One academic online

Alex Marsh School for Policy Studies University of Bristol

February 2014

One academic online As part of an event introducing social media to members of academic staff I was asked to come along and act as one of two live case studies. The aim was to illustrate the possibilities and highlight some of the issues. The organizers suggested we each address the same set of questions. We offered very different perspectives. This is an elaboration on the answers I gave on the day. 1. Why did I start using social media?

The short answer is curiosity and annoyance. I was stuck at home with the flu after the 2010 General Election. I spent several days lying on the sofa watching the extended speculation over the coalition negotiations. To fill airtime while nothing very public was happening every now and then the news correspondents would summarize what was happening in the blogosphere and the Twitterverse. I realised I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. That piqued my interest. So I resolved to find out. I quickly discovered that in the field of politics, which relates to my academic interests, there was a vast and vibrant online world of opinion, debate and discussion of which I was entirely ignorant. The annoyance followed some of the early pronouncements by David Cameron. I was deeply irritated by some of his early speeches, particularly the way in which they caricatured the public sector. It was clear, even very early on, that something was afoot. The Government was aiming to turn a problem created in the private sector into a weapon to attack the public sector. It was also clear that the direction and tone of political discourse was shifting. I suppose I could have restricted my response to shouting and throwing things at the television, or moaned to friends down the pub. Instead I wrote a thousand or so words setting out what I thought Cameron was doing and where I thought he was wrong. But I didn’t really have anywhere to put them once they were finished. That led me to think about blogging. I discussed this at greater length here. 2. How did I get started?

I set up my Twitter account in May 2010. Setting up an account is easy. It is equally easy to avoid following celebrities tweeting about what they had for dinner and all that sort of thing. That is one of the clichés offered by non-Twitter users who are against the whole idea. Knowing what to do with a Twitter account is a bit harder. I started by following a few newspapers, blogs, political organisations, Think Tanks and politicians. I followed a few people that I knew in real life who I discovered had Twitter accounts. I don’t think at that stage any of them were academics. A few followed me back. 1

You then accumulate followers over time. You can do so by retweeted interesting posts, curating interesting content and interacted with other users. I have accumulated followers relatively slowly. After nearly four years I have about 1,250 followers. In Twitter terms that isn’t many. I know people who joined much later and now have two or three times as many followers. There do seem to be thresholds. There is a rule of thumb that 1,500 followers is a threshold for a serious Twitter presence. After that point a user can start to pick up followers quite rapidly. This can no doubt be explained as some sort of network effect. When I started blogging I didn’t have my own blog. Setting up and maintaining a blog seemed like quite a big commitment. My first three or four posts were submitted to large multi-authored politics sites. This has the advantage that you reach a ready-made audience. So your writing gets noticed, at least a little, by tens of thousands of people straight away. It was only once I’d started to get a bit of a feel for online writing that I decided to set up my own blog. I set up the blog initially as a repository for posts first published elsewhere (hence “Archives”), but the balance changed quite quickly so that the majority of my online writing first appears on my blog. 3. Which tools do I use?

The core of my online presence is my blog and my twitter account (@shodanalexm).

I started my blog using the free blogging platform at But I moved after a year to a self-hosted blog. This was for two reasons. First, it means I don’t have to carry adverts over which I have no control (although for an annual fee you can switch the adverts off at Second, allows access to greater functionality. There are some technical things you can’t do on which you can do on When I moved the blog I registered it with its own domain name Strictly speaking that doesn’t require a move, you can do it as a redirect at, again for an annual fee.


Every time I publish a new blog post I tweet about it. You can set the blogging software to send a tweet automatically, but I don’t do that. I tweet manually using Tweetbutton so I can add commentary and one or more hashtags. I may well send further tweets notifying my followers of the post, in which case I may schedule them in advance. I don’t feel it is a great idea to send out a lot of tweets about the same blogpost, or several notifications in quick succession. That risks becoming annoying. I usually send it out three tweets for each post, with at least a three hour gap between them. I have tried all sorts of third party twitter clients as well as Twitter’s own software. These have included Tweetdeck, Janetter, Tweetcaster, Hootsuite – for PC and for Android. I don’t really use Tweetdeck for PC anymore but I do use Tweetdeck for web occasionally. Tweetcaster for Android would be perfect for most things, except that the most recent upgrades seem to have made it very buggy. I use all the others quite regularly because they have different strengths and weaknesses. I use Hootsuite for posting to Facebook and Google+ as well as Twitter. It is useful for scheduling posts and tweets. My full social media set up is almost certainly unnecessarily elaborate. That is in part because when I hear about a new piece of software I will often try it out for a bit. And it is in part because I am a bit of a nerd and like messing about with computers – although not really in too serious a way – my html coding is utterly feeble, for example. Here are the main components of my current social media set up. This includes the podcast series – Policy Unpacked – that I started in December 2013. This is intended to give the blog a new dimension. I also fancied trying something different.


