A few weeks ago a bunch of “followers” on Twitter arked up about the fact I don’t follow all the people who follow me. One tweet (twit?) said I was arrogant for not doing so. For keeping my “follows” so low.

image via beachbungalow8

Funnily, the brohaha was sparked by my tweet that shared how I seek more nourishing conversation from humanity…and engagement that gets down to the real heart of our vulnerability…the “ugly private stuff”. Mum and I had been talking about this during my visit back to Canberra. She got up to make some tea and so I tweeted where we’d got to.

By “ugly private stuff”, I mean the stuff about us that isn’t easy to gloss over. You know when you go home late, after a party, and catch yourself in the mirror and you look in your own eyes and you see yourself fully. No guises, no persona, no show. No empty conversations, no platitudes, no filling gaps. That’s what I want to see in others, to know about in others…

It takes a fair bit for me to get fired up about anything gossipy and nasty-ish online. Mostly I just treat it as a ball flying towards me…and that just passes me buy… and fizzles to a flaccid, uneventful plop somewhere in the distance behind me. It comes from years of working in media and learning that the best way to deal with nasty little bugs is to starve them of oxygen. Balls like this generally get thrown from some pain and angst, besides.

But that night I got annoyed.

Why?

I thought about it. It’s because I hate feeling social media-obliged. Social media should be free and easy, not bogged down in rules. The twits were e-arguing that social media should be about reciprocity. I guess I feel that there shouldn’t be any “shoulds” when it comes to social media. For me this is not the spirit of the medium, and I resent it when I feel pressure otherwise.

I’m on Twitter, Facebook (three pages), Instagram, Pinterest, I have a Youtube channel, and I also have my blog (with a comments section that I engage with daily, or thereabouts). Then there’s email. I love all forums and I use them in different ways. I also use them to earn an income. So I’m not complaining. It’s my choice to be so engaged.

I put myself out there on a limb. I have to expect to be blown about a bit and pecked by the wildlife!

But I guess the disconnect lies between my principles in relation to engagement and the way others use social media.

What are my principles?

I’m nutting this out with you as I write. Although, if I’m honest, I come back to them almost every day when I ask myself why I blog for free, why I share so much, why I don’t go and get a real job with a steady income…

* I am compelled to communicate. As a kid I knew this is what I had to do. I told my Mum and Dad this when I was very young. Like 8 or 9. One has to follow what they feel compelled at their core to do.

* I am privileged to have so much access to experts and information. I’m also privileged to have had training and career experience in communication and writing skills. I feel very much that it’s my duty to share what I’m lucky to be exposed to. (A sense of duty is different, BTW, to feeling obliged).

* I think it’s important to give out. I’ve talked about this before in my interview with Seth Godin. An artist gives. It’s a duty. It’s a gift. It’s a life purpose. Why else are we here? I mean. Really!?

* I know to give out, you have to pull back. To keep giving, you have to replenish. To share, you have to retreat to get the stuff that you can then share again later on.

Sprint. Rest. Share. Withdraw. Give. Pull back. Dip in. Step back.

I said this to the twits. That I only have so much energy and I have to do what I need to do to ensure I can keep doing what I do. Walls have to go up.

Which brings me to boundaries.

This is something I say a lot, and anyone who feels overwhelmed by life and obligations and e-communication might find it a useful adage:

There are no boundaries anymore. Information and obligations will flood. It won’t stop.  There will be no lovely fine day when the influx eases. We won’t get on top of it…And so we have to create our own boundaries.

This is the new barometer of success: how well can you create your own boundaries.

In the past, the work environment provided our boundaries – the 9-5 work day and weekends and lunch breaks. We could whinge if it got too much and someone – a boss – would fix the issue.

In the past, success was gauged by how well you could hunt down information, collate data, find a great reference.

Now, our boss can’t set boundaries. They can’t tell us to switch off Twitter after 8pm. We have to do it ourselves.

Now, success is gauged by how much information and data you can shut out. We have to learn this ourselves.

The most successful people I know have created firm boundaries for themselves. They check their email twice a day only (Tim Ferris). They’ve shut down the comments on their blogs (Gala Darling and many others). They delineate between “open door” forums, where they give for free and openly, and forums where only those who pay get access (Seth Godin).

A while back Steve Pavlina wrote a great rant on how he was declaring social bankruptcy, effectively shutting down Facebook, shutting down the forums, disabling his online contact form, etc.

He equated social media-obligation as being like getting gifts:

Imagine if people starting coming to your house and bringing you gifts because they want to express their appreciation.

At first, you may receive their gifts with gratitude. How nice of them. How lucky you are to receive such abundance.

Now imagine that the gifts keep coming, year after year and with increasing frequency….What was once a delightful surprise now becomes routine and predictable….You may still appreciate the sentiment, but the gifts themselves no longer hold much value to you.

You start running out of space to store the gifts. They pile up. You shove them in closets and fill your garage with them. And they just keep coming.

All the while, people follow up to ask you about the gifts you received…

Due to the asymmetrical nature of these interactions, those individual gift givers can’t see any problem with it. They always feel they’re doing a good deed. And so if you aren’t appreciative each time, they quickly jump to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with you.

So what do you do?

You could ask people to stop bringing gifts, but whom do you tell if it’s different people each time?

