Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Observations from the Online

Revised 23rd May. Added another "thing". Also please, for the love of god, stop sending me "did you specifically mean me when you wrote X?" emails and DMs. The answer to most of these has been "No, and perhaps ask yourself why you are asking that".

Also; if this whole post seems annoyingly cryptic or pretentious or whatever, then I don't care. It's to get my own thoughts in a rational order (making it public forces me to explain things rationally). You can stop reading it at any time. Or don't read it at all :-)



Recently, I stuck up a snarky little post containing ten of the reasons I've unfollowed people on twitter lately. The upshot of that post was:

  • Getting unfollowed myself by some people who realised that I was referring to them and had unfollowed them.
  • Getting unfollowed myself by some people who incorrectly thought I was referring to them (in two cases, people flouncing off, for want of a better word).
  • Some bizarre private correspondence. The proportion of private to public replies to a post, tweet, some other info or opinion missive, is often notable.
  • Getting some new followers, from people who were on Twitter, but didn't like it or were cynical about it.
  • Getting some new followers who found the post funny. Personal irritating failing: when I try to be funny, I'm often not. When I try to be serious, it often comes over as funny. Gah.

Anyway, the reaction pretty much showed that the reasons people use social media are varied, and often complex. Like most people, I use it for several reasons including, but not limited to:

  • Getting information that's of use to actual work and potential work.
  • Information and news about causes and issues I'm into e.g. public library funding.
  • Fun. "Here we are now; entertain us."
  • Communicating with colleagues, ex-colleagues, potential colleagues, and the like.
  • Communicating with those relatives I can tolerate.
  • Making myself available for communication in the most convenient ways possible.
  • Adding information and content that others may find useful.
  • Making a virtual ramshackle scrapbook of "stuff" so I can go back and remember what the heck I was doing at a certain time (as I can't even remember most of the time what I did the day before).

But, like most other people, I've sometimes used social media for perhaps less straightforward, or less healthier reasons. The kind of "I was online looking at A because of B" things most people wouldn't happily say in public. Probably everyone does this, and those who deny it are probably lying. We're human.

A couple of months ago, someone I've never met in RL but have followed on twitter, facebook, Gmail chat, and a few other places for years, put out a tweet. They probably weren't in the best, happiest of minds. Ironically I sort of agreed with what they had written and could see where they were coming from. However, that tweet disturbed me so much that I immediately unfollowed them on Twitter, and on everything else. All communications were cut and they were blocked, which apparently upset that person (we have many mutual friends). But it was necessary; it indicated a personal "line in the sand" with social media use that I hadn't considered.

It's not right to say what the tweet was as it was a seriously dangerous thing to put out there. The kind of thing that can ripple through people's lives, and occasionally cause very bad things to happen to a few of them. Some things are best left not said in public, and that was definitely one. I have thought about it every day since reading it, and it's a main reason why I've eased off use of social media a lot recently.

So that's one of the darker reasons why I've unfollowed some people on Twitter. There's others, but that one has stuck in my mind. And that one tweet made me examine and think why some of the people I "follow" use social media in the way they do. Especially some of those who I'm closest to, or respect the most. The answers were not always positive, or comfortable.

That's thing one.

Cheeses of Wisconsin

What people write online, about themselves and others, how they project themselves, isn't of course always a true reflection of who they are and what they are thinking. That's probably the understatement of the year :-) There is, again, a load of reasons why people write stuff that is actually different to how they feel and think, including:

  • to fit in with their peers, friends, whatever herd they are in, want to be in or be associated with
  • to give an impression that is favorable to people who may give them work
  • to give an impression that is favorable to capturing a partner
  • to give a false impression to someone they think will read their content
  • letting off steam, or some other private emotion
  • self-deluding themselves that this is how they are, feel
  • nakedly promoting their content, work, services
  • to get support of some kind

Call it fake, false, misleading, whatever. Sometimes it's innocent, sometimes with good intentions, sometimes bad. I've done, you've probably done it, everyone has probably done it. And it's exacerbated by media such as Twitter, which forces you to bleep out in 140 character maximum chunks.

But it's weird watching people you know, or knew, quite well doing it, especially when they do it frequently. Their online "persona" becomes markedly different to their Real Life persona, and sometimes you wonder if they realise this. I was struck by this a few weeks ago on Twitter, seeing two people I know (historically) well, who both tweet in a markedly different way to how they are when you meet them face to face. They connected, and tweet-conversed in a way in which they just would not in the atomic world; it was like watching two different people meet for the first time. They're still carrying on now, and it's just bizarre. And I wonder what will happen if/when they do meet in real life.

