Social Media: Is It Just A Numbers Game?

jumbled numbersGoodness me, such a busy week, I almost forgot to blog. This time of year is often very pressured for independents and non-academics with 31 March being a crucial end-of-financial-year deadline by which many projects must be finished and invoices paid. So much so that I haven’t been around on social media anywhere near as much as usual.

Nevertheless, in the last couple of weeks, I have passed the 3,000 follower mark on Twitter, hit 200 followers on Instagram, and reached the magic 500+ on LinkedIn. Ding!

I’ve been on Twitter since 2009 and Instagram since 2014, so these figures aren’t particularly impressive. Publishers, for example, don’t start taking notice till you reach 10,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram. Part of the reason is I’ve never tried to attract followers, other than by being around and talking to people, and following those I feel a connection with. Others take very different approaches. I know a fiction writer on Instagram, someone I’ve met IRL a couple of times, who reached 10,000 followers in less than a year and is now coaching other writers on how to attract followers like honeysuckle attracts bees. She wrote a blog post with a few pointers, such as: choose, and stick to, a colour palette, so that when someone looks at your Instagram profile and sees your last nine photos, they give a coherent message. There were other tips, like how to schedule posts for maximum impact, all of which seemed entirely feasible to implement.

So, I thought, I could do that.

I’d probably sell more books that way.

But.

I can’t do that.

I simply can’t bring myself to be so contrived. It’s not me at all. The thought of choosing a colour palette, and scheduling my posts for maximum impact, makes me feel queasy.

One of the things I love about social media is the randomness. Yesterday I mislaid my landline handset, wailed on Twitter, and a woman from Brisbane told me how to find it. On Instagram I seek out interesting academics and I talk to a Romanian woman studying for a PhD in Japan, a Dutch academic in America, an Australian academic in America, and so on. The glimpses of their lives are fascinating to me; I hope mine are to them.

I should take the ‘colour palette’ approach; it’s sensible marketing. I should create and nurture a brand for myself. To an extent, this blog has a colour palette. The designer friend who made it for me asked what my favourite colours were; I told her; she liked and used those colours. But I don’t pick photos in those colours for my blog posts (though I did for this post, because I came across one on freeimages.com and it amused me), and I certainly can’t Instagram everything in purple, turquoise, and hot pink. It would be exhausting even to try.

I was musing about all this to a friend who is quite the social media expert.

“I just like, y’know, hanging out with people online,” I said. “I don’t want to do this ‘brand’ thing. I want the weird, the random, the serendipitous. I like making friends.”

“That,” he said, “that IS your brand.”

I guess he’s right. It’s not much of a brand, though, in marketing terms. It’s just me, bimbling around online like I do offline, forgetting things sometimes, doing my best. I could change; I could do this whole thing differently. Maybe, sometime in the future, I will. But, for now… I don’t want to put myself under the pressure of trying to present myself as something I’m not, something polished and shiny. It would be too much like having a proper job. So I shall carry on dropping in and out of social media as I please, chatting when I have something to say, and otherwise lurking or taking time out. That makes me happy. And while my approach may not sell as many books as the ‘colour palette’ system, it has made me some great friends and taken me all around the world. So, in my terms, it works just fine.

Review Of The Year 2016

2016By far the most popular post on the blog in 2016 was Ten Ways To Get Hold Of Academic Literature. In fact, thanks to @elfriesen making a great contribution in the comments, it should now be called Fifteen Ways To Get Hold Of Academic Literature. I’m glad this post has proved to be such a useful resource – though it may partly be the most popular because it was posted very early in the year: January 6th, to be precise.

Oddly enough, the second most popular post with readers in 2016 was in fact published in March 2015. It’s the post on Creative Research Methods, which outlines the structure and content of my book Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide. I’m surprised and delighted that this post is still so widely read.

The third most popular is my post on Getting Creative With Your Thesis Or Dissertation, published in July 2016. I’m not so surprised about this one, because I’ve had really good feedback about it, on Twitter, by email, and from people in my workshops. It gives examples of several doctoral dissertations and theses which have been put together in more creative ways than the traditional brick of paper full of dense academic writing. I’m continuing to collect such examples and will write on the topic again when I have enough to merit another post.

