Friday, February 28, 2020

Brief Review: Public Engagement of Communication Scientists on Twitter

I've been working for many years on the concept of communication as a "practical discipline" -- an intellectual discipline (some would call it a science) that interacts with society to cultivate the practice of communication. How that interaction between an academic discipline and society actually happens and what it accomplishes are key questions.

The theme of this blog -- "{meta} discourses - communicating about communication in theory and practice" -- capsulizes my approach to the problem. Metadiscourse -- talk about communication -- goes on informally in society for practical reasons. More technical kinds of metadiscourse go on in the academic discipline of communication. Indeed, much of our main business as communication scholars consists of talking and writing about communication in careful, informed, and sometimes innovative ways. From this point of view, the problem of "cultivating" the practice of communication is how to engage those practical and academic metadiscourses with each other to develop a productive dialogue that enriches both.

Here and in my Twitter feed (@meta_d) I'm exploring that problem from from various angles. Ideally I'd like to participate in both practical and theoretical metadiscourses and to serve as a bridge between them, but how?

A study published in the current issue of New Media & Society speaks directly to that question. (This is an open access article, meaning it is free for anyone to download and read.) Two German researchers, Jakob Jünger and Birte Fähnrich, analyzed the Twitter activity of a sample of "communication scientists," defined as active users who follow the International Communication Association's Twitter feed (@icahdq) and whose profiles present them as scientists. (Apparently anyone who self-identifies as a communication scholar and follows ICA on Twitter counts as a "scientist." I might be in the sample.)

Especially helpful to me as I think about what I am trying to do here, Jünger and Fähnrich developed a category scheme for describing different forms of public engagement by scientists on Twitter. The scheme includes "scholarly communication directed at peers as well as science communication directed at lay publics" (p. 393). In addition to those "direction of engagement" (to peers or lay publics), the scheme distinguishes "topics of engagement" (scientific or nonscientific), and "modes of engagement" (content-centered or actor-centered).

Direction of engagement is determined by analyzing the profiles of each scientist's Twitter followers to count how many identify as peers (fellow scientists), as members of the lay public in business, media, or politics, or simply as individuals (personal). Topics of engagement are determined by categorizing the content of tweets as scientific topics (technical information about communication and media studies), personal topics, or public topics such politics, economy, and media. Finally, tweets that disseminate information have a topic-centered mode of engagement, while tweets that address users, for example to congratulate someone or to invite followers to join an event, have a actor-centered mode of engagement.

Based on these distinctions, the study identifies eight forms of engagement. Here they are with my own made-up examples:

(1) Reputational: Content-oriented messages on scientific topics that are received by peers (tweeting a technical comment about an academic article I just read, which builds my reputation in the field)

(2) Integrational: Actor-oriented messages on scientific topics that are received by peers (tweeting congratulations to a colleague on their new academic article, which builds my peer network)

(3) Informational: Content-oriented messages on scientific topics that are received by lay publics (tweeting as a communication expert in a non-technical style about the current research on a publicly relevant topic such as sexual harassment or Internet privacy)

(4) Participatory: Actor-oriented messages on scientific topics that are received by lay publics (tweeting as a communication expert in a non-technical style to comment on tweets posted by non-experts and invite further discussion of personal experiences in light of what the current research says about a publicly relevant topic such as sexual harassment or Internet privacy)

(5) Inspirational: Content-oriented messages on non-scientific topics that are received by peers (participating with other communication scholars in a Twitter thread in which we exchange observations on a current political campaign, which could inspire new, socially relevant research ideas among my peers)

(6) Activating: Actor-oriented messages on non-scientific topics that are received by peers (tweeting to urge other communication scholars to sign an online petition on a political issue, which can activate a sense of social responsibility among my peers)

(7) Intellectual: Content-oriented messages on non-scientific topics that are received by lay publics (tweeting as a communication expert to share information and express my personal opinion about a political candidate or a new movie)

(8) Communal: Actor-oriented messages on non-scientific topics that are received by lay publics (tweeting as a communication expert to urge my followers to volunteer or contribute to a political or charitable cause)

Well, that was quite an exercise, and I must admit some of my made-up examples feel a bit strained. However, the researchers in this study were able to place their sample of tweets into these categories with pretty good reliability, and their findings are interesting -- even somewhat encouraging.

