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Sustaining Communities.

9 May 2012

Humans seem, to me, to be fairly social creatures. I know I’m alone on a shaky branch here, but I’m going to go ahead and stand by that hypothesis. We operate better in groups, and are more effective when collaborating on things. Of course, there are people who do great work alone, and introverts and ascetics who shun society. But by and large, it seems we assemble ourselves, raggedly and haphazardly, into ensembles of vaguely like-minded people for the purposes of unification. Much of humanity’s problems are, of course, associated with the collision of such groups organized to cross purposes. Churches, nations, professional and charitable societies, corporations, governments, universities.

Sometimes these groups are formal, sometimes totally informal. And in my case, at least one of them is somewhere in between. Alcoholics Anonymous is a semi-formal assemblage of persons grouped to the common purpose of recovering from alcoholism. There are millions of us in hundreds of countries. But there is no list. No membership card. No leaders. No cost. We are simply a large group of people who have found a way to share our common experience to stay sober, and help others to recover. And it works. Lots and lots and lots of us have gone years and years and years without drinking.

We survive because we sustain each other. We call each other. We support each other. There are a dozen names in my phone right now, of men and women who would walk across hell to help me if I needed it. My name is in a few dozen other phones, and I’m willing to do the same. Though, I suppose it must be said that sometimes the way we help each other can be different from what an outsider might expect. If a friend from the program called me up, drunk, and said he needed help, I’d tell him to call back when he’d dried out and hang up. Just as I’d expect him to do if the situation were reversed.

The community sustains us. In walking in to the rooms of AA, we find a community that exists for the purpose of alleviating a malady that afflicts us, free from judgement. I’ve been in rooms with murderers and thieves, and worse. I cannot judge any of them. It is only fortune and grace that I have not done what any of them might have. And there are people in the rooms who may be grateful that they have not done (yet) the things that I have done. There is no stigma in AA. We are honest about our faults, so that we may find, build, and maintain this sustaining community.

Another sustaining community I have found is actually on twitter. If you’re a scientist (especially a young or new investigator), and you’re not on twitter, you’re doing it wrong. There is an enormous community of young and new researchers – as well as some old hands – who are building a truly remarkable and supportive community. In fact, it resembles AA in a lot of ways: it’s open to all, it’s largely supportive, and it’s available all the time. It is slightly more dogmatic than AA (which has no dogma at all), but I have found it to be tolerant of anyone able to rationally stake a claim to an intellectual position and politely defend it. And it’s open-minded in a truly critical way: it is permeable to evidence.

I’m fond of saying that America’s assistant professoriat is on twitter. It really is. Along with all sorts of other scientists and engineers who are working to get grants funded, papers published, classes taught and grading done. The information accessible in that group is astonishing. I have learned as much about being a scientist from twitter as I did from my advisor or my first mentor. And when grants get funded there’s cheering. And when papers get rejected there’s commiseration. I saw one tweet that simply said: “p=0.046”. And there was much rejoicing.

These communities are crucial to me. I am a better man, a sober man, because of a loose but powerful community of alcoholics who bear me up when I fall, and teach me how to be a man in the world. And I am a better scientist because of a group of semi-anonymous chatter-streams on twitter. Each of which is a person at a keyboard, with an idea. And the willingness to share it.

Which is an astonishing thing. We share. So that we may persist. And so that we may be better than we might otherwise be, alone.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. furtheron permalink
    9 May 2012 10:48

    Hmmm – Twitter I don’t get it… like randomly shouting in the void and expecting a response… odd… however I hear you… just added it to the list of stuff I need to ensure we better support our researchers at doing – I need some good case studies here. I need to be able to transcend across engineering and mathematical based sciences to humanities and the arts as well if possible, if the community out there exists for those folks. Or maybe we should start creating it with the right seeding

    • 9 May 2012 12:35

      There is a HUGE Digital Humanities base on Twitter – the folks from George Mason’s Center for History and New Media are all on there (they built Zotero, Omeka and other humanties databases and programs). And they host the conference I went to, so they get more digital humanists on twitter all the time. I love engaging w/them.

      • 9 May 2012 12:39

        Furtheron is in the UK. Do you have people from there to recommend?

      • furtheron permalink
        9 May 2012 13:07

        there are two in our digital humanities area I was already thinking “should talk to them” Claire Warwick and Melissa Terris I know they are very active on blogs etc. I need to try to follow the twitter stuff and try and get it… I just feel so old these days 🙂

      • 9 May 2012 14:42

        Most DH folks I know are in the US, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth talking to – I’m sure some of them have ties to folks in the UK. Non-DH folks in the UK I know, that are solid academic-type tweeps: @edyong209 – Ed Yong, Science Writer for Discover ; @clmorgan Colleen Morgan is an archaeologist who bounces between the UK and USA, near as I can tell, and she’s doing research on new media and archaeology. Start following them, and see who they engage with (or tweet them and ask for suggestions).

  2. 9 May 2012 10:58

    I have a Twitter but there isn’t much feed back. Maybe I am not tweeting with enough purpose.
    It seems odd that Twitter would be more valuable than F2F with a person who has considerable experience in the field.
    As for the 12 step Al-Anon fellowship, I believe that it is a good group. I’m not sure that they would walk through hell for me, but I know who I can call.

    • 9 May 2012 11:37

      I don’t know that it necessarily has to be more valuable. And I’m including those twitterer’s blogs when I say that. Mentors are wonderful. But the volume and variety of experience on twitter is amazing. Follow me there! I’m @Dr24hours.

  3. 9 May 2012 12:33

    Lots of digital humanities folks on twitter as well – I’ve learned much more about the humanities and the cool things they do via twitter. Which leads to my curiousity question – how’d you find your network on twitter? I went to a conference that required twitter use ( ) so when I started, I already had a core group of about 40 scholars, which made twitter make a lot more sense – several of them had already been using twitter, and I built up much of my network through them. Somewhere along the way I found some of the science writers and it grew from there. But most people who try to start using twitter see the teens that are just posting every second of their lives – it’s like two parallel twitterverses.

    Your comments about community are very interesting to me. There’s a book called ‘Imagined Communities’ which examined the development of National Identities – how did all of these people who were never going to meet feel a shared sense of identity? I may blog on this later (big MAY).

    • 9 May 2012 12:37

      Actually, it’s because of @drugmonkeyblog and @doc_becca. I read their blogs back at science blogs and got involved from there.

  4. 9 May 2012 18:30

    I completely agree with how awesome twitter is and how much you can learn there! For me, I really like that there are other working scientists with babies because I don’t know that many IRL. And there is no career-training thing that my university offers that comes even close to all the useful things I’ve read on people’s blogs. ❤ twitter 😉

  5. sciencegeeka permalink
    10 May 2012 06:24

    Don’t forget about us that actually work in supporting industries! I may not be an academic scientist anymore, but I am actually a lab-working scientist. (I have to say that I feel a little stifled since I’m not allowed to talk about what I’m currently working on by my employer.) And not all of us company scientists try to make you buy what we make, but I’m happy to give recommendations or advice.
    Twitter replaces what I miss about academia (the camaraderie), but consistently reminds me that I am in the job that I should be in.

    • 10 May 2012 07:24

      Of course! I tried to nod in that direction by saying “other scientists and engineers”, but I should have been more explicit.

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