Hierarchies of Access

Posted on November 5, 2015


[This is the text (and slides) of a short presentation I gave as part of a panel at the Social Media & Society Conference, back in July in Toronto, Canada. My fellow panel presenters were Laura PasquiniBonnie StewartRebecca J. Hogue, and Jessica Knott. I had to present via video due to funding and visa restrictions, and I’d like to thank the members of this panel and the conference committee for including me and making it possible for me present to remotely.]


A couple of days ago, I had a bit of a Twitter rant. The context was broad, but I think it’s applicable across multiple contexts, and I want to use it to frame what I’d like to talk about today.


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As we’re at a social media conference, we’re reasonably aware of how people, and in the case of this panel, scholars and academics, use Twitter and other social media to connect, collaborate, and create their content, identities, networks, and communities, among other things. But, like Bonnie said earlier, are Twitter, Social Media, the Internet, etc. really democratizing tools? The literacies, social capital, access, knowledge, and privilege needed to successfully navigate and benefit from the so-called democratic affordances of these spaces is something most of us in this room take for granted – but these are often out of reach for many people. And for those of us who are able to reap the benefits of being online, we often find ourselves navigating social spaces that are rife with new hierarchies – those based on online social capital, network connections, and old hierarchies that are replicated online based on IRL social capital and privilege. We might also find ourselves in a weird online see-saw between cultivating who we are and who our connections are, and comparing ourselves to other people and their connections.

And, as we get more entrenched and involved with being online and cultivating our online selves, we are unwittingly contributing to the fact that the digital divide increasingly, is a social and economic, if not physical, one.


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Recently, as I traveled back to the US from a workshop in the UK (I’m an international student and there were some complications related to my status which sadly prevented me from being with y’all in person today), I was reminded of the pervasiveness of the idea of universal internet access. Many of us believe in the upcoming utopia of access, that moment that’s right around the corner when everyone will be able to access all the knowledge and information online and make our lives better. My immigration officer – who was very good at his job trying to gauge what my status and intentions for being in the US were – was convinced that everyone would have wifi “eventually”, as he tried to understand what I meant by “PhD in educational communication and technology”.


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But I pushed back – something I rarely do at immigration check points because I fear being deported – and he actually stopped what he was doing to listen to me, slowly smiled, and said, “that’s why we need people like you!”. Which was a relief, to be honest, although I think he thought of me as someone who would create that access for those without, and bring this “eventually” into the now. As academics with access to technology and a fairly decent internet connection, we’re quite firmly already in this “eventually”. But, it’s not the same “eventually” for all of us. And it’s not an “eventually” at all for some.


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And we also often forget the flip side of this: those who are forced into this “eventually” have no way of controlling or preventing their information being used in ways that can often be harmful. When we talk about networked scholarship, we often talk about how to be good networked scholars, how to succeed at being academics in the open, what all the good things that happen will be, what to watch out for. We don’t always talk about who gets left out, who can’t partake, who gets left behind. We don’t talk about who feels like they have to be a networked scholar, even though it may not be something they’re comfortable doing. We don’t consider if we really need to become these networked scholars in these particular ways.


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In our eagerness to embrace technological tools and solutions to help us get better, get access, and get ahead, we’re forgetting what it takes to do this – the emotional labor, the digital labor, the additional tasks added to our plate both as students and teachers that are required of us either as mandates from our institutions or as a form of self-inflicted pressure from seeing those around us succeed at being online. We’re forgetting how information about us is being aggregated as we speak, to create a picture of us that we unwittingly helped create that may shape what our futures as academics looks like. For example, my use of wording in this tweet might reflect badly on me, or present me as someone who speaks my mind. Who knows?!


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So, I want to ask all of us to take a moment, acknowledge our privilege, and then become the kind of people who are empathetic to other ways of being academics, to those scholars who are unsure or afraid or unhappy putting themselves out there, but feel like they must because we are the success stories they want to be. Let’s be careful about how and to whom we evangelize about being networked scholars and getting on social media. Let’s be clear about the good stuff, but very clear about the scary stuff. Let’s make sure we make spaces where our colleagues can grow and thrive rather than places they feel unwelcome or afraid. And when we talk about social media and tools, we *must* define what we mean by access.


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And when we talk about access, we must always consider and give voice to all the people who:

  • have no choice
  • can or can’t opt out
  • are implicated – either directly or indirectly
  • are forced to relinquish personal freedoms
  • profit economically, socially, and politically


Or this is where we will find ourselves.

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[image: New Yorker Magazine.]


Posted in: conferences