Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of posts focused on environmental humanities and public engagement. These posts emerged from a workshop held at Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Nexus Centre for Humanities and Social Science Research in May 2018 called, “Environmental Humanities in the Public Realm.” Click here to read the entire series.
In May 2018, I had the opportunity to give two presentations on social media at the “Environmental Humanities in the Public Realm” workshop held by the Nexus Centre at Memorial University. In the first presentation, I provided the workshop’s student participants with some practical advice about starting and managing their own online presence. In the second presentation, I focused on my own personal philosophy behind my academic social media presence and the feminist and social justice theories that drive this philosophy. This post will focus primarily on the latter.
I have served as NiCHE’s social media editor since June 2014 (nearly five years!!). When I initially began the position I was in charge of NiCHE’s presence on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. I still manage NiCHE’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, but we phased out our Google+ presence and navigated the third branch of our social media trifecta over to Instagram.
There are two main aspects of my work at NiCHE. First, are the technical and practical aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, having a thorough understanding of how hashtags and algorithms work and managing my Hootsuite dashboard, which provides me with a live, up-to-the-minute feed of all environmental history content. The second aspect is the more personal one, which includes the educational and academic agenda I seek to support and the social intentionality with which I approach this work.
When I first took on the role of NiCHE social media editor, I recognized enormous potential in the burgeoning #EnvHist community on Twitter. I made two major observations at this time. First, I noticed that the basic structure of an academic community was there, but that there was no one making a concerted effort to organize it. Second, #EnvHist was dominated by small cliques—the largest of which was peopled by Canadian environmental historians—that did not often interact with one another. I saw an opportunity for me to use this new position at NiCHE to bring the group to the forefront of the online environmental history community, using a strategy of inclusivity and support. Over the past five years, I have expanded NiCHE’s online presence exponentially and made it the primary disseminator of environmental history content online.
Academic social media presences, particularly on Twitter, serve as potential publicity machines at the personal, organizational, and discipline level. If one does not publicize one’s own work, then it is unlikely that someone else will. When acting as publicist one must ask one’s self what one is publicizing and to whom one is publicizing, as in an academic and/or public audience. The most successful academic Twitter accounts make an effort to reach both academic and public audiences and do so on a regular basis.
My personal #1 rule of academic social media or social media in general is to simply be yourself. One’s social media presence should augment your career and personal life; it should not be a burden. There is no one way to manage an online presence. Use the platforms that you are comfortable with and with the frequency that works for you. If it isn’t for you, that’s fine, but that does not mean that it is not valuable for other folks.
I emphatically champion the idea that being one’s self online is a political act. When other academics warn scholars (usually early career scholars) about not discussing the personal or being hyper-vigilant of professionalism online, what they are really saying is “you better be quiet because you don’t actually belong here.” As the academy diversifies so too should the public voices of the academy. We are whole beings and every aspect of our identity informs our scholarship. This does not mean that one should post online with reckless abandon. It simply means that when one hesitates to post something or has a visceral reaction to another’s post, one should be mindful of the power structures that one is upholding or being affected by.
NiCHE’s social media presence is successful for three main reasons. First, I work to make our followers know that there is a person or people behind the NiCHE logo. Academic institutions and organizations can appear to be unapproachable to outsiders. Many academic Twitter and Facebook accounts do not interact with their followers and do nothing other than publicize their own work or news. I make an effort to interact with our followers, whether they are academics or members of the general public, and follow most accounts back.
Second, I support the work of others. I consider the goal of NiCHE’s social media presence to be threefold. The first and foremost goal is to publicize the content of NiCHE’s website. The second goal is to support the work of members of NiCHE. The third goal is support all environmental history scholarship. I take great care to publicize the work of environmental historians from all geographic regions and at every stage of their career. Finally, the success of NiCHE’s social media presence is also connected to my commitment to keeping up with current events and making connections between topics and individuals that are not readily apparent to non-specialists.
All of these strategies link to the basic concept of reciprocity. Successful social media, which is not built on a foundation of power and/or the cult of personality, is reciprocal. One gets from social media what one puts into it. If one only uses a Twitter account to post a link to one’s article into the void and then disappears for three months and never interacts with other accounts, then one’s social media impression will likely be insignificant. The emphasis that I place on reciprocity is informed by feminist and social justice theories, most significantly “shine theory” and “emergent strategy.”
