“Social media and blogging can bridge the gap between academic work and popular knowledge”
Mohamed Elshahed is a EUME-fellow and blogger. By mixing music, literature, popular cinema and architecture he provides insights into Egypt’s cultural and political transformations. At the WeberWorldCafé he discussed the role of social media in spreading knowledge.
What were your expectations coming here?
To be completely honest, I didn’t necessarily have expectations because I wasn’t quite sure what the concept was. I thought it was going to be more of a networking event, that I’d meet new people that I would not meet otherwise and that this in itself would be interesting.
Could you sum up the things you talked about at your table? What were the main points?
My idea for the discussion points at the table was to say something how social media and blogging can bridge the gap between academic work which tends to be in a bubble and popular knowledge which is usually from the press and other sources. Somehow, there’s a gap between the two. If people that are activists or academics begin to blog or engage in social media this gap can become smaller. This is the main point I wanted to discuss and then also talk about how different platforms allow us to do that in different ways: Facebook vs. Twitter vs. blogging. This opened up the question of the language in which you blog and why. Besides the choice of language there is the issue of which tone to use to communicate ideas? Do you want to sound like a condescending specialist: “I’m the expert, listen to me!”, or do you want to reach out, without diluting your material? These were questions we discussed.
Were you surprised by some of the questions asked by the participants?
I wasn’t surprised by the questions but I was surprised by the things that I think I took for granted that people seem to be unaware of. For example, like I said, if you say something in English to an audience it is not going to be the same as you say it in a local language. The audience isn’t going to be the same. I thought that it was a pretty obvious point but it seems like people didn’t necessarily think of it. That was surprising.
What do you take home from the discussions?
I think more people need to be more extraverted about their work, whatever it is, whether they are academics or activists.
And get out of their ivory tower?
And be out of their bubble because it seems to be very comfortable, especially when you have a fellowship or a position for two years, to just do what you do and talk to likeminded people. But that’s it, even if you are really passionate about your topic? If you actually get out of your bubble your audience is going to be larger, especially when mixing with other people who are not necessarily likeminded. And this process will also challenge us in the way we think about our work.
How do try to you get out of this bubble?
In my personal experience, I’ve tried to put myself in positions that aren’t the most comfortable. For example, I try to write in media that is already accessible and highly circulated. I try to put my opinions out there which a lot of people shy away from because you put a spotlight on yourself and allow others to criticize you and say things like: “This person doesn’t know what he’s talking about”. But I stand by what I have to say. I’m willing to take that risk because if I’m wrong I want to be proven wrong. Let’s have a discussion about it. I’ve been writing op-eds in newspapers, mostly online because that’s where more circulation goes: The Guardian online, Al Jazeera online and on my own blog. Go in unfamiliar territory, without claiming to be an expert. Be able to say: “I have something to say even though I didn’t spend the last 25 years of my life working on it.”