Advice, Learning

Getting To Grips With Your Social Media Self

Of late, I have been on a Twitter ‘sabbatical’.

This sabbatical was not the product of a conscious, thought-out decision in which I actively decided to remove myself for complex reasons of social network activism or in an attempt to reconnect with the ‘good old un-connected days’. Rather, it happened slowly and without me realising, until one day, I logged on to Twitter and realised that I hadn’t engaged with the network for over six months – my account was just sitting there, quietly waiting for me to come back, asking me what I wanted to Tweet about next?

It would seem that my Twitter sabbatical coincided with a period of time in my life in which my goals and career focus were in a state of flux.

A year ago, my Twitter ‘space’ had a clear identity.

I was actively engaging with a relatively defined community of people (those working in or interested in the cross-section between Africa, information, technology, media, development, human rights) and most of my followers were (or still are) from that community. The rest all probably have something to do with coffee, the other passion which made it regularly into my Twitter feed. My network, by and large, was relatively ‘bounded’.

In my days working in the newspaper industry and studying at SOAS and the University of Oxford, I used Twitter as a professional and career development resource. I have blogged before, on this very page, about how I used Twitter as my ‘rolling online CV’. I Tweeted my own ideas, I engaged, I re-tweeted, I live-Tweeted at events and conferences, I hashtagged, I plugged blogs I had written, I got jobs through Twitter, and I came across endless accounts of people and organisations whose work I still follow and admire. Essentially, I became an expert in how to curate a useful, successful online community network – and I gave you guys nine tips so that you could do the same!

It seems strange to re-read that ‘nine tips’ blog now, in the context of now writing this one. At that time, I wrote: “Watch what you Tweet – If you imagine your Twitter page as a rolling online CV, you automatically become more aware of what you allow on to your feed” (this statement remains true, by the way).

Because the thing is, that in order for Twitter to serve this purpose for you – for it to be used as a way of tapping into a specific community (whether that be #globaldev or otherwise) – you have to have a very clear idea of who and what that community is, and what your role is and could be within that community. By knowing those things, you can ‘curate’ your Twitter feed to cater to that particular audience.

Every Tweet becomes a clearly-made choice and every interaction is treated as a key step in building new professional relationships. You become a hyper-aware manager of your online presence. You constantly criticise, and critically analyse, whether your online Twitter ‘self’ is an accurate reflection of your offline non-Twitter self, and if it could be improved. For those of us on ‘the bottom rungs of the ladder’, those choices carry that little bit more weight.

But what happens when that network needs some re-shaping? If you move to a slightly different ladder? What happens to your carefully-defined Twitter then?

The totally brilliant Danah Boyd writes extensively about the ways in which we manage identity in different contexts (online and offline) and coming across her work while studying for my Masters at the Oxford Internet Institute was one of the many revelations of my postgraduate degree. My main takeaway from her extensive work is that the Internet has confused and disorientated the ways in which we have historically, or traditionally, always managed our identities. We haven’t ever had just ‘one’ identity; we are a complex set of identities, which we have always been able to manage and curate between different contexts relatively easily.

Back in the day, would we have let our friends, grandparents, employers and ex-boyfriends all see the same set of holiday pictures? Would we have included on our CV a short section titled ‘Political Views and My Attitudes Towards Gender, Race and Religion’? Probably not. We would have navigated our way between these different contexts and presented the aspects of our identities, of our lives, that were appropriate to each of those contexts.

Life on the Internet completely throws those contexts into disarray. Boyd describes these contexts as becoming ‘collapsed’ – i.e. that those contexts are no longer as easily defined or ‘bounded’ and are therefore harder to navigate.

Do I accept this work colleague on Facebook? If I tweet about this salted caramel brownie, will this very impressive and important consultant unfollow me on Twitter? If I share this article on the EU Referendum, will I have a bunch of random people I worked with five summers ago and haven’t spoken to since all start to judge me for my political views?

Maybe not everybody asks themselves these questions, but I do.

There are two points to this blog, really. One was selfish – to force myself to write some of this experience down; to put academic ideas of ‘collapsed contexts’ and ‘online identities’ into actual practice and everyday experience; and to explain to anybody who wants to read this why I disappeared off the map for a while.

The second is to add a final, tenth ‘tip’ to that blog I wrote three years ago:

10. Don’t let your Twitter, or any social network, define you. Twitter and social media are great resources for putting ‘who you are’ onto the professional map, but if that ‘who you are’ changes – don’t panic. Human beings are dynamic, not static, and so too should be our social networks.

For the record, I do now intend to be back, re-defining and re-curating my Twitter space. Maybe some people will drop off that network, hopefully new people will join. I think that’s kind of the whole point.

