Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The pleasures of the private

Last Sunday's Styles section featured an article arguing that the last taboo of Facebook is the unhappy marriage. Although the article dealt with some genuine, practical problems faced by those in struggling relationships (the pressure to make everything seem perfect; the difficulty of knowing how to announce a split), I was surprised by the number of those quoted who seemed to think that the fact that most people don't admit to relationship problems on Facebook is itself a problem. Someday, these commenters imply, we'll all be so open and enlightened that we won't fear judgment--and can finally get the help we need by crowdsourcing advice on how to improve our marriages.

And yeah, I know: it's the Styles section. Most normal people don't think that literally everything needs to be shared or that it's pathological to consider one's marriage a private affair. But I was struck that there was no acknowledgment that those in distress might be turning to real, live, in-person friends for advice--or that those friends might be more valuable than several hundred virtual ones.

In my own travels through the academic internet, I often find myself wondering something similar: where are your real friends? Why are you posting for 500 people what should be a three-to-five-person bitch session over drinks? I'm not talking about catastrophic oversharing, or the merely mundane; I'm talking about posts that fall into that catch-all category, "unprofessional," which includes everything from the possibly-legally-actionable to the merely tacky. You know: using Facebook to snark about your department chair or other easily-identifiable colleagues; mocking your students; complaining about what a shithole town you're forced to live in.

Partly this is a matter of tone and frequency (occasional complaints or complaints that are more self-deprecating than self-righteous are different from relentless negativity)--but it's also true that what we deem "unprofessional" reflects changing social-media norms. People used to indulge in more unfiltered venting than they do now, at least in my corner of the internet; I'll freely admit that in my first years of blogging I said a number of ill-advised things, both because it seemed improbable that my words could reach or matter to anyone who knew me in real life and because, as a new Ph.D., I didn't yet understand myself as having structural power or obligations.

No one who's been paying attention trusts to anonymity or privacy settings any more; we all know how easily someone can take a screen-shot or forward a link. Some people rage about this change in norms, believing they should have an unrestricted right to "blow off steam." But the fact we're now more aware that nothing is private on the internet isn't really an encumbrance, but a useful delineation of boundaries. An enthusiastic embrace of social media can coexist with the pleasures of the private. And I'm grateful to social media for reminding me of the value of analog friendships.

There's a difference between calling up five different friends to share good news and broadcasting that news to 500 people. Both are satisfying, and it's awesome to be able to speedily disseminate news of your successes. But there are people with whom you want to be able to share all the details--and who are eager to hear about them. Similarly, bitching in general terms about an annoying student or asshole colleague is a kind of relief, but bitching AT LENGTH with a trusted friend over a bottle of wine is much more cathartic (and much less likely to get you in trouble or to make you look like a jerk to the 450 people who are silently judging you).

So, sure: crowdsource whatchagotta. Broadcast your awesome news or your hilarious observation. But think twice about what's really fit for a mass audience--and make some phone dates, have a friend over, open up the Gmail. Our real friends want more of the story than we can tell over social media anyway.


S.J. Pearce said...

Thanks for another fab post -- I frequently come away from here thinking: This. This is how I wish I blogged. Anyway...

Two quick thoughts related: 1) Part of the reason I made the choice to blog as myself was that I never wanted to lull myself int a false sense of anonymity. And 2): For a variety of reasons I've let up on blogging in the last couple of months, and I've found that the side effect has been twofold along these lines: I'm definitely reassessing a little bit the nature of my collegial friendships, first, and second, I've gotten back to doing something that I used to, which is writing longer, more thoughtful letters to the people who are most central at the crossroads between my personal and professional lives. I don't expect the blogging slowdown to last forever, but it's definitely caused me to reflect on how and why I"m doing what I'm doing in terms of sharing.

Anyway... happy new year!

JaneB said...

On the marriage thing, I completely agree - but I (possibly in an entirely solipsist and arrogant manner) think that blogging about the profession is kind of different? How to work out how to actually ARTICULATE that difference coherently is harder.

