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by • July 22, 2014 • Leading, Leaders and Leadership, Life As I Know ItComments (0)2439

Start Here, Don’t Stay Here: Twitter, Celebrity, and Safety

It all started with just under 140 characters.

So much can start with 140 characters. Ideas are shared, conversations can begin, connections can be made.

But it’s only the beginning. And sometimes I think we forget that. 

Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 10.57.59 PM

I’m always surprised by which of my tweeted thoughts will resonate with my friends and followers. In this case, I take resonate to mean the number of times the tweet is favourited, retweeted, or replied to. While not a perfect measure, I can assume that if an idea is shared or kept for future use, I may just be onto something.

The tweet I captured above was in response to several concurrent conversations happening in and around the #sachat. As a growing and thriving weekly Twitter chat, the #sachat has created a sociological and anthropological bubble – a community where rules for behaviour and inclusion are assumed, shared, and reinforced almost without us noticing. The use of Twitter as the community’s preferred method of communication adds unique and often frustratingly complex dynamics to the interactions of the group, many of which came out during a ‘rouge’ conversation outside of the regularly scheduled chat day and time.

The call for ‘real’ conversations was repeated, loudly, both during and immediately after the chat. What struck me most was the apparent definition of what a ‘real’ conversation could, or must, look like. There are, as always, many different topics of conversation that can be great fodder for discourse on the hashtag. What makes one more ‘real’ than another?

Deeper conversation about more difficult topics could be more real for most but, as I tweeted, every conversation, every dialogue, every idea or issue is real to someone. 

Even the seemingly innocuous topics of student staff training or summer projects represent challenges, obstacles, and fears that are just as real as the ‘deeper’ conversations about what we value and who we are as a profession. Just as a connection with someone over Twitter is just as ‘real’ as meeting in person, so too are all of these conversations valid and important. There should not and cannot be a break in reality between Twitter and the boardroom, between tweeting and catching up over coffee. Dismissing topics of conversation is not real or not as profound dismisses the secret struggles our colleagues may be having. We are no less brave, our words and ideas no less important, when we talk about training student leaders than when we talk about the future of our profession.

The notion of realness, however, is particularly alive and well given the medium in which we share, connect, and communicate. Twitter offers several easy ways to quantify status and celebrity, notions I am particularly uncomfortable with in this digital space. Those who tweet more are seen more, and those who are seen more are asked to share more. While one can argue that many of those who tweet more tweet high quality information and ideas, opinion is not currency and knowledge is not a commodity. I am not trading my information for status or my stories for celebrity. The vast, scrolling bulletin board of Twitter is a place where we throw anything and everything against the virtual wall to see what sticks. It can get lost in the echo chamber or picked up and shared across countless other boards until the paper grow thin and dog eared from use. Who, then, sets the standard for what is shared and what is cast aside? What rules are there for retweeting; what standards do we set for status? We preach that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent, but in this space, you can be made superior without your consent as well. In this mini-society, do we need leaders to start the conversation, to make it okay to speak up and speak out? Do we need someone to follow into more dangerous, deeper ground?

Those who we choose (whether they know it or not) to lead us to the more difficult conversations are often thought of as sharing in the ‘safe space’ Twitter provides, where our traditional hierarchies are flattened and everyone has the same 140 characters at a time. If, then, Twitter is such a safe space for disruptive and difficult conversations, why are there still cries of protest that these discussions don’t happen? If we are so safe in our sharing, why the rallying cries to step out of the perceived shadows and have the ‘hard conversations’ no one is having?

I humbly submit that these conversations are happening. Daily. All the time. In our own heads and with others.

We just can’t always see them, or share them.

Twitter masquerades as a safe space because of this created, shared community where we are quick to connect and even quicker to validate. A retweet or a thoughtful reply feels good, and that’s okay. It does not, however, make the medium safe. Even with our real name and photo right there in our profile, Twitter and similar online mediums create an illusion of anonymity – in a place where we fight to be heard we still censor what we say, and in a place where we celebrate authenticity only small pieces of our identity are chosen to be shared.

For the same reasons Twitter is a fantastic opportunity for connection and conversation, it is also a highly unsafe, sometimes volatile identity laboratory. There are very real concerns about privacy, image, copyright, and branding that, while we may bemoan as constricting or antiquated, still impact what we say and how, or if, we say it. We can (some would argue must) rail against these restrictions on authentic, deep, provocative conversation, but we must also stop to wonder why we also dismiss conversations that we cannot see. If we teach students and ourselves to ‘manage our online reputation’ and to ‘be careful of what we say’, why is it such a surprise that these ‘real’ conversations aren’t happening in a public place? Yes, a public forum means these ideas can be debated and shared with the goal of real change and reform. Yes, a public space creates more brave people who light the way for others who may not be ready or able to share their voice. Yet, we must work to stop only counting what we can see, and only validating what is shown to us.

Twitter is a snapshot of a larger, much richer and deeper conversation. It does not represent what is, but rather what is shared, validated by, and interesting too a breathtakingly small segment of the people who will impact your worldview and change your life. Start here, yes, but don’t stay here. Twitter is the 140 character catalyst. Take it and run.

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