You could hire someone to process the gifts for you, but why pay someone to process what you don’t even want? This would also do a disservice to the gift givers since you’d never personally receive and appreciate their gifts. They probably wouldn’t have brought the gifts if they expected their gifts would merely be processed by an assistant. They intended the gifts to be personal.

Social connections are like gifts. In small quantities they’re precious, and it’s easy to appreciate them. In vast quantities, however, they can become a curse.

An interesting take.

Me, what are my boundaries?

Well they’re a little less “stamped” in the sand. I gauge it as I need to and my approach shifts over time.

Right now:

* I choose to use Twitter as a news feed. So I only follow news makers and folk who share amazing news links. This is how I read the newspapers each day. I don’t use it to socialise. I don’t follow friends or anyone who doesn’t help me get to the news.

I do tweet personal stuff – wellness tips, ingredients I’m using, road trip ideas etc. I’ve learned readers like this kind of thing (and those who don’t, I presume, just stop following me). So it might seem hypocritical to say I use it for news. But what I give out is different to what I choose to absorb. This is the trick of boundary-making. It has to reflect what suits you.

* I’m into instagram right now. I like the way it’s less selfish and sychophantic than Twitter (at least for the moment) and is mostly about genuine sharing. People “like” an image and, really, it’s done as a honest, giving gesture with little expected in return. Less demands (it’s really quite difficult to see who’s “liked” your image once there’s more than 10).  And so it’s more of a space to give out information than to farm for followers (which is what I see – and feel – too often on Twitter).

* I have a personal Facebook page…which I hardly ever use. But I did remove a lot of people who I didn’t really know off this page a while back. The boundary maker: would I catch up for a coffee with them? If no, then they got deleted. It felt harsh. Boundary-making often does. But this is modern survival, folk!

* I rarely take calls from friends during the day. I also avoid taking calls at 8:30 and 5:30 each day when friends driving home from office jobs decide to call…I just can’t deal with being on speaker phone and being screeched at when I’m still trying to finish my day at work. I prefer to text them later… to line up a time to meet in person. Friends are for face-to-face interaction. I like to keep them separate to, and more special than, my virtual world.

* I don’t respond to emails that are only asking for something from me. I used to reply politely that, no, I’m not interested in testing XYZ’s new chemical-riddled face cream. Or, no, I can’t answer questions for a uni assignment (sweetly pointing out that they’ve spelled my name incorrectly). Now I just press delete. People can get lazy with emails, firing off a question that can easily be Googled or nutted out with a little time and care. Twitter is shocking for this. I get so many tweets that elicit the response from me, “what am I, Google?!”.

I had to stop getting angry. And just enforce my boundaries.

* I respond to conversations that are fruitful and generous on my blog comments forum. I often ask a question of you at the end of a post if I’m genuinely wanting to hear your thoughts. And I’ll always read through the responses at the end of the day. I also try to engage on my Facebook pages, with Jo, my assistant, answering any requests or fixing problems.

* As a general rule, I have two speeds. One is to give out information to strangers on social media, sharing ideas, products, links etc all day…to be hyper-available and open. The other is to disengage altogether, for friends and socialising (which I do face to face and not on Twitter, email, text or on the phone).  It’s a clear public v private, virtual v real split.

* Finally, I do what I can. I allow this. Some days I have energy to spare. Some days my autoimmune disease renders me unable to even answer a phone call. Or even think about the idea of answering a phone call. This is my reality. Period.

I also touched on all of this in the webinar I did with Problogger recently. You can watch it here.

Just writing this has made things clear. I don’t need to feel social media-obliged. I have my boundaries for a reason and I know my principles are in place. There’s no obligation, because I don’t impose any kind of obligation on others. People can stop following me at any point if I don’t cut it for them. I won’t notice. I don’t keep tabs on my followers.

This is what I love about social media. It’s honest and raw. And obligation-free. You can “smell” when someone isn’t being authentic or doesn’t believe what they’re writing. Or when they’re farming for followers. And you can drop away in a click. I often “smell” when someone on Twitter has gone off the rails or is a bit too angry. I unfollow immediately.

Those with genuine gifts to give remain. Give and they will follow. Build and they will come.

OK. Enough said…over to you? What do you reckon? What boundaries do you put up?

Have your say, leave a comment.

  • Kym Stanley

    Great words Sarah, every now and then I get ‘in trouble’ for not ‘liking’ something on FB from others, how ridiculous, I conclude that the issue lies with them not what I choose to engage with online & should not be taken personally either way. Love your work, Kym

  • Linda

    I really like what you have to say here Sarah – there are only so many hours to a day and you have to respect yourself. Boundaries indicate self-respect and so bravo to you for having developed it in your own life. You’re an example to others. My thought is this when it comes to needy, demanding, criticizing or plain rude people – it’s really about them, their dysfunction, lack of boundaries, lack of self-respect. And really it’s not my problem – it’s theirs. It’s a perspective that frees me from taking on a lot of other people’s crap – online & in the ‘real’ world.

  • I’m really glad you shared this again! I bet it is even more pertinent three years on. I think you’ve previously mentioned the difference between the social media platforms too – Facebook can tend to have a nastier undertone than Instagram – I’m not sure why this. It makes me sad. But on the plus side, I think you and your IQS team have beautifully fostered a genuinely supportive social media community on Instagram.