Geographies of Social Media

September 4th, 2013 by Tamara Edyta West in Research | no comments

Last week we were at the Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference in London to run a Creative Citizens inspired World Cafésession. The aim was to invite debate around how people move through and contribute to landscapes of social media, We ran our session around three key questions posted on three tables. Participants had 15 mins to discuss their question before moving to a new table. Each table had a note taker as well as a Twitter hash tag to invite online and offline participation.

The start of the session was briefly held up by the arrival of a very stubborn pigeon in the RGS Education Centre. Despite all efforts we were unable to get him to leave or to tweet; he decided to stay until the end of proceedings.  Here’s a summary of the main points and questions raised…you can also take a look at the individual hash tags to see how people contributed on the day.

Table 1 (#RGSCAFE1) discussed the strand 1 inspired question ‘How can social and community media help us engage with and understand local media?’

The main points raised here revolved around age, locality and how we might define what constitutes community. The table debated whether age limits levels of participation. Comfort level was mentioned, and the over favouring of certain platforms. Despite the perceived ubiquity of internet access many areas and community groups do not have equal – or unrestricted- access to and understanding of online media. The term community was also queried: it is not just locality based and communities of interest transcend the geographically specific. Linked to this, a key question was how we might link communities – wherever they may be. Several people pointed out that how we utilise news was relevant- do we access different platforms for different news? Are traditional media being bypassed? If they are, how do we define reliability/ trust?

Table 2 (#RGSCAFE2) asked ‘Can social media create more avenues for linking the physical and virtual and can these be used as a way to enable collaboration/ participation that could redefine the local?’

Straight away the question was posed as to why the physical/virtual might be seen as different or binary spaces. As has been discussed academically before, online/offline interactions are often complimentary and always embodied. The point was raised that we still sometimes propagate a physical/virtual dichotomy in which virtual space is seen as less valid. It was suggested that social and political participation could be easier online- e.g. the signing of petitions, the use of Twitter hash tags to move people to engagement. However, it was asked if this was equally valid and as in depth as physical contributions- does it generate as much value? It was also suggested that virtual connections can and do lead to local connections- by creating a digital presence we expand our world in a way that can be shared, located, made meaningful. There are though always different scales involved in these networks- and with them issues of authenticity, temporality and trust.

Table 3 (#RGSCAFE3) enquired ‘How does/how can social media create a sense of place?’

Many examples were given here relating to how place- and space- is created through the digital. From students in Brazil using Facebook as a safe space, small town art scenes using the same platform to create a place based identity, through to the use of social media in exploring pilgrimage in Ireland, and the use of augmented reality software to create media auras to replicate/ recreate place. Social media were perceived to also be able to move people into action – to clean up their local area, occupy it, redesign it, advertise it….There were issues raised though. These revolved around temporality- are the changes instigated fleeting?- and also around access, participation and expectation.

Finally, we opened up the discussion to include other emerging themes not encompassed by our original questions. Interestingly, the issues raised here revolved more around concerns around data, surveillance, vulnerability…….

Economics: how are businesses built around what is put online? Identities: how might our virtual self conflict with our physical self? Vulnerability: how much data do we give up, how is it used…how are we educating people to be aware? What is our own role in a surveillance society? What should it be? It was mentioned that the session has taken a darker tone, but one participant pointed out that these were not binaries. So, it is not a simple positive/ negative understanding of the role and possibilities of social media that is required- or helpful-rather what is necessary is a more in depth and reflexive approach that combines both. With that, the pigeon left the building

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