Wednesday, October 08, 2014

779 Research Week 5

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Week 5: Contemplating the Limits of Sharing Research Via Social Media

So initially I was very encouraged by my social media networks' response to my Tweets and Facebook posts about research. So much so that I started working in posts here and there about my other class and the research I'm doing for it as well. I found that my networks, particularly a nucleus of about 20 colleagues or like-minded intellectual-types seemed very into it at first, and gave me plenty of opportunity to post and respond and involve them in my thought process, which I had to admit was qualitatively improved by their interaction and participation. In short, I was easily sold on the idea of public, social-media-enabled research.

But now a month or so into the process, I've noticed that I get almost no feedback, comments, reposts, or even "likes" on the posts anymore. My frequency and tone hasn't changed much, though I suppose I ask fewer questions and try to make more comment-type posts. I feel if anything I've gotten more adept at compressing thoughts and conversation-bait into 140 characters over the last month. But I've hit a definite "wall" in terms of interaction and I spent some time considering what this meant. Here are some tentative conclusions:

1) Like advertising, people will rapidly tune out anything formulaic and periodic. Which means it's not enough to just ask questions, or just make pithy comments, or link to larger explorations of a topic; all of these become very rapidly monotonous and transparent to your audience, and your audience is 21st-century-good at mentally filtering self-promotion out of their information streams. This means two things: (a) your posts and tweets about research had better be full of variation, charm, and carefully calibrated to maintain attention, and (b) you will probably have a much easier time of doing so if you attach your research to your online persona rather than the other way around. A social-media "friend" who posts only research-related material on their information stream is not a friend, he or she is much more akin to a single-topic news source at best, or an advertiser (or the more pernicious variety of creative self-promoting spammer) at worst, and should expect to be ignored as such.

2) Twitter is a lousy platform for research sharing. It just is. Not only does it have a well-documented tendency to devolve into anti-social mayhem, but as many users have noted, the 140 character limit almost demands pithy, snarky, superficial, and ineloquent dialogue. It's also unnecessarily restrictive to use for serious thought. Trying to condense a meaningful research question into 140 characters is akin to those infuriating exercises in condensing a four-month-long research project into a 500-word document just for the sake of "economy of prose." Look, I'm a college instructor and I am buried under reading material for most of the school year, but I've always thought the "economy of prose at all costs" obsession to be spurious anti-intellectual nonsense, and the Twitter version is the same thing only writ ad absurdum. I get that a major complaint about research (or maybe even "literature" in general) is its volume and verbosity, but saying you'd love to read research if only it was more succinct is like saying you'd listen to classical concertos if only they had a sweet electric guitar solo in the middle. 140 characters is perfect for sharing weather updates or recommending restaurants, but it's ill-suited to serious scholarship. Trying to shoehorn it into prose that economical both cheapens the value of the research and plays toward that toxic, pervasive 21st century attitude that nothing anyone has to say is worth more than ten words of someone else's time. Some things are worth it, and research is one of those things.

3) Then again Twitter isn't much worse than Facebook, Linked In, and any other social media outlet I can think of. None of them are all that great, and each is plagued by its own problematic features. Mostly, though, Twitter fails because at some point, in order to overcome the saturation malaise that will rapidly occur, you'll need to incorporate some features that Twitter doesn't handle very well, like audio, video, and especially images. When I studied digital publishing for my M.A., I spent a lot of time learning how people read online content, and the research seems pretty clear that text-only platforms are the very worst at getting and maintaining readership. Twitter has some image functionality, but something much more visually rich would have better impact for a wide audience. Which brings me to my next point...

4) We need to incorporate multimedia into our posts if we're to have any hope of maintaining our audience's attention. And ideally the multimedia we choose should have a combination of sensational and educational aspects. By this I mean, an Instagram feed that has photos of what high-level research, scholarship, and academia looks like (mountains of books, oceans of coffee), bolstered with an interactive info graphic on Prezi so your audience can follow the concepts you're referencing, and finished off with historical images (like an exploding steamboat) that will capture the imagination. But this also poses a big problem because, in addition to the tool learning curve involved and the extra work this entails...

5) In effect, the effort to share research with the wider world via social media can (and must, if you want it to maintain attention) rapidly become like managing your own full-time entertainment franchise, dedicated to providing "content," for free, to platforms that will, in the very best case, make money off of your hard work that you will not share in. And that's the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that you'll do all of that work and be met with deafening silence as your audience skims past your neato research to read about which celebrity's personal nude selfies have been hacked and disseminated.

In short, sharing research via social media is a great idea with a lot of potential, but there are upper limits to what it can accomplish. When it comes to sharing research with colleagues, it's replicating (perhaps usefully) the existing system of academic conferences and journals already in place, and for a broader audience its efficacy has more to do with personality and showmanship than the merit of the work, and the platforms that exist for disseminating it are inadequate and parasitical.

So where does that leave the 21st century researcher who wants to tap into digital tools for research sharing? Is this a gloom-and-doom evaluation, or am I missing something crucial here?

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