Managing online spaces for yourself

I’ve heard or been around several conversations recently about people thinking about their interactions with the Internet, and what it meant for them.

Skills and tools : Glasses and pen resting on sheets of printed music

Let me start by saying that I am one of those people whose friends are in the computer. Oh, I’ve met a fair number of them, the ones I’m closer to, by now (or we met somewhere in person, and continued the conversation online).

But as someone with chronic health issues that include fatigue and stamina issues, if I didn’t have the Internet, my social interactions would be down to people I see at work (and with one exception, there’s a whole set of things I don’t talk about with people there: my religious life, my health, my writing project – most things that matter to me outside of work.)

I’d see one of my college friends and her husband and family once a month (they live a mile from me: we have a monthly dinner scheduled so we actually see each other.) I’d see the other local college friend and her family maybe every six weeks, depending. And that’d be about it, maybe once or twice a year travelling to see other people.

That’s not a great life. It’s certainly not the one I want to be living.

Because of the Internet, I chat with both of them (and a bunch of other people) pretty much every day on a private MUCK 1. I post on forums, and dabble in Twitter, and I’ve been learning more about Discord. I poke my head in at Facebook for a couple of closed groups relating to my interests. (This is the one I’d gladly give up if I could access them some other way.) I find interesting links and things to read (and sometimes comment on) on MetaFilter. I have an account on Dreamwidth where a lot of my personal day to day notekeeping goes, and I run my own blogs (this one and others.) I read a few Tumblrs. There’s a weird little librarian microblogging site I hang out on. You get the idea.

I learned about all but one major news event on the internet since at least 2001.

(The one exception was the 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis in the summer of 2007. I was sitting at a computer in my grad school library computer lab – I’d moved a few weeks ago and didn’t have internet at home yet. Someone came in with the news right before it turned up online.)

And once I learn about a thing, there’s a host of sources for me to get more information or perspective or meaningful connection, if I put my mind to it.

Some of those places work better for me than others, of course, but they all make a difference in my life.

I also use the Internet to make me much better at my job, much better as a priestess and witch, much better as a writer and communicator of things in my head. I read widely, I use tools on the internet to help me find high quality pieces I wouldn’t come across any other way. (Oh, my parents got some of the same things out of reading three Sunday newspapers plus the weekday ones, but that also has some complications…)

I have a couple of theories about why people struggle with online spaces, based on way too many years using them (I effectively started in 1994, when I got to college. That was the year after the Endless September when it was still exciting that your web page background was something other than pale gray.)

But I also have some tools that help me make the experience more of what I want, and less of what big social media companies think I should want (or trolls, or any other group or individual that thinks they know what I want more than I do.)

1) Aim for the spaces that give you the most control.

There’s a reason I do a lot of my actual talking about things on Dreamwidth, where there are public posts, but also locked ones, so that you don’t have to worry about the Internet descending on your head without warning. Where you can talk to people who have context about your life and choices, or you can link to other posts that do if you want or need.

The sites that want to control what you see, arrange it, those get a lot harder to manage. It’s harder for you to pace yourself with content you’re less able to deal with.

If the conversation is public (or even friends-of-friends permissions), you never know when you’re going to get suddenly tangled in a conversation that got really weird in no time flat. Or worse, if you’re going to hit something horribly hurtful, destructive, or worse.

(And basically any site that relies on an algorithm for display, there are tons of things you’re not seeing that you have no idea you’re missing. I hate that part.)

So I spend the majority of my time and energy in sites where I have control (Dreamwidth), or sites where there’s thoughtful and consistent (and fairly transparent) moderation (Metafilter, the Pagan forum I’m staff on)

In the other places, I do things to help me control the firehose. I use Facebook almost exclusively for the groups. I have them pinned, I go read the things once or twice a day, and I go away. Most of the time I don’t even look at my main feed. (Fortunately, most of my close friends use Facebook solely to post adorable pictures of their children for grandparents or similar things, and our actual content-heavy conversation happens elsewhere.)

I use Tweetdeck and Twitter lists to manage what I’m reading. In Tweetdeck, I have a column each for a couple of close friends who are more active on Twitter than anywhere else, then ones for the people I read most often, librarians, writing, my elected politicans (it’s a handy way to get at all of their statements on things). Oh, and my allergist, who announces office closings there. Again, I check in once or twice a day, comment, share things occasionally.

And I read the handful of Tumblr accounts I really want to follow not through my dashboard, but by reading them in my RSS reader.

2) Decide what you want to get out of a given space.

Oh, you can change your mind, later. And it often takes a bit to figure out how using a given space works best for you. (Some spaces, by design, encourage longer or deeper conversations. Others cater to short quips and make it easier for trolling, nastiness, or misunderstandings to happen. Not just by how they handle abuse and harassment, but just in the kind of discussions they favour and discourage.)