I wish I knew how to find friends who were genuinely interested in the details of work issues, but who aren't in my field/my institution. I used to have some, but they live in other cities or countries, they have partners and children and elder care issues and are just far too busy to keep in touch with distant (former) friends who aren't when it comes down to it that important. I've had some health issues which have meant that I've struggled to do the work needed to maintain links in the face of my very different life path, and I think it's natural (though regretable) that friendships wane during this part of life. I've only made proper friends through work in the last 10 or so years, so the newer friends aren't entirely people I can talk to about work stuff, without taking big risks, and I've messed up (grumbled in what I thought was private confidence about what looked to me like a case of favouritism to someone I thought was a friend, which got back to the person favourited who ran to their allies, and basically that led to the end of the friendship and a lot of other fences to mend, but we still all have to interact professionally...). On my blog I can write in a semi-pseudonymous manner about incidents and get some feedback from others with a lesser level of risk, if that makes sense? Because there ARE many similar incidents in my life and in other academic lives, nothing new under the sun etc., and every department has its Very Difficult Colleagues, its Touchy Colleagues, its enthusiastic but destructive Puppydog Colleagues, you know?

I guess my point would be that when it comes to relationships, I can talk to any of my real life friends to some extent, but when it comes to academic stuff it's much harder to find someone to talk to who gets the details without knowing all the players well enough to have their own relationships with them... I have no-one in my life right now to whom I can talk about those things without having them also be to some extent part of the situation. In blogworld, some of that 20 or 50 or 100 invisible readers are genuinely those people I want to talk to, people in different fields and institutions but in the same profession. It's probably some flaw in me that I don't seem to be able to translate these blog relationships into separate friendships where I can just call them up one to one, as I might a different friend about a relationship issue.

Not very articulate, I know, and apologies for that

xykademiqz said...

What JaneB said. I actually find that in real life no one whom I know and who understands the academic job is actually safe to share the details with, especially the challenges. You are supposed to always have your $hit together. This eliminates talking about annoying students or colleagues. My spouse only sort of cares, he's not a chatty dude.

I guess my point is that you may underestimate how isolated many people are, especially academics, who go where the jobs are. I have zero close friends in meat-space where I live, where by close I mean someone I would actually share marital woes or job woes or whathaveyou with. (I don't do Facebook or Twitter, I only have the blog.) Part of it is culture/being a foreigner, part is that we have kids so making friends is different than without kids.

I am happy you have meat-space close friends, but many are not so fortunate. Try not to judge other people's venting and oversharing. It may be imprudent or stupid, but sometimes there are good reasons for it.

Susan said...

Just to echo the point about isolation. All my friends here are people I work with. And with most, I wouldn't talk much about the personal stuff. But I don't do it on FB either.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Same with JaneB and xykademiqz here. There are only a couple of people at work that I can really confide in without fear that they will tell someone else, but even that, in recent times, has been problematic. The reason why is because my best school friend is on a task force to retool our gen ed, and she has recently brought some of my bitching to the table at their committee meetings -- not naming me as the source, but people know we hang out. And then, with the changes in my department recently, people who used to be allies are now in a sort of liminal space with new (unofficial) duties that will have implications for how I'm evaluated. So yeah, I tend to be an oversharer on social media, but there aren't many people I can safely bitch to in real life about it. Hubby listens, but he doesn't fully get academic culture. He thinks we're all a bunch of brilliant idiots. He's not far off much of the time.

Flavia said...


Aw, thanks!

Jane B, xyk, Susan:

I'd say a couple of things here. The first is that I definitely do not underestimate how isolating academia can be (though I could have said more about it in this post); blogging and Facebook have been a major lifeline for me in my own early-stage academic career. I'm not saying not to complain or crowdsource, and I'd draw a partial distinction between blogging and Facebook.

Posting about your stupid colleague or idiot student in detail under your own name is a bad move. But microblogging (if that's what we're still calling Twitter and Facebook) is also a tough form for blowing off that kind of steam because the short-form doesn't allow for as much nuance. Blogging about real workplace dilemmas (under your own name or under a pseudonym), in a suitably distant way, changing identifying details, etc., is better, and I understand why people do it--even if I sometimes find a post to be a little (or a lot) cringe-worthy.

I'd urge everyone who does it to think seriously about how they'd feel if the post got sent to that person. (Maybe you don't know anyone who's had screen-shots of their Fb posts or links to their blogs circulated, but I, alas, do.) If you truly don't care, then hats-off. Do what you feel.

In any case: I'm not telling anyone what they can or can't do with their own blog or Facebook posts. I'm simply trying to point out that social media are terrific for many things, including easing the isolation of academia in all the ways that you mention. (Nor am I claiming that I have so many friends!) And God knows I'm not saying never to bitch about shit.

But I, at least, have found the restrictions of social media to be surprising enabling (because I could never share as much dirt in a blog post, even back in the day, as I would really want to), and it's made me revalue what I might otherwise have forgotten. That's what this post is about: opportunities, not limits.

Flavia said...

