ReThinking Digital Social Media for Digital Humanities and Community Engagement

Posted by on Apr 8, 2010 in Dirt, Research and Engagement | 25 Comments

I went to the Great Lakes #ThatCamp with the intention of talking about using digital social media as a means of real-time community engagement, and hoping that I would get ideas from others about how they were using sites like Twitter or Facebook to engage communities in exciting ways, particularly in regard to real-time engagement. I was surprised by the outcomes. It seemed that most of the people at #ThatCamp were using these media to push content they had already created elsewhere: Twitter and Facebook were places to advertise upcoming events or blog posts. Although this a fine way to use it, it doesn’t capitalize on the unique features of digital social media, features that I think can play a strong role in community engagement.

Digital Social Media, particularly Twitter, provides a unique opportunity for scholars to break down a divide that has existed for a long time between the academia and the community. A number of scholars already do community engaged research, where they integrate the community in the entire process of their research. I recently attended a talk by Alan Leshner, the Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and he made some important points about the importance for community engagement with science. In particular, he stressed the necessity of engagement so that the public understands not only what the results of our research is, but how those results are reached. This means that we as scholars and researchers need to be explicit with the public about how we do our research, how we collect data, and how we determine its usefulness. We must be transparent about how we produce knowledge. You must only follow a little bit of the “debate” about global climate change to understand how this disconnect can have dramatic effects in this realm.

Additionally, one of the parts I was able to take away from #ThatCamp was the interest that the public demonstrated in the process of doing research, not just the final product. This call was coming from people who worked in museums, one of the traditional spaces reserved for community engagement with scholarly research. This and the talk by Dr. Leshner suggest that scholars have an ethical obligation to provide more transparency and engagement regarding their research, and that the public has an interest in learning about how this research is done.

Digital Social Media, particularly social networking sites such as Twitter, provides a wonderful opportunity for these obligations to be met. First, provide the opportunity for a large community to be reached immediately. Researchers can communicate with people all over the world, as long as they have a cell phone or computer. In essence, this relationship can develop a new, digital community, that has a deep loyalty to a program or project. Second, the interaction is two-way, meaning that not only can researchers broadcast information, but consumers can ask questions about it and receive answers to their queries. Third, the posting can happen in real-time, meaning that scholars and the community can go about the process of doing research together, although remotely.

This last point is the most important, because it means that researchers have a vehicle to discuss the process of their research with the community. The Campus Archaeology Program, for example, sends tweets from the field during excavations. We discuss what we’re doing, why we make the decisions we do, how our research is constrained, and how we draw the conclusions that we do. This does two things: first, it educates the community about how our research is done, and second, it engages them in the actual process of doing the research. They get to discover artifacts and features at the same time that we do, and learn about how those discoveries contribute to forming knowledge about past human behavior.

The same could be said for all other disciplines. Most of us work in spaces that are unfriendly to the public, such as laboratories or archives. We tend to be anti-social beings, who assume that most people won’t be interested in our research until it is in a museum or on a bookshelf, a final product ready to be consumed. What we need to begin realizing is that this isn’t the only exciting part about what we do. It’s the actual process of discovery that is the most powerful. The added bonus is that by making this process public, we are able to also educate about how knowledge is formed, how science and scholarship is done, and how results are determined.

What are your thoughts? Are you using digital social media in these engaging ways? What other benefits do you see from this type of engagement? Drawbacks?

image created using @capmsu’s followers at TwitterMosaic.