Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 7 seconds

Invisible Moments in Internet Autoethnography

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 7 seconds

I’ve written before about the tricky thing about doing research on the internet is..there are many public artifacts to draw upon, but also so much that’s happening in private and offline that is invisible to a researcher. Of course, a researcher can do interviews. But I always felt that interviews only captured a moment in time. If you don’t have ongoing relationships with people, you don’t learn the evolution of their thoughts about whatever you’re researching. And even when you have ongoing relationships with those people, it’s kinda difficult to get permission to use your every interaction as part of your research. It’s complicated. But when you’re doing autoethnography or collaborative autoethnography, you have this opportunity to keep going back and adding details from memory or private artifacts or such. These are invisible moments that help with interpretation of the social phenomena happening. I write a lot, so bits and pieces of this is written elsewhere . But chunks are not, and I thought up some of this as i wrote it, the writing process itself guiding my thinking. It was not linear, but I made it linear.

So here’s one related to Virtually Connecting. In 2014, I co-authored an article called An Affinity for Asynchronous Learning. It’s about why I feel asynchronous learning is undervalued, when it is often a better choice in online learning, both for pedagogical and logistical reasons (I invented the term prepedagogical!). Anyone looking at that article, then seeing me co-founding Virtually Connecting just one year later in 2015 would be confused. Because it *appears* as if Virtually Connecting is dependent upon web-based synchronous video dialogue. The complete opposite of asynchronous text which I had advocated for. But there are a lot of links missing here, and I’m going to think through some of them aloud as I try to connect with theory as well.

First of all, when I wrote affinity for asynchronous learning, my life situation was one where my kid had recently still been waking up at night (before I weaned her) and doing anything synchronous at night was stressful because she could wake up and interrupt at any time.This happened. A lot. Doing anything while she was awake was impossible because she was 2-3 years old, not old enough to understand why she should not interrupt me while I was “working”. By 2015, she was closer to 4 years old, sleeping through the night, old enough to keep herself busy if I had work, and social enough to sometimes come on camera and say hi to people online and get to know them. Pretty soon, she understood the difference between being on the air (live on YouTube) and not. She could consent to being on the air or decide to only join when we were offline. She had some rudimentary digital literacy and soon could read and write…so she could quietly have text conversations and use emojis with people while others talked aloud (P.S. I just took her consent now to write about this).

I think maybe also my view of myself as a professional mother has changed? I was no longer concerned with completely separating my professional persona from my mother persona. Maybe Virtually Connecting was essential for that. A turning point? For this reason: Virtually Connecting exists because I am a mom. This is public knowledge. Being the mom of a young child who couldn’t attend conferences is why Virtually Connecting came to be. It was not something I was hiding but part of my identity. And so having my kid appear on YouTube became not something I was embarrassed about or trying to protect her from, but part of our lives.

Going back to what I was saying earlier. There is a misconception, I think, for people outside of Virtually Connecting, that it is mainly a synchronous thing. Yes, the sessions are synchronous. But there are days and weeks and months of asynchronous text-based interaction and planning taking place on various platforms, from our Slack team where volunteers organize events, Google docs where they keep track, to public asynchronous places like blogs and Twitter to announce and promote. There’s also a lot of email and Twitter DM with potential guests to invite them and schedule sessions. And unrecorded synchronous meetings sometimes between volunteers ahead of larger events. The informality and mostly asynchronous (or at least semi-sync) text-based nature of these interactions makes it easier to fit them into our busy lives across multiple timezones.

Another important thing to note is that in 2014, Egypt had just been through a phase of frequent electricity cuts and 3G was poor. Doing synchronous video was highly risky and could be poor quality. By 2015, that phase was over. So, for me *personally* sync video was no longer an infrastructural issue. I still had lower bandwidth than my US/European counterparts, and this influenced many VC technical decisions such as which tools to use (Google hangouts works well on slower connections and records automatically to YouTube- my upload speed for video is ridiculously slow).

One other thing I did not talk about when writing about asynchronous learning, is that although it promotes deeper reflection and critical thinking, and an ongoing, more equitable space for interaction without people interrupting each other in the limits of time and space….for many people, it did not address the affective dimensions of learning – what in the Community of Inquiry was later suggested as an additional “emotional presence” beyond social presence. It’s not that it is impossible with text-based asynchronous learning (I have developed loads of deep emotional relationships with people I had never met synchronously). It’s just not something all people are able to do via asynchronous text. My need for Virtually Connecting to exist was to be able to be part of a conference as if I was there, to socialize with people I love, and those earlier sessions (called et4buddy) were full of virtual hugs (not all of them recorded) with people I had never met synchronously before. It was emotional. This continues now, depending on who the people are across the screen.

But here’s the thing. Both my affinity for asynchronous learning and Vconnecting stem from the same *values* of promoting equity and ongoing reflection. These are both prepedagogical and pedagogical. This realization hit me now, as I wrote this, but was not on my mind when I started writing this.

When I wrote of asynchronous learning as being better logistically because of timezones, busy families, people with choppy bandwidth, these issues remained. Virtually Connecting is also for people who were busy parents and could not travel (and other people who couldn’t travel for financial, health, social, logistical or other reasons). Timezones remain a wicked problem, but with Vconnecting, we try to help by planning sessions in times that work for ppl who want to be there, making meeting times for Europe confs in afternoons so North Americans are awake. We can’t fix bandwidth limitations, but we use the tool that deals with low bandwidth best. And sessions are livestreamed and recorded so there are opportunities for asynchronous engagement and access to the conversations for people too shy or busy to join live.

And while it’s difficult to reflect as deeply when you’re live, the frequency of Virtually Connecting sessions over time allows for this feeling of ongoing learning in community, in fits and starts of short term eventiness. And access to this learning opportunitiy is expanded. The marginalized voices who are rarely at conferences learn and get heard. The folks at conferences get an opportunity to reflect with people outside the event and listen to different voices. And others can watch this live or recorded. [I should reflect on this some more as to how I learned of this].

In terms of James Paul Gee’s “affinity spaces“, vconnecting has these different layers of participation. One can be committed as a volunteer on a daily basis or for certain periods of time (for a particular event or a few months). But one can also simply join one session or more, onsite or virtually. This also, I believe,contributees to its inclusivity, as Sue Beckingham has noted (get reference).

And just as asynchronous learning isn’t for everyone, synchronous video, and the particular brand of it in Virtually Connecting, is not for everyone.

I’ll stop here and talk about more of this later. I may want to insert evidence from tweets and quotes from blogposts into this…. whether mine or by others. To support the storytelling without interrupting the flow, if possible.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.