David McGillivray

Professor, interested in events, culture, digital participation & sport.


‘Socially-mediated publicness’ and HE

I recently read an interesting article by Nancy Baym and danah boyd on the topic of socially mediated publicness, in which they consider how technology reconfigures publicness, blurs ‘audiences’ and publics and alters what it means to enagage in public life.  This got me thinking about a project I’m leading at my own institution on the utility of social media for learning, teaching and research as the issue of ‘publicness’ has frequently come to the fore during discussions with academic staff – especially around the potential pitfalls of being overly public. To me, it’s clear that social media challenges our conventional wisdom about what constitutes the public and private domains and where these boundaries start and finish.  In my own use of social media for research and learning and teaching purposes I would suggest that the terms public and private are themselves unhelpful and, often, extremely restrictive.  For example, I may come across a valuable blog post as I search through Flipboard or Zite during my ‘private’, non-work or ‘leisure’ time and with an integrated set of social media resources I can now choose to share that post with a specified network of colleagues, friends and/or students.  Before the existence of integrated digital platforms providing the opportunity to search through numerous news sources from one device, I would have been collecting newspaper articles, stuffing them in my work briefcase and decimating several rainforests by photocopying dozens of copies to take into class. Now, I can share immediately, embed a link in a blog post (or on Moodle/Mahara) and utilise online resources as a discussion stimulant for students in the physical space of a seminar room.

I also believe passionately that social media channels like Twitter can provide staff and students with a rich stream of information and resources with which to enhance their research or learning and teaching experience and that is only possible with the proliferation of publicly accessible materials being uploaded by academics and non-academics alike.  The surge in the existence of academic blogs and open access journals means that our students and other learners (I include myself here) can more effectively converse on matters related to our subjects without the presence of a physical (and symbolic) barrier. Of course, cultural barriers remain and these will be much harder to break down, but if universities and other institutions of learning ensure that our students are literate in the use of digitally accessible information then these impediments to knowledge sharing should also be eliminated.

Yet, although I’m a cyber optimist in the sense that I view advances in digital culture to be generally positive, I also appreciate that the public exposure that some of these developments enable (and, some would say, require) tranforms the way academics and others think about their practice.  There are also issues over what Baym and boyd have termed the ‘imagined audiences’ that we experience in social media environments.  It is often unclear as to who we are actually talking to – and who is listening – on Twitter, Linked In and the like.  Is the main audience those who respond quickly to our tweets or updates and share with their connections?  Or is it possible that our communications strike a chord with those silent voices who use social media as a listening device only and rarely, if ever, engage in two-way interaction? Not being sure who is listening and what they make of our thoughts, ideas, humorous interludes and filtered Instagram photos can further deter those fearful of using social media channels from engaging in public discourse.  Taken to the extreme, digital ‘cultures of fear’ can generate defensive, conservative and privatised response on the part of participants.  Rather than a liberatory vehicle to communicate, share and disseminate to a wider (global) audience, social media can lead to the protection of knowledge.  Take Twitter as an example – what are your thoughts when you come across a protected Twitter account?  Are you suspicious of the account? Do you make a judgement on the motives behind the user not wishing to have their tweets shared widely?  In my experience of supporting staff new to social media, there is a tendency to want to protect and the possibility of their thoughts being available (potentially) for all to see acts as a real deterrent to their engagement with the medium.

There are many other questions about socially mediated publicness that arise when some members of the HE community are active in these spaces whilst a mass of others choose to pursue a more traditional academic approach.  For example, who decides what content should be public?  Does the social media user have to secure consent for a public discussion of a debate that they might have attended? (I’m thinking here about a recent debate about live tweeting from conferences).  As reseachers targeting the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (in the UK), can we afford not to be ‘public’ in the wider dissemination and non-academic ‘impact of our work? If the knowledge produced in universities is being talked about, or influences policy or practice, because it was shared more widely through social networks then this is surely a good thing? Critics suggest that being a public academic using social media to ‘reach out’ beyond the academy strikes of self promotion and simply represents an marketing vehicle for the branded academic.

In concluding, I’m not going to suggest that the cyber pessimists are wrong to warn of the dangers of a socially mediated publicness in HE, but I think that, with the formation of supportive communities of practice within the HE environment, digital cultures of fear can be overcome, offering significant opportunities for academic staff to share their work more widely and form new collaborations within and beyond the Academy.



David McGillivray • October 25, 2012

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