PLE’S Help Yourself: 9 Things Academics Can Do With Social Media

This one is specifically for my academic friends. Although, anyone who thinks of themselves as a lifelong learner should read on.

Last time, I spoke about being mindful of the Internet, tipping my hat at Howard Rheingold‘s Big Idea. There is a lot out there to be overwhelmed with, that’s for sure. We should all be taking advantage of the Interwebs – without question. There is knowledge at our fingertips.

Don’t misread that statement as zealotry – I certainly don’t mean to say that laying off the Facebook and Twitter feed is bad thing. By all means, strip down and go to the woods as much as possible. And bring people with you, too.

“Living with” technology is different than “living for” it. We all might want to understand the difference.

I’m not quite a techno-cheerleader. On the other hand, I’m definitely not a Luddite. In fact, I strive for a certain technological balance. I like my media the way I like my relationships – particular, personal, discrete – overall, complimentary to my lifestyle.

Rather than catapulting into the typical excursion about human and non-human relations, I’d like to make a few practical observations about the way I use social media. In general, it helps me maintain an aura of conversation and interaction with others throughout my day – people present in both real and cyber space. These conversations hang together as I work and play at different times and in different places, for different purposes and in different spaces. My thinking has developed in revolutionary ways, as a result, and I think (I’m not sure) that social media doesn’t have to be overwhelming. It can be managed.

We don’t have to count social mediation out of what we do and we definitely don’t have to assume it’s beyond our understanding – a perspective I’ve learned many academics have about technology, overall. I wonder if the first people who put language into use felt the same way? After all, language is the paramount technology.

Many all but scoff at the Facebooker, Tweeter, Blogger or texter. Any mention of social media in conversation gets an eye roll or puckered lips. These same folks usually struggle with the most basic technology functions, missing out on great resources, passing up opportunities to extend their own learning and research. So many people are more and more likely to jump to irrational conclusions about the “good, bad, and the ugly” of social media (like the ones put forth by Sherry Turkle). For so many, it’s because they’re unsure about how to manage a digital reality.

I have to admit, translating all of the data we could be exposed to on a daily basis takes a lot of effort. Although, interpretation of information has always been about how much effort you put toward it. Listening isn’t easy. Either is filtering through the crap on the web.

I don’t blame folks for dismissing social media. There is a lot to know about, and a lot to learn how to do. The unknown has always been a major source of anxiety for people. Not knowing the “what’s” and the “where’s” of social media is one thing. The popular press helps us keep track of that, so there is little reason to use everything out there. There’s little value in being “cool” or “trendy”. However, not knowing the “hows” of technology is a different issue all together. Rheingold calls this sort of know-how “digital literacy” – comparable to any other type of literacy – and necessary for living in a digital world.

Knowing how to do social media is “second nature” for many, and not natural at all for others. Still, anyone and everyone can be familiar with how technology works and what others see as valuable about social media. They don’t have to use it, but they should have some know how before passing judgement. In the end, the reality of a digital world is that technology is – contrary to popular belief – always at a person’s discretion.

9 Things Academics Can Do With Social Media

The following outlines part of my Personal Learning Environment (PLE). A PLE is a relatively new idea developed by interdisciplinary scholars who see the web as a rich source for learning and wish to move toward an open, global, collaborative education system. What I’ve laid out below is a short list. It’s the basic tools that I use everyday to curate content and tame the digital behemoth into an analogue companion. These tools both satiate my attention deficiency and relieve some of the socio-economic pressures of the academy. While PLE’s are supplemental to higher education – not an alternative – they can certainly be prudent additions to a person’s cache, which lead to more engagement, more conversation, and more thoughtful hours of the day.

Tablet PC: I spent the money a few months ago on a Tablet PC. I got the ASUS Slider because it has a keyboard that slides out and props the touch screen up on its own (hence the name). The touchscreen sold me because of its immediacy and convenience. I read more now than I ever did – and that’s a lot in your third year of grad school. Personally, I have a lot more fun reading, posting and scrolling on a touch screen than a laptop. On a University campus, connectivity is never an issue since wifi is everywhere (seemingly). “App culture” is not just a new fetish but a way to pool the resources I use to work and play. I have to say that the interactivity of reading on a Tablet is so engaged and tactile that it is more than “reading”. How about “treading” as a combination of “touch” and “reading”. Ya, that’s actually pretty accurate. The 500 bucks was well worth the money, by the way.

