The Rhizome project has been helping to organise the Eduserv Digital Identity event which is being held at the British Library on 8 January 2009. Full details of the event are available here. But in brief, the approach for the day is to run a patterns workshop with the help of the Planet project, using a defined methodology to share the personal stories of our 35 plus participants in relation to their experiences of 'digital identity'. To do this we have solicited stories (or cases) from the invited group coming to the event and provided a template (STARR - see below) to help structure each submission. These are held on the Planet Xwiki site in a searchable database. Telling a story is an interesting and thought provoking exercise exercise and we welcome anyone to come to the site to submit a personal narrative that they might have to share about digital identity. This is a copy of the case I have submitted for the event:
Name of Story: "Twitter-versed"
Situation (what is the setting or context for this case study?):
The context for this case study is what questions are raised about the nature of ones online presence/identity when one becomes embedded in a 'twitter community' (in this case a modest size of around 100 followers/following). Once embedded within an established community there is a nagging pressure to remain plugged into the Twitter life stream, almost constantly, and sometimes to the detriment of other activities. It is also a disruptive communication space in the sense that ones audience is heterogeneous - comprised of the so-called @-crowd, friends, colleagues, and the extended network of followers and follower's of followers who might read be reached through 'retweets'. So how do you even start writing a message in twitter? No wonder so many tweets read like descriptive statements of current or intended activity. Cup of tea anyone?
Task (what was the problem to be solved, or the intended effect?)
The problem or the central point of the story (like all good narratives) revolves around a love-hate relationship ... what exactly is this Twitter thing - a multi-channel conversation, a pest, an addiction, redundancy looming for SMS on my mobile phone, a potential educational tool, community bonding, a self promotion vehicle for over excitable egos, a live RSS channel, a reputation nightmare waiting to happen? The first problem is the flow of information - constant and distracting - an extra time burden layered on top of of the demands of an overflowing inbox. Yet why do I experience a strange feeling of unease if I do not 'tweet' at least once per day? Is it the existential fear of dropping out of the community if my presence is not marked in some way? Or is that my digital identity or my digital territory will be lost and I will cease to exist? And therein lies the second problem of Twitter. To I watch the flow of noisy chatter is to feel it also exert an invasive and forceful desire for my presence - the need to present some kind of digestible form of real identity into a streamed digital, micro version. But how? And if it is not possible then how to avoid the frustrations Twitter can present from only watching the backwards and forwards of others?
Actions (what was done to fulfill the task?)
How could I engage/disengage, without deleting my Twitter account that that has served useful purposes? My solution was on reflection, to try and define a simple set of rules for 'managed' use. Perhaps rules is too strong a word, these were more like notes to self:
- Only switch on my Twitter feeds when I actually have free time and I am interested in getting updates on what the community is up to;
- To mainly use Twitter if I actually have something to say to someone in particular - in other words - to communicate with my @-crowd. This kind of conversation immediately feels more personal and comfortable for me;
- To take advantage of direct messaging as a key tool, one that has always given good response times from the recipients;
Results (what happened? was is a success? what contributed to the outcomes?)
Partial success - the rules were a little too rigid to be obeyed with ease. But, not being plugged in all the time did provide some freedom and space to concentrate on other matters - this strategy did go hand in hand with a concerted effort at dealing with email more effectively ... to give space for concentrated writing tasks. I still maintain an uneasy alliance Twitter, knowing that it will never satisfactorily reflect a digital identity that coheres with my internal sense of self. It feels unnatural to compose intermittent micro-statements that say everything and nothing - it often feels to me that I am shouting into a vast empty space "I am here, I am here" and waiting for an answer even if my statements do not directly ask for one. But this is also the compelling nature of community participation and whether I like it or not I do take my voice from one modality to another, adjusting to the affordances of the technology, threading my way trough the strands of my online and offline communities - wherever they may be.
Reflections and Lessons Learned (what did you learn from the experience?)
You get 140 characters per tweet. Twitter seems to demand an all or nothing response. Do I keep posting to build something that makes sense over an extended timeline, in other words a conversation/narrative, or simply tweet once in a while that I am still alive. I am not going to disappear from the world if I do not Twitter but I would be uncomfortable not having access. My online identity is distributed across many platforms and spaces and I choose to see my blog as one of the key nodes. In my blog or indeed Facebook I feel far more in control of the space I speak from, and the potential audience reaction - even if that is not truly within my power to control. Two issues that still disturb me are the illusion of ephemerality and the partial, unstructured nature of the community. Twitter feels like a spoken conversation yet look back and the tracks remain. Twitter also bends attention to itself and creates a certain exclusivity where sometimes I, for one, can forget that not everyone I know is a Twitter user.
Twitter is a strange animal - curiously addictive but also difficult to work out what value it has - it can be infuriating and gripping in one and the same moment. It is a space of distributed social conversation that blurs community boundaries and for me it represents another site where digital personas are performed ... something that makes Twitter worthy of detailed study.
Links to other posts and articles on Twitter that reflect some of the themes raised here: