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Keeping Connected – Researching online communities with Olivia Kinsman

With many of us gradually settling into our desk chairs, growing evermore familiar with the cold glare of our desktops and laptops, the world has really begun to come to terms with how essential

it is to have a sense of community. It has often seemed, in these uncertain times, rather isolating and lonely; many are unable to meet with close friends in the comfort of their own home, some may live far from family and do not wish to travel and endanger lives by doing so. Sometimes, two metres seems too far.

On the bright side, the internet and the online world offers new ways to relive the human social experience. Only in the last thirty years or so have we been able to revolutionise human connection through the internet, first with emails and texting, to online discussion forums and websites specifically tailored to an online social experience. Today, more people are online than ever, with multi-screen video calls being one of 2020s most familiar ways of communicating with friends, family, and even professional colleagues such as workmates, teachers and students.

Additionally, online forums are also more alive than ever, as people from all over the globe are familiarising themselves with the digital social experience. Every online user is their own person, with their own unique experiences, goals, opinions, theories or even solutions to problems that might need fixing. Soon, with each new user trickling into a space to share their thoughts, once-quiet dotcom webpages begin to burst with colour. Bustling online communities have emerged to discuss people's viewpoints on a topic, share past experiences and offer support to those who seek it. Platforms for online communication, like this blog, have been on the rise since their digital inception. From social media giants like Facebook and Twitter, to the deepest forums of Reddit and Tumblr, even the most obscure topic can find a blossoming community of like-minded individual users, ready to discuss, question, criticise, praise and reflect on pretty much anything you throw at them.

With the spread of new ideas and the opportunity for community now greater than ever, this also offers a new way of looking at research in the academic world. By utilising the online sphere, scholars can observe, engage with and then discuss their chosen topic within a certain online community, finding new ways to branch out researching methods beyond traditional pen-and-paper tallying. Olivia Kinsman – a current PhD student at the University of Bristol – is one such researcher using online communication for her studies.

Hello Olivia, thank you for agreeing to a chat with New Classicists. First of all, how have you been faring with lockdown recently? Are the easing restrictions any help with work motivation?

Considering the easing of restrictions is for economic reasons more than public health, I will be remaining at home (I am permitted to do so with my job). It has now been long enough to get used to working from home, so I am happy to continue to do that for longer to ensure things are actually safe. Libraries are still closed and I'm not in any rush to get to a Primark!

Motivation to work from home continues to be challenging though. I spend all day looking at a computer screen and then when it comes to relaxation time, my entertainment, or friends, are also on a screen. Many days I don't want to look at a screen at all, but I still have to. I look forward to the odd occasions where I can do reading from paper books instead!

Certainly agree; reading from paper pages makes a nice change from staring at a desktop all day. With screen usage increasing for just about everybody, are you at all finding it difficult to distance work from relaxation and screen-based leisure activities? How are you balancing academic work with free time?

I have always found it difficult to distance myself between work and relaxation... I just love what I do! That is even more difficult now, as much of my time on social media actually has some relevance to my research. It’s nearly impossible to turn my phone Wi-Fi off and push through academic work, because so often I have to check Instagram for recent uploads or new blog posts which are posted by the community I'm researching. I am also keeping up with developing politics in the community, which is occurring over Facebook as we speak! That means when my laptop is closed, and I sit with my partner and our cat in the evenings, I sometimes can't resist looking at my phone and making mental notes!

That being said, my partner works super hard, and so in an attempt to look after each other we both ensure that we go out for walks whenever possible - and that gets us offline away from screens. Honestly, I am so grateful for a local outdoor space (where social distancing can happen) because it truly gets us away from work. That, and the bath!

Being at home more often also means that I can get lost in tidying the house, crocheting or watching movies. So, I suppose in truth, some days it is impossible not to work through to the evening - and other days it is impossible to work at all!

You mentioned that your current research is quite online-focused and based around an online community. What sort of research are you taking part in? Are you engaged with the community yourself? Or are you under cover and keeping it lowkey?

I am studying 21st century Goddess Spirituality, specifically looking at how Goddess devotees make use of Mediterranean history and archaeology to inspire their revival of ancient goddesses. The internet age has, in many ways, transformed how Goddess devotees access and transmit information around this subject. In the past, researchers may have needed to join in-person groups just to catch a glimpse of inner workings; now I can scan through various websites where devotees are publicly volunteering information about their beliefs and entering into discussions about them.

Once my ethics application is complete, I too will engage with this community more directly in person, though to some unofficial extent I already do. Nothing I do will be under cover. I will be conducting insider's research, with complete transparency and visibility for those involved. I am in a unique position to do so. This comes with many challenges and requires me to be very self-reflexive and aware of my bias. But then, all researchers should be!

An ever-connected world gives this kind of research more possibility than ever! Is there a particular type of Mediterranean history you are focusing on? Is there an East-West difference in how modern goddess spirituality developed?

Goddess Spirituality devotees tend to select ancient material rather indiscriminately. So, within the same sentence they may refer to archaeology from Minoan Crete and then move quickly on to Roman Egypt. For my quantitative research I only specify historical Mediterranean goddesses to include those from countries now known as Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Turkey and Egypt. I will then do two detailed case studies on the revival of Aphrodite and Isis.

In order to narrow this huge topic down somewhat I am looking at devotees residing in the UK and US; however Goddess Spirituality in these countries today is exceptionally multinational - so it's hard to talk about Aphrodite worship in the UK without mentioning the modern Goddess temple in Rome! The development of Goddess Spirituality has been covered in other studies; Shai Feraro does an excellent job analysing the movement's development in the UK. It is mostly a western phenomenon, though it would be very interesting to survey how the internet age might contribute to its spread eastwards.

Sounds very interesting! There could even be a parallel there between the spread of ancient faiths in the Mediterranean and spread of the present-day internet culture and online communities. Do you think there may be a point of comparison?

Oh yes definitely! The internet is just another method of cultural transmission, spreading stories, ideas and information. People in the ancient world had their own ways of spreading cultural ideas, just as we do.

What do you think are the implications of this kind of research? Could investigations into online communities be a way forward for Classics and the study of the ancient world?

Maria Bittarello has certainly explored the use of the internet in neo-Pagan revivals of classical religions. One of her articles makes specific reference to online rituals on the platform Second Life. There is definitely a rise in online religious activity during this lockdown! Paul Harrison has also looked into Egyptian revivals, with special mention given to Kemetic Orthodox, which exists as a majority online religion. So, this work is being done, and actually, as Harrison convincingly argues, scholars could learn a lot from these communities.

And this is not just in terms of learning about contemporary religions - online learning is definitely an increasing mode of education and scholarly investigation. Think of Google Earth's potential for landscape archaeology, museum catalogues, attempts to crack linguistic mysteries using online software and of course online seminars which are popular right now. There's so much potential online for the spread of knowledge and I think we're seeing more engagement with this in academia as the years go on.

Definitely agree; the internet brings about so many possibilities for new research in the future. Well, best of luck with your ongoing research, and thank you for the chat!

Olivia Kinsman is a PhD student at the University of Bristol studying how 21st century Goddess Spirituality is reviving and innovating ancient Mediterranean goddess cults today. Her research weaves together reception studies and ancient history with Pagan studies and feminist theory. Prior to her PhD project Olivia has obtained undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Egyptology from Swansea University, taking special interest in Predynastic iconography.

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