Communication and Audience

#TakingStock 2/10

As well as my monthly updates on life in general, I am, throughout this year, working on a series of collaborative essays, under the broad banner of #TakingStock. Each month, I will post an Essay Sketch with some brief thoughts about a topic, and the following month I will share an essay further developing those thoughts. The essays will be shared with all subscribers, but to collaborate on these essays with me, sign up for a full subscription to #AsSheFlies (currently free, forever).

Thank you to this month’s collaborators, Susan Crow and Alicia.

Those who have followed my words, wherever they have appeared, over the years are more than familiar with the fact that I have a curious relationship with social media: what would be referred to, in the binary world that our media and politicians are desperate to create and maintain for us, as a love/hate relationship. But, as with nearly everything in life, my view is far more nuanced. It is neither all-in or all-out, though my response can be at times.

Periodically, I devour social media. Over the years, I have had a number of Facebook accounts. My first Facebook account was one created in more innocent times, when everyone trusted the company far more than they have reason to do so now. I had several hundred friends, including many acquaintances I had met briefly at events and conferences, as many of us did back in those times before we became aware of precisely how thoroughly our privacy and data could be abused and manipulated. Before I deleted my first account, I had already taken a hiatus once or twice. I deleted my account when I started my research studies, as a way of encouraging myself not to get distracted, only for my supervisors to suggest I rejoin as a way to keep in touch with fellow students and academics being, as I was, a distance learning student. Throughout the first year or two of my studies, my methodology developed to the point where, eventually, all my data was collected online via Facebook or Twitter. Another two or three accounts later, once I’d completed my studies, I deleted my final Facebook account for good.

For saying I have had, in the past, a tendency to binge on social media (something which, if I allowed myself to indulge, I would still do), I have never had any problem with sticking to a hiatus once I’ve decided that I need a break from it all. I am very aware that, if I let myself, I am capable of having an addictive personality; but it is refreshing - a relief, even - not to feel obliged to check social media constantly and to take prolonged breaks from various platforms.

Occasionally, someone will explain (unfortunately, often quite smugly) how they just dip in and out, and they find it easy to do so: but, when you’re someone who is known for frequently participating online in certain environments, it takes some time to start to reduce your engagement without receiving a plethora of messages from concerned friends. Is there something wrong? You’re been quiet recently. I hope you’re alright. Thinking of you. I do not mention this as a criticism - but simply as a way of explaining why reconfiguring our engagement with family and friends (those known in person, and more ethereally) is a much more careful exercise than simply disappearing one day without explanation if you are not known for doing so.

People love to criticise social media, and I certainly take a critical view of how it has insidiously crept into our lives. Especially, so many people’s reliance on Facebook concerns me. That’s an awful lot of power held by a handful of people who have proved time and time again to have little or no morals when it comes to protecting those who use their platforms: and that is without considering the damage it has done to local media and democracy (through rather nefarious means). But, despite my criticism, I enjoy engaging with people via social media, and I miss updates from people I care about - and I take a broad view, here, as there are people I have never met whose wellbeing I care about, and whose updates I always enjoy - when I take breaks from social media. Sometimes, though, I do need to take a break.

The beginning of this year was one such time when a break was needed. In terms of social media (excluding blog posts and newsletters), I am now only on Twitter. After an exhausting year (ha! Little did we know what 2020 had in store for us back in those heady, final days of 2019), I felt an urge to distance myself from the background noise that Twitter encourages, especially since the recent and now-not-so-recent changes to how you can view and manipulate your timeline.

Back in the early days of this year, I scribbled the following (which I labelled ‘The Kilderkin Analogy’):

“Twitter is like your favourite old pub which has tried to revamp itself to stay up with the times, but has missed the mark. The new clientele are (is?) different. Some are lovely, some are a certain type of annoying, loud person. You still love your old haunt – every now and then you visit for semi-nostalgic purposes, and you bump into your old friends and you have a grand time. But you can’t get away from the noise coming from the table next to you.”

I needed time and space to take a step back, enjoy some comparative quiet, and sift through my thoughts. I was exhausted of being told how to feel about everything, and how I should be engaging with that or this.

It did not help that, increasingly, I have become suspicious of my thoughts and reactions. If participating on social media doesn’t do that to you, then researching social media certainly will. Every time I found myself with an automatic or gut response to something I saw online, I scrutinised it for its origin, prodding it from every angle. Why did I react that way? Is that really what I think, or what I think I should think? Whose narrative does it suit for me to react that way? Can I clearly and articulately show my mental working?

