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

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.

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5 Responses to “The Joy of Blogs (and Tweets): Why Academics should take Social Media seriously”
  1. Hi Duncan. Just cross-posting this comment from the original. There’s an article by Rohan Maitzen from 2012 called ‘Scholarship 2.0: Blogging and/as Academic Practice’ in the Journal of Victorian Culture, which shows how broad the disciplinary debate is about blogging. I just wanted to highlight two prescient points she makes that aren’t covered here in the same terms:

    1. “Academic publishing proceeds glacially; I have learned the stimulation of immediacy.” This falls between reasons 3 and 4, I think. It was commonly argued a few years ago that blogging eschewed the hallowed process of peer-review and that it compromised new ideas once they were brought into the public. The value of the counter-argument – that blogging allows you to time-stamp and publish ideas first while academic publishing crawls along – was never shouted so vociferously.

    2. Knowing what blogging is and what is isn’t. She says “Perhaps I sound like an evangelist for blogging as the ‘scholarship of the future’. I am not. I do not think every academic should blog, and I certainly do not think blogging should replace all the other ways in which we carry on our work as intellectuals and educators. Blogging will neither suit nor serve every academic nor every academic purpose. I am convinced, though, that academic blogging can and should have an acknowledged place in the overall ecology of scholarship. It does contribute – and should be recognized as contributing – to both the intellectual and the institutional goals of our universities.”

    Amen to that.

  2. Nanci Lee

    I couldn’t agree more! In fact, your blog has changed my approach to writing and publishing. I’m an active volunteer in my community. Instead of waiting to publish through the organizations with which I am working (my old process), I write more for local and indie media. Was just talking with folks in some of the food cooperative work we are doing that we can start a blog featuring an exciting food initiative to get folks excited about buying locally.

    Something I’ve found quite fascinating and frustrating is how very difficult it can be to bring some of the academic work and thinking around systems and power, inter-sectionality etc to the neighbourhood. What are we losing? If I can’t explain it to my 87 year old father, then it’s overwritten and over-jargoned. We really need to change the way we write and publish. Make it more like dialogue. Shorter. Clearer. More often.

  3. As much as I agree with you, Duncan, on the overall sentiment of why academics should blog, I find your post a bit too much focused on questions of ‘impact’ in the context of academic economics blogging.
    Now approaching 400 posts, my blog has become an essential part of my academic identity, including academic research that focuses on development blogging ( and how social media engages with development debates. There are many more nuances to academia and social media use in the context of international development and it has become an important platform for the ‘industry’

  4. Athayde Motta

    Based on everything that I have read and studied recently on digital marketing, blogging not only “indents” you faster and farther in the digital public sphere, but it also allows you to raise issues in the public conversation. I need to do some experimentation here, but my hypothesis is that if a bunch of academics (or development practitioners, for that matter) blog about a series of issues or topics for, let’s say, a month, said topic will appear more frequently in searches, wordclouds and so on. It could eventually become trending in certain niches. Getting a topic or theme noted in the public sphere is not new, but it takes a lot more time and resources if it’s done through papers, scientific journals(and it’s offspring, development journals), conferences and so on. Blogging has the potential to speed up the process without major losses in content.

  5. If I may one more small comment. Blogging and more iterative “publishing” is also really underrated and under-utilized as networking and learning tools for organizations. Practitioners can immediately engage in dialogue with peers around what they are doing, get feedback. This comes back to doing development differently- our collective ability to adapt and learn.