Why I Tweet

Last week I spoke about 300 Seconds at #digitalcswomen, a workshop introducing women from the Senior Civil Service to social media. Organised by Sarah Baskerville – best known as tweeting civil servant Baskers – it opened with an introduction from Emer Coleman on the many benefits social media has bought her in her career. Chief amongst these was the ability to build a network which you can then use to find answers, and to learn from.

Twitter, and social media in general, remarked Emer, exists because of sharing – people sharing their thoughts and ideas, but also sharing their knowledge. Adding contributions to the debate, but more importantly by passing on tidbits they’ve found along the way that may be of value to others.

Later in the event, we broke up into small groups to talk about getting started on social. Someone asked me why I tweet. I replied that it’s because I find the network I have built on Twitter really valuable to me, but the question’s gone round my head all week since. I’ve been on Twitter around six years (under my current persona for five), and have sent over 25,000 tweets in that time. But I’ve never really sat back and reflected on why I’ve done that.

Book cover

Back home, I flicked through my old copy of George Orwell’s essay on his journey to becoming a writer, Why I Write.

Like Orwell, at an early age I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. Unlike Orwell, I soon disbursed myself of this notion when I realised I’m not a particularly good writer. (As it happens, I married one and live the life of a journalist vicariously through him instead.)

Orwell listed four great motives for writing – which, to my mind, could equally apply to tweeting. All of us who tweet are motivated by a balance of these four drivers, together with the desire to share that comes with media being social.

Sheer egotism

Orwell argues that a writer writes from a “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups in childhood, etc.”

Social media has opened up the prospect of being talked about  to anyone. Like most social media users, I am narcissistically self-aware of my online presence, carefully curating my tweets to show my ‘best self’ – me at my most interesting, clever and attractive (and not, as I am as I write this, nursing a mild hangover, still wearing some mis-matched pyjamas at lunchtime).

Aesthetic enthusiasm

“Perception of beauty in the external world,” as Orwell put it, adding that the writer takes pleasure in good prose itself. It’s true that I get a kick out of creating the perfect 140-character bon mot, generating a handful of retweets and emoji-heavy replies. But Twitter enables me to capture and share the ordinary, everyday beauty of the world around me. A rainbow after a storm. The sunset over the Thames on a summer’s evening. Faces in places.

Social media awakens the aesthete in us all, allowing us to capture and share beauty where we see it.

Historial impulse

The “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

This is probably my most regular motive for tweeting. The recording of things as they happen. By sharing them with others, we create a record for ourselves, too, and at the same time create a dialogue around what we share, reinforcing, challenging and shaping our worldview as we go.

Political purpose

Writers write out of a “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after”. No book, notes Orwell, is genuinely free from political bias. Every tweet, I’d suggest, is political too. Every comment, every link we share, is a contribution to public discourse – an attempt to bring people round to our way of thinking.

In that respect, no tweet is an island. One tweet won’t change the world, but taken en masse, the volume and sentiment of what’s said and shared on our networks shapes public debate. This can be seen right now with the parallel social media war taking place alongside the conflict in Gaza. Both sides have their official propaganda, but social media allow us to see deeply inside the war zone, and the steady drip-drip of stories and images has led to a notable shift in public opinion. Stories become more real when shared in real-time by people we know and trust.

Israel/Palestine is a topic on which strong opinions are held – for many, views shaped by their own family and friends’ experiences of oppression, racism and diaspora.The writer’s subject matter, noted Orwell “will be determined by the age he lives in, but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape”.

Our tweets are shaped by our pre-existing opinions and beliefs, however much we might believe we are impartial. So, too,  are our networks – we each build filter bubbles around ourselves, which can mean social media reflects our own views back at us rather than opening us up to a wider spectrum of views.

For Orwell, the Spanish Civil War marked a turning point, from which he wrote in support of democratic socialism and against totalitarianism. “The more one is conscious of one’s political bias”, he added, “the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity”.

Tweeting is political with a small p. So it’s important we recognise the limitations of our own bias, and that of our networks, and actively look beyond them so we can see the world as it really is.

