In Defense of Getting Personal on Twitter

Randy Lyhus for The Chronicle

April 21, 2014

Keep it professional. That’s what we tell high-school and college students about their Facebook and Twitter accounts. We explain that employers can and will mine your personal social media for data, and that what you say online can follow you forever. Anecdotes of young people who lost jobs, got arrested, or were deeply embarrassed by something they posted on Facebook abound. We tell young people that you shouldn’t post anything online you wouldn’t want on the front page of a newspaper. I give my students this advice because I think it’s true. But I also think it’s problematic. And I can’t seem to follow it myself.

I grew up on the Internet. I networked my own computer as a first-year student at Wellesley College, worked on Wellesley’s first web server, and taught myself HTML during a summer working as a secretary. I was intoxicated by the possibility of getting my ideas out into the world and crafted elaborate personal homepages with endless personal stories, through which I met strangers, had lengthy online conversations, and traded mix tapes through the mail. My passion for the early web resulted in two internships at Microsoft, a failed stint in the world, and the eventual realization that I could study digital culture as a profession. Now I am an assistant professor of communication and media studies, and my students and I investigate the norms, technical functionality, and implications of social media. I no longer post in-depth essays of my thoughts and feelings or talk about my personal history online; it’s too risky. But I use Pinterest and Instagram frequently, and I tweet a lot.

It’s not that my social-media presence veers into what my students would call "inappropriate." But it reflects my sometimes profane sense of humor, my love of popular culture, and my day-to-day experiences. ("If #QueenBey can record 14 songs/17 videos/tour the world/raise a toddler/& do it all looking fabulous, I can finish my grading #respect") I still use my old Internet handle rather than my real name. I mention cute dogs I see at the airport in between musings on geek feminism. Many of my colleagues tweet solely about new papers and forthcoming projects, RTing press mentions and honors. I follow them out of a sense of professional obligation, but I don’t feel a connection to them like I do those who reveal glimpses of their real lives and feelings.

I’m increasingly concerned about my online presence. I was recently interviewed about my first book, and the reporter asked me if I thought that tweeting about shoes or using lots of exclamation marks would make it easier for the press or the scholarly community to write me off. (Interestingly, while there are many women in the academy studying Internet culture, the technology pundits featured on NPR and in The Atlantic are almost always male.) The answer to that is, yes, it probably does. I’d like to think my work speaks for itself, but research shows that women are judged much more harshly for frivolous public peccadillos than men are for, say, tweeting about sports. The obvious solution is having two Twitter accounts, but something about separating my life so neatly (interesting and boring; gendered feminine and gendered masculine; personal and academic) really rankles.

The somewhat ridiculous thing about this predicament is that I wrote a book about it. Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age (Yale University Press, 2013) is based on my doctoral dissertation, and it’s an ethnography of self-presentation strategies among social-media workers in the San Francisco Bay Area. During my fieldwork, I found that the status hierarchy of the tech scene was partially based on online visibility, encouraging people to use always-on mobile technologies to share details of their lives with an audience to increase their popularity, and, by proxy, their on- and offline social status. But this caused difficulties for my informants. People felt anxious about what they posted. They fretted over what others would think. They were simultaneously encouraged to meld their work and home lives while being disciplined for sharing personal information through professional accounts. Ultimately, social media encouraged a "work safe" self-presentation that was highly edited, free from rancor or controversy, and, frankly, quite boring.

Social media encouraged a "work safe" self-presentation that was highly edited, free from rancor or controversy, and, frankly, quite boring.

I concluded that social media made it possible for the norms of work, marketing, and advertising to penetrate further into people’s lives, not just in terms of answering emails on the weekend or being permanently "on call," but into our very self-expression and relationships to others. Always self-censoring with the idea that an employer is looking makes it impossible for any sort of genuine self-expression, and also sets the idea that corporations should have veto power over how we use the most powerful medium of self-publishing ever invented. Ironically, this admonishment is often couched in a wishy-washy veneer of "authenticity." Self-branding experts will advise to always "be yourself" on social media, not simply for personal expression, but to attract audiences. Authenticity, then, is not about "being yourself," but about fitting into a very narrow box built by a profit-driven enterprise.

When I conducted my fieldwork, "self-branding," the notion of thinking of oneself as a brand marketed online, was a strategy marketed primarily to white-collar professionals. Since then, it has become a staple of career counseling. I’ve met people ranging from high-school students to makeup artists who speak earnestly of their "personal brand" and diligently follow advice given in self-help books and seminars. However, self-branding doesn’t work for most people. It’s useless in many career fields, and looks smarmy and overly eager in others. In academe, for instance, self-promotion is often viewed as a bit gauche. But academics are also supposed to govern our online expression with the idea of an invisible search committee or imaginary tenure-letter writer looking at everything we post.

We all have different sides to our personalities that are expressed more or less in different social situations. The award-winning biologist may be a devout Muslim; the social psychologist an aggressive World of Warcraft player. The tenured physicist is Mom to her kids, strict with her students, and perhaps the one who always has too many glasses of wine at book club. What’s appropriate at home on the couch is not always kosher in the classroom or the faculty meeting. On social media, we experience what Internet researchers call "context collapse," in that all these facets are flattened into one. We are taxed with trying to perform appropriately to distinct audiences who expect different things from us. Often, this creates a "lowest common denominator" effect in which we stick with the staid and boring so as not to offend anyone. This is compounded in an extremely competitive job market in which any excuse is used to weed out candidates.

As every academic knows, though, higher education is full of strong personalities. Pretending that we don’t have enthusiasms and obsessions outside of our research areas—even ones that are trivial or aggressively "feminine"—is disingenuous at best. While some people may suggest that the easy solution is to abstain from social media, the Internet is, like it or not, an essential part of public participation and communication. For old-school geeks like me, who molded our personal identities partially in front of an audience, the idea of giving up the conversations and connections made possible by a fuller-disclosure Internet presence feels like a significant loss.

Academe often moves slowly when it comes to digital culture. Research blogs, open-access publications, and online data collection have all been met with resistance and controversy. Those of us who use social media for anything outside the strict boundaries of "safe for work" conversations—I haven’t even touched the minefields of talking about gender, sexuality, class, or race online—will most likely face the same. I ask for us to be critical about how we are encouraged and discouraged from performing online, and whether we are comfortable being governed by those forces.

But until then, you really should watch the Veronica Mars movie. It’s so good!!!!

Alice E. Marwick is an assistant professor of communication and media 
studies at Fordham University.