When I’ve talked to people who want to change their social media lives, I ask what they’re looking for. To connect with friends? Figure out where that’s going to happen, and then figure out how to make the space work for you. Maybe that’s Facebook with some lists you set up with close attention to who can see what. Maybe that’s a private Twitter account. Maybe that’s deciding to swap emails regularly with one friend to keep in touch because your habits don’t overlap.

Maybe it’s finding topic-focused discussion spaces. Forums are less familiar to many people than they used to be, but they’re still there. More people are exploring using social media as a way to point at blogs and other spaces they control again, rather than having everything be on social media sites. Maybe it’s using a specific tool but in a really limited way, for a particular purpose.

I learned a long time ago that people will use a given technology in vastly different ways – and much of the time, that’s fine. Do the thing you need, not the thing the site tells you you need.

(The one downside is that if the site doesn’t care about your use, you may find relevant features dropped or changed, sometimes without much notice.)

3) Look for spaces that are well managed and give you tools.

If you’re on a site without active moderation, learn the tools the site gives you to mute, block, ban, or otherwise remove people from your bits of the space. Don’t feel bad about using those tools on accounts that are not interacting in good faith with you. That can be spam, or it can be those people who think linking to a 45 minute video to make their point is (I ranted a bit about this in a post from last year).

If a site doesn’t let you have reasonable control over your own experience, reconsider whether you want to be there.

If the site does have reasonably active moderation, like many forums or Discord channels do, take time to read the rules. (They may not remove problem comments or users immediately, but have a process to do so that’s reasonably up front).

This will tell you not only what the rules are, but what the site values. A place that makes it clear they value discussion and debate (but spells out what that means) is different than a place that says “Be nice to each other.” (Nice is notoriously difficult to define. It’s one of my signs of a site or resource that hasn’t had to deal with many challenges and that might not handle future ones well.)

4) Put the things you value where they’re easy to get to.

(And put the other stuff somewhere else…)

This is probably key to my management of my online time and space. I put the places I want to spend the most time in my main toolbar. (In order, my current lineup is Gmail, Todoist, Feedly (my RSS reader), Dreamwidth, the Cauldron (the Pagan forum I’m staff on), YNAB (my budget site), and then there are folders for everything else. I have half a dozen forums I check at varying degrees of frequency, and a dozen or two more I poke my head into occasionally.

I deliberately don’t have bookmarks for Tweetdeck (for Twitter) or Facebook: I want those to be things I deliberately decide to enter (even if it’s just typing the first few letters in the location bar and hitting the auto complete.)

Oh, and you won’t see news sites in there. I get news in my email from several different sources, and I’ll go check news stories when there’s a big specific story, but again, I don’t want it to be a thing I’m mindlessly clicking into. In my email, they get filtered into a specific label (not my inbox), and I skim through them and open the stories I’m interested in a couple of times a day. When there are big stories, I go looking for more information from multiple sources.

In my RSS reader, I have things grouped by topic. Really busy sites (like Metafilter) get their own section, so I can quickly skim, open the posts I’m interested in, and mark the others read. I can read things about libraries, or about Paganism, or divination, or a range of other topics, and easily leave other things for later.

I don’t keep social media apps on my phone (I do have an ebook reader app) and I keep interactive ones several screens back, and the things that I use for my own tracking/information on the first couple.

I don’t personally have a lot of issues with the constant refresh loop once I do the above, but I’ve used various of the extensions to block or limit time on sites that weren’t a great choice as needed, until I could sort out longer term habits that were better for me.

5) Re-evaluate regularly.

It’s okay to take breaks. It’s okay to change things up. Letting the people you’re close to on a specific tool know is handy, if you can manage it. (I worry about people when I realise I haven’t seen them around for a bit, and many of us may not have other forms of contact or not be sure it’s okay to ask.)

But it’s fine to change up what you’re doing. Maybe you’re a person where disconnecting or taking a social media break, or a break from a specific site is really helpful for you. Maybe you don’t know and you want to find out. Maybe you figure out you need to handle it differently. (Because you’ve changed, or learned something new about what you prefer, or the site has changed.) Maybe it’s that the world is pretty awful in a lot of ways right now, and you need to take out some of the places that spills over relentlessly onto you.

That said, there are so many different ways to connect online – so thinking about what ones actually work for you (or might) can help you figure out better options than just ditching them all.

1 What’s a MUCK? It’s one of a handful of similar code bases – others related ones include MUDs and MUSHes – that allow you to create text-only spaces for people to hang out and chat. You can link rooms together to create much larger spaces, describe the people and things in them, create objects that do things when you type commands. I played a number of text-based games on them in college and after, but these days we have a private one for chatting, mostly.

