Chapter 6: Joining the Digital Conversation

Katie Blocksidge and Autumm Caines


This chapter discusses knowledge creation through digital conversation, and outlines how student scholars can bring their own questions and thoughts to a wide range of online conversations, including academic conversations. Students will examine their current role in online discourse, and learn how to locate and join new discussions of interest.

Chapter Topics

  1. Introduction
  2. Digital Identities: Who are you online?
  3. Finding the conversation
  4. Participating in the conversation


Learning Objectives

After completing this chapter you should be able to:

  • Seek out digital conversations taking place in your area of interest or field.
  • Contribute to digital conversations at an appropriate level, especially a scholarly level.
  • See yourself as both a participant and a consumer in digital scholarly conversations.
  • Act confidently as a student scholar in online scholarly environments.
  • “Identify barriers to entering scholarly conversations via various digital venues” (ACRL Framework, 2015, p. 20).

(ACRL Framework, 2015)


Have you ever walked into a social gathering or party and realized you didn’t know anyone in the room? Let’s imagine such a situation. You are nervous, but you decide to stick it out: you slowly circulate the room and listen to the conversations. A few of the conversations do not interest you, but one is focused on a TV series you watch and so you linger a bit longer to listen to the different perspectives. As in all good conversations, people are not just standing around agreeing with one another. Different conversationalists with different points of view are making and supporting dissenting arguments about elements of the plot and different characters. Since you have joined in the middle of the conversation, it may seem a bit confusing. No one person’s point of view entirely encapsulates a full analysis of the show, but everyone’s comments combined begin to build a complete overview and interpretation of the program. Eventually, you add your opinion of a recent episode and are drawn deeper into the discussion; before you know it, an hour has passed and you are well integrated in the gathering. You are now an integral part of the conversation.

Online scholarly conversations occur in much the same way. Researchers and scholars from all over the world communicate through digitally mediated tools such as social media, personal blogs, email listservs, and video chats: they use these to help grow their networks and move their research forward. As a college student, you might think that you are not yet ready to join these conversations and that you need to wait until you are further into your major, or maybe even until after you have graduated, before you can make your voice heard. Responsible participation in reputable communities of practice that are concerned with accuracy, reliability, and respect for can be a powerful experience for a college student developing their own authoritative voice. College is a time for branching out, and part of that process can be discovering you have questions and ideas that may be of value to a broader conversation concerned with the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

Digital Identities: Who are you online?

All of us present ourselves differently depending on context. We take on different roles based on the complex interplay of how others see us and how we see ourselves. Simultaneously, you can be part of a family, a team, a cohort of colleagues, and a circle of friends, and the way you see and present yourself may be different in each of these contexts. The differences in your identity within each setting may be based on your interest in these groups and on how others in these groups see you. For example, the way you talk to your instructor in class is different from the way you talk to your friends over lunch, which may in turn be different from the way you communicate with friends in an online forum.

If you spend a lot of time using , you have different identities across different platforms. For instance, in your college or university course management system you are viewed by others as a student and you present yourself as a student. Your identity as a student is reinforced by several factors, including: the university’s system administrator limiting the control and options that you have as a student and the academic expectations of your role as a student. For instance, on a purely technical level you just don’t have as much control over the system as your professor does: you can’t see everyone’s grades. Additionally, your identity is influenced by the expectations of your role as a student and your teacher’s role as an instructor: your professors give you directions about how to successfully complete the course rather than the other way around. All these external factors reinforce your identity as a student in that particular digital environment. However, in a forum for your favourite multiplayer online game you may be an authority for certain aspects of game-play. You may actually have moderator privileges on the forum and others may look to you for expertise. Just as with identities in the rest of your life, online identities are contextual and authority in them can change based on the platform or on your role at a specific point in time. You likely won’t be a student user of your course management system forever: you will graduate and take on new roles in a variety of contexts.

