We are All Public Scholars Now

Sociologists have been talking about doing public sociology for almost two decades. Since Michael Burawoy’s 2004 ASA Presidential Address, these scientists have been trying various ways to engage the public (broadly defined). Burawoy states that “the challenge of public sociology is to engage multiple publics in multiple ways.” In other words, we have different publics to engage. One target audience is the scientific community at large. That is to say, we have to do scientific work, which is theoretically rigorous and empirically rich, and that our findings could stand the falsification test. Another target audience could be the community in which we do research. More often than not sociologists give voice to an underprivileged, disadvantaged group that is difficult to reach. Our research thus must first and foremost benefit them. The third group could be policy makers who might listen to what we have to say about their work, and how to make their work stronger with our tools. And lastly it is the general public.

Most sociologists are convinced that we should communicate with people outside of academia. The rise of fake news, increasing attacks against public intellectuals from far-right activists, and America’s general anti-intellectual culture urgently plead for sociologists’ involvement in public debates. In the past decade and a half since Burawoy’s public address, sociologists have been taking up on the call. Some use blogs as a platform to engage with the wider audience. Some tweet. Some talk to the mainstream media. Some start writing popular books instead of academic books. The goal is to reach as wide and as far as technology allows. In this particular blog, I would like to address a few issues when professional sociologists attempt to engage with the wider public via digital tools such as social media, and blogging. In other words, I am taking up the issue whether digital technology has enabled sociologists to become better public intellectuals. What are the advantages and disadvantages? What should one be aware of when using various digital tools to popularize one’s own opinion, and scholarly work.

Before going into the topic of social media and scholarly work, I would like to address different approaches toward social media within the academe. Academia is an  established institution where different generations of scholars do research, teach generations of students, and train new scholars. Because of its heterogeneity, the reception of digital media has been varied, especially when it comes to using digital media to disseminate one’s own work. In general, there are four different groups:  (1) digital natives, (2) digital embracers (or early adopters), (3) digital opportunists, and (4) digital rejecters. These four categories constitute a spectrum. Everyone can be placed somewhere between a digital native, and a digital rejecter.

Digital natives are those who came of age during the digital revolution. Most people who were born around the birth of World Wide Web   in 1991  are considered digital natives. They often take for granted that they could find the answer to almost everything on the Internet, and that they spend much of their childhood and adulthood learning how to take advantage of the Internet, and contribute to its hegemony. This generation also came of age not questioning much about their privacy online while sharing their personal data via Snapchat, Facebook, etc. Almost everyone has a Facebook, or Instagram, or Snapchat account. They freely share their personal experience on the Internet.

Digital embracers or early adopters are those who came of age before the World Wide Web revolution. Yet since they are early adopters of technology, they understand the advantage of the Internet, and seamlessly incorporate digital media, and technology into their work, and daily life. However, since they came of age before the revolution of the Internet, they experienced what it meant to have privacy, and to separate between Internet life from their personal life. In other words, they might not necessarily share everything on their Internet from the pictures of their debutante to their baby shower. The Internet might be a place to share work, but not life. There is a separation between work and life, and between real life and the Internet.

Digital opportunists are those who are not frequent Internet users, who go in and out of the Internet as they see fit. In other words their relationship with the Internet is rather instrumental. They only use it when they need it. They don’t really contribute to the digital culture, or help it to spread.

Digital rejecters are those who reject the Internet. In other words, individuals in this category refuse to acknowledge the advantages provided by the Internet, or they insist that without the Internet they could do their work and run their lives as usual.

Sociologists who fall under the first three categories might use the Internet to engage with the public.  Many have written blog to bring sociological reasoning, and methods to the blogsphere. One of the most successful sociologists who uses such method is Philip Cohen of University of Maryland. His blog Family Inequality is widely circulated and respected. There are other blogs run and maintained by sociologists that also get a wide readership. I myself use blog as a template to jot down my thoughts, think about social problems that I experience, and brainstorm my research ideas. In other words, I think out loud via blogging. As a young scholar, whose professional identity is not yet formed and shaped, I feel my engagement with the readers on the blogsphere is rather limited because I have not yet claimed my expertise in any particular sub-field.

Recently I have seen that more and more sociologists use Twitter as a platform to disseminate their work, and engage with the public. In one of the professionalization lecture series on writing articles that I went to, the speaker encouraged everyone to use Twitter, and make the world known that their article is published. Her advice stopped at article dissemination. Other senior colleagues who are more adept at tweeting suggest me to engage in public discussions on Twitter, and get connected to other scholars on this platform. Many have embraced its effectiveness in creating a public discourse around a social issue, and how quick one’s tweet might get attention of the entire community and the Internet. However, others also have raised issues about being attacked by the far-right on the Internet when discussing controversial topics around white supremacy.