Lots of people visit my blog directly, but you can see that there is also a route in from my University webpage through my personal website (which runs on joomla! rather than wordpress). That is not all the tools I use. My blog has links to my LinkedIn account and my flickr account. I link my flickr account to Twitter and Facebook using IFTT, which is a great automation tool that I probably don’t use enough. I also use Buffer now and again to schedule posts – usually retweets - to Twitter. I continue to use for a blog called Alex Marsh Newsfeed. This isn’t a freestanding blog. It provides the content that is then imported, via a module called Wordbridge, into the news page of my website. This is a no-cost solution to creating a dynamic newspage. The alternative is running the wordpress extension within joomla, and that requires paying a significant annual fee. As you can see, I’m not great at keeping this newsfeed up to date.


The impact of social media on my academic role

As I explained in a post at the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog last year, I think of myself as an academic who blogs rather than an academic blogger. That means that I don’t constrain myself to blogging about things that are directly relevant to my research. I touch on a range of areas where I have some feel for the literature and the arguments, but I could not credibly claim any depth of expertise. I won’t blog about something I know nothing about. Much of my blogging is op-ed commentary on contemporary UK politics and policy. But I also discuss new research or recent reports from government, select committees or think 4

tanks; review books; write up presentations that I don’t think I’m going to turn into papers; and occasionally write up slightly speculative ideas. Sometimes I reflect upon blogging as an activity. I never write posts that discuss life working in higher education, which seems to be what quite a lot of academics blog about. Most of my academic work relates to housing markets, contemporary UK housing policy and the welfare state. I do some work on local governance. Blogging about these issues makes academic commentary more accessible to non-academic audiences. These are people in the worlds of policy and practice who wouldn’t have the time or necessarily the inclination to head to the academic journals. They may not have access to the relevant material in the academic journals, even if they wanted to. As a result of blogging I get invited reasonably regularly to contribute to policy and practice events at both local and national level. I am invited to participate in the strategy and policy making processes for individual local authorities or housing associations by writing briefing papers or making presentations. I also get more invitations to take part in radio programmes and I have been contacted by programmes like BBC’s Today programme as a direct consequence of their researchers reading my blog posts. I am followed by a number of broadsheet journalists, both on Twitter and on the blog. At a more practical day to day level, I work on policy and most of the key organisations – government departments, think tanks, research funders - now pump out vast amounts of information via Twitter. In the old days you had to visit the various individual sites or read news digests to discover when new reports had been published, for example. Now you can gather much of that material, or notifications about its publication, automatically. Similarly, journals, book publishers, learned societies are all circulating relevant information on Twitter. You can gather some of this type of information through setting up email alerts, but you can do much of it through Twitter instead. I would say that I am now certainly better informed about developments in the real world policy arenas that I engage with than I was before the advent of social media. And I am informed almost in real-time, rather than weeks or months after the event. 5. Challenges when getting involved in social media

The first big challenge when blogging is learning to write differently. Long, convoluted sentences in chunky paragraphs may, possibly, work on the printed page. But they are difficult to read on screen, particularly as many people access blogs on mobile devices. You have to write more directly and less passively. How big a challenge this represents will most likely depend on disciplinary norms. Some social scientists may have a long way to travel from a heavily-ingrained ornate and impenetrable style to something a little more digestible.


