Do online networks enhance offline relationships? How can you make the most of Twitter? Read part I of my interview with One in Four editor and Social Spider development director, Mark Brown, to get his take on where we’re at with social media and what the future holds.
So tell me a bit about you… I’m Mark Brown. Real world age 34. Twitter age 3 as of 23rd April 2012.
I edit One in Four, the mental health magazine written by and for people with mental health difficulties. It grew from my own experiences in my early twenties when I was unemployed, unwell and wondering just what I was meant to do with my life; or more correctly, wondering what sort of life someone with a mental health difficulty was meant to have. At the time I felt a huge sense of being on the outside of things, not knowing what I was meant to do to have a ‘proper’ life.
When did you first start using social media? In 2001 someone I was sharing a flat with won a computer and brought it with him when he moved in. I didn’t own one of my own until 2006. I’d been writing while I was unwell and it seemed to be the natural step to try to find places to share my writing. I’m old enough to not be a digital native and grew up in a world where what I had access to intellectually and culturally depended on what was physically there.
In what ways did you use social media in the early days? I did what a lot of people did in those days before Facebook and Friendster and Youtube. I spent lots of times on message boards and in chat rooms for various topics, all early manifestations of what we’d recognise as social media.
The first website I came across for sharing writing was ABCtales.com. I put some pieces up. People liked them. I put some more up. People liked them. I got to know the voluntary editors of the site and was asked to become one. ABCtales ran and still runs informal get together events where people read or perform their work. It was at one of those events that I met the owner of the site. I was unemployed, was stuck at job club and as being sent for wildly inappropriate jobs. I wrote to the owner of the site and said ‘take me on, as long as it replaces my dole I’ll work for next to nothing!’ And he did.
How did these early experiences inform your understanding of social media? I see social media as a means of meeting and interacting with strangers around a common aim and also a means of putting bits of myself and my thinking ‘out there’ to public comment as well as making things happen offline too.
As the editor of the site I got to see all of the things that have now passed into common collective experience – the online spats, the trolling, the relationships made and broken. I also got to have that experience of people I had never met ‘in real life’ knowing more about me than I did about them.
It gave me a grounding in the idea of the web as a ‘people made’ space. I went from reading people’s contributions to creative writing websites and forums to reading blogs and similar. It gave me the sense of the internet not as a series of publications to read, but a series of places to be, where things happened.; the internet not so much as a series of finished and polished bits of media, but a series of inter-related sprawling unfinished texts where your involvement could change the way they turned out.
So how do you use Twitter now? I suppose I got the open nature of Twitter quickly and the fact that Twitter makes it very easy to talk to and share ideas with people you’ve never met.
I’m naturally an enthuser and a reader and don’t work so well in isolation. In my own personal writing, I actually spent a year writing 200 word short stories and posting them online which turned out to be amazingly good training for Twitter. Part of the impetus for that was that I couldn’t bare the long silent absence that ‘working on something big and long’ requires. I want to have an idea, bang it out and then get it out in the world so I can talk about it. I don’t want to wait until something is ‘finished’ before it’s open for discussion.
What do you get personally from using Twitter? I love that feeling of being inside that field of opinion, information and ideas when suddenly something happens and it all lights up and that in a tiny way I might be able to contribute something to how it’s understood or even what happens.
One of the great joys of Twitter is that it’s something you can do on the move and it’s an incredible tool for capturing things ‘as they happen’. Quite early I saw that ‘live blogging’ from events could add substantial value both to the event itself and to you value in attending it. Being an on-the-spot reporter gives you a different relationship to anything you witness or are party to. The ability to throw the response to a conference open to the world while it’s taking place, allows a kind of democratisation of networks. I’ve been at events where people on Twitter have asked me to feed in ideas or questions. I’ve also been at events where the discussions on Twitter between people in the audience have been far more valuable than the actual stuff that was being said from the lectern or microphone.
It’s been instructive watching our old staff writer @pennyred and her in some ways pioneering use of Twitter as a tool for on-the-spot reporting and aggregating of experience. It was hugely unnerving seeing her tweet from the fees demos in November 2010 the later in the evening hearing her speak from inside the kettles on rolling news because it was obviously ‘on the spot’.
I see a lot of people with mental health difficulties using social media to do the same thing and report from the front line of their own life, with similar amazingly immediate and sometimes unnerving results.
The things that really brought alive the reality of Twitter for me were things like the general election in May 2010, live tweeting corrections to ideas about benefits during the emergency budget in October of that year and the growth of things like #brokenofbritain and spontaneous hashtags like #whatstigma.
What are your tips for using Twitter? The perfect way to use Twitter is to create bite-sized things often, maintain a presence, get involved with conversations, don’t work in seclusion. It’s being an open worker rather than a closed one.
What I clocked quite early on was that the most useful and interesting people to follow on Twitter were people where you got a real sense of who they are behind their tweets and who also understood that they were choosing to have a series of conversations in public, on purpose and that when they tweeted they also had an idea of why they were doing it and who they hoped was reading.
I also clocked that Twitter has a rubbish-in, rubbish-out effect. How interesting the people that you follow are directly effects how interesting you are as a tweeter. Following people who are good news sources makes you in turn a good news source for others when you share their tweets. Following exciting conversational tweeters and talking to them about their interests and activities enriches your understanding and broadens your horizons.
I also got quite quickly that you don’t have to follow people unless you’re interested in them and that hashtags make Twitter a million times more rewarding.
I’m very conscious of Twitter as a near infinite number of unfolding streams of information and opinion. I tweet to specific hashtags consciously to try to enhance them, make a point or to change their direction slightly. There’s no way of automating that or scheduling it. you have to be a person reading other people’s tweets and keeping abreast of that huge cloud of opinion, ideas, hopes, fears and hatred to be able to contribute anything of value in an effective manner.
How do your online and offline networks connect? I think that in some senses it’s a false opposition to draw a distinction between online and offline social networks, without discussing the quality or purpose of those networks.
It’s based on the idea that online networks replace offline networks and are somehow a poor shadow imitation. It forgets that people are active agents in the online world they make for themselves rather than passive recipients. It also tends to see online relationships as only being imperfect impressions of the perfect ideal of lovely, harmonious, nurturing real life relationships rather than seeing online networks as something with different qualities and possibilities.
Professionally, intellectually and personally, deft uses of social media have added rocket fuel to my real-life networks. I’ve gotten work as a result of being ‘that @markoneinfour off Twitter’. This interview is a result of me being a person on social media. My intellectual life and experience has broadened as a result of what I’ve encountered as a result of social media. It’s brought me together with other people in ways that I never would have expected. Social media are a the space where you can pitch beyond the people you know and get to the people you’d love to know. Without pitching into that social media world I would never have ‘jumped the rails’ of how my life was looking like it was going to turn out and found a place in the world doing stuff that I care about and which I hope makes a difference.
I’m honoured to have been touched by the lives of so many others via social media. I routinely meet or run into people I know from social media in real life and the interesting thing about that is that they more often than not are exactly as their online persona suggests they would be.
If you look at social media not as some shadow space that sucks up lonely people but as a series of portals to the opportunity to network, find solidarity, make friends, discover affinities and explore without high barriers to entry then I think you’re closer to the reality.
I can’t see any way that you can remove the potential negatives of social media without also removing the positives.
A final note from me… My interview with Mark took place through a series of emails and a follow up telephone conversation. We’d both be very interested to hear your reaction to what Mark has to say and we’ll both respond to any comments you make. We’ve really enjoyed our conversation and would like to expand it further with you too.
Watch out for part II next week for Mark’s views for the how the NHS is engaging with social media.