Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Monday, 29 October 2012

A Noisy Room

Disco party in the Hague, photo by David Domingo
It’s no secret that one of the big stories in the careers of historians of my generation is going to be the impact of new technologies on our professional activities, as researchers, authors and teachers. Over the past couple of weeks, in the spirit of exploration and discovery, I’ve tentatively dipped my toes into two forms of social media which are new to me.

The first is academia.edu, best described as 'Linked In' for academics, which I recently became aware of by accident, although some of my Oxford colleagues have been using it for a while. Academia.edu is a global database on which academics register themselves, and it enables you to search for specialists in specific research areas, e.g. ‘Polish history’, ‘Crusades’. You can opt to ‘follow’ the work of people whose research or careers interest you (e.g. receive updates), and they can opt to follow you. Within 3 hours of creating my page on academia.edu, dozens of late medievalists, early modernists and historians of the book had registered as ‘followers’ – early career and senior scholars from Uruguay to Russia, via western Europe and North America. I was initially bemused, then amazed, and finally slightly panic-stricken. Here was a cluster of historians whose work I had in 90% of cases not previously been aware of, but which was directly relevant to my own past, present and future research. After just a few hours on academic.edu, my already daunting mental ‘to read’ list grew three-fold.

A few days ago, I attended an Oxford University training session on ‘Twitter for Academia’, after which I signing up incognito (for now!) to follow university presses, major libraries, museums and leading history departments on Twitter. Within 90 minutes of doing so, my screen had been flooded with c. 60 tweets, a blizzard of incoming messages, some 40% of which consisted of nuggets of genuinely valuable information – about new history books, exhibitions, publishing technologies. It was like briefly popping your head, unsuspecting, into a room where an incredibly loud party is taking place.

In the past - or, in my professional past, until last week – academics learnt about relevant events, or publications, or about scholars working on similar areas in different cities or countries, through email mailing lists or by word of mouth. Word of mouth is a highly haphazard communication system, but at least it limits the stream of information; it is like listening for occasional echoes from afar. But academia.edu and Twitter amplify and accelerate word of mouth in the academic community, in a way which is hugely energising, sometimes inspiring, but which also threatens to be unmanageable. We’ll all have to develop sophisticated listening strategies, and a finely-tuned sense of judgement about which leads to follow, if we’re not going to just flounder pleasantly but helplessly in a sea of stimulating, psychedelic noise. 

1 comment:

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