Using social media for impact

Esrc_logoTomorrow I’m presenting a workshop on using social media for impact at the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) 2014 Final Year Conference (hash tag #esrcphd). This takes place at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC), and is hosted by the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science.

Social media are becoming increasingly important in an environment where “traditional” bibliometric indicators – measures of “academic” impact in terms of individuals’ quantity of publications and the quantity of citations to those publications (as codified in citation databases) – can be supplemented by alternative (or alt) metrics. Altmetrics assess the impact of individual output using various criteria across a range of platforms, making it possible for judgements of esteem to rely on more than a “mere” publication record. Visibility is thus becoming increasingly important for personal research impact and the reputational benefits that this brings, e.g. invitations to collaborate, speak at conferences, serve on committees etc. (For more information on altmetrics, please see my earlier post Altmetrics: achieving and measuring success in communicating research in the digital age.)

Social media also have a role to play in widening the reach of research output. They provide new ways to package and disseminate research findings and, when used strategically, can help ensure that investment in research projects delivers social and economic benefit. Researchers’ skills in understanding their target audiences’ preferences for consuming research output, and presenting research output in an way that is accessible to those whose attention is sought, determine whether research findings have adequate reach, and are ultimately translated into policies and actions.

In the session I’ll be encouraging delegates to consider the range of social media tools available to help increase research impact, and to share practical suggestions and recommendations on the use of social media to develop an online presence for work-related purposes, both at a personal and project level. We’ll be discussing the benefits of maintaining an online presence on particular sites, and distinguishing where you should be from where you could be.

For a flavour of the workshop, please see the SlideShare presentation below.

The Circle by Dave Eggers: book review

Over Easter I read The Circle by Dave Eggers. I wouldn’t normally blog about my recreational reading, but there is such a strong overlap between the themes of the novel and my research and teaching interests that I have decided to post my review here.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The tale’s main setting is the Silicon Valley campus of a tech company in the not too distant future. The Circle has already gobbled up several other familiar social media enterprises and, as such, may be conceived as a fictional amalgamation of companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter. Its earnest workforce is involved in numerous innovative projects to make the world a “better” place where communities are safe, and a genuine democracy works for the good of all. Circle technologists work on a bewilderingly wide range of innovations that include, for example, systems to eradicate criminal dangers such as child abduction and to guard against political corruption.

We follow new Circle employee Mae Holland in her first few weeks at the company. Mae is appointed on the recommendation of her old university friend Annie. She cannot believe her luck when Annie, who has risen through the ranks of the Circle to be a member of its elite “Gang of Forty”, orchestrates a job offer for her at the firm.

Mae instantly falls in love with a work environment that is in complete contrast with that of her career to date in a boring, old-fashioned utility firm of her home town. At the Circle Mae discovers that working and playing hard go hand-in-hand, appreciates the high levels of care that the company provides for its workers and families, and wonders at the marvels of what must be the coolest workplace on the planet.

Before long Mae has bought into everything that the Circle stands for to the extent that she becomes a Circle commodity herself, with celebrity employee status that extends far beyond the confines of the company campus. However, this all comes at a cost: Mae gives up her privacy when she volunteers to serve as a guinea pig for the Circle’s “transparency” software.

Mae takes to her work at the Circle as a new evangelist, barely hesitating to challenge the way that the Circle relies on the data of others to run its business. Meanwhile encouraged by Mae’s interactions with a mysterious character called Kalden and her despairing ex-boyfriend, readers confront the issues that Mae chooses either to ignore or dismiss.

In this new world it is no longer possible for an individual to maintain multiple identities. The Circle’s “TruYou” software, which made it possible to conduct all business online using just one program and password, has removed anonymity from the Internet. The eradication of platform independence has made it all too easy for personal data to be aggregated, merged and triangulated, and those who already have a habit of life-logging make it possible for their quantified selves to be viewed by anyone who cares to take a look. Those who do not buy into transforming all that used to be viewed as private and ephemeral into a public and permanent resource to be accessed by all are at best dismissed as old-fashioned. At worst they are considered criminal. There is no right to non-participation, nor to be forgotten. In this new world “sharing is caring” and “privacy is theft”.

