I have been fascinated by the power of online community to provide real support and connection for people for nearly 20 years (eek) and when the internet got social, I was an early and enthusiastic adopter.
Right now I find myself withdrawing from most social media and I will pop onto to ‘X’ simply to post this good bye in case anyone is looking for me there. From a personal perspective I can’t tolerate the permissioning of some very challenging (to me) content and from a user experience point of view the fact it doesn’t know what it is any more makes it a frustrating experience.
I feel a real sense of sadness about this. Alongside many other people when I joined (in 2008!) it provided a brilliant opportunity to connect to and to share ideas with such a range of people – and with a real sense of camaraderie and kindness as well. It represented an optimistic view of what social media could be and it’s still important to remember the impact it had and is having in the Middle East for example with the Arab spring and now in Gaza.
Social media has always been a mash up of culture and platforms with different spaces becoming home to different types of discourse and twitter was always at the forefront of the disaggregation of the media landscape and a place where people experimented with what that could mean. Its failure to create a viable business model from that I think, ironically, is what kept it dynamic for so long when compared to the advertising takeover of Facebook and instagram and it’s Elon Musks quest for that elusive model – as well as his reprehensible views masquerading as freespeech – which are killing it now.
I sometime say that you can summarise my PHD research on how social technologies might address democratic deficit as having a two word answer; not Facebook. I still stick by that if you take Facebook as a lazy shorthand for the wider social media ecosystem of corporate monoliths which are dedicated to making us ever more effective consumers rather than better citizens.
There is a lot more to unpack in all this – complex governance and legislative challenges, a real need to understand where the money is and how it flows (from the tech giants to the new income flows of influencers and content creators), the tensions between anonymity and identity, and the ever shifting cultural impacts and interaction between online and offline life (did you know there are now more dead people that living on Facebook? There was no use case for that when these platforms where conceived). I am not going to try and unpack it all here as there are people much better qualified than me to do that – but thinking back to when I was immersed in those early days of social media unfolding I believe there is still so much potential in how we could use digital and networked technologies if we can recapture some of the qualities that drew so many of us there in the first place.
I think the hope for what comes next has to be in smaller spaces – I read this excellent rolling Stone article via Data and Society which articulates this really well – and makes me think more and more about how we support the development of civic tech today – which is a whole blog post in its own right – but still remains a powerful opportunity for communities to develop their own agency and voice.
In terms of where I want to be online – and how I will look for those small spaces – I’ve concluded I don’t have the patience to figure out mastodon and/or find my tribe there right now and I am suspicious of Threads as being ultimately another advertising model. I have decided to properly commit to substack – partly as I want to return to more immersive reading and this seems a good source (along with the London Review of Books!). I also like the ‘feel’ of the discourse there – which reminds me of an earlier twitter – though there are still question marks across the space with the current freespeecr / no platform debate about the far right using the platform but also the importance of taking responsibility for ones own experience which is beautifully articulated by Elle Griffin.
I’m going to more consciously curate my instagram feed as I have been able to find positive and interesting voices there about some of the things I am interested in – but I am still looking for the space where I get that buzz of connection and that feeling of being connected to the public sphere – ideas for where I can find that are very welcome. I’m going to experiment with groups on WhatsApp – but with some caution as I am not sure its a sophisticated enough interface to cultivate much of a culture in the spaces it creates.
In terms of content creation – I will continue to write at CuriousCatherine as my online home (and where I have control of my content) and cross post on Medium to find wider audience – as well as posting to LinkedIn which has become much more a place of human interaction that it was when I first joined. I will be considering whether to properly write on SubStack – but I am cautious about committing to another platform until I feel I have my writing habit back in a groove.
I will stick with Facebook as its good for local community content – and have decided to steer clear of nextdoor which keeps wanting to send me worst case scenario updates at the stop of a hat (Burglaries!! Dog thieves! Bad parking!!).
But in terms of twitter – I think I said goodbye to it when it became X and I am going to stick with that. I can’t properly leave without a moment to name and thank all the amazing people I met on and through twitter. When I was writing my Phd (10 Years ago!) I found community who were my cheerleaders, critics and in the case of the amazing George Julian my volunteer proofreader who stepped in and got me over the line – such wonderful generosity.
I can’t name them all but some of them are still hugely valued people in my network; Carl Haggerty, Carl Whistlecraft, Dave Briggs, Jonathan Flowers, Heather Jameson, Piali Das Gupata, Mark Rogers and of course Paul Brewer and Noel Hatch who I am now lucky enough to work with.
There are so many local gov digital people I could name bit a special mention is needed for Kit Collingwood and her gin o’clock (and of course the annual reading of the Dark is Rising).
I am also grateful to all the people who tweeted along at conferences and various events and created a rich and enriching back channel to more traditional events.
And finally, there are also people like Cassie, Anna, Rowan and others who are now beautifully embedded in my life – all of them in some way found (or they found me) as a result of twitter.
I suppose my last reflection – and to step back from the nostalgia – is that it is us and our behaviour that ultimately set the tone for earlier twitter – and we perhaps underestimate that when we blame the platforms for a toxic culture. I think we are being manipulated by these spaces and the motivation is profit not social value – but we also let it happen my failing to curate, to block and to challenge the behaviour we don’t like. I’m not talking about the people – especially women – who get trolled and piled on – I’m talking about each of us not doing or saying anything when something don’t feel comfortable with where the tone of the debate is going – the moments and interactions before things are out of control. We need spaces that make it safe for us to do that – but we also need to take accountability because social spaces are human spaces made up of our behaviours as well as the algorithms.
I will watch the ‘freespeech’ debate on substack with great interest as I see people who learned that lesson from twitter and now want to create a space which behaves differently – lets see if we all do better this time round.