On Conferences, Twitter, and the Novice-Expert Journey

Yesterday I read Rebecca Hogue’s blog about her experience at #MRI13, Impostor in the Room, and felt compelled to respond…I attended three conferences over the past month, and like Rebecca I am a doctoral student still navigating the journey from novice to expert, so I often feel like an impostor in rooms filled with people who have become pseudo-celebrities in my professional life as I must stand on their shoulders to build my dissertation.  At the time I choosing not to as I did not attend the conference and thus did not understand its dynamics.  It is odd to be in California and have a Twitter feed full of people determining where they are going to have dinner, sharing anecdotes and inside jokes in the space they often share resources and engage in scholastic conversation.  This is the nature of social media, though, and we all utilize it in a different manner.

Fabian Banga has furthered this concern at his blog eter, defining Twitter as both a neoliberal and postmodern social network that encourages isolation rather than community, the focus on follows and followers rather than communication.  As Fabian looks at the situation from a level removed from MRI13, I responded to his blog with my thoughts and recent experiences navigating the terrain.  I also added a few thoughts on how conferences can do a better job of including the peripheral players and giving them a sense of belonging rather than isolation.

I did not attend #MRI13, but as a student in learning technologies who continues to navigate the journey from novice to expert, I wanted to share my experiences with Twitter in this field, as they differ from those expressed by Fabian.

While I began using Twitter in 2010, it was not until Fall 2012 that I truly engaged the platform. At the time I had begun initial research toward my dissertation, and many of the contemporary scholars were active on Twitter. I followed them. I also began blogging (a lot). For the most part, those I followed did not follow me. I did not take this as a sleight, but more as the expected outcome of joining a new network…the idea of legitimate peripheral participation, zone of proximal development in a social setting, and my place as a novice in their expert space. As I gained comfort with the field, I began responding to select tweets of these scholars. These responses were almost always met with responses from the scholar, and from there a follow and further interactions. My interactions in the field (both in what I was blogging and what I was discussing via Twitter and other blog discussion boards) had gone from peripheral to more noticeable. As with any zone of proximal development, I failed to notice my movement forward until I was looking back at where I had been. Today I know people from Twitter when I attend a conference, and we can discuss my work and their work, a node that I may not be an expert yet, but I am on an expert journey and the members of the community see that.

That does not mean it is not awkward to see the communities I am a member of versus those where I am still just networked at the community is further down the road. At #opened13, I was initially intimidated by the DS106 gang, a bunch of people I know by reputation but have little correspondence with. Was it their fault I did not know them, or their responsibility to accommodate me? The people I had engaged in correspondence (@holden, @audreywatters, @jimgroom, and @gsiemens) I did meet and converse with (with the exception of George, which was less about a lack of want and more because we met three times but always crossing paths at inopportune places). Those I had not engaged in conversation (@dkernohan, @clhendricksbc, @brlamb, @mgershovich) had no reason to know me other than an automated email notice explaining I had followed them. I was intimidated to sit at their table…I mean, they are power players, and there’s Rory McGreal too, and who am I? These are not celebrities, but because of my knowledge of their histories in the field and a touch of backstory on Twitter, they are celebrities to me and I start out with the same relationship to them as a celebrity does to a fan. I don’t blame them…I had ample opportunities to engage David at the conference but was nervous and did not do so…until I had provided some context for us to converse. With some it was further Twitter conversation, with others it was inviting them to my presentation and discussing it afterwards. I cannot blame the experts in the field for lacking an awareness of my awesomeness if I have not provided them access to the awesomeness. By the end of the conference, I had engaged each person in some manner, enough that the next time we meet hopefully I won’t be so nervous to say hi again (this has proven true with others in the field such as @veletsianos).

I am in the analysis phase of my dissertation, a Delphi study looking at the MOOC as a sociocultural phenomenon rather than just a learning model. I needed experts for the panel. I asked a lot of people. A lot of people said nothing, and I would be a liar if I didn’t say it stung (intellectually I know it should not sting, but it still does). Some people responded to decline, but I established relationships with through the process. Some I had grown relationships with on Twitter said yes. Others I had no relationship with prior to a cold email (or Tweet) said yes. It was not easy to put out nearly 80 invites for my project, but in the end I had a robust group of 20 experts in the field involved, with another 10 declining but expressing interest in the project. None of them would have known to care had I not approached.

