Beyond social networking

Social Media & Informal Networks

Last year, I carried out research into Twitter for my dissertation. It was based on the question, “How do people use Twitter to get news?” I’ve been a heavy user of Twitter since around November 2010, when I started tweeting about student protests and found that actually, people wanted to listen and engage on those topics – and this inspired the dissertation. I remember looking down a list of new followers and retweets, thinking “How did this happen? I don’t understand. What did I do?!” When the answer is: I was me.

The beauty of Twitter is that it’s the epitome of the ‘new-age’ way of interacting with people and a new way of looking at how society works. No longer are we restricted to geographical communities; no longer are we restricted to the people that we see everyday. We can see the thoughts of, and speak to, thousands of people across the world – people from all walks of life. It is the best example of personalised networking that I’ve come across. We form loose groups and associations – where we see our friends talking to our other friends from a different group – but primarily its function in terms of socialisation is geared towards one-on-one interaction and growth of informal relationships based upon those. Interestingly, too – and crucially – Twitter functions as both a broadcasting tool, and an easy way of interacting with individuals/small groups away from everybody else. This is something I note that Facebook never quite managed to do in such an efficient way, and goes some way to explaining why its popularity has grown among journalists and news gatherers.

My research, incidentally, found that people were attracted to/likely to interact with people who felt the same as them to some degree (hence the creation of associated network bubbles), and they formed implicit ‘trusted’ networks when it came to clicking links and looking at news stories. Commercial or media accounts on Twitter were not of interest to most people – but individual journalists were. They could relate to individual journalists, as opposed to one entire media organisation – this should come as little surprise to anyone, but even when it comes to news, the context in which that news is found is almost entirely social.

In the year and a bit I’ve used it a lot, I have been using it in the following ways:

  • Crowd-sourcing information/straw polling views.
  • Sharing links and news.
  • Broadcasting opinions.
  • Publicising things I agree with or am involved with. I publicise this blog on Twitter, for example.
  • Thinking out loud: I think through experiences and processes in a public way – I get feedback where I find that I am generally not alone in having experienced whatever it is, and it makes me feel better. It’s quite a cathartic process.
  • Asserting myself: Discussing things online tends to make me bolder in my approach to that issue. I argue/disagree with people on Twitter, which is a relatively safe space for me – and this arms me to deal with situations better in the future.
  • Of course, I also use it in other trivial and less meaningful ways, too.

The Fifth Estate?

What is interesting is how the perception to Twitter has been changing. There was not a lot of academic research or indeed media coverage of Twitter, or the goings-on of Twitter, such a short time ago. Academic research found prior to my dissertation (2010-early 2011) mainly focused on how journalists used Twitter to disseminate news and reach new audiences. My dissertation focused on the consumer’s unique news experience, and how Twitter enabled this. And now we are seeing that Twitter has infiltrated the news itself – The Sun recently splashed on a story straight from Twitter, where Ed Miliband mistakenly typed “Blackbusters” instead of “Blockbusters”. It is no longer dismissed as something that irrelevant, voiceless people do: MPs use it to engage with ‘ordinary people’ on everyday topics. Its perceived importance is gaining traction.

This means we, the users of Twitter, are in a great position whereby we seem to have some – albeit very small – influence over: a) the news agenda; b) the political class; c) political discourse. Possibly.

From my point of view, I have always been fairly open and talkative on issues, but now I feel it is more important than ever to keep being vocal on those things which are pressing to you. Although what trends on Twitter is not always going to create front-page news, or make the television news channels, it is being observed by those that work in the media. They can see what sort of issues are being talked about, and the more we talk about it – the more that they feel people are concerned about, for example, the welfare reform bill – the more difficult it will become to ignore. Twitter trends take thousands of people to work. Perhaps I am being far more optimistic than I should be, but I think there’s hope yet. I think there is some serious potential to change the frame of debate through the medium of Twitter. Together, thousands – if not millions – of people put pressure on advertisers in the NotW, which resulted in the paper closing down. There is power in the hands of the people, if only we can articulate ourselves well enough.

Changing frames of discourse…? Well, we can try!