Being a public sociologist on Twitter is a very different kind than being a public sociologist using the blog medium. The blog format is rather static, and it seems that in blogsphere, writers and readers communicate in a more traditional way. On the contrary, Twitter enables information to be disseminated quickly, and also attacks to come quickly.

Among the four different types about scholars and digital technology, they have different relationship with the Internet particularly when it comes to privacy. I conceptualize that leisure activity and family information are considered as private information, while work is considered as public information for public sociologists. Given these proxies, I came up with this following table that summarizes behaviors of different groups towards their privacy and their work.

Work Leisure (family)
Digital Native Online Online
Digital Embracer Online Partly online
Digital Opportunist Partly online Partly online or nothing online
Digital Rejecter Nothing online Nothing online

Clearly, digital natives, being raised and grew up with the Internet have put so much of their information online before they became a public sociologist. That means they have established some online identity on the Internet before it became a place where they disseminate their work. Therefore, the Internet contains a mixed bag of personal and public information for them. For example, most of people who were born after 1991 have a Facebook page where they put their pictures during college years, going to a frat party with their buddies. Now a decade later, they become a young assistant professor. Students could Google their names, and figure out their partying pictures in college. How would they take their public sociology about sexual assault on campus seriously after having seen that they were also participating in that culture in college? The Internet has potential to undermine one’s credentials.

Digital embracers seem to be able to separate the two spheres a bit more clearly. They experienced a world without the Internet before, and know what it means not putting too much personal information on the Internet. I have met various digital embracers who strictly use the Internet for their professional identity. Nobody knows whether they are married, or having children from using Google alone.

Similarly digital opportunists only put enough information on the Internet so long as it benefits their professional work. In other words, they are selective in choosing the type of information to put out for the public.

Finally digital rejecters do not want to have any of their information being circulated online.

Now Twitter makes dissemination of scholarly works even more complicated when journalists are scouting on Twitter for information. Under the current pressure when most newspaper no longer makes money, fewer journalists actually go to the field, but more of them go to the Internet. Sociologist Angèle Christin in her 2017 article Algorithms in practice shows that journalists are required to use predictive analytics software to see how their articles fare for online readers. This creates a situation where journalists are prone to the whim of social media readership while writing their articles. Now one sees that journalists would go directly to Twitter and look for politicians’, experts’, and celebrities’ opinions on certain matter rather than call them up and ask them critical questions about the issue at hand. Taking someone’s Twitter at face value, and sometimes out of context could be dangerous. For one, a spiral of one’s tweet could amplify a rather trivial point. Second, whether a tweet would become spiral is a function of Twitter’s algorithm and the Twitter’s public. No-one knows what Twitter’s algorithm prefers. But Facebook’s scandal regarding to the 2016 election is telling. It is clear that Facebook algorithm prefers sentimental feeds and downplays feeds that actually deal with important social issues. Social scientists studying social media and society have learned that these platforms could potentially have a polarizing effects on American populace. This face has implication for the scientist who wants to disseminate their work on Twitter. If Twitter prefers to spread sentimental Tweet, and if the scientist wants to reach a wider audience, (s)he might choose to disseminate more sentimental tweet. This creates a vicious circle where the scientist is caught in engaging in contentious debates, which might not be necessarily productive for the scientific community nor the public.

Social scientists disseminate their scholarly work on Twitter should be mindful of two aspects: social network effect, and Twitter’s algorithm. Social network effect as a concept is rather ambiguous. Some define that the effect means that one’s behavior could be predicted if their friends’ behaviors are known (What is the Social Network Effect? – Youtube). Twitter uses this principle in designing their algorithm. This algorithm might want to predict whether you want to read certain kind of Tweet, and/or disseminate certain kind of information based on your prior tweeting behaviors, and your network information.

In conclusion, social media and the Internet have made it easier to engage in public sociology. However, how one should choose to engage with one’s audience is subject to various factors including the type of platforms, and the topics at hand. As a digital native, I am more concerned with how to draw a line between public and private information more than how to disseminate my work. In other words, the challenge is not that one should not take advantage of the Internet to become a public sociologist, but the challenge is how to transition to use the Internet for work instead of for play.

 

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