I am not a meerkat…


…and this is not an invitation…

So can you be both closed and open in social media? Is it oxymoronic to be unsocial and be on social media?

I have been writing and reading many discussions recently on the openness of social media and identity.

Lawrie in a recent post on his blog recounted a story about an adventure on a boat and the potential impact having an active social media life can have on your real life. He makes this point in his post:

There is a role for curating your online self, a conscious curation, it does not have to impact on who you are as a person, your authenticity or credibility, but we should be mindful.

What I found interesting about the story was how being somewhat open and public on the internet, there was an assumption by some in that story that those same behaviours that we find online are acceptable offline in the physical world. It made me reflect on identity both online and offline. Can we be social online and not as social offline? What do we mean by social and what norms of behaviours are acceptable and which are not.

There is a balance between what you do online and undertaking a similar approach offline. I occasionally chat with people on the Twitter, discuss presentations at conferences and re-tweet and like posts that other people make. Off the Twitter, I occasionally chat with people on the train, or in the supermarket, I may discuss presentations at conferences whilst queuing for coffee, and will applaud at appropriate moments.

Though I do talk to retail assistants and other customers in shops, or chat to people at a conference, neither of those behaviours as far as I am concerned do not mean I am your friend and you can pop around my house whenever you feel like it! In a similar vein, just because I @ you in a tweet, or heart your tweet, comment on your blog, this doesn’t mean I feel I can pop around your house for a cup of tea, or you can visit me for Sunday lunch.

I also think that it is possible to have different persona, an online self, an offline self. Most of us have different persona in the offline world, a work persona, a home persona, a family persona. They may be similar, or they may be different.

I should point out that I come to this whole thing from the privileged position as a white middle class male and recognise the affordances this provides in our current society.

Reflecting on my online identity and internet activities made me think about where I am now, but also where I have come from. I am sure my story is one that people of a similar age may identify with. I wonder though what younger people (ie those about ten years younger (or even younger) than me think about their online identity and how that arrived.

Going back in time to look at how identity can change over time, back in 1987 I made my first foray onto what was the internet, I discovered that my University was connected and I could send e-mail to a friend down at Brunel University. Alas I got a really snotty e-mail from the e-mail administrator at Brunel and decided that this connectivity wasn’t for me, and went back to writing letters. It was also at University that a friend of mine created, what today we would call a social network on the VAX system. We used this to communicate and share over the university network, apart from when it slowed the whole network down!

It was over ten years before I came back to the internet. I really started to engage with the web in 1997 and back then the default behaviour was to be mainly anonymous, your presence on the web was passive, with very little interaction or engagement. Generally if you wanted to be identified, you used a “handle”, something that wasn’t your real name.

I started my online experience with Force9 (which eventually became PlusNet) and engaged with the online community. I remember on the ISP usenet group I frequented I had an identity, but you wouldn’t have known it was me. These discussions covered a range of aspects, mainly technical, actually mainly humourous! We even had an FAQ that contained numerous references to stuff that appeared in the usenet postings.

101 Uses for the News Server

Various uses were found for the news server and though the number of uses probably now exceeds 101, the solution to do something with the old news server continue to dominate the groups; even now some people want to buy the darn thing…

>57: fry in batter and serve with chips
58: use as a doorstop to keep the force9 firedoors open during the summer

Why Michael Jackson is not an owl..

Big Red Button

Scooby may well press his Big Red Button if you have caused Bob to GGGGRRRR then watch out for the Red Button…

What was interesting reflecting about who we were and what we talked about, was that some of us used “handles” there was Ratty, Inu Yasha for example and then there were people who used their full name.

I also, following an article in a magazine (you know one of those physical things you find in WHSmith) discovered the joys of other usenet groups, on things like Babylon 5. I remember those days using a dial-up modem, dropping the phone cable down through the middle of the house, going online, synchronising my usenet mailings, going offline. Reading and responding before going back online again. When I eventually got ADSL in the early noughties, having an always on internet connection was such a joy and a luxury.

A few years later, having started using Macs, I also frequented the Apple Discussion Forums, and again did not use my real name, but it was a different identity to that on the ISP group.

