Academics and social media

Are you an academic labouring for social media impact? Here’s a must-read

You don’t have to look far to find online blogs and essays encouraging educators to use social media. There are several on this EduResearch Matters blog. Advocating for the use of social media, particularly Twitter, is sound advice in this highly mediated world.

I am writing this essay to complicate the idea of academic use of social media by considering it in terms of digital labour.  I do not wish to discourage academics from using social media.  If academics stopped using it, I wouldn’t have anything to research. Please don’t! However, if use of social media is considered part of academic impact, then the labour involved must be given greater attention.

According to social media scholars Alice E. Marwick and danah boyd (intentional lower case), Twitter encourages digital intimacy where communication serves a social function by reinforcing social connections and maintaining social bonds. Generally scholars communicate on Twitter in a social capacity, which has been identified by digital humanities scholars Anabel Quan-Hasse, Kim Martin and Lori McCay-Peet as “invisible colleges”, or networks of people who engage in disciplinary conversations, collaborations and philosophizing.

The focus of this essay is when a scholar shifts to informational mode (providing information) by writing a blog post, publishing an academic paper, tweeting a thread of observations and findings, or presenting their work at a conference. This dissemination and translation is the focus of the impact and engagement agenda that has led to universities encouraging academics to use social media. However, unless an academic is already successful offline, for the informational to have traction, the social groundwork also needs to happen, making both activities digital labour.

The labour of translating academic research to social media publications

Research translation on social media might be informational but it is also a pedagogical act because it is an act of public education. Researchers engage in teaching practices by interpreting their deeply theorised, analysed, thoughtfully considered, and lengthily articulated research process and findings into a medium that encourages brevity and clarity. They also use carefully considering composition techniques intent on sparking engagement. I have watched education social media users bring all their deepest pedagogical powers to bear on social media. Just like pedagogy, different approaches work for different people.

In my current research I have noticed the following pedagogical (possibly also influencer) approaches: connecting with the audience using second person pronouns (you) or first person plural (we/us), claims to personal research and practical expertise, linking to the expertise of others, asking questions and engaging with answers. A significant amount of work also goes into gaining trust through “authenticity” labour. If positioned as an expert there is often an expectation from followers that what they post is well considered, logical and researched. So authenticity work helps humanise an academic beyond that narrow expectation.

A question I often ask myself: Is it possible for someone who identifies as an academic to tweet idly? What does that do to academic notions of expertise?

Developing effective research translation pedagogy is labour. These pedagogical techniques are developed through trial and error, responding to engagement by repeating approaches that spark responses through comments, retweets and likes.

A complication to this pedagogical act is that when “reading their room” an academic starting out on social media is reading someone they follow, not necessarily someone following them. So the practice of academic impact, until reaching a large enough followership, is aspirational and resembles those practices noted by researchers of microcelebrity.  The typical individual on social media who arguably has the highest impact is the microcelebrity, with generally between 10,000 and 30,000 followers.

In the rest of this essay I draw on a decade of literature into the evolution of online microcelebrity labour, to offer academics and those encouraging academics to use social media some points to consider.

The role of microcelebrities on social media

Microcelebrities are important elements of the platform ecology because they are perceived as more authentic than their influencer counterparts, according to assistant Professor of Communication and Media studies at Fordham University, Alice E. Marwick. Microcelebrity is not an identity. Microcelebrity is a practice that is concerned with presentation strategies, positioning of subjects, and labour. Academic use of social media for impact, like microcelebrity, is in the business of impression management. This approach means careful consideration of audience and aspiration to a potentially more influential audience.

What are the industrial practices of an education Influencer?

Social media labour is substantial if one wants to retain audience and become influential, which is the nuts and bolts of an engagement and impact agenda.

Swinburne University academic, Jonathan Mavroudis, explains how after noticing that microcelebrities tended to only respond to microcelebrities, he decided to pursue microcelebrity status so that they would respond to his requests for interviews. On achieving a following of over 10,000 followers, his requests began to receive responses. Mavroudis describes his and his participants extensive “fame labour” which on the surface might just look like communication:

  • He crafted a consumable image through critically considering which parts of himself he should put online;
  • Continuously updated his interests, monitored the activity of others, and paraded the success of other microcelebrities;
  • Coming up with content;
  • Creating content; and
  • Satisfying audience by constantly striving to maintain popularity.

What Professor of English at the University of Chicago, Lauren Berlant, labeled the cruel optimism, or the fantasy of a good life if success is achieved, is a key feature of platform capitalism, the economic model that underscores most social media. The aspirational labour of going from a regular user, to a microcelebrity then to influencer should also be considered in terms of academic use of social media. 

This practice involves working above and beyond the current level of influence in the hope of building followership. Building a social media following strong enough to be impactful takes time and energy beyond tweeting a few times per day.

