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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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This is a re-publication of a post originally written for the Vitae blog's Digital Researcher section, archived here for preservation purposes. Image credit: leezfield under a CC-BY-NC-SA license.

Much of the rubric surrounding social media is, to my mind, somewhat de-humanising. I don't particularly want to think of people I might meet, through online or offline networking, as social “capital”; mere items who might bring “value” or “use” to me. That said, I have encountered many interesting individuals who have – through a symbiotic relationship – enhanced my research, public engagement and outreach through the use of blogging, Twitter and social citation sharing.

Each of these areas has, of course, its own uses and abuses. Twitter can degenerate into a life-stream of little interest to anybody else; blogs can sprawl into endless outpourings of esoteric content with limited appeal; and social citation sharing, particularly in the humanities, can fall flat if nobody else in your field is involved. That said, perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate the value of each is through an example case study of where I have found them useful.

To begin with blogging, it's fair to say that I have a strange readership demographic. A DPhil in English Literature, I also publish on computer programming and the intersection of the two. To this day, my most read article is a step-by-step guide for obtaining root privileges on the HTC Wildfire Android phone. However, this “most read” piece was not that which yielded the most engagement, by which I mean genuine response and feedback. This accolade is jointly shared by a piece I wrote on David Foster Wallace and suicide, in response to a London Review of Books article, a series of posts on a conference I attended and a guide to beginning the works of Thomas Pynchon. The first elicited a direct response from the author of the original piece, who generously debated the points with me in off-site email communication and a subsequent invitation to meet in London to talk, at some future point, about collaborative writing. The second was much cited in mailing lists devoted to the author in question and also earned me many grateful brownie points from conference delegates whose notes were not of the same calibre. Finally, the last is frequently cited on Twitter among those wishing to know where to start with a “difficult” novelist and I have a handful of followers in this field who re-tweet it at will.

Twitter, the obvious next example from this list, has also proved invaluable. In addition to the excellent weekly #phdchat support network, as a result of tweeting my interest in Pynchon and my blog posts on this topic, I am now in touch with an individual outside academia with whom I am organizing a public engagement event (or “culture jamming festival” as we pretentiously call it!) in which Pynchonian artefacts are to be distributed and documented online on the author's birthday. I would have been extremely unlikely to have found someone outside of academia with this interest in a physical setting. In the programming field, my Mendeley client for Android – still at an early stage – attracted the attention of the official Mendeley team, through Twitter, with whom I have now had a conference call to discuss how the project can move forward.

The final area under consideration, social citation sharing, is a growing field (for me, at least). Until there is a critical mass, it's not truly useful for my actual literary research work. That said, I have met interesting individuals from a host of fields and the strange fusion of trans-disciplinary contexts provide new enabling-constraints under which to consider my work. It is for this reason that I am keen to get platforms, such as Mendeley, onto mobile devices where they can more usefully fulfill their social role.

To end with a brief piece of advice: it can be daunting when setting out to “use” social networking; too many profiles to maintain, too little expectation of result. It's a trial and error process. Try each system for a short while and see how it goes. Only use those areas that actually work for you, safe in the knowledge that you can always try them again at a later stage if everybody starts raving about them. It's certainly true that you meet strange people online. In my experience, though, they are sometimes the most interesting.