My heartfelt thanks to a few

Apparently I joined Twitter on 25 December 2008. I don’t remember doing it.

It’s fair to say that this time two years ago I was counting down my final days. I’d decided the circumstances under which I would end my life. It’s not that I had nothing to live for. I had a very successful career, a beautiful daughter, and a family who loved me despite my intermittent contact with them.

Nevertheless I’d come to accept that I’d grow old alone and that there was a point in time that I would become a burden on my only child. I didn’t want to be the bitter old woman that my own mother had become. So I decided I would head overseas in my late 50s (I’m currently in my 40s) and if I was still alone at 60 then I would call it a day.

I’m a loner by nature, and only begrudgingly engage with people when I’m not at work. My professional obligation to be an extravert was incredibly draining on both the mind and the soul. I love to be alone, but understand only too well how solitude can turn in upon itself, transforming a positive life force into a destructively negative one.

It’s perhaps ironic that, having sought help and become accustomed to the meds, these past two years of my depression have also been my professional best. I achieved a level of clear thinking and creativity that was fulfilling and productive. Only the very few closest to me saw the flip side of this success, where I withdrew further and further from the world once the working day was over.

It is a mere coincidence that I joined Twitter on Christmas Day two years ago.  I did not really engage with the medium until earlier this year and it was an experience which literally changed my life. But I will get to that in a moment.

My first foray into the online world was a forum for NRL fans. My daughter’s boyfriend at the time played in the lower grades and I’d rediscovered my love of the game. Debate on the forum was robust, particularly for someone like me who questioned the “boys will be boys” and “win at any cost” cultures which pervaded. It was my first experience as the member of a community where you survived entirely on your wits and words.

Then I started an eBay business, mainly to sell the embarrassingly huge amount of clothes I had purchased to bolster my faltering self esteem. What struck me about this online world was the joy of making a small but positive contribution to someone else’s life. I was overwhelmed by messages of thanks from customers whose day had been made by a new dress or fabulous shoes. This outpouring of thanks caused me to question my professional life where I constantly had to be tough and uncompromising and to win, win, win. Without realising it, my secret plan for the final trip to Europe had been replaced by a life affirming plan to remove all the stress factors from my life and to do more of what I love and enjoy – with no end point in sight.

Then came Twitter. Well, I’m not the first to say it was a revelation. I only became involved to see how the medium was being used by my professional adversaries, who I knew were much more linked into new media approaches. It was indeed like falling down the rabbit hole.

Several others have recently written to express their love for Twitter and the communities which have sprung like mushrooms around issues, causes or people. For someone like me who doesn’t even really like to leave the house, I have never before loved meeting so many different people. Unlike real life, I don’t fear walking into the many virtual rooms which make up the Twitterverse and are crowded with people that I don’t know. Nor am I afraid to join a group of unknowns and engage in their conversation.

That’s not to say the discussions aren’t robust, for indeed they are, but more respectful than on the football forum. In fact one of the distinctive features of Twitter for me is that so many people with clearly differing views can congregate and respectfully argue on a daily basis.

That is the first reason why I love Twitter. The second is the seemingly endless reserves of support and goodwill that are exhibited there. Never before have I witnessed so many people reach out to others that they do or do not know, to celebrate in times of success, express solidarity in times of duress and offer solace in times of grief.  Perhaps most importantly for me, I’ve been particularly heartened by the compassionate way that each declaration of depression has been acknowledged.

Since deciding to de-stress my life, having joined Twitter, and having rediscovered the love of writing, I have consequently quit my high-powered job. Right now I’m a Jill of Some Trades until I can get my new business idea up and running. I love going to work each day in a much less stressful environment and making a positive contribution whenever I can. And I love coming home each day to talk with my tweeps.

Which brings me to the reason for this post. At this time of remembrance and of drawing together loved ones, I want to acknowledge and thank a few people who have helped me get to this point:

  • @thewetmale, @comicjester, @zombieham and @garthgodsman for being the first tweeps to talk to me on a regular basis
  • @superopinion for his friendship and being the first to publish me
  • @greenj for being the second to publish me, and for resisting pressure to drop me because of the pseudonym
  • @mfarnsworth for his friendship and fabulous feats of political analysis
  • @awelder, @timdunlop and @benpobjie for showing me that the world of words is fiercely beautiful
  • @cjjosh for her camaraderie, compassion and friendship
  • @juliusflywheel for his wackiness, friendship and for just being there
  • and @mrdoman for bravely sharing his darkest times with us and for never stepping away from the things that daunt him.

