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Time for change: experiences of social media strategies and what happens when you cry on the internet

Last week I issued a blog post (below) which created a little stir..for those that didn’t catch it, I posted a video vlog of myself reflecting on recently occurring life events (having my PhD funding discontinued) that were upsetting for me. I think I gave an honest reflection of my feelings at the time and whilst I expressed emotion, don’t believe I came across as too irrational – probably just a little gutted and surprised, as whilst I knew that life would start to, and eventually take a different direction for me, I had planned on finishing my current commitments first.

It’s tempting, given the response, to take the video down, but I will leave it up for the moment as I like things that open up debates.

Since setting up this wordpress site last May, as well as having an additional twitter account I have made a deliberate attempt not to clarify my social media strategy or what the aim or point of my blog is/was but given that my new opportunity seeking status has caused me to rethink this anyway – I decided it’s time for a review.

What’s your aim?

Having taking the very enjoyable ‘The Digital Researcher’ course at UWE – I was admittedly already aware that my current approach to my blog already broke the ‘official’ recommended rule. Having a focussed specific aim. Most notably for researchers, it is about self promotion, communicating your research to both academic and non academic audiences, or communicating things in relation to your research, encourage debate, and building relationships and profile raising online. We also covered the possibilities of setting up a blog as a sideline to your work interests (for example in favour of pursuing a hobby – focused specifically on running, horseriding, creative writing etc) and also an attendee of the course had previously used her site as a source of personal catharsis – a bit like a diary – a place where she could unload the inevitable and guaranteed frustrations of the PhD process and/or life in general (an approach often promoted by mental health charities). I was also influenced by a course I took at the Arnolfini on writing and performance where I discovered that artists sometimes used social media/blogs as a deliberate artistic form – setting up ‘fake’ blogs by people who were in fact characters they had created, interacting with others online and then soon after becoming surprised when audiences struggled to unpick what was ‘real’ and what was constructed. Additionally I’d seen video vlogs on youtube of people/friends recording biographical video diaries of their everyday life  – everything from the mundane cat videos to personal struggles with weightloss/recovery from surgery and I found them genuinely interesting and inspiring to see something that was in some ways closer to ‘reality’ (contested term) rather than ‘reality TV’. However my argument would always be that if it’s a deliberate communication of any form that is intentionally performative (i.e a web posting/status update) it’s always a construction to varying degrees. Therefore I had hoped that by mixing genres (including those posited as ‘academic knowledge’ – of which admittedly there were not so many) it would encourage the viewer to not only respond directly to the specific posting they had picked up on – this given the wide variety of my posts/followers would be quite different, but also by reviewing the site holistically – give greater question to the material they were seeing, consider something different, learn something new, or see something from a different perspective. It’s this ‘mash up’ nature of twitter and social media that I think holds the greatest potential for humankind. To make explicit opposing views, arguments, problems and challenges as well as force us to consider how we interpret online information in order to open up date, broaden understandings, consider more critically the web content we consume and how we are consciously or subconsciously influenced by it and perhaps even crowdsource solutions to local and global problems.

This blog

My blog was originally set up as a response to an arts project, although this was not deliberately an artistic response, however as I progressed further along with the site and my postings, it’s fair to say that I was often simultaneously moving across all of these genres previously mentioned at one time or another. With regards to twitter – my strategy comprised both personal and professional – from mundane streams of consciousness, tweets containing sources of info that were interesting, important, or silly, things that I thought others may find interesting, things that supported my opinions and values as well as those that contradicted them.  I have also admittedly, sometimes used twitter as a source of support – with everything from communicating with friends on the other side of the world at silly hours in the morning, to networking and gaining input from academics in associated academic fields online as well as having a good old opportunity to shout at the world.

I’ve previously posted on my blog around my conflicting feelings on facebook, having shut down my account but reopened it mainly due to requests for access to photos I’ve taken from friends, parents and relatives, and the need to access ‘events and groups’. Some of which are so already deeply ingrained in facebook as an administrative system I fear they will never escape. I’m currently still using facebook and have recently explored it more as a source for my photographic images, but I am trying to re-compile and remove my previous albums onto to flickr as I continue to secure commissions for my photography and need to use it for a self promotional or portfolio tool. Normally I would say retain facebook purely for friends and family but as social media strategies differ and more organisations and groups utilise facebook it becomes harder and harder to stay connected as efficiently without a profile on the site (wrong, sad but often true).

The photographic element of social media also deserves some attention with apps such as instagram and other photography/editing apps being positioned as a tool that brings a certain kind of freedom/creativity to the masses on one hand but does ‘proper’ artists/photographers out of a job on the other. The role of the ‘filter’ being hotly contested as a tool for applying a range of perspectives on the world in which you capture, whilst taking the user further away from the ‘reality’ of the picture.. (again I suggest any image is a construction to certain degrees, filter or not). I’ve experimented with instagram – mainly for ‘artistic’ photography rather than more mundane stuff although this does creep in occasionally. I enjoy photography, have had some pictures published in books and on the web and have received positive feedback on photos that I take  – all helpful in building my portfolio of images. I’ve created some great pictures, but also in retrospect the ‘looking back’ at ‘filtered’ photos of friends during more personal moments rather than ‘filtered’ photos as ‘art’ does feel a little different to me.. and there is probably room in this argument to explore the role of photography apps a little more outside of this blog post.

The future

I gained alot from this experience with social media but recent responses seem to suggest that my previous blogpost took things a little too far. I cover different topics in my posts, (not that unusual for those with an interest in the arts or sociology) and explore different things as well as re-blog from others.. but given my new status as an opportunity seeker it seems I am forced to focus my blog on the positives, the achievements, the quality writing and the ‘can do’s’ rather than expressing the doubts, insecurities, or ambiguities or indeed deliberately at times posting possibly contentious content in the hope it will stimulate debate or thought, when I run such as high risk of being continually misunderstood or misinterpreted and provoking reactions in people.  It’s probably also a reflection on the task of managing multiple identities such as emerging artist/performer/(previously) transport research student and now opportunity seeker.

