Weaving a route from online only communities, to offline only, to a nice balance. A personal journey.
The internet has always been something of a refuge for me as I struggled to deal first with depression & anxiety over the years. With hindsight I’m not surprised that it was one of the places I turned to for support during my time at university. (The other place being the Brighton Peace and Environment Centre where I ran it’s mini-library and information centre as a volunteer during my final year). Whether it’s been on bulletin boards of old to the more fluid and flexible platforms of today, the same sigh has been expressed over the years: “If only I could bring you all together!”
Prior to my Twitter days I went to a number of internet-organised gatherings – some as far back as the year 2000 in what was a surreal summer. I can’t remember how but I stumbled into an online chatroom during the summer that I was doing a placement for the then Lord Chancellor’s Department. As an aside, this came about when I spotted a tiny little advert – about twice the size of a postage stamp that said “Careers in government for people from minority ethnic backgrounds”. Being mixed heritage & brought up in a predominantly White community and neighbourhood (I was one of the few non-White faces in my year groups) I felt that the label didn’t particularly apply to me but sort of felt that other people would assume it would. I get people who’ve only just met me telling me where I’m from – my experience being similar to this.
So I went along, spoke to lots of departments, and no one got back to me…until just before my first year exams a few months later when the Department called me in & offered me a full-time placement for the summer then and there. (It was a 3-month post at EO level). It was this placement that made me aware of the existence of the civil service & what it did – hence setting my heart on it as a career at the time. Well…it almost worked out!
You got side-tracked. Back to online communities.
As I was saying, I started meeting groups of people off the internet as far back as ages ago. Same concept as the Puffles Pub Lunches, just a different medium on slightly dated technology. Internet cafes at slow speeds for me, (The Lord Chancellor’s Department was not internet-enabled at the time – you had to go to a ‘special terminal’ to get internet access – which I found amusing) and dialup for everyone else. But at the time we all got on swimmingly even though we were from completely different and random backgrounds.
These online support networks were clearly making up for something that was missing in my university life. As I spiralled downwards into depression it was far easier for me to stay in my room playing computer games (our own PCs were not networked at the time – those were the days of a very poor and expensive dial-up service) or heading to the internet cafe to email people. “I’m just going out to check my emails!” It seems so quaint nowadays.
After university, I realised that spending all of my time in front of a screen meant that I was seldom meeting people in real life – compounding my depression. It was one of the reasons why I went the other way from about 2003 to about 2009 to focus on face-to-face friendships and relationships.
Those years you could say were my dancing years. As I saw most of my friendship group at the time on a regular basis – several times a week – there was no incentive to start engaging further online. With hindsight, the only thing I had in common with them was the dancing. But such was our intense interest in it (some of us were dancing five nights a week) that this didn’t really matter, as many of our conversations were either dancing or relationship-related.
By 2009 I had spent over a year living in London one way or another and it was clear that I was not settling – as well as having a huge hole in my wallet. For the 18 months to the end of 2010, life took on a monotonous “living to work” feel – getting up very early, coming back late and sleeping through weekends with no social life so to speak of. This lifestyle was a key factor in deciding to leave the civil service. It was not a sustainable way of living.
I was aware that stuff was kicking off on Twitter during the 2010 general election campaign, but didn’t pay too much attention to it because I felt it was far too risky. The election was – as we found out – on a knife edge and my home town was – and still is one of those swing seats. (Held by each of the three main parties in my lifetime here). It was only in late 2010 that my curiosity got the better of me and I launched Puffles – mainly to hide my identity from the sorts of columnists that write nasty unjustified things about public servants.
Fast forward to early 2011 and Sarah Baskerville (who I only got in touch with because of that firestorm if anything to give support) introduced me to everyone at Teacamp. Unlike the Fast Stream Network (which for whatever reason I could never connect with), this group of people seemed to be much more on my wavelength. The Twitter interactions of Puffles’ early days also made a huge difference. In the six-to-eight weeks between Puffles being unleashed and me attending UKGovCamp I was already becoming familiar with various people who all seemed to be fighting for broadly the same thing. “I am not alone!” I screamed silently to myself.
Engaging with a dragon fairy
That’s what people started doing. After the first Teacamp gathering I joined Sarah with Jane O’Loughlin, Sharon O’Dea, Hadley Beeman and Sebastian Crump for drinks…quite a few of them. Because I was – and am tweeting broadly in the persona of a dragon fairy (who was very much a baby back then), the tweets that came back about Puffles sinking a glass of wine bigger than Puffles (no, I haven’t found a suitable personal pronoun for a gender-neutral creature either) were hilarious. Outrage that a baby dragon fairy had been led astray, disappointment that Puffles was growing up so quickly to laying down the law on Puffles’ drinking habits. (*Oops*).
