Many of us are very proud of our virtual lives; some smugly so. I love social media, and am a great advocate of building a convincing and professional digital identity.
The transformation and enhancement of academic networks – whether you develop them over the years or hours – is there for the taking. Anyone with a bit of initiative to explore and develop their presence consistently and astutely can ‘make it’.
Social media has fast-tracked my profile-building and sector expertise in a whole new profession in unprecedented ways; it has been immensely fun, and satisfying to feel as if I have a handle on the field after a year and a half in it. A small handle, it must be said, but a handle, nonetheless!
In Inger ‘The Thesis Whisperer‘ Mewburn’s case, her online profile and expertise has garnered professional rewards beyond her time in academe. As she has said:
I have had access to opportunities usually reserved for more experienced players. It would take me at least 10 years to achieve this kind of status and recognition through the normal academic ‘fame’ channels of citations and conference attendances. (On the right side of the digital divide)
When done with the right level of engagement, these kinds of interactions can easily become the majority of our networking and collaborative activities. Indeed, among colleagues in a single unit, it can be their prime form of communication day-to-day, with nary a glimpse caught of each other as they rush from class to meeting to working group to seminar.
There are times, however, when I wonder whether the case still needs to be made for regular face-to-face time (what’s that graphic and memorable term, gifted to us by cyberpunk fiction – meatspace?). Could it mean the difference between resolving and exploding certain situations?
In his article, “Don’t swap the Ivory Tower for a cyber one“, Anthony Ridge-Newman says:
the inherent academic disposition can be easily tempted to use blogging as an excuse to merely engage with the public from the comfort of their armchair – thus maintaining some interpersonal disconnect.
With the text-based conversations of livechats, Twitter, and via group emails, the possibility of misunderstanding is huge. I’m not even talking about humour-gaps and low irony thresholds here. I’m talking about something as simple as a casual sentence in an email – e.g. “That’s not a priority for our project” or “We haven’t budgeted for that” – being taken as a searing indictment of a person’s worth and life’s work.
There are a whole swag of e-cues that regular social media users get to know and replicate. For their colleagues who aren’t au fait with them (and probably never will be), they have no weight and could in fact evoke a hostile response (e.g. emoticon-rage or when hashtags float their way into emails).
Added to this mix is the fact that many academics are not good writers. They’re smart, know the system, have initiative, and many other fabulous traits, but they often just don’t write very well. Not empathetically or persuasively. Quite a few of my academic colleagues pride themselves on being as terse as possible in their emails, a habit that can often cross the line between succinct and…rude.
I’ve been reminded of this on several occasions when I witness massive failures in collaborative projects. I often wonder whether they were situations that could have been saved with more dedicated face-to-face (f2f) time, smoothed over with physical cues or a well-placed shared joke. Or would being in each other’s physical space have provoked more spectacular disagreements? After all, comments that drip with disdain f2f (with bonus raised eyebrows) may appear less offensive in cyberspace.
Having met many cyber-buddies in the flesh on many occasions now, I’d have to say that f2f encounters bring connections to a whole other level. While the buzz of a happening livechat (such as #ecrchat or #phdchat) can be great, I don’t find that it compares to the intellectual and social funstering that can be had in person (such as this spontaneous meet-up of colleagues, all of whom I interact with regularly online, and half of whom I knew online long before I ever saw them f2f).
The oft-quoted ‘netiquette’ rule of “remember the human” should be a core consideration in any interaction, cyber or f2f, because it’s when you deny or overlook the fact that you’re dealing with another person (and perspective) that things can really go off-track.