Incidentally, this post is partly brought to you by The Really Outrageous Thing That Happened Last Year That I Couldn't Blog About. (And no, it's not about my two-career job search--it's so different and so unbloggable that my readership has no idea it happened.)

For weeks I felt like I was going to explode, I was so wound up. But then, hey! I had a conference! And I talked about this outrageous thing nonstop with several friends. And I got commiseration, appreciative shared outrage--and ultimately a fuller perspective than I would have if I'd had to anonymize or vaguebook, or even if I'd been able to give most of the details.

I also remembered how good it felt to have something I just couldn't wait to tell the right people--a feeling I think I've partly lost, over my blogging years--and then how much better to fully let loose and unburden. So yeah: recapturing the pleasure of the real bitch session is a surprising side-effect of the unbloggable.

Anonymous said...

So not on the topic of academia, but...

... crowd sourcing your marriage?

Obviously that writer is either a total drama-addicted idiot, or has never ever been on a mommy-forum. 25-75% (depending on fora population and what direction the first response goes) of the marriage-related advice given is completely destructive, and, of course, the OP always picks out the one or two comments that agree with what (s)he was going to do anyway and then gets angry at everyone else. Getting input from people on those kinds of topics often in no way helps anything, other than providing entertainment for people who like reading about train wrecks.

Flavia said...


I'd bet (though I don't know!) that Facebook crowdsourcing would be less horrific than doing so on an anonymous/pseudonymous forum, if only because everyone's writing under his or her own name, to people they know personally. But that's not to say it would be any more productive! I'm always amazed by how little most people asking for advice actually want advice, rather than support for what they already believe to be true, have already done, or already intend to do.

(But I'm not above experiencing some trainwreck fascination at the spectacle, at least sometimes!)

Sisyphus said...

Kinda separate from the privacy issue is the idea of the social media being only positive (or only perfection, even). Most of my friends who are on facebook *only* log in to say something complimentary or outrageously happy or to announce something really special and wonderful that happened to them. I definitely feel weird pressures to a) only express that kind of life b) only HAVE that kind of life, and I wonder what sorts of effects that part of the social media connection has on us.

Flavia said...


Yeah, I hate that, too--though again I think so much is about tone. A skilled user of social media isn't annoying and doesn't come across negatively whether s/he's using the medium primarily to post good news or primarily to express exasperation. Modesty, humor, self-deprecation, etc., go a long way.

Our relationship to the posters also matters. I find I am very rarely annoyed by anything posted by good friends, because I assume the best of intentions and can let the occasional lapse pass as just that. (And of course, all my friends are sensitive to matters of self-presentation--and good writers to boot!) But people I know less well or about whom I already have complicated feelings get judged more harshly (or are more prone to make me feel bad about myself).

Veralinda said...

Yes to much of this--your original post and your interlocutors' responses alike. I'll only add that I think we might all bristle a bit at the notion that we are obliged to be "professional" in our free time; some inner labor activist in me insists that we are only paid to be professional when we are actually performing professional duties. Granted, the line is blurrier for academics than for those in many other professions, since we have no clock to punch. But all the more reason that we need to be protective of our non-professional identities as well as our professional ones. I'm not saying I'm a fan of egregious over-sharing, ranting, or misbehaving (online or anywhere), but I am always disappointed when friends feel uncomfortable allowing themselves to have political opinions, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, bad moods, or anything else vaguely personal on fb. We all deserve to have public personae that are not identical with our working personae, and we should give each other some benefit of the doubt when it comes to "off duty" behavior, lest we strip our blogs and fb posts of everything that makes them worth reading.

That said: let me agree that we ought continue to pay attention to social norms and conventions (online and off). If a certain sort of post is met with resounding silence, that's probably important information; one might think twice before saying a similar thing again. Just like real life.

Flavia said...


I think we're on the same page. I have a capacious definition of "professional" in a social-media context--one which allows and encourages the performance of a more complex personality than we exhibit in the classroom or a department meeting (for example), but that's comparable to how we might be at a social gathering with colleagues we really like (but are still getting to know, or whom we haven't spent much time with one-on-one). That describes most of the academics I'm friends with on Facebook: people I like and don't need to be on perfect behavior with, but before whom I'm not going to let it all hang out, either.

Ideally, one's social-media self, though edited and monitored, is fully continuous with one's real self. Otherwise, what's the point? The promotion of a perfect professional product is ultimately as antisocial a use of social media as perpetual whining and oversharing. Neither kind of poster is really engaging with others: the one because she won't let anyone behind the mask, and the other because she grabs them much too close.

Veralinda said...

Well said! Very much agreed.