- By Maurice Casey |
A couple of months ago, I was enjoying post-seminar drinks in the Oxford Kings Arms. Nearby were a couple with a golden retriever, whose name I learned was Dougie. At one point, Dougie was seated at the table in what I believed to be a fetching pose, so I promptly took a picture. I tweeted the suitably cute result with the caption ‘When you head to the pub after a seminar but are too nervous to introduce yourself.’ Expecting a few retweets and a scattering of likes, I returned to my conversation, entirely unaware of the gathering storm.
I am unsure of the precise moment when I stumbled towards viral academic twitter fame. Perhaps it was when Carole Decker, lead singer of 1980s pop sensation T’Pau, retweeted the photo with the comment ‘Awww’. Nevertheless, by lunch-time of the next day, I was subject to a merciless barrage of phone notifications as the picture of a dog in a pub racked up literally thousands of retweets and favourites.
Here it was: the moment I waited years for – going viral. Across the twitter world, the faceless masses were constantly retweeting, each time providing that burst of superficial validation which social media provides. Comments from friends made me realise just how widespread the tweet had become. One told me she went to show the picture to a flatmate – only for him to tell her that he’d already seen it. Another friend revealed that the well-known site Shit Academics Say had shared it on all of their platforms. Leaning back in a library chair with the sound of T’Pau’s 1987 chart-topper ‘China in Your Hand’ coursing through my headphones, I smiled to myself: I had finally gone viral. But was it worthwhile? And what does it feel like to know that, no matter what research you produce, it’s unlikely anything will ever resonate as much as a cute dog picture?
The first insight I gained was an impression my social network’s outer reaches. As the tweet spread from my followers, I clicked into unfamiliar profiles to find out who the follower-of-my-followers were. Frankly, I was deeply unsurprised, given my research topic being the history of the Irish left, to discover my wider social world consists of international academics, assorted Irish people and twitter communists. Second, and more helpful, was the knowledge that awkwardness at post-seminar drinks is a widespread phenomenon. Countless people replied to the image with variations on the ‘that’s so me!’ response. This realisation has helped to ease my own navigation of this particular social scenario by underscoring the universality of post-seminar awkwardness.
Nonetheless, there were some reasons to be weary. For years I had dedicated time to carving out a space on twitter at the intersection of Irish and Soviet history. But with the dog photo spreading widely, I feared an unshakeable reputation as the “dog in a pub guy” – not a historian, but a member of the loathed pupparazi! A misrepresentation of my online identity is, unfortunately, not an unprecedented experience. Once, I had tweeted about the 1920s Soviet publishing industry only to find my post dispersed by right-wing economists, Spanish conservatives and, in one particularly unctuous case, a French fascist. What I intended as a wry comment about wily Russian writers had become a case example for continental conservatives in the failure of socialist cultural economics. We have talked before on the blog about managing your online presence, but the curious case of the viral academic dog allowed me to develop a greater appreciation of how my online presence could easily drift beyond my control.
The biggest surprise of all was that the viral social media experience I had been chasing for years turned out to be a chimera, a wasted oppawtunnity. Herein lay the most crucial lesson: whatever form ultimate contentment might take, I can say for certain that it will not come in the shape of 10,000 facebook likes and a retweet from a formerly famous popstar. The initial endorphin rush wears off quickly. On top of this was the more crushing realisation that no matter what research gold I might eventually strike, it’s unlikely I will ever reach more people than through my picture of a dog in a pub. Ultimately, the whole experienced starkly demonstrated to me the divide between the complex (and all too often impenetrable) work which academics produce and the easily consumable information the public desires. Is there a bridging point? If there is, then surely it can be found through social media. Perhaps my time would have been better spent transforming a cute animal picture into a vehicle for historical knowledge.
Maurice J. Casey is a first year DPhil student at Jesus College, Oxford. You can follow him on twitter @MauriceJCasey. He tweets about Irish-Soviet history and, very occasionally, dogs in pubs.