Anxiety of influence

The discovery that Music for Deckchairs has been described as a top ten “Australian social media influencer” is surprising, to say the least. I know who has influenced me over a long time in the Australian online public sphere, and it’s not me.  I’ve been blogging below the radar for less than a year, and have been on Twitter for precisely five minutes. In fact, I’m only on Twitter at all thanks to the colleagues who have travelled with me to Umeå pointing out that my continuing to avoid social media is undignified for someone actually convening a social media event.

So I hope not to seem ungrateful for the nice things The Guardian has said about MfD under these circumstances, but I do have some questions.

The obvious one is this: why Australian? What are we searching for in sequestering social media users in national clusters?  This is related in practical ways to the dilemma of identity that affects Australian cultural producers in many spheres.  Sometimes I like to ask students what they think an Australian film might be.  Is it a film made by Australians, made about something Australian, starring Australians, funded by the Australian government, or (more controversially) perhaps a film that is meaningful to Australian audiences?  The huge list generated by answering yes to all of these questions would disrupt the definition of “Australian” to a staggering degree, and in entirely good ways.

When we ask these questions about cultural work in Australia, we’re almost always gesturing towards the question of influence: what is it that intersects with the culture of where we are in a way that somehow helps us think about who we are?  How can we wrestle with the dilemma of small domestic population and thus very small domestic market in such a way that Australian influence over this and that is satisfactorily maintained?  This affects Australian higher education, and particularly Australian higher education online, as powerfully as it affects any other cultural industry in Australia trying to keep swimming in the fast running rip of global media culture.

The second question is: why “influencer”?  I can see how this works when “higher education influencer”—ordinarily a person in a position of some institutional consequence—matches up with “social media user”.  The result tends to be an extension of their existing influence into a wider sphere, and we can all see who these social media power users are in higher education, but it’s not necessarily social media that lends them their reach. Nor is it necessarily the case that they are actively influencing anything, so much as that people are following them about to keep an eye on what they say, as their comments are more likely to predict the likely changes in institutional weather, than the idle thoughts and occasional frustrations of the rest of us.

For most of us very ordinary users, the question isn’t one of influence, so much as of conversation. We’re moving through tiny interlinked micro-networks in which we exchange reasonably small ideas, one at a time. We’re whispering in the dark, and occasionally people pass by and can hear us, but often we’re just sorting out our own thoughts by ourselves.

In this haunted space of social media nearness, the people who influence me are the people whose ideas and ways of writing give me a prompt, every day, to rethink something I’ve been taking for granted. They’re often the people who make me feel slightly off the mark about key aspects in higher education.  They’re sometimes people with whom I have active, running disagreements. Some of them are people I know, and some of them are people whose writing has become important to me over time. That’s my idea of influence: people who change me, one way and another.

So I think the sudden elevation of this fairly personal set of thoughts to the sphere of influence is a misrecognition of tall order, for which I can only apologise to all my far better established, experienced and organised colleagues who really are using social media for wide influence in Australian higher education.

But it has at least cleared up one small thing.  The first time MfD was ever mentioned on Twitter, for a post about online learning in the iron triangle of university resourcing that was then retweeted a few times, that particular moment of pass-it-on media whispering accidentally propagated the idea that MfD is written by Shirley Leitch.  Our respective positions in The Guardian‘s playlist has cleared up that we aren’t the same thing.

As for the other element of this sudden outing of MfD, which relates to where I’m actually employed, and to the endless dance of institutional brand management, please imagine me humming Leonard Cohen at this point: “If I, if I have been unkind, I hope that you will just let it go by.”

5 thoughts on “Anxiety of influence

  1. Great post MFD! This post is a beautiful example of why other social media users see you as an influencer. Your words make people think twice about stuff they take for granted (eg. your thoughts on what constitutes Australian film), possibly push a few buttons here & there or make some “feel slightly off the mark” as you say. All good and entirely needed in my opinion.

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  2. Thanks, Kylie — and nice to hear from you. I’m currently in England, where it’s clearer than ever that “Australian” and “influence” is a contradiction in terms of some significance, and I think this is an issue we are all grappling with. So I’m still puzzled by The Guardian’s project — I feel as though I missed a step in a conversation, as I find myself wondering if it’s part of national series? And if so, will we get “English social media influencers” or “American social media influencers”? For all sorts of reasons that are probably much more obvious to Australians (and Canadians) I’m guessing that we won’t.

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  3. “So I think the sudden elevation of this fairly personal set of thoughts to the sphere of influence is a misrecognition of tall order”

    I’m with Kylie. For a contrarian view of the quote above – perhaps the elevation is an acknowledgment that “other social media users see you as an influences”. You deserve the recognition on the merits, even if it is discomforting. You certainly make me think twice about edtech stuff.

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  4. Phil
    This is really kind of you, especially given your own wide influence. I do think we are all trying to create a new kind of conversation about ed tech, and this might be how we jointly achieve some shifting of the compass, that we might call ‘good influence’. Let’s be hopeful.

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