Getting Experimental: Social Media as Daily Writing Practice During COVID-19

Andrew Neel. Unsplash.

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This post by Jessica McDonald is the sixth in a series asking how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected, or might affect, research, writing, and scholarly work in the environmental humanities.

Since March 16th, the first workday after my campus in Saskatoon shut down, classes went remote, and the call to #StayAtHome started to gain influence, I have been writing a lot. I’ve been writing a ton! But it’s not the kind of writing you might expect, nor the kind of writing that academia has tended to value.

I’ve been writing, pretty much daily, on Instagram. Sometimes on Facebook. But certainly, in general, on social media. I’ve been writing, posting, captioning, and sharing in ways that, before that pivotal day, March 16th, I had not been doing as regularly, critically, or enthusiastically.

Engaging on social media has therefore become a kind of daily writing practice for me, during this troubled time, supplementing my more formal outlets for writing, such as my now more intimidating Word documents housing in-progress articles. I have been writing, researching, and thinking through with social media in the time of COVID-19.

Documenting the personal-professional self in the midst of an evening of work. Author’s Instagram story. July 20.

Following NiCHE Social Media Editor Jessica DeWitt’s critical declaration that “being one’s self online is a political act,” my social media writing practice has taken a variety of forms that reflect my combined personal-professional self: my Instagram grid and story archive act as a scrapbook of my baking, beverages, and daily walks, my DnD sessions and childhood pictures, but they also document my work on water stewardship and Canadian identity for ALECC’s recent online conference, and my reactions to Zoe Todd’s transformative work on fish, oil, and relationships with more-than-human beings. I’ve used Insta as a citational device to share the work of others, like @blackgeogorg on environmental racism, and I’ve “live-streamed” my reading by posting heat-of-the-moment responses to books from Learning Online: The Student Experience to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. So, it provides a real mixed bag of content, this daily writing practice of mine.

But from the perspective of a scholar, and one who fiercely questions the settler-colonial, ableist, classist, and gendered logics behind many of academia’s researching and writing mechanisms (logics made more pronounced by the pandemic, as DeWitt expresses in her contribution to this series), I’ve found in my new writing practice some unexpected but happy benefits:

Experimentation in tone and style: Academia trains many of us to excel in a certain kind of writing, employ a particular vocabulary, organize our thoughts into well-developed arguments. But these conventions go out the window when you’re trying to fit an idea within a 24-hour Insta story, or into a 2200 (Insta) or 280 (Twitter) character limit. My social media writing practice has therefore required me to get experimental with expressing ideas in different styles and length. On Instagram, I might be sillier, more emotional, snarkier (!), deliberately vague, or far more confessional. The affective dimensions of the thinking and writing I do on social media are integral to the ideas I share, rather than dimensions I might need to tone down to fit the spirit of an academic journal. My writerly voice and academic persona are, therefore, becoming more playful and generating ideas and exchanges in ways that will reverberate beyond this period. Not to mention: writing in snippets, like the kind typical of an Insta story, is a vital reminder that ideas don’t need to be expressed in long or elaborate ways to make an impact.

A “live” re-reading of Johanna Hedva’s Sick Woman Theory. Author’s Instagram story. July 23.

Immediate audience: Unlike most of the academic writing I’ve done, which tends not to see another reader’s eyes until it’s quite polished, my social media writing receives an audience as soon as it’s drafted: it’s typical for me to get within-the-day feedback and dialogue. Both in private (DMs, text message follow-ups) and not-so-private (comments on the post, re-shares to other pages) ways, my social media writing has fostered more direct conversation with readers than my formal writing projects. And I’ve learned a lot from folks’ differing responses, such that the resulting dialogue becomes a learning and accountability tool for myself. Through this immediate interaction, I have also built solidarity networks and made connections in surprising ways, both inside and outside of academia. And because my Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter link me to people from across communities, not just academics, the writing I do on these platforms reaches beyond the academy in ways that some of my journal articles — even open-access ones! — might never do. Plus, privacy settings, such as my ability to go public or private depending on context, mean that I have some control over who can engage with my work.

Seeking help with phrasing on a project-in-progress. Author’s Instagram story. June 30.

