committing to stay connected

It seems to me that there is a really large group of people (young professionals? academics? anyone with specialized career training? Americans? anyone in the globalized world?) who have moved far away from all their family members and close friends to attend the right schools and get the right jobs (or any job at all). After each completed degree or career segment, we've moved again, and even when an individual stays in one place, most of their friends move away. We are geographically separating ourselves again and again from the people we love. All that moving around has its benefits, of course. We've experienced different cultures and climates; we've met people that we otherwise wouldn't have been able to; we know people in every state in the country and many countries around the world. But all that moving around also has its drawbacks--we are often isolated and lonely.

I have some really good friends here, and if I really needed help, I'm sure they would come through for me. But still, I feel like my support system is not here; it is spread all over the country. I've lost the real connections I had with some of the people who have impacted my life most profoundly, and I think that is a tragedy. And that has had detrimental effects on my mental state, my physical health, and my quality of life.

It seems to me that there was a point in history when community emerged on its own. There was a time when close proximity=close relationship. Neighborhoods were communities, and you lived in the same community throughout your life. But things are different now. You probably don't even know the people who live near you. Furthermore, there is something powerful about relationships that last over decades, spanning life changes and hardships, and when those relationships wane because of distance there is a loss. Given that this is our plight (re: geographic separation), we need to be pro-active about preserving relationships across distance. It seems to me that we now have to really make a commitment to be able to stay closely connected to one another.

Social media seems an obvious solution to this problem. And you all know that I'm a huge fan of social media. So, yes, I think social media can help. As long as your family and friends post about themselves, social media can do a pretty good job of keeping you informed on the major events and even the mundane details of people's lives. Social media can even be a tool for dealing with culture shock, so it does definitely provide some real form of connection. However, social media does not necessarily adequately fulfill the need for close relationships that I am discussing here. Perhaps it can for certain populations, but I think that the way social media is commonly used, it does not provide the sense of a personal support system that isolated people really need.

Therefore, in an attempt to address this problem in my own life, this fall I have made commitments with 9 friends and family members to communicate on a regular basis (and I am working on making a few additional commitments). Several of these commitments take the form of a promise to email each other on a specific day each week. With one friend, we committed to a weekly email plus one piece of snail mail each month. With my brother, it is a weekly video chat. With another friend, it is a video chat every other week. With another friend, our commitment is that we can't end one phone conversation until we have scheduled our next one. The plan is that these commitments will last for years to come.

I put these "pen pal dates" in my calendar as appointments that are just as important as class or meetings. (The first few commitments were email and snail mail, so calling these friends my "pen pals" seemed appropriate. The commitments have now moved beyond only writing, but the name seems to have stuck.) For me, putting the commitments into my calendar has been a really important move. I save time in my day to fulfill these commitments, and I have shifted my thinking to see these commitments as an important part of my self-care (just as important as eating, sleeping, and exercising). Staying connected and maintaining relationships is a useful and important way to spend my time.

I can already tell that these commitments are improving the quality of my life. I feel much more connected and whole than I did six months ago. My outlook is brighter, my ability to deal with frustration is greater, my thought life is not consumed with worrying about my career, and my stress level is lower. What is more, I feel loved. Not that I felt unloved before, but now I know that I am loved. I know that there are people who would worry if they didn't hear from my in a week. There are people who care about how my week has been, and I care about how their week has been.

Interestingly, when I approached each of these people to propose these commitments, in almost every case the person responded that they had been feeling isolated too. Almost every one of them told me that they had been needing to establish better connections. Isolation seems to be an epidemic, and I think that we need to do something to combat it.

If you are also feeling isolated, I would encourage you to make some commitments to stay connected with people. Be honest with yourself and your pen pal about your time/schedule, and don't over commit, but also be willing to see these commitments as important ways to spend your time. Do you think you'll try to make some commitments with people?

Or if you are already doing something to prevent isolation, I'd love to hear how you commit to maintain relationships with people far away. What has worked for you in the past? What hasn't worked?

a guide to friending/tweeting/blogging with non-peers

Ok, so having throughly convinced you in my last post that using social media with non-peers is extremely important...I want to make a list of guiding principles for connecting with non-peers on social media sites. While I have thought carefully about this, I am the first to admit that this is a primary list. As a society, I we are all still learning how to use these tools, so I'd love to hear your feedback, experiences, horror stories, inspirational stories, etc. So, without further ado, a guide to using social media with non-peers in safe and effective ways:

  • DO understand your privacy settings. Yes, they change all the time, and they are a pain, but you must understand how to use them.... and you must review them fairly frequently. Know how to keep your information from being publicly searchable. Know how to use Facebook lists as categories of people for privacy settings. Also, when you connect to someone immediately put them on a list/circle that places them in a certain category of privacy. Then if your relationship to them changes later, you can change their group/circle. Lastly, don't let other people post (tag you in posts or photos) about you without your approval.
  • DO post, tweet, and blog about personal stuff. Demonstrate that you are a whole person, show what you care about, show how you spend your free time, show how your professional life impacts your personal life. Use social media as a way to show your friends what you do professionally and your colleagues what you do in your personal life. In both cases, they will appreciate your openness, and sharing these details will help your friend understand you better and build rapport with your colleagues.
  • DO use Twitter hashtags, retweets, and replies to connect and engage with organizations, celebrities, and politicians. Be respectful (of course!) and assume that everyone in the world can read what you've written, but engage! There is so much collaborative potential there, so we need to take advantage of it.
  • DO live tweet at professional conferences and bonus knowledge events. Those tweets will get your name out there, and it will be super useful to other people either in the room or who couldn't attend. It also shows that you are involved in the field and care about attending events.
  • DON'T post anything that you wouldn't say to the person's face. Although they are important, you cannot be sure that privacy settings will be consistent at all times. You can't be sure that someone won't retweet or share your post with the person that you didn't want to see what you wrote. You must assume that everything you write and post is available to anyone who wants to find it badly enough. Because of that, but more importantly because it is an important part of embodying feminist politics and community, you must learn to voice your critiques in respectful, careful, and productive ways. You must learn to think about the implications of your words before you speak and post. Name calling, hate speech, and being inconsiderate are unacceptable offline and online alike.
  • DON'T use separate profiles for professional and personal communications. You are one person; be one person. Using two profiles undermines that potential of these technologies to encourage transparency, to challenges hierarchies of power, and to make ourselves helpfully vulnerable to others. Now, let me say that I understand that some people must use two profiles because they are engaged in work that causes some threat to their well-being. If that is the case, then by all means, do what you must. However, if you find yourself able, I strongly encourage you to use one profile because I think doing so  models some important feminism commitments (as described above).
  • DON'T use social media to vent. Venting is for best friends, spouses, and therapists, but not for public consumption. You will lose followers if all you do is complain, and you will get in trouble with the people you are complaining about...so just don't do it.
  • DON'T pretend to be or have something that you don't. Don't pretend to be more important than you are, because that will come back to bite you. But also don't pretend to be less than you are because denying the power that you have is an abuse of power.
  • DON'T pursue connections with people over whom you have power. Let them pursue the connection with you. It seems to me that a student might feel compelled to accept my friend request because they believe that their grade depends on it, and that feels like an abuse of power. I wait for my students and athletes to connect to me.
  • DON'T post pictures of yourself doing anything that is irresponsible. This means no pictures of breaking the law, company policy, or ethical standards. If you are breaking rules as a purposeful act of protest, take the necessary precautions to keep yourself safe, but that is not what I mean by irresponsibility here. What I mean is that if you are simply being irresponsible (this includes excessive nudity or alcohol consumption) as a way to blow off stem, don't document that irresponsibility. Or better yet, try not to be irresponsible.... try to find other ways to let off steam.
  • DON'T live tweet/post every detail of your whole life. It's annoying, boring, and over share. It means you'll lose followers, and it likely means you aren't posting things that are particularly meaningful which means people will assume that you don't think particularly meaningful thoughts.
  • And finally, DO think carefully about the implications of all of your posts. In fact, I recommend that you compose a post, then think about something entirely different for five minutes. At the end of five minutes, reread your post and see if it still seems helpful and appropriate.

 

Additionally, as a teacher/mentor:

  • DO require your students to use these technologies. Make assignments that require them to blog or tweet. Students need to learn to use these technologies in safe and effectively ways. They need to learn to speak and write publicly. They need to learn to function in an online world. And we must help them learn those skills while the stakes are low. This also applies to co-workers that are under your mentorship.
  • DO communicate openly (and face to face) with your department chairs/deans/bosses about how and why you are using social media. It seems to me that most of the resistance/difficulties people have with implementing social media practices and assignments is that other people don't understand why and how they are making this change. If communication is established early on, much of that resistance can be avoided.
  • DO have a class session devoted to discussing technological responsibility. This includes consideration of the risks involved with these technologies and some mutually agreed upon practices for minimizing those risks. This may include talking through some of the bullet points listed in this post. In the classroom setting, this should also include very detailed descriptions of what is expected with regard to these assignments (re: summary content, analytical content, frequency of posts, length of posts, grading rubrics, etc.)
  • DO learn from your students. Ask students how to do things! Working together to learn the technologies helps students realize and analyze their own behaviors, and it is mutually beneficial. Again, this also applies to co-workers that are under your mentorship.

 

Question time:

(Please do take a minute to comment; I really would love to hear from you!)

What have your experiences been using social media with non-peers? Have you found it difficult? Rewarding?

Do you have any other suggestions to add to this list?

Do you disagree with any of these points?