Monday, 2 December 2013

When did it become OK to be rude to each other?

This weekend I went to Library Camp at the brand new and very swish Library of Birmingham. I've been to a fair few of these unconference events in various parts of the country and it's always great to catch up with old friends, meet new contacts and put names (and Twitter handles) to faces. However, when reading over some of the tweets from the day, I began to reflect on something that has been bothering me about the profession for a while now: the fact that there is an undercurrent of passive-aggressiveness and, on occasion, downright nastiness and bullying in some librarians' tweets either to each other, or passive-aggressively aimed at something a particular person has said or done that they don't like or agree with. By no means are these tweets limited to Saturday's Library Camp, or even to the library and information profession generally as I think it's a human problem if I'm honest, but it does seem that it is now becoming acceptable to be very rude to each other via various forms of social media and internet communication and I hate it. How has this happened?

Don't get me wrong, I love Twitter and Facebook for communicating with others and (for those who 'follow' me or are 'friends' with me will know) I love a good debate. However, I like to think I stop short of making any debate into a personal attack on someone and would never dream of making personal comments towards people in a passive-aggressive or direct manner via Twitter or otherwise. I'm not perfect though, and I'm sure there are times when I've had a bit of a Facebook or Twitter rant. Perhaps this blog post is indeed a passive-aggressive rant too but, for the most part, I try to put across all of my social media exchanges in exactly the same way that I would behave in person. It just worries me that people seem to be getting ruder and ruder and the 'social' in social media is not really about being sociable at all. I'm not going to name any names or quote any tweets I've seen over the past few weeks/months, but I wonder if anyone reading this post will have seen similar tweets or perhaps even have had things passive-aggressively aimed at them? I know I have had it happen to me plenty of times, but in the words of Destiny's Child: "you know I'm not going to diss you on the internet, cause my mamma taught me better than that."

I didn't particularly enjoy Library Camp for a number of reasons. Many are to do with me and not the people who were there, plus I wasn't feeling 100% and wussed out of pitching a session, but I'm not going to go into all that in this post. I just wanted to blog about some things that do generally concern me about the profession and how people communicate with each other generally. It disheartened me to see a number of tweets from people bemoaning what someone was saying or whether someone was talking too much in a session. I wasn't in these particular sessions but I would be curious to know whether these people spoke up in the sessions and perhaps tried to create a debate or change the direction of the discussion if they were unhappy with it. Did they use the law of two feet to leave the session they were dissatisfied with? Or did they just take to Twitter to air their concerns? 

I remember being overwhelmed at my first ever 'proper' conference which was the CILIP New Professionals Day back in 2012. Since then, I've been to loads of conferences and Library Camps and met loads of fantastic librarians. I've done all the things everyone said you should be doing: networking on Twitter, having a blog, reflecting on my own professional development, starting the postgraduate qualification etc. etc. but lately I feel like there's something missing. At conferences and at Library Camps we all sit there staring into our smartphones/tablets/laptops tweeting into the ether, but for what? One reason is so that the people who aren't attending the events can read about the discussions that are taking place and I do think this is a good thing, but I also get the feeling that there is a slightly nastier undercurrent to some of these tweets that aren't necessarily for the benefit of those unable to attend the conference. What is it about Twitter and Facebook that makes us want to take to it straight away when we're outraged or disagree with something, rather than speaking directly to the person we disagree with? One of the more deplorable tweets I ever saw at a conference (again not naming names or events) was somebody making personal comments about a speaker's outfit. What has that got to do with anything and why did they feel entitled to comment? 

I find it too difficult to sit in a session at something like Library Camp and tweet, because I know I'm not giving the session my full attention if I do that. Why do we think it is a good thing to sit in a room looking at our phones rather than at the people who are speaking? Are we listening to the discussion properly? I think not. How can we really be there, in the moment when we can't even be bothered to look at the people in the room? We worry about being in an 'echo chamber' in the library and information world but in my opinion it's worse than that. We're no longer united and looking outward, using social media to advocate and generate more awareness of the challenges facing us. Instead, we are focusing inward and spending too much time bickering amongst ourselves and searching for gratification via how many people we can get to agree with our opinion on Twitter or Facebook. Perhaps this isn't a problem with just our profession, I do think it's people generally. We can hide behind the safety of phones, computers and tablets and say what we want, things which we would never say to somebody's face. It's everywhere, this hate: on Facebook, Twitter, people's blogs, comment sections on newspaper websites. Everywhere. I'm often outraged at just how hateful and rude people can be and it makes me sad. Presumably we all went to primary school and got taught to be nice to each other, presumably we don't speak to our family and friends this way, so why is it ok to be like this online? 

