Tim Squirrell is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on construction and negotiation of authority and expertise on the internet, with a focus on fitness and nutrition communities.

BBC World Service - Can Social Media Help You Lose Weight?

BBC World Service - Can Social Media Help You Lose Weight?

This Monday I went in to the BBC studio in Edinburgh and spent about 45 minutes on the line to the producers of BBC Trending, a programme on the World Service. We talked a lot about something pretty adjacent to the subject of my PhD thesis: why people turn to social media in order to get dietary advice, and whether there might be benefits and drawbacks to using particular sites. We talked specifically about the trade-offs of Instagram versus Reddit with respect to the influencer culture and heavy use of promotions and sponsorships on the former, versus the relative anonymity and interest-oriented communities of the latter.

The net result of that is about 5 and a half minutes of conversation on this edition of BBC Trending, “Can Social Media Help You Lose Weight?”. If you’re interested, you can find the things I was saying from about 2 minutes to about 7 minutes 30.

 BBC World Service - Trending - “Can Social Media Help You Lose Weight?” - Tim Squirrell on Instagram and Reddit Diet Communities

BBC World Service - Trending - “Can Social Media Help You Lose Weight?” - Tim Squirrell on Instagram and Reddit Diet Communities

How much work is in 5 minutes of air time?


Now, you might be thinking, “Tim, that’s an awful long time to spend talking to someone for so little air-time”, and you’d be right. You also wouldn’t be getting the half of it: I actually originally spoke to the producers of this programme in January for a programme that never aired, and we had to re-do this interview this week in order to take account of the way their script and directing had changed. I also spoke to them multiple times by email and phone. All in all, I’d say that I put a solid 3-4 hours or more into this, for about 5 minutes of air time.

That isn’t a complaint - not by any stretch of the imagination. I’m incredibly happy to have my work featured on a programme that reaches millions of people across the globe, and it’s deeply validating to have journalists approach me and ask for help in better understanding a topic that they’re working on. You get the opportunity not just to get a wider reach for your work, but also (if the people you’re working with are good and don’t have their argument already set in their head before they talk to you) the ability to steer the way the piece goes and make sure it doesn’t go too far off-piste.

This was a pretty successful experience for me: I’ve had numerous instances (usually with the BBC, but also with Sky and other media outlets) where I’ve spent hours on the phone to reporters only to find that nothing I say makes it into the final piece, or the show never gets aired. Again, not a complaint: just the nature of the beast. There was the time I spent hours on the phone (again with the BBC, hah) talking about incels, going deep into the history of the community and their thoughts and motivations, only to end up with a two minute spot on 5 Live after which I was cut off so that they could let caller Gary from Glasgow give his opinion about how they all just needed to grow a pair. I once chopped and changed a significant amount of a work day because I was going to talk to BBC Newsnight about QAnon and why people are drawn to conspiracy theories, only to be cut at the last minute because Aretha Franklin had died and the entire show was now being moulded around that. Then there are the three (3) documentary makers I’ve spoken to at the BBC about incels: none of those documentaries have come to fruition thus far, and I genuinely don’t know whether any of them ever will. Those call are at least an hour a piece, plus the time you spend negotiating when to have them, finding somewhere quiet to do them, and building your day around them as a commitment.

Be kind to your teacher/tutor/lecturer/professor this Christmas

I do think it’s important to acknowledge the reality of the unpaid labour that people like me do in talking to journalists about our work. It’s obviously beneficial to our careers in some intangible sense to be able to bring our research to wider audiences, but it’s not an easy quid pro quo where you can just weigh up the increased “impact” against the time you sink into a given piece.

It’s easy sometimes to feel like you’re being taken for a ride: I pitched a piece about some independent, non-thesis related research I’d done to a reputable centre-left UK political magazine, and they published it on the condition that I was offering it as “free copy” - that is, I wouldn’t be paid like any other freelancer, because of the presumption that we as academics benefit from our work reaching a wider audience.

It goes broader than just talking to journalists, though. This is part of a whole culture that asks academics to give of their skills and their labour for free. There are the people who expect you to do things as part of your “scholarly duty”, for example. I was recently invited to speak at a half-day workshop on Digital Methods and ways of studying social media, and the organiser wanted to be able to offer me some money to do it in recognition of the time and labour I would be contributing. The response from her funder was essentially that I (and all other academics) should be willing to do it for free (and maybe some sandwiches and coffee) as part of this scholarly duty.

The problem with all of this is that it plays into a culture that pays lip service to the idea that academic work is valuable, but doesn’t actually practice what it preaches: you work for free, because you do what you love, and that means you should be happy to provide your labour to anyone who asks on the off-chance it might put you in someone’s good books further down the line. The whole of higher education runs on goodwill and scholarly duty and the presumption that we can give up our time and work for free. Maybe - maybe - there’s an argument to be made that it’s just about acceptable if you’re tenured and salaried and have job security. But I’m in the last year of my PhD, with no job on the horizon, and I’m one of the lucky ones, because I at least have funding.

If you were in a relationship, giving all of your love and getting nothing back, you would say that was a relationship you needed to get out of. At the very least, you might start to question whether that was something you were prepared to do in perpetuity, just for the love of it. You might start to fall out of love.

The same is true of academia, or really any job. Keep asking us to give all of our time, and effort, and labour, and love, for free. Eventually we end up with either a broken conception of what it means to be valued for your contributions, or we break. Or both.

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