There are a couple of different conversations that serve as context for this post, but rather than hail people directly, I’ll just note that it’s that time of the year (for us at Syracuse, anyway) when we encourage our dissertators to start thinking about the job market. Part of what we do in our graduate program is to set up gradual deadlines over the summer for them to share their dossier materials with each other and with faculty, so that when the deadlines start rolling in, they’re ready to go.
I’ve noticed in recent years, off and on, what has been kind of a surprising decline in the number of folks who maintain some sort of professional home page, whether a set of static pages or embedded within WordPress (or some other CMS). This isn’t to say that they’re not active online; for rhetoric and composition, at least, activity on social media has been steadily growing, I think. But as more and more of us embrace Facebook, Twitter, and the like, one of the casualties has been the individually-maintained homepage, and that’s to say nothing of blogging, which has been supplanted by its various micro- cousins. I want to make the case, though, both for my own students here and for others across the discipline, that this is a mistake. You might not necessarily know it to look at my own page (which has been in-process for an embarrassingly long time), but I think that a periodically maintained homepage may be the best piece of social media that you can invest your screen time in.
The title of this post alludes to Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties,” of course, and I want to summon one of that essay’s insights here. Granovetter’s point is that for certain social tasks, like finding jobs, a person’s weak ties are more valuable than their strong ones, because we tend to share a social horizon with those to whom we’re strongly tied. Those weak connections are more likely to yield new information to me, because if my close friends have heard of something, I’ve probably already heard of it as well. Graduate programs, whatever else they do, are a site of strong ties: as graduate students, we take lots of classes with the others in our cohort, see the same set of professors on a regular basis, and are generally surrounded by people who are invested in our success. For better or worse, it’s hard not to know what the other people in a program are doing. When students apply for jobs, they are faced with a much different audience, committees of people whose knowledge of them is minimal and mediated through the genres of the application process. To call such ties weak probably overstates them.
And yet, those are the interactions according to which these decisions are frequently made. They’re not the only ones, though. I am probably asked a dozen or so times a year if we have any students who’ll be on the market during the next cycle, for instance. And I google people in the field all the time, because I hear their name in another context, or hear them cited in a conference presentation, or I see a retweet, or whatever. In all of these cases, I’m looking to find (or to give out) some kind of professional profile. I don’t know that my own experience is representative, but it feels like, increasingly, all I’m able to locate are out-of-date department sites and/or various rate-my-professor pages. If you think the job letter and the cv are limited in their ability to provide a full picture of a person, you should see some of the search results I get. Even when they’re accurate, they often subdivide a person into a range of social media platforms (FB, Twitter, Academia.edu, LinkedIn, Pinterest, et al.), none of which quite gives me what I’m looking for.
Here’s what I’m looking for: I’ve heard your name in some context. Maybe I’ve seen it in a conference program, or I’ve heard someone mention you in a conversation. I want to know what you’ve been doing, what you’re working on, what kind of things you do. Sometimes this is in the context of a job search, but not always. I might be helping someone brainstorm possible panelists for a conference proposal, or contributors for a collection, or readers on particular topics for a journal. I’ve done each of those things in the past six months. Inevitably, I do a certain amount of searching and exploring, but my results are limited, of course, by what’s out there. What’s interesting to me is that it feels like there’s less out there than there used to be.
A certain amount of this takes care of itself in the form of reputation and professional activity. Publish a few essays, present at conferences, and eventually people will know something about you. And the opportunities to do more of those things will begin to trickle in. But getting to that point, where your name occurs to people when thinking about topics X, Y, or Z, takes a while. Maybe the single easiest step that you yourself can take is to be findable, and findable by people who don’t already know you or your work. We write our application materials for that audience already (explain your dissertation to your family members!), but I wonder if social media hasn’t reinforced our strong-tie bubbles when it comes to online presence.
And that’s the other piece of it. While it may sound like I’m imploring you to make my own life easier, the fact is that we are neither the sum total of our academic products nor our social media platforms. I blog here, infrequently as I do, because there are some things that I can’t reduce to either of those categories. I like to think that, insofar as there’s a place where I’m most fully represented, it’s here. And if I’m doing it right, this site should be appearing close to the top of folks’ search results when they look for me. (It’s #1 when I egosurf.) And I should be asking myself, more often than I actually do, what someone who doesn’t know me will see when they click that link. But I’m curious lately about the number of people I’ve seen who haven’t even provided a link, much less a glimpse of the person behind it.
Despite my title, I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that a homepage is a “weak” medium, but it can sometimes feel that way, contrasted with the potentially dynamic nature of more contemporary social media. It’s probably better to think of it in terms of stock and flow rather than strength and weakness. Strong and weak ties do have something to do with stock and flow, though: flow is engaging, vivid, immediate, and it demands our attention; in this sense, it reinforces and perhaps helps to create strong ties. But stock is where we connect with people over the long haul, sometimes without our knowledge. As Robin Sloan puts it in his original post on the subject, “It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.” It used to be that skeptics would say that you didn’t need a homepage because no one (“important”) uses the internet, so it’s odd to me to think that the reason you don’t need one now is because everyone does. Needless to say, I don’t find either argument especially convincing.