The fourth most popular is Ten Top Tips For Becoming An Indie Researcher, published in June. Again, I had a lot of positive feedback about this post. I aimed to provide realistic encouragement, i.e. to make the drawbacks of this lifestyle clear as well as the pleasures. Reading back over the post, I think I succeeded. A lot of people I’ve spoken to this year have been very interested in how I manage to survive and thrive as an indie. For me, and for others who I know, it’s a great way to live. But it has a lot of challenges, and it is definitely not right for everyone.

The fifth of the top five is a post from October, Devising Your Own Research Method. This post explains when, and how, you can create a new method. It’s primarily aimed at doctoral students, who tend to have more time to think about their methods than jobbing researchers do, though it may also be useful for early career and other researchers.

My own top five, in professional terms, don’t have an order of priority, so I’m going to put them in chronological order. The first was the Research Methods Festival at Bath in July, which was a terrific event. I met some great people and learned a lot.

The second was my recent trip to Melbourne, Australia, where I delivered a keynote speech and three workshops on creative research methods, and met some wonderful people in real life who I’d been talking to on Twitter for years. I’d never been to Australia before and it was an amazing experience.

The third was being commissioned to teach a 60-credit module on creative research methods for EdD students at Staffordshire University in the first half of 2017. I’m in the process of planning the module, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself and my intention is that my students will do too. If others want to follow our progress, you can find us on Twitter through the hashtag #StaffsEdD.

The fourth highlight of 2016 was working on the second edition of my book Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide. This is a heavily revised and updated edition, with a whole new chapter on methodologies, due for publication in April 2017.

The fifth highlight was being asked to facilitate a Summer School on Creative Research Methods for doctoral students in July 2017. This is being run by the Community Animation and Social Innovation Centre (CASIC) at Keele University, and will be held at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme and at the Keele campus. We’re in the process of putting the programme together now, and it looks terrific. We’ll be covering arts-based methods, research using technology, mixed methods, transformative research frameworks, and writing creatively for academia. There will be a range of presenters and lots of hands-on and interactive work. Booking opens in January, with a discounted early bird rate; follow me on Twitter @DrHelenKara if you want to find out more.

I’m going to rest this blog, now, till the New Year. I wish you all a happy holiday.

Twitter Can Make Your Dreams Come True

I’m at the end of a working week in Melbourne, sitting in my hotel room; all I have to do is write this blog post and pack. It’s been a great week. One keynote, three workshops and six meetings. Miles and miles of pavement-pounding, including four bookshops (only one book bought due to luggage weight restrictions; several others noted) and the best pistachio gelato I ever ate. Free trams! Melbourne has free trams in the city centre! I didn’t figure out how to use them till day four of six, but my feet have been grateful to me since. And lots of lovely drinks and snacks and dinners. Melbourne likes its grub, and so do I.

The best part about this week, though, is the people I have met. People I’ve only known on Twitter up to now. Not all of them from Melbourne, either: Naomi Barnes (@DrNomyn) from Brisbane and Deborah Netolicky (@debsnet) from Perth were both in town for the Australian Association for Research in Education conference, and it was great to hang out with them. They have both, since, written considered and scholarly blog posts: Deb wrote about the conference, and commented that one thing she loves about Twitter is that it helps her feel as though she knows people, even if they’ve never met in person. Naomi reflected on whether Twitter really creates or enables communities.

I came to Melbourne this week entirely as a result of Twitter. The photo at the top of this blog post was harvested from Twitter. I’ve been doing work generated through Twitter, and people have been tweeting that work out into the Twittersphere. Twitter supports my work in a lot of different ways. This week I have met and talked with eight people who I only knew online up to now. With each of them we went straight into real conversation: when you already know someone online, you can dispense with all the ‘how was your journey?’ and ‘did you find us OK?’ type small talk. This means that when you only have a couple of hours with someone, that time is much more useful. So I get where Deb is coming from with her comment.