As we follow Mae’s story we see how knowledge that personal data is open has an impact on an individual’s behaviours and reputation. Mae alters her routines because she knows that she is on display as a “transparent” person, and the feedback that she receives from her viewing public encourages her to modify her behaviour further for their approval. Thus the apparently transparent Mae is a distortion constructed by the environment, and her supposedly “authentic” public digital self is, to a large extent, an artifice as she uses digital media to portray the person that she would like to project (as opposed to her real, flawed, self). As she fulfils her role of revealing to the outside world what goes on within the Circle, the act of broadcasting per se can be seen to be more important than what is actually experienced.

Without explicit reference, another theme of the work is “truthiness”, i.e. a desired perception of truth. When this takes precedence over truth per se, particularly over issues that are prone to populism (for example, how to punish criminals), actions based on an expressed mass of opinion rarely results in optimal outcomes. Examples in this novel reveal what can happen when contextual information is ignored, or not known, by the mob.

Through the medium of the novel readers are invited to question issues related to themes of digital personhood. These include, for example: digital inclusion and exclusion; the extent to which we should be expected to give up our personal data to get something back (consider for example the debate over the NHS England’s Care data system); and the unintended consequences of massive data sharing. Even if you feel like to you have nothing to hide, this novel is a stark reminder that you still have much to protect.

Although these are serious themes, the novel is actually quite a light read with a fast-paced, gripping and amusing plot. It is not literary fiction, but readers will enjoy nods to other works, as highlighted in the New York Review of Books review published last year. For me the most obvious echoes were of George Orwell’s Nineteen eighty-four, Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, and the Truman Show. There’s a fair number of biblical references in the text too.

I particularly enjoyed the almost comical scenes where Mae is doing all she can to keep up with the multiple information feeds thrown at her, and gains comfort in reducing her backlog of requests and checking her online metrics. My amusement was partly fuelled by recognition that I often retreat into such behaviours. I was also genuinely surprised by one of the main twists that comes at the end of the novel. So instead of my usual thinking for x pages “I wonder if I am right about this?”, I actually had the pleasure of an “Oh, I didn’t expect that!” moment.

My only criticisms of the novel are minor. For example, I felt that the relationship between the protagonist and her best friend is not entirely believable, but this is perhaps an artefact of a plot where the term “friendship” is stretched to its limits. Similarly I was surprised at Mae’s naivety, and did not find her a particularly sympathetic character. Again, without this, the story would not work. A genuine error at one point seems to be a mix-up between Leeds and Manchester. To give the work a bit more weight and creditability I would have liked to have known more about the battles over data protection and intellectual property rights that the Circle encountered with Europe (these are just mentioned in passing), and to have seen more female programmers working at the Circle.

All in all, this is an entertaining and thought-provoking novel that anyone with interests in digital personhood and the themes of identity, reputation and privacy is bound to enjoy. That the writing is so close to the style of screenplay makes me wonder whether the book was written primarily with an eye on film rights. If so, I am looking forward to seeing the Circle as a movie.

Appointment to the RCUK Digital Economy theme Programme Advisory Board

Digital Economy logoThe Research Councils UK Digital Economy (DE) theme supports research to realise the transformational impact of digital technologies on aspects of community life, cultural experiences, future society, and the economy.

Over the past couple of years I have enjoyed spending time with staff from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) on work associated with the DE theme. This all started two years ago when I was invited to join the 12-person panel that conducted the 2012 impact review of DE theme investment. Soon afterwards I became involved in an additional stream of DE research undertaken under the banner of “digital personhood”: I helped identify the scope of the investment; served as a mentor at the sandpit meeting where project ideas were germinated; and recently participated at the first digital personhood network meeting. I have also been involved in reviewing grant proposals and panel work for the DE theme.

When I noticed the call for new members of the Programme Advisory Board (PAB) for the DE theme earlier this year, I saw further opportunity to support this area of research. The PAB provides advice on the research direction and balance of the programme to include consideration of issues such as training, new and emerging research opportunities, and evaluation of the programme itself and its outputs.

