I am not the sort of person who “airs her dirty laundry in public.” I wouldn’t walk into a mixed group of friends, colleagues, and complete strangers at a party and announce something deeply personal, and so it is with Twitter. For me, Twitter is a place to chat, a replacement for the Telnet Talkers I was so fond of in the 1990s. I share things I think are interesting, I keep up with what people I know are doing, but I see it as a public place.
Recently, I had a Twitter conversation with someone who felt that people who don’t post about their bad days are being disingenuous. As if trying to keep things positive meant living a lie. However, I’m not pretending to be something I am not. It’s just that there is a filter through which I assess what is appropriate to share.
Unlike those Telnet Talkers, Twitter has essentially become a place where I do business. My “personal brand” enables me to sell books and to gain writing and speaking gigs. It’s not all work: I post photos of my cat, participate in events such as the annual mocking of the Eurovision Song Contest, and relate what I saw while out running. All of it is content I would be happy for my clients, my mother, or my daughter to see.
I know many other people have the same filter. Our filters may allow a little more or a little less through, but any of us operating professionally online have to leave things unsaid. If we show ourselves as being vulnerable via Twitter or Facebook, tell other people about the battles we face with our own minds, what might that do to our businesses? What if a potential client or employer finds those tweets? Discrimination due to mental health issues is unlawful, in the UK at least, but you can’t legislate against a potential client deciding not to get in touch with a freelancer who once tweeted about their depression.
Despite living our lives in public, developing our filters without really thinking about them, we are still creating real relationships with each other. Via social media we know a lot of the detail of each others’ day-to-day lives—far more detail than we would know of many of the colleagues we work alongside in an office. I count as true friends some people who I rarely get the chance to interact with outside of what is essentially a public place. If we met in person, maybe they would look into my eyes and see the things I don’t speak of. Perhaps I would see the same in theirs.
There is a saying, often used when people are talking about imposter syndrome:
While this quote is aimed at reassuring the person struggling with insecurity, there is also a person behind the highlight reel. Know that just as we are sharing our own highlights, so are our friends and colleagues.
When we spend time with people, we learn their usual demeanor and we have visual clues to help us know that something is up. We can take that friend to one side and offer a safe place where they can share their struggles without worrying it will cross over into professional life.
The relationships we form online are no less “real” than those we’ve formed face to face. Perhaps we are still learning how to help one another and how to ask for help in this space. Are those tweets sounding slightly less positive because someone having a bad day, or is there more to it? Are those uncharacteristically snarky responses coming from someone who is finding life really tough right now? Can we learn to look out for each other, as the lines between the real world and online blur? We can take our friends to one side virtually—drop them an email, offer a phone or Skype call to “catch up,” then offer a listening ear.
For Geek Mental Help Week I want us to remember that where professional lives are entwined with personal on Twitter, we probably are seeing only the public side of a person. We’re all still learning how to care for each other in these new communities we are creating. For every one of our friends bravely sharing their story this week, there will be many more who are not in a place where they can do so right now. Let’s be aware that those battles may be deeply hidden, be kind to each other, and look out for subtle signs that someone might need somewhere less public to ask for support.