New Online Space For Researchers

I am sure you are aware of the chaos and uproar around Twitter, following Elon Musk’s acquisition of the platform. I have been very sad about this because I love Twitter and, in common with many neurodivergent people, I find this kind of change very difficult. I couldn’t cope with Facebook’s new format which they introduced in late 2020, and used that as a lever to get myself off Facebook (and effectively also Instagram, though I haven’t actually closed my account there yet). I needed to stop using Meta products because the company is so ethically questionable. Now Twitter is becoming increasingly ethically questionable, so I guess I will need to move from there, too.

A lot of researchers I know have already moved to Mastodon. I checked out Mastodon myself, and had a serious conversation with my techie partner about whether we could set up a server on there for the research community. We decided against it because it would involve a lot of unpaid work (I mean a LOT – it’s not just the set-up, but also the ongoing moderation) and we already have more unpaid work than is entirely sensible. I considered signing up for Mastodon as an individual, but have decided not to because the volunteers running Mastodon servers are already swamped and I don’t want to add to their burdens.

Digital sociologist Mark Carrigan has been thinking and writing about this and related topics for a long time. He wrote a post a few weeks ago, for the LSE Impact Blog, in which he posed Musk’s takeover of Twitter as a potential opportunity. I found this interesting and helpful because up to that point I had mostly been thinking it was a disaster. Mark said: “A more varied landscape of online community (ranging across blogs, podcasts, collaboration servers and social networks) is possible and could support richer interactions than the strange amalgam that Twitter has become after over a decade of use within higher education.”

Inspired by Mark’s post, I began to imagine a different online space. A space less cluttered with trivia and irrelevant updates. A space specifically for research and researchers. And I have created a space which may become that space, if enough other people like the idea.

After some exploration of various platforms, I chose Discord. This was for several reasons. First, I had a little knowledge of it as a user, have found it easy to use, and it is free to join and interact on the platform. Also there were no existing research methods/ethics-focused resources on the platform. And it is a for-profit platform which runs on a subscription model. Of course that comes with its own ethical difficulties, but at least I am not expecting something for nothing, or burdening already over-burdened volunteers. Another reason was that I really like their guidelines for individuals and communities, which are written in plain English and make a lot of sense.

I have set up a community called Research Methods and Research Ethics (aka RMARE) to which you are all invited. There are various text channels there for us to chat, share resources, ask and answer questions, learn, hang out – whatever works for you. I have set it to text only for now to keep things simple as we all learn how it works and decide, together, how we want it to develop.

This community needs a moderation team. Would you like to join? If so, please email me via my contact form. Bonus points if you have online moderation experience, though this is not essential. What you will need is good teamworking and communication skills, and the ability to offer some time for the work. The role is quite simple and should not be onerous.

Discord is not perfect. If you want to create a hyperlink in text, you have to use a ‘webhook’ which involves going to a different web page and filling in a form. (There is a useful guide here.) This is way more convoluted even than Blogger was when I joined in 2004 (almost 20 years ago!). I only had to learn a smidgen of HTML to create a hyperlink in Blogger, which took a couple of minutes. Creating my first hyperlink in Discord took about 90 minutes, which included a lot of searching for help online and several incorrect attempts. Also, Discord help pages have lots of exclamation marks everywhere! Because Discord was originally created for gamers! So I guess they try to make support look like fun! Spoiler alert: doesn’t work.

Having said all that, since the start of the pandemic, Discord has made great efforts to become more accessible to more people. I have found it to be much more user-friendly than not, and the support is responsive and helpful.

The space I have set up is very much a work in progress. I have not administered an online space before, and I am well aware that few people may be interested and the whole thing may fall on its, er, posterior. But, y’know, nothing ventured…

See you over there?

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