Yet it was these sorts of conversations over Twitter that strengthened the bonds between everyone interested. As well as similar interests in general content, this was the little bit of fun in their timelines. The vision of a little dragon fairy buzzling around Whitehall being a nuisance was a charming one for some. Especially those working in the public sector!
Journalists start following
One of the reasons for picking a dragon fairy as a creature was that it would be small and inconspicuous enough not to be spotted by anyone. (For the full story, see here). Then in what felt like a matter of days, Polly Curtis and Tom Clark of The Guardian, and Mark Henderson, then Science Editor of The Times all started following in very quick succession. Around this time, Sally Bercow also started following. (I’ll let them explain why they chose to follow Puffles!) It was at this time I started asking myself what I had unleashed. I asked myself whether I would be able to keep my profile under wraps until I left the civil service (and got my redundancy money to clear my debts – yes they are a curse) or whether I’d face my own Baskersgate-style firestorm and be sacked in disgrace for something I may have accidentally re-tweeted. Hence why I asked Soph Warnes – who barely knew me at the time – to publish some house rules that I could then link my account to. At least that way I could argue I had taken reasonable precautions.
In spring 2011 I organised the first of the pub lunches because it was becoming clear that around Puffles had grown a core group of very nice people dotted about all over the place. What started with a gathering of about six of us grew and grew. It was a simple case of using Twitter to get people to the same pub close to Kings Cross to have lunch all at the same time. And it worked wonders. The buzz I got – and still get from organising them is seeing people who have corresponded online only before, meeting up and getting on splendidly. Social media has enabled people to filter out those that they are unlikely to get on with, leaving a group of people who do get on with each other. Why not bring them all together?
PufflesCamp Brighton 2011
The kindness of @QofE and @Sandyd68 made this event happen. I was also pleasantly astonished when Guardian columnist Lisa Ansell also made her way down for the evening sessions of drinking and debate. I’m also indebted to everyone who turned up, helped with the electronics and who followed online. (They are listed in here). The idea that almost 20 people could get together for a seaside gathering such as this, with a baby purple dragon fairy on Twitter being the strand that brought us together for me demonstrated the power social media has of bringing like-minded people together as groups face-to-face.
Online communities responding to a personal crisis
For those of you who are members of online forums that have health pages – such as Urban75‘s (which you can only see if you are a member) or The Student Room, you’ll be familiar with numerous examples of people coming together online to provide support that perhaps they’ve been lacking in their offline lives. While I’ve used boards such as those for smaller crises, Easter 2012 was the first time I had used Twitter and this blog to say “I am really struggling and I need support”. What followed I now describe as a Twitter Waterfall – supportive post after supportive post to pick me up off of the floor. It wasn’t just the posts either. It was the offers of support – whether from those close by to those who said ‘come down for lunch’ or ‘come over for a few days – have a break.’ I still am truly humbled by the scale of your response & thank you all from the bottom of my heart.
Bringing you all together
I pondered this over at the very end of 2011, but had in mind some swanky place in London where everyone would be dressed up nicely for a smart reception. But such things can involve stupendous expense for too many people. It was while walking through Regent’s Park with Jon Worth & Karen Melchior – past where I had danced on previous occasions that I thought: “Let’s make this easy for everyone.” So here’s the plan:
Picnic in the park – 07 July 2012
Assuming the weather is nice, we all turn up to where Dance Al Fresco are hosting their Broadwalk Ballroom event in Regent’s Park. Bring food & drink to share. Don’t bring anyone who might attack Puffles or break my legs/heart/arms – I want to do some dancing that afternoon. For those who want to take part in the beginners lesson that kicks off the dancing event can do so, or sit back, watch & enjoy. If you’re very lucky, one or two of my dancing friends & acquaintances of old may also be on hand if you want to try dancing with someone who has something of a clue about what they are doing.
If anyone is interested in the above idea, please let me know (ideally in the comments section) so I can get some idea of numbers. (i.e. will it be sufficient just to bring Puffles or will I need something more substantial – like a big purple flag tied to a tripod?) I’m giving notice NOW so that it reduces the risk of people closer to the date saying “Oh I didn’t know it was on!” or “I’ve organised something else which clashes”.
Apart from bringing as many of Puffles’ followers together in the same place on the same day, I’d love to take away not just memories of a great day out but also have a nice big photograph taken of us all together – the real #PufflesMassiv! (For those of you familiar with the hashtag from the early days!)