Reciprocal generosity

However, when Orwell wrote (and when he wrote Why I Write), writing and journalism were one-way processes, with prose crafted by writers and read by the masses. As a truly networked medium, social creates a fifth significant motivation for writing; the culture of sharing itself. I tweet because I want to share my knowledge, and in turn have others share theirs with me.

Building a network requires us to be generous with our knowledge – sharing our own ideas, but more importantly sharing links to things that we find interesting, in the expectations that others might find them of value too. In doing so, you position yourself as a valuable source of information on the areas you care about (in my case, intranets, digital comms, and the current status of the train service into Waterloo).

Once you’ve built a network of people you trust, you can draw on it. Social media is my go-to for answers on everything from digital best practice to how to upholster a chair.

Knowledge is power, and knowledge is more powerful when shared.

Concluding, Orwell said that “all writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery”. He has a point. I tweet because it makes me look good. I tweet because I’m selfish; I’m a voracious collector of half-remembered knowledge, and by sharing what I have, I gain more than I give away. And I am lazy; why find the answer when the hive-mind can tell you in an instant?

I tweet because I’m a selfish, vain and lazy person who wants to change the world. And so are you.

10 thoughts on “Why I Tweet

  1. Pingback: Why I Tweet – Sharon O’Dea | Public Sector Blogs

  2. Love this, Sharon, it’s really useful.

    One of the things I grapple with on a daily basis is how you get people to come out of their shells. I find a lot of people (and in my experience moreso in the public sector) are frightened of social media because it puts them “out there” in public. For some of us who have been doing it quite a long time, it might have sort of crept up on us. I know that when I started using social media it felt like talking to quite a small club. Now, when people look at social media there is a big backlog of negative mainstream media stories about the mistakes people have made in public. This can be daunting, especially if you are not the kind of person who likes living their life in public. There are no easy answers to this, but it is something that needs to be taken into account.

    • Thanks John. I agree, it can be daunting, and that’s why it was so nice to see this event, in particular, taking place – it was only three or four years ago that senior people within organisations rarely saw the point of social at all. That they’re now actively asking for guidance on getting started – in full awareness of the risks as well as the benefits – shows how far we’ve come in a short time.

  3. Reblogged this on Anke's and commented:
    ‘Concluding, Orwell said that “all writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery”. He has a point. I tweet because it makes me look good. I tweet because I’m selfish; I’m a voracious collector of half-remembered knowledge, and by sharing what I have, I gain more than I give away. And I am lazy; why find the answer when the hive-mind can tell you in an instant?’

  4. “I’m not a particularly good writer.” S O’Dea . Yeah, right.

    Really very insightful and engaging.

    Thanks.

  5. Wish I could take the credit for organising #DigitalCSWomen, but that has to go to @claremoriarty my old DG at DfT. I just helped out where I could in sorting wayward IT and getting a couple of other speakers (yourself and @Lily_Dart) to come along!

    I think the event went well, what was important and encouraging to me is that we helped to de-mystify Twitter and hopefully help some female Senior Civil Servants onto Social Media. It’s baby steps really. Bit by bit, the old way of working/networking is becoming more and more obsolete and unrecognisable to the generations who will replace us – the economy, how we work, function, communicate, implement and concieve Government Policy are all changing through Digital (not as fast as I would like, but then again I’ve always been impatient!).

    If we are to stay relevant and continue to add value, then we need to adapt to the Digital world around us, otherwise we risk becoming obsolete and no longer fit for purpose.

    The #DigitalCSWomen session was hopefully a safe window into this digital world for those of us who don’t really do Digital and Social Media. Shedding some light onto the potential of networking and linking up with likeminded souls.

    • Well said, Sarah. The same principle is true in almost all industries and organisations – the way we work is changing, and fast, and there’s a need to adapt for senior leaders to that or risk being left behind. What’s encouraging is how rapidly that change is now happening. In banking, where I work, there’s a real recognition that digital is changing everything from the back office to the boardroom, and we have to work with that or risk losing competitive advantage.

      It’s brilliant to see how much senior leaders attitudes to and enthusiasm for social and new ways of working have changed in the four years since Baskers-gate – people turned from critics to proper advocates.

  6. Pingback: How civil servants learn to stop worrying and love Twitter | Open Policy Making

  7. Pingback: On finding solace in sharing | Sharon O'Dea

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