So, around the turning of the year, I drifted slightly from Twitter. I removed the application from the home screen of my mobile and, instead, every time I found myself reaching for my phone to share my latest thoughts on something, I made a note of them instead.

After two or three weeks of this, I also stopped reading the news, for similar reasons. Too much noise, too many agendas, too much disappointment in humanity.

Fatigue had truly set in. Delightfully, even within the first week I started to notice an increase in mental energy. I had headspace to think about things again, and think deeply. I started to tag my notes and organise them, picking out themes and identifying topics I wanted to think more about (which is why I am here, now, typing this very essay.)

It was curious not binging on news like I had been doing. Suddenly, my understanding of the wider world became something not managed by algorithms and the media (social or otherwise), but by family and friends. Most of the current affairs updates I received were shared unconsciously, with no coherent strategy. People weren’t educating me or trying to convince me of something, they were simply sharing anecdotes of interest. The fact this approach felt new to me corroborated my uneasy suspicion that even the news outlets I trusted most were following (or allowing themselves to repeat) certain agendas.

Newsletters

Aside from family and friends, there was one method of communication through which I also received missives from the outside world: newsletters. I am something of a newsletter addict. At the beginning of January, I acknowledged that I had signed up to more newsletters than I could read and digest properly, let alone enjoy, and made the difficult decision to unsubscribe from a number of them. Since returning to work in October, I had managed to accumulate a backlog of several hundred email newsletters to be read, and I worked through them by author, deciding whether to continue with my subscription or to call it a day (possibly only temporarily).

I feel a certain guilt whenever I unsubscribe from a newsletter, as if I am personally letting someone down, disapproving of their views and words. Most of my newsletter subscriptions come from recommendations, often from writers of other newsletters. I follow newsletters covering a wide variety of topics - including comics, walking, writing, artificial intelligence, education - but it can sometimes feel like I am in an echo chamber of sorts. I prefer newsletters most obviously run by individuals rather than endless lists - not because I don’t enjoy the lists, but because I am learning I have to be firmer with myself about accepting the amount I can read. I constantly have browser windows open on my laptop and my mobile with articles I have flagged to read when I have a moment. (Ha! When do I ever have a moment?!)

This echo chamber stretches not only to views and viewpoints, but also to specific articles. Over a period of two or so weeks, if someone in the email circuit has recommended something particularly enlightening or pertinent, then it sometimes works its way round some of the other newsletters I am subscribed to receive. In the later newsletters, perhaps a week or two after the article was first published, a commentary or analysis might also be posted. This is both interesting in terms of ongoing conversation and debate, and a tad repetitive.

So, yes: to work through my backlog at the beginning of the year, I decided to work through by author and newsletter. Starting back in mid-September when I’d last managed to bottom my inbox, I gradually worked through in order all the newsletters by one named individual, then another. Occasionally, I realised with a pang of regret that I’d missed something important and time-sensitive. At other times, I realised I had discovered the content being discussed or referenced on my own already anyway. Most of the time, though, it was an interesting experience: following one person’s narrative over a period of three or four months. Their interest in what was important to them (and topical) one particular week either faded or grew by the next week. Some things were discarded, never to resurface (though they might in months to come - I enjoy newsletters which throw ideas out there to percolate until A Time Unknown); others, constant threads of interest or concern, or simply iterative observation.

There were one or two times I realised I was a little bored with the thought of reading another newsletter which did not contain a particularly interesting narrative and I decided I would unsubscribe. Others, I couldn’t face another long list of links with no additional thoughtful or insightful commentary, however interesting they were; and, again, I unsubscribed. For some of these I even deleted the unread issues which had sat gathering dust in my inbox for the last several weeks. I noticed, with interest, how guilty I felt doing this: as if by deleting something unread I was in fact ignoring someone’s communication to me, personally, rather than simply choosing not to read something produced for the (minor) masses. It seemed like a double betrayal.

I have managed since January to broadly keep on top of the newsletters to which I have subscribed. I have signed up to one or two more, and unsubscribed from a few: but, with ceasing to read the news incessantly since mid-January, I have instead been working my way through content I have specifically opted into, and which I want to read (except where I still, occasionally and lazily, get caught in a Twitter rabbithole).

