Wednesday 11 May 2011

My online life

The observant among you will have noticed a change in the appearance of this blog. I don’t just mean the new template, the latest bid in my continuing effort to find a Blogger design that doesn’t offend the senses. Some regular readers have urged me to transfer to the better-looking Wordpress: but (i) I already have four Wordpress blogs (two of them pseudonymous, but we’ll come back to that) and finding yet another email address would be tedious, (ii) Wordpress doesn’t let you embed videos, and (iii) I worry that archiving all my old Blogger posts risks losing them, or at least making them less visible.

No, the more significant change I’m referring to is the appearance of my full name at the top of the page. After four years of sheltering behind the relative anonymity of my first name, I’ve decided it’s time to come out from the shadows (the margins?) and own up to my true identity. Why, you may ask? The answer has a lot to do with the changing nature of my online life, which may also explain why I haven’t posted very much here recently.

It’s almost a year since I discovered Twitter, in the aftermath of the general election. With journalists live-blogging the results and then the minute-by-minute progress of the coalition talks, and with activists weighing in with comments, I could finally see a point to micro-blogging. And as my Twittering increased, so my blogging rate tended to decrease. Twitter offered a ready-made audience, far larger than the readership of my blog, plus the opportunity to react immediately to current events, and to get a more or less instant reaction from others. I retained my anonymity, or rather my pseudonymity, on Twitter, as (like others) I saw the site primarily as a feed for my blog and a way of expanding the readership for my more considered (if less frequent) reflections on important issues.

But that was before I joined Facebook. As with Twitter, it look me a while before I saw the point, and I'd dismissed Mr Zuckerberg’s social network as a useful medium for my teenage offspring to chat with their friends, but of no obvious relevance to those of us past the first flush of youth. And as initially with Twitter, to begin with I couldn’t find anyone I knew who was using it. Then my brother converted me. He’s a freelance artist and explained how he uses Facebook pro-actively to create a network of possible clients, publishers, reviewers, etc. Basically, you don’t wait for people you already know to ‘friend’ you: you get out there and boldly send requests to people you would like to converse with. So I jumped in, and soon began to build a network composed of a diverse combination of ‘real’ friends, colleagues, relatives and fellow bloggers, as well as writers and commentators whom I admired.

Soon, I found myself involved in the same kind of debates about politics, religion, books and so on that I’d been having on Twitter. Only now, I was talking to a more clearly defined and visible group of mostly like-minded people (with the odd sprinkling of contrarians: but you can always 'de-friend' them if they get too annoying), and crucially I had more space to ruminate than on Twitter, particularly in the follow-up comments. And I could post and comment on links to news stories, articles, videos, etc. (Actually, the 'new' Twitter has now made it easier to do that.) The inevitable happened: as my Facebook presence increased, so my Twittering decreased, and at times my blogging fizzled out altogether. After all, there are only so many hours in the day, and it's so much easier and quicker to share a link or a thought on your Facebook 'wall' than to go to the trouble of constructing a blog post around it. And the reaction can be almost immediate, which is both gratifying and a stimulant to further posting. It's quite something to put up a link, or a brief opinion, and within minutes receive comments from (say) a cousin in Essex, a colleague in Scotland, a fellow blogger in America and a Facebook friend-of-a-friend in Australia. Not to mention the odd sprinkling of well-known journalists and politicians.

One of the interesting things about joining Facebook, and to some extent Twitter, during this period has been to watch the way their usage has been changing, and how people use these social networks for different purposes. My sense is that, even in the few months I've been on Facebook, there has been an exponential growth in its use, particularly by members of commentariat. Increasingly, many journalists and campaigners see it as the place to launch debates, and as a crucial shop window or point of access for their work. 

Which brings me back to the question of anonymity, or pseudonymity. As soon as I joined Facebook, I knew it would have to be in my own name. Facebook prompts you to lists your schools, workplaces, opinions and interests - and to link to your other websites. At first, I was tempted to omit all mention of 'Martin In The Margins' - but eventually I caved in. After all, some of my Facebook friends already knew me via this blog, and it seemed daft not to extent this dubious privilege to everyone. What's more, one of my (admittedly immodest) designs in joining Facebook was to advertise my blog more widely. Didn't I want my new 'friends' to know this blog was written by me? 

There's a more serious point here, too, one that I've often discussed with bloggers of similar political opinions, who (like me) adopted a pseudonym partly because they feared that declaring those opinions openly would have a negative impact in the milieu where they worked. To put it bluntly, it's not easy to be an anti-totalitarian liberal-interventionist, who entertains favourable views of the US and Israel, in an academy still largely in thrall to anti-imperialism, anti-westernism and post-modern relativism. But I've come to the conclusion (more through weariness than bravery) that the times demand that those of us who feel strongly about such things should put our heads above the parapet rather more, and be more confident about sometimes winning the argument and turning the tide of opinion.

So, the final link in the process of reconciling my online identities has been to insert my full name above. And to add links to the other sites I maintain under my real name (I keep a family history blog and a work-related blog for posts about my research and teaching). Of course, I still have the two pseudonymous blogs that I mentioned earlier. One is a place where I post more personal thoughts about my continuing spiritual and philosophical journey, and the other is a local blog that I wouldn't want the neighbours to know about, for various reasons. I suppose I ought to offer some sort of prize to the first person to identify them, and link them back to me.

One more thing. On Facebook, some time ago, someone posted a link to an article - which I foolishly forgot to bookmark - to the effect that blogging was now dead, and that among the younger generation at least, it's been more or less edged out by micro-blogging and social networking. So is the drift in my own online practice symptomatic of a wider trend? Has the moment of the blog passed? Discuss.

Actually, I don't think so, and I think my own dire record of posting in recent months has been down to more personal reasons: general busyness, and stuff going on elsewhere in my life. There's one more thing. I notice that one of my newer Facebook friends, a fellow-Eustonite, describes her political opinions as 'under review'. I sympathise. I've been going through a phase recently when not only my political views, but some of my most deeply-held philosophical assumptions, have been shifting back and forth. In such circumstances, I find articulating a clear and forceful opinion in writing - even of the modest length of a blog post - onerous. 

I hoping I'm coming out of that uncertain phase a bit now. There's certainly a whole lot of stuff I'm keen to post about, so perhaps the inner fire's returning. Watch this space.


Eve Garrard said...

I'm very glad to hear you're going to be blogging a bit more, Martin - those of us who don't really do Facebook or Twitter have missed seeing your thoughts articulated at blog-post length. It would be specially good to hear more about the philosophical travels you've been engaged in.

Martin said...

That's very kind of you, Eve - and good to hear from you. I'll try to oblige, though I feel a little daunted writing about my philosophical travels (and travails) when I know there are professional philosophers watching!

TNC said...

I think Wordpress does allow the embedding of videos. At least that was the case when I was keeping up w/ my blog. In that vein, I may be starting up again soon. Not at TNC but a new blog.

Martin said...

I'll take another look at Wordpress. Glad to hear you're returning to blogging: I've certainly missed your posts. Hope all's well.