Sharing information effectively

I’ve been having conversations recently about sharing information, specifically the medium used. Not the complex things, like how you frame something differently, but the simple “When do you share a link? Text? A video?”

(We got into this because of the tendency of some people to link a whole bunch of videos without summaries or other content information as part of discussions – it especially happens with some threads of political discussion, but I’ve seen it on other topics, too.)

This lead me to three questions, a principle, and some discussion.

The questions:

1) Are you switching modes?

2) Are you asking for a chunk of someone else’s time, focus, energy, or attention (beyond what would be a reasonable part of the interaction they’re currently in.)

3) What does this add to the conversation in the place you’re already in?

Here’s the principle. Use material outside the space you’re currently talking in as supporting material, not the core of your contribution. Give people a reason to consider taking time for the content.

If you don’t do that, and you browbeat people for not using a different kind of content in the way you want, well, that’s not an honest discussion, is it? People are going to notice that.

1) Are you switching modes?

I started thinking about this because of someone linking to uncontexted videos in a text-based discussion on a site that is set up for longform text discussion.

But it’s also true if you link to a PDF in a text discussion. If you are on Twitter and link a podcast episode. If you’re listening to a podcast episode or the radio and they reference visual materials. In a short-form text format (texts, Twitter, Facebook) linking to a lengthy news story on another site.

All of these are about switching modes. Sometimes, that’s really appropriate and informative. But if it’s handled poorly, it can leave a bad taste in the mouth. Personally, it makes me less likely to take other things someone says seriously.

Here’s the thing. Handling it well is pretty simple.

If you are switching modes, tell people that you are. Give them a brief summary so they can decide when and how they might want to explore that.

Things to include:

  • What’s the format you’re linking to?
  • Why are you dropping it into this conversation?
  • How much content is it? (Especially for video or audio.)
  • What are the key points, if someone can’t watch/listen/read/access it?
  • Any major accessibility notes. (Is it purely an image? Not captioned? Only auto-captioned?)

You don’t need to be extremely precise about these things: a brief summary will be really helpful in the vast majority of cases.

It can also be very helpful to identify a specific part (particularly in a longer work) that is relevant to the conversation or that you’d like to discuss more.

Example summaries

(All examples entirely made up.)

Video link:

There’s a great video that illustrates this perspective. It’s about 20 minutes, from ExampleUser on YouTube. Auto-captioned, but the speaker is facing the camera. The part most relevant here starts at about 10:30, about the purple rabbits.

 

PDF link:

There’s a PDF that goes into this. About 50 pages, but the opening summary is the part I’m interested in, especially the discussion of how they chose people to interview.

 

Images being discussed on a podcast:

You can find the image from our show notes for this episode on our website, but the important parts are the claws, which are about eight inches, and were used for digging burrows.

 

Linking to a long detailed source:

Much more detail at this link – about 20,000 words. The discussion of previous experience is about a third of the way through, and there’s a significant chunk of citations at the end.

 

Referencing a much longer work (a book, in this case)

I got most of this from a really great book, called Finding All The Things, by Named Author. The book’s quite long, but I found it worthwhile and recommend it to anyone who’s really interested in how our current search algorithms got developed.

 

Audio track

Here’s a version of the song (about 6 minutes) via YouTube. Lyrics on the screen.

 

You can see here that these examples are brief, and should be pretty straightforward to explain if you’re familiar with the content you’re sharing. None of them require extensive additional time on your end , but they’re tremendously helpful to people trying to figure out if they should click through or make time for this, and why.

They also help someone continue the conversation even if they can’t take in that piece of material now (or anytime soon).

2) Are you demanding someone’s time?

People have a lot of things going on in their lives. What those are will be different for each person.

You don’t get to decide how they spend their time. (Unless you’re paying them, or have an agreement about that.)

Often when people won’t click through to videos, or point out accessibility issues, they get a “Well, it’s less time than Game of Thrones” (or whatever the current TV of choice is. (Like people who are poor get the “Well, stop buying a daily cup at Starbucks.”)

That’s making a false equation.

I set out what my day looks like when it comes to information consumption in a previous post. Your day probably looks pretty different, but the point is, there’ll be some things that are easier for you or fit more comfortably in your day, and some that don’t.

(Key points if you don’t want to read that post: I read very fast, so I can consume most written content much more quickly than video or audio. I can listen to some podcasts while at work, but my time to watch video content is pretty limited and it competes with a number of other things I want to do like writing or projects.)