Though in the 1990s I did start using the internet to support teaching and learning (anyone remember First Class) but this was mainly using the web in a broadcast capacity or in a closed environment. I didn’t need to nor did I have a public online identity.
In the early 2000s I was working in a more public edtech arena and started to present and deliver more at conferences and events. The ILT Champions mailing list was probably the first online community where I used my real name and created an online identity. With my experiences of using usenet and the Apple forums, I had the capabilities to become a high profile user on the mailing list. What I was doing was answering questions and asking questions, interacting with other users on the mailing list. As I would use the mailing list to discuss the kinds of work I was doing, this brought me to the attention of outside agencies such as Becta (Ferl) and Jisc. They through projects and expert groups introduced me to the wider edtech community.

It wasn’t until 2006 that with the explosion of web 2.0 tools and services that I started to use my real name as part of my online identity. It was also about this time that I started blogging “properly” using WordPress and elearningstuff was born. Blogging was not only about the writing but also about the connections it helped make and the discussions that took place in the comments. It wasn’t long before other tools started to appear which would take those discussions to a whole new level.

I joined Twitter in 2007, following its success at SXSW and made this first tweet.

Though looking back over my archive, I didn’t use the Twitter much in 2007, most of my energy was focused on the alternative, Jaiku, which was eventually bought by Google and integrated into products like Buzz, Wave and Google+.

What made a difference was when Twitter really took off in my community in 2008. So much so that I made this video for the Handheld learning conference in 2008.

One interesting observation about the video was the low follower counts, well apart from danah boyd who was close to 5,000 followers. Twitter was most certainly not mainstream at this time and the ways in which we used it were very different to how it is used today.

One thing that hasn’t changed since I started using Twitter, is my avatar, which is a meerkat from Bristol Zoo. Back in 2007 I realised I needed an avatar and one of the few images I had access to (on my fledgling Flickr account) was this image of the meerkat.


The meerkat is now very much part of my online identity, so much so, when talking to people at conferences, they go “you’re the meerkat”. Makes me realise that this image is now part of my identity and the association with me is embedded into how people think of me online. You can imagine my annoyance when comparethemarket.com, a price comparison website, started adverts in 2009 which featured a meerkat called Aleksandr Orlov. Many people assume and think I have a meerkat because of those adverts. No I was first!

Reflecting on Lawrie’s post did make me think about my use of Twitter and how I portray myself online has an impact today.

I use Twitter for various reasons depending on context and location. Why I use Twitter is a more difficult question to answer, the main reason is that I enjoy it, it’s interesting to dip into the Twitter stream to find out what is going on and what people are saying and sharing.

I find it really useful at events to expand the conference beyond the walls of the auditorium. At events I will use Twitter to amplify the conference to those not there and to discuss and debate the issues raised in keynotes and presentations.

Conversations on topics, generally I find I join in conversations, rather than start them, but I do now and again push out tweets in an attempt to start a discussion.

Status updates, these are trivial and ephemeral, they are not intended to start conversations, but add to my use of Twitter as a whole. Often they are pictures of food, thinking about coffee and statements about life in general.

I do use Twitter a lot for sharing news and links on topics I am interested in and think others would find useful. Sometimes these are about starting a discussion.

I also use Twitter as a broadcast mechanism, to inform people about blog posts I have written. What I have found interesting is the impact these have are very low, makes me wonder if I should be posting them at all. If I post a blog link via a mailing list, I find that it has a tenfold engagement rate compared to posting the link on Twitter, even though similar numbers will see the e-mail or the tweet.

I have also made a more recent decision to start consciously sharing links from colleagues, not that I didn’t do this before, but now if I find their post interesting or relevant I will tweet the link out.

For me the real value of Twitter is the engagement, the conversations and the sharing.

So what’s your Twitter story? Where do you come from and how did you get here?

Though Twitter isn’t a popularity contest, with the number of people who are now following me (at the time of writing in excess of four thousand) I realise that there are lots of people out there who I don’t follow, who know a lot more about me then I know about them. At a conference a few years ago, someone came up to me and said he followed me on Twitter and read all my blog posts.

I felt a little freaked out by that!

Thinking about that why would I be surprised? There is an essence of what I think can be best called “celebrity” when using something like Twitter in a community like the edtech community. I am not saying you are a celebrity, but if what you say is valued on Twitter by people, people re-tweet and “heart” your tweets, they engage in conversations, then there is an element of you standing out in the stream of tweets.

If you out yourself out there online, then you are saying “look at me!” There is nothing wrong with that, but saying “look at me” doesn’t imply permission to engage and interact (online or offline) and nor should it.

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