So much is missing when we can only communicate via the written word. We have no sense of tone or body language so people can easily hide behind their words and protest that they were 'only joking' or 'didn't mean it that way' if they are confronted about something they've said online. The thing that baffles me the most is that we have so much more control over what we're saying online than we do in real-time conversations. If anything, we have time to reflect and not just blurt things out, which is why it shocks me that there is so much anger and hate out there on the web. 

I'm definitely not saying anything new here, I'm fairly sure that psychologists and sociologists have been studying human interaction online for years, but I just wanted to reflect and blog about some of the genuine concerns I have. The way I've seen some librarians conduct themselves online appalls me. If that's the way they speak to other professionals online, how on Earth do they speak to their colleagues or library users? I certainly wouldn't want to go into their library.

I'd love to see a Library Camp where tweeting in a session was seen as rude. Where participants were encouraged to engage with those in the room rather than people elsewhere. Call me old fashioned, but if I ever pitch a session at another Library Camp in future I would like to see if it is possible for people to go for 45 minutes without looking at their smart phone. We need to remember that we are all people first, above all else, and we are letting technology ruin our relationships with each other. There are so many good things about the LIS profession and Twitter, such as #uklibchat which is a collaborative effort by some excellent librarians and the chats often create healthy and interesting debates. Similarly, I have met so many great people via Twitter and I really appreciate that they are out there for advice and tips and just general chit chat. However, I do sometimes feel that a lot of the good things about Twitter and Facebook are overshadowed by the negative things and lately, it's really been getting me down. I write this post to serve as a warning, just as much to myself as anyone else, than I do not let technology get in the way of me actually behaving like a decent human being. I wish others would heed this advice too.


  1. Agree wholeheartedly with you that never OK to be rude or personal. Sad when other think it is alright. Regarding tweeting during sessions - when I tweet at events it is for me the equivalent of taking brief notes to remind myself (and incidently let others know about) key points. I'm listening at the same time - and also contributing. I type faster than I write, so takes less effort for me ;)

  2. I went to my first library camp a couple of months ago, and it was what persuaded me to get back into Twitter and stay in touch with librarians; I'm really sad that you didn't get more out of the one you attended, but it sounds like just the one, so hopefully it won't be like that at future events!

    I have to confess I'm not a fan of live-tweeting or live-blogging - to me it's like being at lectures again, and the information passes straight from the ears to the hands, never to be digested by the brain! In order to fully engage with what's going on, I have to make the notes and ask questions there, and only write about it after I've had time to go home and think about it.

    The other points you make: preferring online over real-life interaction, the rudeness encountered in social media; I think are indicative of societal trends rather than a particularly librarial idiosyncrasy. We are still getting used to communicating this way, and I think there's a tendency for people to forget that the comment they were going to make about the speaker's horrible shoes is better expressed as a throwaway comment whispered in the ear of the person next to them than a hashtagged tweet on a public and permanent forum!

    1. I definitely agree that it is societal trends rather than just our profession, it's so easy to hide behind a phone/computer/tablet these days. I do feel like people's social skills are being lost because people aren't practicing them enough.

  3. I think this is a really interesting blog post and raises some important issues for us all to reflect on as individuals and as a profession (why are we tweeting, what are we tweeting, how are we tweeting).

    There can be merit to highlighting something you don't agree with in a session for wider discussion on Twitter (or equally something you do agree with), but I agree that I would not want that to be at the expense of having that discussion in the session itself. People may not always feel comfortable raising things in a session or may think of something after the discussion has moved on, so I think there should always be the option for less direct discussion if people do not want to raise something in the session for whatever reason. However, it sounds like the incidents that have prompted this post were of a different nature.

    I think this is a good idea for a future Library Camp pitch!

