Reflections on Writing and Social Media
I’m going to be taking a break from writing for a while. Off and on, I’ve written about social work online since 2008. This has seen me through different jobs, different governments, the rise of Twitter and multiple social media platforms, including watching the ‘social work’ blogging world move on to Facebook, Instagram and YouTube and TikTok. I’ve practised as an ASW and then AMHP, I was an ‘inaugural’ BIA, I’ve worked in different practice settings.
I started my first blog, pre-Twitter and have tried various mediums and different blogs over the years but personally, I’ve never been one for content creation other than the written word. I’ve watched amazing, far better stuff happen in the written spaces, including audio, video and creative use of visuals. It has been a joy to me to see diverse and interesting ways that social work communities have branched out and developed into social media.
I’ve seen my writing, as well, move in different directions, from news-related social work updates to thoughts on new policy developments, to generic rage against management, leadership, and politicians. Sometimes, rational and considered, sometimes filled with anger, and based on my own assumptions and prejudices.
I’ve also brought a fair bit of ‘me’ into a lot of what I have written. Not every day, not every post, but I have written about my experiences as a foster carer, through the death of a parent, a global pandemic and about my experiences as a Jewish woman living in a world in which I will always be an outsider.
There are though, many of us who are outsiders. We are outsiders in diverse ways. I am saying this because I don’t privilege my detachment and experiences of discrimination, separation, and difference, but because they sit alongside many who have varying experiences. I have never experienced homophobia or transphobia, but I hope that my experiences of misogyny, racism and discrimination can serve me in understanding the experiences of other marginalised and diverse groups.
I am writing now, because I have reached a point to reflect on what I have learnt about existing professionally in this strange, ethereal space that has become increasingly a part of my ‘real’ life. It is no longer possible to separate online and offline worlds. I want to draw this chapter to a close by reflecting on my learning, both the positives and negatives, in the hope it will help others negotiating the online/offline aspects of the same worlds.
I’ve learnt a lot of things along the way. Some positive, as I’ve made genuine friends through my social media use and not just that — it has given me amazing opportunities and led me to develop greater confidence in my own voice and as I understood that people chose to ‘listen’ to what I had to say. I’ve grown enormously in confidence, and this has taken my career in directions I genuinely don’t believe it would have gone if I had not taken this path in online communication. I have also made many mistakes and as a part of my professional reflections, I think it might be helpful, not least for me, to consider what learning I might be able to share with others, but also the learning I have for myself.
You may be ‘anonymous’ but you are never really anonymous. I say this often, but never, ever post anything you wouldn’t be happy to say under your own name. When I started, I didn’t really want a ‘profile’. In retrospect, I think I would have been better going in ‘named’ from the start and indeed, that is likely to be my next step. There is a value in anonymity, and I will fight for the right to anonymity in social platforms.
No, it’s not about allowing abuse, that comes equally, if not more from named accounts, it’s about allowing voices that might not otherwise be heard, to be heard. There was a period where I had a relatively high profile job. High profile to the extent that there was perceived power in the position. Being anonymous meant that people I engaged with did not become distracted by the position or the perception of the position I had. Anonymity does not mean a lack of accountability for the comments and discussions you have. I presented as a social worker and needed to ensure that I always maintained professional ethics. Anonymity can be fragile
When I started the blog, and saw I got ‘hits’, it gave me increased confidence. I grew a profile on Twitter and was guilty of believing the hype for a while. I thought what I said had more value because I had people who followed me. I was wrong. My words have no more value than someone who does not have the follower count and it is foolish — I was foolish — to believe that, but it can become a complicated process to untangle oneself from, especially feeling like I was coming from a position of little power.
I was immature in my social media use. I got involved in petty squabbling online when I saw people didn’t see things from the perspective I perceived to be ‘right’. I saw my power as having influence and I know I misused that at times. My advice to anyone is to be careful when your output begins to gain traction. It’s so easy to get carried away and take yourself too seriously. I did it. I am fortunate this is something I learned early in the social media cycle.
