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.

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4 Responses to “Supporting Self-esteem in Twitter Communities”

  1. virginia Yonkers Says:

    I think this issue is more grounded in Social Identity Theory than anthro/socio-linguistic. The question is how attached to the community to you perceive yourself (SIT)? If an individual feels that the community is rejecting her or him (i.e. not able to understand their ideas, different mental models/shared meaning on the same topic, unable to negotiate meaning during interactions), and yet the individual gets his or her identity through that community, then self-esteem will decrease. It may take some time for an individual to assimilate to the point that he or she feels a part of the community, thus attaching his or her personal identity to that community. Once there is a high level of attachment, therefore, acceptance or rejection from the community will have a greater impact on self-esteem.

  2. Andy Coverdale Says:

    Thanks for this Virginia.

    I guess there are a number of approaches to examining this, and your suggestion is probably closer to my own research (I’m no linguist!)

    However. I’ve found Genre Studies useful in examining the different types of academic discourse within and across digital artefacts we associate with social media (tweets, blog posts, forums etc.), taking an approach that looks at academic genres beyond linguistics to incorporate socio-cultural aspects (This resonates with Wenger’s idea of reification and the ‘assemblage’ in Actor-Network Theory).

    With SIT, how do you theorise identity with agency, in particular how individuals ‘play the game’ i.e. engaging the values, norms and cultural conventions of a community without yielding to assimilation?

  3. virginia Yonkers Says:

    Actually, I think this is similar to a question I got in my defense! And it is one of those issues I’m still trying to verbalize. However, one way is to distance the individual from ownership of the task (in this case, community activity) in lieu of the community (see Skitra’s AIM theory as explanation of this). Another aspect is converting implicit knowledge into a form that makes the knowledge valuable to those in power. By aligning the knowledge, values, norms, and cultural conventions required by the community, an individual’s contribution has a better chance of being accepted. Another strategy is to try to change norms, values, and cultural conventions with influential members of the community. In other words, try to align personal beliefs with those who set community norms.

    However, as AIM theorizes (and my research confirms), if the community norms cannot align with closely held values of the individual, the individual will either need to change their own personal values to align closer to the community or leave the community. Both of these actions have a strong impact on the individual. Although my study did not look at this, some of the data I collected suggest that this can impact self-image and self-esteem (either destroying self-esteem or making it even stronger).

  4. Andy Coverdale Says:

    Thanks Virginia, That’s very interesting.

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