An academic might also aspire to use social media “more critically” than a microcelebrity. However, this attitude dismisses the critical labour microcelebrities do every day as a part of content creation and attracting and maintaining audience. According to Marwick, microcelebrities consider the technology industry they are a part of, the affordances of the platforms which host their content, and ethical dilemmas related to social justice and capitalism. Have a look at the critical discussions around and the development of the influencer who identifies as a robot, Lil Miquela to consider this further.

Decisions to be made about ‘impact’

If an academic reaches microcelebrity status, and while they are on the road to it, they must consider whether their research is impacting their immediate circle or if it is reaching beyond. As Mavroudis indicated above, aspirational microcelebrities might only be looking towards established microcelebrities. This is not just about choices about audience a user makes, but also about how the algorithms broker audiences. Does your pedagogy of research translation rely on the endorsement of other influential online academics? Does your pedagogy need to be more “grassroots”? The less an academic relies on the trickle-down impact of being shared by an education microcelebrity or influencer, the more work is required for impact.

Dr Charlotte Barlow and Professor Imran Awan reported on how the hate speech directed at academics from minority groups disseminating their research on social media has led to the silencing of difficult and contentious research topics. Furthermore, Dr Mikaela Pitcan along with Marwick and boyd have also found that aspirational people from minority groups present themselves online as “vanilla” in order not to offend majority sensibilities. Power in digital environments may be flattened in many ways, but the same issues of equality that affect society offline, are well established online.

If newer and differently powerful academics are continuously looking towards social media success for clues on how to develop influence online and/or choosing safe topics for research to avoid vitriol, what implications does this have for the future of academic research?

If universities are serious about using social media to disseminate research for impact, then the hidden professional and emotional digital labour of building an academic social media profile must be given research attention – for what it might do to research and scholarship as well as academic workloads.

To those who are already on this journey, how do you already think through these ideas? Would you comfortably identify as an education influencer or microcelebrity? Is your social media pedagogy working? What type of labour goes into that impact?

Naomi Barnes is a lecturer in Literacy in the Faculty of Education in the School of Teacher Education and Leadership at the Queensland University of Technology. She teaches in Curriculum and Pedagogy and Specialist Studies in Education. Naomi’s research is in digital rhetoric. She focuses on qualitative critical network analysis and how multiple modes of communication are at play in online human networking. She is interested in the relationships humans have with each other online, particularly in social media, and the socio-cultural theories and philosophical traditions which help us better understand how technology has changed the way we communicate. Naomi is also interested in the policy and pedagogical implications of these changes in communication.

Naomi is chairing a session on Reasoning in Education: Bringing together four ways of thinking at the at the AARE 2019 Conference. #AARE2019

Hundreds of educational researchers are reporting on their latest educational research at the AARE 2019 Conference 2nd Dec to 5th Dec. #AARE2019 Check out the full program here

Academics and Twitter: the good, the bad and how to survive out there

Twitter is the social media of choice for many academics. At least one in forty academics in an institution is on twitter, contributing to the 4.2 million tweets about education every day. If you are involved in education in any way it is probably a good idea to get on there and see what is happening.

In today’s world of academia where it is essential to show evidence of impact Twitter can be invaluable in helping academics establish their larger digital identities, share their research and publications and mine for data that can assist with their research projects.

Key arguments for academics to tweet

  • Develop and nurture networks
  • Establish and maintain profiles
  • Access scholars they otherwise couldn’t
  • Share work / self promote / increase impact
  • Public engagement
  • Reimagining of ‘what counts’ as impact, quality, etc
  • Push from institutions

Using Twitter to develop and nurture networks

Twitter is a fantastic way to connect to like-minded people and develop an online network. Online professional networks allow educators to connect and communicate with others regardless of location and time zone. Hashtags such as #acwriting #phdchat allow for connection with people going through similar experiences.

We [the authors] first connected on Twitter, then met face-to-face at the Australian Association for Research in Education conference in 2015. This connection has led to friendship and organising a symposium (about Twitter!) together.

Establish and maintain profiles

Twitter can function as a talking business card that complements the other aspects of your online profile, such as an institutional profile, a LinkedIn page, a ResearchGate and/or presence, a google scholar page and or a professional website/blog. For the development of a strong academic digital presence, some (but not all) these elements are necessary. Twitter is useful because it allows for real time interactions and a dynamic online presence, whereas the other elements are more static.

Access scholars they otherwise couldn’t

Twitter allows access to and communication with researchers and academics from a variety of fields, in a way that the day-to-day business/busy-ness and physical layout of universities doesn’t readily facilitate. Many academics on Twitter are generous with their expertise and happy to answer questions tweeted at them which allows for an immediacy of access.

Share work / self-promote / increase impact

If you’re not going to promote your work, who will? If shameless self-promotion is not the only thing that you do on Twitter, and you have built relationships and connections,  people are happy to share your work with their networks. But they can only do that if you tell them about it in the first place!