This blog post was borne out of a realisation that I do sometimes (often!) repeat myself when I talk about certain issues. I often state them in different ways so that they are easier (I hope) to understand. I have come under criticism for this from some people in the past – I am far too open, and I am far too willing to explain things to people. I see my openness/lack of privacy or squeamishness about describing events in my own life as a useful tool when it comes to getting people to talk about things that I think should be talked about more. Yes, it’s awful to read things so private. Yes, sometimes I push at the boundaries – but I sacrifice my privacy and my life (in that sense) in the hope that: a) someone reads, goes “Wow, I never thought of it that way! She’s right!” and changes their life, attitude or behaviour in some way; or b) it creates a debate that several people can participate in, pass on to their followers, and we can all contribute to an online discussion. A discussion which I feel is necessary to have out in the open, and something about which we absolutely should not be squeamish or embarrassed. I hope, too, that it in some way contributes to a wider debate in the real world.

For my part, I’m going to keep discussing and tweeting about issues I think are important, and I think you should too.

Self-identity in a digital world – work & play

Alone in the Dark 1992 screenshot

Terrifying triangular zombie attack - Alone In The Dark, 1992

Some personal history. I genuinely can’t remember not ever having access to a computer in my life. My dad has worked in IT for years, and we always had computers and gadgets around. One of my earliest memories of technology is my sister making me watch her play Alone In The Dark (the first one, made in 1992, when I was 4) and me having nightmares about it(!) I can’t have been older than 6 or 7.

I don’t remember when I first used the internet, but I distinctly remember how frustrating the cumbersome dial-up internet was, before all this newfangled broadband stuff turned up. I remember accidentally racking up a gigantic bill and being banned from using it until after 6pm. I also recall nagging my parents for months to switch to broadband, which, I’m happy to say, they did. Eventually.

Around that time I developed friendships with people online over a love of a London-based band. We met up, and I had a relatively bizarre social life at the age of 13/14 – going out to gig venues in London and getting drunk, hanging out with 20-something year old guys in bands. I then became a key member of another online community when I was 15 in 2003 – a project that ended in 2009 – but something that everyone involved looks back on with misty-eyed fondness. When I say ‘key member’ – I mean that my participation in it waxed and waned, but there were always people there who knew who I was, liked what I had to say and enjoyed my being around. I made amazing friends, and I made hated enemies. Such was my presence that I later found out that some of the biggest arguments between administrators was over whether or not I should be banned or left to stew in my own juices when things got rough and I pushed them too far. I’ve always been like marmite, it seems.

When you’re being judged on everything you say at such a young age, you learn to grow up quickly. So – my point to all this background is I suppose you could say I am a true child of the “digital generation“, and I absolutely 100% know what I’m talking about when I talk about online identity. It’s been something I’ve struggled with for the best part of the last decade.

Employers and the Internet

Employers are now starting to use the internet to suss out people before they go to interviews. Have an unsavoury Facebook photo? No interview. One of my biggest concerns now is that as someone who has left all kinds of remnants of my life over the internet, spread far and wide, will employers judge me over this? To frame it another way – in an age of open social media and where people are easily Google-able – must we all tread so carefully, lest we be judged by people who may employ us? And to weave an entirely different argument in – is it fair for employers to expect that potential employees either don’t have social lives, or is it fair for them to judge candidates on photos from social nights out, or Facebook statuses generally intended for friends?

In my view, of course it’s not. Yet some employers have started demanding access to Facebook accounts. Whereas before the internet you could do whatever you want, wherever you want, without it being likely you will be caught – now social media almost acts as some kind of digital CCTV watching your every move; tagged photos are a sign of where you’ve been, who you’ve been with, and what you’ve been up to. Tweets, meant as transient thoughts or observations, can be misconstrued or frame people in a negative light if the context isn’t understood.

Where’s the line between personal and professional personas?

Now, there rarely is one. It’s incredibly difficult to compartmentalise your life online. Trust me, I have tried it. People intent on finding you will always find you, and for my part, I’m easily Google-able. I don’t think that what you find is so inherently abominable that no one will employ me, but I find it odd practice that employers can judge potential employees based on information online. For the following reasons:

1) Time relevance. I don’t think that it’s fair or even remotely sensible to judge young people (I say young people particularly, as they have grown up with freer access to the internet) based on their online personas. Is there really going to be any worth in judging someone based on, for example, old forum posts from five years ago? People change a lot, especially in the years between young teenager and young adult. People’s beliefs and attitudes can change dramatically. Judging an old post, or old account, is worthless to an employer anyway.

