Answering a question about the use being made of the academic social network Academia:
I am one of the most intensive users of Academia in my university, and have been trying to promote its use in my academic societies. It is one of several places I make my academic writings available, together with sites like ResearchGate and the SSRN; I like Academia best because of the many possibilities for interaction and connection it offers. However I find that it is underused, certainly much below its potential— which is not a shortcoming on the part of Academia, but on the part of the academy. While some academics welcome a service with these characteristics as a godsend (and a free one at that!) most academics are remarkably indifferent to the possibilities of the web; many mistrust the advantages of open communication and free access; and while they are dying to have people read their writings, they feel that collecting them on a personal website is somehow demeaning, or may damage their professional respectability. As a matter of fact the aura of academic respectability is often based on secrecy and restricted access to people and knowledge, a medieval attitude which is still with us. Many older academics are also lazy or ignorant about the web, but most follow official guidelines for quality assessment, and up to now these have been studiously ignorant of the new regime of electronic communication, at least in Spain. Therefore, the immense possibilities of Academia are largely wasted on an academic community which is more appreciative of fussy and privileged access to knowledge which leaves a paperwork trail (e.g. through conferences) and feels that the web is alien or hostile territory. The academy keeps changing of course, slowly, but the real solution to the conflict will be that things will happen elsewhere. One must also consider that the shock of overinformation is felt everywhere, not just at the university, and there are so many possibilities that the ones which will stay and become normative or standard are still being sifted. For the time being, then, I feel Academia is underused by my academic community, and also by me, since one's use of such a service is part of an ecosystem. I suppose I am using it a lot, actually, having access to many readers who would not know my work otherwise, but as yet I have had comparatively little explicit feedback or profitable interaction with other researchers through this network. Little, that is, compared with the enormous potential it offers. I can't begin to think what the Renaissance scholars would do had they been given such a communicative tool for free. Well maybe they would have been just as dumbfounded and paralyzed as our own academic community...! I'd like to know about the conclusions of your study if they are any different; still I'm susprised that in spite of its enormous number of users such a small section of the academic community is using this website. Cheers, JAGL
I posted several messages over a period of a couple of years to a couple of distribution lists, at the Spanish Anglistics society and the Narrative list at Ohio. I also often sign my messages to the lists with a link to my Academia website. I have written several posts in my blog on Academia and other online services such as the SSRN, and in 2009 I sent this column to the most widely-read online magazine on spanish-speaking universities, Ibercampus: http://www.ibercampus.es/articulos.asp?idarticulo=8968 – extolling the virtues of this website I guess! I am glad about the growth in figures. In my department I was alone for years but there was a sudden spate of registrations when one of the leading professors “instructed” her group that they would do well to register, giving the go so to speak. Good advice depends on the source, not the content!
Well, as regards reluctance the new media in the academy, I suppose the greatest reluctance is not giving open access to one's papers, or fear of seeing one's name on the web, or lack of technical knowhow— all of these may be minor obstacles. An academic's greatest fear is to be doing something inconvenient, i.e. something which is not "what one is supposed to do" if one is an academic. As yet most of the news regarding social networks in the news etc. relate to scandal, pranks, impersonation or public exposure of privacy. So there's an overwhelmingly negative aura which acts as a repellent to academic respectability. Of course people's own experience in their actual use of networks and computer-mediated communication is vastly different. So there's bound to be a major shift as regards web presence. For all I know, Americans are less averse to openness and accesibility than Europeans, so the shift is well under way there. Here people will do what they have always done, i.e. what they see is "the thing to do" and everyone around them is doing. But changes come slowly, technology moves faster than the uses people find for it, I suppose networks are fairly static at the beginning, and relationships tend to be artificial, but gradually things will change, and there will be a surge of creativity when people feel free to directly access other people working in the same thing and exchange ideas, and converse and exchange knowledge and ideas in short pointed exchanges, rather than communicating only through papers and conferences... But in my experience this is still happening very slowly, certainly much less than the existing websites (or e-mail) would allow; old habits die hard... which is partly a good thing too, othewise we'd all be dizzy with the shock of the new, and overloaded with information. Which we are too in a way, of course, as much of what we do is explained by a careful use of blinkers and selective ignorance in order to protect our sense of what we are and of its purpose...
Anyway, just musing on the subject, it's a real problem for me, as the new media make you rethink wholesale what to write, in which format, where to publish it, how to communicate with your students, and where to direct your attention. No wonder many people choose just to stick to their old habits and their sense of themselves!
Diana writes back:
Many thanks, Jose Angel, for your interesting thoughts. Apologies for not getting back earlier, I moved house and that definitely took more time and energy than expected.
