The long trail of conversations best forgotten

I recently purged nearly a decade's worth of tweets on my Twitter account last month, going from over 51,000 posts to around 1,500. There's been a lot of talk about this sort of thing around the internet, in the wake of alt-right trolls tanking the careers of movie directors or attempting to do so to former colleagues. I'm certain that in the ten or so years I've been on Twitter, I've never really tweeted anything controversial, but if there's any one lesson out of some of these instances, it's that there's a lot that can be taken out of context and warped in ways that are unpleasant. 

This comes at a time when I've been really thinking about the uses of social media and been thinking about how I approach talking on the internet. Last year, I interviewed horror author Joe Hill, and the topic of Twitter and social media came up, which provided some real revelations for me, particularly in how he notes that sites like Twitter and Facebook can really isolate people and bring out their worst behaviors. As social creatures, we're really not well suited to working in really large communities. In smaller structures, we can easily self-regulate our behavior: someone who steps out of line will get attached with a considerable social stigma, whereas when they're able to network and pool their personalities together, that job gets harder — a job that companies like Twitter, Facebook, and others have completely ignored. Angry people is good business: it helps with engagement when you can rile yourself up in your own little echo chamber. 

The actions of various companies over the last year have really only reinforced this perception for me. Bad behavior that is really, truly detrimental just doesn't have consequences attached to it. It's weird, because when I was a teenager exploring the internet, the forums I belonged to were typically moderated. Bad behavior would earn you a time-out or a ban. The new wave of companies that followed prized growth over healthy communities, and now we're in today.

Facebook reminds me that I've been on the platform since 2006: I remember the hype around it when I first joined: an exclusive, college-only social network that wasn't as ugly as MySpace. Looking back on those early days, I cringe as the types of things that I was posting. There are conversations, complaints, and memories that would have otherwise faded with time, preserved in silicone and electrons. As a historian, that long tail of thoughts is really cool, because I can go back and mine that past for contemporary thoughts on ... whatever it was I was vaguebooking about. But it's not healthy to dwell over, or to have hanging over one's head, especially when there's the threat that it can be weaponized against you.  

This never really seemed to be a problem with blogs: Facebook and Twitter are great for dashing off thoughts that might have otherwise been deleted in a longer blog post, and the various services out there have tools to reward such impulsive thoughts, with Like buttons, favestars, and commenting sections. It's hard to ignore the rush that a bunch of notifications brings! 

But chasing the endorphin high that those reactions bring just isn't healthy in the long run, and they should be treated like the short-term missives that they are: available for a short while, then thrust out of mind. I've found myself being more thoughtful about what I post to Facebook and Twitter. I've gotten tired of the inane and continual outraged grind when it comes to politics and culture, the people shouting into the voice because it feels like it's better than doing nothing. I've muted vast chunks of my friends list on Facebook, and consider who I follow on Twitter. Social Media is a firehoses of information, and we provide a conduit straight into our brains. Cutting out the aggressive connections with no interest in anything other than mindless anger is a huge relief — not because it provides me with a nice, safe echo-chamber, but because pulling out the loudest voices gives more space to those who are measured and thoughtful. In theory. I'm still muting and hiding people, but it's at least manageable.

I've often said that if I didn't need Facebook or Twitter for work, I probably wouldn't have them. I don't know how true that actually is, because I like what these services provide: connections to people I know (even if I don't necessarily want to see what they have to say all the time). It removes some of the cost of staying in touch, which is a valuable thing. But I'd like to keep drawing back on my reliance of them, going instead to longer-form blogging and online journals that I came of age with. 

Social Media and the 501st Legion

As social media and associated platforms grow in relevance in everyday user lives, so too has the importance of utilizing such platforms to the general public for any organization, to promote its successes of its events and members to further grow and prosper as an organization with such a charity focus as the 501st Legion. Over the past couple of years, I’ve helped promote the 501st Legion online through Facebook and Twitter in an effort to help spread the word about the organization to the general public. On the first day that groups were opened outside of school networks, I created the official 501st Group, which I still screen members for based on our group rosters, and when fan pages were first created, I set one up for the group, with the intention that it might hold the place of an official page, as well as one for the New England Garrison. At some point, an official 501st twitter feed was put together by Legion Public Relations Officer Dean Plantamura, which has been continually updated. The New England Garrison twitter feed was put together, which I have since taken over in my role of Garrison Archivist. I had recently provided a similar document to the 501st, and have adapted it with the intent that it could be used by other people who are looking for best practices to promote organizations online, but also for people to think about how they use the internet and social media.

