I’ve been spending a lot of time talking to researchers about how to use social media effectively, so it was a real pleasure to interview Charlotte Frost who has made her use of social media an integral part of her academic practice.
AiCD: Who are you?
My name is Dr Charlotte Frost I’m the 2011/2012 International Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for 21st Century Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I’m a broadcaster and academic interested in the relationship between art and technology. My particular specialism is the impact of digital technologies on art historical discourse, but I’ve also been studying and writing about the developing field of Digital and New Media art for over ten years. I teach art contextual modules at Writtle School of Design and the University of Westminster. And I run a range of projects that support my research objectives while creating platforms for knowledge exchange and experimentation – particularly with reference to publishing.
AiCD: Tell us a little bit about PhD2Published?
PhD2Published was started out of necessity. I didn’t know how to get my first academic book published, but I did know that it was something I needed to do. I began the site in a bid to find out about academic publishing. In line with many of the projects I’ve written about in the Digital and New Media arts arena, it came from an ‘open source’ ethos. That is, I felt that academic publishing was still very ‘closed source’, in the sense that methodologies were not being freely shared. I wanted to use myself as a ‘guinea pig’, and create some easy methods that others could use and pass on. More than that, I wanted to make a site that wasn’t just for reading, but could be actively used as a way of developing your career path. For example, post-docs can write for the site and get in touch with precisely the publishing entities relevant to their career path. They can get answers to questions important to them, all while introducing themselves to those entities well before they actually pitch their book. It’s a route to getting yourself on their radar. On top of this, I had planned that if the site worked and I landed my own book deal, I would let someone else lead it’s editorial direction and use it to repeat my results – and so on. So it’s a resource that’s built around peer-to-peer sharing, but it’s also an umbrella organisation early-career academics can strategically work under, and a peer-mentoring scheme.
AiCD: So what’s Arts Future Book then?
It occurred to me, while I was researching publishing, that the focus of my academic work could be summarised by the tricky relationship between Digital/New Media art and publishing. For a variety of reasons, books on Digital art forms are problematic: presenting and discussing dynamic work in print and to long deadlines contradicts the essence of a constantly fluctuating and fast-paced field. As a result, there are relatively few publishers that deal with Digital and New Media art theory. Those writing about it acutely feel the irony of doing so from the confines of print but are just as conscious of the lack of willing publishers and the impact on their careers. As with PhD2Published, I decided to work on this problem by thinking about how I could address this gap. First, I needed to research digital developments in academic publishing, and look into the range of options out there. Second, I needed to create the type of book series that would address these developments, and publish the type of book I (and others like me) wanted to write.
Through my research I uncovered a range of organisations that would make relevant partners in the project and, to my delight, they all agreed to come on board. So then I started talking to publishers: pitching them the idea for the book series and my own book as the pilot. Mostly publishers were interested in one component or the other, but when I met Anthony Levings of Gylphi (via PhD2Published and Twitter) I knew it was a good match. We had to discuss the nature of the project and work out an agreement for how I’d operate as series editor; then of course my own book proposal had to go out for peer-review. But eventually it all came together, and the first chunk of research was completed as part of a post-doctoral fellowship at HUMlab, a digital humanities laboratory in Umea, Sweden.
I always think it’s important to talk about Arts Future Book with reference to PhD2Published because in a sense it shows the next stage of my thinking. Also, although both sites have quite different objectives, they clearly nurture each other, and this is key to my strategy. When I’m asked to talk about publishing and career development, I use the related projects to demonstrate a particular way of working that allows you build the resources you need and enter into valuable dialogue with the organisations and institutions you’d most like to.
AiCD: What technology do you use for your blogs/website?
PhD2Published is a self-hosted WordPress site and it has a Twitter account and Facebook page. I also video blog for the site, and have my own YouTube channel to host these videos. Arts Future Book has a page on the publisher’s website, a Facebook page and a Posterous blog. It’s less discursive than PhD2Published and the Posterous blog is really just a way for me to double-up on broadcasting the resources I want to share. I don’t tweet for Arts Future Book because there’s overlap with PhD2Published and because, quite frankly, there are only so many hours in the day.
Actually, I was recently at an event, and someone very generously introduced me as a person who could ‘bend time’. If you get set up well and also use tools like Tweetdeck, you can certainly have the appearance of being able to bend time, but in reality I’m just as overstretched as everyone else. Although again, nurturing the different aspects of my work, I did make a set of videos with a-n magazine on how creatives can best approach blogging, Twitter and Facebook, just to share a bit of the time-bending magic.
AiCD: So, in practical terms, how is PhD2Published run?
