Networking an academic research network (unabridged)

This post is an unabridged version of the article written by Dr Indigo Willing and myself for The Social Interface. Many thanks to the editors, Sarah Lux and Lyria Bennett Moses, for their invitation, warm encouragement, and generosity in allowing us to cross-post this material. You can read the article as originally published on 10 November 2011 at The Social Interface HERE.

Thanks also to Julie Koh, who first suggested us for The Social Interface! 

In the final decade of the twentieth century, it was clear that the Internet had significantly changed the way we think about the world and actively try to reshape it. It was a time where Stanford and the West Coast saw an unexpected Wall Street-approved boom in innovation from computer scientists and geeks that turned Silicon Valley into a (temporary) city of gold. This was a period where terms such as computer-mediated communication (CMC) arose to describe everything from shell based emails to MUDs, and websites to e-groups. This wave of CMC at the dawn of the digital age also gave rise to some notable scholarly insights found in the work of Sherry Turkle in Life on The Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet Age and from Steve Jones who detached the idea of the ‘cyber society’ and emergence of ‘virtual cultures’ from science fiction novels to re-introduce them as serious topics in the field of communication studies. At the same time, Fink (1998) observed that the qualitative social scientists and other disciplines with similar leanings were only taking small steps and remained cautious – even sceptical – as to how the Internet and CMC might be used as research tools.

Since the twenty-first century has unfolded, it is clear that the arrival of various types of new media now rivals, and in some cases has surpassed, earlier forms of CMC (Flew 2005). Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have quickly transformed our lives again, and are used enthusiastically for social networking with friends, peers and colleagues; to maintain transnational and cross-border ties with family;  and most stunningly (and with astounding results) in the realms of politics and social protest movements. On his blog BuzzMachine, Jarvis (2011: 3 October) discusses an example of the latter: Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir suggested that Iceland develop a more democratic constitution via the use of Facebook. There have also been a number of protests that have gained worldwide attention for their use of social media, notably with the use of Facebook to spread news of protests and the eventual overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, Egypt in January 2011 and, more widely, the ‘Arab Spring’ protests throughout the Middle East (cf. see Dixon 2001). Most recently, we have also seen digitally mediated activism like the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests, where a tweet in Canada on 13 July 2011 turned into a local protest in Zuccotti Park, New York City on 17 September 2011, before quickly escalating into an ongoing global movement.

However, just as some disciplines in academia struggled with the idea of harnessing the potential of CMC for their research in the 1990s, it appears that many academics remain resistant to the opportunities to shift or expand their networking activities over into new media such as Facebook and Twitter.  From our experiences with the creation of the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN & on Twitter @aasrn), which was initially formed from a Yahoogroup, we have found that the issue of using new technology – and social media, in particular – is one that creates conflicting rather than united or unanimously pro-new media discussions in academia.

Anecdotally, many academics mire themselves in the negative aspects of platforms such as Twitter, or dismiss all social media as activities befitting dilettantes and slackers. But we feel much of this negative orientation harkens back to the traditional denigration of academics who engage too regularly and enthusiastically with the media, and also the currents of criticism about how meaningful social media can be, especially in the light of criticism about superficial online engagements with serious topics that attract charges of slacktivism and clicktivism (both pejorative terms used to describe the emptiness that can underpin online declarations of commitment to a political, humanitarian or ethical cause). There is a standing paradox where those who try to communicate their research through broader media channels feel overlooked and undervalued, while those who eschew media engagement lament the over-importance attributed to this aspect of academic life (indeed, they often question whether real academics are media performers).

Having hauled the AASRN network into the Web 2.0 world only since last year, and having embraced social media for several current projects, our perspectives straddle the old-school technology of mailing lists and static bulletin boards, to today’s enmeshed social media strategies. But what is striking about our discussion here is that it sounds as if we are describing history proper, where sepia tones might fittingly frame distant memories, when we are actually charting very contemporary developments. The AASRN has only been formally in existence since 2006. Prior to this, as previously described briefly, it was a keen (but loose) arrangement of interested scholars, creative producers, and community workers. Our main mode of communication was via a Yahoogroup, although we also found that the e-group was a catalyst for occasional and productive face-to-face events. It is also worth considering how our online activities may have probably not been embraced so readily and rapidly had we not been forced to network with only an extremely modest amount of funding. The Internet, while not instantaneous and spontaneous, had the instant appeal of affordability.

