“You Can’t Tweet That!” Personal Branding and Public Intellectuals

Lewis Gordon at Truthout argues that the market model of academia has killed the public intellectual.  He argues that market pressures, including heavy competition for limited jobs, and the focus on professional academics as masters of technical and textual knowledge has forced public intellectuals into creating the equivalent of academic literature reviews every time they want to talk about major issues of public interest.  He contrasts this market-driven logic with some of the public intellectuals of the past, who rejected the spoils of faculty positions and prestigious prizes.  He writes:

For many, it’s impossible to imagine intellectuals like Fanon and Sartre as anything short of holier than thou, even though neither of them argued that academics should not have academic pursuits and seek academic rewards. They simply asked for the rest of us not to pretend that the world is somehow better off by our being rewarded for such pursuits and especially so in the most prestigious representations of establishment.

A key pillar of this argument is a critique of fame – or, at the very least, the commoditization of academic fame.  In my office today there was much discussion of how we young academics are expected to maintain a personal brand.  Every tweet, every blog post could be read by future employers or future students, and all must be kept consistent, in content and style, with what we are expected to produce as knowledge workers.  And as social media is time-sensitive, the brand must be maintained at all times.  The reward for maintaining this image is an academic job, as Gordon points out, but it is also fame within the social media sphere.

This is a double-edged sword for anyone who (like me) has aspirations as a public intellectual.  On the one hand, as the Chronicle of Higher Education has pointed out, many factors combine to limit the number of academic posts.  With more competition, productivity becomes important.  So turn off Twitter and stop reading blogs.  Write that article, and ignore the Party on the Internet. But leaving aside the perilous labour conditions and the market-driven environment that might await once one gets the academic post, there’s also the immediate question of how much to engage with the flow of debate rushing through the social media sphere.  To catch the stream, one must maintain a different sort of personal brand – one that depends on constant and high quality participation.

I disagree with Gordon’s claim that it’s essentially impossible to be a true public intellectual under current market conditions.  I think it is possible, but it comes with a heavy pressure of time and participation that doesn’t seem to be well understood or supported by the academy.  How do others negotiate the different demands of academic and advocacy social media worlds?  What goes on the Twitter stream, and what stays off?