Social Media is an incredibly helpful tool for organizations. As of writing this, the 501st Fan Page has garnered 12,393 fans, while the NEG total runs to 776 total fans. The NEG likewise has 243 followers on twitter (following 102 feeds, mainly local troopers, other garrisons and other geek-related people), while the 501st feed has 4,211 followers and follows 57 people total (Celebrities, official Star Wars related organizations and garrisons). The large number of people following the group, and the level of interactivity that has been noted is a positive one, and allows the 501st legion to address and speak with fans, potential members and organizations in a public setting.

As Social Media is a tool, users and moderators must be mindful of the end result that they are trying to achieve, the overall purpose of the utilization of the tools, and select the proper tools accordingly. People have been organizing themselves into social networks since the dawn of mankind, and this development in the wired world should come as no surprise to anyone, as the seeds of how the internet will be used to connect people have been planted for several years now. As such, it is a tool that should be utilized in the best way possible. (Source)

Facebook is the best example of social media at the moment. According to its website: there are over 500 million active users, and with at least 50% of those users logging in on any given day. In addition to that, there are over 900 million objects (defined as pages, groups, events and community pages), with the average user connected to around 80 of these objects. Facebook also cites 30 billion content items are shared each month. (Statistics from Facebook) This is a company that is designed to connect people with a number of objects, places, and people over the course of each day. (Source)

One of the issues that I’ve noticed with some garrisons and similar organizations is the way that they promote themselves within Facebook, but use the wrong tools available for the job, or that such efforts aren’t followed through on: questions go unanswered, and spam piles up.

Facebook currently allows for several options for the 501st Legion:

Personal Page: A page can be created for any given person in the legion, or for a garrison as a whole, which users can befriend and communicate with. This is the least desirable option for a public relations page for the group, as it is a fairly closed system that permits only a select number of people to befriend (with a waiting period for the owner to accept them) Specific users can be banned, but in this option, the drawbacks are greater than the benefits. The best use for such an element is for someone to befriend legion members on the behalf of a garrison, or for an internal garrison roster, where information can be distributed to members on the platform.

Group: Likewise, Groups are a somewhat closed system, but can allow for open access for the general public, while retaining the ability to hide some information for users, or to lock out specific users. The 501st has an official group, of which only official members with a TK ID and Honorary members are allowed to join. This group is not actively updated. The best use for something like this is for select people to join (garrison or 501st legion members) to discuss garrison events or communicate with one another within the context of the 501st legion.

Fan Pages: This element represents the best option for garrisons or other legion elements to present themselves to the general public. Information can be placed for the public to see, such as news articles, specific topics, or to solicit information from the fan base of the group. This also represents a good location for public information on the legion, such as relevant reference links. The best purpose for a group is public relations with non-members, and presents a place for non-members to ask questions of the legion and its members.

All three locations have specific uses for specific actions and intentions, and Garrison members should be mindful of these uses as they are designing them. While a closed system such as a personal account can be locked down for non-members, and certain things can be discussed, things like fan pages can be opened to the public, and certain things can be viewed by the general public. As such, all elements should require constant supervision by an appointed or volunteer moderator to ensure that the image of the legion is upheld, and that appropriate conduct is visible to members and non-members alike.

In one incident recently, a disgruntled member who had been banned from the internal forums had accessed the 501st Legion page and posted a gallery of screen shots of an incident that had ended up with his dismissal. This was not the appropriate location for such discussion in a public place, and the entry was promptly deleted. Similar incidents with spam postings, inappropriate language, insults and other conduct have been noted, and are removed when found.

Moderation is needed for the most public areas of such sites, to prevent this sort of thing from lasting too long on the site, and proving to be a negative experience for the legion. However, moderators should allow genuine critical comments and not be overly heavy-handed when it comes to deleting comments. Statements, pictures, and links that are overly hateful, inappropriate, solicit non-legion activities and other obvious things ('All members, friend me!', 'Click here to donate', and so forth are examples that have been removed). The idea is to foster a positive community that people who follow the organization can look at and contribute to.

Moderators also need to be aware that they are representing the Legion as a whole, and people unable to cope with this responsibility should not be in charge of a page. One of the most crucial lessons that need to be learned for anybody using the internet is that there is no privacy, and there should not be the expectation of privacy: where this is the case with an individual, it should be noted for an organization as well. While the 501st Legion is a diverse group, conflicts such as the ones noted above are elements that should be limited in the public’s eye; such actions disrupt the public image that any organization is trying to promote.