People who follow me don’t necessarily agree with me. There is a lot of scope for jealousy within these spaces and the best thing to do with conflicts is to try and walk away, figuratively. There have been some issues, and antisemitism is one, where I won’t back down if the person I am challenging has no lived experience of it and I do, but any other situation, I think it can be more useful, in the longer term to let things be and allow people different perspectives and opinions — I have learnt a lot from people having different perspectives and I think it’s a very valuable social work skill. I’m always baffled by seeing social workers who can’t seem to tolerate difference or conflict in their online persona but then I remember, that was me as well, and it takes time to learn humility.
Learning from Difference
One of the most important things I have learnt, is to be open to listen to people whose views are different to mine because they are not ‘wrong’ and I am not ‘right’. This is particularly pertinent, for me, in terms of people who use services. When I started out, I felt very defensive about criticism of social work and social workers. I was wrong to be defensive. Listening to criticism of social work and social workers has made me better at understanding perspectives I would not otherwise have access to. It is also crucial for me to remember that whatever I write, whether it’s about having a terrible day or about a particularly difficult interaction, this stuff I write isn’t the kitchen in a CMHT office, or a social work team. It’s space that is ‘out there’ in the public.
People who I have seen that day, may read what I am writing about having a challenging day, but even if they don’t (because I have written anonymously), they might have had an awful experience with their social worker and imagine their social worker going back to the office and ranting on social media because they have seen me do it.
I remember one time when I saw a social work student (who was named — or at least, easily recognisable) talking about their difficult interaction with a practice educator. I tweeted them, asking how they knew I wasn’t their practice educator (I wasn’t — but they wouldn’t have had any idea). It is important we always remember who the audience is and can be. Sometimes, the social media audience can seem small, if you interact with the same people, mostly. It’s easy to forget how public you are.
One of the most painful interactions I’ve ever witnessed, still, is a social work student, I saw retweeting vitriolic antisemitic hate. She identified as a social work student and mentioned openly her BASW branch and her university. She’d talked about her work on anti-racism and her excitement about going out on placement. All I saw was racist hate and fear for the community she was going to practice in. I’m sure that she doesn’t perceive herself as a racist. That’s why it’s so important to learn from other perspectives and drop the defensiveness. I have learnt a lot about my own flawed attitudes and assumptions. I have a long, long way before I can consider myself part on the way to understanding what racism and discrimination means from those who experience it in different ways to me but were I not able to listen to different views and experiences, I could never understand my own gaps in knowledge.
Far be it for me to say that I have writing skills, as anyone reading this can testify, but I have gained more experience in being able to write first drafts, at least, without much fear. The habit of writing makes writing come more easily. I don’t really edit enough, as anyone reading this, will no doubt, see, but I like writing. Learning to enjoy writing has been a joy. I think, when I look back at my early posts though, my writing has improved. I have a bit of a better sense about what kind of posts might work and which don’t. It doesn't necessarily change what I publish because I like ‘getting things out there’ but it helps me focus when I do need to write for more formally.
I never took to audio because it overcomplicated the messages I wanted to share. I don’t have the face for video or the time or energy for ‘production values’, but I enjoy writing and publishing. I’ve learnt that over the time, even if it isn’t earth-shattering stuff.
Finally, this is really where the conclusion lies, while it has been fascinating having the experiences and opportunities which I have created by learning about blogging platforms, websites, Twitter and Facebook through a social work lens, there are many more, who are far better, to move this message forward.
I am happy there is a social work ‘online’ community now which can grow and thrive. I am delighted to see the separate resources and communities which have sprung up. Mostly, I am glad that online and offline can’t be separated so easily. As I said earlier, the right to anonymity is one I will defend, and this is different from the right to offend which I feel is not something that anyone who identifies themselves as a social worker should be taking.
I do think, though, there comes a time where one cannot separate what happens in the online space with who we are and what we do in the offline space. Early on, when there were the very first discussions about social media use in social work, I used to say that we didn’t need to learn new ‘skills’ to navigate social media as social workers — that it was an extension of our communication skills and that if we kept the ethical codes, of respect and respectful interactions, confidentiality and anti-discriminatory practice, these would serve us just as well in online spaces. I was wrong. I admit that now. I am happy to be wrong because I hope, it will lead to more learning. There are more potential pitfalls in the online spaces that we need to be aware of.
We have more access to knowledge and learning in these spaces, both traditionally, by sharing information, articles, opportunities but also in understanding experiences of those who use social work services and of multidisciplinary colleagues in different, more impactful ways. I hope to continue to learn. It’s been quite a ride.