01 September 2016

In praise of lurkers

There’s practically a new emerging literary genre of academics writing pearl clutching thinkpieces decrying the sad effect of social media on academia and science.

Last week there was an opinion piece in PNAS. It was illustrated with this picture:

Then, there was this piece in Times Higher Education.

In return for feeding our desire for evidence of how we are doing in our social interactions – our narcissistic craving for others' approval – first Facebook and then a group of other social media corporations persuaded half of humankind to give up their most intimate personal details. 

Both of these pieces got soundly criticized, as they should, because they make some silly statements. For instance, the Egan piece says:

Students need to be helped to sever some of the ties that bind them to the people they already know and to discover new forms of connectedness in the shared writings of the wider world.

Jordan Gaines wrote:

This is...literally exactly why I started using social media more when I started as a grad student.

That’s my experience, too. Social media has given me a window into what other people are thinking in a way that I just haven’t had before.

A very common charge levied against social media is that is is mere “narcissism.” What these anti-social media types seem to forget is that there is another, largely invisible category of social media users: the lurkers. For every person who is active on social media (the “narcissists” posting material), there is an unknown number of people quietly reading, listening, learning.

If you condemn the posting of scientific or academia material on social media, you’re penalizing not just the producers of that material, but you’re saying that all the people who might learn from that don’t matter, and that their learning is somehow invalid and unworthy. Presumably because it’s not in a brick and mortar building.

This “cane shaking at social media” genre needs a catchy name. Like how people writing editorials about why they got out of academia became known as “Quit lit.”

External links

Science in the age of selfies 
Why academics should NOT make time for social media

Picture from here.

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