Given that my work is largely concerned with the intersection of digital technologies with people and communities, and the resultant challenges and opportunities, I felt that my expertise would be of interest to the appointing committee. Added to this is my perspective as someone who works at the “softer” end of computing, and who can bring to the fore questions related to the possible social impact of new research directions, and how these might influence subsequent funding decisions. I also believe strongly that teams seeking to develop strategic direction need to include individuals who work across subject domains and professional groupings. This is because new knowledge happens at boundaries, and those who operate as boundary spanners – like myself – are well-positioned to anticipate novel and unexpected trends from observing connections across various areas of activity.

I’m delighted that the appointing committee welcomed my application and has recently confirmed my membership of the DE theme Programme Advisory Board for a three year term. I am very much looking forward to working with my new colleagues on the PAB to help invigorate and drive the future direction of the DE theme. I am also pleased to have the opportunity to strengthen further the relationships with research council colleagues that have grown over the past couple of years.

A professorial lecture on poverty, privacy and the press


8 members of the Centre for Social Informatics tweeted the talk – including Frances Ryan, Christine Irving, Leo Appleton & Jan Auernhammer pictured here

It’s rare that all the members of the Centre for Social Informatics (CSI) manage to gather together at the same place at the same time. However, we almost managed it last Thursday when we attended the inaugural professorial lecture of our CSI colleague Dr Alistair Duff. Apart from one PhD student and one researcher (who was at a conference in Finland presenting two papers, including one that I co-authored), there was a full turn-out of the academic staff, researchers, and research students of CSI at the event, all eager to hear what Alistair had to say about The information society and its challenges. Two PhD students made special journeys to attend the event from afar: Leo Appleton caught the train up from Liverpool and Nicole Van Deursen flew in from Spain.

Alistair Duff tells the audience about meeting Daniel Bell

Alistair Duff tells the audience about meeting Daniel Bell

Alistair began his presentation by defining the term “information society” and referring to three particularly influential works: (1) Machlup’s The production and distribution of knowledge in the United States (1962); (2) Daniel Bell’s The coming of the post-industrial society (1973); and (3) Masuda’s The information society as post-industrial society (1984). In his early career Alistair was lucky enough to meet and correspond with Daniel Bell, and shared with the audience a photograph of their meeting.

Alistair then went on to outline what he believes are three big problems of the information society: poverty; privacy; and the press. He argued that we have a duty to take care of the poor, and this includes the information poor, who struggle to participate in the information society. He expressed his shock that privacy appears no longer to be regarded as a social norm, but has become a “quaint virtue” as we drift into a surveillance society. In the last part of his talk he demonstrated his enthusiasm for the “dead tree press” (as opposed to what he considers to be ephemeral comment in the transient blogosphere) as a means of disseminating informed opinion. In short he called for protection of the poor, privacy and the press.

The newly inaugurated Professor Duff and his wife Liz

The newly inaugurated Professor Duff and his wife Liz

Alistair took advantage of his public platform to thank his colleagues in the Centre for Social Informatics and the School of Arts and Creative Industries, and the bodies that have funded his research over the years, in particular the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland and the AHRC. He admitted to almost forgetting to thank his wife, even though she was sitting opposite him in the front row of the audience. Happily he remembered just in time (and – in his own words – thus managed “to avoid a beating” when he got home!)

After the formal proceedings in the auditorium were over we enjoyed a reception, where discussion of the themes covered in Alistair’s presentation continued over drinks.

Between exhibition and contemplation: considering everyday routines on Blipfoto

blipfoto squareThis week my colleague Dr Eve Forrest has been participating at the Helsinki Photomedia conference in Finland. Today Eve is presenting our co-authored paper Between exhibition and contemplation: considering everyday routines on Blipfoto in a session entitled “Non-professional photography: practices and power”.