A related challenge is length. Conventional wisdom says that a blogpost should be somewhere around 600-700 words. I tend to write posts around 1,000-1,200 words, which is probably a shade too long. Some academics would start from the view that you can’t say anything sensible in 700 words. That isn’t the case. But writing concisely is an art. And learning that a blog post can be crafted from one or two key points, rather than great wodges of material, takes a bit of time. I’m still learning. Those are technical challenges associated with writing for a new medium. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is finding an audience. When you start blogging you are shouting into a void. No one is going to discover your blog automatically. You’ve got to draw people’s attention to it. It is also important to think about the reputational risks, to yourself and your institution, of social media activity. To be honest, the reputational risks are relatively low if you restrict your social media activity to summarizing your research; reviewing books; or advertising new academic publications, conferences or other events. If you are applying similar standards of care to the posts as you would if they were on paper then the biggest risk probably comes in how you deal with any comments on your posts. It is when you stray into areas such as offering op-ed commentary that you need to be more careful. Are you offering shoot-from-the-hip opinions or carefully-reasoned evidence-based arguments? Is there a danger that you are offering the former, while as a consequence of your position they may be read as the latter? There is hot water here that you may end up in. I write quite a lot of op-ed blogposts. Quite a lot of them are, I guess, quite rude about politicians (of all sides). I am interested in good quality policy making. I am interested in highlighting the inconsistencies, the hypocrisy, the obfuscation and the incoherence of some policy positions adopted and proposals offered. I try to do so on the basis of evidence, where I can. But in some case the application of basic logic is sufficient to demonstrate the absurdity of a situation. Critiquing politicians can perhaps come across as rude. But I don’t think that rudene ss is gratuitous. Some of the feeble stuff offered up by politicians deserves to be treated extremely sharply indeed. But equally we should be willing to give credit where it is due. There are challenges of time when joining the online world. Social media can take up a lot of time, if you let it. Politics is the largest and most competitive corner of the blogosphere. There are literally hundreds of interesting blogs vying for attention. You could spend your life simply trying to absorb the information. There are no doubt plenty of interesting blogs relevant to other academic fields, not to mention all the material now generated online by conventional journals or news sources.


There is a constant stream of material flowing through Twitter. Some of it is dross, but much of is it interesting. You have to learn to be selective. As soon as you follow more than a few people you will not be able to read everything on your timeline. I haven’t calculated it very precisely but the people I follow (I currently follow 950) probably generate somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000 tweets a day, depending on what’s happening politically. You cannot sensibly try to look at all that. Someone, and I can’t remember who, once said that Twitter is like having a conversation in the pub. If you are sat at a table with your friends and you get up to go to the loo when you return you don’t ask everyone to repeat everything that they said while you were away. You rejoin the conversation where it is. If something really interesting happened while you were away then someone will probably want to recount it to you anyway. Twitter is an ever-flowing stream that you dip in and out of, for as much or as little time as you want to spare. There are challenges of timing. Blogging and tweeting have their own rhythms. You can learn by participation. There is, for example, little point tweeting about a blogpost at 3pm. Very few people are looking at Twitter then. I tend to tweet notifications of my blogposts around 8am, around lunchtime and around 5.30pm. These are the times when people are more likely to be looking at Twitter on the journey to and from work, for example. It is difficult to predict when you will catch people’s attention. Sometimes you get few hits in response to the first couple of tweets but the third one will catch attention and it will gather momentum – other users will start retweeting your blogpost to their followers. In contrast sometimes almost all the activity follows the first tweet and the later tweets disappear into the void. There isn’t much point publishing a blogpost late afternoon on a Friday. Many would say post Monday to Thursday and avoid posting on the weekend. I would say posting early in the morning works best. It can, though, depend on the topic and the timing. The post on my blog with the most hits in a single day – about voting on the NHS Bill back in 2012 - was posted late on a Saturday night and got those hits on a Sunday. There are social media analysis tools, of varying degrees of utility, that can help to understand the dynamics of your audience. They can analyse things like which of your tweets had the greatest reach, which times of day large numbers of your followers tend to be online, when the best time to tweet is to reach the maximum number of people. I’m thinking of tools like SocialBro or Crowdbooster. You have to be fairly serious about your social media marketing strategy to get involved with that type of thing. 6. Things to think about

How will you get your message out? Twitter is one way of trying to build an audience for your blog. You can tweet about each new blog post as it is published. But that requires that you have some followers to tweet to. 7

