The potentials and pitfalls of social networking a...

The potentials and pitfalls of social networking and blogging about research

Over the last few years I’ve developed a number of blogs to accompany my various academic/research projectsand have become a big advocate of using social media in conjunction with research. Along with wordpress – which is a really easy way for non-technical folk to put up a website or blog – I’ve also used prezi to ensure that my presentations are publicly available, youtube for filmed clips, facebook and twitter for discussion and sharing relevant links, and storify to record online conversations such as livetweeting from conferences and other events.

I have a number of shared projects over social media as well as my own blog. For example, BiUK is the blog for the national UK organisation for bisexual research and activism which I founded. The blog aims to disseminate research relating to bisexual communities and experiences. Two key projects have been The Bisexuality Report and guidelines for people researching bisexuality. The blog provides the perfect place to store such materials for download, to bring together all relevant links and references lists, and to promote the biennial BiReCon conference.

A newer blog, Sense about Sex provides a similar function as the hub for a number of related ESRC and Wellcome funded projects on sexualisation. This led to an offshoot – Bad Sex Media Bingo – which was an idea that a bunch of researchers, educators and practitioners came up with during our regular facebook moans about poor media reporting of sex-related stories. We came up with a bingo card of the most common examples, and then encouraged others to livetweet along to programming and articles to produce examples of good and bad practice in this area.

Rewriting the Rules is my main blog, which accompanies my general audience book Rewriting the Rules. I post weekly on this blog, publicising the posts on twitter, facebook and linkedin. As well as being a great place to blog regularly about whatever I’m currently thinking about in this field, it is also a useful place to provide additional resources on the topics covered in the book (for individuals or groups), to keep links to other relevant sources of information, to bring together all the reviews of the book, and to field enquiries.

Potentials for the Researcher/Academic

Probably my main reason for blogging and engaging in social media is a desire to get good information about relationships and sex out there as widely as possible. I work in a field where there is a great deal of misinformation and mythology, so there is a real need for researchers and academics to provide better alternatives, but in ways that are just as accessible as more mainstream messages.

For this reason it is helpful for me to keep an eye out for what is currently interesting people in my area. That way I can find useful jumping off points for a blog post or online event. Facebook and twitter are great ways to keep track of what people are talking about. Because I particularly follow people who are interested in the same topics as me, I’m usually quick to hear about relevant news stories, movies and the like. So, for example, I used the summer phenomenon of Blurred Lines, and its parodies, to write about gender and sexual consent, and the film The Sessions, to write about sex and disability. It can also be good to think ahead and put something out there at a time when people are likely to be talking about it, as we did with the Valentine’s Day video and facebook discussion.

I’ve found that social media can function in a useful cyclical way for research – at least in areas like mine. Keeping an eye on current trends can help us to be aware of what people are currently concerned about – which might be a useful focus for our studies. Then we can use social media as a means of disseminating what we have found, engaging people in dialogue, and refining or developing our research.

An example of this has been my consent project. First I became aware that issues of sexual consent were of heightened public interest around a number of news stories relating to coercive and abusive sexual behaviour. I found some of the online discussions of consent challenging and difficult myself, which prompted me to find out more and to reflect on my own thoughts and feelings on the matter. Then I discovered that members of the sexual communities which I study myself (notably kink communities) had been having some very interesting and useful online conversations on this topic. I conducted a detailed qualitative analysis of their discussions, using my own social media to ensure that I had all of the key blog posts. I was able, through social media, to feed back what I was finding and to engage people in further discussion. This has led to a journal publication, a number of blogs and presentations, and a public event on the topic to take place next year.

Challenges of social media

Perhaps the most obvious challenge of blogging and social media for the researcher or academic is the time required, on top of our day jobs. Although the REF (Research Excellence Framework) now has a means of recognising research impact, as well as individual publications, public engagement projects such as blogs don’t necessarily fit easily into what is categorised as impact, because it can be difficult to quantify who it has impacted and how. This means also that universities do not often recognise public engagement work in staff workload or promotions, which can act as a disincentive to doing such work. However, it seems likely that the direction of travel is for further recognition of this kind of work in future, so – even for career reasons – it may be worth engaging in this way. It is also worth encouraging your institution to recognise this work more explicitly, given the importance of research making a difference and addressing areas which are useful to various publics.

Also I have already made the point that such engagement can enrich our research and academic work itself. As well as providing me with research topics and data, my engagement in social media is very helpful in terms of keeping my teaching current and engaging, as there are many online resources which provide excellent examples or activities in class. For example, I’ve collected together some of the helpful resources around sexuality here, as part of a recent book project, for trainee mental health professionals.

Another time-related challenge is that it is often best to blog and tweet about topics when they are current rather than after the event, so we may need to build time into our schedules such that we are able to drop everything and jump on something when it is live, so to speak. This is particularly the case if we’re asked to comment on an area of expertise on an online forum, for example. With research projects like the one I mentioned, it may be necessary to build quite a lot of flexibility into our schedules so that we do have the freedom to spend some weeks analysing an online phenomenon and writing about it. This is something that Leeds Met academic Bridgette Rickett did earlier this year when she and her colleagues analysed the ongoing newspaper conversation about trans and feminism. However, the time frames of funding bodies and journal publishers can mean that we have to think flexibly about obtaining the money to undertake such research and about how to publish it whilst it is still relevant.

From my own experience I would strongly suggest blogging while the iron is hot – i.e. when you have an idea that is buzzing around your head. Often if you don’t catch those moments they fade away, and also it can be a lot quicker at those times than it is if you sit staring at a blank screen and hoping for inspiration to strike. I often find that I think of something on a journey into work and that it comes easily if I give myself half an hour writing before the start of the working day.

It is also important not to be too perfectionist about it. A blog is not a piece of polished academic writing, and it is actually a plus if people can see you come back to it later and edit it on the basis of further conversation. It’s a great way to demonstrate that nobody is perfect and that talking with others influences your work.

Blogs can also give us greater control over what people do with our work. For example, if your research is poorly presented in a newspaper or magazine article you can always use your blog to put up the whole interview, and/or to correct any errors that were made. This can mitigate against one of the other challenges of public engagement: fears about being misrepresented.

I hope this encourages others to get blogging, and engaging in social networking in other ways. I am constantly struck by new potentials that open up through the work I’m doing in this area, and by the people that I meet and ideas that I come across that simply wouldn’t have been possible prior to social media.

Great examples of academic blogs which engage wider audiences

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).