One of the most interesting and pressing questions I've been thinking about and discussing recently (with colleagues, at NWSA, and with friends) is how to use Facebook, Twitter, and blogging sites while connected to all the different audiences in your life. So, let's explore that together. By now, we are all fairly comfortable using these social media technologies with our peers. We are okay with sharing pictures, posts, and location check-ins with our peers because they are our equals. They do not have significant power to change the course of our lives or careers, and we do not have that power over them either, so the risk of major negative consequences is low.
But just like the college student who does not want to friend her mom, we (re: young professionals) feel anxiety about connecting with those above and below us on the hierarchy of power. Personally, I am dealing with how to connect with my students (re: lower in the power hierarchy) and my advisors/department chairs/potential employers (re: higher in the power hierarchy).
You may be concerned with why I am describing these relationships in terms of power. While feminism is largely about changing the dynamics of power, we must assert that denying that power relationships exist can result in a great deal of harm. Large amounts of feminist theory (re: post-colonial theory and discussions of privilege) teach us the importance of acknowledging the power that we have and then working to transform that power into something more productive. In light of that, I acknowledge that I have power over my students. I control their grades, but I also hold some power over how they spend their time and over their standing with the university and to a lesser extent I even have power over the probability of them being able to succeed in their chosen careers. While my pedagogies work to change that power dynamic, I must still acknowledge that I have that power because denying that power relationship would be an abuse of my power (because they would still feel my power). Likewise, my advisors, department chairs, and potential employers have a great deal of power over my professional success and my monetary wealth. I must also acknowledge that power because if I don't I may end up unemployed.
So, while acknowledging those power relationships, in this post I will try to make the case that using social media is an important, if complex and sometimes uncomfortable, pedagogical tool that we should and in fact must begin to use.
The importance of using social media in general:
While I'm sure you've read many things convincing you of the importance of using social media to grow your business etc., I would like to also highlight some philosophical and feminist reasons for that importance.
Social media moves toward making all our voices equal in importance. A tweet from Barak Obama is as easily accessed and could be read by as many people as a tweet from me; furthermore, individuals can tweet or post directly to celebrities, journalists, and political leaders. These possibilities challenge the whole idea of "the power hierarchy". People from the lowest to the highest can directly interact with one another, can hear each other's voices, and in some ways are accountable to one another. I think this is a tremendous change to the dynamics of power, and I think feminists and educators in general should be excited to participate in these changes in power.
Using social media is not going to be optional in the future, so we need to learn to use it safely and effectively. Futurists predict that social media may one day function as a gateway to the internet as a whole, as a form of identity verification, or even as a form of citizenship. Whatever trajectory social media takes in the future, I am fully convinced that it is here to stay. In light of that, in order to function in the world, we will one day need to know how to use these forms of communication to "speak" publicly. We also need to learn how to maintain relationships in safe and meaningful ways in the online environment.
Using social media demonstrates post-structuralist feminist theories about mutual vulnerability and connectedness. I can say more about this in another post if you would like, but my main point here is that social media demonstrates fairly obviously the way that our own identities are vulnerable to and ultimately somewhat in the control of the people around us. Because of this, I think social media can really contribute to feminist understandings of selfhood and relationships.
Ok, so hopefully you agree that social media is, in general, an important part of life and worth our time and effort to learn.
The importance of using social media with people lower in the power hierarchy:
First, if feminist education is concerned with teaching students to let academic concerns impact their daily lives, then using social media to engage with feminist ideas is a great way to have those ideas expand beyond the classroom. Using social media in feminist courses can contribute to public discussions, and eventually perhaps impact consumer habits and political choices. For example, requiring students to tweet about sexism in super bowl commercials not only changes the way that those students view media, but also impacts the students' followers and changes the public discourse about those commercials. In all three of these ways, students see that course content impacts daily life. And if we ask and encourage our students to break down the barrier between academic and personal life, then we must be willing to do that as well.
Second, as alluded to above, I believe that using social media will one day not be optional; therefore, teaching our student to use social media safely and effectively may be among the most important things that we can teach them. If we want our students (or anyone we are mentoring) to learn to be engaged, contributing, and successful members of society, we must help them learn technological responsibility. We must help them learn, while the stakes are low and most of their contacts are peers, that there are consequences to their posts, that their posts are public speech, and that their posts create reality. We must help students learn to integrate these technologies into their professional and political lives in productive and non-threatening ways. We must prepare them for the future, and the future includes increasing use of social media.
Thirdly, if people in higher positions of power use social media, they demonstrate that they are whole people. Students can see that their professor has a family and a pet, likes a certain football team or tv show, and goes through difficult life events, and because of that the students learn to see the professor as a whole person-- someone they can trust, someone they have something in common with, and someone who needs time off. I believe that allowing yourself to be known (blurring the line between the personal and the professional) allows you to have a better relationship with your students, and I believe that having a good relationship with your students makes your teaching much more impactful.
The importance of using social media with people higher in the power hierarchy:
Using social media makes you a known quantity. It means that those hiring you or reviewing you for tenure know who you are and what you believe. I believe that this helps you because it means it removes doubt, highlights your commonalities, and builds rapport. This, of course, works better if your reviewers agree (or respectfully disagree) with you, so there is some risk involved, but this risk can be managed. Using social media to publicly address professionally related topics also shows that your career is part of your life's work, not simply how you pay the bills. On the opposite side of the spectrum, if your social media portfolio is completely blank, that looks suspicion. Potential employers must be able to find you and determine that you are what they want.
Using social media contributes to the profession, which contributes to your career. I think that using social media gets feminist ideas out into society, and that helps the field of Gender and Women's Studies in general. It might attract more majors; it might change people's perspectives, etc. It seems to me that making feminist ideas accessible to the larger public is a huge service to the profession. And service to the profession goes on the CV! Additionally, using social media nurtures collaboration between junior people and senior people in the profession, which encourages learning from traditional practices and innovating new responses to current global events.... and that keeps the field growing and relevant.
*Please do keep in mind that I have neither a tenure track job nor tenure...so I guess you should take these thoughts with a grain of salt. Or, if you have perspectives on this, please comment below.
Using social media helps gives you opportunities to connect with people and builds feminist activism. Feminism is a lot about consciousness raising and building solidarity, and those two goals are built on connections.... connections that can emerge and be nurtured through social media. What if you could tweet about a cause and 1,000 people get on board with your project? 50 years ago, it would have been really difficult and expensive to reach that many interested people, but now, it is easy, quick, and only requires access to a computer. Not that social media will usher in a new utopian age, but I think there is a lot of potential, and I think that potential is maximized when we aren't afraid to connect with the famous/powerful people in our fields.
Do you agree that using social media will one day be necessary for functioning in society (aka not optional)?
Do you think that using social media with non-peers (aka in a way that blurs the line between the personal and the professional) is worth the risks involved?
Do you think it is the job of teachers to work with students on using social media safely and effectively?
Do you think that using social media can help you professionally?
Any other thoughts or reactions to this post?
*Something to look forward to: My next post will be a list of practical guidelines for how to effectively friend/tweet/blog with non-peers.