Norms of Self-Promotion (updated)


A graduate student in philosophy who prefers to remain anonymous writes in with questions “concerning self-promotion and marketing oneself in order to move up in the world of philosophy.” He asks: “Is blatant self-promotion just a feature of the discipline now?  Is doing anything necessary to sway the public opinion a necessary evil?  Or should we be calling these people out for this rather egotistical practice?”

His main concern is Wikipedia: “I have seen a few examples of pages that are obviously self edited, and they usually contain some pretty exaggerated (or just plain false) information.”

I am not sure this is a widespread problem. Very few living philosophers have their own Wikipedia page, and most that do probably do not need to “move up” in philosophy since they are noteworthy enough to have a Wikipedia page. I would bet that most of them do not edit their pages for anything more than basic accuracy, but I have no evidence on this one way or another. (Please do not provide what you take to be  examples of this in the comments; if you have a particularly egregious example, email it to me.)

More common self-promotion, I would think, takes place on social media in the form of touting one’s career and work accomplishments. Is this a big problem? Again, I am inclined to think the answer is no, but perhaps I am insufficiently sensitive to this, as I spend time each day involved in activities to “promote” Daily Nous. Even those who routinely post about their latest publications aren’t engaged in a behavior that is at odds with the medium. Certainly a publication is at least as worth sharing with your acquaintances as is a photo of what you ate for dinner that night! A lot of the times people are genuinely excited about getting their work out there, and I don’t see anything particularly objectionable about sharing that excitement with others.

Even if people are more mercenary in their reasons for posting about their accomplishments, it is kind of hard to see that as unreasonable given the economics of the philosophy job market. I am inclined to give people more leeway in regards to etiquette when in dire circumstances. No need to worry about using the correct fork while the ship is sinking.

In any event, those with basic social skills tend to limn the contours of acceptable boastfulness fairly well, and those that don’t, it seems to me, suffer some social consequences. If you find someone’s relentless plugging tedious you can always block their updates and ignore them at conferences.

Generally, it seems to me that, even online, the basic rules of social life apply. Yes there are defeaters for these rules, such as fame, but most of us—especially philosophers—are best served by hewing more or less to them, one of which is: if you relentlessly talk about yourself while failing to show a sufficient interest in the lives of others, people will not want to interact with you.

Yet, I do agree with my correspondent when he writes: “I would be particularly interested in seeing comments on this topic to get a feel for what other philosophers think.”

UPDATE: (4/20/15): Over at The Philosophers’ Cocoon, Marcus Arvan has collected some information about citation rates, concluding: “It looks like if you are from a small college or foreign unranked university, almost no one will cite you even if you publish in Mind or Phil Review.” He adds:

Although these prestige effects are not entirely unsurprising, these data suggest to me that perhaps “letting one’s work speak for itself” is not all it’s cracked up to be–particularly if you are an author from a small college or foreign university. Maybe some self-promotion, indeed, is in order.

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