What the findings show is that communication scientists engage in various ways with a pretty nice diversity of audiences on Twitter. About a third of their followers are scientists and about a third of their tweets concern academic research or teaching. However, only 10% of the followers identify as communication scientists, the rest of the scientific followers coming from other academic disciplines. So the the academic audience is refreshingly interdisciplinary. The lay audience is also quite diverse, about a quarter classified as "personal" and another quarter as "economic" (representing business and other non-scientific occupations). The followers include relatively few media people (8%) and political actors (4%).

Looking at topics of engagement, tweets on scientific topics (34%) personal topics (25%), and media topics (8%) closely match the proportions of followers in those categories. However, although 23% of tweets are on political topics, only 4% of the followers are in politics. While you might be tempted to interpret that difference as a discrepancy indicating a lack of political influence by communication scientists, there is no discrepancy. After all, the relevant audience for political discourse is the general public, not just politicians.

I've never broken down my own Twitter followers or tweets in this way, but I would guess my pattern of engagement is in the typical range of this study's findings. I tweet actively with varying frequency and my followers (719 at the moment) seem quite diverse. I don't tweet a lot on either personal topics or narrowly academic ones, nor do I often tweet polemically on political topics. My tweets are mostly content-oriented. I tweet on topics related to my interests in communication but usually in a non-technical style intended for a general audience. I sometimes get involved in discussion threads, though less often recently than in the past. (Note to self: Why not do more of that?)

I've only recently started blogging actively and this site doesn't have much of an audience yet, but I'd like to engage with an audience in this space as well as on social media. Who exactly am I writing for? That's a good question. The post you are now reading is a bit on the technical side and perhaps most relevant to other academics, but the writing is accessible and possibly engaging for general readers who have some interest in communication studies. Could the potential center of my audience be ... students?

Interestingly, the authors of this study never mention students as an audience, but education is probably the biggest area of institutional overlap where the academic discipline interacts with the rest of society. I would guess more than a few followers of @icahdq, and I know at least some my own Twitter followers, are students.

If you have thoughts on any of this, I would love to hear from you.

Further Reading

Craig, R. T. (2018). For a practical discipline. Journal of Communication, 68(2), 289-297. doi: 10.1093/joc/jqx013

Jünger, J., & Fähnrich, B. (2020). Does really no one care? Analyzing the public engagement of communication scientists on Twitter. New Media & Society, 22(3), 387-408. doi: 10.1177/1461444819863413

Friday, February 21, 2020

Conservative Whisper Networks?

To add a layer of context to my last post, what got me thinking about whisper networks and power this week was a column by the conservative (but anti-Trump) New York Times opinion writer, Bret Stephens, in which he describes people who are afraid to publicly express their support for Donald Trump for fear of reprisal from angry liberals as "Trump's whisper network."

Based on the number of "secret voters" who voted for Trump in 2016 but denied doing so to pollsters, Stephens anticipates that this "whisper network" could swing the 2020 presidential election to Trump again. He argues that the intolerant, angry condemnation by "snickering moralists" on the political left of anyone who expresses the slightest sympathy for Trump is only driving potential anti-Trump voters into "Trump's whisper network." He concludes that there is only one way for the Democrats to defeat Trump in 2020, that is:
By treating Trump voters with respect. By asking why so many of them wound up in his tent to begin with. By acknowledging that not everything that’s said in a hush is shameful, and that not everyone you disagree with is a bigot. By listening, not denouncing; empathizing, not ridiculing; understanding, not dismissing.
Whisper networks ought to have no place in the land of the free.
Implicitly, this is a ringing defense of "good communication" (acknowledging, listening, understanding) as against the abuse of cultural power by the intolerant left to silence and oppress Trump sympathizers, which not only is wrong (violates their freedom of speech) but also is ultimately self-defeating as it only feeds the growth of Trump's whisper network. Trump supporters, the victims of abuse by liberal "snickering moralists," just like the victims of workplace sexual harassment and abuse, are empowered by their whisper network, but ideally there would be no need for either oppressed group to resort to such a means of empowerment, Stephens implies.