(As a side point, from oft-bad experience, the first rule of dating online is "meet the person in real life as soon as possible". The longer you drag it out online, the more artificial and problematic things will become. There's no strict timescale for this so don't email me if you've been in a happy online-only relationship for the last eight years [unless you want awkward questions back about the quality of your sex life], but when pushed I've advised others to meet someone in real life "within the month at the latest" if possible.)

That's thing two.

The last year in particular on Twitter, it seems that "all worlds" have collided. Self-centric networks of people, based on where I've lived previously, worked previously, socialised with, have bleeded into one. It's been weird, seeing people e.g. that I've...

  • socialised with, in Birmingham especially
  • academically connected with online
  • lived close to in the Outer Hebrides, or America, or Worcestershire
  • dated, or their current or ex-partners
  • worked with or for
  • never met, but have chatted to a lot online (over the last 20 years now) about all manner of things
  • know about in some way through mutual contacts or friends


...all seemingly connecting, at an increasing rate. There have been days where several times on Twitter I've been startled to see two people from utterly different, mutually exclusive, periods of my life connecting, following, retweeting, chatting.

This gives rise to a whole bundle of probably insecurities and "inner frowning", especially when turning up at social, and social media driven, events and seeing people from these different worlds chatting, or doing the same online. It sometimes brings a "who knows what" burden to the social conversation. And it's also strange, seeing the "degrees of separation" thing apparently converge to 1.

As an example that happened recently; when you turn up at a social media organised event and see your ex's boyfriend speaking to an ex work colleague of yours AND your cousin's wife, all oblivious that they know you in different ways, it's a bit weird. No. More than a bit. Freaky. And meant that I didn't want to participate. History overload.

That's thing three.

This last period of my life has involved fighting several battles. We all do it. Nothing different, special or unique there. Social media has in some ways helped, and in a few ways hindered (it's that "complicated" thing again).

But I'm turning to a different set of battles to fight now, some of which are my choice, and some of which are forced onto me. A different phase, period, whatever of life. But as social media has gradually become a significant part of how I communicate with many (most?) people, I have to use it differently, in much more efficient and positive ways I haven't figured out or got right yet.

That's thing four.

Those four things together mean my social media output has gradually ground to a halt. Which is a good thing; I need to rethink the whole damned personal communication and information thing again, properly this time (rather than previous "I'll use twitter a little differently" fudges), so it can be used better in the future (whatever "better" means). And stop getting into regular situations where I'm unfollowing lots of people, being startled by what I read, or disturbed by people connecting.

I also need to work out how to integrate communication, especially social media communication, properly with writing, in ways which are professional and that I'm happy with. I have a now-epic backlog of writing to do, or consider doing, from putting together an archive of the past two decades of words, to writing about time spent in interesting places, and people, family and relationships encountered.

Though not all of this positive, and if I wrote at this time about some of the personal and weird stuff from the last five years then a few people would be seriously upset and those aren't battles I currently want. For another day. But, after arguing out online about the ethics of writing personal stuff, the feeling was that honesty and accuracy do, in the end, trump positiveness. So, yes, for another day. It's one of the upsides of life experiences, good and bad; more things that happened to write about at some point.

But on the online front, the ways I've been using social media in particular has hindered, not helped, writing for a long while now. And there's a feeling that when I've gotten it (re-)figured out, I'm going to lose a large part, most, of my personal current online "audience", and gradually accumulate a different "audience".

Which may be a good thing.

I'm not "disillusioned" with the net, social media and all that. Certainly not; there are many, many, positive and useful benefits. Most of the people I now regard as good friends, not just acquaintances, I've initially met online or through some online happening or chain of events. As well as my fiancee, through a combination of social media and cheese (see the previous picture). Many - most - of the good and positive things I've done over the last two decades have been facilitated through something or other online.

But it's good to have a serious drawback at some point and have an objective, thorough and above all honest think about the online things that are personally hindering, negative, or obstructive, especially when life is taking some major directional changes.

Hence, if you know me and notice that I'm not actively tweeting or using other social media much for a while, then that's why. Though I'm still reading a subset of content and information sources that's useful for work, and on the recommendation of one of the few people I trust 100 percent, am signing up for a news filter which seems to have its act together better than most others.

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