I’ve been around long enough that I remember the first e-mail I ever sent (mistakenly putting the entire message in the subject line because I had no idea how it worked; the person I was trying to reply to kindly called me on the phone and talked me through it). I remember the first time I joined a professional Listserv and how amazing it was to be in conversation with several hundred professionals around the world who were interested in the same things as me. Being at a small institution where you represented a subdiscipline felt pretty lonely. You could read the literature and attend a conference once a year, if you could afford it, but otherwise shoptalk was rare and precious. Having a daily conversation with like-minded folks was wonderful.
A few years ago a younger colleague, someone who is engaged and smart and wonderfully thoughtful about libraries and learning, mentioned that she found Listserv communication weird and unnatural. The idea of sending an email out into a void to be read by hundreds of people you had never met felt deeply uncomfortable to her. Twitter was different. Though her participation there was public, she knew exactly who was following her and had the power to block people or make her account private if she wanted to. It felt more intimate and friendlier - and more under her control.
At that point I had barely dipped my toe into the Twitterstream and found it utterly baffling. It felt like trying to talk to a few friends inside an echoing, empty airplane hangar. It wasn’t that I didn’t know who might be listening; I wasn’t sure if anyone was listening at all, or how to find people who shared my interests. It took a THATCamp unconference for me to understand how Twitter works, and how a shifting network of the followed and the followers can turn into a useful and inspiring community.
My experience on Twitter is more diverse than any of the Listservs I’ve been on, which means I have to do some codeswitching, or at least adapt to the fact that everyone I know on Twitter belongs to more than one community and all have identities that are more than their professional niche. I find this refreshing. One friend knows an awful lot about beer. Another is into the bicycling scene. Some tweet about television shows that I don’t watch, but I don’t mind knowing how they respond to them. One (a university press director) tweets the books he’s reading, which delights me. I get to find out what’s going on at conferences that I would never get to go to. And I learn a lot every day.
Some of the people I follow are scientists, some humanists, others archivists or librarians or journalists. A surprising number are Canadians, which makes me far more up-to-date on Canadian science policy and the latest antics of Toronto’s mayor than I would otherwise be. I also get tweets in Norwegian and German and French, which makes me feel worldly even if I have to look up words to understand them.
As my email inbox has turned into a daily Sisyphian chore, I signed off some lists and I’ve started filtering Listserv traffic into files that I look at when I have time. They are no longer the lifeline they once were. Gradually, I’ve come around to my younger friend’s way of thinking. Tossing a message out into the inboxes of unknown Listserv lurkers now feels a little intimidating. I feel more comfortable exposing my multiple identities, 140 characters at a time, to people who chose to follow me, even if I have no idea where those short messages of mine may end up.
One of the strange things about this shift is that, though I feel more in control of my online identities than I did before, I’m actually at the mercy of the platform and the corporation that owns it. I spent some years participating on a Usenet group that dwindled and never recovered when many ISPs stopped running Usenet servers. I still miss those guys! Twitter could change overnight and what feels like a close community would become a scattered migration of displaced people looking for a new place to settle. It’s intriguing to me how dependent so many of us have become on relationships that live primarily in virtual space and on borrowed time.