To bridge the very wide gap in this analogy, Stephens opens his column with praise for the "honesty" and "courage" shown by the author, Katie Roiphe, in her 2018 Harper's Magazine article, "The Other Whisper Network: How Twitter feminism is bad for women." While she welcomes the #MeToo movement against workplace sexual harassment and abuse, Roiphe is critical of its excesses, including its vitriolic intolerance of anyone who questions those excesses. Women who voice criticisms of #MeToo are subjected to harsh condemnation by "Twitter feminists," with the result that many women with similar views are effectively silenced:
For years, women confined their complaints about sexual harassment to whisper networks for fear of reprisal from men. This is an ugly truth about our recent past that we are just now beginning to grapple with. But amid this welcome reckoning, it seems that many women still fear varieties of retribution (Twitter rage, damage to their reputations, professional repercussions, and vitriol from friends) for speaking out—this time, from other women. They are, in other words, inadvertently creating a new whisper network.
It would be naive to interpret these uses of "whisper network" as merely broadening the meaning of a term or innocently drawing an analogy. The rhetorical purpose in both cases is something like to pull moderates away from radicals on the left or in #MeToo by pricking the liberal conscience with accusations that the radicals are perpetrating a form of oppression not unlike the very forms of oppression that their movement ostensibly opposes. The issue resembles the disputes about tactics that often go on between movement radicals and moderates. In this regard, Roiphe's appeal to members of a movement she basically supports is considerably more credible than Stephens' pitch across the yawning left-right divide in US politics. Both, however, tend to dilute the meaning of "whisper network" by distracting from its primary pragmatic context, in effect, changing the subject.

Another context for Stephens' argument is the recent tendency of conservatives to challenge the power of the left on university campuses and elsewhere by appealing to liberal values of free speech and diversity, stretching the meaning of the latter term to include "intellectual diversity" and "political diversity." Using liberal arguments to empower conservatives. Nevertheless, they are sometimes good arguments.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Communication, Power, and the Whisper Network

We can think of communication and power as two opposite ways of getting things done with others. The way of communication is for people to talk about a situation, come to an understanding of what needs to happen, and voluntarily coordinate their efforts to get it done. The way of power is for those who have power to use it to get what they want by controlling the behavior of others, whether through force or threat, legitimate authority (owner, boss, judge, priest, parent), incentive (money, favors), or sheer personal charisma (rock star, guru, demagogue). (For now, we won't go into into theories of power, a vast subject.)

The distinction between communication and power is invoked when parents are advised to talk with their children, or bosses with their workers, or stronger nations with weaker ones, to work out problems instead of using their power to compel compliance. It's a useful distinction for promoting more peaceful, cooperative, humane ways of living together though communication. It's also an idealistic distinction that considerably oversimplifies the actual relations between communication and power. As usual, I don't propose to give up a valid ideal but do want to understand its limits and possibilities in a complex reality. Consider, for example, the whisper network.

The term "whisper network" refers to an old communication practice that recently has gained prominence and taken new forms in the context of the #MeToo movement. Here is a definition from Wikipedia:
whisper network is an informal chain of information passed privately between women. It is typically a list of powerful people in an industry alleged as being sexual harassers or abusers. The information is often shared between women by word of mouth or online in private communities, forums, spreadsheets, and crowd-sourced documents. The stated purpose of maintaining these lists is to warn potential victims of "people to avoid" in their industry. Whisper networks also purportedly help victims identify a common abuser and come forward together about a serial abuser. (, retrieved February 18, 2020)
Based on my research, I think this definition puts too much emphasis on the idea of circulating "lists" of abusers. That happens, of course, but the practice more broadly is to share information about abusers and provide social support for victims through informal networks that could also be described as gossip networks or "the grapevine."

