This is not just a post about Instagram



Early this year the Australian Prime Minister, who was under a bit of pressure about a questionable decision at the time, dismissed social media as ‘electronic graffiti’. People in my networks were outraged and, of course, took to social media to express their outrage. For a few days feelings were high, which resulted in a creative deluge of hashtags and memes. All good fun.

The general feeling was that the Prime Minister was an out of touch loser who would find out just how far behind public opinion he was, come election day. I wondered if some enterprising soul might make bumper stickers proclaiming “I use social media and I vote”.

Just to be clear, I would totally buy one of these bumper stickers, should they become available, but the Prime minister’s comment left me more confused than angry. I couldn’t work out if the statement was a throw away line, or an inadvertently astute commentary on the role of social media in society today. I say ‘inadvertently’ because I don’t really credit many politicians with indulging in deep thinking.

Some people think of graffiti as wanton property discussion. If you have ever had to clean it off your front fence – repeatedly – then you might think this view is warranted. However, there’s a persuasive argument to be made that graffiti is a potent form of political protest, particularly for those who have no other voice. There’s certainly a growing understanding of graffiti as Art.

In other words: it’s complicated.

At risk of agreeing with our Prime Minister (there’s always a first time for everything I suppose) I think he might be on to something with the analogy between graffiti and social media. Both of them, by their very nature, resist clear cut definitions.

If you tune into the discourse, the hum of academic social life, you hear certain messages about social media. It’s talked about as a distraction, a way to kill your career dead and, at the same time, an absolutely necessary part of contemporary practice . As the person often tasked with teaching people to be ‘digital academics’ (whatever that really means) I know from first hand experience that there is a lot of confusion, angst and ambivalence in the academic community about social media.

I think the problem is that social media, like graffiti, is a form of self expression. There are a growing number of platforms out there through which you can use to express yourself. In fact, the sheer number is getting a bit daunting. So which ones do you choose to use and what should you do with them? This is a complicated question because, as I said, it depends on how you want to express yourself – and everyone is different.

There’s some evidence to suggest that people who find social interaction easy in real life will also find it easy online. I say this with love, but some academics are not exactly ‘easy’ with people… so, to make it easier, I often use White and Le Cournu’s concept of digital residents and digital visitors (thanks to Joyce Seitzinger for alerting me to this work). I ask people to think of the online space as an opportunity to build a house. What kind of house do you want? A shack by the beach or a luxury waterfront property?

The shack is what I call the ‘light touch enagement model’. The simple online shack would give you somewhere to put your CV, somewhere to put your publications and somewhere to help people find your CV and publications. What’s best to use will necessarily change as social media sites come and go, but here and now, in early 2015, I recommend you create a profile on the following sites:

  • Linkedin (don’t phone it in friends – the academic recruiters are looking there I promise you)
  • and/or researchgate. The jury is out, but I think has more traction right now.
  • A page on your institutional site, if it’s available, so you can validate your affiliation. But don’t get comfortable! I notice that some universities delete the carefully built home pages of their academics who die or leave their institution, leaving us with no central repository of their work
  • Put all your publications in your library repository. This is a no-brainer – there’s a direct relation between doing this and citation rates.
  • Some kind of simple aggregator service, like Flavours Me, that puts up a ‘home page’ with links through to your other profiles.

If you’re more like me and you ENJOY mucking around on social media – or you want to experiment – add some more rooms! Some of these rooms will be like kitchens – fit for a purpose and relatively tidy. Others will be for play – like a cabana by the pool. My luxury waterfront mansion includes all of the services I mentioned above, plus:

  • Twitter
  • An outwardly facing Facebook fan page (a page that is connected to your account, but not part of your normal account)
  • Same thing on G+
  • Tumblr
  • Instagram
  • Pinterest
  • Mendeley / Zotero
  • The complete Google space (this could be a post on its own, so I wont go into detail other to say EVERYTHING THERE IS USEFUL)
  • Storify

How to present yourself to best advantage on each social media space is the next problem. What should you share? Who should you follow? Some people think it doesn’t matter much, but I disagree. How you decorate each ‘room’ in your house is important because it helps you decide what to do there, at the same time as telling others who you are.

This is identity work people! My favourite kind.

Let’s take Facebook as an example. Facebook is my loungeroom. I invite people in to see and comment on what is happening in my life, but I don’t show them the mess in my bathroom. A lot of complaining happens in the loungeroom, as well as showing of the holiday pictures.

Thus my criteria for friending someone is whether or not I would sit in my loungeroom with them and share my holiday snaps, thus I friend:

a) Family
b) People who I know and like in person
b) People I know I would like, should I ever meet them in person.

This last category is small because it takes more time. I’ll sometimes accept friendship requests, or extend them, because I’ve seen that person talking to other friends and laughed at what they have said, or I’ve talked to them on Twitter.

I do use Facebook as a way to access news too, so my Facebook fan page gives me a way to be a ‘news service’ in other people’s facebook feed, without putting pressure on them to come into my loungeroom. I’m not really interested in Google + or Linkedin, but I duplicate my news content there using Buffer, so I have a presence without having to actually be there (if that makes sense)

The building analogy sometimes needs a little creative thinking to be useful. I’m more relaxed about who I follow in Twitter because it’s more like the pub. I have conversations with people and follow them on the basis of that – but I am very careful about what I actually say. No one likes a messy drunk! Pinterest is clearly a kind of scrapbook, but I imagine it as a wall in the foyer of my house. I hang art there that tells people what kind of person I am, but not family photos. So making cool collections for other people to enjoy is my main activity.

Other social media platforms are more difficult to connect to a place, which brings me (finally) to Instagram. In some services you just must ‘dwell’ until the expressive potentials become clear. With Instagram this literally took years.

At first I downloaded the app and played with it. Instagram basically lets you muck around with images and post them to other sites. I could see the aesthetic appeal, but I couldn’t think of a use for it. For a couple of years it sat on my phone. I didn’t really use it, but couldn’t bring myself to delete it because, well – it was cool.

Friends who rarely make an appearance in Facebook and/or Twitter started telling me they were hanging out there, so I started just looking at everyday, to connect with them. I got very interested in the way they were presenting pieces of their lives, in particular the places they live and their hobbies. They were mindfully noting what was going on around them, but in playful and odd ways. I started to find that Instagram was relaxing and energising at the same time. I found myself there at odd times – on the couch on Sunday afternoons, or when I was alone on a bus or in an airport. Basically whenever I wasn’t particularly lonely, but open to company.

Finally it dawned on me. Instagram is Art*.

If it’s Art, then it’s like the verandah or my online house. It doesn’t have a purpose other than what it is: a nice place to be. It’s somewhere I can sit and just look out on the world, alone or in company. I can point out things from my balcony, but I don’t have to particularly engage with them or analyse anything. Now I know the purpose is not to have a particular purpose I am happy. I’ve relaxed about it and just strive to make my academic and home life into Art in Instagram.

It’s strangely enjoyable.

I’d be interested in what you think about this approach to social media strategy – is it helpful? Do you think of different rooms, or have another way to explain why you like some sites and not others? I’d be interested in hearing about it.

Oh and if you want to follow me on Instagram, you can find me here, but don’t expect me to be useful :-)