  4. This was a rather surprising article to read! Saturday at LibCampUK 13 was my first "unconference" after many years of traditional academic workshops, conferences, etc and I absolutely loved it. The relaxed atmosphere, great people, willingness to share ideas and opinions, and oodles of cake were a refreshing change. So much so that I've just been singing its praises to non-library researchers this evening as a way of invigorating their research workshops.

    I have to say that I tweeted quite a bit before, during and after the sessions and I found it an invaluable communication stream. I can quite happily listen and grok what's being said whilst typing - for me tweeting interesting snippets is no more distracting than making notes. And those tweets have lead to some great post-camp online discussions and contacts being formed. It also meant that I could see what was happening in other streams when I really didn't want to use my two feet to leave a session (which was all of them in my case as they were all interesting discussions). Indeed I was rather annoyed that my phone battery ran out just after lunch so I had to go "dark" in the afternoon sessions and didn't find out what was happening at the other groups. Of course if something really interesting had popped up on twitter from another group that might have encouraged me to use the two feet rule.

    I'm also really surprised to read that you felt people were being unpleasant on Twitter. I tried to keep up with the #libcampuk13 hash tag feed when I could and everyone seemed really positive and nice. At least from the point of view of a techie... we might have different norms "pleasant" of course!

  5. Thaks for posting this, I think it's an interesting point to discuss. I've encountered the same phenomenon, and I've got to say that I don't think it's new, allthough I have seen it far more at some conferences than others (inside and outside the library world).

    For me, there are three main ways people use Twitter at these kind of events: as a way of taking notes, as a way of sharing, and as what's sometimes called the back channel. In its best form, the back channel exists as a critical friend, providing a counter opinion to the prevailing current of a conference. In its worst form, it appears as the modern day equivalent of children passing rude notes at the back of a classroom.

    For me, the realisation that Twitter could be used to share a conference in a meaningful way was a bit of a threshold concept when it came to understanding the medium. Sharing and engaging simultaneously is a skill I value, and have worked hard to develop. I therefore wouldn't suggest getting rid of social media across whole conferences, but I would be fine with a speaker asking for an audience not to use it (or to limit it appropriately) in an interactive session if they wanted 100% engagement from those in the room.

    I'd also suggest it's worth subtly pointing out to those 'passing notes' how visible they actually are: it's worth demonstrating the impact of these conversations (as you've done here) as people tend not to feel so accountable in an online space.

    1. The children at the back of the classroom comparison is an excellent one. I've been through the tweets from Saturday's Library Camp a couple of times and the 'back channel' tweets you refer to were in a tiny minority and most of the tweets were recording what was being said in sessions and facilitating positive discussion and debate. I have since realised that some of the back channel tweets were happening 'off the hashtag' if that's an appropriate term to use, and I wasn't too happy that some comments were being directed at friends of mine. I'm a sensitive soul and really dislike negativity and conflict.

      Again, I can't emphasise enough that this post is more about humans and their relationship with each other via social media generally rather than me trying to pick fault with Library Camp. My reasons for not enjoying the day as much as I've enjoyed other Library Camps in the past is entirely down to me and I wasn't feeling 100% on the day. My post is more of a combination of thoughts I've been having for the past few months about social media and communication in general. I think sometimes I do tend to focus on the negative aspects of things as my use of social media is mostly positive, it's just that the negativity often plays on my mind a lot more than any positive interactions, which I suppose would be the same with face-to-face communication too.

  6. I enjoyed my first Library Camp, but as someone who is used to the idea of using a phone whilst someone is speaking being rude, the live tweeting took a bit of getting used to! I'm one of those people who claim to be able to multitask, but I know in reality that there is only so much I can concentrate on at once. It is good to see what people were noting as they went however and since this was being actively encouraged I think it's fair enough.

    I picked up on a couple of less-than-polite tweets and it *is* like passing notes in class, except that in class the notes aren't normally put on the wall for the subject to dwell on at the end of the lesson. Twitter can be extremely useful, but hopefully as a way of promoting things and spreading news - negative stuff can be kept private: I've been surprised before at the things some people seem happy to write on a completely public forum. Then again, maybe it's better to know what people are really thinking...