How kind are you to Twitter and how kind is Twitter to you?
Guest post by @VictoriaBetton
How kind are you in social media spaces? And do you have an online ecosystem where it’s ok to pop up the odd tweet about the emotional pain that we all experience at one time or another? And if it isn’t then is it the kind of ecosystem that ultimately bolsters or undermines your wellbeing?
Erving Goffman (1922-1982) was an eminent social theorist who had interesting stuff to say about how we present ourselves in social situations. He described our social interactions as a series of performances – we are all actors trying to control the impression others have of us in order to avoid embarrassment and shame. Extending the performance metaphor, he describes our front-stage and back-stage performances – those we are prepared to show to our wider networks and those we keep hidden away. He also wrote about Stigma (1961) in which he explored how people manage impressions of themselves when they carry ‘marks’ which mean they don’t conform to approved standards of behaviour or appearance. So how does this play out in your Twitter ecosystem – the people who you follow and who follow you?
Social media enthusiasts tend to emphasise the way in which platforms like Twitter connect us and strengthen our social ties. Cynics tend to emphasise the tendency for us to manage our identity in ways which are overly positive and can alienate us from others. The truth, in my view, is somewhere in-between. But I wonder about the extent to which we can we be truly connected if we only choose to share and engage with certain (socially acceptable) aspects of ourselves and others? It’s our behaviour that counts, whatever the space.
So when someone in our timeline tweets that we are having a bad day, or are unhappy, or perhaps even that they feel that they can’t go on, what are they hoping for and how does Twitter respond? How kind are we? Do we respond and say something nice or do we just pretend we didn’t notice – perhaps out of embarrassment or even disgust (it reminds us of our own vulnerability) or because we’re not quite sure what to do and are worried we’ll get out of our depth (what’s the worst that can happen?). As an experiment I just tweeted ‘I’ve got a big bad miserable headache’ (which is true FYI) – not the biggest share in the world but even that felt uncomfortable! Not one single person responded. But when I tweeted about my pottery lesson success then I got tons of interaction. Perhaps we only want to hear the good stuff.
I think the reactions we get probably depend on the online ecosystem we have created around ourselves. I happen to follow a lot of people who use Twitter as a source of support and connectedness to other people with similar mental health diagnoses and they routinely tweet about how they are feeling and are quick to offer support each other. Check out #BPDChat on a Sunday night at 9pm to see people with a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder sharing learning and supporting each other on a different related topic each week. It fits the social norm of that ecosystem because that is what it was set up to do. It is routinely kind and generous and affirmative.
As an NHS employee I also follow a lot of health people on Twitter who utilise social networking in a predominantly professional capacity. In this particular ecosystem I notice a lot more front-stage performance – talking about the meeting we have just been to, the event we have just attended, or the person we have just met. None of this is wrong. It’s just a different ecosystem for a different purpose. I don’t notice many of us talking about our down days, when things are hard or when we fail at something. If we did, would we be transgressing a cultural norm of our ecosystem? I think this is not dissimilar to our physical work environments where we know it probably isn’t okay to talk about being sad or down – people might judge us or think we’re not capable.
I also follow a lot of arts and creative industries people on Twitter and recently @CultureVultures and I ended up in a beautifully unexpected conversation with @Iamcreative about sharing vulnerability online. Helen told us that she found Twitter ‘like shouting into a void at my lowest’ and her sense that, since she shared her mental health crisis publically, she has noticed her followers ‘much less responsive to my tweets’.
I suspect that the arts community is not dissimilar to the health community (or any other professional community for that matter) where Twitter, if we admit it, is about self-promotion and networking as much as it is about connectedness. An unspoken social rule in that ecosystem was transgressed. And everyone kept quiet.
But can we have real connectedness if we continuously hold up a front-stage mask to the ecosystem we create around ourselves? Does it diminish us to only represent particular aspects of ourselves? And what are the risks if we share our down moments? One thing I do know is that the risks are a lot less if more of us do it. I don’t mean a constant share of emotions, I just mean an honest balance and a roundedness to who we are. On a very personal note – when my brother was killed in a car crash seven years ago I was really struck by those people in my social and work circles who avoided ever talking to me about it, even though I knew that they were aware of it. And I massively appreciated the people who did – especially people I hardly knew – how brave and how generous. I realised I had also been guilty of avoiding difficult conversations and I’m much better at it now as a result of that experience.
What I’ve learnt is that when a ‘I’m feeling rubbish’ type tweet pops up in my timeline then it’s been put out there for a reason – a thoughtful response isn’t just kind to that individual, it shows your mutual ecosystem that its okay to connect about this sort of stuff as well as the ‘hey look at me’ type content.. Imagine shouting out ‘I feel rubbish’ to people around you and being ignored.
In @Iamcreative’s words: ‘In showing kindness, people only need to acknowledge that someone exists. They don’t have to fix or save that person. It’s about waving to someone and smiling, not about launching a lifeboat’. And the more we connect in this way then the more we’ll disrupt those social norms that stop us connecting both offline and online in proper real human ways. So my challenge to you, and to me, is to show each other we can create a kind ecosystem around ourselves and others.
Victoria Betton works for @LeedsandYorkPFT is undertaking a PhD on mental health and social media at the University of Leeds. You can follow her on Twitter @VictoriaBetton and Facebook as Digital Mental Health. Her blog is www.digitalmentalhealth.co.uk