I have a meta-thesis about academic culture: It’s no worse than anywhere else, but we tend to think we’re better, and that’s where the problems come in.
Usually I’m talking about race, class, or gender. We think we’re immune to the dominant trends of American society, so generally resist being told to change our ways. In today’s essay for Vitae, I talk about power and social media. I think academics, particularly senior folk, are loathe to think of themselves as managers, as bosses, as supervisors, so end up treating their junior colleagues as … colleagues. Except they are also simultaneously judging their senior colleagues and exercising all sorts of power over them. Our practices on social media need to reflect this reality.
The essay tells the story of Jane Smith, a young professor with kids, who received a Facebook friend request from a Dean. I explore what it meant for her, interspersed with commentary about social media and the workplace in this age of never-ending work-life integration. I wrote:
We live in a world in which our social and professional identities
entangle so easily. The rise of the Internet and email, followed by the
ability to access both from our phones, has stretched the hours of
expected contact throughout the day. Many of us choose to habitually
broadcast our lives on social media, placing our quotidian activities
into a strange public-private record. We can, of course, avoid social
media. We can choose not to allow our colleagues into our private online
space. Such choices come with social costs and perhaps even missed
What we need, instead, are clear guidelines for how to handle such interactions in the best possible way. Here are my rules, rephrased to try to be clearer:
1. DO NOT EVER SEND FRIEND REQUESTS TO YOUR SUBORDINATES.
Is that clear? Don’t do it. Don’t ask them. They will find you and send to you if you want to do it. When you send a friend request, you are pretending that they can accept or reject if they want to. They can’t.
I think we know this with our students, or most of us do anyway. We need to be mindful of these power dynamics with our colleagues as well.
2. Accept 100% or 0% of friend requests from subordinates.
Make a rule. Stick to it. Don’t make it personal.
3. Be mindful of power.
In an amusing addendum, my Dean sent me an email asking, “What about Twitter?” I responded:
I think Twitter has a different public/private dynamic (unless you have a
private Twitter account, then the same applies). When you say something
on Twitter, it’s intentionally a public utterance. Not everyone
realizes that, of course and people tweet out private
thoughts that later get them in trouble. Still, reading someone’s
tweets, even hitting follow, is different than friending. The Facebook
“Friend” suggests a kind of intimacy and a private space. It’s also
transactional in that when you send a friend request,
the other person has to respond. Not so on Twitter. You tweet, the world
decides whether they want to listen.
The Follow does have a kind of status to it. It says – I think you’re
worth listening to, but the intimacy of Facebook isn’t there.
What do you think?