2) Confusion with names. Luckily for me, there’s not a lot that comes up on a Google search for me that isn’t actually me. But there is actually someone else in the UK with my name, who isn’t me, who I don’t know. I don’t have any control over this. What if a potential employer judges me on the things she says on Facebook (as her profile is open and findable)? Is that fair on either of us? Not at all. We should be judged as we are as people in real life, not based on whatever kind of lifestyle or persona we have built for ourselves online.

3) Pot, kettle, black. Find me a boss who never makes a mistake, and you’ll find a liar. I don’t think it’s right to be judged on things that, essentially, every person has done, or does. Of course everyone is bound to have said stupid things, had unflattering photos taken or done something stupid whilst drunk. It’s basically a given. So I don’t think it fair for bosses to penalise others for things they themselves would do.

4) No relevance to professionalism. Very often social networks are literally just that – a harmless network of friends, a place to share photos and swap stories. In other words, an entirely different context to actually working. I could understand if there were perhaps conflicts of interests but mostly what employers will find on Facebook et al is banter between friends (that can appear worse to an outsider), or dodgy photos. What’s more, what relevance is the information on social media, to how well they can do the job? Some of the hardest working people I know are also the hardest partiers, who swear the most and can drink everyone else under the table. But they have a great work ethic in a professional environment. That is what matters.

What’s more – people have different personas for different contexts. Or at least I do. More about that later. I will leave it there for the moment. The idea of self-identity and how that works with online networks really intrigues me. How do we integrate our online lives with our real ones? I’ll try and keep an eye on developments with regards to employers but somehow I think it will only get worse. Ironic that social media – which is supposed to free us from the constraints of expressing oneself in real life – is now being used to penalise people.

Some SocMed Updates

Just to let you know, if you missed my tweets, I’ve now got my survey about Twitter finished to a point that I’m happy with. The link is here. Please pass it on to anyone you think may be interested – people who use Twitter or consume news regularly, would be preferable. I am looking to get 100-200 responses so I’d be really grateful if you could help me out.

In semi-related news, one of my tutors at University led a study, ‘Unplugged’ – where students were asked to participate in a ‘media blackout’ (no phones, ipods, computers etc) – and here are some of the results. I find it particularly interesting that there appears to be no differentiation in young people between a genuine news outlet like the BBC and, for example, a blog or something written on Facebook. So news is becoming more and more integrated into our lives without us really acknowledging consciously that it is news. We see it, we hear it, we live it. And we don’t really think too much about where it’s coming from – which leads me to believe there’s a potential danger here, of taking everything at face value.

The other point I wanted to pick up on – though not to do with news – is the idea of being ‘digital natives’. My generation have grown up around technology, and with the evolution of the internet and connectivity, there is no sense of geographical boundaries in day-to-day life. I have friends in Australia, America, Ireland… Some I’ve never met, some I never will – but there’s rarely any sense of them being ‘far away’. I know what they’re doing and I don’t feel like there is a huge distance between us; in fact, there’s a (perhaps false?) sense of closeness that comes from being freely contactable 24/7 through social media, email, etc. And where we generally regarded other continents like Africa or Asia – countries we would consider 2nd or 3rd world countries – to be ‘far behind’ technologically; to be ‘offline’ or out of the loop – they really aren’t. In fact, in their developments they have often skipped over really important phases that we went through to get where we are now.

The best example I can think of is mobile banking in Africa, because I know more about it – whereas we consider mobile banking to be in the sense that you ring up and organise your finances on the phone, theirs is different. From what I understand, the idea of mobile banking in Africa – which is rapidly taking off and will no doubt be huge soon – is that instead of walking to your local bank, which may be miles away, you can do your banking through your local newsagent in the village, through your phone. Almost like phone credit. You can transfer phone credit to your bank and get credit out etc, all through one person in your village. I’m not sure if I’ve understood it entirely but that’s what I see to be the case. It’s an amazing idea, and all the phone companies over there are beginning to adopt that now. We have nothing like that here – they totally leapfrogged our developments in phone lines etc and created entirely new ways of dealing with their problems.

Thanks to the internet and other technology that we can’t bear to be parted with, the world is well and truly a “global village”. We’re no longer ‘British’ – we are global citizens.