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Fresh look

Tech hubs and coffee shops: a return to the 17th century?

In a coursework essay that I wrote recently (I’m pursuing a Masters at the Oxford Internet Institute) I found myself making a relatively bold, non-cited and dare I say it, out-of-the-box statement.

Fellow students will understand that we don’t get to do that very often. Or if we do, it tends to emerge in a moment of madness and will likely get ditched in those pre-deadline revisions in which levels of adventure and intellectual gung-ho rapidly decline. Anyway, this particular essay was about tech hubs in South Africa and whether or not they are likely to translate into broader developmental outcomes (conclusion: it’s complex, natch).

Naturally, the early part of the essay approached problems in definition (again, fellow development students will surely relate here: if you haven’t spent a significant chunk of your undergraduate essays running through the complexities of defining ‘development’, you’re doing something wrong). Here I approached questions such as: ‘What is a tech hub?’ ‘Is an ‘incubator’ a type of hub, or is it the other way around?’ ‘Do tech labs or IT departments in universities count?’

I pushed the definitional boat out slightly by suggesting that, if tech hubs are partly about sharing good and often expensive internet access, then surely an internet cafe could also be considered a tech hub? And then, I got brave: “Even coffee shops with high-speed internet access could be technically defined as a ‘tech hub’ in the broadest sense”.

My thinking behind this statement derived itself twofold. Firstly, it was derived from a recognition of some of the basic characteristics of a tech hub, whether they refer to Google Campus in London, or iHub in Nairobi: fundamentally, they are physical spaces that foster creativity and innovation; they act as a ‘home’ for collaborative communities; and they share costs such as access to high-speed internet. By adding ‘access to caffeine’ to this list of characteristics, we can surely define coffee shops – in some respects – as tech hubs. And secondly, the statement was derived from my own obsession with coffee. All who know me (or follow me on Twitter) will know that coffee shops are my second home.

I will effectively be able to attribute both my undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications to London and Oxford’s coffee scenes respectively.

It was when I asked myself why I so enjoy working in coffee shops that I thought back to tech hubs. Because yes, coffee shops are very sociable spaces. But they’re also very productive, dynamic, energised, creative and inspiring spaces.

In London I worked in coffee shops alongside people writing TV scripts and planning productions; next to start-up entrepreneurs holding meetings; and among groups of students revising for exams and running on black Americanos (cheapest on the menu).

In Oxford I’m surrounded by people writing PhDs; students organising conferences; and teams of people working on the daily crossword (trust me, it happens).

This coffee shop atmosphere is not a new phenomenon. In the 1600s, coffeehouses were a social networking institution. Apparently the coffee was dire, but the atmosphere at least was not: people went to coffeehouses to discuss the weeks’ news and to spread gossip; one-penny lectures were given by members of the academic community; scientists ran experiments and shared the results of their research.

Great works such as Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations – both among the foundational works of modern science and economics respectively – were inspired by and mostly written in coffeehouses.

Some coffeehouses expanded as areas of specialist activity: the London Stock Exchange and the Lloyds insurance group, for example, both started out as coffeehouses that had attracted a speciality group of merchants, ship captains and traders; in Covent Garden, the Bedford Coffeehouse was a specialist meeting place for playwrights; and over on the other side of town, the Hoxton Square Coffeehouse specialised in inquisitions of insanity, whereby juries of coffee drinkers would vote on the fates of alleged ‘madmen’.

So, with all this talk of tech hubs and coffeehouses, what is my point? Well:

Firstly, let’s think more creatively about how we ‘define’ a tech hub. By which I mean, what about the innovation that takes place in internet cafes and coffee shops? We don’t need to necessarily define those spaces as tech hubs, but we ought to at least recognise that they are characterised by ‘tech-hub-like’ activity.

By broadening our understanding of what a tech hub is we find more ways in which to understand how and where innovation takes place. Take a university: yes, it is in the library that the studying, and the learning takes place; but it is in the JCR, the student bar, the campus cafe and the common room that you will find the innovation.

Secondly, if you read my most recent blog for this site, you will know that I’m currently going through a period of resurrecting a long-lost interest in history. In that blog I called for more attention to be made to historical parallels when discussing and thinking about technology, society and development. Here, the parallel is clear: the expanding tech hub landscape today (across the world, and on the African continent) arguably has striking parallels with the coffeehouse scene of the 1600s.

Despite the globalised, technology-driven, networked and de-territorial world that we now live in, there still seems to be a demand for physical spaces with low barriers to entry which bring people together to collaborate, work across disciplines, innovate and share access to technology, ideas and caffeine. If tech hubs can reproduce the innovative atmosphere of the 1600s coffeehouses, they will be well on their way to contributing to society and to developmental outcomes.

