August 31, 2012

Social Media and the Policy Researcher

This will be my last post on this blog for at least a year. I am about to start a fellowship program with the Council on Foreign Relations that will place me in the U.S. government for the next 12 months. Because this blog has become such a big part of my idenity, I want to use this last opportunity to explain why I blog and how social media has both amplified and enriched my policy work.

A few years ago, Steve Biddle, arguably the finest defense policy analyst of his generation and a valued mentor, gave me some particularly good advice. When you write a policy paper, he told me, you should always be thinking of the scholarly journal article version of the policy paper you are writing as well as the op-ed version of the article you are writing. The idea, of course, is to make sure you reach the widest audience possible and get the most out of the research you have done. 

While subscribing to all of Steve's wise counsel, my approach to research is a bit different, and I have, since arriving at CNAS in 2009, encouraged our junior research staff to broaden the approach Steve first offered me. In addition to thinking about the ways in which one can turn one's policy paper into an op-ed for the New York Times or article in International Security, one should also think several layers down: how can one blog about one's research? How can one tweet, in real time, about the research one is doing?

The limitations of the old approach -- and of most research produced by think tanks and academia -- is the communication is largely one-way. The scholar in the ivory tower thinks deep thoughts, consults with his or her colleagues, locks the door and then emerges months later with a paper or book that he or she delivers to the masses. A "response" to a journal article might be published a year later. This is not an altogether bad thing. And if it's a choice between tweeting about college football and producing great books like this, by all means do the latter.

But an approach that incorporates social media into the research process has greater potential than the old approach. Note, quickly, that I am talking about the research process and not the marketing process. Lots of scholars, myself included, want to harness social media to publicize their latest reports and books. I get books from publishers in the mail on a weekly basis addressed not to "Andrew Exum" but to "Abu Muqawama" in the apparent hope that I will blog about a new book on the Middle East or Afghanistan. But I am writing here about using social media during the research itself.

The first great advantage that social media has over traditional media is that it is a two-way conversation. Although this can be quite scary for some policy scholars, social media requires one to climb down from the ivory tower and expose one's self to the slings and arrows of the unwashed masses. Once down among hoi polloi, one quickly discovers something: there is a rich and diverse community of amateur and professional scholars out there with interests and educations that complement one's own. Tweeting or blogging about a book you are reading on Afghanistan? Prepare for a barrage of tweets and comments telling you how good or bad that book is while offering other recommendations -- recommendations for books or articles that you, despite your fancy education, might not yet have discovered. Social media, then, exposes the policy researcher to immediate feedback on his or her bibliography and research methods. It can serve as a quick external validator -- or tell you where you're going wrong. 

Second, policy research is also very much about a world of competing ideas. Whether you are opining about air-sea battle or health care, you must recognize that other scholars out there might have also been researching your issue and have reached different conclusions with regard to policy preferences. One of the most effective -- and without a doubt quickest -- ways I have discovered to identify weaknesses in my own arguments has been through social media. I am constantly wrestling with the comments on my blog or the tweets people send back in my direction. Some of them are silly, and others are ugly, but many more are valuable. I can also observe how other policy proposals are received. Filtering out the sarcasm and snark, one gets a sense for where other scholarship falls short.

Third, we at CNAS believe that one of our core missions as a think tank is to identify the next generation of policy professionals. In my short and young career, I have already benefitted from many great mentors, and like the Army officer I once was, I consider it my duty to seek out and mentor others younger than me. Social media -- especially Twitter -- has been a great way to identify and meet some of the most promising young people writing on issues related to defense policy. I "met" both of this blog's caretaker bloggers -- Adam Elkus and Dan Trombly -- over social media. Many others have made the jump from tweeting back and forth with me to having coffee in my office shooting the bull about jobs and careers. This is how it should be, because Lord knows, I have spent plenty of time in other people's offices seeking advice about my career.

The key ingredient to engaging with social media as a part of the research process is humility. You must be prepared, for example, for some 20-year old senior at George Washington University <cough> Trombly </cough> to systematically destroy your initial argument, thereby making your second draft better. You must be prepared to accept that you are not the "expert" your think tank homepage says you are. You are merely a student. And you can thus learn from the many other amateur and professional students around you. And you must be prepared to laugh at yourself. There is a reason the mascot of this blog -- and the avatar for my Twitter account -- is a Lego militant. It says, "I'm going to talk about serious things, but I'll be damned if I am going to lose my sense of humor in the process." The moment one loses one's sense of humor, an officer in the Special Air Service once told me before a mission in Iraq, is the moment one starts thinking of one's self as too good -- too cool -- to get killed. Researchers shouldn't take themselves too seriously either, for that's the road to embarassment. We are unbelievably privileged to be doing this for a living, and we should remember that as we engage as broadly as possible with the people that both consume and inform our work.