People may develop new or separate digital identities for a variety of reasons. Some do not want to interact with others online yet choose to broadcast messages about their upcoming projects. Others may choose to communicate and connect with others online through longer interactions. Depending on your individual context, the decision to interact with people online can be challenging; it requires an output of time, energy, and attention that you may not be able to spare. For instance, let’s think of a working parent who may also be attending classes to earn a university degree; part of their coursework might include using social media and other digital tools to engage with their peers and build upon their own academic work. However, there are only so many hours in the day that can be dedicated to these online conversations; people need time to tend to non-academic conversations, their family, friends, meals, and sleep. As you develop your presence in academic online conversations, you might find it helpful to schedule the amount and dispersal of time (how much and when, e.g., one hour in the morning and two hours in the evening) you will dedicate to growing your own online network.

Digital participants may find that they face barriers depending on their gender, race, ethnicity, legal status, sexual orientation, and/or socio-economic status. People who have any of these vulnerabilities may be hesitant to interact or engage in open online environments. Take a moment to picture a student journalist who has just published an article in her university newspaper focusing on a recent provincial election that had become contentious. The first few online comments addressed the content of the article, but the next comments quickly became focused on the journalist herself; derogatory remarks were made about her appearance, ethnicity, and intelligence. The same type of comments appear on the next few articles she publishes for the school paper, particularly when those articles are cross-posted to the student newspaper’s Twitter account. The student journalist initially shrugs off the abusive comments, but after several of the commenters direct-message her on Twitter, she becomes more alarmed. She schedules a meeting with the student editor and faculty adviser to discuss how the student newspaper could create and enforce a comments moderation policy on its site.

According to a 2017 Pew Research Study, women disproportionately experience online harassment, and women experience harassment differently than men do. That same study also found one in four black Americans have faced harassment because of their race. It is important to remember that context is everything and that the same experience can be interpreted differently by different people because of their background or status. It is also important to remember that this ambiguity does not excuse bad behaviour; part of your responsibility as a digital citizen is to treat your peers with respect and empathy.

There are entire populations across the planet who do not have the means or opportunity to interact with others online. While the Internet provides many people with the ability to join a wide range of online conversations and activities, a significant portion of the world’s population is unable to participate. In their 2017 report The State of Broadband, the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development found that approximately 52% of the world population did not have access to the Internet. Cell phone ownership is much higher, with the number of mobile cellular subscriptions outnumbering the total world population; access to reliable and fast cellular connections remains an issue, as only 76% of the world lives within reach of a 3G network. As a student scholar and digital citizen, you should be aware of the myriad barriers that prevent some individuals from joining online conversations, resulting in the loss of their knowledge, viewpoints, and networks. These barriers can range from limited access to the Internet to a need to remain anonymous to maintain personal safety. The Internet is open to all; that has huge advantages but can also make it easy to identify, track, and harass vulnerable populations—and even those you may not immediately think of as vulnerable. Be respectful of your peers and colleagues who may be reluctant to join you in online conversations.

It can be helpful to think about digital identities within a framework called “Visitors and Residents.” Developed by White and Le Cornu, the Visitors and Residents is a way to think about how you use the Internet in different contexts; a visitor sees the Web as a series of tools to be used for a specific job or task, while a resident sees the Internet as an actual place where they develop relationships and acquire knowledge (White and Le Cornu, 2011). It is important to point out that the Visitors and Residents typology lies on a spectrum; it’s not simply a set of two boxes, one of which you must fall into. You may be a Visitor in some contexts, and a Resident in others; these identities are not set in stone, and will evolve and change throughout your life in higher education and beyond.

While Visitor and Resident typology asks us to place on a scale indicating mode of engagement, it simultaneously looks at another continuum: personal versus professional/academic. You probably interact much differently online as a student scholar than you do in more social digital spaces. As an undergraduate student, you may still consider yourself a Visitor to many of the conversations occurring in your major, or within the career field you hope to one day join—for now you may be spending more time learning facts and background than communicating and engaging with others who are also interested in that major or field. It is important that you take time to listen to the more experienced voices in your field or major, but students can also make important contributions to these academic conversations. Many of the people currently participating in scholarly conversations were once Visitors themselves, but they identified areas within the conversation where they had questions and thoughts that could be shared; even as students, they still knew they had an important point of view to share with the larger community.