Naomi makes a distinction between communities and, as sub-sets of communities, tribes. This is pretty much how I experience Twitter. There is a community of researchers that flocks around hashtags such as #ecrchat (early career researchers chat), #phdchat (PhD chat) and #acwri (academic writing). And there are smaller tribes. I have felt for some time that there’s a little Australian tribe that I belong to, made up of ten or a dozen people. Twitter tribes aren’t necessarily co-located, and indeed my Australian Twitter tribe is scattered around Perth, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and Canberra. But the biggest concentration is in Melbourne, and the others either have spent time in Melbourne or visit the city fairly regularly. So this feels like the geographical heart of the tribe. Also, not everyone in my Australian Twitter tribe knows everyone else. I was able to introduce Naomi and Deb to another tribe member. And there’s one tribe member who, despite being at one of the universities where I taught this week, doesn’t know any of the others. And to be fair, I first got to know her through her work, rather than through Twitter; our Twitter contact came later. But that doesn’t matter; she’s still part of my tribe.

Meeting these people in person has, without exception, been an absolute delight. They have introduced me to wonderful bars and restaurants. We have talked non-stop, planned projects, generated ideas, and laughed immoderately. I have wanted to meet them for years but thought it could never happen. It has, quite literally, been a dream come true.

Twelve Top Tips for International Indie Work

plane.jpgMy chosen career has offered me some interesting opportunities to work outside my own country. First I went to Syria, before the conflict began, to teach qualitative research methods to doctors. It was a fascinating experience, I met some wonderful people, and I grieve for the plight of that delightful country. At the time I thought it was a one-off opportunity, but since my book on creative research methods came out last year, several others have arisen. I’ve taught in Scotland and Canada, next year I’m teaching in Wales, and next month I’m off to Australia!

Glamorous, right? Well maybe above the surface, but beneath, the administrative feet are paddling like mad. If you, too, want to do international work as a freelance indie/altac, here are my twelve top tips.

  1. Charge more for international than for national work. You need to factor in at least two unpaid days for pre-trip admin: sorting travel and accommodation, planning work, applying for a visa, getting travel insurance, having vaccinations – there’s a lot to do. I recommend adding 50% to your usual day rate as a minimum.
  1. Find out what you can charge in the country concerned. It may be more than your usual day rate plus 50%. If so, charge the going rate, or a little less. If you charge much less than the going rate, people will think you’re not worth much. Strange, but true.
  1. Make sure any costs you quote include, as extras on top of your day rate, any taxes and/or visa costs payable locally.
  1. Charge half your day rate for any full day spent travelling, e.g. on a long-haul flight.
  1. Make your own travel arrangements. Otherwise you risk several changes of flight and a hotel that is grotty, or inconveniently located, or with no wi-fi. Making your own arrangements takes more time but it’s worth it because you can suit yourself. Having said that, you can still use an agent for some of the work. I booked all my own travel for Canada and it took ages; for Australia, thanks to a suggestion from my Dad, I used FlightCentre (available worldwide) and I would recommend them highly. They understood my needs and my budget, and evidently have an encyclopaedic knowledge of international flight options.
  1. Don’t take the mick with expenses. I book economy class direct flights: that usually costs a bit more than flights with changes of plane, but I arrive in better condition and am fit for work sooner. I book accommodation that is comfortable and suitable for a business traveller but nowhere near top end (examples: Premier Inn in the UK, Best Western in Canada). I will use taxis, but only if I need to; I’ll use public transport where that’s easily accessible with suitable routes.
  1. Search for more work than the job you are initially offered. There’s no point flying all the way to wherever-it-is simply to deliver one short workshop or keynote speech. Use your contacts, your contacts’ contacts, social media, even cold emailing – any ideas you can come up with to generate more work. Don’t be shy. The very fact that someone wants to bring you to another country to work will impress other people. You need to maximise this opportunity, both financially and interpersonally.
  1. Where jet lag will be a factor, build in an initial day in which you won’t be working to help you acclimatise. Get onto local time as fast as you can: start before you leave for your trip if possible. And similarly, build in at least a day after you get home, before you have to do any substantive work.
  1. Plan for a final day with no commitments, so you can take up people’s offers to ‘grab a coffee’ while you’re in the area. If there are no such offers, you can spend the day exploring and having fun, so it’s a win-win.
  1. Check and double-check all travel arrangements, timings, and contact details. If someone has flown you thousands of miles for work, it’s enormously embarrassing if you don’t actually turn up in the right place at the right time. (I imagine. I’m glad to say I’ve never yet suffered such embarrassment – and I do not intend to in future.)
  1. Prepare your work carefully, and deliver it to the best of your ability. You are, to some extent, on trial. If you do well, you may be asked again.
  1. Do the follow-up work: send the emails you promised to send, pass on the references you mentioned, put people in touch with others as you said you would.