The most outstanding need now, is to create or secure opportunities – both artistically  and professionally both and paid unpaid, and continue my explorations around social enterprise. It is for this purpose, I will have to move the more abstract or questionable posts elsewhere, present them differently and redirect my musings/work more specifically in future.

At least I can say from my efforts so far that I have the capacity to be creative, ask questions, stimulate debate and create interest and reaction in my work, but perhaps most importantly, particularly in the case of potential future leadership ventures,

a very fine set of balls.

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Murmuration

Art

Be present. Notice. Have a dream. Vitea Leadership in Action March 2011

Where are you going? – How will you get there? – Who will help you?

These are question we were asked at the culmination of an intense three days in Windermere, and what a three days it was.  Twice a year a combination of 60 students and research staff at various stages in their careers and spanning all disciplines, are selected to attend the free residential leadership courses on offer by Vitae the research training council. This year I was privileged enough to be selected for this prestigious course and  apprehensively made my way to the beautiful surrounds of Lake Windermere for what was a significant learning and existential experience.

Taking a ‘learning by doing approach’ the course was divided into seminars, practical workshops, and home group activities. Over the course of three days we were challenged to lead, reflect, learn, experience and work as a team. Whilst a variety of theoretical perspectives exist, a key emphasis of the course was experiential learning, and we were continually split up into changing teams and faced with various challenges. I ended up leading two tasks (one through delegation) these were managing multiple tasks and leading in a crisis. Multiple tasks was quite a challenge and we failed to achieve the full points. It was a little disheartening and the skills involved blindfolds, sculptures, quizzes etc etc.. Leading in a crisis was where I really felt I shone and we managed to perform well. We were assigned a buddy – often from a completely different background (mine was a middle aged, Chinese engineering professor from Oxford who had been sent on the course because he had poor relationships with his students) The buddy would then act as a ‘mirror’ and provide 360 degree feedback on performance and a sounding board for reflection.

A key learning point for the course was the power of failure. Most tasks were pretty difficult to achieve and through our efforts we encountered both obstacles and triumphs.  We were advised we would both succeed and fail spectacularly. This was appropriate. This did show me that there were still things to be gained from situations that turned out badly, that it wasn’t how many times you failed but how many times you got up again.

In addition to the workshop we were assigned a home group task. In groups of six were assigned the challenge of delivering a fund raising initiative in just three days. We were given the sum of £100 and told to devise and initiate a campaign for a charity of our choice.  All teams were to present on the final night, and were assessed against a range of criteria with a winning team being announced and prizes given.

I was lucky enough to have a great team, who worked hard to get our idea up and running. Having been assigned the team leadership role I was extremely proud three days later when our idea: Webber’s Windermere Womble’s – we were raising money for the organisation shelterbox,  and won the challenge overall out of ten other teams, (with the help of some litter picking efforts and the use of social media) Whilst we didn’t reach our target the sum of £320.00 in less than three days was a good effort and the highest total overall, and our concept made a contribution to both local and global needs.

I signed up for the course I guess because I was never sure if I had the power to lead others. Somehow I often ended up sort of leading people, but I had never really pushed myself forward consciously. The course was an intense, challenging and exhausting three days. However I learnt a lot about myself. The feedback helped me to learn that sometimes I know what’s in my head, but other people sometimes don’t.  It taught me to try and draw on others and trust people rather than always doing things myself. It also taught me that in teams people have different needs and not everyone responds well to my creative, energetic autonomous approach to leadership if they are happier with security, certainty and direct instructions.

It also showed me that there are lots of things about me that make me an effective leader. Like the ability to motivate and inspire others, to support and energise, to see the bigger contextual picture and to supply vision. Luckily I had people in my team with opposite skills to my own which is also what made us so successful I think. Fundamentally, and perhaps most significantly the course taught me about the power of collaboration. We were from different backgrounds, perspective, experiences, and often cultures. Yet we came together and achieved. That was probably the biggest lesson. Our team didn’t spend our start up money yet through teamwork we managed to create and succeed with our existing resources – people.

There a lot of people who are often closed minded to this sort of approach – workshops, integration, random tasks. It requires faith, trust and buy-in to get anything back from it, but if you do I’m sure you will think its worth it.  In fact it was a challenge in the first few days to convince my buddy professor to listen to me. He spoke often of how stupid his students were and how he was frustrated with them. After three days with me.. (stop sniggering at the back)  he actually began to reconsider the ‘youth’ of today in a different light..to think differently, and to appreciate the person behind the ‘student’ role. In turn he taught me that whilst being ‘old skool’ there was a lot of wisdom, commitments and dedication behind the communication struggles. He was a gentler person. So was I. Once the course was complete I took a few days in the beautiful lakes to reflect on the experience. The Wombles have since disbanded but I’m still in touch with a few of them.

So, three months down the line is the experience still with me? I think yes. The course taught me that I have leadership potential, but that I won’t get there on my own. I’ve been increasingly thinking about the possibility of social enterprise, and this is not something I would have had the confidence to consider before the course. It made me realise that my pre-occupation with the potential for failure actually often prevents me from achieving or producing things. Most importantly, however my PhD works out, I think the principles we learnt on the course are transferable enough to benefit multiple aspects of my life. Being a PhD student is not just about writing and defending a thesis. The course should me how much potential all of us had to lead inspire, achieve and support each other and to achieve for the good of society regardless of our disciplines.

It made me proud of the people that I met, and proud to also be one of them. One of the best experiences of my university career for sure.