Creating dialogue online: “do”s and “don’t”s for bloggers and tweeters

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I’ve been thinking lately about what makes for good social media interactions, especially in terms of how people build community and conversation. I’m no social media guru, but I have been a part of online communities since waaaay back in 2000, when Webgrrls was the place for women in tech in the Seattle area to meet — virtually. Back in the day Webgrrls was a free email list that people subscribed to either live or as a daily digest, with messages coming through as a trickle (or sometimes a flood) on a variety of subjects – jobs needed and available, tech tips, resume reviewing, training opportunities, and “NWR” (not work related) where people might ask for roommates or a good place to have a coffee while waiting for an interview at Getty – and people, total strangers, would respond with offers to help. Somehow this list that managed to take people with not much in common and build them into a group of friends – not all of them with all of them, but a lot of little interactions and help and occasionally some face time could build a pool of gratitude and lead to real, face to face friendships. It built a community, and when Webgrrls International decided to make it a for-profit organization – something we saw as shutting out the very women (frequently students or new to their careers) that we wanted to help – we took our community and walked away, creating a new online space (DigitalEve) that reflected our values as a community.

Even in those halcyon days we had problems with things getting nasty online. The community built by a million kind guestures could even more quickly be torn apart by a flame war, as one email (innocent or not) started a cascade of name-calling and finger-pointing. Learning how to cool these fires was a real trick; nearly as important (and easier) was learning how to write in a way that helped cool sparks and pointed out good “netiquette” without being preachy (see the tone section on the DE website).

I learned a lot in those days about community building online, and as there has become this thing called “social media,” I’ve been seeing how the same lessons can be applied here that were back in the stone age of digital communication. I can’t say anything much about Facebook (as I barely use it), but I can speak to tweeting and blogs and community building and community wrecking. I’ll use as my example my new digital community of choice, the online Twitter community of theater bloggers. Twitter is a great way to build an ambient awareness of real people; without seeing them in person, you can keep tabs on how they are and what they’re thinking. It’s a bit like knowing your old neighbor is doing okay because you’ve seen them empty their mailbox, or that your neighbors had a party because they’ve left a huge pile of bottles in the recycle. Some people use Twitter very deliberately for self-promotion (and it is great for sharing things that you’ve written, or silly photos), but where it is excelling for me is in creating, drop by drop, a community that extends beyond people you know in person. I hear manhattnik speak about a great (or terrible) opera he’s seen, but then I hear him asking for someone to go with him, or mourning his cat’s death, and he becomes more than just a few lines of text; he’s a person, with a life, whom I haven’t met but feel like I know.

In other cases, people I’ve only interacted with online are more than willing to take it up in person, either at an organized event (such as the excellent Twespians) or by the willingness of one person to take another person’s offer of “let’s see a show” as an honest invitation and not a set up for stalking. This second is helped by the trust you gain by hearing a person’s daily drops of what-have-you: if you know someone has a job they go to everyday at 7:45 AM, you feel much less worried they’re going to kidnap you. And then, of course, there’s the fun of seeing if people you know online are actually at an event you’re attending; making a face to face connection is actually pretty exciting! It’s even better for me as it means I can have those heated conversations at the interval I might otherwise be missing out on by going to a show alone (and a million thanks to the Ballet Bag ladies for making the Royal Ballet a much less lonely night out).

Building that trust is work, though, and when you’re Tweeting (and blogging) you need to think about what kind of reputation you’re creating for yourself by what you write. Twitter has some special rules: to be interesting, you need to show “personality” but not come off as a psycho – or provide really useful content (a la the New York Times) – without piping through so much crap that people turn you off entirely (for hogging their feed). Unfortunately a lot of semi-corporate theater twitter accounts totally fail to be anything other than PR shills. They tweet reviews and opening nights, but fail to create personality; they ignore responses to their posts and bore their audience. Really obnoxious ones retweet hordes of reviews (or tweets) all at once, succeeding only in becoming irritating and eventually purged.

