I wanted to follow up on and extend a recent tweet:
At what point does online sharing become performance? Is it always performance from the start, or does it morph as people start to watch?
11:21 PM Feb 21st from web
I was thinking about the fact that I’m flying out to Drupal4Lib unconference/camp at the Darien Public Library in Connecticut today, and each time I go to a conference where lots of ideas are flying around me, I try to capture the ones that really resonate with me on Twitter. I also use Twitter to respond to speakers when I can’t interrupt them. I use it particularly when I think my opinions will be unpopular or not particularly well accepted. Now that there are a few more people following me on twitter, many of whom I respect a great deal, I’m a bit hesitant to tweet as freely as I want to. As often as I want to. And that hesitation bothers me.
Sure, perhaps I need a little hesitation before I go publishing my ideas and responses and thoughts to the world, right? But I don’t like it. I like sharing, but I’m ambivalent about the general concept of an audience.
I guess deep down I don’t think about online sharing as sharing with an audience until I’m sharing with X number of people. That number isn’t something I’m aware of, I just sense that there is a tipping point in there somewhere.
I have permanent status now (i.e., tenure) , so I’m happier to share this fact: back during the process of dropping out of a phd program in history, I got deeply involved in a fandom community. I wrote a lot. I wrote somewhere around 400K words of fanfiction in the space of about 9 months. It was escapist, particularly to a world where the characters were all generated by someone else, and thus has nothing to do with the devastating and identity-altering reality of my existence. It was nice to inhabit a space where I didn’t exist. Call it a coping mechanism, but I learned more about social networks and technology in aid of collaboration and creativity in that space than I did anywhere else. I have a deep affection for fandom communities and I still try to follow their meanderings. One of the things I learned as part of a fandom community was the power of an audience.
When I started writing in fandom, I did so in total obscurity. I threw myself into writing, something I hadn’t done in years and I really enjoyed. It was like coming out of the darkness into the sunshine. It was incredibly therapeutic. I had been through some difficult times; a terrible break-up, heartbreak, depression, hatred of my program, loneliness, loss of identity. A lot of old feelings resurfaced. Writing was excellent therapy. I had a blog in my own name at the time, but I started a new one with my fandom identity on Livejournal, which was (and still is) the place where fandom congregated. I loved my livejournal. I loved talking about writing process, about ideas, scenes, character motivations; I loved writing about writing. It was profoundly internal, profoundly navel-gazing, and so much fun. I needed to be inside and outside at the same time; I needed to sort out so much but I didn’t want to face in myself. I can’t express how useful this process was; not just writing the fanfiction, but processing the whys and hows and sharing ideas. I had no idea how much of myself I was processing with it. (Easier to see in hindsight.)
My lengthy and frequent blog musings were okay at first. Not at all abnormal in a fandom community. But then I started to attract an audience. I was writing slash (gay romance) fiction revolving around a very popular pairing of characters, so there was a wide audience of readers for what I was so feverishly producing. Fanfiction writers tend to attract an audience, and they generally want to. It’s great to get feedback on what you’re writing. And that feedback is instantaneous. When I finished and posted a story, I would have responses to it within 10 minutes, and 60 or 70 responses within a half hour. (This is not a record: people writing more mainstream fanfiction with heterosexual pairings got far, far more responses than I would.) Many people in fandom have no interest in writing, but write to be a part of the community. Sharing writing is, I would argue, a form of gift exchange. Those of us who wrote a lot were presumably owed a lot in return; the return is feedback, recommendations, reviews, and attention in general. For people like me, noses stuck firmly in their own navels and there just for the sheer therapy/fun of it, this economy completely evaded my notice. I was getting more and more attention for my writing, albeit only from a segment of the fandom itself. I wasn’t at the top of the food chain when it comes to attention-getters, but the attention I received was certainly nothing to sneeze at. By this I mean a registered audience of a few thousand, and an unregistered audience of many more thousands. Not the millions people get with a viral youtube video in 2009, but a few thousand (8 or 9) is quite a bit for any normal individual, particularly back in 2001.
With a fairly large audience, the nature of my livejournal changed. While I still wanted to talk about process and ideas and all this internality that brought me to the community in the first place, somehow it wasn’t okay to do so anymore. With the podium I had, it was understood as incredibly selfish of me to only talk about myself and my own ideas. Suddenly it became important for me to talk about other people’s work at least as often as my own (ideally more often). Now that I think of it, maybe I’ve got this gift economy thing all backwards; what if the economy has nothing to do with the writing and everything to do with the attention? Increasingly I felt pressure to give back; more comments, more reviews, more shout-outs and recommendations; my livejounal couldn’t be my private writing space anymore. It now had to be more outward-looking. I had to give back to my audience, I had to give them the attention they were giving me. I didn’t have the space to just have fun with it anymore. Fun had to benefit others now, I had already got my share. Others, who didn’t have the attention I had, could do what I used to do, writing down their thoughts and sharing ideas with their friends. It was silencing and sad.
A friend of mine had many times the amount of attention that I got, and I saw how it crippled her public posting. Her livejournal had gone from, like mine, being a place to natter on about what she was thinking about and turned more into a means through which to inform her audience of something (updates, teasers for her next chapter, etc.), to discuss other people’s work, the larger themes of the community, and to weigh in on the “right” side of any debate. It became public property.
Perhaps fandom is a unique entity when it comes to relationships with online audiences, but I don’t think it is. This is why I objected to ranking librarian blogs when Walt proposed it. My reaction is over-heated, but this is where I’m coming from. I’m not a high-profile librarian blogger, and I’m planning to keep it that way. I like to be able to muse about whatever I feel like musing about, be that Second Life, or cancer, or the book I’m currently reading, or random conversations with my friends. I want to be able to use twitter in the way that fits best with my personality, too.
So in response to my own question posted above: I think there is a difference between sharing online and having an audience. Sharing online is fun and productive; I love using twitter to record my reactions to things and my epiphanies, because I like to share them with friends and family, and I like to get feedback from people with similiar or radically different opinions. I like their perspectives to shape my epiphanies as they’re being formed. I find that brings my thinking to a higher level. But somehow there’s a line in the sand there, and I’m not sure where it is, between sharing with a group and having an audience. I find the audience gratifying, but oppressive after a certain point. I don’t have the wherewithall to rise above the expectations of a full, demanding audience. Good thing I can twitter and blog in gentle near-obscurity. That’s just how I like it.
Edited to add: Hmmm. This is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about.