There was a celebrity at the restaurant I grabbed take-out from last night; you’d know him if you saw him. He was affable and engaging with anyone who wanted to say hi. It takes a lot to do that, but he gets paid well for the privilege and understands it is the price of fame. EdTech scholars on Twitter are not the same as celebrities. I would imagine many are introverted and just as nervous about engaging a stranger as the stranger is about engaging them.  If I were to see one at a restaurant they would not realize I knew them and their work, and the dynamic would be just as awkward for them as for me…until we began a conversation.

I do not wish to critique Fabian’s message here, just to note my experience and how it does not relate to the message above. I am always surprised at the number of people the scholars in the field follow on Twitter. I follow a smaller percentage of my followers than they do and am amazed at how they navigate so much content from so many scholars and practitioners (I follow a third as many people as follow me; many of the pre-eminent scholars in the field are at half, two-thirds, three-quarters, one-to-one, or in some cases they follow more than follow them). I also do not understand how Twitter is either neoliberal or postmodern; maybe there is a Lacanian argument to make a la Zizek and the ever-present object of desire, but there is nothing neoliberal about Twitter and the argument made in the blog sets Twitter as a modernist technology rather than postmodern.

We cannot expect colleagues and friends to stop using Twitter to discuss where they are meeting up, what they are doing and sharing inside jokes and old war stories. This is normal. What Twitter changed is that I, a peripheral member of the network, know that story, and thus am aware of my lack of bond to the group. This is not the fault of the group, but a consequence of public Twitter conversations. Perhaps future conferences should realize this will happen and make the inevitable meet-up an official part of the conference so it does not feel like Members Only, but I do not see when this happens as a result of self-glorification and superfluous communication. It’s an unintended consequence and one that can be considered in future iterations.

There is a responsibility for those at the head of a conference to work on buttressing cohort and network in an effort to help community grow. To expect a conference to get it right in Year 1 is overdoing it, but there is room for improvement at #MRI13. Recently I attended the Museum Computer Network conference (#MCN13), a conference in a field where I was a total noob. My first session was a “speed networking” session where people sat at tables of 10 and each had a minute to share why they were at the conference, what they were interested in and what they had enjoyed, everyone in the room switching tables at 10 minutes. It was brilliant, and did so well that many of us stayed after the hour and continued it for another hour. The director of the conference was sitting with grad students, business practitioners, curators, publishers, etc. I met people from around the world, and while I did not get to know all of them, I did make connections based on interest, gained insight into the field, and knew people so that when I walked into a room later in the day not knowing a soul, there was someone I felt comfortable at least sitting next to and seeing if we could further our one-minute of knowing each other. And it almost always worked. It was not easy, and I often felt out of place, but that session made the conference a much more manageable experience, to the point that I can come back next year and feel comfortable saying hi to people and engaging conversations. But at the same time, some of the responsibility was on me to engage these people. And not only is my scholarship and career much better for those moments where I step outside the comfort zone and reach out to these scholars and practitioners who to me seem as Twitter luminaries, but it helps me continue my journey to being a part not just of a network but a community.

3 thoughts on “On Conferences, Twitter, and the Novice-Expert Journey

  1. Pingback: On Conferences, Twitter, and the Novice-Expert ...

  2. David Kernohan (@dkernohan)

    Hi Rolin – I agree with a lot of the above, this is a great post. (I don’t agree that me, Brian or George Siemens are celebrities! – well, maybe George…). I had a similar experience at opened12, where I met a lot of people who were no strangers to me on twitter but I had never actually met in real life.

    It’s trite, but in the main I found that people were accommodation, approachable, and happy to talk about their work and their interest. A twitter engagement beforehand did help, but I met a lot of people without it.

    Anyway, your session at opened13 was SUPERB… I hope I managed to convey that at the time. This field absolutely needs more amazing research, and you are absolutely bringing it in.

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      You are too kind. I remain in awe of your keynote. If you ever need a hand with a project, keep me in mind…in a former life I was a film guy. I dream of an intersection of education, critical theory and film.


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