I am painfully transparent. If you’ve met me, you know this immediately. Talk about a great idea and I get enthusiastic. Describe the minutiae of your life and I am bored. Tell me it’s my turn to clean out the refrigerator and you can practically hear my eyes rolling back into their sockets.
At least you always know where I stand.
Over the years, this transparency has become one of my defining traits, but it’s also one of the most polarizing. It also makes it difficult to fit into the traditional work environment — although god knows I’ve tried, with varying levels of success. Inevitably, I’d share things I shouldn’t share. (Sorry.) I’d ask others if they had better ways to do things I needed to do. (Trade secrets, I guess.) I’d get put on committees because I saw things differently, then pulled off committees because I didn’t see things the same way. (Someone should have seen that coming.) I questioned too much, and asked “what if?” a lot. It wasn’t until fairly recently, however, I realized this character flaw of mine can be, in fact, a positive characteristic. Apparently it turns out I was a bit before my time. I discovered what I’m truly wired for is sharing, and collaborating, and celebrating the passion of things. I didn’t know this was a thing, actually. I didn’t realize that collaboration can be a very real, very powerful concept in the workplace. Ironically, I learned this in the world of higher education — a space that, historically, does not really do collaboration well (but we’re trying). We are steeped in the traditional culture of learning, of educating, of valuing knowledge. Here in higher ed, we respect the boundaries of colleges, of departments, of work units — quite frankly, of institutions overall. We try not to tread on toes, and to respect another area’s turf. We get things done, and we move forward, as we’ve done for upwards of a couple hundred years. We respect knowledge, and we respect the respectful discussion. Respectfully.
Then social media happened, and it really rocked the traditional boat. It may have started as a grassroots effort, but eventually it caught like wildfire, and even the mainstream is now all about the Facebook, the Twitters, and the Instagrams. (In the beginning, I got written up more than once for using social media in the workplace. You’re shocked, I know.) Yes, we use social media to share pictures of our pets, food, and drinks, but we also use it to share ideas, resources, and conversation. To me, it signifies the natural evolution of how we work — the progression from communication to collaboration, from working in a room with walls, tethered to desktops and dialogue, to working wherever we happen to be, with anyone, anywhere, on anything. Engaging with others without regard for boundaries. We share, we discuss, we persuade, and we agree — or agree to disagree. The scary part of social media is usually when people realize it’s all out in the open for everyone to see and comment on. What happens if someone argues with us? What happens if someone says something bad about a project we are passionate about? Worse, says something nasty or ridicules us? I don’t know about you, but I hate conflict. Most people do. Our knee jerk reaction is to remove the conflict by removing the negative comments, only to discover — too late — this is like adding gasoline to a fire. One action made with the best of intentions can cause the entire effort to go up in smoke and flames. Definitely not transparent, and definitely painful.
However scary social media can appear to be from the outside, I like to remind people that, when broken down into its most basic parts, it is simply social and it is media. Media is something to which we are well acquainted. Television. Newspapers. Radio. Internet. We know these words and, at their most basic, they are a part of the everyday. Social is, quite simply, who we are as humans. We have need of companionship and are therefore best suited to living in communities (thank you Oxford Dictionary). But it’s also relating to or designed for activities in which people meet each other for pleasure. The problems come in when we put it all together — living together in groups, typically in a hierarchical system using complex communication to impart or exchange information and news.
In other words, social media to a newcomer is like high school to the new kid — when we don’t know the lay of the land, it can be a very scary place to find yourself when you first get there. There are people who’ve been there forever, and some of them tend to talk about you rather than to you. But also like high school, order soon reveals itself, and we discover there are places where we go for casual conversation (the lunchroom, study hall) and there are places to engage in real dialogue (the classroom). There are very real opportunities to engage with other people who seriously want to create change and embrace innovation, and that can be exciting and immensely rewarding. (Yes, there are also trolls. Sometimes it’s best to remember that you learned to avoid the goons in high school because they knocked your books out of your hands just to watch you flail. We’ve moved on. They never will.) What I think is important to note here is that, like class, the discussion goes on whether you are there or not. Sometimes it’s like that algebra class you hated; you don’t really have anything to contribute, but you just try to follow along. But sometimes it’s like your favorite class — the one you actually raise your hand in because you have something to contribute. Is it insightful? Perhaps. But you are adding to the conversation and possibly making a point or sharing a personal experience that makes others in the class look at things from a new perspective. Without your contribution, that doesn’t happen.
Sometimes people have different opinions. Okay, many times people have different opinions. That’s when we get into such an animated discussion that the teacher forgets to collect homework (not often, but we always held out hope, especially if we forgot to do the assignment). The opinions that are so different from our own are, in my mind, the ones that make us think the most. Sometimes we get those people on our side because we argue effectively. Sometimes they convince us instead. Sometimes we hit a sticking point and just have to move on. But the beauty of this mechanism is that social media extends our limited discussion from one class to an entire community. Really, to anyone in the world who has an interest in the discussion. I think that’s one of the most amazing things about social media — we never stop learning about ourselves or about the power of our community. More meaningful voices added to the conversation result in a richer, more robust and complex discussion. Just think about what that kind of discussion can do in education today. It’s a powerful, heady possibility. (Yes, I know. “With more power comes more responsibility.” But doesn’t that make it even more critical to bring this type of open community engagement to higher education? I think so. Truly.)
I think it’s easy to get excited in this kind of space. I do it a lot. I don’t think being passionate about your work is wrong. I’ve even learned failure isn’t wrong, it’s simply a perception. (My father sees this as another of my failures, but he was an engineer and still can’t use the words ‘passion’ and ‘work’ in the same breath. More’s the pity.) Here in higher education, we believe in what we’re doing, but I think we could really use more passion. Sometimes we are slow to change — not so much because we fear it as much as we just aren’t sure how to best approach it. Institutions aren’t terribly agile creatures, after all, and these new spaces do take some getting used to. I wonder if we aren’t more worried about failing in public — especially when we’re the ones who are supposed to know all the things. I think we worry about having agency to make change if we aren’t at the top of the heap, but I believe now is exactly when we need to embrace our roles as agents of change. Learn to incorporate the insights and knowledge of those around us who have as much to gain from innovation as we do.
I still get into trouble sometimes when my emotional response beats out my thoughtful response. Like anything else, people can misread what I’m feeling or simply assume I’m upset. (For the record, being excited, passionate, or animated is not synonymous with being upset.) When you hear of someone’s distrust of social media, what I believe you’re really hearing is that they simply haven’t seen the power and synergy of a community working together. They only know what they’ve heard from others — the terrible trolls, the major missteps, the deluge of candy crush invites in your inbox. Does it take hard work and commitment? Yes. It is hard to be both authentic and transparent in social media. Believe me, I can attest to this. It’s often painful. But it’s kind of like parenting. (Also painful.) When I don’t pretend to have all the answers, when I don’t insist on being the only voice in the room, people tend to cut me some slack — especially when I misstep — and are generally much more respectful and supportive of my efforts. They believe I’m trying to do the right thing, even when it needs some obvious course correction. I may not love all the feedback I get, but being inclusive and honest is, overall, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Even if it is painfully transparent.