Google Reader: 90% of my daily readings are blogs. This means that, sandwiched in between all of the reading I’m supposed to be doing for class, I’m also reading the work of my peers – graduate students, younger scholars, leading researchers in technology, programmers, and comedians (because I like comedy). A little secret – I cite things from scholarly blogs on the reg-u-lar because, lets be honest, sometimes their actual published papers are long winded and boring. Most scholars who blog are covering the same issues in a 150 word version on a daily basis. Google Reader is great because the blogs I like are delivered as a feed to me whenever they’re updated. Better than reading the morning paper, I do most of my blog reading over coffee or whenever I have ten free minutes (wherever I may be).

Samsung Galaxy S Smartphone: I dislike Apple products. Android isn’t much better, but, alas, the “third form” (open source software) has yet to develop a phone operating system (OS) that actually works. The touchscreen is essential, and like the Tablet, I chose my phone because it has a good’ol fashioned keyboard that slides out. Call me old skool but I still like buttons (and I really think autocorrect should be renamed “autoincorrect”). More significant than the tactility is the corresponding OS platform between my phone to my Tablet. Having both my mobile devices on the same OS makes every function so much easier and takes less mental effort. Also, I have a Sprint plan because they give me unlimited Internet access and texting for under 100 dollars month. The service is spotty, but you can’t beat unlimited. For Tweeting, Fbing, email, taking quick pictures and recording interviews, classes and important dialogues with other like minded people who collaborate on work with me, having a solid smartphone is absolutely necessary and worth the money. I see it as a gateway to productivity.

Tape-A-Talk Audio Recorder: I use this app because it’s simple, it has big buttons and it keeps track of my recordings by date as a default function. Most of my recording is done while I jog (because I have the best ideas when I exercise). I can keep the app running in the background while I jog and listen to music or a podcast. The buttons provide a large enough display that I have no trouble finding without looking, even when I’m out of breath, sweaty and fumbling. There’s also an option to turn your camera button into the record button, so your phone will work like any other dictation machine. The quality is exceptional, too. The free version is great and the pro-version is worth the money for the added functionality, too.

Stitcher Radio: I’m a big fan of radio. Always have been, But for some reason the radio transmitter in my car doesn’t work and it’s not worth the money to fix. Instead, I’ve taken to listening to podcasts. I started with Marc Maron’s WTF podcast (frequently the number one comedy podcast on iTunes) and This American Life (which is syndicated on NPR). When I found out that Stitcher collects the best podcasts from the web, I downloaded it and never turned back. It works a lot like Google Reader, except I can make different “stations” and categorize podcasts into categories. In a single day I’ll listen to an hour long interview with a famous comedian (usually something about their personal struggles with relationships and substance abuse), a 15 minute monologue by Garrison Kelleor from A Prairie Home Companion, a 30 minute story on Radiolab about fistulated stomachs in both people and cows, and a 10 spiritual exegesis from the one and only Alan Watts. My favorite podcast recently has been a free class from Yale University on the Continental Foundations of the Social Sciences, which compliments the Interpretive Social Sciences I just took this past spring beautifully. I’ll know more about Hobbes, Locke, Marx and – everyone’s favorite Durkheim – by the end of the summer than I ever wanted to know. This is a world class education people. From a senior lecturer at Yale. For free. Podcasts have truly changed the way that I learn and listen, and, in my humble opinion, have helped me turn workouts and drives into prime time educational experiences, re-extending my technologically impaired attention span.

Dropbox: There are a lot of different “clouds” floating around the Internet. I suggest finding one that works for you because it makes traveling to-and-fro so much easier, especially if you’re an absent minded academic like I am and frequently forget your flashdrive in your computer’s USB port, or fail to email yourself the necessary files for the next days’ presentation. It’s also an easy way to share files with colleagues and professors because you can upload as big a file as you want.