Excellent accounts, meanwhile, create a personality for their organization and give a taste of what their daily life is like. One of the best of these is Rob Lindsay of the Birmingham Ballet, who not just creates excitement about productions, but makes the whole company seem so much more accessible and real. And Rob does all of this while remaining a good “netizen:” he doesn’t speak ill of people, he doesn’t fan the flames, he credits and promotes others – he builds community. When so many performing organizations are using their Twitter accounts just as another PR mouth, his contribution and style is marked not just as notable but desirable within the online world. Rob uses social media socially.

That’s not to say there aren’t lots of other fun things people and companies can do with Twitter (ie. the Romeo and Juliet “twitter play,” and the fat dollops of weirdness that come out of Betfair), but I’m particularly interested in community building because it is so much what social media can do for good in the world – far more interesting to me than its role as a promotional tool. Blogs are also good at building this community. The “reply all” emails on Webgrrls have been replaced by the more subtle “reply to a person on your friends list” on Twitter and the feeling of listening in to (or being a part of) a conversation it engenders; but this is still limited by the 140 character length of a tweet. Sometimes you’ve got to take it, well, not offline, but to a bigger forum. Doing this in a good way is exemplified by a recent post on the Paine’s Plough blog. A debate flared up on Twitter (as they will) about their touring policy; unsurprisingly, as they’re currently touring a really good show, I was unhappy they weren’t planning a London visit. This caused a lot of discussion that couldn’t really go anywhere or be properly expanded on, but James Grieve took up my suggestion to write about it and created a nice article about why they do what they do and go where they go.

I’d like to explicitly point out how this was an example of good net citizenship. First, he presented all of the twitter conversations directly, allowing people to see what was said and draw their own conclusions. Second, while he linked to my review, he chose to engage the debate at the core of the Twitter posts – why is Paines Plow not touring to London – rather than critiquing my post reviewing their show. Third, his link to my review (where I called them “snobby”) allowed people to read my article on their own and draw their own conclusions about me, not just about my sanity 🙂 but about where I stand as a review and as a person (i.e. I am very cost conscious in my theater going, but am a very dedicated theater fan). Fourth, he completely avoided any sort of “ad hominem” attack – Grieve stuck to my words and to my issues, and did not address who I am as a person. By doing this, he allowed the real issues I raised – about touring to London or to the provinces – to be discussed in an open forum. He furthered the dialogue, and he did it in a way that, to me, helped build community, by making the focus of the discussion about the issue and not about a person.

Andrew Haydon
March 23, 2011
You’ve also unaccountably failed to bring it anywhere near Berlin. You bastards!
But, no, having read the pros and cons, I reckon you’re spot on.
Re: Webcow Girl’s original review. Well, some of it is well meant humour, I’m sure (if demonstrating the same sort of basic lack of self-awareness that makes one hide one’s eyes when reading Liz Jones or India Knight – “it’s funny because I’m selfish!”), while, as you point out, some of it is just plain wrong.
“It turns out this company has a “thing” for not doing shows in London”
Well, apart from all those shows in London PP have done, yes.
“which I found rather ironic (and snobby) considering that much of the play talks about how you just have to live in London if you’re going to have any kind of exciting life”
Which seems to rather miss the irony Bartlett implies when his characters say this.
It’s also a bit like having a go at any production of Three Sisters which doesn’t get to Moscow – “But it’s all about going to Moscow! ”
That said, it strikes me that perhaps the real subject of Bartlett’s play is in fact regional touring itself. “We can’t afford to live in London unless you pay for us!” screams the young theatre company born in the Seventies at the baby-boomer NT and RSC grown-ups. “It’s not the same for us as when you were growing up!”
But, yes, bracing article. Londoners far too used to having everything on a plate. Having once lived in Muswell Hill, I believe most of London can be at least an hour away even if you live in London, so, yeah. Let Mohammed do the occasional bit of leg-work too…

[And here I ran out of energy to keep writing. In short: be nice to each other.]

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