Today I am presenting at an internal, informal, lunchtime session on Case Studies in Using Social Media for Public Engagement (there may be some tweets at #stirsocialmedia). Four of us (I am joined by Rachel Norman: @AFSRachel, Paul Cairney: @CairneyPaul, and Peter Matthews: @urbaneprofessor), at least one of whom should be old enough to know better, are setting ourselves up for public ridicule at our (well speaking personally, my) amateur attempts at public engagement using social media. But who knows, perhaps there will be a nugget of gold in a mountain of ………
Just as I was thinking about the session, the whole issue “exploded” in The Guardian with a blanket condemnation of tweeters as not being serious academics, some robust counter arguments revelling in being non-serious academics, further commentary on the whole shebang and a continuing discussion on Twitter using #SeriousAcademic. So, I contemplated my navel and came up with the following thoughts about what I have got out of blogging and tweeting. Others can decide if I am a serious academic or if they have got anything out of my efforts.
“In research terms blogging is quite simply one of the most important things an academic should be doing right now”. (Dunleavy P & Gilson C, 2012).
Social media began for me out of a sense of frustration; frustration with the University and frustration with (some) journalists. Changes to the University’s web profile processes had made me unhappy with my web profile and I was a little fed up of answering the same old questions on retailing for journalists. So www.stirlingretail.com was born to give me my voice back and to collect some of my thoughts in one place.
My initial aim for this blog was for it to act as a public depository of my research material and thoughts on retail and those of some of my colleagues. It has never really become that, but instead has become a channel of communication for my thoughts about retail stories and events, my research output, details of my media activities and some other odd retail things. This isn’t a blog that attracts huge interaction but it did get voted one of the top 50 retail blogs in the UK in a (probably bizarre) survey this year. It does allow me to adopt a distinct and different tone of voice to my other (more academic) writings, which I really enjoy. It has amplified my research output reach, including for journal articles, and made me focus my thinking.
Of my posts, an obituary on a leading retailer led to a request from the executors for some of my research material as they seek to build an archive. Pieces I wrote years ago on Whole Foods in Gourock and on IKEA’s Swedish meatballs seem to have a long shelf life. Eataly in Singapore (not) has proved popular. Anything on Woolworths has a tremendous devotee following, and Tesco seems to produce reactions. My Scotland’s Towns Partnership work is hugely reinforced by its discussion here.
So does it work? Well the numbers say that since April 2011 I have posted c250 times – i.e. roughly once a week, though it is patchier than that. It gets 10-12k visits per year and is followed by 1.5K people. But numbers are not the point, nor the whole story. More interestingly, the blog has led both to a request to produce pieces for The Conservation and also for both myself and, in a separate case, a colleague, to have reblog requests on the LSE public policy site. It has led to research collaboration offers, sales of my book, requests for articles (passed over often to our University repository, STORRE), many journalist contacts, and has proven in my view to be a visible and viable engagement shop window.
Every post is noted on Linkedin (and my c1000 contacts), and this generates some professional comment and does tend to amplify what is written here somewhat. I must confess that my use of Linkedin is not much more sophisticated than that. All blog posts also receive a Tweet announcing them.
I had major concerns about Twitter, which stopped me using it until April 2013. These concerns were around its value for academics and potential to distract me. I do take more time from my day on Twitter than I should, but it has proved a valuable amplification of the blog and has led people to the blog and my academic work as well as being a channel in its own right. On Twitter as @sparks_stirling I have produced c6500 tweets and am followed by 1.4K people.
My twitter profile is particular – this is my retail account and most tweets are on Scottish retailing or towns or other retail matters. Occasionally Welsh rugby gets a look in and increasingly some aspects of the University’s sporting and international life and retweets about Donald Trump. It is not my Deputy Principal’s account as in my eyes (but not others) it is unofficial. I may yet launch a DPs account to go alongside this personal one and I do confess to occasional guest tweets as Stirling Graduate School.
Does Twitter work for me? Absolutely. One of the first things I found was @NeilRetail; an analyst who every day tweets all the retail news in the UK newspapers – it saves me a huge job. I have engaged directly with Scottish Government Ministers with whom I am working and the new Minister ‘knew’ me from Twitter. I have engaged with many people I then met in ‘real’ life and have begun to work with on retail matters. It has made a global retail academic contact network readily achievable, without the central bureaucracy often seen or required. I have found it addictive, infuriating, rapid and a valuable channel for my work and to learn about and contact others. It amplifies and connects. Occasionally of course it is an echo chamber.
Lessons? I don’t tweet and drink (alcohol) and I try not to do personal stuff (there have been a few exceptions and the same is true of this blog). I link the accounts (Blog, Twitter, Linkedin) and have found this pays off in contacts and opportunities. If you are passionate about your research and about learning from and with people, then I find Twitter and Blogging to be very rewarding, both in engagement but also opportunity terms. Is it good for my serious stuff; absolutely. But it is also serious in its own right.
The blog hasn’t stopped questions from journalists (in fact it has encouraged them, which is a good thing, if occasionally repetitious) and the University’s web profile of me remains an ugly thing (though change is apparently on its way, so it may all end in sweetness and light).
So get engaged, take control and build your profile (or even brand) and network; it will help your career in my view, and certainly help engagement (public and otherwise) and visibility, which we all welcome and I believe is part of the job. Just don’t take some of it too seriously and recognise its limits as well as its possibilities.
Where to next? This blog and twitter work for me in their own way. My initial ambition for a multi-author retail blog based at Stirling has not materialised, mainly as my colleagues don’t share my feelings for these channels and for engagement of the various forms I do. Maybe one day? I also have pondered Facebook for some time but never made the jump. Perhaps I should, but then time is a concern (again)? I guess I remain a slightly, self-taught informed amateur, but am convinced we need to become omni-channel and move away from our damaging journal article centricity. Is it serious, useful, valuable activity? You bet. And it is open to everyone, unlike so much of our elite academic output.