By Dr Naomi Wells
With many social media platforms now entering their second decade, the ‘new media’ label has become increasingly redundant. Nevertheless, at least within the humanities, social media research continues to be treated as a novelty or curiosity, even while the platforms themselves have become embedded in many academics’ professional and personal lives.
Although the field of digital humanities has reached a certain maturity, it has remained largely focused on the application of digital or computational methods to ‘pre-digital’ texts and cultural forms. There is, of course, a more established body of research on social media in media and communications studies. However, the ways in which social media has become increasingly intertwined with contemporary culture – including more ‘traditional’ cultural forms such as literary texts – as well as its role in documenting and shaping historical events demand far greater engagement from researchers across the humanities.
Social media and mobile technologies have also opened up opportunities for a much wider range of people to create and publish their work beyond the more conventional and restricted routes to cultural production. This is not to ignore the necessary critiques of the capitalist logics of social media platforms, but we are also seeing individuals and groups make use of these platforms in creative and critical ways often unforeseen by the platforms’ founders. Social media users are often adept at moving across and combining different media and modes such as text, image and video in their posts. Existing research has often focused on the communicative and social functions of these activities, but culture-focused researchers in the humanities could add richer insight into the aesthetic and narrative choices underpinning social media texts.
Such research has the potential to expand humanities-based understandings of culture beyond solely professional or ‘elite’ practices of cultural production. A refusal, however, to take social media as seriously as cultural texts is part of a longer-term reluctance to engage with emerging or popular cultural forms that contributed to earlier ‘crises of the humanities’. While not reflective of the humanities communities as a whole, we must acknowledge that the elements of conservatism identified by the founders of Cultural Studies continue to limit the humanities’ potential to respond to the realities of cultural and technological change.
In my critique of the reluctance of the humanities community to engage in social media research, I seek to strengthen recognition of the vital role of the humanities for furthering our insight into contemporary cultural forms and practices. The critical and creative contributions of humanities researchers are vital to understanding, and in turn transforming, our social media age, and it is well past time that humanities researchers addressed what is holding us back.
Dr Naomi Wells is a Lecturer in Italian and Spanish with Digital Humanities at the Institute of Languages, Cultures and Societies and the Digital Humanities Research Hub (School of Advanced Study, University of London). Her current research focuses on the Internet and social media, particularly in relation to online multilingualism, and her chapter on ‘Social Media, Research, and the Digital Humanities’ is published in The Bloomsbury Handbook to the Digital Humanities.