Twitter, anonymity, and social networking

It hit me today; I have been using the name “Cas” for 13 years. What started out, longer ago than I care to remember, as an RPG character, has become so much more. In many ways it has become my “real” identity. I’ve talked about identity countless times before, so I’m not going to bore you with the detailed arguments again. (Though there are some gems in there, in particular this one, so do go read!).

However, identity is something I find myself reassessing a lot at the moment, with my current job getting my real name more online traction than I am perhaps totally comfortable with. Not being comfortable with my online presence is a new feeling for me. I have always been honest, occasionally brutally so, online. I share details about my life where other people might choose not to. This is how I live my life and it is how I have chosen to live my life. It is vitally important to me that both the bad and the good are talked about. The chances are, if I’ll talk about it over a cup of tea with friends, I will talk about it here on Bright Meadow. Sometimes I will sit on a topic for a while, but most things do get written about eventually.

I also tweet a lot as BrightMeadow.

Over the years I have developed the “Cas” personna into one I am comfortable with online and, in some contexts, offline. Cas is an adorable ditzy klutz with an abiding love of tea and penguins, who finds the humour in most situations, hides insecurity in a sarcastic wit, and who occasionally talks a little bit of sense about topics which interest her.

You would be forgiven for having the an impression that I am totally open about everything. I am not. I self-censor and editorialise constantly. Even though Bright Meadow and Cas are personal and real, everything I post is filtered through the fact that it is ridiculously easy to work out my real name. There are things I will NEVER talk about online, whatever the channel. Just as there are things I won’t talk about offline to anyone but the very closest people.

Most importantly for the purposes of this discussion, is that I do NOT use the Bright Meadow identity for work in any way. If you talk to me on twitter (or here for that matter), you are talking to Cas, not CLK or the company she works for. If you ask me something work related, I nicely, but firmly, direct you to my work email/twitter. I toyed with merging the two for a while, with being “open” about Bright Meadow, but I decided not to at the moment. There is just no way I could blog and tweet the way I do as Bright Meadow whilst retaining the professional air required for work. Most of the time I actually like the small amount of separation I have maintained – it is good that work and play are distinct.

The boundary between personal and work is blurry, but it is there and I know it. Before I say anything I always gut-check and, if doubt, I won’t publish. Yes, my tone is often frivolous, but it is always carefully considered. On the blog this might be obvious: the Girls & Geeks piece was rewritten 21 times, and languished in draft state for over a week before I pressed publish. This very post has been kicking around in my brain, and various draft states, for nearly two years. (That’s not even the longest – the dyslexia piece took five years). On twitter it is less obvious but trust me, every word and retweet is carefully considered.

I like to think this is partly what makes me so fun to talk to on twitter and has helped keep this blog going as long as it has.

That very longevity and success, however, has led to my current dilemma – the overlapping communities of followers I have. I have been using twitter since pretty much the start and as I have always been involved with publishing to one degree or another, a LOT of the people I follow and talk with are in that field. I am fortunate to work in an industry full of lovely, talkative people, who like to network just as much as I do. Such interlinking networks is a natural result of having work and your personal interests overlap as much as mine do. I’m not sure how to work any other way. The thing is, in the last year or so I have reached the point where the people I have been talking to for years as Cas, I need to connect with as CLK…

As mentioned above, I am firm on the personal/professional divide when it comes to social media. Not to mention it seems sort of skanky to try and trade on that connection – to go up to someone and go “Hi, we’ve been talking for years on Twitter, now I am going to ambush you for work”.

So not my style.

But it’s hard, really hard sometimes, when someone I class as a “friend-of-Cas” completely blanks CLK. More times than I care to admit I want to send them a message and go “but you love me!!!!” There are also times when I’m engaging online as Cas and get looked down on, when I want to whip out the CLK card and go “but you were asking my opinion yesterday!!!!!

Not to mention now every time I meet someone new (if they are in publishing), I have to decide if I want to trust them with the “real” identity behind Bright Meadow.

These aren’t issues unique to me, and I do not claim to have any answers. Nor is it exactly a question unique to social media, because we all have various negotiated identities and interlocking networks of connections, and have done since we first sat down round a fire and gossiped with our fellow cave-dwellers. What social media and our hyper-connected lives do is amplify those networks and give a perception of impermanence to what we say that masks their underlying permanence. A tweet is scrolled into oblivion within minutes, but its shadow remains in a Google cache forever. Where once we went home and could bitch to our family/friends about our coworkers, now we are all following each other on Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and god knows where else and it is all too easy for words to have unintended consequences.

Once upon a time no one would have heard my opinions of that Women’s Hour programme but the colleague who was unlucky enough to phone me just after it aired. Thanks to the miracle of blogging and twitter, it got picked up and read by (among others) people I’d mentioned in the article… Gulp. All to the good, and knowing that was likely to happen did focus my writing REALLY well, but there were also arguments/evidence I couldn’t use because they fell on the wrong side of the Cas/CLK divide.

We are encouraged to open up, and share with everyone, but we often don’t think of the possible implications until they bite us in the bum. In one regard I am fortunate that I started the process of curating my online identity early and I am proud of what I have built. The flip side of that coin is that I have to be hyper-careful about what I say and yes, this has led me to being silent on certain topics and sometimes I have to build from scratch professional connections I already have personally. It is a small price to pay, I guess. I have drawn a line in the sand that (currently) works for me. It isn’t perfect and I can’t imagine that my solution will work for everyone/anyone else, but it is a compromise I can live with.

Side question – at what point does as pseudonym become a nickname?

2 thoughts on “Twitter, anonymity, and social networking

  1. I totally get where you are coming from. My twitter name, gamertag, even email address are for a persona that grew out of keeping personal and professional life separate. I maintain the same distance on Facebook – none of my friends are anything to do with work and I keep LinkedIn to pretty much professionals or friends that reside in the same professional circles and I trust not to ‘let anything slip’.

    With the countless instances of social media ‘venting’ or opinions that ends up in job loss, affecting how peers see the affected, etc then I feel it is more and more important to maintain that separation. Last year I was out with colleagues and tweeted but someone caught my username and before I knew it I was followed by multiple work peeps. Not good. I ended up creating a new account, for work and following those back, then deleted and re-created my old handle. I lost over 10,000 tweets doing that. It was then that I clammed up for safety just in case anyone was watching but not following me on my old handle. I’m still cagey now and spend more time replying to other peoples tweets than announcing my own stuff or moaning about my working day.

    Thankfully very little crossover exists between the gaming, sci-fi, book crowds I engage with personally and my work life. In the situations above where you describe people blanking you or not engaging with one persona but totally chatty with the other must be hard and far more tempting to mesh the two together. All I need do is to think what one stupid comment, share or even another person dumping stuff into my timeline/social feeds and it re-affirms my belief in that by keeping two worlds apart I am being the wiser person.

    Sadly with Google not allowing ‘handles’, many websites implementing social logins as opposed to their own systems and the lack of privacy gained by social sharing (a scary amount of data is shared if you log into a site with your fb profile) then it’s becoming harder to remain covert and off the map, especially if the two identities swim in similar circles. Personally I think your line in the sand is a wise decision, if sometimes painful, but I believe the easier life isn’t worth the risk should something not go down well with the crowd.

  2. I don’t like basing my argument on the fear of what might happen if the two identities merge, but that does underlie a lot of my reasoning at the moment.

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