On social media, digital politics, and personal change

As I gear up for my first semester at the University of Maryland, I’m thinking a lot about academic and social positionings, offline and on. More particularly, about my own online positioning and how it has changed over the past four years as I’ve made the transition from graduate student life to completing my dissertation and going on the market, to being an assistant professor in a teaching-focused university teaching composition, literature, and doctoral-level theory classes, to my brand-new status as a tenure-track professor doing interdisciplinary work at a large public research university. The change in my online persona has been marked and undeniable.  I have become much, much quieter.

My presence on Twitter used to be constant and vocal: livetweeting every conference I attended in queer studies, critical race studies, digital media; following and retweeting emerging news and political events (I most vividly remember the 2011 London riots); arguing; celebrating the benefits of the platform as I moved through the world in community with my Twitter friends, advocating its use both as a space for succinct, low-stress writing and as a platform for public intellectual discourse. I still livetweet most of the conferences I attend, but I don’t read like I used to, and I haven’t engaged in Twitter debate for a long time. Everything I’ve ever said about the importance of Twitter is truer than it ever was now that the platform has become so central to so many kinds of public life – but some recent discussions about #Ferguson made me realize that I don’t access the stream the way I used to. I think that Zeynep Tufekci (to pick one post from the dozens on the subject in my web history) is absolutely right in calling attention to the un-algorithmed Twitter feed as vital to the possibility of media justice; nevertheless, I followed and shared Ferguson news from inside my Facebook filter bubble. That was an interesting experience in itself; I learned that my activity there is such that I was given wall-to-wall Ferguson coverage and very few ALS Ice Bucket Challenges (though now the Challenge has crossed the Atlantic I’m seeing more of them). My Twitter feed, when I accessed it, had a much less unified perspective.

For those of you who follow digital humanities debate on Twitter, you may recognize the influence of Noel Jackson’s recent posts (storified by Adeline Koh) in this moment of contemplation. The abhorrent firing of Steven Salaita from the position he had accepted but not begun at the University of Illinois for his vocal, emotive public tweets against the genocidal war in Gaza is another thread that has been leading me to think about scholarly, political, and personal positionings. A third is the new publication of a second installment of Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class in Academia recently published in the Seattle Journal of Social Justice, which I have been working my way through

Jackson calls attention to the relative silence of online networks of academics in the realm of digital humanities when it comes to the protests in Ferguson. He argues that if the humanities are to be public at all, then humanists must engage with what is happening on the ground. I agree with this premise, though critical caveats by Elizabeth Losh (Respect, Niceness, and Generosity) and Ernesto Priego (On the Public Humanities and the Reign of Opinion) on the ways that public online personae and political investment are rarely transparent reflections of one another ring very true. My own time away from Twitter has brought me to a deep appreciation of the temporality of the blog post.

I have seen some exchanges on Twitter in Jackson’s wake that illuminated for me why some tend to remain silent: when fear of appropriating a discourse not one’s own leads a white scholar not officially trained in race studies to hold back from expressions of solidarity with Black Americans, for example. People of color and those marked as other speak, knowing that their silence will not protect them (this article by Ramona Fernandez, a long and painful read, tells a story of what it can be like to endure that silence); silence does protect those who pass more seamlessly into the mainstream, where the risk is rather that we will appear to be giving assent to the violence of the status quo, and also that this appearance will become reality (read Sara Ahmed on the different experiences of bodies in systems that are or are not shaped around their movements and needs).

So, then, I’m reflecting on my own shifts in outspokenness and privilege.  Switching the locus of my online activity from Twitter to Facebook has been a retreat into such a protective silence for me, in many ways. It has not only been that; it has most immediately been a question of demands on my time as I shifted from graduate school (in which I had the immense privilege of being well funded and generously mentored by radical scholars) to a full-time position with a high teaching load. It has been a recognition of the institutional impossibility of maintaining the kind of openness I had as a student, once I realized that the tenure-track position I had been incredibly lucky and (again) incredibly privileged to maintain was not going to be a good long term home; going on the market without the support of a cohort of equally anxious peers was a lonely thing, and Facebook provided a higher ratio of comforting dog, cat, and baby pictures to distract me. It has also been a sign of the attention I’ve been paying to happier events in my personal life, which I wanted to share with those I am  more than with a scholarly audience. I do want to defend Facebook a little against the many who steer clear of its voracious surveillance and advertising; I’m far from the first to find that it’s become the digital space of the less digitally savvy, which for me includes many faraway friends and family. My Twitter feed, for all it has 1000+ followers, feels as if it reaches mainly the like minded, whereas on Facebook I’m constantly confronted by those awkward interactions between relatives, friends, and acquaintances (these include a fair number of internet-only friends and acquaintances with whom I’ve been interacting for more than ten years) whose life experiences are radically different than my own.

Anyway. I’m writing this post now, I think, as a reminder of the ways in which my new academic position charts a new relationship to scholarly visibility and privilege. I am no longer, praise everything, on the market; I am in a position where the things I want to do and the things I will be professionally rewarded for line up as well as I could hope for them to do. I may not have tenure yet, but I have access and a voice that have the potential to be powerful. And I need to use it mindfully; I need to use it well.

One thought on “On social media, digital politics, and personal change

  1. Robin Reid

    Wow, Adeline Koh linked to your blog post on FB and I went, whoa, I know that name!

    I went to FB a little over a year ago, maybe two now, because my university discovered branding through social media and mostly because my sf student group officers and members said they’d read my messages if I was just on FB–as opposed to using university email. I was never on twitter (well, tried briefly to follow one protest — the michael moore one? I think–but the character limit drove me out very quickly. I was pleasantly surprised by the alums I found on FB, and academic friends I’d lost touch with over time and shifting to different consequences.

    It’s great to see you–and congratulations on the new job!