Photomedia conference logo In the presentation Eve reports on the study of the practice of Blipfoto users that we undertook last month. The analysis of focus group and interview data raises some interesting questions about participation in this online community, and our presentation refers to a number of contrasting perspectives that we identified from the data. We highlight how Blipfoto can simultaneously be considered both a private and public space, where users may choose to be anonymous or open, presenting their photographs primarily for themselves or for others. Although ostensibly for pictures, our research findings tell us that the Blipfoto site is also very much about words. The theme of time also emerged from the data. We discovered that by interacting with the site on a daily basis, users capture today with an eye on tomorrow. On occasion questions of life and death made their way into the conversations with the research participants, revealing how this theme of time can be actively linked to the lifetime of Blipfoto users. In the latter part of the presentation Eve considers the question of routine as related to Blipfoto use. First we have been able to draw some conclusions on how Blipfoto both disrupts and builds routine in the everyday (off-line) life. Second we have learnt how users develop their own routines when interacting with the site.

For further details of this work, please feel free to browse the presentation slides below.

Google+ and library and information professionals: invitation to contribute to research project

Google+-logoThis is a call to fellow library and information professionals to contribute to a research project on the use of Google+. If you work in the library, information and knowledge sector, please read on to learn more about the project and how you can contribute to it.

The survey is being used to collect data for a project entitled Social platforms as business tools: An investigation into the use of Google+ by librarians for their professional development and in library and information services delivery. This is being undertaken by Edinburgh Napier University student Grant Charters. Grant is keen to consult with a range of professionals who work in libraries and information services to find out about their use on Google+ for their own professional development, and/or to support services delivery.

Grant Charters

Project student Grant Charters

Grant will be delighted if you can contribute to the project by completing the short survey. It should only take about 5 minutes to answer the questions. All responses will be anonymised and no individuals will be identifiable in the written report of the project to which the results contribute. If you are able to spread the word of the survey to other professional colleagues, this will also be appreciated. The survey link is at

For more information about the project please feel free to contact Grant at

Social media and public libraries: a doctoral defence in Finland

Finland in "spring"

Finland experienced a fresh covering of snow last week

I have examined quite a few PhDs over the course of my career, both in English and in French, but until last week I had not had the opportunity to participate in a doctoral defence at a Nordic university. Last week I travelled to Åbo Akademi University in the Finnish city of Turku to serve as the opponent at the PhD defence of a thesis (in English) entitled Social media and public libraries: exploring information activities of library professionals and users.

A number of other activities were also fitted around the defence, one of which was an invited research seminar delivered to staff within the School of Business and Economics. Entitled Joining it all up: developing research-practice linkages in the UK, my presentation covered efforts to strengthen research-practice linkages within the UK library and information science community since 2009, and the possible impact of this work. (The slides are available from my Slideshare page. Dr Isto Huvila has also kindly blogged my presentation.)

The PhD candidate on Friday was Maria Kronqvist-Berg. Maria works as a library director in the municipality of Malax on the west coast of Finland about 350 kilometres north of Turku. The broad theme of her doctoral study is social media and public libraries. A large proportion of published studies on social media in professional settings privileges the technologies themselves (for example, my own work on librarians’ use of Twitter), or focuses on particular applications such as marketing. It also tends not to consider all stakeholders in the mix. In contrast Maria’s study explores the interface where public library staff, services delivered by social media, and library users meet. As such it makes a contribution to what is currently just a small body of knowledge on social media deployment, and professional and user perceptions of this.

The candidate Maria Kronqvist-Berg with opponent Professor Hazel Hall

Candidate Maria Kronqvist-Berg with opponent Professor Hazel Hall

The context of the work in the thesis is set by referring to earlier theoretical contributions on information behaviour and use, and practice theory. Much of the previous work on the information practices of end users has focused on the task of satisfying information needs. However, when people deploy social media to meet their information needs they engage in other information behaviours that go beyond solving a simple information-related problem. These include activities and practices such as communicating, creating, sharing etc. The consideration of these additional activities in this study thus extends the scope of information behaviour research and demonstrates the applicability of conducting such research from a practice theory perspective.

