are you feeling social media-obliged?

Posted on June 20th, 2012

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.


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?

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  • Miss CIty Down

    Great article and thanks for sharing such honest thoughts about social media and boundaries. It was very timely reading this blog post, I struggle a lot with my boundaries and sometimes feel such an overwhelming anxiety that I’m not blogging, tweeting, facebooking enough and not reading enough blogs, tweets and facebook pages of other people. Usually its because I am too busy living my real world life away from the computer, but its amazing how I can still feel guilty and concerned that I’m somehow “missing out” on the action online. Thanks for your honesty on this topic and leading by example on how to put boundaries in place :-)


  • CP

    It’s not arrogant at all. Twitter is about building a personalised network. It’s a tailor-made community that gives you access to people you find interesting, and compelling. It’s not about having a conversation with every single person on social media. There should be no obligation. Above all, it’s an aggregator of content that is going to be useful to you when you sign in and check your feed.


  • Jessica Nazarali (@JessicaNazarali)

    I try to turn off my phone on Sundays…It’s hard but I find it’s the only way I truly disconnect.


  • Genevieve Tucker

    Hi Sarah, what a terrific analysis. You cover so many facets of information flow management here! I would have to print this out to do a detailed response, it is very good.

    I do like the very sensible boundary of restricting the speakerphoners!! can’t think of anything worse than having peers who do that.
    And as always, I appreciate your honesty. You’ve made some very clear statements, not everyone is brave enough to do that. I know that going onto Tumblr myself annoyed a couple of my followers who didn’t like the commenting facility there (at first I didn’t have any comments at all). So, quite a bit of food for thought there – when I did that, I didn’t even realise anyone would mind. But at the time I needed the space, I found I wasn’t thinking straight in the online domain and needed to write in a journal, slow down, do quite a lot of things I find you discussing often here.
    The gift story is brilliant. Will bookmark that post. Thanks :D


  • alison

    I’m astounded that you would cop flak from your twitter followers Sarah. They can opt in or out, why can’t you? Anyone who follows you would know how busy your life is, putting lots of energy into many different arenas- how self centred to wonder why you can’t follow all of them. I think they need to get some real live people in their actual world and take twitter relationships a tad less seriously. I’m flabbergasted on your behalf.


  • linda

    Sarah – I agree with you – I initially set up a twitter account (I mostly use facebook) but it just seemed like another time waster. So I shut it down. I realise it’s necessary for your work (different situation) – but you are right to set boundaries. All the best and I hope you are enjoying your trip overseas…


  • Julie

    Hi Sarah,
    I love what you are saying. Great article. I am very very new to all this and just starting the blogger journey so it was good to read with my coffee this morning. I saw you on 60 minutes, I loved that too, especially the surfing. I must hit the water soon again myself.
    Hope you are enjoying your trip.


  • Sharni

    Love this piece Sarah, I am currently seeking to disconnect to reconnect to myself and working out what my own social media boundaries are. Thanks for the food for thought.


  • Mia Bluegirl

    I always find it amusing when people who are in the public eye are expected by said public to behave a certain way. Like they “owe” their fanbase/ followers. And how do you misspell your name?? That would take some doing. It’s the easiest name ever.

    I had to laugh when I read about your coffee test for your Facebook friends. I have a similar thing, but with Woolies/ the pub. If I see them in Woolies/pub and they don’t see me first, do I go over to say hello? Or do I avoid their eye contact? That tends to steer me in the right direction.

    The older I get the more introverted I get. I love it. I find the internet is the perfect medium, as I can engage genuinely without the social anxiety I get in some face-to-face situations with large groups, then walk away when I feel overwhelmed. I have Facebook and Instagram, and try to be happy and upbeat on both, as that’s the most genuine vibe I feel I should project into the world. Life is, at it’s core, beautiful. Like your urge to communicate, I feel in my bones that the purpose of my life is to explore and share this beauty. If social media isn’t helping me with those core beliefs one day, I’ll quit.

    Although to be fair, my status update that surprised me the most in terms of replies was my most negative. I’d said something like, “With my mother nagging me to visit my grandparents, and my grandparents nagging me to visit my mother, I just realised that nobody remembered my birthday. #myfamilyisfucked.” Not the sort of thing I would usually write, as I hate spreading negativity, but the vulnerability appealed to a lot of people with similar family feuds. Many took a cue from me and opened up about their own woes. It made a lot of people feel better, me included.


  • Megan

    Brilliant article, Sarah. I’ve been thinking a lot about boundaries in life and how creating them, and protecting them is crucial to proper self-care. Thanks for writing this!