Ultimately, we need to think more creatively about technology, innovation, entrepreneurship and development on the African continent. The coffeehouses of the 1600s – and in my experience, the coffee shops of London and Oxford today – clearly tell us that innovation often springs from unexpected, organic, informal (and caffeine-driven) spaces.

And yes, before you ask, I wrote this blog in a coffee shop. The constant stream of people, the buzz of conversation, and the assistance of a flat white continue to be my biggest sources of inspiration.

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Advice, Experiences, Learning, Platform

The Non-Academic Things I Learned During My Master’s

It’s been a while since I wrote for Development Intern, and I’m here to tell you why.

I must start by saying, that on completing my undergraduate degree in the summer of last year, I had grand plans for my blogging prospects. I was a fired-up newly-grad! I had things to say, founded-opinions to muse on, theories and ideas and people to take from the lecture theatre and into the context of real-world development conversations. I was sure that I would blog monthly. I started a word document with all my writing ideas. I assured my [ED: long-suffering] editor that come September, there would be a blog waiting in his inbox.

September got off to a good start. Despite being in my early twenties, the month of September still for me evokes the start of a new school year. I was full of the joys of buying new stationery, of stocking up on new books from Amazon, and of making grand plans to hand assignments in a few days before deadline (ha ha).

Of course, this year was slightly different: I was embarking on a postgraduate degree at the University of Oxford, and I knew that this was a feat that would not be conquered with new highlighters alone. Still, I was ready for the challenge and I was confident in the choice I had made for the next stage of my academic and professional career.

I was not prepared for the crisis that would follow.

The first term of my postgraduate degree was characterised by a never-ending process of self-questioning.

For someone that has never once lost confidence in the education-related decisions or career choices I have made, this experience was entirely new to me. I no longer had things to say, and the word document remained untouched. Mainly, my crisis areas stemmed from:

1. Funding.

Somehow, writing that cheque at the beginning of term and depleting all my savings felt far more significant than clicking some buttons on the student loan website and borrowing the government’s money. Although the substantive amounts are probably about equal, spending what is already your own money is a much more tangible thing. As a result, you feel under more pressure because you’re only accountable to yourself (that’s for the development people), and you will go stir-crazy in a constant analysis of opportunity cost (that’s for the economists).

2. The course choice.

Those of you who read this blog will hopefully be more likely to understand my choice here, but most people don’t. My undergraduate degree was in Development & Economics; and my MSc degree is in the Social Science of the Internet. Before starting I could defend my course choice to the hilt, but once term got going the link between these two courses seemed increasingly tenuous, even to me. I knew I wanted a development-oriented and Africa-focused career, but I still didn’t know what that was. And instead of helping to clarify that, my Master’s gave me more questions than answers.

3. The Master’s bubble.

Admittedly, a master’s at Oxford is probably the most bubble-like of them all, but I would argue that to do well in any postgraduate course you have to retreat from the real world just a little. Or in my case, don’t retreat from the real world at all and then really struggle to balance the two. Studying at postgraduate level requires a different academic headspace to the one required at undergraduate, so you need to be in the right mindset before starting out. Again with the opportunity cost (but with life choices, rather than money choices).

If this all sounds a bit doom-and-gloom, fear not. My crisis is over, and I’m back to being a self-confident, driven student who still doesn’t know what she’s doing next, but who knows she’s going in the right direction (and who is going to try to blog more). And so, if there are any of you out there who are considering doing a Master’s, I leave you with a few lessons:

  • Be confident that you want to do ‘a’ postgraduate degree. Don’t do a Master’s because you can’t think of anything else to do.
  • When you do choose a degree, be confident in the one you choose. For many of us, a Master’s will be the last stop on our academic careers. Make sure that the course is the right one for you, and that you’re happy for it to be directing and driving whatever you do next.
  • Doing the degree won’t solve everything for you. If you’re thinking about doing a Master’s in the hope that it will give you all the answers about what you want to do with your life: it won’t. It will just raise questions, and throw them right back at you. Be prepared for that.
  • Think creatively. Doing a Master’s degree to get into development does not necessarily equal an ‘MA in Development Studies’. There are a plethora of courses out there that are more specific, more nuanced, and will demonstrate a more innovative way of thinking about development. Read: doing a Master’s in the Internet.
  • Finally, ask yourself the difficult questions. You know that little voice that sits in some corner of your brain and fires stuff at you sometimes? Seriously, listen to him. It’s a pain in the short term, but it’ll stand you in good stead to tackle his questions in the long run.
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