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


  1. Dear Robert, thanks for your review. I very much appreciate how you make sense out of it and how you address the practical consequences.

    Particularly, the question of who is in the audience has puzzled me for a long time. In the paper, we only look at the potential audience, i.e. who could be reached by tweets because he or she is a follower. You mention students as some kind of imagined or intended or addressed audience of your blog post. Eventually, we all know, potential and addressed audience often differ from the actual audience. Overall, we need to distinguish between addressed, accessible and actual publics. And if only your friends or colleages read this, can we really speak of publics? (btw: In my dissertation, I am detailing these questions, unfortunately so far only published in German).

    Your examples for the different forms of engagement implicitly point out the core of the problem. How should you write if lay publics are to be addressed? We can only, like you did with the blog post, build bridges. Whether someone crosses the bridge is not up to us.


    1. The distinction of potential, addressed, and actual audiences is important. Thanks for your comment.