Thursday, 13 November 2014

Digital footprints, or trying to interact

I made a bold statement on twitter today - I'm planning to spend a week or two really consciously deepening my digital footprint. Perhaps this phrase has common use, perhaps not: I'm using it to mean I want to acknowledge online content that's held some meaning or pleasure for me, whether that's through a simple "like" or "favorite", a share or retweet, or a comment on a blog.

Some of this has come about from a conversation with a friend the other day where I was explaining how I use online material. I always have facebook and twitter open as tabs on my browser, and whenever I get a couple of minutes at the PC I glance through, and open up any links that look vaguely interesting as new tabs. Then one of my boys needs me. Some hours, or days, later, I might have some at-PC reading time, and then I'll cast my eyes over the million open tabs, and read through some of the things I've opened earlier.

I love this way of getting myself lots of great stuff to read, but I fear I've become a passive and lazy consumer, and it bothers me that, particularly when I'm reading people's personal blogs, it's just rude to take, take, take, and never even acknowledge. So, I want to put myself out there, and to engage with anyone who's written something that entertains me or makes me think, instead of nodding silent approval in my head and closing the tab. I love it so much when anyone comments on my blog, even when it's a one-worder - the feeling that you're not talking into completely empty space is so very gratifying.

To help persuade myself, I brainstormed some of the things that stop me from commenting - there are plenty, but none of them are great reasons.

The blog or article writer is too important to care what I think or whether I liked it  - this hits me when I know someone has a mass of followers, or when the piece already has 300 comments. What will it add if I also say "great post!"?
Well, on this one I tell myself that it must be very boosting to have 300 people commenting on your post, but probably even more boosting if the other 500 who read and enjoyed it were to say so too. Also, the vanilla "great post!" comments are quite dull, so the challenge for me is to say what I liked about it, even if it's only a line or two - I've troubled myself to read it, so why not trouble myself to think for just a couple of minutes longer about why exactly I thought it was so great?

I don't have anything to add - the writer already covered it so well  - this applies to some of the more polished blogs that I read regularly. Basically I'm awed by the writer's skill or knowledge or experience or sheer articulacy, and I don't want to sully their page with my adolescent admiration or pretentious attempts to join in. Yes, I know. I think with this one I just need to believe that if someone is putting their content "out there" then they probably are interested in responses to it, even if they're a bit incoherent.

I don't want to look like a stalker - is this just me? When a blogger posts regularly I may well read all of his or her posts, but fear being "that commenter" who always pops up and says something, as if they were unhealthily obsessed with the blogger. This is probably most relevant to the blogs with a smaller readership and few comments- do I look lurky and weird if there's exactly one comment per post, and it's always from me?
Here, I need the courage of my convictions. It shouldn't matter if I'm the only commenter, and I also need to look at my own responses. I've never read a comment on this blog and thought "oh no, her again" - it wouldn't occur to me. When people comment regularly I love it, they become one of the audience that I have in mind when I'm writing, and actually I mourn it when they stop, because I fear they've become bored of me.
If I'm enjoying someone's work, I should be proud to tell them that every time I enjoy a piece of it, and if they're putting so much out there, then it suggests they're happy to get plenty of feedback.

He/she never responds to comments - again, a loaded one for me. We "shouldn't" (no, I don't know where I'm getting this normative statement from) only comment on blogs to get validation in return, so it "shouldn't" matter if the author doesn't acknowledge comments, or only acknowledges the particularly interesting ones (which may well not be mine). It does sting, though, particularly if you've tried hard to add something to the discussion, an intellectual contribution or an honest offering of your own story.
This might be one where I need to monitor what happens. I do think that if I was visiting someone's blog really regularly, always commenting, and never hearing anything in return, I might need to take this as a strong indication that the author isn't that interested in engaging with me. But, I also need to bear in mind that I'm not brilliant at responding to comments myself, even though I'm always thrilled to read them. Perhaps I see them at night on my phone then don't get round to a response when I get to the computer, or perhaps I can't think of anything to add to the conversation, and am not good enough at accepting that a gracious acknowledgement is still much better than silence.

