Thursday, 10 November 2011

Visionary or 'slackademic'? Social media's role in tomorrow's academia

Indigo Willing & Tseen Khoo

As the 21st century unfolds, various types of new media rival, and in some cases surpass, earlier forms of computer-mediated communication (CMC) in the extent to which they impact our lives. Twitter and Facebook have been used most stunningly (and with astounding results) in the realms of politics and social protest movements. This is evident internationally: Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir has suggested, for example, that Iceland develop a more democratic constitution via the use of Facebook, while social networks played a notable role in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the ‘Arab Spring’ protests more broadly. Most recently, we have seen digitally mediated activism in 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.

In academic fields, however, enthusiasm for social media is not always evident. Just as some disciplines in academia struggled with the idea of harnessing the potential of CMC for their research in the 1990s, many academics currently remain resistant to opportunities to shift or expand their own 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), we have found that using new technology – and social media, in particular - creates conflicting rather than united 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. This negative orientation harkens back to the traditional denigration of academics who engaged too regularly and enthusiastically with the media. Further, many academics are sceptical of 'slacktivism' or 'clicktivism' (both pejorative terms for the emptiness that can underpin online declarations of commitment to a political, humanitarian or ethical cause).

Having hauled the AASRN network into the Web 2.0 world last year after being based for several years on 'traditional' email, and having embraced social media for several current projects, our perspectives straddle the old-school technology of mailing lists and static bulletin boards and today’s enmeshed social media strategies.

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 immediacy and constancy of contact through social media has served the network well, allowing us to cultivate a sense of momentum and breadth of membership.

AASRN 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. 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? Or is new media making our research network connections more shallow (as feared generally about social networks)? Perhaps it’s too early to tell, given our short, only year-long engagement with social media thus far.

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 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. Most stories these days are shot on digital video. Gone are the days when budding filmmakers cut their teeth using 8mm or 16mm film, a process that also became increasingly expensive and limited to a privileged few (especially with post-production costs factored in). Even the term ‘film festival’, if not redundant, has a quaint sound to it now.

The Internet 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, television networks and most importantly, film fans who 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 indispensable 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, there will always be a risk of becoming too introspective due to social networking. For the purposes of the AASRN, however, 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.

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