You can tweet to a hashtag so that those interested in your area (in my case, for example, #ukhousing or #welfarereform) may come across your blogpost even if they don’t follow you. You can tweet a link to a post directly to individuals who you think might be interested, although that isn’t always well received if they don’t already know/follow you. If they like the blogpost they might start following you. You can leave a comment on someone else’s blogpost on the similar topic and include the url for your blogpost. But there is a risk that including a link in a comment sometimes sets off the blog’s spam filter and your comment is sent to moderation. Usually that isn’t a problem if it is only one link. Aggregators are an important way of getting your blog some profile. Getting your blog included in an aggregator on a particular topic – for example there is an aggregator for bloggers who blog about public services – means that your blogposts get included in among others on similar topics. So they may well come to the attention of people who share your interests. My blog is in three aggregators (that I am aware of), including one for bloggers based in Bristol. You usually have to submit your blog for consideration by the manager of the aggregator. If accepted, they’ll set up an RSS feed from your blog so that your posts automatically appear in among all the others in the aggregator as they are published. The blogosphere’s approach to intellectual property is unfamiliar As academics we are very alive to the issue of intellectual property. The whole debate about open access means it is particularly high profile at the moment. Most of the material published in the blogosphere is published under a Creative Commons license, which as a minimum allows sharing with attribution. It is quite common for an individual blogpost to appear on more than one site. I’ve had the same post appear in four different places. If someone approaches me and asks whether they can reblog one of my posts then I almost always say yes. The post is then reposted to their site in its original form under my name, with a link back to the original post on my site. This is one way for your ideas and arguments to reach a broader audience. My posts have been reblogged to places like Guerilla Policy, Democratic Audit, Pieria, and the LSE US Politics blog. There is a (modest) role for repurposing content Blogging is a fairly immediate medium, particularly for political comment. If you want to blog in response to a political development then generally you have to do so within 24 hours or so of whatever it is you want to comment on. There is little point blogging about it a fortnight later – the agenda will have moved on and your post will most likely sink without a trace.


It may be that in other fields the urgency is not quite so great. But it is worth thinking about timeliness. This can mean that you have to make space to write something on a topic now, rather than later, if you are going to write something at all. Most blogposts get most of their hits within a couple of days of being published. You’ll pick up a few more hits over time, sometimes for months. It depends on the shelf-life of the content. My three most popular posts are about the use of maths in economics, the future challenges facing housing associations, and why people find Owen Jones so annoying. These are all topics of ongoing relevance and they are picking up hits months after they were originally published. They are also all examples of the importance of hitting on a good title for a blogpost. Most academic bloggers writing about research will be offering material that is likely to be of ongoing relevance. But it doesn’t detract from the fact that such material can rapidly become buried in the blog archive as the new posts roll on. To test whether it is possible to sustain an audience for some of this material – to keep the arguments alive for longer - I occasionally publish thematic collections of my blogposts. I bring them together and turn them into books of essays. This is then turned into a pdf file. They are posted on and embedded into a post on my blog. I have published five such collections so far. They have attracted differing levels of interest. The most successful has been The Policy Con Is On: Welfare and Workfare in Cameron’s Britain. This has so far had around 1,000 hits on Scribd and a further 700 embedded reads on my blog. I have had positive feedback from readers who like the fact that you can download to tablet or e-reader and read the posts offline. Regularity and flow The best way to build an audience for a blog is to post regularly. In the politics and policy field that is not too much of a challenge because there are regular new events that you can respond to. The main constraint is time. But in other areas there needs to be some thought given to how to sustain a regular flow of posts. There are any number of research projects that start up a companion blog with an introductory post but then fall silent because they spend the next year collecting data and don’t have much to say to the world. There is something here about thinking through what sorts of things it is possible and sensible to blog about. It may be that there is a role for reflections on process and progress rather than restricting posts to reporting on results and outputs. There is also something about how much material is needed to form the basis of a blogpost. Perfectly sensible and useful blogposts can be built on the back of fragments of information, 9

