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Collaboration is Personal Too: Speaking of Microblogging

Posted By Gonzalo Bacigalupe, Thursday, February 3, 2011
Updated: Friday, June 10, 2011

Microblogging, writing and immediate publishing of brief entries (i.e., 140 characters in Twitter), has been personally a compelling draw for several years. With almost 12,000 entries in my @bacigalupe account and about 2,000 in an academic project (@healthglobal), it is legitimate to ask the question of why a busy researcher and clinician would want to spend time almost everyday in such a medium. One way for me to describe its power is in its ability to continuously experiment collaboration in what seems a purely virtual environment; one in which the conversations are happening as if it were in real time. For me though, these conversations are an experiment with the artificial dichotomy of the real and virtual dissolving.

The ongoing sharing with about 6,000 individuals and institutions has been for the most part friendly, fun, intelligent, and thought-provoking: A true learning experience. I have met individuals from all over the world, old and young, unilingual and multilingual, the majority sharing some similar interests although from very different points of view. This social technology has brought together many streams of interests, personal, professional, and scholarly and often with gems (those #ff one would want everyone to follow) that seem to integrate them all. For the most part, these are people I had never met before but in planned, and at times surprising ways, found them next to me at a conference, a restaurant, or other venue.

What has been so rich is also the network of conversations that started in the public arena and have continued via direct email. In some cases, those conversations became the source of shared projects, i.e., a panel at the American Psychological Association. One of the richest aspects is the interdisciplinary nature of those participating. Folks I would have taken a defensive to, or even rejected their stance, if I had been exchanging ideas face-to-face have now become a way of expanding my view; of making collaboration possible across divides.

This exercise at collaborating in conversation, in what amounts to hundreds of conversations, has included discussions about politics and public policy, healthcare (a lot) and public health, education, ethics in research, psychology, and much more. One of the most fascinating weekly dialogues in which the medium has mirrored part of the content (a weekly discussion about healthcare and social media or #hcsm) was the initial stimulus to writing a scholarly paper on the subject of the potential role of social media in collaborative health care (soon to be published in Family, Systems, and Health).

During times of disasters, for example, the earthquakes in Haiti and my native Chile, these conversations took a different turn, they became a way of supporting those in the middle of the crisis and sharing useful and reliable resources with those trying to help the survivors in the field. And two upcoming papers (one in Family Process) explore how social technologies transform the immigrant family experience as geographical and time distances are reduced with the fast adoption of cell phones and cheap web-conferencing calls.

What happens with microblogging, similar to conversations with friends or good colleagues, is that the activity is truly participant-driven. Twitter exchanges are not about the technology we are using but about who is participating. Like conversations with friends or colleagues, in Twitter the best of a listening and transparent stance occurs if those who are in conversation (as Followers or as Following) are honest, interesting, and respectful. What distinguishes this virtual conversation from those around a real table is the possibility of having a much more diverse group of participants sharing their thoughts; the walls are much more permeable and barriers to entry are minimally guarded.

Like solid friendships, it takes time to "get Twitter.” It takes time and energy to foster good relationships via the web, like it does face-to-face. What is different though is the potential for a rich and continuous selective form of absorbing the wealth of information that comes to us or we directly seek. Like friendships, it may be that the group of followers and the ones you follow reflect a parochial reflection of my own interests, political leanings, and professional biases. That may be the case but despite these potential limitations, I am thankful for the ways in which microblogging has enriched my professional, scholarly, and personal life.

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