To return to my observation above, this means that newsletters feature as the third major way in which I find out about current affairs. Family, friends, newsletters. Occasionally Twitter. Again, the echo chamber features here, through deliberate curation. I do not specifically subscribe to news updates, with the exception of certain publications like Future Crunch. As a result, though I am keen to hear criticism of various current affairs and viewpoints, I do not feel obliged to continue reading something that frustrates me in its parochial view and leaves me feeling worse than before I read the newsletter. I have unsubscribed from certain publications which have left me feeling uneasy in their view of the world. I firmly believe we have a responsibility to remain informed and challenge our views (I have much more to say about this, including a potential idea for communicating a dichotomy of viewpoints), but my time and energy is too important to waste on unsupported sweeping statements. Increasingly, I yearn for further nuance.

No News is Good?

In light of this approach to absorbing (or not) news, I do find myself questioning whether I can consider myself truly informed anymore. I have always prided myself on ensuring that I am abreast of key events, nationally and internationally (noting, of course, the significant western bias in most news outlets in this country).

Western media has, increasingly, become restricted to a handful of big players who have been busy buying up smaller and local media outlets for several years. The direction of the news is managed by a few rich men (for the most part). Some outlets stand apart, despite other inherent potential flaws: The Guardian’s history of trust ownership prevented it losing its editorial independence, whereas publications such as the Byline Times place a priority on independent, investigative journalism. Different viewpoints are increasingly important, but that’s not to say no agendas are present (or unhelpful in the face of arguments of unbiased journalism). The National in Scotland launched in 2014 as a pro-Independence newspaper; but, as a sister-paper to The Herald, the cynic might note that this allows the same newspaper group simply to have a publication backing both sides of any future referendum (whilst, for now, being in a position to corner the market for those absolutely committed to independence).

None of these are new observations, and these publications surely have their place in a balanced media diet as much as many others (and more than some). The focussing of their resources will allow for important stories and viewpoints to be brought to the fore. One of the biggest concerns in relation to media and communication is the stranglehold so few have on common narrative: this is directly related to a few key players in media circles absorbing local media into their empires and systematically chipping away at them. The ever-excellent John Harris has written about this (and the concept of the ‘Unplace’ is something I very much want to revisit at some point, referring to Relph and others).

It is similar to the damage that social media - Facebook, for the most part - has inflicted on a micro-generation of creators and journalists. Facebook over-egging their video success pudding resulted in many writers being dismissed; doubt was cast on Facebook’s claims a little too late. The damage had already been done as part of a systematic drive to, amongst other things, encourage people to post directly to Facebook rather than via platforms such as Vimeo and YouTube. Algorithmic wizardry and poison: and, when that failed, outright manipulation of statistics.

One collaborator, Susan Crow (Hi, Mum!), articulated this phenomenon and feeling of exhaustion thus:

“We are no longer informed by the news in this country. We are fed a diet of massaged truths and outright lies. So, we don't need more than a brief daily drop-in - just so that we know when we need to be aware. The last four years have proved that common sense and human decency stand for nothing against the propaganda machine of the power mongers. I, for one, am not inclined to be dragged down by background noise when I have the opening to put forward an appreciation of the positive in my writings.”

And this is a key issue: in all communication, with news (of all varieties: personal, local, national, international) possibly even more so, trust is a crucial factor. Some news outlets have always been divisive and deliberately controversial, structured to stir up a certain reaction, but the very nature of algorithmic social media platforms has exacerbated these tendencies until media outlets (traditional and otherwise) start to believe they can only compete if they act in a similar way. Our entire media landscape - in fact, our entire landscape of shared communication - has been skewed by a handful of social media platforms, greedy for growth. Sensationalism and bias driving quantity over quality.

Another collaborator, Alicia, introduced the idea of social media offering a ‘personalisation’ of the news, and this is true: sooner or later, everything becomes personal on social media. On the flip side (also an observation by Alicia), memes offer a way of de-personalising subject matter: they offer a way towards shared understanding which has an effect in de-personalising what can be a particularly subjective viewpoint or experience. Ultimately, they bring the subjective into a broader topic group.

I took a step back in mid-January because I realised I was consuming news (’news’) several times a day and it wasn’t really, substantially, getting me anywhere. All in all, from morning to night, nothing really changed.

It reminded me of a quote from one of my favourite books, ‘The Children of Green Knowe’, by Lucy M. Boston.

“‘Do you want to read the newspapers now?’

‘Good gracious no, child. What should I do that for? The world doesn’t alter every day. As far as I can see, it’s always the same.’”

