Social Media: The Dialectic between Online and Offline

With additional comments from Sarah-Louise Quinnell

Crane removing section of Berlin Wall
Social media leads to reunification of the real and the virtual

One criticism of social media has been that it has the capacity to undermine real world communities. Civilisation as we know it could come to an end. Certainly, there is a risk that, where academics use social media, that it could create another form of ivory tower. But, as the Arab Spring, UK Riots and #Occupy protests have shown, it is possible that social media could allow academics to do more offline, perhaps more than they imagined and maybe even disrupt the status quo. (SQ: Social media enables us to view time and space differently; Carl Heggerty wrote a wonderful blog about using time geography theory and how social media can impact upon differing forms of social exclusion, which you can read here. So if we follow that theory it could be articulated that social media brings our paths closer together and thus meeting online makes meeting offline more natural.)

Unsurprisingly, this post is yet another story starring Sarah-Quinnell, the creator of Networked Researcher. I promise I’m not her biographer, PR officer or a crazed fan. But it says much about the possibilities of social media. (SQ: There was me thinking I had a groupie, the status of celebrity academic still alludes me.)

So I first ‘met’ (or whatever the online equivalent is) Sarah when she subscribed to my PhD blog, Not A PhD Thesis. I was excited that someone might actually like it that much and sent her an email and a tweet to thank her for subscribing and, out of curiosity, to find out why she did. I also googled her – really, I’m not a crazed fan honest – and stumbled across her own then PhD, now academic, blog, The Life and Times of an Aspiring Academic. I was particularly interested to see that she was a geographer and the subject of her PhD was environmental politics and capacity development (mine’s environmental law) and that she had used social media for her own research and was developing training programmes for researchers at Kings College London. After she agreed to contribute a post to my blog on social media as a research tool, I thought that she would make an interesting speaker for a research seminar at Westminster Law School or to lead a reading group for the PhD cohort. When I put the idea to her, she leapt for joy – well, that’s how I imagined it, since I asked her by email or tweet. (SQ: I did actually leap off the sofa as that’s what I do whenever invited to do something as it is rather exciting.)

Now, you’re probably thinking that this sounds like ordinary networking. That’s my point. When sites like Myspace and Facebook first launched, they were called social networking sites. Indeed, as the title of this site ‘Networked Researcher’ suggests, social media is an umbrella term for a load of online networking tools. In her book ‘What Should We Do With The Brain?’, the French philosopher Catherine Malabou said that the world was like a plastic brain. It comprised networks of networks of networks of neurons ad infinitum. In her a concept of plasticity, developed from Hegel, each neuron is influenced, shaped by the neurons that it is connected to (its environment) and, in turn, it shapes other neurons.

Of course, it doesn’t take social media to organise a seminar and reading group. But, given our different specialism’s and universities, it was unlikely (though not impossible) that our paths would cross any time soon. So I guess what blogging and tweeting did was open up my network and in doing so opening up the wall between law and geography and blurring the boundary between space and cyberspace. (SQ: Thus proving the time geography theory – as a geographer, that makes me happy.)