While I was setting it up, I opted to use Google Docs to store all the files I was making. There’s one for the mailing list; one with a list of useful sites; one that describes the protocol for posting to the site; there’s even the document containing the huge number of Weekly Wisdom posts that I wrote in one 24 hour session. I had a wonderful intern work with me one day a week last summer, and we divided up tasks and used the Google Docs and Google Calendar to manage things. If either of us found a better way of doing something, the corresponding Google Doc was updated. This proved to be a great test case. It showed me that someone could run the site in line with its central aims and without having to have much prior knowledge of WordPress or blogging.
As soon as I landed my book deal I was anxious to find the site a new editor. So, when I met Sarah-Louise Quinnell, on Twitter (after she asked for Viva advice), I relentlessly chased her until she agreed to take part. I wanted someone from a different academic field, and with some understanding of social media, to put their own spin on academic publishing. To put it simply, Sarah is in charge of posting whatever content suits her career strategy. For example, she’s less interested in publishing a book right now, and much more concerned with how her thesis might be successfully presented as journal articles. As a result, she’s been running some fantastic series on how to choose journals and write decent articles – as well as looking into other publishing issues like too-good-to-be-true offers from publishers.
I continue to contribute to the site and Sarah and I are in almost daily communication. We discuss ideas, check we’re not duplicating anything, divvy up any requests for information, and make sure we’re keeping abreast of developments in publishing. We have regular meetings about the long-term aims of the site as well as our career goals, and if Sarah wants to run anything by me site-related or otherwise, she knows she can. Sarah already knew a lot about using social media for research and this has really benefitted the site. She’s now regularly posting for the fabulous Thesis Whisperer and we both recently took part in a Guardian Higher Education Network live Q&A on ‘life after a PhD’. And when Sarah’s ready to move on, it’s exciting to know that her own experiences will build on mine and contribute to the journey of a new editor.
AiCD: You’ve explained how the two projects came about, but why did you decide to base them around blogs?
My first blog was actually a knitting blog. As I’ve said, my background is Digital and New Media art and I was very familiar with blogging, but the first time it really made sense to me, at a personal level, was with knitting. This is because (as Ele Carpenter’s Open Source Embroidery project ably shows) there’s an interesting connection between crafting circles and open source culture. My knitting blog was not about me showing off what I had knitted so much as it was the way I learned to knit. There’s a huge international community of knitting bloggers (at least there was before other platforms took over) and being a part of this community was the perfect way to find new patterns, techniques, and swap anything from yarn to ideas. At the time, I think some of my friends seriously thought about disowning me: the idea of knitting and then blogging about knitting seemed too geeky for words. But as I say, it was like a global knitting tutorial. And after that, I had a much better idea of the way social media can be used not just to share the what of something, but also the how, and this was pivotal. I went on to set up other blogs like Digital Critic and when it came to researching publishing and really looking into methodology it was the obvious option.
AiCD: One of the things that you do is video blogging. How did that come about and what is the purpose of it?
Video blogging came about because, as every good teacher knows, people respond differently to different information formats. I wanted everyone to be able to find a channel of content that would work for them. I had the written blog planned with different amounts of content: short – the weekly wisdom slots; medium – the publisher and author tips slots; long – my own posts and guest blog posts. I also had Twitter set up for short content, links and passing material on through Retweets. And of course, offering people the chance to write for the site was the more interactive part. So it seemed logical to do something video or audio-based as well. On top of this, I wanted to honestly talk about the choices I was making and how they were turning out and, in the end, just saying it out loud seemed a good way of doing that.
I would say, however, that video blogging was the hardest part of the site. I had no video-editing skills to speak of and a whole mess of incompatibility issues with Windows 7, the Flip camera I was using and free editing software. I had a couple of crashes early on and lost material – not to mention that it’s actually really hard to edit when you’re cringing behind a chair. Combined with this was the fact that I wasn’t really sure how to measure what a successful amount of views might be. My recent (above mentioned) videos on social media quickly tipped the 1000 mark (as they were for a popular arts magazine) but my videos for PhD2Published only get about 100 views. In a way I’m comparing apples and oranges because of course they wouldn’t get anywhere near the same number, but it’s still hard to know if they’ve been successful. On the other hand, you could say that 100 views is pretty respectable for such a niche channel of information.
My inability to actually bend time has meant that they are too labour intensive for me right now but I would like to revisit video blogging in the coming months. Now that I am writing my book I’d like to talk about how that is panning out: the highs and lows of embarking the next substantial piece of writing of my academic career. Sarah doesn’t feel video blogging is for her, and that’s absolutely fine, but one day I’d love to have a site editor who’s really up for it and can teach me a thing or two!
