From the Series: Being @CulAnth: Social Media as Academic Practice
Many readers have probably come across an academic organization on Twitter and Facebook. Maybe you shared it or bookmarked a piece for future reading; perhaps you chuckled or winced at the wording of an anthropology meme that flashed across your screen. In all that scrolling, did you picture who crafted the tweet and exhaled before hitting the little blue button, sending that message to you and thousands of other people? That person was likely a graduate student. In the case of the SCA’s social media presence, that graduate student was a member of the Contributing Editors’ Social Media Team (SMT), whose work consists partly of the kind in the above To Do list (and throughout this series).
In recent years, many university departments and academic organizations, such as the American Anthropological Association (AAA), have moved increasingly online. As a result, many junior scholars have worked hard to cultivate virtual spaces, particularly on social media. This is often owing to both junior scholars’ technological familiarity and the service expectations organizing academic hierarchies of comeuppance. These expectations increasingly promise the experience and connections that just might give applicants an edge in today’s precarious job market. At the SCA, this online work is largely managed by the Contributing Editors (CE) program and, for social media, the SMT. Each of the CE teams of unpaid volunteer graduate workers faces their own difficulties of recognition, compensation, and invisibility through their work writing, editing, and producing text and multimodal content. The SMT is no exception, yet we embody a sort of “oddball” status: whereas our CE counterparts might produce content that is more readily legible as academic output (be it in the form of writing or editing a podcast, written post, or multimodal content), in our regular service obligations we do not necessarily produce content or other bylines that might flesh out an academic CV. Rather, the SMT shares the work of our disciplinary colleagues and directs public-facing conversations in the discipline to others. To be sure, while there is strategic visibility and social capital that we can practice and garner each week, they are of an insubstantial nature, less discernable than a written text—what is the ephemerality of potential gains in social capital compared to an actual line on a CV? Some of us share our names in Twitter bios and announce when we log on to the accounts for a week, while others intentionally venture to avoid the risks of social media management to operate more under the radar, a ghost in the virtual machine.
In this post, we venture, in part, to make the SMT—and CE—work more visible. Alongside the other posts in this series, we seek to record an otherwise only oral history of labor by sharing the particularities of the work of the SMT based on our lived experience. Along the way, we endeavor to make sense of the place of graduate student labor within the SCA and academia more broadly. One goal of this post, therefore, is to open a glimpse into the blackbox of the SMT. As Latour described it, blackboxing refers to “the way scientific and technical work is made invisible by its own success,” like a machine with obscure inner workings (Latour 1999, 304). In attending to the technical and social labor of managing a pair of large academic social media accounts, we follow early work in Science and Technology Studies (STS) to open up the blackbox. In this post and series, we work to make the internal complexity of our labor more visible in this rich but obscured corner of open-access and public anthropology in North America.
Another goal of this piece is to provide a critical analysis of labor, especially the undervalued labor of early-career scholars. From our experiences within the SMT, we understand this labor as a noteworthy facet of the contemporary conversation on the role of academic societies, digital publishing in anthropology, and the past, present, and future of academia. We hope to provoke critical thinking on these topics of academic production, to open up questions asked from the position of our lived experience: To what extent does contemporary anthropology rely on the often invisibilized labor of graduate students and precarious scholars? How does this speak to the state of anthropology and academia? In what ways is contemporary anthropology produced at these fault lines of academic societies, social media, and invisibilized labor? What steps can be taken to ensure that this labor is concretely valuable for those who produce it?
The final goal of this piece is to contribute to an ongoing conversation about shifting expectations around professional service and to highlight the crucial roles graduate students already play in our discipline and academic organizations. Looking forward beyond a mere politics of recognition and toward a more just future in academia, several questions emerge. Do we open up the blackbox and reveal its various constructed contents and inner workings? For what purpose—to merely decry the work described herein as yet another form of invisibilized labor in academia? Do we then demand recognition for our labor as academic service, making it and other invisibilized forms of work more CV-able? To what audience do we make this demand—a chorus of ourselves, fellow CEs, @CulAnth editors, managing editors, SCA Board members, past and present, already engaged in this conversation, unable to figure out a way forward? What would it accomplish to dream bigger, to shift metrics of value in academic labor? Following Jobson (2020) and Tuck (2022), we look toward a future that understands and values its contemporary conditions of possibility, not as external to the discipline but as essential to its continued relevance, institutionally and intellectually.