Fortunately, the 501st’s fan base is a good, robust one. A large number of fans on the 501st page have shown to be helpful, directing people who might otherwise not find costuming and reference links, showing people where to join in their area, and allowing the Legion as a whole to demonstrate causes and charities that it frequently works with. The ~12,000 fan base allows for the legion to direct support to local garrisons, similar organizations and causes as well. Recently, the Georgia Garrison put out a call for fans to invite others with the hope that they could reach 100 members in the two weeks prior to Dragon*Con. This call was replicated and tagged on the 501st page, and the Georgia Garrison was able to reach and exceed that goal within a day. Similar actions have been taken, with comparable results. On author, Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) on twitter, has produced what is called the Neil Gaiman Effect, where he has accidentally taken down websites by directing an incredible amount of attention to said sites, requiring the webmasters to work and get them back up again. This is part of the power of social media.

The use of twitter is common amongst garrisons, and the 501st has utilized this to highlight announcements, news articles, update fans from events, and to communicate with fans who might have questions. The Legion's feed entries are often copied to the Facebook page, and have been used to retweet links, statements and pictures from fans who post up relevant information.

The New England Garrison has a relatively small presence when it comes to social media. While it boasts nearly 800 fans, the fans are relatively quiet, interacting with the site minimally, whereas the legion site has a much higher active number of participants who 'like' and comment on posts. Similarly, with twitter, there are few direct messages or @ replies to the garrison as a whole.

The NEG likewise posts up public events to the Facebook page, with the relevant details: location, time and description, and allows members to invite people to events, which has brought people who otherwise might have missed such events (members who are not frequently up to date on garrison activities, friends and family who might not have otherwise been known about events, etc). These event listings are helpful, and allow members to keep track of garrison activities through where most people go each day. Care needs to be taken that private events not be posted up for safety and privacy concerns: birthday parties, or other non-public events.

The 501st Legion has the ability to post up events, but the framework and logistics are not in place for effective coverage of the Garrison's activities as a whole. This does remain a possibility, and there are other activities that the legion and garrison can do to reward the large number of fans that it's gained - contests have been staged at milestones, and certainly, the page can be used to solicit images, stories, and other items.

To conclude, Social Media is an important tool for legion members and non-fans to interact with the legion and their local Garrisons, and the appropriate, official venues for such things should be sought out.

Care and dedication needs to be put forward by said groups, in order to ensure that timely, accurate and appropriate information is directed to the general public in the best manner possible, while removing information and comments that would otherwise be inappropriate for the Legion to be associated with.

Legion members should foster a constant and relevant relationship with fans - answering questions in a timely manner and posting up information that reflects the efforts of the members that keeps the public engaged.

Utilization of social media helps to foster relationships with fans, potential members and members of the legion, as well as local businesses and organizations who might be willing to partner with the legion and its members.

The results thus far have demonstrated that the Legion has a positive experience thus far from the technology, and that it will need to continue such a presence, on an official, and local level. The lessons that have been demonstrated with the legion’s experience with social media are ones that should be learned and implemented by other organizations to help utilize social media to its fullest potential.


Earlier this year, Wired Magazine tried out something using twitter, #1b1t (1 Book, 1 Twitter), based off of a Chicago literary program called 1 Book, 1 Chicago. The first book chosen by vote was Neil Gaiman's American Gods, published in 2001, and which has since gone on to receive wide acclaim. It was a book that I had picked up while I was in high school, and had read, over the course of several years, picking it up and putting it away as other distractions came up. Ever since, I've been looking for a good excuse to pick the book back up and re-read the entire thing (especially now that I pay far better attention to what I'm reading), and this seemed to be as good an opportunity as any.

American Gods is an absolutely stunning novel, and one that I've grown to like over the past couple of years as I've gone back to remember what it was about. Re-reading the book this time around proved to be an enlightening experience. My opinions about the book have not changed, and indeed, having now fully understood the story, and with more of a head for storytelling, characters, writing and everything else that goes into a novel, I was impressed once again with the rich story that Gaiman had put together.

