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.