Back in the dark ages when social media first came around it was clear that it was NOT for work. Are you kidding? Why would we use it for actual work stuff when we needed it for much more important things, like cyberstalking exes, saving and tagging our favorite sites on de.licio.us, and poking people on Facebook? Nobody was using it for work then. We were using it to procrastinate instead of work!
Now it’s a totally different ballgame. Obviously anyone reading this is online and chances are you’re also on social media.
But it’s also not just a procrastination space separate from work. And it’s not just the blurring of the social networks themselves (where LinkedIn = work stuff and Twitter is where anything goes). Now people use all social media sites for work. In all kinds of ways. For finding studies, gathering data (across continents, even!), improving predictive models, recruiting study participants, analysis, promotion, turning conversations into formal projects, connecting, teaching larger audiences…It’s literally endless.
It’s become not just acceptable for people to be using social media professionally in their work, but for many academics, it’s also essential.
So when I came across Inside HigherEd’s “Twitter’s Gender Imbalance” article yesterday, I read it with interest. Knowing what I do about gender dynamics in the workplace for women, I shouldn’t have been surprised at the findings, I still was.
“female academics also have disproportionately fewer Twitter followers, likes and retweets than their male counterparts on the platform, regardless of their Twitter activity levels or professional rank. [Yet] they are more likely than men to reciprocate relationships with followers and follow back, and to follow other women.Inside HigherEd, “Twitter’s Gender Imbalance,” October 15, 2019
Let’s take that apart. So women on Twitter are MORE engaged (reciprocating relationships) than men, but reaping fewer rewards. Sigh.
So what? Well, that’s certainly one theme of the comments on the article. That Twitter is inanity. That use of it just silliness. That no serious work takes place there, so who cares?! That using it makes you unprofessional. That nobody measures your worth in followers and engagement.
Well, that attitude, frankly, is out of touch with the realities and demands on today’s Gen X and younger workforce.
Professional Twitter is What You Make of It
First, let’s get the inanity and silliness out of the way. As a woman myself, and one who recently joined Twitter explicitly FOR work (follow @workingacademic here!), I have found Twitter to be a rich community, one that is full of smart people having incredibly thoughtful conversations. Sure, you can choose to find, follow, and engage with trolls but like any community of hundreds of millions, you can make it fit what you are looking for. I use it to find conversations about higher ed careers. While I haven’t done any analysis on who I follow, I would be exactly zero percent surprised if I looked and found that the majority of people I follow are women.
Next, let’s parse out that serious work doesn’t take place there. Really? Every day I see people sharing their new scholarly publications, articles, research findings, and books. I learn of new trends, ideas, and concepts that I can apply to my own work. I have witnessed POCs ask for and find corroboration of and support amidst the microaggressions and daily discrimination they experience. I have learned more about the barriers that are often invisible to academics but which present enormous and very real obstacles to first-generation academics. I hear firsthand about the heartbreaking career struggles of recent PhDs and alt-acs in the humanities and social sciences.
And that’s just in my humble little niche. I suspect I might even find smart, worthwhile conversations about things as “inane” as LA food culture and the history of skateboarding.
I mean, isn’t dismissing Twitter as a silly tool just academic snobbery at its finest? The presumption that you can’t find anyone worth talking to or engaging with outside the ivory tower? Nevermind, GASP, someone you’ve never met…ONLINE?!
News flash: Incredibly smart people – way smarter than me! – are using Twitter every single minute.
Our Careers Depend on Social Media
So let’s get to the most “real” reasons the cited study matters, and why many of the commenters seem so out of touch to me. These things are actually affecting women’s careers. And not just narrowly. While the cited study is in medicine, women in all disciplines are on social media. So the findings are likely to be widespread, not limited to some narrow niche.
Twitter isn’t just for “fun” anymore. The online spheres of influence one has can have real career impacts.
Employers Look at Your Social Media
Employers – both inside and outside of the ivory tower – are looking job candidates up online, and when they see good professional social media, it can be in the candidate’s favor.
Employers are no longer just looking you up to make sure you’re not posting ill-advised content that will reflect badly on the employer. They’re increasingly looking at what you are bringing to them. What you are contributing to professional conversations, how you are exerting influence, to what degree you are advancing your field. Anecdotally I do have one academic client who has been recruited to prestigious positions BECAUSE OF her social media influence in her field.
And while that’s obviously more qualitative research on you, we’re not just talking “squishy” data anymore, either. Academia will need to come up with Alternative Metrics for Tenure and Promotion that incorporate social media, as this study suggests. Scholars want to get their work noticed more broadly and be able to quantify and demonstrate the impact of their work in ways that are in step with the power of social media. As the nature of work evolves, and as academia becomes faster and more responsive at engaging broader and more diverse communities (on campus and online, formally, and informally), I promise academia will get closer to figuring out how to address social scholarship, social publishing, and social impact.
Your Online Professional Presence Matters. A Lot.
The professional use of social media isn’t important just for faculty, either. Alt-acs in particular, scholars who work outside of higher ed, and anyone else who wants to get their professional work out there must rely on social media by necessity, because unlike faculty, they don’t have the power of an institutional marketing team’s press releases backing them.
Nobody else is looking out for your career and your work more than you. It is essential that professionals carve out their brand and, it is bare minimum guidance that you have an online portfolio of your work.
You Get to Control Your Social Media
Being online gives you something to show in job applications, makes you more discoverable by others in and outside of your field, and gives you the means to promote your work values, knowledge and abilities, as they evolve, in sum, and in detail. So whether you tend a website or your Twitter account, you need to have a professional space online that YOU control, where you show who are you, and not necessarily the role you current play for your current employer.
In an ever-evolving work landscape, professional social media gives followers and searchers a glimpse of who you are, what kinds of things you think about and work on, how you go about your work, and how you interact with others. All things you want to showcase no matter where you are in your career. But especially for anyone under the Baby Boomer age, where we don’t know what our work might look like or be in 5 years… you need to have control over your professional brand, and social media is the easiest (and totally free) way to do that.
For women in particular, who may fall out of their career field’s pipeline for all kinds of reasons…up to and including gender bias, sexism, unequal pay, or seeking work-life balance…it’s all the more important to establish your professional brand so that your escape hatch is ready if you ever need to use it down the road.
One Last Request: Support Women on Twitter
My final thought about why the dreadful findings in this article about women on Twitter matters is that women seek and need communities of support for work. At least one study showed that academics are on social media primarily for “self-promotion and ego-bolstering, acquisition of professional knowledge, belonging to a peer community, and interaction with peers.”
So while the commenters on the article are saying not only “who cares” but also good for women, they’re smart enough not to USE Twitter. The study I just linked is powerful food for thought.
Could it be that academic women get on Twitter because they are not finding enough champions of their work locally? That they aren’t able to access or join a peer community, or that one doesn’t exist where they are? Or that social media provides safe spaces where women in sexist workplace cultures can find emotional support and coping that their employers have been unable to provide?
All the more reason we need to all find and support more women academics on Twitter.
Join me in this quest, won’t you? Come follow me and tell me at least 3 women academics I should follow.