Community and Knowledge Flow

Posted on September 21, 2017 by Tadween Editors | 0 comments

Community and Knowledge Flow
By Mekarem Eljamal

Community is both a catalyst for and outcome of knowledge production. Projects, such as #FergusonSyllabus, #StandingRockSyllabus, and #IslamophobiaIsRacism, came out of the work done in physical communities, and the dissemination of these works happened through online communities and networks on social media sites. The collision of these two versions of community broadens the audiences engaged with conversations on colonialism, anti-Blackness, and anti-Muslim racism. Social media sites are a new sphere in which society can engage and debate topics; barriers of accessibility that exist in knowledge production through the traditional academic channels are mitigated as people use more colloquial language and references to express thoughts and disagreements.

Looking at online communities developed through Twitter and Tumblr, the structure of these sites contribute to community development and continued engagement with the information and knowledge put onto the platforms. Like most social media sites, users are both receivers of information and producers. Looking at how knowledge is received, for Twitter and Tumblr users, they can see the same post multiple times. As the frequency of a post increases in a user’s feed, they can infer that this topic is of some importance to their online community. The same goes when addressing the active production or promotion of posts. Users can “retweet” or “reblog” a post sharing knowledge or commentary multiple times, and in doing so, they are signaling to their online community that this certain issue is important to them and should be discussed or thought about more. Through a user’s online community – how many people they follow or follow them – people can challenge, reaffirm, and debate analyses on a topic or share addition information.

While brevity, an issue discussed in a previous al-Diwan post, is a key feature of Twitter, people have used this to their advantage in both producing knowledge and engaging their audiences. Attention spans have been on the decline, and the 140-character limit on Twitter caters to this change. After reading a quick blurb about a topic, one chooses whether to click the tweet and see a full thread of commentary where people are agreeing with the initial statement, qualifying it, or disagreeing. It is in these threads of Twitter and Tumblr where engagement and continued knowledge production happens. With academic sources, engagement is slow and often hidden as responses maneuver their way through publication channels. Social media sites allow for immediate engagement; once someone puts forth an opinion, their community has the ability to response instantaneously and continuously. This participatory nature of these sites nurtures existing online communities and fosters community expansion as people call for inputs and suggestions.

Of course, online communities have their fair share of problems, and for those communities that focus on social justice, the problems are not unique the to virtual sphere. Shaming of people without a certain level of knowledge happens in physical social justice communities as it does online; while it may be more public online than it is elsewhere, it exists in both spaces. As we discuss the positive aspects of community and knowledge production, shaming those who are trying to engage with a topic negatively impacts both community development and knowledge production. People seek out social justice communities with intention and come with different levels of background knowledge; to take all statements at face value, ignoring how new one is to discussing these topics or their familiarity with the jargon, and subsequently ridiculing or reaming out an individual for a statement is not fostering community, but rather fear of humiliation. Furthermore, these statements that elicit such negative reactions may come from confusion, and that confusion can signal a problem in knowledge presentation; if we immediately ignore the content of the statement, opting for shaming the individual, we miss out on addressing how there is an issue with the accessibility of our knowledge. These “problematic” comments can teach our community how to reevaluate our language choices and filter unnecessary jargon from conversations. Such changes do not inhibit the production knowledge and knowledge flow; rather, in taking the time to recognize points of conflict and addressing them, communities can expand their reach beyond those who simply understand the jargon and include others who truly want to be involved and learn from the knowledge a community is willing to offer.

Aside from the internal community dynamics and practices that must be reflected upon, communities, especially minority communities on university campus, have to navigate their relationships with administrators, instructors, and other campus groups. Minority communities have long been using collaboration as a tool to promote knowledge and learning across different community groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine organizations partnering with Native student groups to discuss water policies or Asian-American and Black communities meeting to discuss racism and prejudice. In these contexts, it is a give and take relationship. Both communities are learning from and teaching the other; not a one-sided engagement where one group is expecting the other to “enlighten them.” With more and more issues of campus climate coming to the fore, these very communities are now in the position where they must consider this give and take of knowledge sharing with university officials. For university administrations, one of the most appealing forms of knowledge from communities, and specifically minority communities, is knowledge through narrative. Across the nation, schools have developed courses that hinge upon people’s willingness for vulnerability and disclosing their narratives. Knowledge consumption for students enrolled in these intergroup dialogue seminars, offered at the University of Michigan, Syracuse University, and Florida State University to name a few, depends on how comfortable the class is with sharing their stories. The burden of sharing, though, unequally falls on the shoulders of minority students. For those who want to engage in these conversations, that is wonderful. However, the problem comes about when people – from the student to administrative level – expect engagement, purporting that these conversations are for the sake of “building a campus community” or “fostering interpersonal knowledge.” Knowing the intentions of administrators calling for a meeting with Muslim, Black, Latinx, LGBTQ student leaders is not always possible, and students are often left question if their participation in the hopes of developing a better campus community will eventually come back and harm them.

Today, the physical and virtual spheres are places where learning and knowledge production continues around the clock. As students listen to and discuss post-colonial theory in their college courses, they are also engaging with online debates about racism in pop culture. Classmates become friends and introduce people to new communities and exposing one to new perspectives. In the online world, interesting commentary or analysis prompts a click and a follow, bringing that new person into someone’s online community and broadening their exposure to different thought processes. The intersection of community and knowledge production comes from the cycle of receiving information, processing it, and putting out more information for others to do the same, and to choose whether they want you and your information in their circle.

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