There has been a subtle but significant shift in academic life, one that is particularly visible in departments of philosophy, towards a self-presentation deliberately curated and controlled. Academics across the humanities and social sciences are increasingly encouraged to develop and maintain a research ‘profile’ – to produce a fixed narrative documenting their research and teaching interests to date. Typically, this involves presenting oneself as having X ‘area of specialisation’ or Y ‘area of competence’, ideally with a tidy history of how these areas developed over time and culminated in the current focal point of interest. Such profiles are developed for both departmental and personal websites. They are typically linked to from a professional email signature or a carefully curated social media account.
There are of course very practical reasons for this profiling. Contemporary academics who present as clearly and comprehensively as possible their areas of interest and expertise are more easily identifiable, either by potential collaborators in their disciplinary field or by those working in media or policy domains. Aspiring masters and doctoral students, as well as postdoctoral fellows and visiting academics, need to know which researchers are potentially a good fit as supervisors, mentors, and collaborators. And for the academic themselves, an intelligible and reasonably linear research profile is both useful and essential when applying for academic roles within or beyond their university institution. Profiling the academic self is a practice so embedded in academic life that it is now barely noticeable. As with similar rituals in the neoliberal academy, the ‘set of migratory practices’ in Ong’s words (2007, p. 4) that define the behaviour of the professionalized subject, the practice of profiling is essential to career advancement and prestige.
What is of particular interest in this practice is its encouragement of intelligibility – its subtle demand that the contemporary academic present to the world as a coherent, consistent, and orderly self. From the messiness of personal history and chance encounter, very particular details are gathered, sifted, chosen, and organized. The resulting narrative of a life is made to make sense for any external party. Academic Twitter plays its own significant part in this personal and professional branding. A limited number of characters on the home or profile page allow each user to highlight certain keywords or key autobiographical details; a ‘Twitter for Professionals’ option refines this summary even further. The purported objectives here, in the platform’s own words, are ‘to better connect with your audience, grow your brand, and increase your profits’.
Academics on Twitter may not be there for the profits but they are invested to lesser or greater extents in the finessing of their intellectual product.
Academics on Twitter may not be there for the profits but they are invested to lesser or greater extents in the finessing of their intellectual product, interdisciplinary and idiosyncratic as that might be. Again, the mingling of the personal and the professional goes all the way down but the impulse to attractively style oneself as a particular type of person with a particular set of intellectual and everyday interests is no less powerful for that (“Philosophy academic here. Follow me for rants on Sellars and Davidson and the over-use of ‘epistemic’ in journal article titles. Also: owls/burlesque/ethical people-watching”).
Jenny Odell has written compellingly of Twitter’s ability ‘to create brands rather than people’ and the resulting impact on its users’ capacities for reflection and relationship. For Odell, what is particularly worrying in this context is the platform’s subtle encouragement that we avoid altering our perspectives or personae or that we choose consistent marketing over inconsistent humanity. Twitter norms and conventions compel us, rather, to maintain a set of distinctive characteristics establishing a recognizable identity over time. ‘It’s completely normal and human to change our minds, even about big things’, Odell writes. ‘Friends, family and acquaintances can see a person who lives and grows in space and time, but the crowd can only see a figure who is expected to be as monolithic and timeless as a brand’ (Odell, 2019, p. 163).
The impact on academic users is as unfortunate as it is considerable. It becomes difficult to try on new identities or new ideas. It becomes difficult to express a view seemingly inconsistent with one expressed before.
Twitter, in other words, discourages a fluid and complex self. It prioritizes stability over self-creation. And, given the potentially limitless nature of the audience that one might reach with any one tweet or set of tweets, Twitter subtly cultivates a set of internalized pressures keeping one’s communications (both in terms of content and in terms of tone) as consistent as possible over time. The impact on academic users is as unfortunate as it is considerable. It becomes difficult to try on new identities or new ideas. It becomes difficult to express a view seemingly inconsistent with one expressed before. The natural progressions of thinking and then re-thinking – of thesis and antithesis coexisting in productive tension – are no longer seen as the cornerstones of a reflective life but as unnecessary complications to any cohesive personal brand. This is what Kerrigan and Hart have termed ‘the construction of the self as content’ (1707) where public and private identities blur and the individual becomes ‘more hermeneutically sealed as a piece of data’. Far from allowing us to share our authentic selves with the world, then, social media platforms can to a large extent alienate, depersonalize, and dehumanize.
Such seeming inconsistency is not a problem to be solved but a liberation to be welcomed.
Much is at stake here philosophically. We might pause to consider that a considerable portion of twentieth century philosophy has been preoccupied with exploring the complexity and inconsistency of the individual self. Across analytic and continental traditions, ‘the self’ is rarely figured as a stable and essential entity but rather is understood in intersubjective and mutable terms. In Richard Rorty’s anti-foundationalist pragmatism, to take one representative case, the very idea of fixed personhood is troubled. Rorty draws an important distinction between ‘self-knowledge’ and ‘self-creation’, arguing that it is the latter – encompassing ‘our accidental idiosyncrasies’, ‘our irrational components’, ‘our incompatible sets of beliefs and desires’ (Rorty, 1991, p. 148) – that should be celebrated and brought to the fore. Fixing or defining any individual is for Rorty an impossible task as we all contain within ourselves ‘a number of inconsistent selves, of unharmonized dispositions’ (Rorty, 1998, p. 78). We have all been irked by that college friend from twenty years ago who passively aggressively comments ‘oh, I didn’t think you were into yoga?’ (to whom we might reasonably want to scream ‘people change, Barbara!!) but on a philosophical level, such seeming inconsistency is not a problem to be solved but a liberation to be welcomed. At least for Rorty, there is no essential self, no essential brand or profile, and the resulting freedom to improvise is nothing short of intoxicating. What Iris Murdoch refers to as ‘the alarmingly formless rubble of a life’ presents endless opportunity to experiment and to self-create.
Dr Áine Mahon is Assistant Professor in Philosophy of Education at the School of Education University College Dublin.