Saturday, 18 February 2012

Gradations of self-awareness in blogging

The simple, self-publicising blog post:

In May, I will be going to the CILIP in Wales Conference in Cardiff. On the Friday, I’ll be on a panel with some amazing people and presenting a workshop with fellow Voices member, Ian Anstice. I’m massively pleased to have been asked and I’m really looking forward to it. The theme is leadership and I’m glad for the opportunity to consider my own leadership potential and to talk about the topic. It’s so important in these interesting times that we all speak up for the profession and… etc. etc.

The analysis of leadership that I really want to write:

I’m not a leader. I’m not special. I don’t feel that I am someone to be emulated. All I’ve ever done is faked it.

Basically I don’t feel like I’ve done anything special. I’ve written some articles and presentations to share some of my ideas and I’ve tried to campaign for public libraries: dashing off some emails to newspapers and MPs and occasionally doing a nervous radio interview. Maybe I helped the campaign in North Yorkshire but I certainly wasn’t a leader of a campaign group and it was nothing like what other people have done, in Gloucestershire for example.

Most people could have done the things that I have done. Which, if you really think about it, is simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic.

Why I wouldn’t write that blog post:

Although the CILIP Wales invitation makes me feel like a complete fraud, I still feel the need to perpetuate that fraud. Over the past few years, I’ve carefully cultivated a persona and acted on so much of the pseudo-management speak in the library community about ‘personal branding’ and ‘marketing oneself’ that the disconnect between the professional-Simon and the personal-Simon now feels like an unmanageable gulf. This invitation to be on a panel of “leaders in the Information and Library profession” makes me feel as though ‘SimonXIX’ has become a stage creation – an identity to wear on the library community stage and an identity which is drifting further and further away from ‘Simon Barron’. Or, to use an analogy closer to my heart, if SimonXIX is my Batman persona – an identity consciously created for an express purpose – then which is really the mask: Batman or Bruce Wayne?

The sentence that came to mind – the sentence that I really wanted to write or tweet or whatever – was ‘If someone like me is regarded as some kind of leader in this profession, then the profession is in deeper trouble than I thought’. Which is not only simultaneously arrogant and disgustingly self-deprecating but also insulting to the wider library community to which I attach myself.

And the instant I thought that sentence – which, despite the above-mentioned disgust, I think of as quite a clever and well-formed sentence with its layers of implication and right tone of Woody Allen-style condensed wit and self-deprecation – I knew that I couldn’t tweet it. Because in creating SimonXIX, I’ve built up an audience and the Paradox of Audience is that having people read your work makes you less free to write what you want to write.

There are now two obvious reactions for you, the reader. The first is to ask what arrogance drives me to think that this blog has an audience: the word ‘audience’ here is used very loosely to refer to the approximately 1800 people who Blogger tells me view at least one page every month (the actual number of people will even be considerably less than that since that figure refers to ‘pageviews’ including multiple visits by one person: for all I know, the 1800 pageviews could be generated by a single, very enthusiastic reader. If so, hello to you). The fact, which it’s not very modest to say, is that I do have a readership and I am aware of them. The second reaction on the part of you, the reader, would be to say "Fine: if you want to be free, I won’t read your blog then" and wander off to some other corner of the Web. I’m trying hard to not appear ungrateful: I’m glad that people read what I write; I’m glad that this effort isn’t a completely onanistic exercise. I’m just trying to express the truth even if that truth is uncomfortable.

Anyway, the Paradox of Audience. Having an audience has a constraining effect because I am aware that there are people out there judging what I’ve written. Being aware of this means in that in some ways what I write is altered to match the (perceived) expectations of that (perceived) audience. So, coming back to the case in hand, to write about feeling like a fraud and feeling that I don’t want to be seen as a leader would undermine the SimonXIX who gets invited to go talk at conferences about being a leader (and the fact is that going to Wales and meeting people sounds fun and exciting and I wouldn’t want to sabotage that). It also runs counter to the aforementioned ‘personal branding’, ‘we’re-all-self-employed-now’ ideology that is predominant among young library folk like myself.

As another example, consider swearing in a professional context. One of my colleagues (who I hope won’t mind me mentioning this) seems all-too-aware that swearing as part of his/her professional persona appears, to some members of his/her audience, unprofessional and offensive. By cultivating a wide audience of people with diverse attitudes to swearing, this person becomes less free to indulge in casual (but appropriate, I’m sure) swearing.

And so, being aware of this Paradox of Audience makes me see that I’ve become trapped in a cage of my own creation. As my popularity grows (arrogance again), I feel less able to take off the SimonXIX mask. Bruce Wayne now has to be Batman all the time.

The motivation behind this blog post:

This blog post is really intended as a long explanation of why I’ve not been blogging much lately and to give an insight into the gradations of self-awareness that layer themselves inside the head of the young over-educated philosopher-cum-librarian. Over the past month, I feel like I should have blogged about National Libraries Day, Library Day in the Life Round 8 and my not-altogether-positive-thoughts on the This is What a Librarian Looks Like tumblr (which, while I’m already alienating my audience, I might write about anyway). The overall post is best viewed as an apology.

The secondary motivation behind this blog post:

Underneath these concerns about perception and self-identity, I’m aware that despite complaining about the professional-identity mask, I’m now writing about that mask without the mask on. And I’m aware that writing this blog post about my difficulty writing simple blog posts is a perverse way to drum up sympathy. It’s a way to get friends and colleagues to look at me, to pay attention to me, and to make them/you say, ‘No, Simon: don’t be silly. Of course you’re talented. Of course you’re deserving of attention. Of course you’re a leader.’ It’s a way for me to say ‘Look. Look at me. Look at the labyrinths of self-analysis inside my mind. Look at my suffering. Look at how I match the stereotype of the tormented genius. Look at me. Look.’ This motivation is again produced by the self-disgusting arrogance mentioned throughout.

