Ian McCarthy on the value of using social media in academia. 

Ian McCarthyMany academics have a presence in social media these days – but whether they are actually using it well is often debatable.

One person who is undeniably fluent in the language of social media is Ian McCarthy, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Technology & Operations Management at the Beedie School of Business.

Using the handle @Toffeemen68, McCarthy’s tweets have amassed nearly 18,000 followers since 2011. He has since been recognized on numerous lists of influential tweeters, including LDRLB’s Top 50 Professors on Twitter; Innovation Excellence’s Top 50 Innovation Tweeters of 2013; Business Insider’s 54 Smart Thinkers Everyone Should Follow on Twitter; and OnlineMBA’s 50 Business Professors You Should Follow on Twitter.

Ideas@Beedie sat down with McCarthy to find out why his approach to using social media succeeds.

Ideas@Beedie: Did you have a strategy when you started using social media?

McCarthy: I started a Facebook and Twitter account in 2009 but wasn’t using them actively. Then in 2011 I started writing a paper with (Beedie Assistant Professor) Jan Kietzmann, and through that I decided to experiment with using social media in my career.

We identified seven functional building blocks of social media, three of which were the motivations for my incursion into social media: sharing, identity awareness, and reputation enhancement. Initially, I was primarily using it in a broadcasting capacity, however I soon discovered a lot of people I was interested in following, such as colleagues and other experts in my fields of interest. Through that, the strategy shifted from purely broadcasting, to listening as well.

I: How successful were your first forays into it?

M: It was slow to start with. How you build a list of people to follow is entirely in your control, but building a list of followers typically depends on how famous you are and/or what you have to say. I quickly learned that it is very important to have a focused conversation and to know your audience. There are also elements of reciprocity in social media – if I followed people, particularly those in my area of expertise, they tended to follow back.

Once you get to a certain critical mass, maybe a thousand followers, that sends out a reputational signal. My online network was initially made up of people I knew in the physical world who I follow and who follow me. It then grew to include people I met and engaged with only online, and over time the bulk of my following has become extensions of this network.

I: Did you ever imagine it would become such an important tool in your career?

M: No, I did not. Research and writing is a very slow process. From idea to publication can take several years, and during that time you receive very infrequent feedback, so it’s a very slow, lonely process.

One of the things I like about social media is that feedback is much more instantaneous. I largely use Twitter to direct traffic to my blog, where I take papers written for an academic audience and produce pieces that non-academics can read.

Social media also has a much bigger reach than traditional academic channels. For instance, I do a lot of research on user innovation, and often tweet about my findings as I go along, which others share in turn. The tradeoff there is in terms of quality, as tweets and other postings are not peer reviewed, but the newness, accessibility and frequency that social media allows you is far greater.

I: What role has social media played in your academic career?

M: I’m a publically funded researcher, yet the public doesn’t really get to access any of my research unless they are my students. Social media forces me to reframe my research and allows it to be shared to a different audience, and this in turn has seen my research reported in the traditional media.

I have had a number of professors from other universities researching in similar areas reach out to me via Twitter, and we have ended up working on a number of successful research and grant collaborations as a result. In the same way that academics network and share at conferences, I find that social media is a very effective way to do these same activities.

I: How do you choose who to follow on Twitter?

M: The great thing about Twitter, is that if you are a researcher and made a list of the top ten most eminent professors in your field, regardless of what research you do, you are likely to find a number of them are active on Twitter, sharing ideas about research. How often do you get to meet your professional heroes and listen to them talk about their work? Well if they are active on Twitter, you can do it every day.

I: You mentioned that Twitter has resulted in some professional partnerships?

M: I met Marcel Bogers (@bogers), an Associate Professor at the University of Southern Denmark, who does work on user innovation through Twitter. For the first year we interacted exclusively over social media. We then met in person at a conference and decided to work on a special issue of a journal together, which is currently underway.

I also met Jeremy de Beer (@jdebeer), a law professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in intellectual property issues to do with technology. He had been following me and citing my research in his papers. We interacted over social media for a year or two, before we started to communicate more in depth. This led us to submit to a successful $500,000 grant application for research on user innovation.

I: What role will social media play in academia in the future?

M: One way is that is allows us to measure academic impact in a very different way. 20 years ago, it was difficult to measure the impact someone’s research had, but now we have moved to a widely used set of tools and measures, the most common of which is Google Scholar.

Google Scholar, however, only measures the academic impact of a researcher on other academics. This has led to the emergence of alternative metrics (known as Altmetrics) that are used to determine the impact of research on general society. Social media plays a large role in these Altmetrics, where we can see to what extent our work is being reported, shared, discussed and recommended in non-academic domains.