I have now been considering for some time the power of social media as a means of connecting professionally and intellectually with others. Indeed I have now co-authored two articles (one forthcoming) with online colleagues about the use of Twitter and blogging in legal academia. In the articles we have focussed on the capacity for sharing ideas and the value of social media in teaching and research. Peripherally we acknowledge the power of social media to connect on a more personal level.
On that note, I learned this morning of the death of Denis Wright. I 'knew' Denis via Twitter. I interacted with him occasionally. I also read his blog in which he shared stories of his life and with pragmatism and insight shared stories also of his declining health.
Despite our infrequent interactions online, I credit Denis with inspiring what may be a turning point in my own development as an academic. Perhaps this is a professional connection, but it felt - and feels - to me a personal one. In my early days on Twitter, I had a number of discussions with Denis on legal issues of interest. It was Denis who suggested to me that I write on a blog. He promised faithfully that what I had to say was important - well, important enough to attract an audience.
And so it was that two years ago - almost to the day - I made public my first post. Denis was the first to tweet about it. His confidence in me afforded me the courage to out myself in the hurly-burly of the online world. Surprisingly for me (especially given my often dry subject matter) my blog has to date clocked up over 43,000 hits.
For all the formal mentoring systems and processes, for all that has been written about academia and collegiality, I found in Denis Wright a combination of generosity of spirit, intellectual curiosity and quiet confidence that has, in retrospect, aided me in finding my academic voice.
Independently of any metrics of impact, or number of hits, or numbers of retweets, or 'outcomes' in the language of the neoliberal university, my occasional 140 character interaction with a man I would never meet in real life, represents the real measure of value of online engagement. Despite the moral panic to the contrary (bullying, trolling and our lost youth) there are, I believe, genuine human and humane relationships mediated by online tools.
And Denis Wright, gentleman of the blogosphere, showed exactly how that could be done.