Working internationally is a lot of hard graft. It’s also a great deal of fun. I love to travel, meet new people, and see new places. But I find it helps to be realistic about what is involved, clear about what I can offer, and unambiguous about my terms.

Knowing And Remembering

Creative research methods in the social sciences [FC]Over the next three weeks I will be doing eight presentations about creative research methods, in Edinburgh, London, and Calgary, to audiences of practitioners, postgraduate students, and academics. I like doing presentations, once I get going, but this is a little daunting because each presentation is slightly different from the others. For example, one is for evaluation practitioners at the NSPCC, so they will want to know how to use creative methods in evaluation research focusing on children and families. Another is for MA students at the University of Calgary, who need to know about arts-based methods and research using technology. A third is for the Social Research Association in Edinburgh, which is likely to generate a mixed audience of practitioners and postgraduate students with a variety of learning needs.

Although I’ll be the one doing the teaching, the prospect of giving these presentations feels rather like the prospect of doing a bunch of exams. This is partly because I’ve had to do a whole load of revision. Although creative methods have always been part of my practice, I finished writing the book a year ago, and I seem to have forgotten a surprisingly large proportion of its contents. I feel rather as though I need to learn it off by heart – including the 500+ references – before I do the first presentation. Which is tomorrow morning. So that’s not going to happen, particularly as I already have rather a lot of work to do on the train to Edinburgh today.

Luckily I’ve had time to refresh my memory to some extent. When I re-read the book I wrote, I remember some parts vividly, while others almost feel like new information. I find myself thinking ‘Ooh, that’s a good point’, as if it had been written by someone else, and ‘Did I really write this?’ because I don’t remember.

This is a strange phenomenon, and I wonder whether other authors have similar experiences. I suspect at least some of them do. It’s not entirely new for me, either. I’ve never been one for hanging on to old papers, but some years ago I came across an essay I’d written for A level geography, all about fluvio-glaciation and peri-glaciation. I couldn’t remember ever knowing those words, let alone what they meant.

So I’ve been thinking about the difference between knowing and remembering. Sometimes I know I know something, such as the name of a tune I am hearing on the radio, but I can’t bring it to mind – we say, ‘It’s on the tip of my tongue’. Sometimes I don’t know I ever knew something, such as the geographic terminology above. Some things I know fairly indelibly, such as how to drive my car, make a veggie chilli, or write an email. Yet there must be lots of things I’ll never know I ever knew, which is a strange thought.

I did remember some things about exams which made me feel a bit better about my forthcoming ordeal-by-presentation. I remembered that I used to have the same feeling, that I needed to memorise everything in my schoolbooks, and the same lurching internal near-panic because I knew I couldn’t. And I remembered that I had actually been quite good at exams, and one thing I’d learned from doing exams that was still applicable now is that I don’t need to remember everything, but to remember enough, and to know what to do with what I remember. In fact, to be creative.

I can do that.

Travel Broadens The Mind

view from front door

View from the front door of the villa where we’re staying

I’m on holiday right now in Al Ain, the second city of Abu Dhabi, on the border with Oman. I have travelled in the Middle East before but I’ve never been to the Emirates. It’s a fascinating place, only officially defined as a country in 1971; before that it was populated mainly by nomadic Bedouin tribespeople.

The landscape is desert, arid and very hot – currently around 45 degrees at midday, dropping to 28 or 30 at night. It’s beautiful and deadly: few people could survive for long unaided unless they had learned the necessary skills. But then few people would have to survive unaided, because the people of this country, like most people in the Middle East, have a tremendous ethos of hospitality and care for visitors and strangers.