I disagree with what's said in the post - if I find something really offensive, I might not want to engage because I suspect the author isn't someone I want to spend my precious time with. But if it's an interesting debate, and I feel a kinship with the author, then I'd enjoy a bit of constructive disagreement, and would hope he or she would, too.

I found the post uninteresting  - here I let myself off the hook. If it just didn't spark anything for me, and it's someone I've never read anything from before, I think it's fine just to let it go, as you would with a neutral stranger at a bus stop. If, on the other hand, it's someone I know and usually enjoy reading, perhaps I can still engage, by adding to their topic. After all, something had made me click on the link originally, even if it was only an interesting title - by commenting, I might get some conversation that takes us further into that subject.

I'm worried about "mixing causes" - not just in the LLL sense, but more generally. My online persona is somewhat confused - here on the blog I talk quite a lot about books and quite a lot about babies, with the books being all sorts of things; on facebook, my children are the main subject; on twitter there's quite a bit of work stuff. I don't really make the link very explicit - while my identity isn't hidden here, it's also not exactly shouted, and I don't use many photos or names; I don't generally share my posts via facebook (though I think I might with this one - trusting that only the very interested will get through it); I only tend to tweet about book-related posts not the more personal ones. Still, I'm aware that anyone interested can link up the three and it's just a little bit weird for me. If I comment on an accountancy blog using my blogger profile, then people mainly interested in FRS 102 might stumble upon my post about my miscarriage; if someone comes across from the Pinter & Martin book club they might be baffled by the posts on here about other books, and even more baffled by the financial instruments tweets.
I'm not sure why this is a problem, though - I'm not on a quest to accumulate followers (except, in another sense, aren't we all?) and I'm not ashamed of any of the personal experiences I share on here. If someone I was at school with when I was 15 and am now halfheartedly facebook friends with finds me on this blog and reads my outpourings, what's the worst that can happen? She can laugh at me. I'll live.

Writing on a smartphone is a nightmare  - well, this one's true. But it's where I come back to the point that engagement matters, and that casual interaction with any material doesn't do it justice. I need some kind of system for marking things for follow up if I read them on my phone and want to comment, or I need to get quicker at using my phone keyboard, or I need to permit myself sometimes to write only short comments, because this is still better than the "read and run" approach.

I'm too busy writing my own stuff to write about other people's stuff  - meanness! I want to be more generous. I want to say you, "mummy blogger" who thinks you're talking to yourself, you're not, I read that account of your day and I felt every minute of it with you. I want to tell these indefatigable book reviewers that I love what they're doing for me, that they let me feel sometimes that I've read things I've no time for, and they've let me feel clever and inspired. I want the people who write about writing to keep on writing about writing so that sometime I can move from reading about writing to actual writing, and how can they know I want them to do this unless I tell them so, and tell them which bits I loved, and why?

This is what it comes down to. I love the range and depth of what I find to read across the internet, and particularly on blogs, and I want this environment to stay this rich, and to get richer, and I want to be woven into the tapestry, not to be at the sides watching in silence.

Think of it as Kipling, substituting "internet" or the hideous "blogosphere" for "garden":

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing:-" Oh, how beautiful," and sitting in the shade
While better men than we go out and start their working lives
At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives

I'm off out with my dinner-knife, coming to a gravel-path near you.


  1. Ah, what a thoughtful post. I have always been a prolific commenter, because for me, blogging has always been about engagement. So I've had times when I've backed off a bit - your two paragraphs about looking like a stalker, and commenting but getting nothing in return resonated with me. Yes, I've felt both of those from time to time.

    For the last few months, I've had the frustration that my comments seem to disappear into people's spam folders. I've no idea why. I'm mentioned this on my own blog, and with a very few blogs I enjoy, I've emailed them direct. But of course people aren't going to regularly check their spam folders. I suppose I should start a new blog, or something - but perhaps it's not the Blogger ID that's the problem, so that would be annoying, to start a new blog and find the same issue.