The findings from the study reveal the opportunities and challenges of social media as a channel for information services delivery. Significantly it throws doubt on the validity of considering this form of delivery as a separate from other services offered by public libraries. It thus challenges a discourse of Library 2.0 evident in the peer-reviewed and professional press. By highlighting how librarians balance and integrate social media with library services, Maria’s thesis provides a more realistic view than that promoted by advocates of Library 2.0. Maria’s work also evaluates the opportunities and limitations of conceptions of social media applications as platforms for collaborative activities with users, and thus will be of interest to practising library and information professionals keen to consider critically the use of social media for the development of their services. (The full thesis is available in English to download as a pdf from the Åbo Akademi University library repository.)

It is always an honour and a pleasure to serve as an external examiner. What makes the Nordic experience special, however, is the very public nature of the defence. This is in complete contrast to the rather private and closed nature of the British PhD viva. Maria’s defence on Friday was played out over the course of just under two hours in front of an audience of about 50 colleagues, friends and family. The audience members even included a baby, who mewed gently from time to time in a pram positioned in the back row of the auditorium.

Supervisor Professor Gunilla Widén, candidate Maria Kronqvist-Berg, and the academic hat

Supervisor Professor Gunilla Widén, candidate Maria Kronqvist-Berg, and the academic hat

The defence followed a well-established timetable which began when Maria (the candidate), Professor Gunilla Widén (the candidate’s supervisor and chair of the defence) and I (as opponent) processed into the auditorium in front of the audience members, who all stood up as we walked by. In the first few minutes Gunilla opened the defence with a few words of introduction, and by placing the doctoral hat – a symbol of academic freedom – on the table at the front of the auditorium. (The use of the hat is described in more detail on the Åbo Akademi University web pages.) Then Maria gave a lecture on her work in Swedish, and I responded with a short speech of my own (in English). Once these preliminaries were concluded, we moved on to the questioning, which lasted about an hour. I first asked Maria some general questions, then we discussed the methods that she deployed for her study, and finally we considered the study’s outcomes.

For the defence I wore an Edinburgh Napier gown. There is not a tradition of academic dress in Finland, so I anticipated that the audience would be rather interested in my outfit for the afternoon. I therefore explained the history of the gown at the start of my speech, referring to its development from academic and clerical dress of the medieval universities of Europe to its ceremonial use today. This also gave me a chance to speak about the medieval Scot after whom my university is named (mathematician John Napier of Merchiston), logarithms (celebrating 400 years in 2014), and the decimal point.

Maria Kronqvist-Berg enjoys a well-deserved slice of apple cake after the successful defence of her thesis

Maria Kronqvist-Berg enjoys a well-deserved slice of apple cake after the successful defence of her thesis

After the defence there was a University reception at which tea and apple cake were served. That same evening Maria followed tradition by hosting a dinner in the honour of the opponent. Others at the meal included the candidate’s family, fellow PhD students, and colleagues from the University. The meal was fabulous. Indeed the first course of gravlax and beetroot is one of the most delicious starters that I have ever tasted. Between each course there were speeches from the candidate, her supervisor, and me. It really was a lovely occasion.

There were lots of other wonderful little moments throughout the day of Maria’s defence. I loved watching the pride of the candidate’s parents as she gave her opening presentation at the start of the formal proceedings, and witnessing her friends line up to congratulate her afterwards. I was also delighted that Dr Tuomas Harviainen, who I had met before at a Finnish conference in 2011, travelled all the way from Helsinki to watch the defence, and to hand-deliver to me a copy of his own PhD thesis Systemic perspectives on information in physically performed role play. Tuomas explained that he followed up some of the recommendations that I made to him about his doctoral studies three years ago, and these had a great influence on his final submission. One of his reasons for attending the defence was to be able to thank me for my advice in person.

The opponent's marked-up copy of the thesis and coverage of the defence in the local press

The opponent’s marked-up copy of the thesis and coverage of the defence in the local press

Something else that impressed me on Friday was how the tradition of the public defence helps with the rapid dissemination of research findings, presented in an accessible way, to the general public. Since anyone can come to listen to the defence, the University advertises it widely, and this encourages press coverage of the student’s work. For example, if you can read Swedish, do take a look at this press report. Such a system addresses the issues of the researcher-practitioner gap in domains such as library and information science, as outlined in the seminar presentation that I delivered at Åbo Akademi on Thursday.