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By Claire Aitchison

Is it possible to write a book about social media with any chance of it not being out-dated before it hits the presses? This is the question I asked myself when I first heard of Mark Carrigan’s book: Social Media for Academics (SAGE 2016). In this case Mark has managed to do so and has produced a book about social media that is thoughtful, practical and relevant to his target audience – academics. Furthermore, the scope and the scholarly approach to exploring the whys and wherefores of social media for academics means this book is likely to remain relevant for quite some time yet.

Mark writes like an insider because he is an academic and researcher who is also an active and skilful social media user. Mark’s approach to social media is informed by his work as a digital sociologist and consultant. This means he is concerned not simply with how and what to do in the social media space; he is also interested in the social and personal functions of social media in higher education, digital scholarship, identity and engagement, and the implications arising from participation. 

This great little book begins by situating social media historically and socially as a phenomenon that can be productively taken into scholarly practice to benefit academic work. The scholar who is networked through social media operates in an environment that is persistent, visible, spreadable and searchable. They are able to capitalise on numerous opportunities for large audiences, often without having to navigate gatekeepers, thus potentially expanding fields for collaboration, information seeking and dissemination – the exchange and co-construction of knowledge that is central to academic scholarship. But this book does not shy away from difficulties, addressing such questions as: What does social media mean for individuals, institutions, and knowledge making? How do we live a manageable and productive academic life in social media? What are the risks, challenges and benefits of engagement – and of nonparticipation? What subjectivities, power plays and risks operate in this space?

Social Media for Academics is a delightfully easy read starting from the personable acknowledgements page, through to the explanation of how the book came about and how it can be used. Mark’s personal touch, his evident depth of knowledge, his use of anecdotes and references to academic research and practices in the field all make for a fascinating and enjoyable account of social media.

This book is a combination of practical advice, scholarly critique and know how. Those wishing to can use it to find out how to publicise their work, manage information, build networks and engage in the public sphere. It contains information relevant to the novice as well as those already actively engaging in social media – and always from the perspective of an academic.

At the same time this book addresses some of the bigger issues and in this regard I particularly recommend chapter six, ‘Professional identity in an age of social media’. In this chapter and the subsequent ones, Mark Carrigan really attends to key academic concerns such as how one can communicate effectively online and how one can find time for social media. These discussions weave in literature and personal experiences that ring true. On one hand, Mark discusses the challenges of access and equity vis-à-vis social media; on the other, he addresses risks and responses such as what to do when social media turns nasty. He also offers pragmatic advice down to the level of using titles and images, and for measuring the effectiveness of online communication through analytics and article altmetrics. Valuable stuff indeed for any academic!

Mark’s exploration of social media is not utopian by any means. For example, he acknowledges the downsides of the politics of openness and the potential for social media to become yet another measure of output, to be corralled, monitored and measured by institutions. His exploration of future possibilities makes for interesting reading, engaging us in reflective preparation for a range of futures.

This is a valuable book for anyone in higher education, but it is especially relevant for doctoral students, because, it seems, they – those who arguably could benefit the most – continue to under-utilise social media.

This book talks to academics because it identifies our key concerns not only about how social media works, but what it means to engage – or not – for our lives and futures in higher education. While clearly Mark thinks participation in social media is valuable, if not unavoidable, Social Media for Academics is not a polemic. The book is not uncritical of social media, nor of what is means to live an academic life engaged in social media.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to SAGE for the free desk copy