How Can Social Media Fit into Academic Life?

February 18, 2020 by Sonja Johnston & Kimberley Yates

At the end of January, the Jackman Humanities Institute held three 2-hour social media workshops aimed at graduate students, faculty members, and recent doctoral graduates. The goal was to explore how social media can advance academic careers and support professional, scholarly, and pedagogical research. The workshops examined social media advantages and opportunities, risks and obstacles.

They were led by David M. Perry, a medieval historian and journalist connected to an international network of scholars, activists, artists, and friends with whom he collaborates. Today he's got around 45,000 Twitter followers as @lollardfish, 400 published op-eds, thousands of blog posts, and over 250,000 tweets.

Social Networks

People have been building online communities since the 1970s—MUDs, bulletin board systems (BBS), IRC, Usenet, AOL Messenger, Live Journal, blogging, etc. People want to connect with others, and social media provides a platform for outreach for just about any interest or subject.

Social media is great for pedagogical work, professional networking, career connections, friendships, and widening circles of research. Participating in conversations that happen on social media can make a difference in practical ways for academics, who can reach out to others to expand their intellectual networks. Great one-off conversations at conferences often continue on social media. One of Perry’s main tips was to “find your people” and build communications networks with them. These networks can sometimes turn into intellectually stimulating collaborations.

Perry focused on Twitter and Facebook as the most useful platforms for academics, with the caveat that people who work with visual media should also look at Instagram. Facebook is a more controlled, closed environment designed for people to communicate in established networks, while Twitter’s strength is broadcasting to large numbers of people and creating new and more open networks.


Facebook’s personal accounts are designed for building intentional networks, controlling who gets to see what in their feeds. Since personal accounts have a limit of 5000 friends, Facebook is less useful for mass communication.

  • Facebook is designed to make people feel like they’re really connected to others and for some this can cause some cognitive dissonance for researchers who use their Facebook account as a professional space
  • Pages used to be a good way to separate professional and personal profiles until Facebook monetized the way they display—now, the only way to ensure that content gets widely seen is to spend money to boost Pages posts
  • Facebook’s best feature is Groups, which provide focus for difficult or field-specific topics and offers fine-tuned privacy controls
  • The search function works very well to find networks and content; hashtags serve no meaningful purpose on Facebook


Twitter thrives more as an open broadcast medium. The Twitter experience varies, depending on how active you are, how many people you follow, and how many people follow you. At lower numbers of connections, Twitter is an affinity network; at higher numbers, Twitter moves from a conversation to a broadcast medium. While Twitter can provide an easy way to create a network out of nothing, getting up and running on Twitter can be a lot of work, so Perry offered some pointers:

  • Be strategic about who to follow and try to create a personally useful feed
    • Construct a follow list that serves the function that you want
    • Academics who want to connect with other academics have access to a large number of overlapping networks. Within those networks, search for their nodes: the prime, influential accounts
    • Once the nodes are identified, check who they follow, who follows them, and who retweets them. Be specific. These accounts will help you to find a personally useful network
  • Don’t follow accounts with 500K+ followers unless there is some connection or unless those accounts have consistently good content. Accounts with large followings won’t offer much interaction
  • Hashtags serve as meta-commentary on the main text and provide another great way to find networks. Figure out which hashtags are appropriate; some are easier to find than others

Social Media Risks

Social media can bring risks and challenges, but these can be mitigated:

  • Be aware of privacy settings
  • Block or mute people; set your accounts to private, and get offline for a day or two if you experience harassment
  • Participate less, or in different ways if social media use is causing depression
  • Be wary about commenting on certain hyper-sensitive political topics. Academics who don’t have tenure or job security need to be particularly careful about wading into contentious conversations

Above All, Be Genuine

Perry’s key to building successful social media interactions is to be your best, genuine self—particularly for connecting with like-minded people in any specialty. Generally, going viral won’t build an audience. Perry built his 45K+ followers by producing a lot of content—by writing many, many blog posts and articles, by talking to people, by producing good content that people want to read and by participating in his authentic affinity networks.


The speaker was very knowledgeable on the subject matter, but I liked that he opened it up to discussion and idea sharing, which I also found very useful. I work with our researchers at UTM and use social media to help promote their research, so it was interesting to hear about some of the issues faced by young academics just starting out on their academic career.
The facilitator was engaging and familiar about the usefulness and pitfalls of social media in an academic setting.
David was very attuned to the differences in our social media needs and tried to accommodate them. He was also a great spokesperson for the medium, coming from an academic background and being in the full midst of it--I felt that he really represented both worlds wonderfully.
The instructor was very kind, engaging and open to modifying the sessions based on the interests of the participants.

The Jackman Humanities Institute social media workshops were sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s generous support for the JHI’s Humanities at Large initiative. Follow the JHI on Twitter and Facebook to find out when the 2020-21 workshops will take place.