The Power of Social Media for the Semi-Privileged

This commentary is adapted from ones that have appeared previously on the author’s blog.

CAIRO—In my country, I am one of the privileged: I speak English, have been educated in Western institutions, have a Ph.D. from the United Kingdom, and am a faculty member in the most elite institution in my country. I am upper middle class and belong to the majority religion of my country. I have great relationships with my colleagues. I have traveled for tourism and conferences; I have lived in several different countries.

In the world of academia, I am only semi-privileged. I am from Egypt (global South), I am a woman with a family and the responsibilities that entails—including the difficulties of traveling to conferences. I got my Ph.D. remotely with a few visits to Sheffield, so I did not have the chance to network with other academics easily.

But I am privileged in what I consider to be the most important way for someone like me as an early-career academic with geographical restrictions: I am on social media.

For the first time in my life, I attended a conference where I actually knew quite a few of the speakers personally—from Massive Open Online Courses, from Twitter. Some others at least I had heard of. I am talking about #et4online, the Sloan-C/MERLOT conference in Dallas which I recently participated in—virtually. I used to live in Houston and attended an Educause regional conference there. Did not know a soul. Did not build any significant relationships. This one, I would have loved to attend in person. But as one friend tweeted, my virtual attendance did not feel virtual to the attendees there. It’s all because of social media.

How else does social media help me? I interact on Twitter with big names in my field I would never have imagined I ever could. I am getting over my celebrity thing with most of them as we’re becoming friends. Twitter (and some e-mail with people I know) helped me get through the lonely last stages of writing my Ph.D. thesis and even defending it.

More importantly, I have formed important relationships with people online (like many in the #rhizo14 open online course that is becoming an ongoing community)—important to me intellectually and emotionally. I also met others through different avenues and have collaborated twice already to write three academic articles with people I have never met in person. That’s powerful. I know people, and I did not have to leave my toddler to travel to meet them. I can take them with me everywhere (on my iPad and mobile phone and work and home PCs) and I don’t have to wait for a prescribed time to reach out to them. That is powerful. I have friends in enough time zones now I can have a deep intellectual conversation any time. To be fair, I had that before, but my network has grown exponentially with MOOCs and Twitter.

I believe that sometimes my exoticness—as a Muslim woman living in Egypt—helps me get noticed and get befriended. People are curious and I understand. But I believe they keep coming back because of something more substantial than that.

For example, I followed Jim Groom (who is an “instructional technologist” at the University of Mary Washington and was a keynote speaker at the #et4online conference) on Twitter and sent him a Tweet saying I was looking forward to his two sessions. We ended up collaborating in advance of his workshop at the conference and the results were amazing—I was a big part of his workshop—he called his blog post on that “Egypt calling – or why open rules”. I blogged and tweeted throughout the conference and it has added so much value to the experience. Networking is one of the most important parts of a conference. You’d think attending virtually you might miss out on that. I did not. We had side discussions during talks (which you cannot do politely face-to-face) and I added many new people on Twitter – expanding my PLN (Personal Learning Network).

I’ve been to many physical conferences before and lost touch with almost every single person I met there. Exchanging emails just did not cut it, except for a couple of people. This time, with Twitter, I don’t think I will lose touch completely. Of course, you could exchange Twitter handles at a face-to-face meeting as well!

There could also have been circumstances that would have reduced my enjoyment of the conference, such as power cuts—happening a lot these days in Egypt—and slow Internet. Fortunately for me, electricity losses during the conference were minimal, and the software used to stream only gave time lags (problematic at times, as the chat box and Twitter were sometimes ahead of the speaker) rather than choppy video.

Not every online learning experience will have the same value. It really needs to be the right experience for you at that stage of your career with your particular interests at the time. And of course social media is not a magical solution, nor is it without risks. Embracing social media makes one vulnerable as almost everything you write becomes public, without too many filters, without peer review, and that’s not always a risk academics want to take.

There are many interesting individuals who are not on social media, and I am missing out on them. But for those who are online and on social media, interacting with them has changed my life.

Maha Bali is an Associate Professor of Practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo. She blogs regularly and tweets @bali_maha


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