Supporting Self-esteem in Twitter Communities
An interesting blog post by Jane Davis on self-esteem got me thinking. Drawing on William James’s assertion that “self-esteem is a function of both our achievements and our aspirations” (Burke & Stets, 2009: 24), Jane proposes that the loose ties of an online community can provide more effective means of supporting self-esteem. I find a lot of the post-Granovetter literature on weak / strong ties tend to focus on social capital. What Jane is discussing here is probably more interesting:
“I consider two Twitter communities to which I contribute (#rheumchat and #phdchat) and also participants in my own research. Both communities share the facility to support the understanding of achievements and aspirations within and across the community and thus provide supportive social structures through ‘patterns of action.’ Such structures do not resolve the immediate dilemma or circumstance of the participant but work to support esteem through the modulation, understanding and recognition of stages of achievement – however small or large.”
I’m not familiar with #rheumchat, but I would suggest the type of Twitter ‘communities’ she mentions here facilitate relatively shallow engagement between participants. This is not being derogatory, but merely recognises the limitations of the socio-technological relationships that such platforms can reasonably support. I suggested in a previous post that the most important aspect of peer support in these types of hashtag communities might be found in the phatic, empathic and socio-affective forms of conversation.
Jane does not indicate in her post how she might be assessing self-esteem in her research, but language is clearly important here. In any Twitter community such as #phdchat, the genre of conversation is reduced to the level of the ‘soundbite,’ requiring that participants employ largely generic academic / professional cultural references, which when discussing achievements and aspirations can be seen as serving an important role in supporting (or potentially damaging) self-esteem.
That said, the relationship between any given individual participants in this type of community / network needs to seen as dynamic – in that the nature of familiarisation and trust can change over time – and potentially multi-contextual – i.e. also existing outside that particular environment. Even within the 140-characters limit of a tweet, these factors can have considerable influence on the type of language employed. Think about how familiar, honest, polite or critical we choose to be when addressing each other on Twitter.
Jane points to the potential vulnerability of relying solely on close ties, suggesting, “such closely aligned supporters may not see the bigger picture.” To me, these ‘closely-aligned supporters’ (which I take to include partners, supervisors, immediate colleagues, ‘critical friends’ etc.) have a more invested relationship with the individual and her/his work. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be sensitive to the needs of supporting self-esteem, but in the routine ‘mechanics’ of their working relationship, these can easily get overlooked.