I have learned from you all and am in a happier and healthier place for it. Please accept my heartfelt thanks.

This post also appeared on the Capril website. Participants of Capril are encouraged to wear capes during everyday activities to raise awareness and encourage the general public to make donations in support of beyondblue: the national depression initiative.

New ABC social media role an empty gesture

Why has the ABC’s appointment of a Social Media Reporter given me the irrits?

It’s certainly nothing personal against the reporter herself, who’s shown admirable ingenuity, not to mention dexterity, in live-tweeting from doorstops and press conferences and then following up with radio news stories while regularly refreshing the content on her Facebook pages. If the ABC job was to report ON social media as well to USE it, then this journalist certainly would be the right person for the job.

But the role is to report on politics. The award-winning radio journalist will be attached to the ABC’s existing radio news and current affairs team and will be “part of a range of measures designed to explore how social media can be used to enhance and extend the ABC’s coverage of national politics”.

So in fact the ABC has appointed a new Political Reporter who will use radio and social media to file her stories. That’s not quite as sexy, is it?

And perhaps this is the nub: I am irked by the fact that the ABC sees the need to explicitly create a social media role – it is to my mind an empty gesture, a case of affirmative action gone mad.

If the ABC truly did see social media as a legitimate new way to report politics, then they would not have created a specific role for one reporter: they would have simply opened up the platform for all ABC reporters to use.

Autism badly served by “Communication Shutdown”

Am I the only person offended by tomorrow’s “Communication Shutdown”.

The campaign website says the event is a global initiative to “raise much-needed funds for autism groups in over 40 countries. By shutting down social networks for one day on November 1, we hope to encourage a greater understanding of people with autism who find social communication a challenge.”

So, this slick PR campaign encourages people to raise funds and awareness by superficially mimicking the social isolation experienced by those with autism. This tribute-form of autism is to be manifested apparently by swearing off Twitter and Facebook for a day.

Did no-one give this campaign a test-run before launching it globally? Did no-one wonder whether this clumsy attempt at empathy would be perceived as counter-intuitive, patronising and offensive?

Social media is in fact a godsend for childen and adults with autism, as well as their families and friends.

Jean Winegardner’s son Jack has autism and she blogs on Autism Unexpected. I was particularly taken with the blog Jean wrote on social media and autism earlier this year. Jean said:

It’s easy to make fun of social media. How many ways do you need to broadcast what you are doing right this second? For parents of children with autism and people with autism themselves, however, social media can be a lifesaving conduit to a social world that is too difficult to interact with IRL—in real life. For people like us, social media is real life. Having a child with autism can be extremely isolating. Friends who don’t understand what you’re going through or who don’t want to be around a difficult child may fall away. It gets harder to take an unpredictable child into public. It can be hard to plan playdates ahead of time if you don’t know how your child will be feeling at a specific time in the future.

Activities that typical kids enjoy may be too overstimulating for a child on the spectrum. Sometimes even when your child wants to and is capable of participating in the social sphere, the invites just don’t come. Some days it’s just too hard to face the stares and judgments of onlookers, so parents end up staying home.

This is where the beauty of social media lies. When there is no one in your life to turn to in the middle of the day (or the middle of the night), Twitter is there. When you have a question about a treatment and you want to know others’ experiences, blogs are there. When you just need some adult contact to take your mind off of all that is so difficult, Facebook steps up. For people on the spectrum themselves, online communication eliminates the pressure to respond immediately in conversation and lets an individual choose what conversations they want to take part in. Web conversation is also more black and white, reducing the need to understand all the non-verbal parts of communication that can be so difficult for those with autism.

Undoubtedly, the organisations that research autism and provide support to families coping with autism would benefit from greater public awareness and better funding.

But is abstaining from social media the right mechanism to achieve this and does it send the right message?

The Communications Shutdown campaign would appear to be yet another philanthropic gesture badly advised by PR and social media “experts”. I place the Generation One campaign in the same boat.

Tomorrow, let’s raise awareness of autism by reading blogs such as Jean’s and tweeting them to others in our Twitter communities. I truly believe more will be achieved by doing so.