The book is the story of America, reaching deep into the roots of the country and providing one of the best examples of Americana that I can think of. Gaiman examines the spiritual core (or lack thereof) in America, spinning a story that pits new gods against old, with Shadow, an ex-con fascinated by coin tricks, at the center of it all. Interludes go back into the past and present of various gods incarnated, walking amongst the people, struggling to reclaim their former glory. Norse, Egyptian, Slavic and others populate the story, as Shadow, and his handler, Wednesday, go to gain support for the older gods, who run the risk at being pushed aside by Modern society and all that it brings. While doing so, Gaiman layers on an intense story that carries multiple facets, with smaller storylines ultimately supporting the larger ones, in a very rewarding fashion. The book is a rich literary soup, and is one to be savored. I have no doubts that I'll return in the future for more.

The crowdsourcing efforts that had been put together was an incredibly interesting one to me. While I doubt that everyone on Twitter was reading the book (maybe a fraction?), it was interesting to watch the updates fly past as people around the world read the same thing that I did, at the same time (or roughly the same time - I suspect that there are still people finishing up the book). What I liked the most about it though, was that this didn't come across as a major viral marketing scheme, publicity stunt or some other event that was designed to sell books to readers. This is the value of the internet at its heart, allowing people to gather, discuss and connect across the world over common subjects. It's a little wishy-washy, (and I'm sure that Gaiman and his publishers are quite thrilled at this), and I believe that it served as a good avenue for discussion, that's user-borne, rather than organization borne.

American Gods, I thought, was a surprising choice for such a project. The book had been out for just under a decade, and in the speculative fiction genre, but, about America, a place that is just one of many that twitter extends to. Reading over the book, however, I can see that this was probably one of the best books to have started such a project with. While taking place in America, the book is about other places, all brought together in a void in the world: America, where Gods did not exist naturally, and where they cannot stay. Despite what a lot of people think about the country, it is still a melting pot, and I suspect that even overseas readers found a bit of their home transplanted with their long distant relatives who have come across to the country.

At the same time, I finished this book right after I finished another classic author of Americana: John Steinbeck's To A God Unknown, of which this book is an almost perfect companion to, looking at the nature of faith and of higher power, and my feelings on American Gods were undoubtedly helped along by reading that book.

If you haven't read it, Gaiman's book is easily one of the best that I've ever read, and easily an early classic in the genre, one that I cannot wait to return to. If you have, you should read it again. The story of faith, living gods and folklore make this a superb, thought-provoking read.

The Geek Community

There's a television show that came out a couple of years ago, called Freaks and Geeks. I've watched through it a couple of times, and have really enjoyed what I've seen, but there's always been one thing that's bothered me: the kids in the school really hate being called a geek. They're repulsed by it, go to great lengths to avoid the term, altering their own behavior, and things like that. Part of this, I know, comes from a lot of the negative connotations with the word, which I've always found troubling, and another part is the times, and the possession of some hindsight.

Geeks are cool these days, for a lot of reasons, and there's a lot of writing on the walls that says so. Avatar, and a number of other science fiction, fantasy or horror films topped the box office for monetary totals, Neil Gaiman's book, American Gods was the first book to be chosen for an international, interactive book club on twitter, and so on. There is an entire sub-culture blooming that centers around every element that had once been only reserved for the geeks exiled to the back of the cafeteria.

It's not the material, however, that really determines if any one person is a geek or a nerd, it's largely in how they perceive the world, approach problems and how they value knowledge. I've come to understand that in a large part, reading Lord of the Rings, the Foundation Trilogy, watching Star Wars or Star Trek a hundred times or obsessing over movie rumors is something that appeals to those of a more geek-oriented mindset. It might be something about the way authors construct totally new and alien worlds, landscapes and events in all forms of media, or it might be some more basic desire to explore, and more importantly, to learn, about something.

I had a friend of mine tell me, when we lived in London, that she found me to be very passionate about any number of subjects: history, science fiction, travel, whereas she noted that she felt that she lacked that. I don't know if that was the case, but I do know that I'm not alone in that mindset, and I don't think that it's something that's grown or changed. I suspect that a very real reason for why geek culture is really something that's become somewhat more popular is the ability for people to really begin to talk with one another. Since high school, I've begun to realize just how vast the 'geek community' is, because it reaches into so many subjects and places. My earliest experiences with this sort of networking goes back over ten years, to Star Wars message forums (TFN Boards,, and various EU book sites), to major blogs and their commenting abilities (such as Boing Boing, io9, SF Signal,, to name just a couple) to things like facebook and twitter, which allow for their own cross-communications to spring up and flourish.

