Stepping out from the screen

#shutupandwrite (Photo by @thesiswhisperer)

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.


  1. A really timely post Tseen. The academics in my School are developing their collective digital consciousness at a rapid rate, with a view to improving the digital literacy of both staff and students across all levels of tertiary education. However I think that, in the rush to be digitally savvy, students could easily be left out in the cold if academics fail to “remember the human”.

    I’ve had this on my mind from a personal perspective; I recently blogged about a similar topic, and I have found that my experience as a PhD student has only been enhanced by spending more F2F time with people in the office. Though it’s worth noting that, for me, I love my work (sport science) because of the opportunities I get to develop meaningful relationships with people striving for a common goal. F2F time is critical to get these kinds of relationships right!


    • I went to check out your blog(s) and loved your statement about your “Digital Footprint” – very savvy and engaged tone! Also enjoyed visiting ‘you’ in general!

      In the rush, we sometimes forget that technology provides tools and we use them – it doesn’t have to be either/or when it comes to digital or f2f. And, almost always, it’s better to blend both and get value out of each.

      I think working with people with a common goal can be a heady experience. The momentum and buzz that I get from collaborating with others is kind of addictive.


  2. A fantastic post. I agree that both face-to-face time and having an online presence are important. Surprisingly (for me) an online presence has led to more face-to-face time with people.

    I never really saw the value in online connections such as facebook and twitter, until I actually got (was coerced into getting) a twitter account. One of my concerns was that it would replace face to face interaction, and therefore reduce the depth of my relationship with others.

    I think that twitter has actually had the opposite effect. It has brought me closer to some people because it is used as an avenue to arrange face to face catch ups. It also means that I can start or continue conversations with people when we might not always have the time to meet.


    • You’re so right about enhancing the depth of experience with people you already know in real life. I find that, too. The thing I like best about Twitter is that it’s a hands-off kind of medium. Personally, I dip into it when I dip in to it and feel no obligation to participate or engage with anyone in particular.

      The only odd thing that I find is that I sometimes forget the entirely public nature of Twitter and am taken aback when someone mentions something I tweeted about trashy movies on the weekend, etc. It’s an ‘out of context’ moment!


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