New media prejudice based on fear of the unknown

It’s human nature to dislike, even hate, what we fear and to fear that which is foreign to us. These drivers underpin many of the entrenched prejudices that exist in this world, to humanity’s great shame and dismay. Prejudice and its implications can occur on a grand scale or at the micro level. The most profound cast a shadow over people’s gender, sexuality, colour and religion.

At the micro level it may be the cut of your suit, the ink on your skin or even the way you speak that fans the embers of ignorance into the flames of prejudice. While these biases are nothing compared to the ones mentioned above, they still exist and should be challenged.

Well, at least that’s what we always say about prejudice – that it should be challenged. Perhaps it’s more a matter of deconstructing prejudice through personal experience. Attitudes are very hard to shift, but they can be altered with knowledge gained through first hand experience. There are many (but clearly not enough) examples of people relinquishing their prejudices once the unknown becomes the personally known, either through a friend or relative coming out, or by getting to know someone of a different colour or religion.

It’s the micro level of prejudice that I’ve pondered since attending the Media140 social media conference last month. Quite a number of mainstream media journalists participated in panel discussions and I was struck by the disdainful way several referred to social media platforms. One explained that they didn’t often tweet but monitored the Twitter stream to plunder it for stories. Another said they used Twitter mostly to publicise their own stories. At one point in the discussion, Facebook was summarily dismissed as being the place where you post your holiday snaps to satisfy the extended family.

It occurred to me then that many working journalists just don’t get social media and it may be for this reason that they’ve formed negative attitudes toward it. Apart from the few journalists who actively blog and engage in conversations on Twitter, it seems that many mainstream journalists see social media as a fad, but nevertheless a potential threat in the identification and reporting of news. I’m not suggesting they’re luddites, but that their unwillingness to personally experience these online phenomena has created a negatively biased perception.

I suppose I could challenge this prejudice by saying that the world has changed and people are no longer using the old ways to shop, talk, promote, research, learn, share, celebrate or mourn. I could show how models for business, advocacy and information exchange are constantly mutating in an effort to keep pace. Or even point to the fact that 54% of Fortune 100 companies have a presence on Twitter and 29% are on Facebook.

I could challenge the prejudice by showing that Australians in particular have embraced social media; that 70% of all Australian internet users visit social networking sites, and we also spend more time on these sites than our overseas online colleagues.

I could point to Facebook as another case in point. It’s not just a place for happy snaps but inhabited and regularly used not only by individuals but hundreds of thousands of businesses. Facebook has 500 million members who spend over 500 billion minutes per month on Facebook pages. Over 9 million people on Facebook are Australians, and these are not just kids sharing fart jokes or embarrassing photos; 43.4% of all Australians on Facebook are aged 26 to 44. The communities that exist on Facebook are a marketer’s dream. Any kind of demographic or interest group can be reached cheaply and on a targeted basis using Facebook ads. Facebook is also used by NGOs, advocates, companies and individuals to build communities of support or loyal customer followings that would otherwise be impossible to create or maintain.

Sadly, any challenge would not be enough. There is no way to understand social media platforms “in theory”. Understanding can only be gained through direct experience. Mainstream journalists will never get Twitter until they actively join one of the many communities that exist in the Twitterverse. They can’t just monitor the Twitter stream or broadcast into it but truly engage in conversations as they would with friends at the pub or a dinner party to understand the dynamics and attraction of this medium. Twitter is not just about politics either; its communities are numerous and incredibly diverse. For my part, I participate in Twitter communities that are interested in politics, social media, science fiction on TV and in films, fashion and rugby league.

The reality is that social media is not a fad, it won’t fade away and its influence on the corporate, policy and political worlds will grow even more with time. Mainstream media journalists would know this, and perhaps even accept it, if they engaged fully with social media platforms and joined with the rest of us in exploring their seemingly limitless potential for information, creativity, relationships and dialogue.

This post appeared on ABC’s The Drum – Unleashed

In defence of Tony Burke’s tweets

It’s not that the Member for Watson, Tony Burke, isn’t big enough or tough enough to defend himself.  In fact I suspect he’s more than capable, being a member of the NSW Right.  But after watching the (not so) lighthearted journo jabs at his tweets in my Twitter-stream today, I feel compelled to jump to his defence.