I think you are right in observing how conservative we are in adapting to the changing reality, and that in a certain why protects us from information overload and gives us a sense of stability, but also slows down progress especially in the academic environment.
You ended your e-mail saying "it's a real problem for me, as the new media make you rethink wholesale what to write, in which format, where to publish it, how to communicate with your students, and where to direct your attention."
Can you give me some concrete examples of how your writing and disseminating habits changed with the advent of new media?
Also, have you ever had responses from people who read your article in Ibercampus or when you promoted Academia to listings etc.?
Back again around here, Diana.
Well, as regards the impact of new media on my writing and publishing habits—
"Back then" when there was no web or no usable web, in the days before Google and Yahoo, I used to go to conferences, which I have largely stopped doing, as I don't particularly enjoy academic tourism, and different people with the latest up-to-date or forthcoming ideas can be met now at the touch of a key. Not that I do that all the time, either: as I said, part of the problem with the new situation is that there's too much information available so you have to select. Many people select just by sticking to their old habits, wholesale or in part. I suppose that's a defensible strategy or at least it's human. Other people experiment, try to do new things, but still you've got to select, so you select either the least disorienting ones, or the most productive, innovative, original ones... or a combination of these, you'll have to develop new habits even if they're evolving habits, otherwise you won't know yourself from just anyone passing by. So you deal with media oveload by choosing one social network, among many available ones, or one repository, or two, or a couple of favorite applications, and favorite sources and websites and search strategies, maybe you add new ones as you go, then your'e forced to drop old ones, natural selection perhaps, as our attention span and mental hard drive are limited. Among the media I chose very soon, as soon as I got to know about them, was blogging. And with blogging came a new way of using the web and also a new way of writing. Instead of academic articles for journals, I began to write blog posts, or a mixture between them. People say, posts must be short, but sometimes I write very long posts, sometimes I rewrite them and turn them into more academically-shaped articles, which may go then to a journal, or, more commonly, to self-publishing in a repository like the SSRN, or places like Academia or ResearchGate. My tone became less academically correct, more personal, improvisatory, and also the subjects became more interdisciplinary; in my blog there is a bit of everything, but apart from personal entries and entries about literature and semiotics (which is what I used to publish about in academic articles) I also write many opinion pieces about politics, or philosophical musings, or articles on interdisciplinary subjects, evolution in particular is a favorite subject. Some of these I re-publish in an externally managed blog or e-journal as a kind of weekly column; others I rewrite as academic papers; sometimes what I write in an afternoon or a couple of days will take me one month to rewrite and revise and re-footnote and polish; not that the result is highly polished but some of these do get accepted by academic journals or as chapters in collective volumes. And I find this kind of writing much more to my taste and personal inclinations than what I used to do "before the Web". Well, I've had tenure for twenty years now so the publish or perish thing is not really pressing in my case, I don't know whether I'd advise younger academics to do exactly what I do, but I surely would advise them to keep a blog, it'll get things moving in unexpected ways. And of course to make their writings available through Academia or other repositories, and establish networks with people with similar interests. Maybe they'll use them in ways more productive than I do, I wouldn't be surprised, what's certain is that there's so many forking paths in this garden of media that everyone will follow a way of their own, and many will use the media of their choice with unexpected interactions in unprecedented combinations. Others will stick to well beaten paths, which may well work better for them, who knows. The possibilities have multiplied, anyway. And oh, I forgot to say, my blogs also multiply, now I keep three or four versions of the same blog plus links in Twitter and Facebook, the rewritings I mentioned, etc. etc., too much to keep up with if you ask anyone, maybe a new transition's in the making! If I suffer some mighty metarmorphosis I'll tell you, OK? My photoblog btw, that's another interacting medium I get to use a lot: http://www.flickr.com/photos/garciala/
—Oh, by the way, as regards responses and reactions—I did get a four or five answers from people in the listings saying they had found the information about Academia useful, Academia and the SSRN which I also wrote about. But for the most part, and that's a general trend, my contributions are largely ignored and go without comment, often strikingly so. For instance, hardly one article in a hundred in my blog gets any comments; or in the photoblog above, there are more than 12,000 photos, but not more than 30 or 40 commets, basically "likes", not any more elaborate responses or interactions. That must be some kind of record in itself! And if I do get a number of visits or hits etc. on my academically-minded websites, it is hardly ever that anyone quotes me in a paper or links to something I have said. But as you see I'm not easily discouraged, and I keep churning on mostly for the sake the potential I see, not on the basis of actual results.