Activity 7.1

Consider your own use of the Internet and social media: Which platforms do you use often? Which do you avoid? Have you become more familiar with certain platforms (such as your course management system) because of job or academic requirements?

Take a few minutes to view this video of David White creating a Visitors and Residents map of his own digital identity. Using his example as a guide, draw a map of your own digital identities within the Visitor and Resident typography.

Did You Know

Below are some examples of individuals who were able to affect real change and make impact through working in a broad digital conversation.

Related Articles

Jordan, Lindsay.  “Residents and Visitors (#heanpl).” Retrieved from: April 23, 2012.

White, David S., and Alison Le Cornu. “Visitors and Residents: A New Typology for Online Engagement.” First Monday 16, no. 9 (September 5, 2011): retrieved from:

Finding the Conversation

We engage in conversations every day: standing in line at the coffee shop, asking for directions, starting a course project, or just waiting for class to begin. You may have started or followed threads on Twitter, texted in class, or interacted with your friends late into the night using a video chat app. For each of these scenarios, you might have started the conversation yourself or been pointed towards the conversation by a friend or peer. If you joined an ongoing conversation on Facebook or Twitter, the conversation might even have been brought to your attention by the algorithms and advertising specific to those products.

If you have written a paper in which you include citations from other sources, you have participated in another kind of conversation; one that took place in a scholarly context, and at a slower pace. For example, imagine you have to write a paper on algae blooms in freshwater lakes for your biology course. Before you start writing, you will do some research in Google Scholar or in your library databases to locate background information and journal articles that you can cite in your paper to advance your argument. As you read your journal articles, you may notice that the authors cite additional outside sources to address their own argument; they are bringing other people into the conversation that is occurring within their article. When you then cite these sources in your own written work, you have joined this same scholarly conversation.

But how do you find scholarly conversations that are occurring outside academic papers? Remember our party from earlier, the one that you entered alone, where you had to tough it out getting to know people? Well, what if instead of entering the party alone, you had a friend who was meeting you there and was going to introduce you to people? Sometimes you can find conversations through others who are having similar conversations. In this way you can build a network of people who can help you find the contexts and content that you need to further your research. These “friends” bringing you to the “party” may be your teachers, supervisors, and advisers, but also other scholars whom you might be citing in your papers. Not all scholars participate in the open but it is worth checking to see if someone whose work you are connecting with maintains a blog or engages on social media.


Activity 7.2

Using the search engine of your choice, search for one of your professors online. Do they have a professional presence online? What can you learn about their research interests?


In online arenas, scholarly conversations may evolve different paces. Let’s consider two common methods of online conversation: personal blogs and social media.

  • Personal blog – these feature longer pieces of writing and, if it’s  activated, the comments function allows for dialogue that can be more in depth and take place over a longer period of time. Online conversations can sometimes feel like they move very fast, so a blog can offer an opportunity for discussions that need to develop over time. However, blogs can also make it feel like the writer is shouting into the void of the Internet if the author doesn’t have an active online network.
  • Social media – The quick-response possibilities within social media platforms allow conversations to move quickly, mirroring the kinds of discussions you might have face-to-face. Many platforms also make use of tagging or hashtags that allow users to quickly follow or locate new discussions. Because conversations on social media platforms move so quickly you may find them overwhelming. Remember to start slowly and be comfortable with how the conversation may develop without you.

Any new social environment, be it face-to-face or online, can have different norms, behaviour, or jargon that is unfamiliar. Returning to our party metaphor from earlier, this is when it can help to have a friend or guide with you as you venture into a new conversation; they can provide context for the discussion, answer questions, and point you to new sources of information. As with any new environment or learning experience, you might feel overwhelmed by all the information; give yourself permission to read over the conversation carefully and take everything in. Listening is a great way to begin your interactions in a face-to-face or digital conversation.

Consider talking to your professors to see if there are any individuals in their fields who are active participants in digital conversations. Who are they talking to at conferences, and who do they cite in their own research? Use the university and city library databases to find recent articles about topics in your field of study, and then see if you can find any information on the authors of those articles. Do they have a digital presence?


