Online Community-Building: The experience of Neural Mechanisms Online (Est. 2018)

It is often said that online-shift prompt by the COVID-19 outbreak might represent the only positive aspect of the tragic events that are today shocking the world. Today, the advantages of online conferences and meetings, particularly in light of their inclusivity and low environmental impact, are for all to see. Synchronous (i.e., in real-time) online technologies offer scholars that are geographically dispersed an opportunity to interact and collaborate in unprecedented ways. Based on this, many have made the case that online should be the new normal even in post-pandemic times for conferences (Trappes and Perkins, 2021) and other kinds of events (Byrd, 2021). 

Limitations Of Online Events?

On the flip side, concerns about universities going fully online are understandable. Perhaps the main concern is that academic conferences and meetings are more than just talks; they glue scientific communities together. Indeed, connecting with people is just not the same when doing it online than in person. Physical meetings facilitate the exchange of ideas and encourage networking; new collaborations and trust can be built, especially among participants that have not met yet. 

How Can Online Webinars Overcome These Limitations?

Instead of tackling “what-is-right” questions, we stay on the other side of the is-ought conundrum. Namely, based on our own experience in organizing Neural Mechanisms Online, we would like to address “what-is-possible” questions such as: Can online events create real community engagement? Can this engagement be sustained over time? We can give a positive answer to these questions.

We sometimes enjoy to (pretend to) brag that “we did online events before it was mainstream”. The fact that the project is now in its fourth year of continuous activity speaks positively about sustainability of online technologies over time. Neural Mechanisms Online (NMO) is a series of synchronous web events dedicated entirely to the philosophy of neuroscience (neuralmechanisms.org). Participants so far have included several of the most established philosophers of neuroscience and neuroscientists, along with some promising younger researchers.

Webinars are our most popular format. Our recipe is simple enough: during the first hour, a speaker presents her manuscript (that we have shared in advance with our mailing list and on the Brains Blog). Then, there is a Q&A with invited expert discussants. Next and last, we open the Q&A with attendees. 

Of course, there is room for improvement—speaking of which: if you have any suggestion, drop them in the comments! But still, we think they fared quite well until now. Especially if you consider they were done with virtually no budget!

The Neural Mechanisms Online Community

One of the most rewarding outcomes of NMO is that the participants have had the occasion to meet an astonishing number of colleagues of various ages and from various parts of the world. We dare say that something like an international community is beginning to take shape. If we sum up the keynote speakers of our webinar series (201820192020, 2021), the discussants of each webinar, and the speakers of the other web-events, we have had no less than 160 different academic researchers interacting with our audience for a total of over 3500 people connected. Right now, both our mailing list and our Facebook page have are approaching 1000 subscribers. More importantly, interaction and collaboration between participants in the NMO activities has often extended long after the formal web-events end. For instance, a distinguished editor has recently published an extensive volume collecting many of the papers discussed in the first two editions of the project (see our prior symposium on the Brains blog). More generally, meeting online has allowed us to establish and to reinforce several fruitful and pleasant informal relations with a number of colleagues.

A picture of Brains blog editors and Neural Mechanisms organizers.
Fabrizio Calzavarini, Marco Viola, Dan Burnston, and Philipp Haueis in Genoa. May 2018

Some of them we were glad to meet at in-person conferences too – and having met online before has fostered philosophical discussions and intense social activities. Many of them are now affiliate members of the NMO team, and Nick Byrd and Joe Dewhurst manage the diffusion of news about NMO on the Brains Blog and our Twitter account, respectively. And we are looking forward for more collaboration in the future.

Wrapping up: the experience of Neural Mechanisms Online is suggestive that long-term online events can provide a scaffold for community-building. And they can do so with relatively low costs.

6 Comments

  1. The objection to online academic events that I encounter the most is the alleged difficulty replicating the extended discussion, networking, and community that some in-person events achieve.

    Together with online social networks, you all have shown that the potential lack of such social goods is not a necessary feature of online events or communities. The more that people engage with one another online, the more they cultivate community, networks, and discussions.

    So the real obstacle to online community, networking, and the like is not the internet or its social media, but our commitment to it. If we invested in online events half as much as we do in conventional in-person events, we would certainly replicate the social benefits of academic events in more traditional, brick-and-mortar settings. That’s my hypothesis—and I hope that academia will thoroughly test it in the years to come!

    Thanks for expanding our imagination and academic community, Fabrizio and Marco!

  2. Mike Barkasi

    I don’t think NMO shows that worries about online events and networking/community are unfounded. First, let me say that I’ve very much enjoyed NMO. It’s very high quality and I’ve learned a ton. But as someone who’s attended 75% of them for the past two years, they have not been a community or networking source for me (which, again, is fine, since that’s not why I attended). The interface (with “attendees” with cameras always off and name list blinded) is very alienating — as an attendee I’ve never felt like part of the group, and always like I was looking in on the “cool kids” having their discussion. But, that’s precisely the worry everyone has about online conferencing. Of course community and networking can still be built via online conferences … if those involved are highly motivated to do so, are highly active organizers, and go into the event(s) already knowing of each other and wanting to get to know each other. So, basically, online conferencing works great for highly motivated insiders and those with enough prestige to be sought out. But “attendees” have no networking opportunities … the “cameras off”, blinded-attendee format of NMO is such the perfect demonstration of that! (Perhaps it’s changed in the last few sessions, but I recall that for most of the seasons I’ve attended entirely, there were very few, if any, attendees questions in the Q&A, which I always attributed to how the two-tiered format makes you feel very excluded.)

  3. dear Mike (if we may),
    let us say that we are sincerely glad that you enjoyed NMO. And we are grateful for your comment: they provide us with a chance to clarify our thought and (hopefully!) to ameliorate our webinars.
    The aim of our post was not to mantain that “NMO shows that worries about online events and networking/community are unfounded”. More modestly, we would like to move the debate away from some oversimplifications such as “online is useless for community-building” or perhaps “online and offline must be considered as mutually exclusive alterantives”.
    We acknowledge that dividing attendees and discussants is a bit alienating. Indeed, while for technical reasons we will mantain the attendees’ camera off, we have recently decided to make the attendees list public. We hope that might help a bit.
    Moreover, we assure that we have always put some effort in trying to be inclusive when it comes to inviting speaker and discussants. We tried a “Call for Discussants” a couple of years ago, but we had surprisingly few replies (although one of them, Luis Favela, has been a discussants for some sessions, and is now one of our affiliate members). And we still accept (and sometimes actively look for) suggestions about discussants and speakers.
    In any case, although we realize that perfect inclusion is not acheivable (possibly not only online, also in-person!), we will try to do our best to improve inclusiveness. Please do not hesitate in providing us further comments, we’re grateful for that!
    Best,

  4. Mike Barkasi

    Hi Fabrizio and Marco (and Nick),

    Thanks for the reply. I think all that’s fair, and accurate. My apologies if I misinterpreted the thought in the post. I think I see the point better now. As I hope was clear from my post, I was coming at this more from the perspective of someone like a graduate student or someone in a research desert — someone with low prestige, few connections, etc. Although still imperfect, for these people, being in the same physical space, e.g. sitting right there in chairs for the Q&A, or standing around for coffee between sessions, can afford opportunities to get noticed or make a connection. This is harder over Zoom, and (I suspect) harder still over the NMO format.

    Anyway, just to reiterate, I’m a big NMO fan. I’ve learned a ton, and always recommend it to people when the topic of philosophy of neuroscience comes up. NMO has done a lot to make philosophy of neuroscience a thing, and I think it fills a very important place in philosophy of mind and cognitive science.

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