Public engagement

Twitter is a great way to connect with non-academics and stakeholders connected to your field. As education academics twitter conversations with parents and teachers have shaped our understanding of educational issues and it is good to be able to share research with those that are interested.

Reimagining of ‘what counts’ as impact, quality, etc

Twitter altmetrics (alternative metrics) provide a rigorous measurement of non-scholarly engagement with academic work. This has led to calls for scholars to not only have their h-index considered as a measure of the impact of their work, but to have this considered alongside a Twitter impact factor.

Push from institutions                      

Many universities are encouraging academics to engage with Twitter and offer personal development and information sessions to facilitate this. This institutional push is in response to higher education policy requiring universities to demonstrate the real world impact of their research.

What we see as the good bits of academic Twitter

  • Solidarity
  • People engaging with you about your work
  • Making real and lasting friendships and collaborations
  • Learning the art of brevity
  • Distractions, memes, news


Solidarity can happen through the shared conversation around experiences such as doing a PhD, being an academic mum, the trials and tribulations of academic writing. These conversations are often based around hashtags. In other circumstances, solidarity occurs when academics support each other in online discussions, or by sharing one another’s papers and call for papers and job advertisements.

People engaging with you about your work

One really nice thing about Twitter is having people discuss your work with you. Seeing people share or retweeting your work in a way that indicates they have read it is a good feeling. It’s also great to be able to engage with other academics whose work you enjoy.

Making real and lasting friendships and collaborations

Both authors have had the pleasure of making lasting friendships that started from Twitter conversations. These friendships have led to the development of back channel supportive group conversations, to collaborations that have led to joint writing projects, book contributions, conference presentations and scholarly visits.

Learning the art of brevity

While Twitter isn’t as restrictive as it used to be (it has gone from a limit of 140 characters to an allowance of 260 characters) mastering the art of brevity is a useful skill. You can hone this skill through live tweeting conference presentations or academic papers.

Distractions, memes, news

Sometimes Twitter is just fun. It can be a good way to break up a day of writing, or to catch up with the news. Sharing memes and participating in conversations brings laughter and connection.

The bad bits

  • False sense of security
  • Professional Risk
  • Trolling
  • Free labour for the digital economy

False sense of security

It’s easy to develop a sense on Twitter that the people who read your tweets are the people you’re ‘talking to’ when you tweet out a message. If you have a small follower list, or if you’re regularly engaging with the same people, you might develop a shared language, shorthands, inside jokes, and unspoken understandings. However, as many people have found out in the worst possible way, Twitter is a public platform for public consumption. Jon Ronson’s book ‘So you’ve been publicly shamed’ follows the experiences of people who have tweeted without thinking and faced the consequences. We think carefully about the things we tweet and we remember that, no matter what, we’re speaking to a possible audience of hundreds of millions of Twitter users.

Professional Risk

Following from the above points, participation on Twitter can carry professional risk. It has been described as ‘a robust ecosystem for brand-building, research-sharing, and career-ruining’. It pays to be mindful of your institution’s social media policy and to be sensible in your online interactions.


Some fields of research seem to experience trolling more significantly than others. This article describes an experience of a specific qualitative research methodology being targeted by Twitter users, and Australian academics have written about their experiences  as both researcher and editor when a paper is trolled. The authors rightly note that not a lot of the push for academics to be on Twitter is always accompanied by information about what to do if you are trolled, or what support is available. Articles like this one, however, do provide some useful advice in what steps to take if you’re experiencing something similar.

Free labour for the digital economy

Twitter as a platform largely depends on unpaid labour; which (like ‘women’s work’) serves a reproductive function by normalising particular social and economic relationships. This free labour involves ‘liking’ and sharing of content, the creation of and participation in collective networks, promotion of brands, sharing of news stories and generation of data that is sold to advertisers. And like all social media platforms, in using Twitter your data is collected, packaged, sold and used in the generation of targeted advertising.

Our strategies or rules for surviving twitter

  1. Don’t get into arguments with… anyone, honestly. You’re very unlikely to change someone’s mind via a twitter fight
  2. or Jumbo Privacy (some tweeters use these services to delete their tweets at regular intervals. This article provides some perspectives about why this might be useful
  3. Find a balance of personal & professional
  4. Be prepared to learn
  5. Think really hard and remember point 1 before engaging with people. 

If you are out there, or plan to be soon, and haven’t yet connected with us, please do. Find us at @chalkhands and @rayedish.

Amanda Heffernan is a lecturer in Leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Amanda’s key research interests include educational leadership, social justice, and policy enactment. Amanda also has research interests in the lives and experiences of academics, including researching into the changing nature of academic work. She can be found on Twitter @chalkhands

Rachel Buchanan is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle. She researches into the equity and social justice implications of education policy and the increased deployment of digital technologies within the education sector. She can be contacted via or found on Twitter: @rayedish.