Activity 7.3

Take a look at the following article, blog post, and Twitter conversation. How is each example engaging with a conversation? Who is involved in each conversation? What key differences do you notice among the conversation types?

Article: “A Critical Take on OER Practices,” by Sarah Crissinger

Blog post: “New Directions in Open Education,” by Mike Caulfield

Twitter conversation: “CritLib—Open Educational Resources


Pause and Reflect

Think about a time when you entered a new environment, such as the first day of a new class, joining a new sports team, or starting a new hobby. How did you get to know people in your new environment? Did you dive right in, or step back and observe? How could these experiences inform your behaviour as you start to join conversations in digitally mediated spaces?

Participating in the Conversation

Thinking back to our party metaphor again, we have already reviewed how much easier it can be to join a conversation when you have a friend to guide you. You have someone to help you identify key players, and to assist you with understanding any jargon or professional terminology. While you may already have some experience with online conversations as part of your social activities, the discussions you engage in as a student scholar can hold a different weight: you are entering professional realms.

In a study of undergraduate student researchers, Riehle and Hensley (2017) found that while students were excited about sharing their research with the public, they were also concerned about the long-term ramifications of publishing their work in an online environment. Other scholars might benefit from the work the undergraduate researchers had performed, but students felt conspicuous about publishing before they had even finished their degree program. “One interviewee expressed concern that undergraduate student work, especially work done earlier in the college experience, would be easily accessible via Google Scholar anytime someone searches [their] name for years to come” (Riehle and Hensley, 2017). The open and shared information networks created by digital conversations grant new participants a much higher degree of visibility than was ever possible in the past. Participants have a larger audience, but are perhaps also subject to more scrutiny; you really have to do your research before you hit “publish.”

Figure 7.1: Blue Green Ring

As a student scholar, you will need to consider the ripple effects of your own participation in online discussions within your field and areas of interest. For example, the paper you wrote in your final year of university, and that you submitted to the learning management system will likely never be available to an outside audience. However, a blog post you wrote on a controversial topic will continue to exist, even after your own viewpoint may have evolved and changed completely. While this doesn’t mean you should avoid these open conversations, you should carefully consider your responsibilities as an active participant. Stepping into a scholarly conversation online can be an act of establishing your professional credentials. It is likely that the networks you create through these discussions will assist you in other areas of your academic and work life. This is valuable. Just make sure you are ready to accept being associated with the comments or ideas you are putting out into the world now for years to come.

As you consider your role as a participant online, you may decide that you are not quite ready to introduce your own research or work into the public eye. This is where asking questions can be an excellent entry point into the larger conversation: it is low stakes and allows you to familiarize yourself with other participants and with the parameters of the discussion before you decide how much of your own identity and work you are comfortable sharing and discussing in public.


Pause and Reflect

Let’s return one last time to our party metaphor. You are completely engaged in the conversation regarding your favourite television show when you notice a late arrival to the party standing quietly by the wall. They are watching the conversations around the room, but are unsure how to step into a discussion mid-stream. It is now your turn to take on the role of the friend or mentor and introduce this new arrival into some of the conversations around you, just as your friend earlier assisted you. Conversations in any medium cannot flourish without the participation of new partners and fresh ideas; as a student scholar, this is a time to take advantage of the many discussion opportunities occurring in your field and to develop your own network of peers.


Activity 7.4

Search a social media platform of your choice for hashtags or keywords related to your major or area of interest. Can you identify a frequently used tag or keyword? Are there individuals who stand out as active participants within those conversations? Are their contributions thoughtful, informed, and backed up with evidence and reliable citations?

Related Articles

Stewart, Bonnie. “In Abundance: Networked Participatory Practices as Scholarship.” Retrieved from: (June, 2015)



Framework for information literacy for higher education. (2015). Chicago: Association of College & Research Libraries. Retrieved from


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Digital Citizenship Toolkit Copyright © by Katie Blocksidge and Autumm Caines is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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