The SMT is an evolving group of six to eleven graduate students from departments mostly based in the United States and Canada. Like the rest of the Contributing Editors (CE) Program, we are not academic journal interns for SCA’s open-access journal Cultural Anthropology. Instead, Contributing Editors "create, edit, and curate digital content for the SCA website and social media feeds" in the expansive Fieldsights section. Fieldsights is the digital locus of the SCA and hosts the Society’s public-facing output and its work "to catalyze the growth of nonjournal digital publishing in anthropology." As part of the CE Program, the SMT promotes and disseminates SCA publications and Cultural Anthropology journal content and translates them for our online audience of 44,000 and 48,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter, respectively.
How do we make this happen? Every four to eight weeks, each member of the SMT manages the @CulAnth Twitter and Facebook accounts for one calendar week. The role varies week-to-week according to what is happening in anthropology and beyond. Primarily we promote content that has recently been published in the Fieldsights section of the SCA’s website or in Cultural Anthropology. This involves reading the post or article, synthesizing its argument, or articulating the “hook” in a way that will interest people. We then draft the Tweet or Facebook post, find a relevant image, create the image’s alt-text, and schedule the post for publication. We then update our spreadsheet archive. If a new series is posted, we will add each post to the spreadsheet archive, including Twitter handles authors have shared, labeling each entry so other members of the team can easily access the content in the future. We log into TweetDeck, which helps us schedule posts, keep tabs on sibling accounts and posts from other contributing editors and journals, and follow trending topics. Sometimes, there will be an online event that we’ll live-tweet. Or someone might send us a question or tag us in an article they want to be promoted or respond critically to an earlier post, and we’ll be responsible for deciding what to do. We read what we’ve been pointed toward, then perhaps send a message into the group chat to see what the team thinks the best course of action would be. We also spend a fair amount of work staging and timing posts. Toward the beginning of academic semesters, we’ll post more Fieldsights’ Teaching Tools content or sample syllabi to help people design classes; on the weekend, we’ll post podcasts to help folks get away from screens. Across all these tasks, assuming the role of social media handler is a part-time job for the calendar week.
Every six to eight weeks, our team meets for a collaborative hour-long discussion facilitated by the Section Editors to deliver report-backs, including reflections and resumes of team members’ week on the accounts during the previous cycle. Stories of success and failure are exchanged (“People seem to really be loving the new X series;” “I was surprised how well that text-based joke post landed on Facebook, of all places;” “I was hoping there would be more engagement on the thread I made of CulAnth articles related to X current event”). We also share techniques for garnering more attention and engagement (likes, shares, clicks, and comments). We update each other about ongoing projects or other news (such as the status of the Handler Strategies & Ethics training materials created by several team members) and on larger happenings and communications across CE teams. Each meeting ends with summarizing the Action Items to be followed up on and each team member signing up for a new week during the next six-to-eight-week team cycle.
All told, we are not social media professionals with a large advertising budget, brand management software, or extensive analysis of analytics; our team works on a largely experience-based, deeply collaborative, and empathetic basis. Further, our work is not paid. Over the years, the SCA has hosted many conversations about how to better compensate CEs. Not unlike other academic societies and journals, the issue of the economic sustainability of the open-access model remains a pertinent one, and the SCA does not have the resources to provide monetary benefits to its CEs. This is not to say that we have not benefited from our time in the program—the position from which we operate within the Society, combined with each team member’s experience managing the accounts, provides us with a unique perspective on the role of graduate student labor and service work in contemporary anthropology and academia more broadly. We point to these dimensions of production to highlight not only the invisibility of our labor in regard to the success of SCA, but also in recognition of the long tradition of invisibilized service labor that often falls along classed, gendered, and racial lines. This is a history that includes the considerable contributions of graduate students and early career scholars.
Many graduate students and other precarious academic workers feel the weight of the expectation to take part in service work as a part of their academic training, a quid pro quo exchange predicated upon knowledge transfer and professionalization. Many (disproportionately women and particularly women of color) take on undue amounts of service work under the expectation it will help advance careers and achieve a “good life” (Berlant 2011; Guarino and Borden 2017). In some ways, this labor has always been invisible; whether it’s driving a visiting speaker from the airport to campus, ordering lunches that appear in the conference room for a departmental workshop, or soliciting and editing pieces that appear in academic blogs, graduate students are the oil that makes the machine run smoothly. Without us, academia as we know it—and the neoliberal universities that create surplus PhDs in the first place—would be unable to run.
