I was lucky enough to get to write a short piece for the Guardian Higher education section on working as an anonymous academic online – which you can read here:
However, there were things which didn’t make the edit, so I’ve posted below the original unedited version.
For many academics it may seem that the rise of social media is yet another means of potential procrastination. Yet increasingly, certain academics have turned to social media not just as a way of accessing entertainment or as a tool for networking but as a means of engaging audiences in a brand new way. Perhaps the most famous and well-known is @NeinQuarterly, an anonymous account that blends aphorisms, jokes and an expert level knowledge of German literature and culture to produce a fascinating and hugely popular account. Started by a former professor of German literature, @NeinQuarterly’s unique aphoristic and satirical style now appears in print in German and Dutch newspapers and last year saw the publication of Nein: A Manifesto, a book collecting his finest material that’s been published in multiple languages. On Youtube there is aside from John and Hank Green’s famous ‘Crash Course,’ PhilosophyTube, an account started from nothing just a few years ago that now has around 60,000 subscribers following their videos on Masters level philosophy.
Personally, my own anonymous account started for far less career-minded reasons. Having finished my Master’s degree and with a twitter account that I didn’t really use, I decided to dedicate it to talking about the thinkers and ideas that had intrigued me during Masters study and provoked me into applying for a PhD. I decided to cover literary theorists and critics who had been only briefly touched upon during my undergraduate degree. However, after starting the account I was convinced it would be largely ignored yet after tweeting to a few more widely followed accounts it picked up a surprising number of engaged and highly curious followers. Almost immediately, issues such as a posting schedule, what to talk about and even the limits of my own knowledge became something that had to be dealt with. With a vocal and supportive group of followers I was forced to honest about my own limitations, my own inexperience and allow myself to discover the liberating freedom of telling followers that I don’t know, that I would love to know more about something, (something almost unthinkable in the high pressure environment of PhD research). The pressures of normal life meant that often the account became deeply personal as well as something academic and this seemed to only further the connection between me and the great groups of people who followed the account.
On top of this, anonymity comes with certain benefits that using social media with a name and a face doesn’t carry. From behind the “persona” of TheLitCritGuy my opinions don’t need to be run against what my institution or its managers might deem to be acceptable. Anonymity also allows the freedom for a kind of character to emerge. Behind anonymity anger at the conditions of higher education for ECRs and students can be expressed more forcefully, and I also get to mash up jokes with theory without worrying colleagues will take me less seriously.
For academics who wish to take to social media and use it in a way beyond networking or sharing cat videos there are no sure fire way of doing things, but in the course of my own experiment there are a few things that I’ve found to have worked.
Firstly, have a distinctive voice. Anonymous accounts do not necessarily have a name or a face, but they depend upon having a distinctive perspective to offer. From Twitter the pseudonymous accounts @EthicistForHire and @CrankyEthicist from the name alone, immediately offers potential followers an insight into their account and what they are like. Secondly, have a purpose. One of the most successful anonymous accounts in #AcademicTwitter, @AcademicsSay posts collections of jokes that connect really strongly with academics – jokes about coffee, about being overworked and the ever present catchphrase that ‘you should be writing.’ These highly sharable posts always keep the account highly focused and with a clear sense of purpose allowing it to grow to being followed by hundreds of thousands of people.
Thirdly, find your audience. Rather than just post into the void, the best academic accounts use the tools of social media to find an interested audience. Most notably, there are hashtags like #twitterstorians, where historians post and organise their thoughts, allowing an audience who want to engage with historians to find them. I always try and organize my own posting under #TheoryTime, allowing followers to keep up with what I’m talking about and catch up on topics they may have missed. Fourth, expand. Whilst my own twitter account was successful I quickly encountered the limitations of the form. I decided to expand my account into a research blog, as well as using the platform I built on twitter to write on new websites, bringing @TheLitCritGuy to a much wider audience.
Finally, connect. Whilst people follow an account or watch a Youtube channel to gain knowledge, using social media allows for academia to become more personally relatable – rather than a hierarchy of a teacher with students, twitter becomes a space of conversation and mutual education. Whilst I try and keep the important details of my life private from my account, a few personal details, personal opinions and replies to followers makes the account more vibrant, more interesting and much more fun for those following.
It is this that makes anonymous accounts so effective too – outside of the structures, rules and roles of university networking, the anonymous account can become a place where academic researchers get to connect directly with an audience. Impact becomes something more than just a metric as people get to connect with academics beyond the realm of university organised public engagement events. Furthermore, this use of social media allows the public to see what life as an academic can be like, in all of its good and bad points. Behind the anonymity of a nameless, faceless account I’ve shared some of the struggles of being an early career researcher, news about the state of the wider UK HE environment and the sheer joy of teaching as well as sharing and talking about my own research and intellectual passions. Whilst anonymous accounts bring a certain degree of freedom there is the pressing awareness that my account won’t necessarily benefit my career within the university system. However, as more academics take to social media, using anonymous accounts allows for a new kind of creative, flexible academic to emerge, more closely linked with the public, rather than embedded within the ivory towers of the university system. I’ve received countless tweets, Facebook messages, and emails from people across the world, who, through various pressures felt they couldn’t pursue their own passion for literature and theory – needing a job, or dealing with their children they feel like they’ve missed out on a swathe of knowledge and it’s a genuine privilege to answer the questions and learn from them. Whether it be emailing economists about Foucault or letting a nursing student know more about phenomenology using social media has shown me that beyond the limits of the university classroom, people are curious and searching for new ways to be engaged and to learn. Social media can change how we teach and spread knowledge beyond the limits of the university and through anonymity academics might well find the freedom to connect with the public like never before.