Example : me

If I’m watching a video for content, I want to pay attention to it – and my time for that is pretty limited, both by time slot and by attention. My current backlog of “Video I know I’d like to watch but requires more attention than I can usually manage after work” is currently well over 20 hours, and growing.

So, if you link me to a video, it’s competing with that 20 hours (plus all the other things I’d like to do), but if you give me text, I will get through it much faster.

Other people might be quite different. They might find it harder to get through text, and have an easier time with audio (or a longer commute or a job where they could listen more than I do.)

There are some tendencies, though. Video tends to be least accessible. Someone doing a long commute on public transit might have more time, but they might also have data or battery limits. Someone at home with young kids might not want to expose those kids (or themselves!) to random undescribed content from an internet stranger.

There are also accessibility issues to think about – I’ll get to those at the end of this post.

3) What does this add to the conversation?

People having a conversation in a particular place have probably chosen to spend time in that place for a reason – often because the format and kind of conversation suits them for some reason. Even if it’s not ideal for them, if they spend a bunch of time there, they’ve probably figured out how to make it work for their specific preferences.

(Obviously, many of us are somewhat flexible about this: we may use a format that’s not our favourite because someone we really like talking to strongly prefers it, or needs it. There are reasons I’m hanging out on Twitter more than I used to.)

The people in a space are there because they want to have conversations with the other people there. At least spaces that are focused on conversation (rather than one-to-many content or one-upsmanship.)

The more time you’re asking someone to spend, the more that’s important to remember.

Thinking about proportions

If I’m in a text-based discussion, and the comments are a few hundred words each, each comment is going to take me a minute or so to read. (And most comments will be shorter than that…)

If we’re in the middle of that kind of exchange, and you suddenly want me to watch 45 minutes of video, you’re asking me to spend 20 times as many minutes on your comment as I am on every other comment in the conversation.

If you want me to do that, it’s up to you to tell me what’s so compelling and why it’s worth that significant a proportion of time.

The same thing is true if you want me to read a long PDF, or work my way through a complicated flow chart graphic, or read a bunch of interconnected discussions with many links and hundreds or thousands of comments.

Expecting people to spend 45 minutes of their time on the thing you think is important, when it’s off to the side of the main conversation is unrealistic. People might spend 5, but more than that, and they probably want to know why it matters.

Giving a summary, and a “If you want more, here’s where I got more about that” is a good start.

In other words, use the links and other modes of content as supporting evidence, not your only contribution.

Talking in your own words about what a source or approach does for you is ideal – that’s you talking, and they’re in a conversation with you, directly, not with your video (or audio or PDF or whatever) link.

If you just want to monologue, well, that’s a different thing. Monologues are fine things! But don’t blame people for deciding not to be in dialogue with them, and doing something else with their time.

Accessibility

The final piece of this is that not all types of content are equally accessible.

If someone is an ongoing and active user of a particular site, you can probably assume they’ve sorted out ways of using it that work for them (at least well enough.) If they’re not on the other site you link to, though? Maybe it’s not accessible to them.

Someone might be visually impaired, and not able to get anything out of that really gorgeous but badly described infographic or chart. Or that PDF may be so badly organised it will take as long to navigate it as to get a sense of the content.

Someone might have hearing impairments and the thing you linked to has lousy auto-captioning. Even when the captioning’s okay, it takes extra time and energy for them to figure out who’s speaking and to sort out context cues that others can hear (like background noises, music cues, or who’s speaking.)

Someone may find some sites frustrating or impossible to use for design reasons. They may have medical conditions affected by flashing images or lights, and not want to watch videos without someone checking that’s okay. They may have specific experiences that mean they’re strongly affected by some kinds of content, images, or sounds, and watching those things (especially without warning) will mess them up for hours or days.

Someone may have young kids at home or just not care to listen to some kinds of language or content themselves. (Or at least not without some warning and a chance to prepare.)

Someone may have medical issues that make concentration and focus precious things. They may find it much less tiring to process text than audio or video, or short text compared to longform conversations. Switching from one location to another online often changes these things too.

Someone may get most of their online access from work or school (so some sites may be blocked, or some content could get them in trouble). Others may have limited data or technology access, so they can only watch videos in specific places (and need to balance that against other tasks.) Some people may be in a public internet space and not want to click on unknown sites, or be using a network that has filtering.

You probably know these things about your close friends. (I hope so, anyway!) But you probably don’t know many of them about someone in a given online conversation.

Long story short

Pointing people at undescribed content isn’t a good way to get them to engage with your points. If you care about the conversation, give them some content in the context you’re all currently talking, and take a sentence or three to explain what you’re linking to.

It feels weird to explain this, but clearly, it’s a thing a lot of people on the Net haven’t adequately internalised yet.