It’s not easy for a politician to hit the right note on Twitter.  Some think its just another megaphone with which to blast criticisms at their opponents.  Others use it to mouth their own party’s meaningless pap and propaganda.

But Burke has got the balance right.  He uses it to make real connections with real people.  How do I know this?  Because I talked to him about it.

I first started to take notice of Burke’s Twitter-style when he began to tweet about his road trips to Canberra each Sunday before a parliamentary sitting.  The old political campaigner in me thought “How clever, to send such an innocuous tweet with such a powerful subliminal message.”  In my mind’s eye I could see those of Burke’s constituents on Twitter nodding with approval that their MP drove himself to Canberra rather than take the easier limosine-plane-limosine option.

When I commended Burke on this cunning strategy he demurred.  He claimed that he tweets his movements for more modest reasons (1) to let his constituents know where he is and what he is doing, (2) to let journalists know when he is on a plane so they know when he is uncontactable and (3) to let his staff, friends and colleagues know when it is a good time to call him.

Whether he does it for political or practical reasons, I think Burke tweets well.

And I’m surprised that the journos making fun of him today (@BernardKeane “I’ve grabbed a coffee on my way to the study) didn’t think to look a little further into Burke’s objectives before making fun of him.

Nirvana revisited

There’s not many things I enjoy more than a passionate discussion.  Maybe a Cherry Ripe straight out of the fridge.  Or the smell of kitten’s paws.  But that’s about it.

Some people have to jump from great heights or hurtle along the road to feel like they’re really living.  My thrill comes from the jousting of thoughts and words.

My passion for debate was kindled at university.  I’d been led to believe at high school that academic success was to replicate what I had been taught.  This edict was turned on its head at university when a philosophy lecturer told me that any answer was right, as long as you could argue it convincingly.

So begun my inquisitive and outspoken approach to most things.

My degree in English literature and psychology led to a career in public relations.  Soon enough, the political world beckoned.

It was my Nirvana to be working and socialising with so many talented wordsmiths, advocates and strategists.  Fourteen hour days were barely a nuisance when they culminated in a philosophical debate with colleagues and opponents in the early hours at a seedy bar.

Those days are long behind me.  It is nearly 20 years since I was a partisan participant in the gladiatorial arena that we politely call politics.  Looking back on those days, I truly believe it is the debates and discussions, rather than the election campaigns and victories that are the addictive element of political life.  We pine for the battle of minds and words with respected friends and adversaries long after we’ve moved on to the “real” world.  Like any addiction, this desire only ever lies dormant.   It can never be excised or cured.

Which leads me to the purpose of this blog.  I realise that it doesn’t actually need a purpose, but for me it is like a secret door to a place I thought I would never visit again.

These days I’m what you might call a “lapsed” political junkie.  There was a time when I would listen to three radio programs and read six newspapers before I was prepared to start planning for the day ahead.   I would read the editorials and the views of the esteemed columnists in each major newspaper before concluding whether yesterday had been a good or a bad day.

Once I ceased to work as a political operative, it occurred to me that I had lapsed back to my high school way of thinking.  I was just replicating what others were thinking and saying.

From that point I decided to use my own knowledge and experience to analyse what was happening in the political world.  These days, I shun all news and current affairs programs.   I skim three newspapers each morning, and receive two electronic media summaries on daily basis.  I don’t read editorials or opinion pieces.

I trust my own judgment and I form my own views.

This is liberating, but mostly pointless because I don’t have any means to put my views to the test.

That is, I didn’t, until I stumbled upon the Twitterverse.    And what an amazing place it is, with whimsy and silliness at one end, sharp edged philosophical debate in the middle, and porn-spam at the other.

I found very quickly that Twitter is like a university pub writ large – a place for high-brow satire, Pythonesque plays on words, hilarious and short-lived situational jokes, love and lewdness.  It is true that prejudice and bigotry make the occasional appearance but they are quickly bounced out the door.  Most of all, the Twitterverse is a place for respectful but lively exchanges of considered thought.

I am besotted with this world and have quickly followed the lead of other Tweeps to the land of Blog to let the thoughts that I’ve had to prune to 140 characters expand and roam free.

I’m not sure what I will write here, or whether it will be interesting enough for others to read.  It will be like putting my views to a rather rowdy bunch at the uni pub on a Friday night – there might be a couple of nods, or I might be denounced or even totally ignored.  Who knows, but I am going to give it a try.