  • Kaitlyn

    Great blog! This really reminds me to keep my cool and not feel so obliged to be connected! Thanks Sarah :)


  • Naz

    When I first got onto social media I went a bit crazy. First there was Facebook and adding/accepting friend requests from people I hadn’t seen or spoken to in YEARS like high school people who I didn’t even talk to or hang out with back then but suddenly they were all on my friend list! Then came twitter and I thought oh I have to follow this celebrity or that celebrity because everyone else is following them so they must have something interesting to say. Uhhh no…. so I did a MAJOR cull of my facebook, now I only have family (to keep them updated about my life in the U.S) and friends, people that I would hang out with in real life! As for twitter I reassess my followers every now and then and get rid of people I’m really just not feeling anymore, these days I’m more about following other like minded bloggers, news mainly Australian related to keep up with what’s going on back home and of course American news to keep up with what goes on here and a few friends I’ve made via blogging. Yes I do still follow the occasional celebrity for some fun.

    I definitely don’t believe twitter is there for you to respond to every single tweet or to have others respond to all your tweets. I only ever try to respond to tweets I find appealing to me or if I have a genuine question and same goes for RT’s only ever if it is something I read and think WOW!

    I don’t feel like I need to follow everyone that follows me, I will look at your page and tweets and If I’m feeling your vibe and interested in what you have to say then yes I will follow you, after all isn’t that the point of twitter?

    And finally Instagram, I’m a bit iffy about it I do like to put up pics every now and then. There’s so many different types of people on there using it for different reasons (to get the most likes, to get the most followers, to get on the popular page, to advertise their blog) and there are those that post pictures just because. I feel like there’s also an ‘instagram etiquette’ that is not really said but I’ve definitely seen it where if someone likes your photo you should like one of theirs and if you don’t they will unfollow you (have had this happen to me numerous times). I’m not interested in followers on instagram, I often share my photos on there on facebook as well so again it’s something more for me to share with family and friends and if other people like it then that’s great.


  • Abbie Allen – Lifestyle Elements

    Thanks Sarah. Your concept of “This is the new barometer of success: how well can you create your own boundaries.” is so true, not just in social media, but in life. I also link it to expectations that you have set up yourself ie. you will always return an email from certain people immediately, or you always answer the phone even if you were in the middle of something or simply having a rest. Setting boundaries, not setting up unhelpful expectations of yourself, is so important in this world of busy-ness and demands on our time from all areas, including now social media. A great post to help guide our own boundary making decisions.


  • Kim Cook

    Very honestly and succinctly put, Sarah. I’m fairly new to your blog after being referred by a friend and your honesty is one of the things I love about it. You stand your ground when you need to put yourself first and many of us don’t do that. I hope you’re thoroughly enjoying your time overseas. I bet there are lots of envious women back here!


  • David Brock

    This is a great blog, love what you’ve written. I was truly scared of social media for exactly the reasons you’ve posted. I thought it would be an invasion of my private life and I would – by posting tweets, blogs, posts, comments – open myself up to all kinds of nutters an loons. I was really scared of it! (see one of my blogs

    But no it’s not like that at all. Yes it’s a two way communication channel, and yes it can be very public, but what you say, respond to and post is totally up to you. If you don’t want to evoke reaction, don’t say it in the first place. If you don’t want to respond to a tweet, don’t respond. As to ‘why aren’t you following me when I follow you’ – it’s because I don’t want to. Simple. To all of you out there that are using social media just to collect followers, I would suggest you find some friends who’s names don’t start with @.

    The clue about social media is on the title, it’s social. And yes fair enough, I do use it to post complaints on Twitter. But most of the time, I’m polite and use it to gather information, build relationships, find new suppliers or customers, promote myself and my services and even just have a chat. I don’t put stuff into the ether I don’t want people to read about, you do have to have a line. I use it as a communication total, a business tool and a social tool. But at the end of the day, just like my mobile phone, I turn it all off and go to bed.

    Just a thought to end on – Perhaps a “barometer of success” is when you actually stop using Social Media, and have a team of people to use it for you. That will be the day! :-)


  • Kate

    Sarah, thank you so much for once again giving so much of yourself to us in your online community. It’s funny isn’t it… On the one hand, people follow you with the outward guise of being on a path to health and wellness. Obviously you cover a lot about nutrition and food, but there is a real spirituality to your work, self love, love for the planet and understanding and love towards others. Yet these same people who lap up the information you give, are so quick to criticise and judge! Less spiritual and less “well” if you ask me… 
    I think the industry that we are in (I’m in a similar-ish field) puts us in a position where people have unrealistic expectations of boundaries. While you genuinely do care for the health and well-being of others, you choose to exert this care by providing clear, succinct