Notably absent from the cards which I received over the current festive season, were the ‘round robin’ letters that used to give me a potted summary of what had been happening in the lives of my friends and relatives, (notably the accomplishments of their offspring) over the past year. These notes were a great source of delight, although mischievous delight in some ways, as I unpicked the gloss to guess at the reality beneath the veneer of the perfect lives portrayed in the endless round of promotions, new houses and exam successes. Nowadays, all of the children have reached the age of adulthood, so they are less fruitful sources of ‘news’ for their parents, but most obviously, the regular ping of updates from social media has alleviated the need for the annual news missive. The creative talent required to concoct superlative, social media statuses for the festive season is usually beyond most of us, as we are exhausted by the need to star in our own lives the entire year round – so unless something astonishing happens (hopefully good rather than catastrophic!), the end of the year is celebrated not only by the vestiges of pagan tradition, but by wholesale summary and review posts. An outpouring of “In Case You Missed It” headlines.
The summary and review posts are also evident in the professional realm, and although my experience with social media is mostly limited to Twitter, it is clear that the turn of the year demands fierce promotion of what happened over the past 12 months. This manifests in posts labelled ‘highlights’, ‘top 10 best moments’ ‘top 10 worst moments’ and so on, and although I remember end-of-year reviews from the analogue world back in the day, (Number 1 hit records from Top of the Pops!) the pervasiveness of contemporary digital culture means we are now exposed to summaries and reviews of just about everything, from everyone we know. Because we can count it, we do.
Two things trouble me about this – the first is of little consequence, and is that with a few exceptions, I find these summaries tedious. I read the news/articles the first time around, and if I didn’t have time for something then, I certainly don’t over the festive period.
The second concern is metrics. Many of the summaries include numbers. Numbers of posts, followers, hits, likes and downloads. Irrespective of meaning, measurement is implicit in any quantitative dialog, and the ease with which social media statistics are generated, encourages the feeling that more equals better.
The academic community has recently been treated to REF exercise, the metrics of which have generated much critique from more informed minds than mine. Nevertheless, academia, like the health service and other state-funded operations, faces increasing competition for increasingly limited resources, and so some way has to be found to ‘rank’ achievements, and to quantify ‘academic output’. Whilst I would like to argue that it is impossible, not only undesirable, to reduce academic/creative ability (which is wide and varied) to a number, numbers are increasingly the way in which we are judged. One problem with assigning numbers to aspects of our work (outputs) is that most of us, very sensibly, choose to focus our creative and research energy solely on the game of getting as high a number as possible for the criteria listed. It doesn’t matter if grant applications are unsuccessful, count the number of applications made
Relatively few of my immediate colleagues engage with social media, and so have yet to enter the arena for what are broadly referred to as altmetrics. But this will doubtless change as ways to count every utterance we make become more widely known. I have colleagues from a wider pool of acquaintance who already promote the number of hits to videos of their lectures as a measure of credibility, even though it could also be a measure of how many students don’t think that their lectures are worth turning up to. This is not to say that numbers are always irrelevant or misleading. I am a known advocate of social media as channels of communication, and of course improving access to research, ideas and communities is beneficial to all. The thinking behind the numbers needs to be understood, but context is rarely immediate from altmetric visualisations. I am certainly not the first or only person to highlight that the attempt by everyone and their mum to achieve cult status by numbers, is, with the exception of one or two highly talented and/or lucky individuals, meaningless. If we are all celebrities, who is left in the audience? I come back to the contemporary need to star in our own lives, the measure of which seems to be large numbers of followers and mentions on various social media channels, such as hits on shared decks of slides, references to blog posts and links to video uploads. I wonder, really, what any of this means, when so many of us are employing the same strategy. Perhaps what is needed is more discussion around what is meaningful as ‘academic output’.
In the current climate, many of us seem increasingly driven, even when we have nothing new to say, to communicate regardless. It’s a bit like going down the rabbit hole isn’t it? A fantastically busy journey at the end of which, when we wake up, nothing much has happened.