Not a day passes or there is not another blog or article about the creeping commercialisation and surveillance on Twitter and Facebook. No matter how often I would check my privacy settings on both of these social networking platforms, it would seem as if there is no way to stay ahead of changes (often without notification), scams, surveillance or an alert shared by another user. In the light of increasing concerns and discomfort among many academic users of these platforms, I continuously re-assess my own use and online practices, and increasingly have to defend my (continued) use…
So why am I still (for now) using these platforms despite many others opting out?
Allow me to share my current sense-making of what these two social networking platforms mean for me as an individual, as activist, as scholar and researcher…
Let me start with Twitter…
I discovered Twitter when I attended the ALT-C conference in Manchester in 2009. I remember sitting in the audience listening to debates on questions such as “Is the LMS dead?” … Twitter was all the rage at the conference with many sharing stories and anecdotal evidence of their own practices and how Twitter enriched their teaching. I created a Twitter profile, tried to develop a sense or vision for my own practice but I really found it hard going. It just did not make sense, at first. I struggled to find my own voice, my own practice. I remember stressing about not having something ‘original’ to tweet, and my early attempts at originality disappeared in the forest where no-one hears when a leave is falling. But I kept going, slowly but surely building up a network of scholars in the field that I followed, with a lesser amount of scholars who followed me back. I mean, what can someone from a relatively obscure university in darkest Africa really contribute to the network of knowledge production and dissemination? My insecurities on being accepted in the Twitter network as having something to say or contribute showed an eerie resemblance to my insecurities and inability to play the field in a transforming higher education sector.
Then in early in 2012, my Twitter account was hacked. I clicked on a link in a direct message with the tempting message “Look what video of you I found on the Internet” – or something as obscure and possibly embarrassing as this. Almost immediately my Twitter feed was full of angry followers who asked me to stop sending them direct messages. No matter what I did, there was no-way out of this Kafkaesque nightmare. Changing passwords did not help so I committed hara-kiri – took one for the team. I started over. New profile name. New passwords. No followers.
Twitter provided and still provides me with access to a network of thinking and exposure to ideas that I did not have access to in my geopolitical location and institutional networks. It was and is my oxygen. My daily Twitter practices slowly evolved to become a central and most important part of my daily research activities. My network slowly grew and keeps growing. I worked and work hard at proving my value to the network – by curating content, by sharing, by caring.
One evening in 2015 when I logged on to Twitter I saw that due to a glitch my Twitter profile indicated that I had zero (yes, zilch) followers. I know it sounds terribly immature but the fact that all my hard work just suddenly disappeared left me panicking. I responded to the crisis and tweeted “@Support No followers? No one following me? Twitter Zen – with no followers, & not following anyone, does anyone still (hear) see this tweet? (Prinsloo, P. [14prinsp], 2015). I know it sounds frivolous but my Twitter profile was so much more than just a profile or data-proxy. My Twitter profile was me. And due to a glitch on the platform, something of me was taken away from me. I was erased from the network.
Though the glitch was restored and I could breathe again, it left a permanent mark on my digital psyche of how vulnerable we actually are on these networks. It is as if you play in someone else’s garden, knowing that s/he can, at any time and for no reason at all chase you out and lock the gate. This experience brought back painful memories of playing by myself in a park or playground as my awkward attempts to make friends never seemed to pay off. This incident, however also illustrated the precarity and even frivolousness of our networked identities and beings (Watters, 2016).
Having survived this ordeal just made me realise how precious and how an integral part of my research Twitter profile and daily praxis have become. So when Twitter hearts started to explode all over the place, and the number of advertisements and promoted tweets, I just kept and keep running – “Run Forest run!”
I start my day in the office at 5:30 am. For the next two hours I scan my Twitter feed as far back as I can – often working through 6-7 hours of tweets. This time of the morning allows me, being located in South Africa, of seeing and participating in the discourses and networks in networks to the East (the US and Canada) and West of South Africa (e.g. Australia). I would retweet and amplify something I find profound. I follow links. When I find something awesome, I also share it on my Facebook page, my Linkedin page, and my Minds.com page and send it via email to colleagues who are not part of my networks on these platforms.
I cannot (yet) imagine my scholarly life without Twitter.
The history of my use of Facebook also provides evidence of how I struggled to find my voice, my digital Facebook persona in deciding what I wanted to share and make public. I remember realising that I could not and did not want to share my most intimate feelings of desperation and depression (whether on personal or professional levels) with my ‘friends’… I somehow felt that they would not be interested in my scholarly discoveries… So I deleted my account. Facebook was not for me.
Grainne Conole (bless her soul) and her team from Leicester visited my institution and she encouraged me to revisit my decision not to use Facebook. I started afresh. I took a decision that I will use my Facebook only for professional and scholarly reasons. I don’t share to different groups. I just don’t have the time for that. I share what I want and if you don’t like it or find it boring, goodbye. Facebook allowed me to discover the love many of my scholarly friends have for cooking, for cats, for becoming a grandfather or mother, or pictures of their latest meal (…) or conference attendance in some or other exotic (or not…) location. As I found my feet on using Facebook as a way to share scholarly articles, as well as share my interests in gender and identity issues, my Facebook became an intimate space where I selectively share and witness some of the more personal details of scholars I respect.
Yes, I know Facebook uses my clicks and ‘likes’ to profile me. Yes I know the space is increasingly becoming creepy. I am increasingly guarded on what I share. I continuously look over my shoulder to see who is watching. I installed ad-blocking software, use Ghostery and my search engine is DuckDuckGo. I check my privacy settings almost on a daily basis. And yes, I know it will not undo the surveillance and the collection of my data.
But for now, I am playing with friends in the park, discovering, sharing, growing and learning. Yes, I am increasingly aware of those watching. But for now, Twitter and Facebook are my oxygen that allows me to breathe. For now…?