And the world wasn’t really changing every day. I had just been caught up in an algorithm; technology and tone feeding an encouraged behavioural trait. The only effect that constant news-checking really had was that my mood was kept simmering.

Algorithms have a lot to answer for, and it is hard not to get caught in a constant downward-spiralling feedback loop. Another observation from Alicia:

“A few weeks ago I noticed that my twitter feed had become increasingly shouty. Because I was tapping impatiently at the app, it was updating with likes of followers and followers of followers and so certain themes/reactions were similarly repeating. It wasn't adding any real content to my timeline, but the echoes were louder. I stopped behaving so impatiently, unfollowed a few people who over used their re-tweet function and its all calmed down. I often take stock of my feed and adjust the balance of people I'm following to create a happier, less stressful feed.”

Interestingly, the tipping point for me - despite everything, all the other significantly less objective media outlets out there - was a very sad but absolutely not world-level-newsworthy story on the front page of The Guardian website that was clearly posted simply because it was horrifying and shocking. Someone else’s very real, life-changing pain, reduced to garnering clicks in a privileged country thousands of miles away.

I've felt infinitely better since I did take a step back. I keep toying with the idea of subscribing to a publication like The Week, where I can put aside a couple of hours with a pot of coffee to be in the right frame of mind to sit down at the weekend and work through events of the last few days. But if I had two hours to spare, would that be the best use of my time? This is not a rhetorical question: I genuinely don’t know.

Emotions of Communication

For all my criticism of what media and social media have done to forms and methods of communication over the last several years, I still advocate for their existence as a general principle. Given the concept of human communication has been evolving as long as there has been people to communicate with and to, I find the sometimes-applied measure of ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ communication somewhat amusing (despite using it myself as shorthand at times). We don’t have to dial back many years before what we now consider to be traditional communication was deemed a crazy, new-fangled fad.

It is worth noting that this linguistic difference, again, suits certain narratives. We are encouraged to believe it is not ‘natural’ to be active in certain ways on certain platforms. As with all things, it is worth considering who this particular narrative suits. Whenever something - anything - is made available to the masses, and gives them a voice, there are previously privileged people complaining. The voice that social media affords people who were not previously able to be heard is critically important to democracy and understanding the broader demographic (I can’t type that without a shudder of distaste at whittling real people, individual lives, down to a concept of a demographic, but it is an important point to make nonetheless). It is not a surprise that so many of the trolls on the internet are created by organ-grinders, whose behaviour in turn encourages and legitimises that of others to become as troll-like as possible. Discord sows disruption, and while we’re all responding to the dead cats of social media we’re not thinking about broader inequalities.

But how much of this is also because it’s what people want (or at least think they want)? Many people do genuinely enjoy the closeness that social media has allowed us to feel in some way, even if the insidiousness of certain platforms has crept in without us noticing for the most part. There is a language of exception: “I am not on Facebook,” rather than “Yes, I am on Facebook.” Frustratingly, many businesses don’t maintain a separate website now: they just host a Facebook Page. There is an assumption by businesses as well as individuals that Facebook is the norm which, sadly, it increasingly is.

It is no bad thing to challenge these new norms, remaining critical. Cal Newport, writing in his ‘Study Hacks’ blog in February, addressed why such criticism is important:

"To summarize my take away from studying the life and times of Thomas Edison, be wary of confusing technophobia and techno criticism. The former is not as common as we like to think, and the latter has always been absolutely crucial — especially when delivered by fellow technologists — in the quest to unlock more and more human potential."

One of the reasons I needed to spend some time away from Twitter at the start of the year was to allow myself to emotionally disassociate myself with the platform. I had already done so with my blog (which had, until recently, become increasingly sporadic in recent years, with many earlier posts being taken offline - permanence is a topic I plan to discuss later in the year), and Substack was - and still is - new, so I was yet to built up any substantial form of emotional attachment to it.

Perhaps it seems odd to talk about platforms in terms of emotion, but whatever drives us to use these platforms is some form of emotion or another. Not necessarily a sentimental one: social media seems, increasingly, to be driven by hatred, anger, and fear as much as it is comradery and love.