Running social media accounts for departments, centers, and professional organizations is a somewhat unique service role that has only grown in recent years as many academic conversations have moved online. Typically, academic social media handlers are volunteer graduate students who take on the task of representing institutions with significantly fewer faculty positions than graduating students. Our job requires technical and communication expertise and is deeply reflexive—we manage both audiences and branding—but involves little to no training on what it means to run a “successful” social media account or craft an institutional identity online. As described elsewhere in this series, representing an organization like the SCA is an exercise in bricolage: handlers rely on their creativity and whatever is at hand to craft effective presences and messaging that will speak to our audience. Our practices and ethics are not handed down but instead collectively honed by CEs over the past decade. Questions about how often we post, what language we use, and how we quickly respond to conflicts or crises are works-in-progress that we as a team answer together.
Ultimately, cultivating an academic community on Twitter and Facebook has not only driven traffic to the SCA website but also created a significant locus of reproduction for the Society and the journal’s branding and prestige as a relevant part of contemporary and open-access academia globally.
This collaborative dance is work. Everyone on our team has dedicated countless unwaged hours spotlighting the boundary-pushing scholarship the SCA publishes and making the Society’s social media presence what it is today. However, in similar ways that digital anthropology is still less extensively understood and not taken seriously by traditionalists as proper fieldwork, social media curation is rarely recognized as academic production in the same manner as a more enduring or individualistic output such as a Fieldsights post or Cultural Anthropology article. (How does one put “impacted disciplinary conversations” or “made an anthropology meme with thousands of retweets” on a CV?) Such responsiveness and ephemerality have helped build welcoming, trans-institutional #AnthroTwitter communities, but they are precisely the reason the people behind these accounts remain largely out of sight.
Ultimately, cultivating an academic community on Twitter and Facebook has not only driven traffic to the SCA website but also created a significant locus of reproduction for the Society and the journal’s branding and prestige as a relevant part of contemporary and open-access academia globally. In their early 2022 call for applications for a Digital Curatorial Collective (DCC) to further develop the Society’s online output, the SCA Board wrote: “Our digital content has helped catalyze the production and dissemination of anthropological knowledge and is now a central component of SCA’s contribution to the discipline.” A large part of the Society’s continued relevance, academic “cool factor,” and disciplinary experimentation has arguably been due to its online presence, the content largely produced and publicized by CEs.
Without diminishing any of the immense time, effort, and labor of the editors, staff, and Board members who have worked to initiate and sustain the journal’s commitment to open-access publishing, the open-access venture of Cultural Anthropology benefits immensely from the often more political and experimental website content of the Society. This content is not ostensibly journal output, and yet the two are, in the minds of many readers, inextricably linked. The work of the SMT, as described above, occurs within the context of a dynamic, ongoing discourse on the future of open-access academic publishing, what should count in terms of academic output for hiring and tenure decisions, and the continued relevance of academic societies.
Where do we go from here? Staying with the tension signaled in this post’s introduction between enacting a politics of recognition and striving beyond it, can we ask, following Eve Tuck: What is our theory of change these days? Tuck enumerates: “The default theory of change in settler colonial racial capitalism is that if we document the damage, get enough people to pay attention to it, then together our voices will convince so and so (who is in charge) to give up power and resources” (2022). The question of who, exactly, is in charge here to petition is an open, complicated one: the SCA CE program exists within a financial context of open access, an institutional context of distributed academic service, and a structural context of a profit-oriented and neoliberal university system. Instead, what would it mean to collectively incorporate the labor described here into the discipline in a way that ultimately shifts its norms and practices?
CE labor can open a space for thinking about disciplinary reproduction outside of typical conceptions of academic work and success. Those of us on the SMT have crafted a relational ethic with a political goal to serve as a foundation of a more just system of academic labor. Our work is enriching because it strives toward a better future of labor practices based on relations and collective uplifting. Our work moves away from individualist Lone Ethnographer models of knowledge production and other labor practices based on neoliberal academic self-presentation and branding while recognizing a reliance on them. Anthropology is already an exercise in collaboratively thinking about and with the world around us. What would it look like if anthropologists strove to create a system that is equitable for all by bringing this ethos and critical consciousness into all the work we do in the academy, online or otherwise?
Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Guarino, Cassandra. M., and Victor M. H. Borden. “Faculty Service Loads and Gender: Are Women Taking Care of the Academic Family?” Research in Higher Education 58, no. 6: 672–94.
Jobson, Ryan Cecil. 2020. “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn: Sociocultural Anthropology in 2019.” American Anthropologist 122, no. 2: 259–71.
Latour, Bruno. 1999. Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Tuck, Eve. 2022. “What Is Your Theory of Change These Days?” Invitations Toward Re-Worlding (blog).