AiCD: How often do you update your blog?
I prefer for PhD2Published to have at least a couple of new bits of content a week, but ideally it should have 3 or 4. My own blog,
Digital Critic, is much more sporadic because it’s more self-promotional so when I’m busy, that’s the one that suffers. Arts Future Book is more of a ‘re-blog’ in the sense that it doesn’t feature any dedicated content but re-circulates material that’s already out there and, again, this is sporadic.
AiCD: What sort of things do you write about?
For PhD2Published I write about anything related to academic publishing and wider digital developments in the publishing sphere, as well as how to use social media for career development. My own blog has news of my events and publications and features a random stream of things I want to comment on relating to art and technology.
AiCD: Who do you think reads it?
Who knows? I look at Google Analytics occasionally to get a rough idea of things, but I tend to go more on the responses I get from people. I’ve had people come up to me at events who know my name because they’ve watched a video blog of mine, which is always unexpected but fun. I’m constantly surprised when people say something like ‘I was reading your blog the other day and…’. And receiving thank you notes about PhD2Published is great, and a wonderful way of finding out how the site is benefitting people or ways we can meet their needs better. But actually, I don’t like to over-analyse. Neither PhD2Published nor Digital Critic are businesses in any sense, so numbers or reader-profiles aren’t important; for me, it’s just about putting it out there for those who are interested. That said, either way, they’re probably academic because you’ll find little by way of celebrity gossip in my blogosphere – even if I do tweet about clothes and jewellery a bit more than I should.
AiCD: What is it about you that makes you think that people should listen to what you have to say?
I’d say with reference to PhD2Published – certainly at the start of its life a year ago – what made me worth listening to was precisely the fact I wasn’t worth listening to. What I mean is: I was openly admitting I didn’t know enough about academic publishing, and quickly discovering that neither did many of my peers. Blogging is not necessarily about being important or having new things to say so much as it’s about voicing something people connect with. In this sense (and referring back to the point I was making about using blogs to discuss how something is done) I’d say that some of the best blogging is instructional. Self-referential blogs like ProBlogger endlessly share method and that’s a winning formula. It doesn’t have to come from a place of authority, but at least a place of interest and energy.
When I teach my students about blogging, I try to get them to think about either what they’d like to know about – something they want to be able to do for example – or something they can do already and can competently share. This is a good way to start because the chances are, if you don’t know how to do it, somebody else does, and if you do know how to do it, somebody else doesn’t. Then there’s instant affinity. I remember with knitting blogs that the popular ones weren’t always run by great knitters, but by knitters who had an investigative streak. People would flock to them to be a part of the learning process. So much of what interests me about digital culture is the free and open public learning that goes on, and it remains the case that if you’re an engaged learner, you’ll inevitably say something of value to others.
AiCD: What have been the best things about blogging?
As I’ve just said, for me, blogging is about learning and, as I’m totally and utterly addicted to learning, I find it a hugely enjoyable way to get a fix! I think it’s such a great tool for research because, even though blogging still has the reputation of being a broadcast tool, it’s really about group discovery, and that’s so exciting. I also enjoy how blogs can connect you with people you might never meet, but with whom you have meaningful exchanges nonetheless. And then there’s the instantaneity of it all. You can put something out there so quickly and autonomously and talk to the people you want to talk to.
AiCD: What are the downsides?
It’s time consuming and sometimes guilt-ridden. I hate it when I feel like I can’t keep up. Also, I guess you have to form a bit of a thick skin. Like I said, I cringe at the video blogging more than anything, but I had to try it out as a platform, and that meant just sticking it up and not worrying too much about how I came across. That is easier said than done though.
Also, you should never forget the permanence of the internet. I’m fairly chatty through all social media but there are things I’d never share. With reference to using blogs as career development tools, you need to be really sure you’re not going to say something that might harm a later job application, for example. My rule is: don’t say anything online you wouldn’t shout out loud to a room full of strangers. It’s good to remember that, but I personally think that where academia is concerned, it’s probably wise to have a bit of a strategy in advance. What I mean is, have an idea before you start of the types of things you will and won’t be drawn into conversation on. And maybe it remains the case that if you really want to tackle some controversies, anonymity might be a better route – although they found Brooke Magnanti in the end didn’t they!
AiCD: What blogs do you read?
That’s like asking me to name each particle I breathe. There are too many to count because not only do I read some blogs habitually, but I regularly go for blog wanders and collect w
hole pathways of content. I used to try to keep blogrolls up to date on my sites for those that are specifically relevant to the area in question, so maybe check those out for examples – although they’ve surely lapsed. Otherwise I’d list anything from The Bibelotphile to Zen Habits.