The shoe-string budget for the AASRN still remains today, but the advent of intensive social media platforms has brought about a significant transformation in the way we run our academic research network. With an active Twitter stream (@aasrn), professional website, and Facebook group, we are reaching many more people than ever before. The mailing list via the Yahoogroup remains in operation and, surprisingly, remains the core mode for the majority of research network engagement for the network’s signed-up members, despite its faster companion technologies. The immediacy and constancy of contact through social media has served the network well to cultivate a sense of momentum and breadth of membership, but just as we still live in physical spaces with physical addresses so, too, most of us have a seemingly inseparable connection to our work emails. There is a reliability to them, and we find the terms upon which we engage with our emails have remained comparatively predictable and that provides a sense of security. The same cannot be said for Twitter and Facebook, whose developers may update features without warning, and often with risks and compromises to our privacy for which we are unable to prepare in advance.

The sameness and predictability of email, therefore, gives us some insight as to why this remains our strongest and most preferred style of communication for many members. At the same time, many of our Twitter-followers and Facebookers never join the network formally, even though AASRN is free to join. Another significant observation is that the constituencies for AASRN are seemingly split between those who are competent and regular users of social media, and those who are not, despite the encouragement they may get from social media-savvy peers.

For many who got to know AASRN and its interests through social media only, this situation means they are reduced to experiencing a relatively low level of engagement with the network. The strength of the network, which has been around (informally) since 2000 as an offline and sometimes online group and occasional gathering of academics with shared interests in Asian Australian studies, is not just in disseminating events information; it was founded to establish and deepen scholarship in the field of Asian Australian Studies. Is this aspect supported through the dynamism of the social media forums? Is it making our research network connections more shallow (as feared about social networks)? Perhaps it’s too early to tell, given our short, only year-long engagement thus far.  Continued activity through social media channels will become de rigeur for AASRN and its future events. The consequences of a potentially more diluted and fractured constituency, however, are more difficult to assess right now.

The inaugural Asian Australian Film Forum (AAFF 2011), however, is an event that has embraced (and been embraced by) social media, with event momentum and word-of-tweet spurring a dynamic range of effects that have led to an extremely full programme of screenings and panels of Asian Australian filmmakers and media types. That an event about evolving screen cultures should do so well using new media and social media is not all that surprising. Even the term ‘film festival’, if taken literally, situates it at the precipice of redundancy, or at least has a quaint sound to it now. The reality is that most stories are shot on digital video. Gone are the days when budding filmmakers cut their teeth using 8mm or 16mm, a process that also became increasingly expensive and limited to a privileged few (especially with post-production costs factored in).

With the rise of increasingly affordable digital technologies – from high-definition video to mobile phone cameras, accessible editing software, and platforms like YouTube for broadcasting – the screen scene is opened up to an increasing number of people.

The Internet also plays a vital role in the distribution and promotion of contemporary video productions, fostering the necessary networks to support them. This includes the film press, film festival organisers, film industry bodies (and television networks) and most importantly, film fans who are can (and do) actively communicate with each other through social media.

This heightened accessibility to digital technologies nurtures fresh perspectives and innovative approaches to create and showcase Asian Australian stories. Both Twitter and Facebook have been indispensible to the inaugural AAFF, from sourcing filmmakers to promoting the film programme, to strengthening the engagement of academically-founded entities (such as the AASRN) with Asian Australian creatives and the broader community. There will always be a “digital divide”, and as Turkle has more recently suggested, the risk of becoming too introspective from social networking. For the purposes of the AASRN, though, the horizons of connectivity are impressively vast and, contrary to people becoming more alone together, the web is proving to be a powerful tool for our promotion of collective engagements, on and offline.

Acknowledgements:

We would like to thank author Julie Koh, who we both met via Twitter, for introducing us to Sarah Lux and Lyria Bennett Moses at the Social Interface. We will meet Julie IRL at AAFF 2011, where one of our guests, Jiao Chen (who we also met on Twitter), is a producer of the short film Colin the Dog (based on one of her novels).

References:

Dixon, M. (2011). An Arab Spring. Review of African Political Encounters – Special Issue: Land: A New Wave of Accumulation by Dispossession in Africa?, 38(128), 309 – 316. DOI:10.1080/03056244.2011.582766.

Fink, A. (1998). Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From Paper to the Internet. London: Sage Publications.

Flew, T. (2005). New Media : An Introduction. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Jarvis, J. (2011, 3 October). #OccupyWallStreet & the failure of institutions Retrieved 2011, 18 October, from http://www.buzzmachine.com/2011/10/03/occupywallstreet-the-failure-of-institutions/

Jones, S. (Ed.). (1998). Virtual Culture: Identity and Communication in Cyberspace. London: Sage Publications.

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the Screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Touchstone.

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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