    I think it's interesting that you feel you are taking and not giving to the internet. My guess is that most people suffer from the opposite problem - too much posting, tweeting, facebooking about themselves, and not even interest in other people's presence.

    1. ... not *enough* interest in other people's presence.

  2. Actually, this post is perfectly timed, because - for the first time ever - this week I felt as if I did steal something from a blogger. I didn't quite know what to do about it, so I did nothing, but it did niggle at me. It was from you.

    I loved your last post, the one about throwing a pot. I sent the link to a friend of mine who is a potter. She had done a session about throwing a pot in the context of a course I was doing in Christian Ministry, getting us to reflect on all kinds of things, as she moulded that pot on the wheel. I knew she'd like it, so I sent her the link.

    She agreed with me, that it was beautifully written. She said she'd printed it out and was going to share it with her new pottery students (I had no idea she taught pottery, as well as Christian Ministry!). And that was what made me feel a bit bad. It's one thing to send a link to someone about something you know they'd enjoy. It's quite another when that piece of writing is onward-shared with a whole class.

    So I came back to your blog, thinking I should tell you, and hoping that you'd be pleased at how much life that post has taken on, but also feeling a bit stalkery - only to find this next post about how it's good to leave more of a digital footprint. Well, here's a bit more of mine! I agree with you - most bloggers love to know that their writing is enjoyed and appreciated, so I hope you will feel encouraged in your writing, (and not too stalked).

    Personally, I loved that last post because of the reflection of being a mother of a newborn. But I can see that the paragraphs about potting stand on their own.

    1. Oh Iota, you've made my day here, or possibly my week, in lots of different ways. I love it so much that you shared my pottery post, and that your friend who teaches pottery likes it too! I'm not even experienced enough to count as a hobby potter, but I can't think of anything so physically and emotionally satisfying, and my dream future-universe is going to have a little wheel of my own, and a little kiln, and lots of buckets of glaze, and sweet meditative clay-covered bliss. And it would never occur to me that anyone would ever print out one of my posts so that's a truly thrilling compliment.
      And then as for you, Iota yourself, yours is one of the blogs I always read, and always enjoy, and imagine that we'd be friends if we knew each other better, and yet am rubbish at commenting and saying so. I definitely need a new practice for things I read on Feedly, because at the moment I hoard them up and read two or three weeks' worth of Feedly posts at once, in bed, on my phone, while feeding the baby. None of these are at all conducive to engaging properly! In the short term, I might start using the feedly bookmark feature so I know what to go back to, but really I just need to find a way of staying more current and making myself go that step further, from thinking "how well expressed, and what a feeling of resonance that gave me" to putting that into words, and letting the writer know that I heard.
      Thank you so much!

    2. oh, and the thing about the taking/giving balance - I think it's all such a virtuous circle - the more you respond to other people, the more "right" you have to share your own stuff, and the better the warm and fuzzy feeling you get from it. I hate feeling that I'm broadcasting into the void.

  3. i just started following you here and on twitter because of the recommendations of a mutual friend, lisa, and i am glad that i did. just having read this one post, i can understand why she suggested you.

    many of your reasons for not commenting resonate with me. then i remembered that my husband asked how it was that i have gathered such a wide and varied virtual community of interesting, caring people, particularly via twitter. it is because i took a deep breath (lots of deep breaths, actually) and dared to enter the conversation, to jump in to add my voice, to interact despite the reality that i might be rejected. the personal rewards i have reaped are more numerous than i ever expected or dreamed of. i have connected deeply and felt compassion and empathy with people whom i may never have the opportunity to meet in person (but i do hold out hope that i will, someday).

    your post has inspired me to do more in the virtual world what i strive to do with the people physically around me - to listen, to respond, to engage.

    thank you.

