Exploring Distant Fires – Reflecting on September’s Social Media Takeover
Close your eyes and imagine that you are at a campsite.
Oh, wait! Don’t close your eyes because you won’t be able to read the rest of this. Let’s try this again.
Imagine that you are at a campsite.
You are surrounded by the inky darkness minus the lazy twinkle of stars dotting the sky. You can barely make out what appear to be fires burning in the distance. Not so far that you can’t get to them, but not close enough that you can see what they are. Or more importantly, who might be there. Strapped to your back, you’ve got a one-person tent and a backpack with enough resources to keep you more or less content where you are. But there’s something about those fires burning in the distance that is drawing you in. An almost atavistic call to move through the veil of night to explore.
You come across the first fire burning, and you can make out the silhouettes of a group and hear a cacophony of voices intermingled with the sound of the crackling fire. Without any formal invitation, you approach, and a friendly face gestures for you to take a seat around the campfire. As you sink into the conversation, you make out the tents of the folks encircling the fire, considering for yourself whether this might be a spot for you to set up your own tent. Before you can decide, one of the folks around the fire starts to pack up their tent and head off. They tell you that there’s another campfire worth visiting, and that maybe you’d want to keep them company on the short walk over to meet another group of folks. You oblige, curious as to what this new group might be discussing. What brought them together. What kept them focused on that fire.
As you approach the second fire, your new connection begins to tell you how they came to know this other group. You both sit down, melting into this new conversation, wholly different than the first, but nonetheless engaging. You see your walking buddy start to set up their tent next to this fire, and again, you wonder if this is where you’d like to stay for a while, or maybe briefly pause and then head on. You choose the latter, but this time, you decide to wander off to a new fire on your own. One of the people around this fire sees you heading off and asks if they can come with you. You say yes, and to your surprise, two others stand up and come with you, forming a group as effortless as breathing. You and your three new companions walk forth into the darkness, bonded by no other goal than to find a new campfire to explore. You know that at some point, you’ll need to settle for a while and stay in one place to reflect, recharge, and share what you’ve learned. But for now, you are driven by the desire to see more in front of you, mapping the vast expanse the best you can with those that wish to do the same.
Finding New Fires
I spent my September traveling from campfire to campfire with the intent of learning more about the connections I’ve made over social media, but more importantly, the second and third level connections that were sitting at the periphery of my current squad. While we established the #SquadGoalsNetwork Social Media Takeovers as a way to apply shared governance to the task of keeping up our digital connections, I wanted to approach the task with a personal goal of exploring the waters around me. I wanted to direct my focus on tide pools as small representations of the awesomeness is my network, mitigating the overwhelming dread of feeling the need to examine the entire ocean. I started by identifying the mavens around me – the people I go to for advice, assistance and encouragement – and asked the question “Who are the mavens of my mavens?” Similar to walking to a new camp fire with a buddy, but also doing so by my lonesome, I learned that I could leverage my current connections to help me find new connections, but also, I could go it alone, too. I found that it was ok for me to just pull up to any fire I wanted and simply observe. And most compellingly, I discovered that I could feel just fine getting up and leaving a particular fire knowing that I could always return at any time.
As one who struggles with cognitive overload and overstimulation, charting a new path through social media left me a bit apprehensive. Interestingly enough, close to the start of my takeover, I read a piece by Louise Rosenblatt on the transactional theory of reading and writing. Painting the picture of the act of reading as a conversation between reader and text, she used William James’ notion of “selective attention” to describe how we can direct our focus on a particular idea while glimmers of other ideas flicker in the background (Rosenblatt, 1994). She referred to this as the “cocktail party phenomenon” where a person can focus on one conversation amidst the murmur of a multitude of conversations playing out all at once. My time participating in and curating conversations on Twitter often felt this way – I leveraged selective attention to hone in on particular ideas despite the plethora of ideas zinging back and forth just out of reach. For the first time, Twitter felt a little less manic, far more manageable, and it compelled me to linger a little longer.
Stories Feed the Flames
The month also took shape around the concept of narrative collection. The symbolism is not lost on me that I started this reflection speaking of campfires, and what better place to tell a story than with friends collected around a bonfire. In Kathy Short’s piece “Story as World Making,” she describes stories as “a mode of knowing” and that we have classically shared what is most important to us, our humanness, and our survival, around the proverbial “campfire” (Short, 2012). I spent a good deal of time in preparation for the month by highlighting areas where I felt that there were stories to tell. I crafted prompts and organized them into daily themes such as reflections, the writing process, gratitude, and even music. I tried to seek out new storytellers, and invite them to share their ideas across the network I had curated. I wanted to create a new world built on the voices of those I’d not yet heard before. And I was richly rewarded, to include the incredible Terry Greene of eCampusOntario, who I’m astounded that I’d not yet met given our shared interests in open pedagogy and podcasting. I also made deeper connections with those that I already knew, to include my dear friend Sue Picard at Northern Virginia Community College in a conversation on our synergistic efforts to build professional development for our respective teams on academic uses of Twitter. My walk from fire to fire was inclusive of friends new and old, and because I was intentional about expanding access to new voices and ideas, I was able to mitigate my early feelings of trepidation over becoming overwhelmed.
Tools to Stoke the Coals
I can’t go without crediting technology for keeping me on track. Ryan Straight set up our shared Twitter account and immediately linked it up to Tweet Deck, an application I’d used long ago and was able to revisit. Scheduling tweets en masse was a lifesaver and allowed me to keep up with the responses and follows in a way that felt thorough and complete. My OCD brain was soothed by the cadence of writing that TweetDeck supported, and the ability to organize feeds and streams of info according to my moods and needs. I was also able to pick out connections that I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise, to include individuals that I really needed to engage with due to their awesomeness. TweetDeck elevated people that Twitter wasn’t, and I was appreciative of this.
I was also aided by Google Docs as a means of tracking my progress and planning what messages I wanted to share throughout the week. Each weekend, I would fill in a chart that I created for myself with themes that I wanted to hit for that day, connecting the scheduled message to people and ideas that were awaiting me on Twitter. Again, negotiating my relationship with social media to make it a space for intentional conversation as opposed to gut reactivity was cathartic. I was able to focus and engage, but more importantly, feel less manic and dissatisfied with the weak connections that sprung from my previously passive Twitter usage.
The Next Fire
Ultimately, it goes without saying that I gained more than I gave, and I learned a lot about my voice, my work as a colleague, and my nature as a friend. I’m excited to see what my buddy Ryan will discover after running the takeover for October, and maybe even more so because he’s decided to embrace the month with full on Halloween puns. But beyond all of this, I would encourage each of you to spend a little time exploring the digital spaces that are just out of your current reach. Though you may be stepping out of your comfort zone, you’ll be investing in a journey that will teach you more about the riches that are around you, but even more so, those that are present within.