It’s Called Social Media for a Reason

Bing is the latest company to have fallen foul of the Twitterati. On Saturday 12th March they tweeted the following: “How you can #SupportJapan For every retweet, @bing will give $1 to Japan quake victims, up to $100K.” After a flurry of thousands of replies and comments to Bing (including myself) condemning their marketing practices, the account then tweeted an apology. But the sort of apology you’d expect from a teenager. More a half-arsed admission of wrongdoing, but also blaming everybody else in the process.

It starts: “We apologize the tweet was negatively perceived.” Note the ‘perceived’ there. It’s our fault for thinking that it was wrong, and they’re sorry on our behalf that we perceived it to be wrong. Next: “Intent was to provide an easy way for people to help Japan” – so why didn’t they do something similar to Google’s Person Finder, which is a fantastic resource. It seems more genuine than Bing’s approach – subtly branded, and genuinely helpful. So, Bing, there are other ways to help that don’t hinge on your brand getting maximum, in-your-face exposure. And which aren’t as simple as throwing money at the problem. Which brings me to the last part of that apologetic tweet: “We have donated $100K.” So, they’ve only donated the maximum amount of money which they would have wanted to donate through retweets anyway? Nicely done.

It’s not the first time a company has been attacked by members of Twitter – in 2009, Habitat made the awful mistake of adding trending hashtags to their advertising tweets, which happened to include hashtags about unrest in Iran.

Companies across the world have been jumping on the Twitter bandwagon and assuming it works the same way as any other advertising medium: You broadcast your advert; people buy your stuff. That’s absolutely not how Twitter works. Twitter is ‘social media’, and the ‘social’ part is really the part companies need to pay attention to. It’s not merely a web of words and hashtags with no context. It’s a convoluted network of people all over the world, who attribute different meanings to hashtags, to tweets and to other people… On its most basic level, Twitter is about relationships between human beings. It facilitates an organic development of those relationships, much like in real life – and when you think about it like that, it’s no wonder that so many companies get it utterly wrong. It’s like walking into a party uninvited. Nobody wants to be harassed by spambots based on keywords in tweets. And nobody wants to engage with accounts or read tweets unless they are engaged back. It takes two to Twitter!

Additionally, hashtags should be viewed as a whole (ie an entire feed) rather than simply the word itself. So, the hashtag #Solidarity, for example, is not textbook definition. It has been used to illustrate solidarity with protestors in London, then across the UK, then to symbolise sympathy with those in Egypt or Tunisia, then with those in America; its meaning changes depending on when it is used… The context of what is actually happening in the world. It changes every day. And the same is true for many other hashtags – the words have a deeper meaning behind them.

There are some companies who get it just right on Twitter, though. The companies who have a very big, but very subtle presence. They don’t force themselves onto hashtags, they are friendly and approachable (ie they actually seem like real people you can have a conversation with!), and they search on twitter for people who mention them. Take Lush’s twitter account. I follow them and often see, inoffensively tucked away in my feed, tweets about the brilliant sunshine in Poole, tweets asking how I am (of course not just me but all of their followers) and retweets from happy customers. Looking down their feed I can see tweets to specific users about McFly concerts, asking what people are doing, and suggesting products to people who are stuck. So there’s more to the account than simply self-promotion, but they manage that too – in a way that isn’t aggressive, blatant or obtrusive.

Three things to remember: It’s not okay for companies to come in and jump on trending topics without first having an understanding of what it means to people or what people are saying in connection with that hashtag. It’s not okay for companies to request retweets as a way of guilt-tripping people into promoting their brand for a good cause. And it’s certainly not okay to keep spamming me every single time I use the word ‘write’ in a tweet.

An Internet Internship

This is my application for an internet research internship in America. I think it’s relevant to this blog as it really explains my views about the internet, social media, etc. We live in exciting times, and I find it incredibly interesting:

People have described me as ‘addicted’ to the internet. To them I say, I am simply endlessly fascinated with the possibilities it holds – the way that we can interact with people across the world, and how we can utilize social media and new media tools to make the world a better place. Recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have given us a taste of the kind of freedoms the internet holds for ordinary people.

I’m currently writing my dissertation (10,000 words) on how people use Twitter to access and engage with news. I have been on Twitter myself for a few months now and found my network expanding beyond anything I could ever imagine. I have made fantastic contacts across a whole range of industries – and all without even specifically trying. There is so much potential on social networks that people don’t yet understand.

