The couches of strangers, and three perspectives on the relationship between social media and scholarship
The thought of spending a night on a stranger’s couch many elicit apprehension and concern. The thought of spending time online may elicit many trepidation for scholars. Scholars are worried about the time commitment of such activities when universities may not value them. Scholars may also be concerned about personal-professional boundaries. Both couchsurfing and networked scholarship offer opportunities for growth as well: couchsurfing may allow people from different cultures to get to know one another; networked scholarship might allow scholars from disparate disciplines to meet and collaborate. Alternatively, both activities may have relatively mundane outcomes: sleeping on a stranger’s couch does not necessarily mean that one will have a life-changing experience, in the same way that going online does not mean that one will find a welcoming and supportive scholarly community. And engagement with couchsurfing or networked scholarship may require certain literacies for successful participation.
The practice of networked scholarship isn’t without perils. While advocacy for open, social, and digital scholarship features prominently in the literature (Kimmons, 2014), the reality on the ground is that scholars’ activities on social media are both exceptional and mundane, and their experiences are inspiring and harrowing – but above all, such experiences are neither universal nor pre-determined.
Siemens and Matheos (201X) argued that educational institutions reflect the societies which house them: as societies change, so do their educational institutions and the scholarly practices that they support and encourage. As social media and openness become increasingly popular, sharing economies gain hold, and online networks permeate every aspect of life, the scholarly enterprise and the work that educators and researchers do is experiencing social, cultural, and technological tensions to change. However, we should be careful in our attribution of causality. Academics may have always wanted to share more freely, connect in better ways, and social media simply supported that desire.
At the same time, we should be weary of the perspective that technologies are neutral tools that merely respond to the needs of users. Technologies have assumptions and worldviews embedded in their design that shape the experiences and behaviours of their users. The algorithms used by Facebook to deliver tailored timelines and the recommender systems used by Amazon are representative examples of the ways that technologies are influenced by their developers worldviews.
Thus, the relationship between academic practices and technologies is negotiated and complex. It can be seen via three perspectives.
The first perspective suggests that social media (and their design and affordances) shape scholarship and participation. This is the technological deterministic perspective that is often revealed in narratives pertaining to social media having an impact on scholarship. Institutional encouragement to use social media to increase scholarly reach and citations falls under this perspective.
The second suggests that teaching and scholarship (and the structures, rewards, practices of academia) shape how social media are used. This perspective reflects a social shaping of technology approach. This perspective recognizes that networked scholarly practices are shaped by social, cultural, economic, and political factors, rejecting the notion that technologies (and practices) are deterministic.
The third perspective is an extension of the second and anticipate that academics adapt and appropriate social media to fulfill personal and professional desires and values. This perspective holds that, with adequate information and evidence, learners, instructors, and researchers have the agency to accept or reject any particular technology or to find alternative uses for it that will better serve their needs. Such agency is recognized in scholars’ strategic uses of technology in scholarship broadly, and in teaching and research in particular.
These three perspectives are often unstated, but permeate the literature and conversation pertaining to social media use in education and scholarship.