The Professional and the Personal

Back in 2008, Martin Weller’s video, A Twitter Love Song, captured the potential of social media to be the ‘sweet spot’, a kind of comfortable marriage of the personal with the professional.

This ‘subjective’ video message of Martin’s really appealed at the time (and still does). This, I think it is fair to warn you, is a similarly subjective post.

If you have never seen the video, give it a watch before you read on:

That was a long time ago and much has come to pass.

When the video was first made Twitter was not anywhere near the mainstream and what seems clear now, reading history backwards, was not as readily apparent to most. I had many conversations with educators, and other professionals at that time, who did not understand enthusiasm for Twitter (or blogging for that matter).

The name itself was trivial and a little silly for sensible, professional people. It was a fad. Many worried that kids and parents would read tweets. I was publicly challenged at professional development sessions and in general chit-chat about why an educator would need such a tool. Usually I tried to show people rather than tell them. “Ask me a question, I’ll see if someone will answer it live during the presentation”. Often this worked and there would always be at least a few enthusiasts who were swept up in the excitement of it all. Anecdotes about Twitter experiences or comparisons with what happened during the rise of the printing press had mixed success, depending on how open the person’s mind was to it all.

It was very satisfying to see the rise and rise of Twitter and one colleague, who I respect enormously, said “I thought you were mad but now know it just took me years to get it”.

For several years Twitter has obviously been de rigueur for all kinds of celebrities, sports stars, public intellectuals, authors, politicians and companies pushing their products. We have seen how public events, like Obama’s election in 2008 or the popular hashtags that emerged during the London Riots, have been shaped by the nature of the medium. Regular people communicate with those who would be normally out of reach and participate using the relevant hashtag. It is no longer anything special but a part of everyday life. The Prime Minister replies to your tweet, a famous comedian retweets your witticism or a connection is made with a person admired for their excellence, it is all part of the experience for many who continue to use Twitter daily. Facebook, it was said, is for the people you used to know and Twitter, for those who you wanted to meet or learn from and with.

What always appealed to me about Twitter was that you could connect with anyone and anyone could connect with you. We now all have many anecdotes about how Twitter was and is useful, fun, professionally rewarding, amazing or inspirational. Occasionally the human beings behind the tweets disgust or annoy us. Either way, Twitter seems to bring us a little closer to each other, albeit, some would say, very superficially. Indeed, this week, I have made useful new connections with educationalist colleagues, discussed professional interests and had someone I do not know sending me the exact link I needed minutes after asking for help.

It has become obvious that the personal and the professional are much-more intermingled than just a few short years ago. We bring our own devices to work, have more flexible hours (or at least do more work wherever we are in this era of constant connectivity) and generally are more relaxed about sharing our lives widely. The banality of a prime minister tweeting about a shaving cut is juxtaposed with another insight into their day, that bypasses the mainstream media, telling us more than a whole news show.

There are many examples of how individuals, in the public eye, use Twitter professionally and personally. Watching Jeremy Fernandez’ twitter handle, @jeznewsdisplayed prominently behind him while he reads the ABC TV News shows, how far we, in a mainstream sense, have come. The personal and the professional clearly merge in a way they did not for previous generations with online communication streams.

Jeremy is a “journalist, producer, broadcaster” and also “Em’s Dad”. He tweets opinions. If you read his stream we get a sense of the person and a relaxed attitude to life. Leigh Sales, anchor of the 7.30 report, also tweets personably as @leighsales.  I am certain that both have had to deal with abusive attacks on social media (or elsewhere in public) but life goes on and they continue be publicly contactable via social media.

The world has changed and it is not just news readers and current affairs hosts who have understood and changed with it. Businesses are receptive to online interactions and identify the individual tweeting for the brand. They try to build trust. They try to be transparent and honest. Those individuals in the public eye who have employees operating their accounts appear inauthentic and untrustworthy. They lack passion and are stumbling away from the zeitgeist.

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Thoughts about the Education Sector

These changes are not obvious in the education sector as they are in most other areas of our society. Sadly enough, there still seems very few leading education in Australia prepared to help shape an educational future for our children by their own example. For some time I have despaired that more principals, senior educationalists and government bureaucrats have not used social media or technology effectively. The education mainstream are just not ‘open’ nor participating in this paradigm in the way needed for our children’s future. They have resisted humanising themselves or sharing their positive agenda for change. They are in silos and seem happy to have it that way. They are risk adverse and careerists.

Careers are still made by operating very traditionally, in closed circles, with antediluvian ideas that are more about command and control and educational management, using dubious, failed ideas from overseas and heritage management software than transparent public leadership. We just don’t hear from them and certainly not anything progressive. There is little experimentation or encouragement of risk-taking. We have a great need for new narratives and those who can tell them, explaining for all of us, shining a torch, being real.

This extends further than just using social media. There is still a lack of understanding, other than lip-service, about how transformative technology can be educationally for students, for all of us. Of course, the politicised nature of the public service does make it difficult, many would argue, for individuals to participate openly, sharing their ideas. Others know the real issue are the ‘mind-forged manacles’ that prevent many from participating actively in our democracy, promoting the civil society espoused in The Melbourne Declaration, due to risk aversion. This must change. Courage is needed if anything is to change.

Although it is a worse than ordinary novel, The Circle by Dave Eggers, does explore, albeit in a simplistic manner, the potential dystopian horror of lives lived publicly. Risk aversion is a real problem in education but I am sure there are other reasons, quite understandable ones, for a lack of participation. What professional, or personal rewards are there for such action?

A love of learning? A desire to improve life for the next generation? A sense of fun and stimulation?

We need more communication, sharing and ideas to bubbling to the surface. One wishes that more positions, at the upper echelons of the public service and in education, were decided by looking at online profiles and publications than prescriptive CVs that have the stench of anachronism.

Sadly enough, this post could have been written any time since Twitter first appeared. What is different now?

Quite simply, the mainstream of life in Australia no longer thinks that social media is, “electronic graffiti” and it is obvious that we are on the brink of even more dramatic social and technological change. It is one aspect of the way our civil society talks with itself. Educators need to become much more comfortable participating in the greater conversations that such tools permit.

There are not enough educationalists, like Martin Weller, who lists his professional interests as “Digital Scholarship, open education and impact of new technologies” operating in our Australian education sector. 

Here’s Martin’s book and recent reflections.

Featured image: creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by mkhmarketing: http://flickr.com/photos/mkhmarketing/8540535352

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