The Joy of Blogs (and Tweets): Why Academics should take Social Media seriously

October 27, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

mike-lynch-blog-cartoon-03_thumbThis is an edited version of a piece I wrote for the LSE International Development Blog

Before I started teaching at LSE in January, I had the impression that the academics and researchers around the school were totally social media savvy – prolific tweeters like Charlie Beckett and top blogs like LSE Impact are high up on my follow list.

It turned out the impression was, ahem, a little misleading. A good proportion of the people I have come across may be brilliant in their field, but when it comes to using the interwebs, tend to sound like the querulous 1960s judge asking ‘What is a Beatle?’ (‘I don’t twitter’). Much of life is spent within the hallowed paywalls of academic journals (when I pointed out that no-one outside academia reads them, the baffled response seemed to be along the lines of ‘and your point is?’).

So why should they rethink? Here are some initial arguments, confined to blogs and twitter (the only bits of social media I engage with). I’m sure there are lots of others – feel free to add:

  1. I blog therefore I amRemember that a blog is a ‘web log’, i.e. an online diary. Regular blogging builds up a handy, time-saving archive. I’ve been blogging daily since 2008. OK, that’s a little excessive, but what that means is that essentially I have a download of my brain activity over the last 7 years – almost every book and papers I’ve read, conversations and debates. Whenever anyone wants to consult me, I have a set of links I can send (which saves huge amounts of time). And raw material for the next presentation, paper or book.
  2. Making sure someone reads your research. Look no further than the excellent LSE Impact blog for evidence: here’s a quick search of their posts:

Patrick Dunleavy argues blogging and tweeting from multi-author blogs especially is a great way to build knowledge of your work, to grow readership of useful articles and research reports, to build up citations, and to foster debate across academia, government, civil society and the public in general.

World Bank research on economics blogging (with regressions, natch) concluded:

Blogging about a paper causes a large increase in the number of abstract views and downloads in the same month: an average impact of an extra 70-95 abstract views in the case of Aid Watch (now sadly defunct) and Chris Blattman, 135 for Economix, 300 for Marginal Revolution, and 450-470 for Freakonomics and Krugman. [see regression table here]

These increases are massive compared to the typical abstract views and downloads these papers get- one blog post in Freakonomics is equivalent to 3 years of abstract views! However, only a minority of readers click through – we estimate 1-2% of readers of the more popular blogs click on the links to view the abstracts, and 4% on a blog like Chris Blattman that likely has a more specialized (research-focused) readership.’

LSE Impact for twitter users includes:

  1. It gives you a bit of soft power (let’s not exaggerate this, but check out slide 15 of this research presentation for some evidence). Blogs are now an established part of the chattersphere/public conversation, so you get a chance to put your favourite ideas out there, and spin those of others. People in your organization may well read your blogs and tweets even if they don’t read your emails.
  2. Blogging is a great antidote to that feeling of anticlimax and futility that comes after you send off the paper or the book manuscript, and suddenly the true indifference of the universe becomes apparent. You can keep discussing and communicating with interesting people, and keep the existential crisis at bay.
  3. blogging-out-loudAnd don’t forget the free books, also known as ‘review copies’.
  4. And the chance to publicly insult your enemies (not relevant in my case, obvs, as I don’t have any).

The counter-argument is bound to be ‘we don’t have time’, but if you take too long, that probably means the blog won’t be very accessible. Reading a blog should be like listening to the person talk, but with links. This post took me precisely 30 minutes to write, including the ‘research’.

If you’re interested in dipping your toe in the social media ocean, here are some tips for bloggers on international development and a previous effort to convince sceptics. But the best thing is just to try it and see. At the very least, follow Chris Blattman to see how it’s done.

October 27, 2015
Duncan Green