The culture here is very different from my own. There are three differences which have impressed themselves on my mind as having something to teach me about my professional life. These are they.

First, coffee. Coffee here is enormously symbolic. If you enter someone’s house, they are obliged to offer you coffee; if they don’t, it’s a serious insult. Equally, if you don’t accept the coffee offered by your host, that is a serious insult. However, there is a form of wording you can use to refuse their offer of coffee, which means, ‘We have a problem and we need to talk about it.’ Once that discussion has taken place, you can say you will accept their offer of coffee, which signifies that you regard the problem as resolved.

This made me think about the way coffee has become symbolic in academia. I’ve lost count of the people I’ve “been for a coffee with”, as a euphemism for chatting about anything from our respective projects to a potential or actual collaboration. I love going for coffee with clever, interesting people. And I don’t even drink coffee! Coffee gives me migraines – the antithesis of intelligent thought – but it’s still something I suggest to actual or potential colleagues. ‘Shall we meet for coffee?’ is so much easier to say than ‘Shall we meet for a, er, well, probably peppermint tea in my case, but most people have coffee, and there might be cake, anyway, it would give us time to chat about, er, well, what do you think?’

Second, gender. Abu Dhabi is a thoroughly patriarchal society. I am travelling with my male partner, and staying with our old friend, also male. In restaurants or cafes, they are always served first. In malls, I get funny looks – from women and from men – for walking with two men. I’m not surprised as all adults who are out in public are alone or in same-sex pairs or groups – and they’re mostly male. However, the concept of equality is not completely absent. For example, if a man takes two or more wives, he must treat them all equally, which in practice means building each of them a house that is identical in every respect to his other wives’ houses. So the concept is of equality within, rather than between, the genders. (And yes, I know gender isn’t binary – but they really haven’t caught on to that here, at all.) Part of me minds about this and part of me doesn’t. The first part is the Western feminist, the second part is the part that thinks it’s important to honour and respect different cultures. These two parts argue with each other, the first questioning the merit of honouring and respecting discriminatory cultures, the second standing up for the importance of honouring and respecting other cultures even if their priorities are different from my own. I doubt I will ever reconcile these opposing views within myself. Yet this experience is, I think, useful for my research work because it reflects many of the ethical dilemmas we meet as researchers, where there is more than one way to be ‘right’ and there is no easy answer.

Third, ethnicity. While I am experiencing daily micro-aggressions related to gender, I have not experienced a single one related to my ethnicity. (Yes, I know it’s not always possible to separate the two, so I may be mis-reading this. But I’ve thought about it a lot since I’ve been here, and I’m fairly sure of my ground.) Beyond the gender-related discrimination described above, local people here, and migrant workers, all treat me as a human being who is worthy of respect. Even the men are unfailingly polite and welcoming. I grew up in a society that discriminates on the basis of ethnicity, and I know that affects my interactions with people. UAE society may also discriminate: the migrant workers here from countries such as Sri Lanka and the Philippines, India and Pakistan, might tell those stories. But as a white Westerner, I feel safe here in this country of friendly hospitable people.

The UAE is full of Muslims, so many Brits would regard it as highly dangerous. But it is very peaceful. I have walked in streets, and mosques, and malls, and on beaches, populated mostly by Muslim people, and I have never once felt threatened or in danger. I feel safer here than I feel in London, my own capital city. And the UAE is friendly to migrant workers. Indeed, it needs to be: for example, in Dubai, only 15% of the population is indigenous, and most of the other 85% are migrant workers. There is acceptance, here, that non-indigenous people have a place in the social economy: to do the jobs that locals don’t have the skills for, or don’t wish to take on.