I used Google and Twitter searches to learn something about the recent history of this concept. A Google Web search on "whisper network" (in quotes) produced about 160,000 hits, so we know it's out there in circulation. People are talking about it. Running the same search on Twitter year by year, moving backward from 2019 to 2010 revealed that "whisper network" was not used in its current sense much before 2014. I found no clear examples on Twitter before that year; and a Google Ngram search found no instance of the phrase in books published between 1800 and 2008. It is a new concept. The hashtag #WhisperNetwork has appeared only since 2018, mainly to promote a popular novel of that title by Chandler Baker; but "whisper network" (no hashtag) often appears in tweets with the hashtag #MeToo. It is a concept that has gained impetus from the burgeoning #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and abuse.

Much of the "whisper network" Twitter traffic in that first year of 2014 referred to "Workplace Harassment, Reporting, and the Whisper Network," an online article by Jennifer Wong in which she narrated her own experience with a serial workplace harasser named "Leon" whose behavior continued unpunished for years and victimized numerous women in a certain unnamed workplace. Wong explained the importance of the "whisper network" for combating this widespread problem:
The ‘whisper network’ – if you’ve worked in an office, you probably know it. There are two sides to that network. One is destructive and full of gossip, one is empathetic and fiercely protective. I’ll focus on the latter side and its importance in supporting those undermined in a working environment. The ‘whisper network’ creates a safe haven to discuss problems and prejudices experienced, warn others of harassers, and bolster camaraderie.
Even years beyond my experience of being harassed, anytime I divulge my story to coworkers (new or old), I find that they have their own stories of sexual harassment to share. The prevalence of sexual harassment in our workplaces constantly shocks me. However, the more women who are willing to share their experience, the bigger this ‘whisper network’ becomes. This can lead to a powerful, underground circle of empathy and safeguards.
As an aside, although I don't know how the term "whisper network" originated, I would hazard the guess that it was created as a play on "WhisperNet," a service introduced by Amazon in 2007 to provide internet access for downloading books on early versions of the Kindle e-reader. The phrase "Me Too," which went viral as #MeToo in 2017, appears to have been first used publicly on social media by the sexual harassment victim and activist Tamara Burke in 2006. As the #MeToo movement emerged, "WhisperNet" was available for coining a clever new name for one of its communication practices.

So, what does this have to do with communication and power? If communication and power are opposite ways of getting things done with others, then the whisper network is a great example of the communication way. It consists of women getting together to share information and support each other to address a shared problem. And, of course, the problem in question, sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, is an equally great example of the power way of getting things done as men abuse the power arising from their gender privilege and workplace status to get what they want by manipulating or coercing women.

Looking even just a little more closely, however, we see a more complex relationship between the whisper network and power. If communication is the whisper network's method, after all, power is its purpose: empowering women to combat an abuse of power. (A Google search on <"whisper network" and empower> returned 43,000 hits; while Chandler Baker's novel has been criticized for trivializing the #MeToo movement by turning it into "an empowerment fantasy.") 

More generally, getting things done with others through communication perhaps always occurs in some sort of power context where the "getting things done" part impinges on others or faces opposition. And the use of power, of course, typically involves some use of communication, for example for the purpose of "grooming" potential victims of sexual harassment or abuse.

One takeaway is that we can distinguish communication from power conceptually but perhaps can never entirely separate them in practice, even if we would want to do so, at least sometimes. I say "perhaps" to acknowledge that the point has been illustrated but not yet proven. We have barely scratched the surface of this issue.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Attack on War Metaphors!

Whether or not communication is really a kind of warfare by other means, we often talk casually as if it were. Take the title of this blog post, for example. My topic is literally criticism of the way we use war metaphors to talk about communication, but instead of titling this post "criticism of war metaphors" I did what many headline writers would do. I spiced it up by using a war metaphor ("attack") that calls up the conceptual metaphor, ARGUMENT IS WAR.

My use of a war metaphor to describe criticism of war metaphors was intended to be ironically funny (note the silly exclamation point!), but this feeble attempt at humor may be easy to miss.

Maybe that's partly because metaphors of war and violence are so common in everyday metatalk we hardly notice them. "He blew up the meeting!" "She shot down his plan!" "We'll battle it out!" Any situation that involves opposition or even exerting effort can be framed metaphorically as a war. Public discourse is full of war metaphors: "The war on cancer!" "The battle against climate change!" "We'll fight to the death for affordable health care!" "Trump lashes out at (fill in the blank)!"