passing observations and rather speculative or provisional ideas. But for some academics that may feel too insubstantial a basis for releasing your thoughts out into the wild. It may also refer back to reputational concerns. You don’t want to say something provisional that you’ll later regret. That is clearly a valid concern, but it is one that I think can managed if a blogger makes it clear what the status of the material is when publishing it. Selective content When moving into social media – particularly blogging – there can be a need to make more complex judgements about how you use material. For example, I will post a summary of a talk that I have given if that is the end of the road: it is unlikely that I have the time or inclination to develop the idea further. But if I think there is something of interest and substance in a talk that I will want to develop further – perhaps to form part of the argument of a journal article - then I will probably not blog it. That is particularly the case if it is joint work. You don’t want to upset collaborators unduly by prematurely releasing key ideas or findings on your blog without their knowledge or agreement. To give a quick example, last weekend I gave a joint paper at a workshop and I am pretty sure that at the heart of that paper there is quite a good idea. The paper was a preliminary version of the argument and we are giving a more advanced version in a couple of months’ time. But I can see that there would be a really nice blogpost of about 1,000 words summarizing the core idea. However, I won’t write one because I want to develop the argument more fully for more formal publication. What I might do in this situation – although probably not in this case – is write a blogpost which takes a step back and say something like “here’s an issue, this is the problem, what we need is a solution”, knowing full well that I already have an idea of the solution that I am going to propose. That way you can continue to post material relevant to the academic debates, but you aren’t giving the game away. Conversely, there have been ideas and arguments that have started in a couple of blogposts that I have later taken and reworked, embedded more explicitly in the academic literature, and turned into a section for a journal paper. There are plenty of possible permutations. Ethos and approach When you start out in social media you have to decide for yourself what sort of ethos you are going to adopt. As I said above, I made a conscious decision not to style myself an “academic blogger”, rather I am a blogger who happens to be an academic. Online I tend to emphasize the “blogger” part of that. I don’t deny that I am an academic, I just don’t declare my position 10

very overtly. That is because I didn’t see myself getting involved in social media as an extension of my university role but as part of my broader interest in politics and policy. Others, for example, make sure they have Dr or Prof in their Twitter handle. My handle actually comes from my karate grade. This also means that I don’t feel constrained to tweet exclusively on topics that relate to my academic interests. I do tweet on such topics, but I tweet about all sorts of other stuff, including the entirely trivial. That is, I think, one reason why my Twitter follower count has not grown particularly rapidly. People follow me after a blogpost about some pressing policy issue or about economic methodology or some other weighty topic, only to discover that I tweet about all sorts of other stuff. So they unfollow. That’s fine. My Twitter account isn’t a ‘corporate’ account. It doesn’t identify me as part of the University. I am, though, conscious that several senior members of the University follow me, so I never tweet anything that I would be unhappy for the “the University” to see. It seems to me that most academics adopt a much more focused approach and keep their tweeting rather more ‘on topic’ and ‘on message’. That’s fine too. It can be a way of retaining followers because everything you tweet is relevant. Start by dipping a toe in the water To be a successful individual blogger can be quite hard work – not that I’m claiming I’m particularly successful. Unless you are very lucky it can take time – typically measured in months and years, rather than days and weeks – to build an audience. Posting regularly is a commitment to carve out the time every month or, ideally, every week. I try to post about ten times a month. So that needs to be fitted in amongst everything else. Blogging also requires that you make headspace to think about writing in a different way. And it requires somewhat more complex deliberation about the outlets for your ideas – what can go on the blog, what doesn’t go on the blog because you’re saving it for something more substantial, what can be taken from the blog and developed into something else. For those who are not sure they want to take the plunge a less demanding route in to this world is to contribute to a multi-authored blog. I started with a multi-authored politics blog, but there are now plenty of similar blogs aimed at the academic community. I have published two or three posts at The Conversation UK, of which the University of Bristol is a founding supporter. It takes contributions from across the academic disciplines. I have published at LSE British Politics & Policy, as well as the LSE Impact of Social Sciences. There are sites like Democratic Audit that take a substantial proportion of their posts from academics. At the University there are blogs associated with the Cabot Institute or PolicyBristol. Those are the ones that I have had some contact with. They are all keen to publish good quality content.


There is very probably a similar selection of outlets in your own field. So it may be worth exploring these sorts of opportunities to see whether this might be something for you.


About the author Alex Marsh is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bristol. He has been Head of the School for Policy Studies since 2007. Alex’s research and writing has encompassed a wide range of topics in the fields of housing studies, public policy and regulation. Between 2005 and 2009 Alex has been managing editor of Housing Studies, the leading international academic journal in the field. He continues as a member of the journal’s Management Board. Alex worked part-time as a Visiting Academic Consultant to the Public Law team at the Law Commission between 2006 and 2010. His work with the Commission addressed compliance issues in the private rented sector and systems of redress against public bodies. Between 2004 and 2012 Alex was a trustee of Brunelcare, a Bristol-based charity providing housing, care and support for older people. For six years he chaired Brunelcare's Audit and Scrutiny Committee. In October 2013 he joined the board of Curo Group as a Non-Executive Director.

The material in this note is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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