It is worth bearing in mind the feedback loops and attention hooks deliberately employed by various social media platforms when they’re developing new functionality - and, indeed, the various reports of how social media negatively affects the mental health of many - when reading this commentary from Cal Newport in relation to the nature of email correspondence:

“The back-and-forth emails hurt more because they conflict with a social brain that has evolved to prioritize back-and-forth conversation with members of our tribe. When we send an email to someone and are awaiting their response, there’s a corner of cognitive real estate occupied by this ongoing transaction, nervous about the open loop, fueling a gnawing background hum of minor anxiety. Rationally, we know it’s not crucial that we catch and respond to the nexst message in the exchange right away, but to our more primal circuits, honed on a deep historical scale that predates asynchronous communication, such distinctions are irrelevant.”

A not dissimilar type of observation was made in ‘A Theory of Zoom Fatigue’ by The Convivial Society:

“Participants are not, in fact, sharing the same physical space, making it difficult to perceive our conversation partners as part of a cohesive perceptive field. They lose their integrity as objects of perception, which is to say they don’t appear whole and independent; they appear truncated and as parts of a representation within another object of perception, the screen.”

Comparatively newer methods of communicating - from Web 1.0 through Web 2.0 developments - directly contradicted thousands of years of evolution. Throwing something out there, hoping for a return: no wonder these developments have framed how we communicate in terms of content and tone. Without some kind of feedback, we flounder. It is no surprise that Web 3.0, with The Internet of Things, has at its heart developments such as virtual assistants to replicate and essentially fake conversations with individuals using a form of artificial intelligence.

And that brings me to my final point: our audience.

Audience

Being present on social media, it’s hard not to think about audience and reception frequently. Even if you know exactly what you want to say and are going to say it anyway, regardless of whether it elicits in others less than positive reactions, it is hard to dismiss entirely thoughts of perception. Who are we writing for? Which audiences do we self-select and how do we frame what we choose to communicate as a result of this?

This was already something that I’d been thinking about for a while, jotting down the odd note, when Robin Sloan shared the following reflection on review-writing in a February edition of The Society of the Double Dagger:

“Re-reading that review, I really like it, but/and I also vividly remember the confusion I felt writing it, wondering: “Who… is this… for?” I never quite figured that out. By contrast, I know exactly who this newsletter is for. I always have. It makes a huge difference.”

Who we consider our audience(s) to be drives how we communicate, not just in method but in content and tone. Self-curation (autocuration, perhaps?) is more a part of our everyday lives than it ever has been before, simply because we have introduced whole other strata of communication. Every minute of our existence is potentially multiple, and we have to figure out some way of presenting ourselves to a variety of audiences on a variety of platforms. How we walk, what we wear, the words we use in conversation, the pictures we post on social media, even what we ‘like’ on certain platforms: our audience(s) change constantly and we live in a world of constant curation, which seeps into our lives and shapes how we engage with the world.

The concept of personalisation also fits well with the concept of curation: that we're all seeing, experiencing, and reporting something through subjective lenses. We all have different reasons for using social media, and different ways of communicating on various platforms (sometimes different ways on the same platform). I am aware that my Twitter audience is made of people from various walks of life that I have met whilst wearing different hats over the years. They have a whole raft of interests, and my tweets will only overlap with a minority of those. Depending on what I am saying at any given time, I consider different audiences. I also use Twitter as my own personal reference source, tagging various tweets with hashtags I suspect no-one else will follow, but that will group my thoughts and photographs for me to share with others off-platform at a later date.

Closing Thoughts

I haven’t figured this all out yet. Ever since I rejoined Twitter, I have not felt the old urge to constantly share thoughts and react immediately to news that I did previously, but I have occasionally found myself refreshing my news feed and certain topics waiting for something that I really didn't need to experience in real-time.

I remain convinced that my approach towards the news is the healthiest for me at the moment, and I’m enjoying being drip-fed a curated news stream by choice, trusting those to whose newsletters I have signed up with the responsibility of keeping me sufficiently informed as long as I enjoy or appreciate their updates (the author of one newsletter I read today mentioned in passing that he did not see the point of being optimistic: I suspect his days of gracing my inbox are numbered).

Considering the concepts of communication and audience offers us a prism through which we can consider how we want ourselves to be perceived both as individuals and in relation to others. If we don’t like what we see, then social media gives us the opportunity to reinvent ourselves. We can make amends, we can be more inclusive in both attitude and belief. We can lock down our accounts and communicate only with those we know ‘in real life’, if we so choose.

Or, we can decide to deliberately reach out and try to communicate with potential audiences with which we are currently unfamiliar; be less self-selecting, and try to understand the viewpoints and lived experiences of others.

There is much more to say on that, but that, friends, is a thought for another day.