The motivation behind the above paragraph:

And it strikes me that this whole meta-analysis is really nothing more than an attempt to reflect the writing style of some of my favourite authors – David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen – all of whom, to some degree, wrote about the horrors of being young, successful, white, and middle-class (I’m also aware of the influence of recently reading Stewart Lee’s (excellent) autobiography, How I Escaped My Certain Fate). Being aware of this motivation makes me feel horribly whiny and privileged and I’m sure I don’t need to enumerate the myriad injustices and social problems that are more worthy of a 1500+ word document.

And this awareness of consciously aping someone else’s writing style, as well as being pathetic and indicative of a failure to develop my own style, leads to concerns about the apologetic tone of this self-indulgent post. Even using the term ‘self-indulgent’ is a way to acknowledge that I’m aware how selfish this post is and to imply my apologies to you, the reader. When working on the enquiry desk at work, I often say "Sorry" to library users more than is strictly necessary ie. simply when enforcing the rules which the users should be aware of and which by rights ‘the library’ (in the form of me, a representative from the library staff) should not apologise for. And I wonder how much this excessive apologising is a subconscious way to ingratiate people towards me by prostrating myself before them, humbling myself, and appearing to be the morally ‘bigger man’.

The motivation behind this whole ‘stepping outside myself’:

And I’m worried that maybe I’m writing this whole Russian-nesting-doll analysis of the psychology of blogging to seem clever. To show off how postmodern I can be. So that someone – probably the single reader postulated above – can look at this, momentarily think "Oh, that’s clever", and then wander off to look at pictures of cats-not-eating-cheeseburgers or whatnot. Whereas in reality, the likely reaction for you, the reader, is to think "What a pretentious arse and what a waste of my time".

And after hitting publish:

All of which is why, instead of my customary practice of consciously posting blog posts at a time when I know a lot of people will be at their computers, I’m posting on a Saturday morning. And instead of tweeting the link my customary and cynically calculated three times (once in the morning when people first log-in, once at midday when people check their Twitter / RSS feeds at lunch, and once at 1630 to catch Americans logging-in (this whole practice makes me feel like a marketer and therefore disgusted with myself)), I’ll just tweet it once.

Which finally reveals that this is a blog post that I don’t particularly want my audience to read. Partly because at this point taking off the SimonXIX mask feels too risky to my career and future prospects. Partly because I’m embarrassed to be revealing so much about the twisted inner workings of my mind and simultaneously afraid that no-one will relate to this at all.

And why does one write something without wanting it to be read? For catharsis. Perhaps the real motivation behind writing this was to rid my mind of all this dammed-up toxic self-doubt. To explore the limits of the cage I’ve built for myself in the hope that I won’t have to be constrained by it anymore. To get this ugliness inside me out of my mind and into the world because there’s far more space for it in the world than there is my head. In the final analysis, what is one more blog post from one more whiny, over-educated, narcissistic, young WASP?


steph said...

Simon, do you not think that maybe you *are* a leader for all those people who don't see themselves as being leadership material, who do feel like they're acting, and have created some kind of professional persona that they perhaps wouldn't have thought it was possible to create?

Maybe people would want to emulate you, and you help them to see that it is possible to achieve some remarkable things, just by 'acting'.

Annie Johnson said...

Thanks for posting this Simon, I think a lot of bloggers will read this and be glad someone has voiced what they have been thinking. I certainly am, even though I doubt very much anyone will ever suggest I'm a leader of anything!

libchris said...

I suspect if you talked to most 'leaders', they would have the same doubts inside. When one gets a chance to talk to most leaders in the profession (and I suspect any profession), one becomes aware that underneath they are really just ordinary people. Having said that - leaders are those who put their nose above the paraphet and who try to change things. The vast majority will never do this. So by your very actions, you prove yourself to be a leader.

Lizzy said...

I'm starting to think that most self-aware people have something that my mentor at work referred to as 'imposter syndrome' - the idea that you're never quite what you should be or what you think other people perceive you as.

As for audience, I would say never self-censor - the audience reads because they're interested in the writing, even if they don't agree. Debate is interesting in itself.

Silversprite said...

Yes, very good etc. But have you seen this?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
timbuckle said...

When I read this blog post I didn't realise it was over a year ago that you wrote it.

I don't think you should focus on the idea of being a leader and living up to that. Just be you. Having been lucky enough to work with you I realise that 'being you' is why you are asked to do these conferences, papers etc. You are fresh and passionate about the library community.

Watching you do all of these incredible things is inspiring to others, whether you want it to be or not and you will continue to do that to many people.

On the subject of blogging and audience needs. I totally understand where you are coming from. When I started my blog nearly 3 years ago I didn't think people would read it. I was selfish I did it for me to help deal with things on my mind. Over the years I have shared my celebrations, worries, fears, doubts and hopes. With this my concern with audiences reaction has increased. Have I upset some people quite likely and that hurts but I still want to continue. This week I nearly made the decision not to do a blog post for various reasons but I will go ahead and do it.

I have always made it clear on my blog that I'm not looking for sympathy or kindness its just my way of dealing with some things. Most people get that but others don't.

Don't stop doing what you are doing. You are a great guy and friend.