I am fortunate enough to have been invited to attend IMSI, the Invitational Masters Student Invitational, to be held at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, the weekend of October 16-18. Given Rutgers received over 100 applications, to be one of the 25 students invited to discuss their current research and proposed dissertation topic with Rutgers faculty, existing doctoral candidates, and other invitees is a privelege and real highlight of my academic career.
In my application I had to submit an existing paper to demonstrate my research. The paper I chose to submit was on identity work performed on twitter through the use of language and sentence structure. This paper looked at how people create and present an identity of themselves on Twitter, primarily through the use of @ replies, hashtags and retweets. While it’s a decent paper, for Rutgers I’d like to extend it to look at this identity work, and how the Twitter community sees its need to create an identity of concern in crisis and tragedy. This is where I’m headed.
Online communities and crisis
We’ve all seen media stories of tragic events, and how people are affected by them – and how they’ve gathered together online as a result. While sites exist to create online memorials, sometimes it crosses over and a personal fun page is morphed into a place for others to gather when they’ve passed on. On Twitter, I have personally witnessed multiple occasions where someone has ended up tweeting their own tragic events. The death of a wife. The death of a child. I wonder what would have happened if Twitter had been so commonplace during larger tragedies such as the Virginia Tech shootings.
I have watched the online community gather to provide concern and support to individuals directly affected by tragedy. It is this kind of resonance that led me to undertake a small content analysis on the tweets associated with the Australian bushfires last year. I wanted to find out who was tweeting about it? How were they involved? What were they saying and why?
The paper was a very small, very specific analysis in which I was surprised to discover that two thirds of people who twittered during the high point of the bushfire-related tweets were located nowhere near the tragedy. In fact, they were overseas. None of them knew people directly affected. And what were they saying?
Apart from retweeting basic information, the majority of people wanted to know how could they help?
Seeking triangulation? I’m not quite there yet…
Last week I attended the presentation of Leysia Palen’s to-date work in crisis informatics at CU. And the data appears to be reflected in her unit’s research (in particular, on the American-located Red River floods) as well. Exactly the same percentage – two thirds of people tweeting during a disaster are not directly involved.
So, is this real?
I hear a lot of people who doubt the friendships experienced in online communities. They say “how do you know they’re real?”
Now, of course they’re not doubting that the person tweeting is human (sometimes now, however, that presents an entirely different issue), but they are definitely doubting their authenticity. How do you know someone is really concerned about you if you’ve never met them face to face before? And it’s a really good question.
The Karen Walker factor
Karen Walker was a special character who found life, and resonance with many in the hit sitcom, Will and Grace. While the show has had its day, there are many Walker moments that still hit the nail on the head.It is what is swimming in my head as I plan my paper for the Rutgers Invitational.
One of these is in an episode when Will and Grace are not talking (after a massive argument in which Will tells Grace to move out, which I swear was one of the strongest bits of acting on television I’ve seen). In chatting with Jack about how to get Will and Grace to talk again, she firstly says, “pretend to think, pretend to think.” She then follows it with “Pretend to care, pretend to care.” Of course Karen does care. She’s just conscious of the need to appear to care as well. Plus it’s funny.
So here I am:
* Are people who offer support in online communities ‘pretending to care’?
* Is the expressed concern a demonstration of identity work that gains them favour and positions them as caring individuals you’d want to have as a friend?
* How does the caring from the community affect the person experiencing tragedy?
Do you have any experience of this? Would you be willing to undergo an interview for my research? What do you believe is true?
My sincere thanks goes to the SJMC at CU, without the support of which I wouldn’t be able to conduct any of my research and also in particular to Dean Paul Voakes who saw fit to support my application with a letter of recommendation that I never saw, but am convinced was highly influential in my acceptance.