    1. Ah, bless you Dawn, thank you!
      It really does take deep breaths to enter into a conversation even online, doesn't it? I feel quite silly about this (and so glad I'm not alone) because really, the worse anyone can do online is ignore you (I suppose they could create a campaign to have you banned, but it's pretty unlikely). I *think* I still carry the fear of having a group of cool girls all turning away and sniggering as I walk towards them, but in practice, online, I find this never happens - everyone is just so open to engagement, and forming these fantastic warm new connections. Like you, I'm amazed by the personal rewards that are there for the taking!
      And I loved Lisa's little list there - friends of friends are such a good way of "meeting" new people.
      Thank you for stopping by, and making the effort to comment. Looking forward to our virtual meetings!

  4. Hi Helen, just saw your Facebook link to this blog - I didn't even know you wrote one - and started reading.....that was this am and now I've read everything you've written I. The last two years! You write beautifully & provide an amazingly honest & accurate account of life with little ones....I shall go back & comment on a couple of posts individually when I get the chance & my 4yr old isn't screaming @11pm...). But thank you for all the words if wisdom so far xx

    1. Grrr Charlotte, I've written a reply to this twice and lost it both times - wasn't very deep, but said thank you so much for your kind words! I felt very odd sharing this on FB because I've always kept my online things quite separate from each other, but it's so lovely to know that you've read and enjoyed it. (It cheered me up when I first read the comment as our day started at 5am - that's when you need kindness coming across the wires).
      Thank you! xx

  5. I think this is a great post and all things I am guilty of too. I loved seeing your comment pop up in my inbox this morning and I'll give you bonus points for not being a generic commenter ;-)

    1. Ohhh that's exactly it, isn't it, the thrill of comments popping up in your inbox. I just love that sense that someone has read your words and nodded, even better when they tell you which bit made them nod!

  6. When I saw you had published a new post I was super-excited and couldn't wait to have a chance to read it when my two were finally asleep. It was well worth the wait :-) I think that maybe the friend you had a chat to the other day gave you a little inspiration for this post... ;-)

    1. yes indeed - you left me thinking and a couple of days later it all came churning out - thank you for the inspiration! I'm looking forward to writing a follow up piece in a couple of weeks about how this has been for me - so far I'm thrilled with the extra engagement that I'm feeling (and getting)

  7. Oh, Helen! This is great. I've been trying to get myself to feel less shy about commenting, too, and to share the blogs I enjoy instead of keeping them to myself. I go through phases where I fall off the Internet, kind of, because of life and mood and my own work and look at how I made your post all about me.

    1. It's the internet, isn't it, we're all sitting on our own in rooms writing things about ourselves! But actually, taking it in turns for a sort of "You show me yours and I'll show you mine" is a pretty good way of conversation through this medium, in my opinion.

  8. I can empathise with a lot of these reasons! Commenting does mean a lot to people though and the reason why I'm here right now is because you commented on my blog the other day and your comment really meant something to me and made me smile - thank you!

    I have a policy of always returning comments and of replying to them on my blog too - some may slip through the net but I just feel more genuine having that as my goal. I think it's rude not to - although if my blog was more popular I might have to re-think just for time reasons! Your point about people not responding is a niggle of mine - when you make the effort to join in a discussion or make an observation and get no response it feels like being ignored! Maybe I'm oversensitive though!

    This is a thought-provoking post and I could quite happily write more if I hadn't promised myself I'd be in bed five minutes ago in order to off-set the ridiculously early hour my youngest choses to wake up every morning!

    1. Thank you Maddy (and I am right with you on the horrible early waking).
      I'm going to write another piece soon on how it's going for me, but I'm loving it. Your post the other day is such a good example of one I would previously have read, enjoyed and then closed, but the interaction is just so much richer and more meaningful when you can take the (very few) minutes that it needs just to add a couple of lines saying hello. And I so like the way it makes new connections.
      Thanks for sharing it on twitter too!

  9. Love this Helen - so many bells ringing for me! Definitely going to follow your lead, or try at least!
    Take care

  10. Thank you, Lucas - it's such a rewarding thing to engage in, though it's probably meaning I'm spending less time reading blogs because it's forcing me to slow down a bit. I suspect that's a good thing, though!