“Shine theory” was coined by feminist activists Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow. The basic premise, according to Friedman, is that “I don’t shine if you don’t shine.” The theory, as originally conceived, supports the idea that women will succeed more if they support rather than compete against each other. “We practice,” Friedman writes, “Shine Theory because true confidence is infectious. Because powerful women make the greatest friends. Because people know you by the company you keep. Because we want the strongest, happiest, smartest—women in our corner—and we want to support each other in pursuing success and happiness on our own terms.”
In my position at NiCHE, I consciously take this concept of supporting rather than competing and apply it to supporting environmental history and environmental humanities scholarship. In many ways, this approach pushes at traditional academic values placed on competition. Focus on or celebration of academic competition favours individuals who better fit into traditional academic roles and typically benefits tenured cis, white, hetero men. As NiCHE social media editor, I make a concerted effort to break down traditional academic hierarchies to support individuals from all backgrounds and levels of experience.
To support environmental humanities at all levels serves to strengthen the discipline as a whole and raise awareness of the work being done within the field elsewhere in the academy and amongst the general populace. The future of environmental humanities and the public relies on the field’s ability to reach out beyond itself and this requires a breakdown of many of the walls that academia has built around itself. Social media is a powerful tool to break down these walls. Environmental historians and humanists will only succeed outside the academy if they support rather than compete with one another.
More recently, my online work with NiCHE and elsewhere is informed by adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy. “Emergent Strategy” is a system for intentional activism at the personal level and a collective organizing tool that is based on the “adaptive and relational leadership model found in the work of Black science fiction writer Octavia Butler.” Of particular interest to environmental humanities scholars is the strategy’s use of models of biomimicry and integration of concepts taken from science and the natural world, namely permaculture.
The basic concept is that we, as individuals, are parts of a social ecosystem. Our individual actions are connected to and affect society as a whole. Emergent Strategy accentuates the importance of small-scale work and adaptation to constant change. Large-scale change and movement, according to brown, is a reflection of the small. When applied to social media, this principle highlights the fact that individual scholars have the power to make large-scale change beginning with their own work and commitment to publicizing this work and the work of others. The relationships that individuals make online make up part of the front line of change.
Another principle of Emergent Strategy is that “there is a conversation in the room that only these people can have.” This is a powerful way to look at the way in which we engage on Social Media. The “room” in this instance is extraordinarily large and the conversations that can be had at any given moment are limitless. Find these conversations. Start the conversations and trust people to participate and make connections. If we as scholars want to interact with the public, then we should not always wait for them to make the first move.
brown also emphasizes in Emergent Strategy the belief that what one “pays attention to grows.” I have put a great deal of effort and labour, both emotional and intellectual, into NiCHE’s social media presence and my efforts, for the most part, have been rewarded. We do, however, need to figure out how to give proper credit and reward (especially monetary) to the labour that individuals are putting into fostering community and public-engagement on Twitter and other social media platforms. This online labour, in this increasingly digital society, is invaluable and rarely recognized fully. In the spirit of Emergent Strategy, the environmental history and humanities online communities need to support an intentionality to foster public engagement online that supports everyone. A system in which everyone is important for the unique perspectives that they can add to the conversations that are developing on social media.
“By intentionally being inclusive and supportive of all individuals connected to the environmental history and humanities online networks and aiming our reach to both academic and public audiences, I have been able to use my position as NiCHE social media editor to cultivate abundance within the field as a whole.”
Successful academic social media management requires both a mastery of the practicalities of an effective online presence, as well as a deliberate approach to connection building. By intentionally being inclusive and supportive of all individuals connected to the environmental history and humanities online networks and aiming our reach to both academic and public audiences, I have been able to use my position as NiCHE social media editor to cultivate abundance within the field as a whole.
The environmental humanities does not have to reinvent the wheel when developing a strategy to better reach the public. There are models available when one looks outside of academia to social activist leaders and organizers. Looking outward, however, demands that environmental historians and humanists reexamine and redefine their roles in society with intention and flexibility and that the walls built around academia be torn down or rebuilt in such a way that knowledge and energy can flow back and forth over the divide.
brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Chico, California: AK Press, 2017).
Friedman, Ann. “Shine Theory: Why Powerful Women Make the Greatest Friends.” The Cut. May 31, 2013. https://www.thecut.com/2013/05/shine-theory-how-to-stop-female-competition.html.
Latest posts by Jessica DeWitt (see all)
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