Geeks like information, I've come to understand, and the best thing to happen to Geek culture is to have the ability to share and create information across the board with the internet, where it's easy to find and to distribute, through any number of means. We talk about books, films, comics and concepts, across the world or with a simple meet up in a library or bookstore to create a rich environment that really allows for something special: community.

Community is important, I think, much in the same way why groups such as Gangs, the Boy Scouts and After School programs exist: they give people a sense of purpose, belonging and a place to exchange ideas amongst their peers - this has always been the case. In 1940s England, Science Fiction fan clubs sprang up across the country, often with small groups in individual towns, which would later coalesce into larger groups with time. The same thing happened in the United States, and throughout these groups, members wrote letters to each other and magazines, gathered in homes, small conventions, to discuss what they had been reading and often, their own works, giving rise to science fiction writers in their own right. The same thing has happened in the digital age.

Thus, these interactions and groupings really are important, especially to those lonely kids in Freaks and Geeks, who had no one to turn to - they turned to each other, and supported (sometimes) their friends when needed. The same is true, here, because when that happens, new ideas are exchanged, created and brought to fruition, in a fantastic fashion.

History in 140 Characters

A couple weeks ago, the Library of Congress announced that they had acquired the expensive backlog of tweets from Twitter, adding in millions of bits of information to the archives. While each tweet is no more than 140 characters, it will likely represent one of the larger collections that the Library holds, preserving quite a lot of information for the long foreseeable future. It also sounds like it will be one of the more ridiculous holding that the Library holds, for with that mess of information contains abbreviations, thousands of individual statements and other 'useless' bits of information that in and of itself has little practical value. I was incredulous at the news at first, simply wondering why anyone would be interested in such a thing. However, it's since occurred to me that the massive amount of information that Twitter has acquired is a unique look into a society.

Twitter in and of itself is a communications tool. It's one that I've thought of as a ridiculous waste of time, not good for much, as have my friends and co-workers, who see its 140 character limit as something that is not only limiting, but a form of preening communication. I've come to use it myself, and while there are certainly a lot of people out there who'll say things for no reason at all, I've found that it's a fairly good, informal way to keep in touch with some people, businesses, and as a way to distribute information.

I follow several news sources, such as the BBC and the New York Times, which updates constantly on the news of the moment. But I also follow a number of celebrities, websites and figures, and find that at points, it's an interesting way to get an inside look into what is going on at their end. Craig Engler, the SVP & GM of Digital for the SyFy channel, regularly updates fans on some inside information on how the television business works, as does David Blue, who stars in SyFy's Stargate Universe. There's numerous other people in addition to that list, but it's also an interesting way to keep in touch with several other friends that I don't normally speak with in other channels.

Beyond that, the acquisition of Twitter by the Library of Congress makes a bit of sense when you look at the archive as a whole. Millions of people have signed up for the service, and there's a large number of people who do use the service. While it's not necessarily representative of the population as a whole, it is a highly visible, print record of people talking to each other, about everything. With that in mind, consider that a recent study found that by analysing tweets across the world, by keyword and frequency, researchers could accurately predict what a film's opening weekend take at the box office would be. While that's just one somewhat frivolous thing to study, imagine taking that study and applying it to the reaction to the Haitian, Chilian or Tibetan earthquakes that just occurred. Or a major presidential election, social events, major news stories and so on. People talk about these items, and by placing it into the Library of Congress, it essentially becomes historical record, for future historians to read and study long after we're gone. Individually, the tweets probably can't tell you much, but as a whole, there's a lot that can probably be learned, especially when you look at social mediums.

Beyond websites such as Twitter, there are numerous other blogs, wikis and other, more substantial websites that offer much more than 140 characters. With my own site, I try and work on analysis, review, and research, often presenting an argument that I try and prove with backed up information. Authors of numerous genres and backgrounds publish a great variety of information, and in all likelihood, internet authorship will rival print media in the nearish future.

As the internet becomes more ingrained into everyday life, it will be important to take a closer look into finding ways to preserve what is said, either social media sites, such as Facebook, Myspace, Flickr, Wordpress, and even e-mail. In the past, historians relied on what they could find relating to a source: photographs, letters, journals, which show a small window and limited view into any given events. The diary of a Civil War soldier might tell much about him, but not about the war as a whole. With hundreds of journals together, a much different picture emerges. The same goes with websites like Twitter. Historians of the future will likely have greater resources at looking at our time long in the future. Their challenges will be to sort through it all.

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