Four things we learned about impact and social media

Posted in: #thinklist, Impact

Earlier in the year, the Centre for Business, Organisations and Society launched their latest thinklist, the #ThinklistImpact. This list celebrates the scholars who are using their work and position as academics to make a difference in the wider world, through engagement with practice and participation in the public discourse. The list specifically recognises people who use social media to talk about, and to create, this type of impact.

As part of the launch of the list, CBOS hosted two events to explore what impact means to our thinklisters, how academic impact can be achieved and specifically the role of social media in this.

This blog post in based on discussions between thinklisters and panel members Hari Bapuji, Stephanie Bertels, Helen Etchanchu, Andy Hoffman, Simone Phipps and Devi Vijay, the list’s curators Zahira Jaser, Mette Morsing, Nicholas Poggioli and Garima Sharma as well as the audience of both events.

Here's what we learned.

Impact work is the single most important thing an academic can do

In both webinars, the speakers considered their purpose as academics. Though this is a personal and subjective question the panel agreed that the collective answer was ‘to make a difference’. Scholarship was seen as the most direct way, outside of politics, to affect change on a particular societal issue. If the goal of research is to bring new ideas into the mainstream then the potential of an academic paper is only realised when its findings have an impact in the real world.

“I’m working on climate action, and I think that’s an issue that really brings with it a notion of urgency. We don’t have the time it would take for my publication to come out and get picked up by others and hopefully eventually reach the people who might use it to change policy or practice. So, I make the impact aspect a key part of my strategy for my research.”  - Helen Etchanchu

They stressed that a cultural shift was needed in academia, and challenged the perspective that publications are the end goal. Rather it should be seen as one milestone along the way to achieving the overall purpose of the research. Institutions need to empower scholars to pursue impact, to ensure that ideas are embedded and engaged with beyond publication.

The pursuit of impact also helps you reject the current metrics that are used to judge you in academia, which many people find problematic. If your work has a higher purpose, then it helps you avoid getting bogged down by the politics of things like publication record.

But this isn’t easy for everyone…

 The current lack of recognition for impact work within Higher Education means that it’s often seen as an afterthought. Many scholars only feel able to pursue it “after they’ve got tenure”.

While the speakers challenged this view, and argued that embedding impact goals into your work from the start ultimately improves your research, they did acknowledge that it can be difficult to go against the grain as a junior academic who is trying to build a career.

They suggested that senior academics have a responsibility to lead the way, in part by showing others how to do impact work but also by pushing for more recognition of impact work and challenging the orthodoxy.

Social Media is a powerful tool for creating and sharing impact

Though many academics view social media as a waste of time, an increasing number of scholars are recognising its potential for sharing and creating impact.

It has many functions and possibilities. It allows you to reach communities and audiences that you couldn’t otherwise access – both in terms of speaking to research subjects, and presenting your ideas and findings to potential changemakers.

“Geographically, I wouldn’t be able to access certain conversations without social media. Especially in the Global South, it’s important for helping to connect you to research subjects or research partners.” – Devi Vijay

The participatory and conversational nature of social media also helps get through to people. The speakers stressed that it can hard to change minds if the audience is too entrenched in certain views, and that useful discussions are only possible with people who are already receptive and willing to be challenged. But, there is no other medium where anyone can have access to ‘experts’ so easily.

“If you’re on twitter then the barriers for participating in the discussion are lower than in the ‘real world’, so it reduces the risk for people to engage with new ideas” – Stephanie Bertels

The panel also spoke about how social media allows you to create a public persona. This can be helpful when engaging with practitioners to do impact work, as there is a visible and accessible record of your positions - they can see who you are as a person and what you stand for, as well as how you engage with others on the topic.

“While I would argue that lots of real impact happens off social media, it certainly helps you prepare the ground work for discussions in board rooms, by establishing you as someone worth listening to” – Stephanie Bertels

However, they stressed that social media use should always have a purpose. If you’re treating it as something you ‘have to do’ – just another chore or line in your job description - then you’ll probably not get much out of it. Instead, think of it as a helpful tool for achieving your goals, whether joining the conversations you want to join or just putting some factual information out into the world.

“If you're less confident about engaging on social media, then your strength is your data. The attitude I started with was that I just wanted to put the data out there, present the facts to practitioners, and then they could do what they wanted with it. I started out as seeing my role as a bit of a myth buster” – Ruth Sealy

Impact is impossible without passion

The starting point of impact work is an idea that you care about. People respond to authenticity, particularly on social media, and any arguments you make will be so much more powerful if made with the passion and conviction of someone who is deeply invested in the topic.

“Other people are maybe more strategic, but I never think about what’s going to get the most likes of followers. I just stick with what I think is truth. Speak when you have something to say, rather than creating an artificial persona that you think will grow your profile” – Simone Phipps

This focus on ideas will also help you avoid too much self-promotion, which some people may find off-putting. The speakers urged other academics to become ‘curators’ on social media – they stressed how important it was to use your profile to direct people to the resources they need, by amplifying the work and achievements of others (both within academia and outside of it) as well as your own.

The starting point for this is just to establish what questions you want answered. Often these will turn out to be the things that are important to other people.

Impact via social media starts with a willingness to be a role model

Some of our speakers were uncomfortable with characterisation as activists, but all agreed that you can use the leverage of your position in society to affect change. People generally trust academics as sources of information, so scholars have an important role in legitimising ideas.

They counselled the audience to lead by example, and explained that social media can be seen as an example of ‘embodied scholarship’ – platforms like twitter allow you to show others that you live the values that you argue for, and more importantly shows how you can live these values.

“Our function as leaders in the community is to advocate for certain ideas. Use your relative power to stand up for the important things and take a stand – take it as a badge of honour if you get pushback, because it means that the conversation you’re having is necessary one” – Andy Hoffman

But there are dynamics of privilege that we must recognise…

While the speakers advocated for others to be uncompromising in their beliefs, to stand up for the things they care about and have the arguments that are necessary, they did recognise that social media can be a challenging and unwelcoming space, particularly if you are a woman, BIPOC, LGBT+ or other minority group.

While the pursuit of impact via social media is an important and valuable enterprise, academics shouldn’t feel pressured to use these platforms if they aren’t comfortable doing so.

If you do choose to engage with this medium, they stressed the need to build support networks – both on and offline – to help you deal with the negativities, and to take a step back when you need. While the work you can do on twitter is important, it’s more important to protect yourself and your mental health!


You can learn more about the #ThinklistImpact by reading some of our other blogs on the topic.

Posted in: #thinklist, Impact


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