, I miss intellectual conversations. Social media would seemingly provide just the right tools to engage colleagues across the globe. Yet, in this respect, I have been so far mostly disappointed — or probably I have been just naive to think that media where everything is expected to be excessively positive could support serious intellectual conversation…

So, the first lesson learned is that it is better to focus on building an audience and on sensing what’s happening around while accepting that good conversations take place mostly offline.

How to make the most out of it?

The next question was then how do I achieve my aims in social media. Does it require something substantially different from what I am already doing? I realized that a lot of things I have been doing are probably right, but losing sight of why I spend time in social media had resulted in a mission creep. I felt should be doing more without actually knowing what that more was.

The anxiety caused unhappiness and desire to imitate seemingly more successful social media personalities. Bit by bit, I had started spending more and more time on the platforms, which just made me more anxious because there was always somebody who was seemingly doing it more or better. My academic audience had been growing nicely and also engaging relevant stuff that I post for them, but the social media presence was draining my mental energy and attention.

To get out of the impasse, I went and discussed with friends and colleagues how they perceive their own social media usage. Listening to the diversity of views about social media clarified the second important lesson: to succeed in using social media to you advantage, you need your own strategy. It’s important to learn from what others do, but trying to copy them makes you just feel miserable. This is because you are not them.

Which platforms to use?

Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are obvious candidates for reaching out to academics, whereas there are good reasons to stay away from Academia.edu targeting specifically academics. I have no gripes about ResearchGate but for my own field it seems less relevant than the three general purpose social media.

Twitter. Personally, I find Twitter-style communication the most effective for the purposes I want to use social media. This requires, however, the careful curation of who to follow and brutally muting accounts that sprinkle irrelevant tweets — if you cannot unfollow them for whatever reason. The downside of Twitter is that it has limited features to support focused conversation beyond a casual reaction to a tweet.

Facebook. Facebook is the most problematic of the platforms. Filtering out irrelevant stuff is more difficult than in Twitter, meaning that you are easily lured into wasting time on all sorts of social trivia. This largely caused the mission creep that led to my problems with social media. Yet, in order to gain visibility on the platform, Facebook all but requires giving in to the temptations of social trivia. Having said this, Facebook has the best tools for having meaningful conversations––even if those do not happen very often.

LinkedIn. This one is an interesting case. LinkedIn has always had a huge potential to become the professional social network. A lot of people (including me) want to keep private life, well, private so that social media revolving on professional activities is just what we need. Yet, for many years all I saw in LinkedIn was bullshit from PR departments and equally self-indulgent individuals thinking that bragging about yourself is somehow cool. However, some academics have started to use LinkedIn in a more useful manner, posting about and engaging genuinely interesting matters. If LinkedIn would fix its subpar user interface, it might emerge as the winner in the future.

Academics from different disciplines are variously present on different platforms, and you need to be where your audience is. The third important lesson was that, while Twitter is my favorite as it enables to build a relevant audience with the least effort, academics in my field (management information systems) use LinkedIn more. For me, Twitter is great for keeping an eye on the latest developments in nearby fields, but to reach out to my own discipline I need to put more effort in LinkedIn. Facebook will remain a channel for secondary postings, while I decided to avoid anymore being drawn into its algorithmic games.

What about the content?

What to post is solved almost by itself once the answers for why, how, and which social media are clear. I simply post about matters that are more or less related to my ongoing academic life that I believe are relevant to the audience I want to build. I try different things and learn from the feedback — often from the lack of it — for instance, it seems my audience did not find slimy Keanu Reeves in a happy holidays tweet quite as exciting as I did…

This does not mean that I expose my ‘true’ self in social media. As social beings, we are made up of multitude of roles for different situations and audiences (Goffman 1959) and those who pay more attention to planning the role they play may actually give a more authentic impression than those who are ‘just being themselves’.

Finally, an important part of succesfully playing a role in social media is to be clear about what you do not post and what kind of matters you do not engage. For me it is that I rarely post about my family and, especially, my son. I am extremely proud dad and I love my son, but I respect his privacy. The little man has the right to build his own social media profile one day or stay away if he wishes to do so — and I do not want to take the decision away from him.

Summary

If you would ask my advice based on the experience of taking back control of my social media presence, I would probably tell you something like this:

Keep your objectives for your social media presence clear. Quickly try out many things while learning from your mistakes and successes to home in on a good fit between your online persona and an evolving audience. A nice thing in social media is that minor mistakes are quickly forgotten or ignored, especially when your audience is still small. If you make a major mistake, own it. Twitter and LinkedIn are probably the most useful platforms for academics depending where your disciplinary audience is, but avoid being drawn into the algorithmic games of Facebook. Finally, learn from more experienced social media users but don’t try to copy them because you are not them.

References

Goffman, E. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books.

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Aleksi Aaltonen

Management scholar, entrepreneur and thinker writing about academic knowledge production — www.aleksi.info