I realised yesterday that, much to my surprise, I hadn’t written about PhDchat. Usually I try to think critically about my work and study, but for some reason PhDchat just slipped through. Perhaps because I have been having far too much fun with it.

PhDchat is a conversation community on Twitter. Twitter only allows for 140 character messages and it would be impossible to include everyone from a community in a message by using their username (i.e. @RuthFT). However, by including a hashtag (#phdchat) in a message you can place a marker that other people can search for. This means that you can search on twitter for all messages (well, from the last 10 days to a maximum of 3200 tweets I think) that carry that marker.

If you are logged in to twitter that search will update (well, it’ll tell you there are new tweets) in real-time, which means that you can effectively hold a conversation with people even if you aren’t following them. PhDchat holds a real-time conversation at 7:30pm UK time every Wednesday. It lasts an hour, and is focussed around a single theme that is chosen by poll during the prior week. It is gently led and moderated by Nasima Riazat (@NSRiazat) who is a PhD student through the Open University and a teacher, though the community initially formed by a small group from the #UKed community.

I contribute sporadically to the conversation, as some weeks are more convenient than others and some topics more interesting or relevant than others. But that is one of the joys of this community: there is no exclusivity beyond, perhaps, the ability to use twitter. It does not matter if you dip in and out, listen but don’t contribute, or turn up for the first time next week and ask questions everyone has answered last year. The community is happy to have you, and everyone is happy to answer your questions anyway.

In part I suspect that this open access to the conversation is the result of limited information on each person being available. When taking part in the conversation, all you can really see is the person’s profile image, and I find that I pay little attention to them. I have no idea, unless someone tells me, whether that person is a student, has graduated, is a lecturer, has ever taught, is young, retired or in the middle of a career. There is something very democratising about not immediately feeling that one has to defer to someone else – or be intimidated or impressed – based on age/experience/status.

For me, PhDchat represents a community of experience that I can call on, and a forum in which I am free to ask for advice and help as I need it. No one need reply, but the few times I have asked for recommendations on titles, or advice, people have been very generous. I hope that I would be equally so, if someone were to ask for something I can help with. The community seems to me to have a very generous spirit perhaps in part because, unlike academia, there is no question of ‘networking’ or building relationships in the hopes of exploiting them for future professional gain. For me there is a sense of almost innocent enthusiasm for research and discovery about the #phdchat conversations and community.

In part this is reflected by the lack of strong ‘ownership’ or control over the community by Nasima. In addition offshoot projects are not controlled or owned by her, but by other members of the community. The PhDchat wiki, is ‘owned’ not by Liz Thackery, an early member of the community and there is a critical, reflective writing project dissecting the intricacies of this rather new form of communication by another group of members. In these offshoots I see a lack of territoriality and an openness to frank and genuine collaboration without status hierarchy that I think is fundamentally linked to the way that communication occurs in PhDchat as a result of Twitter’s structure.

This openness is something that, even though I interact with only sporadically, I really value. I never feel judged, nor that my questions or comments on topics are unwanted, lack value or wrong. I often come out of the PhDchat feeling energised by the sense of community and shared experience that is generated. Thinking back on the last year of PhDchat, I also find it an illuminating and relieving contrast to the world of academia, where collaboration is fraught with dangers, territoriality and rivalry.

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One thought on “Democratic collaboration and hierachy free academic communication in #phdchat

  1. We really should do something more structured in terms of getting stuff Out There about #phdchat in terms of publicity and outputs. And we are due an update to Martin’s reflective writing project, since it’s been a while since that was updated and time moves on!

    It would be great to get some more formal collaborative stuff going on – but the fact that the chat gets such good participation and creates such a positive result for those who participate is a brilliant thing as it stands.

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