This experience makes me feel ashamed of my own country. The UK is depressingly hostile to people of different ethnicities and to economic migrants. Many of us can’t see how much our society could and does benefit from their input, or how much, in fact, we need their support. I have felt this for a long time, but my experience here in Abu Dhabi has reinforced my belief that it is possible for society to work with a much higher proportion of economic and other migrants than we have at present in the UK. This makes me think about how the research I do is culturally constructed. Growing up with the scientific tradition as a backdrop can lead us to conclude that our methods of investigation are neutral – but they’re not, they spring from our culture. We think findings produced by our favoured methods inform our decisions, while in fact these findings may be created, albeit unconsciously, to reinforce our ways of thinking. We need to bring this new understanding into our consciousness and use it to help us move from policy-based evidence (‘migrants and refugees will swamp us’ etc) towards evidence-based policy (‘migrants and refugees can help us economically, though there may be social costs’).

I have long believed that we need to make good decisions based on evidence rather than hearsay or fear, and my experience here in the Gulf has reinforced that belief.

Anyway, the three of us are off to Oman tomorrow, on a road trip for the next few days. So I won’t be around online much this week. I’ve never been to Oman, either. I look forward to having my mind broadened further.

International work: the glamour and the reality

photo by Prayitno via Flickr

photo by Prayitno via Flickr

My first international assignment was in Damascus, Syria, in 2008. I went on behalf of Liverpool John Moores University and they made most of the arrangements. I was teaching qualitative research methods to postgraduate doctors. The journey and the first day were terrifying, but overall it was an amazing, worthwhile experience. I’m so glad I was able to experience a little of that beautiful country before it was torn apart by war. And by sheer luck my experience was quite glamorous. The Centre for Strategic Health Studies, where I was teaching, had a flat in Damascus where they accommodated international teachers. There were four single bedrooms with a shared bathroom and kitchen, a bit like student housing. And there was no air-conditioning, just a couple of sleepy fans. But when I arrived, all four bedrooms were full, so they had to put me up in a hotel, which turned out to be the Sheraton. Result! Aircon, swimming pool, room service… I’d never stayed anywhere so posh in my life, and I loved the luxury.

My second international assignment is this coming autumn in Calgary, Canada. Of course Canada is very different from Syria: politics, weather, level of freedom, food – pretty much everything. But this trip is also different because I am making the arrangements myself. I’ll be teaching postgrads at the University of Calgary and at Mount Royal University, and practitioners for the library service, as well as giving a keynote speech at a conference. That’s a whole lot of organising to do. I didn’t factor this in to my costs – a useful learning point for me!

I know another freelance writer and teacher who works internationally and charges £3,000 per day, with no discounts under any circumstances, not even for charity. I’m beginning to understand why. There is a huge amount of preparation, you lose days to jet lag, and there is also, inevitably, follow-up work. If you work independently, and don’t factor this into your costs, it all has to be done in your own time.

For each teaching assignment I need to know a whole bunch of stuff. How many people do you expect? What are their subjects/professions? What level are they? What is the teaching room like? Is this a stand-alone session or e.g. part of a wider module? If the latter, can I have details please?

I need to know these things so I can deliver a session which is appropriately pitched and focused. If I’m doing a half-day on creative research methods, the content may be similar, but the event will look very different if it’s a stand-alone session for 80 mid-career practitioners in a lecture theatre than if it’s part of a research methods module for 10 first-year doctoral students in a classroom.

Then there are all the bookings: flights, internal travel, accommodation, all of which needs to be reasonably priced as I’m being paid from public money. And there are the arrangements to meet up with people. PowerPoint presentations to create. And the emails! Oh, the emails!! Everything from ‘can you provide a reading for the students?’ (I expect so) to ‘can I take you out to dinner while you’re here?’ (yes indeedy!). These emails have been flying back and forth for weeks now, and it’s still three months till I go. And sometimes I need to speak to people; I had a 40-minute call with one woman last week, and I’m sure there will be other calls and Skype chats in the coming months.

I hope you don’t think I’m complaining, because I’m truly not. I’m excited about going to Calgary, it’s a great opportunity for me, and I’m looking forward to the trip. But I didn’t quite realise how much unpaid work I was taking on, alongside the paid work. As a result, I am going to need to rethink my charging structure for next time – though I won’t be charging anywhere near £3,000 per day.

Many people, I know, are envious of my luck in landing this Calgary gig. I feel lucky, and grateful for the opportunity. I’m sure there will be moments of glamour. But honestly, most of it is, and will be, hard graft.