Entangled in Public

When I worked for a presidential campaign, way back before social media even existed, we were keenly aware that, as staffers, we represented the candidate at all times. Period. Thus, we were advised to consider what our field director, Tom, called “The New York Times Test”:

Before you do or say anything, consider: would you want those words and/or actions splashed across the front page of The New York Times?

I’ve been thinking about Tom’s advice lately in light of a recent uptick in talk about grad students and social media. How we should use it. What we should say. What we shouldn’t mention. Its benefits and its dangers, huzzah. (See Karra’s recent take on it here, for example).

But perhaps it’s less an uptick and more a renewed sensitivity, because it’s been an issue very much on my mind of late.

Look, when I started my PhD program in 2011, I made a conscious choice to make multiple versions of my public self visible on social media. It wasn’t a decision made lightly, and it’s one I’ve revisited since, in consultation with knowledgable colleagues.

Yes, I recognize the risks: I talk about stuff in public spaces that most people (I’d venture to guess) don’t discuss in private, primarily in the sex/desire realm, and there are a lot of scholars and/or potential employers who would likely recoil in horror. Or see me as “not serious” in my academic pursuits.

And if, as has been suggested of late, I haven’t gotten an academic job because of what I say in public spaces like this blog or on Twitter, then that sucks, but. Ok. I can accept that.

I am a public scholar. That is my choice. I am public about my scholarship. My scholarship is informed by what I do as a fan, and my social media accounts reflect the rhetorical ecologies that are ever present in my head. The discourse of fandom, of fic writing, of rhetorical analysis: in my head, all these languages, modes of analysis, and ways of being have merged into one. And my social media presence reflects that.

That said, not having a job sucks. And I am willing to try different tactics. So I’ve taken some countermeasures this week. I’ve steam-cleaned my blog, this one, with no small twinge of grief. And, for about 36 hours, I locked my Twitter account.

I found editing this blog to be sad, but ultimately something I could come to terms with. A necessary step, at least for now.

But going radio silence on Twitter? It was freaking awful.

It was like being in stuck inside while all my friends were at recess: I could see everybody outside, running around and having fun, while I was reduced to directing hand gestures and frowny faces at them through the window.

I was surprised at how much it bothered me. I’ve always been a solitary wolf with a penchant for silence, why the hell did that little padlock beside my username bum me out?

Well, via danah boyd, this is what social media is to me as a grad student: it’s “not only a tool” but also “a social lifeline” through which I can “stay connected to people [that I]care . . . about but cannot otherwise interact with in person” (20). Further, it’s a place where I can both “socialize with friends and become better acquainted with classmates and peers” and colleagues that I “don’t know as well” [emphasis added] (boyd 20).

Hence my weird sense of being left behind: I could see the interactions of the many “networked publics” of which I’m a part happening, and I could speak into them, to some extent, but having a locked account on Twitter means that only people who already follow you—your friends, more or less—can see what you’re saying.

That is, my tweets couldn’t connect with any unexpected audiences, any potential new peers—which, I realized, is a big part of the reason I use Twitter: to talk to people I don’t know, and to have people I don’t know hear what I have to say.

So. Having a locked account on Twitter has its advantages, yes, but the drawbacks for me are tremendous. Bigger than wanting to get a job, you may ask? For the moment, yes. And this is what causes so many higher up academics (not just at my institution) to get heartburn. For, as boyd puts it: “social media services like Facebook and Twitter are providing teens [and nascent scholars] with new opportunities to participate in public life, and this, more than anything else, is what concerns many anxious adults [senior scholars]” (boyd 10). To those scholars—our profs, directors, and committee chairs—the stories of Steven Salita and others represent a warning: say the wrong thing in the wrong public space and you may talk yourself out of being employable in academia.

Yes, this can happen. And it’s going to keep happening. [Insert pithy comment about neoliberalism here].

So I thought about it today, this morning. Talked with some friends and colleagues on Twitter. Ok, I whined; they talked and offered smart suggestions and possible solutions. And after some consideration, I unlocked my Twitter—but not before stripping it of my name, photo, institutional affiliation, and easily identifiable link to my academic work.

I don’t like it. It feels like a huge step backward for me in terms of public engagement. But, as I said: I’m always up to try a different tactic, an alternative strategy, if the one I’ve been using gets dodgy.

I’ll also give some more consideration to the content of my Tweets. I’ll make an effort to confine my more serious perving over Misha Collins’ various physical attributes to direct messages. I’ll think twice before tweeting links to my fic (*sob*).

I’ll reflect on the consequences of living an online life that’s an ecology of networked publics. While the standard advice to us acas is “create two sets of social media accounts”—ah, the Janus effect—I take this point from boyd to heart:

People are part of multiple publics—bounded as audiences or by geography—and yet, publics often intersect and intertwine. Publics get tangled up in one another, challenging any effort to understand the boundaries and shape of any particular public (9).

As a scholar and a human, the most interesting bits of my online experience are in those tangles between publics: between the many fandom publics I around Supernatural that I study and gleefully participate in, for example, or between my “fandom” public writ large and that of academia.

I have not been so great about remembering, though, that people who read me online (that is, who look at my tweets or my blog) aren’t aware of that I see myself as inhabiting multiple publics at the same time. So when I speak, I sometimes forget that what’s acceptable in one of those publics (see aforementioned perving on Misha Collins) is less acceptable or even offensive in another—and yet I’m speaking as if we’re all on the same page.

I may have no problem talking about gay incestuous fanfiction or wing!kink or beautiful body parts in public, at the dinner table, to colleagues, to a random dude in an airport, but that’s me, and I need to do a better job of remembering that not everyone (thank god) lives in my headspace.

It’s not The New York Times test for me anymore, maybe. More like The Chronicle of Higher Ed. 

2 thoughts on “Entangled in Public

  1. I created a second twitter account a few years ago, when I was doing more or less weekly tweetups watching a tv series from the 80s with other people in my area. I realized I was spamming my professional contacts with my commentary on Jeremy Brett and set up a second account. I no longer do the tweetups (the tv schedule changed), but I do find myself using it as a place to talk about more personal things – my adorable nephews, comic books, the weather. Neither account is locked, so it’s not quite the personal vs. private self, but perhaps the quasi-professional vs. social me.

    1. Interesting! Sounds like that works well for you, which is the key, I think. (Though spamming people with Jeremy Brett sounds like a public service rather than an imposition, but that’s just me.)

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