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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

More than virtual: real community, many ways of connecting

By Karen Dill-Shackleford

Mike was a doctoral student profoundly appreciated and esteemed by faculty, peers, staff, and all who came in contact with him. As is typical in our community, Mike was already a successful mid-career professional. He worked in the tech world and brought his expertise to us. He didn’t have a background in research psychology, but in the last year of his doctoral program, his work was published on nine occasions. Nine publications during the last year of graduate school is an incredible feat for anyone. But the heart-wrenching part of the story is that in the last eight months of his doctoral program, Mike also learned he had life-threatening cancer to which he finally succumbed about a month after graduation.

Mike’s family kept a blog of his progress and not long after graduation we learned that the end had come. Some of us attended the funeral in person. One member of our community gave the eulogy—a very stirring story of their travels, work, and time spent together in the program. The funeral was even livecast on the web so those who couldn’t be there physically could attend virtually.

Mike’s virtual wake

In the midst of these events, several of us wanted to commune so we held what amounted to a kind of virtual wake—a video chat with people from all around the country talking about our shared loss and joy of having had Mike in our lives. Several of us wrote eulogies for Mike and shared them with each other online. In mine, I spoke about how my relationship with Mike flashed through my mind like a dream sequence. In it, I remembered Mike and I in various settings: walking on the beach planning research, touring the MIT Media Lab, attending a presentation at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet research, and talking on the phone or Skyping.

People often grapple with the question of what is “real” versus “unreal” in the realm of media and technology. As a media psychologist I study how media use influences our feelings, actions and thoughts, and use media every day to teach a doctoral program that uses a hybrid model of higher education. While we do meet face-to-face (F2F), more often we use other forms of communication to meet virtually.

My students and I text, call, video chat, email, and post in social networking groups.  We discuss research walking the beach, brainstorm together in a seminar, or hold intriguing debates via video chat. Our F2F meetings are what one colleague calls “intense bursts of togetherness.” They’re the kind of thing where you might spend a week in morning-through-night meetings, classes, and social gatherings.  These varied means of communication have a deep reality for us, and through these experiences we are bonded together in unique ways. Our community is a kind of exciting world-within-a-world where we study what we do and we do what we study.

But for now, I’m honored to tell part of Mike’s story, and in some way, Mike’s presence in our virtual community is a legacy of the powerful ways technology can bring us together.

Karen Dill-Shackleford is the author of How Fantasy Becomes Reality and the editor of the Oxford Handbook of Media Psychology. She has testified before the US Congress about media violence and about representations of race and gender in the media. 

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