Critics worry that as our image of communication is influenced by constant exposure to these violent metaphors, our communication actually becomes more vitriolic and warlike in general. This criticism of the overuse of war metaphors is nothing new. Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen's popular 1998 book on the subject was titled The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words. Tannen described "a pervasive warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight." She went on:
The argument culture urges us to approach the world--and the people in it--in an adversarial frame of mind. It rests on the assumption that opposition is the best way to get anything done: The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; the best way to cover news is to find spokespeople who express the most extreme, polarized views and present them as "both sides"; the best way to settle disputes is litigation that pits one party against the other; the best way to begin an essay is to attack someone; and the best way to show you're really thinking is to criticize. (pp. 3-4)
It can be hard to talk about argument without using war metaphors. In their book, Metaphors We Live By (1980), language theorists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson showed that our concept of ARGUMENT is systematically structured by the conceptual metaphor, ARGUMENT IS WAR. (By the way, the convention of writing metaphorical concepts in ALL CAPS comes from Lakoff and Johnson.) Noting everyday expressions like "your claims are indefensible," "I demolished his argument," and "I've never won an argument with him," Lakoff and Johnson claimed that these expressions are more than just a metaphorical way of speaking because the war metaphor literally structures the concept and practice of argument in our culture. As they wrote,
It is important to see that we don't just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war. (p. 4)
"Partially structured" is a key qualification. If our concept and practice of argument were totally structured by the concept of war, there would be no distinction at all between argument and physical combat, and there would be no way to talk, for example, about the logical difference between arguments from authority and arguments from personal experience. We can also use different metaphors to talk about argument. For example, we "construct" arguments and "buttress" them with evidence so they won't "fall apart." This is the conceptual metaphor, ARGUMENTS ARE BUILDINGS (Lakoff and Johnson, p. 46). We can also think of arguments as games, rituals, and other relatively peaceful sorts of things. However, the predominance of war metaphors is undeniable.

Is this really a problem? Can talking about communication in metaphors of war and violence actually make our world more warlike and violent? Tannen's description of the argument culture and Lakoff and Johnson's theory of conceptual metaphors both seem to suggest that war metaphors are a contributing factor. 

If violent language is part of the problem, then language reform might be part of the solution. Peace linguists like the Brazilian scholar Francisco Cardoso Gomes de Matos advocate "humanizing" language education--teaching ways of speaking that promote nonviolence and human dignity. 

Promoting peaceful language sounds like a good idea, but language reform efforts should be based on a realistic understanding of how metaphors work in communication. A recent review of the academic literature on war metaphors concludes that they can have positive as well as negative consequences depending on how they are used and in what context. Talking about a "war on climate change" or a "war on cancer" can be an effective, easily understood way to structure people's thinking and motivate action on an issue:  
We have argued that war metaphors are commonplace in public discourse in part because they tap into basic and widely shared schematic knowledge that efficiently structures our ability to reason about any situation involving opposing sides (at any level of abstraction). What’s more, the vivid emotional valence associated with war can quickly activate a sense of urgency and anxiety, which may motivate further action under some circumstances (at least in the short term). [...]
However ... there are potential dangers with the war framing. It may be ineffective or even harmful in some situations, for instance, for cancer patients with no hope of survival, or if framed in an overly negative way or emphasized over a long period of time. The war framing may also work well in some cultures but not in others. Therefore, our final suggestion is that communicators should be prepared to articulate the specific ways in which the target domain is like a war, and the ways in which it is not. If needed, they should be ready to replace the war frame with a different metaphoric message. (Flusberg, Matlock & Thibodeau, 2018, p. 11)
Although war metaphors can be ineffective or harmful in some situations, the available evidence doesn't show that the use of war metaphors is making society more violent or contentious in general.  To win the battle against communication that promote hatred, violence, and literal war, we must find the right targets to attack. We must hunt the devil.


Flusberg, S. J., Matlock, T., & Thibodeau, P. H. (2018). War metaphors in public discourse. Metaphor and Symbol, 33(1), 1-18. doi: 10.1080/10926488.2018.1407992

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tannen, D. (1998). The argument culture: Stopping America's war of words. New York: Random House.