Chris Blattman

How is social media shaping academia

Nick Kristof got a big response this weekend (positive and negative) to his plea for more academics to act like public intellectuals.

Related, the student policy review at Georgetown interviewed me a couple of weeks ago, which you might say helps bolster Kristof’s point. This is my answer to, “What would you say this new era of technology has brought to development economics and academia?”

I think research papers are finding a much wider audience. Let’s say you like to follow stories on women’s empowerment or international development, previously you would’ve had to wait for The Economist to cover an article, or you would’ve had to go out and search for it yourself.

Before, journalists had to intermediate between researchers and the public. What’s happened now is that some academics are essentially acting as curators. That is basically what blogging and Twitter is: curating. I tell stories that I think are interesting. I relate things that stimulate me, and if you like the same things that I do, then you can see the stories I find interesting. Some of that is research.

This era is bringing stuff to the public that otherwise would have been harder for people to find. It is like someone who curates for a museum: there is so much art out there, just jumbled, which makes it harder for the public to appreciate. But someone arranges things in a way that is legible and that is useful.

What worries me about Twitter—to which I was slightly late to—is that people now follow a lot of blogs through Twitter, and I would have lost a lot of followers had I not joined. It made me realize that at some point of the technological revolution I’ll be too late to join a new platform and will lose some of the audience.

Someone told me “Oh I’ve seen this on Vine,” and I had never heard of Vine. I’m already missing things. I don’t know what Snapchat is, but I do know that I refuse to take pictures of my food at the restaurant.

Full interview.

My larger comment on Kristof is this: Academia could do better but does have a public voice–a modest but growing one. What worries me is the dearth of people in government and diplomacy who write openly and honestly and often. The knowledgeable inside voices we don’t hear, except muffled through a public relations screen, is the great tragedy of social media.

6 Responses

  1. People in government and diplomacy CAN’T write openly, honestly, or often – because they, and everything they say in the public sphere, represents the government. I ran into all kinds of barriers with that, even when working as a fellow for CDC-NIOSH, when my supervisor asked me to create a Wikipedia article on the program I was working with. It’s even more treacherous with diplomats, since the governments of the countries they are working in can use the things they say against them. There is just not the same freedom to express independent opinions.

  2. Chris:
    One thing that’s been a bit lost in this debate is the fact that some stuff that applied academics do shouldn’t be things that are easily explained to your family at Thanksgiving. Take Nathaniel Hendren’s JMP – a very subtle explanation of why those with pre-existing conditions can’t get insurance. Further, and relatedly, there’s the very real issue of distortions in what academia ends up valuing – the stuff you can explain to your family, and that your family (and 2 min attention span web viewers) find most interesting. This is the Freakonomics-ization of economics all over again, and in this view of the world economics has taken a step backward relative to other disciplines.

  3. I agree with you that things are headed in the right direction, but there’s still a ways to go. There may not be as many vocal international development wonks as, say, politics, but I think they are there and they are heard. Look at the Kony 2012 debacle. Criticism was heard just as widely as the film itself. Granted, the media was looking for controversy and some people brushed the criticism off as jealousy. But, it still brought a much needed international development perspective to the table and sparked an important conversation on tone, intent, and slacktivism. There’s still a long way to go, but I think that shows things are headed in the right direction.

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