Since my last couple posts about social media, I have acquired a Twitter presence: here. I was encouraged by my lovely colleague Katie Mack, a theoretical cosmologist and science communicator who has been doing amazing things with the medium, and also by what I thought was a pretty successful run with the CAASTRO@Uluru account during my Residency at Ayers Rock Resort last year. My experience with my own account has been substantially more frustrating, so I’m allowing myself plenty of slack to fail away while I get the hang of things.
As it turns out, Emily received some formal social media training at her place of employment, and tonight she shared some of her wisdom and expertise with me. It turns out that some of my intuitions about what to do aren’t all that bad: include photos, ‘@’ handles, and hashtags wherever possible; keep tweets to ~100-120 characters to facilitate retweets; be pithy and funny and authentic.
But in other respects I was woefully underprepared. I was unable to easily answer Emily’s first question: “What do you want to use it for?”
Not that I had no idea. But I’d asked myself before and didn’t have a satisfactory answer on my tongue. And I was unprepared for the level of rich detail with which that question could potentially be answered: from the general (“have fun and talk to people”) to the very specific (“connect with particular potential future work colleagues or employers within my field or fields I’m considering jumping to”). It never occurred to me to use Twitter with that level of focus, especially because I wasn’t aware of tools (like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite) that let you zero in on particular search terms or define groups of people to follow with particular things in mind.
Knowing those things exist solves the problem of being swamped after following only 35 people. The flip side of that is that even with these tools, I’m still not supposed to read everything — which is tough for me. Bottomless feeds tap into some kind of compulsive scrolling behavior for me, where I’m just rolling down the feed long after I’ve extracted any kind of real value from it.
So, apparently I know as much about the mechanics of Twitter as I need to know, and possibly as much as I’m ever going to know. Now I get to the more fundamental problem: that social media are still social, and hence come packaged with all the things I think are hard about being social. Especially in a professional setting, which is the main reason I’m engaging with Twitter specifically.
If I say something dumb to someone at a one-off party or professional networking situation, I feel pretty awkward about it. But I may never see them again, and if it felt merely awkward and not obviously offensive, on balance I will let it slide and hope it doesn’t come back to haunt me. On the Internet, it is very easy to say dumb things that stick around for everyone and others to read forever, indexed and searchable. That puts my anxiety about saying something wrong through the roof, with the general result that I don’t say anything 99 times out of 100 — especially on emotionally charged issues, such as political discussions on Facebook. Almost invariably, what I think is a pointed but polite comment produces a defensive reaction. Having just perused one such very public discussion, I was astounded at the degree to which one user bent over backwards to be polite but firm in the face of what seemed to me to be a pretty aggressive interrogation. I don’t even know whether that approach “worked” or what it accomplished, only that I probably wouldn’t have the stomach for it.
This is why I filter my audience for a lot of what I post on Facebook to a very small number of people I’d feel good saying pretty much anything around. Clearly that kind of compulsive filtering is not going to work with Twitter, where you can only filter input and not output. Indeed, the advice my impromptu trainer gave me was not to tweet too much, since I tend to spend way too much time worrying about getting the wording just right, and to stick to tweeting really high-value things. (No additional pressure!)
Still, probably the only way to get over online performance fright is to just do it. Much like giving talks, or professional networking at conferences, or writing anything anyone else ever reads.*
* It also occurs to me that I need to figure out what this blog is for. I’ve been posting quite a range of stuff over the years, but not with any particular audience in mind. I find myself drawn to write specific kinds of stuff which might go well in a more themed setting, though; I guess you could call the process “finding a voice”. Not yet sure if I’ll start something new (and retire this venue) or keep posting here instead.