Advantages of ephemeral work: The majority of the daily writing I do on social media is through Instagram’s 24-hour stories function. These stories are not ephemeral in the absolute sense: viewers can, of course, screenshot them, record them, or otherwise document them, and the stories can be saved in your Instagram archive. But, generally speaking, these posts will disappear after twenty-four hours. There is something about this ephemerality that helps me produce new ideas, and faster, while it also means lower stakes: these ideas can be intellectually riskier, more creative, experimental. The short-term nature of Insta stories also helps me put into practice the value of uncertainty that I have written about on Hook and Eye, and which is part of my scholarly and ethical practice. In the low-stakes space of the Instagram story, you are permitted to be uncertain in ways that might not translate easily to other writing or academic contexts. Approximating the same temporal qualities of an academic conference, the transitory Insta story provides a test-ground for the in-progress, the unfinished, and the rough around the edges.

Caption: Live-reading George Veletsianos’s Learning Online: The Student Experience. Author’s Instagram story. July 14.

The power of visuals and emojis: Researchers have long used visuals to convey their findings, but graphics have not really been part of my previously published research. The power of visuals and, in particular, emojis is therefore a newfound one for me to wield toward the ends of experimental and provocative scholarly practice. Emojis have helped me become more expressive in my reading, writing, and research. The fire emoji helps me fangirl about transformative scholarship — a quick co-sign, an approving citation. The see-no-evil monkey emoji can be short-form for self-critique — a thought or act for which I want to hold myself accountable. And the side-eye emoji, oftentimes, does more concise, effective work, and in a more revealing way, than if I were to verbosely describe my unimpressed response to . . . well, something unimpressive. Playing around with these visual markers to summarize complex thoughts pushes me to disseminate my research more creatively and by appealing to different senses and emotions.

Response to Tweets from @ZoeSTodd on COVID-19 and academia. Author’s Instagram stories. June 26.
Response to Tweets from @ZoeSTodd on COVID-19 and academia. Author’s Instagram stories. June 26.

It’s true that I’ve focused here on the unexpected gifts of my experience writing on social media, but I’m deeply aware of the risks and reasons why scholars, and users in general, need to be informed about and deliberate with their social media practice. Algorithms that structure feeds, for example, are infrastructural forces that can produce the online experience for better, yes, but also for worse, as Safiya Umoja Noble shows in Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. And as a cis woman and white settler, my privileges mean I can navigate online spaces in ways that would be far riskier for folks who, by nature of their identities, face unjust and violent backlash to their digital selves. As Aimée Morrison says in the long-pinned tweet on her Twitter profile, “Internet shitstorms rain down disproportionately on the marginalized.”

But I’m focusing on these benefits because I’m deliberately writing against a backdrop of what I see as an insidious, most often ableist, certainly gendered, and in other ways problematic manner of public thinking about social media — thinking that I often hear, anecdotally, from other academics. This line of thought sees social media use as “vapid” or “meaningless” or “attention-seeking,” to quote DeWitt’s recent thread on the stigma of social media, while it writes off the complex and powerful ways that users harness social media toward transformation and justice. After all, for people whose power is threatened by action taking place online, it is easier to disregard users, as Dorothy Kim writes, by grouping them into an imagined Twitter “mob,” with “all the intended racialized, gendered, ableist, and settler colonial power dynamics” of that language, than to take seriously the disruptive, ground-shaking digital work undertaken by the many varieties of people who use social media.

Thinking through the question of who is able to “opt out” of social media, here featuring @AliciaATobin. Author’s Instagram story. June 17.

This period of daily writing via social media has been anything but trivial to me, even if the traditional (and outdated) logics of academia suggest that I should, more sensibly, focus on my formal writing pursuits. Indeed, this informal writing practice feels pivotal and energizing as I think about how I’d like to move forth in my future and career, what contributions I can make to community and justice, and how I can mobilize what I’ve learned and the work I do toward social change.

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Jessica McDonald is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University who currently lives and works in Treaty 6 territory and the homeland of the Métis. She researches contemporary writing from Canada, and her work explores the relationship between literature and social and environmental justice.

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