I am also working on a project about activism in the UK at the moment, which falls somewhat into the ‘civic engagement’ topic. How can we use what we have – the internet, animations, video, audio, etc – to educate people and politicise them? How do we turn ‘likes’ on Facebook to real-life direct action on the streets, or to encourage people to vote? How can we better inform people about the world we live in? These are questions I have been asking myself over the last few months. I don’t yet have the answers – but I am having a brilliant time trying to figure it out, through discussions on Twitter, Facebook and email. Connecting with people I haven’t met and having enlightening debates; this kind of collaborative and informal online self-education is what I thrive on and want to encourage other people to do.

I honestly believe that the world we live in today, with all its technological advances, was never envisaged by previous generations. Even the millions of ways in which the internet is now used, was never visualised. And in the same way, I believe that the future will be so vastly different to what we can possibly imagine – we need to continually innovate and think of new ways to harness the technology we have to improve our experience of life.

Twidentity Crises

I tweeted about this a lot during late December/early January, and I keep thinking about it, but I’m yet to find a solution.

The Twitter identity crisis is a common phenomenon found amongst twitter users that, as the number of followers on twitter increases, you feel under pressure to write a certain way, or cover certain topics. The relationship between follower and followee has not yet been determined – are your followers your guests, or are you theirs, for taking up valuable pixels?

I’ve experienced my own kind of Twidentity Crisis. At one point after I tweeted a lot about the UCL Occupation, live-tweeted from the November protest and posted links to my blog, I had a few journalists following me. I felt under pressure to be ‘professional’; to write a certain way – even though I had never intended to immerse myself in work or any kind of professional life through social media. I had never envisioned in December that 500 people would find my thoughts interesting, let alone journalists that I greatly respect.

Like any other news outlet

I think the answer to this crisis lies in your perception of the follower-followee relationship. The way I see it, I have a ‘readership’, like a newspaper. I have noticed that there are patterns when I get new followers – they follow people I follow, or people who already follow me, who in turn follow others that follow me. It’s an ever-expanding informal network of likeminded people. I know that they are likely to be interested in politics, I know that they are likely to not be fans of the current government – because that’s what I’ve been tweeting about.

The reason I say ‘readership’ is that I realised quite recently, I often see potentially interesting links and viewpoints in my timeline, but I don’t always have the time to dedicate to reading, ‘vetting’ links and then retweeting. (Because essentially retweeting is a way of filtering out information, of pointing out ‘this is worth reading’) So sometimes I think, ‘Does this sound like what my followers would be interested in? Would they be confused if I didn’t tweet about it or offer a comment? What is everyone else tweeting about?’ – in exactly the same way a newspaper would compare themselves to a rival newspaper. Sometimes I don’t even read links, but I retweet based on a trust network I’ve built up over the past two months – if it passes my little test of relevance to those who follow me.

Professionalism vs Personality

The key to Twitter is the social aspect of it – little bite-sized chunks of information that tell us something about the person. Accounts without personality on Twitter are ineffective. In my dissertation I am offering the theory that people respond much better to news when there is personality involved. In a way, my twitter account is my little experiment. I’ve noticed myself that though I follow news outlets directly, I never retweet them, but will retweet or comment on links that ‘ordinary’ tweeters point out. It makes a difference that I know the person behind the account. I can get a good idea of the response to articles by what people write before the link. Headlines no longer pull me in because it doesn’t give me an idea of whether I will approve or not. I want to know, what do the people I follow think?

So, there needs to be a balance between news and personality. I personally intended my account to be my own thoughts when I started it in January 2009. I rarely used it until late-November last year when I started live-tweeting from protests, and started gaining followers from that. But now I have reached the 500 mark (a very small percentage of accounts have >500 followers) – how OK is it for me to just be me? This is my crisis. I think it’s important for me to feel that I have a safe space to be myself in. I’m observant and I like sharing things that make me laugh – but it feels like it’s directly at odds with being a source of news or commentating on current events. It feels like I am breaking some kind of unspoken social rule: ‘Whenever you start getting big numbers of followers, you should probably keep your musings to yourself’.

I appreciate not everyone likes the combination of personal and news to the extent that I combine them, and I would say that people are free to unfollow, as much as they are free to follow. I appreciate that others will reveal far less about themselves than I do. But I like giving people an insight into my life, an insight into the way that I see the world.

Otherwise where’s the ‘social’ in ‘social media’?


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