Tweetcaster, Freindcaster and Spotify: For all of your social media needs, Tweetcaster and Friendcaster are much more functional apps for sharing content across platforms than the traditional apps provided by Facebook and Twitter. Facebook mobile tends to crash mobile devices and Twitter’s app is pretty difficult to navigate. The caster-apps make micro-blogging a breeze and are more customizable. If you don’t know why you should use Twitter, you should try it for a few days and then see how you feel about it; it’s a bit like having a personal CB radio that other digital-truckers tune into as they drive through web traffic. You never know when someone will be able to help you find your way through to a gold mine of knowledge you didn’t know existed right under your nose. Facebook, of course, is the great social stethoscope of our time. Your Facebook page can be the pulse of your PLE if – and only if – you manage it properly. Taking the time to manage your network will generate more opportunities for conversation and exposure to new ideas than you ever imagined possible. Finally, if you like music and you haven’t heard of Spotify, visit the site and download it already. These designers really have solved the music piracy problem, and this is coming from a person who’s been swashbuckling digital data since the Internet was delivered over a phone line.

WordPress: I blog, obviously, because I have a lot to say. More than giving me an excuse to be long winded, my blog has made me a better writer. It also gives me a voice in ongoing conversations about issues that other people think about, care about, and want to know about. For all intents and purposes, my blog is my corner of the web where I get to host the ideas that matter to me and it gives me a good excuse to invite others into the conversation for support and criticism. It’s perhaps the most formidable way to develop an academic voice outside of publishing in journals, where making concise arguments in writing is a key skill and making connections between your thoughts and those of others is still the best way to maintain a strong ethos. Most people who claim that the web isn’t peer-reviewed probably don’t use technology an haven’t heard of peer-to-peer networks. Where self-publishing is lacking in “rigor” it certainly empowers the author to write what they want to write, when they want to write it, for people whom they are interested in having read it. Of course, business folks write shorter blogs and find value in the the super-hyperlinked variety of web writing that makes bold claims, reaches as large an audience as possible, and is more concerned with attention seeking than thought development and careful examination of nuanced arguments. Academics, however, write longer blogs (it seems) because this genre of speech is a provincial way for them to work through thick thoughts, deep theories, and styles of writing that lead to fresh perspectives. Like stand-up comics who appear frequently at open-mic nights to work on new material, blogs are the open-mic of the academic who is diligent about refining their craft. For me, the real challenge in blogging isn’t procuring a readership – you can use your other social media channels for that; it’s sticking with it each week (or month) and finding something to talk about that is of some value that takes determination and stamina. For the contemporary scholar, there is really no excuse not to blog. Search for your favorite living theorist on Google – chances are, they blog. You should, too. Remember that you blog for yourself. I find that it really matters little if others read what you write. The point is not to seek approval, it’s to practice your professional craft and develop mental and rhetorical skills. Readers are nice, though, especially when they comment (hint, hint).

Creative Commons: All people in the world of publishing and producing original content (which includes nearly all those who would ever self-willingly don the label ‘author’) need to familiarize themselves with the Creative Commons licensing initiative. Ever worry that you shouldn’t’ use that random picture you got off Google because someone might sue you? Ever had a concern about putting a new idea online and having it “stolen”? Creative Commons gives you a way to copywrite your work in cyberspace. It’s brilliant, it’s easy, and it works. The best thing is – a lot of people not unlike yourself have made it their life work to ensure that the CC licensing holds up in court. Check it out – it’s worth knowing and spreading the word to your colleagues, coworkers and students. Protect yourself and protect your right to share what you write.

My hope is that some of this is new to you. This list only scratches the surface, but it’s enough to give you sense of how technology can serve the contemporary academic, intellectual, or common person’s agenda. All it takes is a little bit of know-how. Social media can be used to filter out the crap on the web, which could certainly lead to some peace of mind and who knows – maybe even a better way to live.

Creative Commons License
PLE’s Help Yourself: 9 Things Academics Can Do With Social Media by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

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