Dragons live forever, but not so little boys


…But what do you do when your dragon grows up?

Some of you might know where the title of this blogpost. For those that don’t:

I learnt this number when I was about … seven years old? I was at primary school – the one where I’ve since returned to as a governor.

Puffles is over three years old

And at the time of posting, is hovering around the 6,000 followers mark. Given that I cull spambots that try to follow, those 6,000 followers are not just ‘anyone’ but rather followers who I’ve judged are likely to be interested in the things I post through Puffles’ Twitterhandle.

But something’s not working for me – or for increasing numbers of you too. I discussed some of the issues recently with some of you, and also mentioned them in a blogpost when Puffles reached 5,000 followers. (See Feeding the five-thousand). The chatty, interactive nature of Puffles’ early days has morphed into a more distant ‘curate and cascade’ relationship. While something clearly works for thousands of you, I can’t help but feel that the very things that made Puffles interesting are the very things that are being lost in the curate and cascade mindset.

I’ve changed and you’ve changed too

It’s stating the bleedin’ obvious, but it’s worth remembering that in those early days, Puffles was flying around the offices of Whitehall and was very much inside the system, though not of it. It’s been two-and-a-half years since I was in the civil service, and much has changed – not least the size of it. The pattern of my blogging has also changed – less of a focus in Whitehall, and more of a focus of what’s going on in and around Cambridge. Understandable as that’s where I spend most of my time these days.

For those of you that have been following for a long time, you’ve changed too – and it’s been fascinating and also sometimes heartbreaking to observe some of those changes. For some of you that will have been finishing school and going onto college or university. For others it will have been making the jump from university to your first career – or as several of you have testified to, facing the nightmare of the current jobs market and the job centre. Some of you have left old jobs for new ones, while some of you have left the world of full time work altogether, retiring or embarking on new personal projects. Some of you have joined political parties and movements, while others have left. Some have stood for public office and have even been elected.

So…what next for Puffles the Dragon Fairy?

There are a number of options, which I’ve discussed with a few of you of late. What was striking was that some of you were already asking the same questions that I was. “Has ‘brand Puffles’ gone past its sell-by date?”

That depends on what you see as the purpose of Puffles I guess. Remember at the start, there was no real ‘purpose’ other than to allow me to use Twitter without attracting too much attention given my day job. Remember in those days, some of the conventions we take for granted today were not really in place back in 2010. But what are the options?

Shut the account and the blog down and sulk/start again from scratch

I’ve seen others do the same – where they have ended up with more followers than they can cope with and decided it was too much. I don’t blame them. There have been times where I have seriously considered doing the same. The reason why I’ve not gone through with it is because it feels like it would be a rash decision on the back of temporary setbacks or mood swings.

Carry on as normal

It might simply be the case that this is what the watching public want from Puffles and that I don’t really have much choice. But with what feels like a low level of interaction in relation to the number of followers, I don’t really know what the vast majority of followers want. Hence…

Doing some proper research and analysis on followers

I could follow a technocratic route, but part of my fear with this is that you run the risk of mechanising and depersonalising the whole thing. In that sense, Puffles would become the very opposite of what developed in the early days – ie this unpredictable, anarchic and fun creature. There is also the tension of whether Puffles grows and changes as a result of interaction vs as a result of the profiles of people that follow.

Separating the ‘curate and cascade’ persona from a ‘chatty interactive’ persona

This is the one that I’ve been thinking of – and it would mean running two separate accounts. Beyond that, I’ve no idea how it would work. Would the curate and cascade be in my name or Puffles’ name? Or the more interactive one? How would the two accounts relate to each other?

Putting the social back into social media

I’ve got a big problem in and with Cambridge in this field. While there are a number of very good social media users, we don’t have a critical mass of people using it in a manner that I feel would make my home town a much more exciting and vibrant place to live and work. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve been leaning on institutions to step up their efforts – because I can’t do this alone. As I’ve mentioned before, despite the efforts of a number of people, Cambridge is a place with an international brand but the infrastructure of a market town. How do you persuade Cambridge University to look to those that live beyond its walls rather than those that are part of its academic collective?

Beyond Cambridge, many of the people that I interact with simply don’t live locally. Many of the events put on that I would love to go to I simply cannot afford to because of the travel costs.

For me, social media works better when it is complementing/adding to things that happen offline. This perhaps highlights the risk of the London policy and media bubble becoming even more exclusive and hard to break into: You’ve got to be online and at the events to count.

Over to you – what are your ideas and suggestions?

And don’t pull your punches either.

What works for you? What doesn’t work for you? What would be a better model to work with? One account or two? In whose name? More opinions/analysis and fewer RTs?



15 thoughts on “Dragons live forever, but not so little boys

  1. Keep doing what you are doing and it’ll evolve with you as you grow.
    Remember these two things.
    1. You are teaching. Feedback from what you are teaching will drip. That’s the nature of teaching the public. We nibble crumbs, retain them even if we don’t realise it. Those wee crumbs will be handy down the line but you won’t necessarily know it. Remember that English essay you had to write in school? How many years ago was that? And there you are, ten years later thinking “ah…it was about X too!”
    You are acting to sign post what is happening in your area, what your ideas are from your ideas. That’s important. As things slowly slowly change in Cambridge people in other places will see what is possible learn from your mistakes, your successes and thoughts. They won’t all ask for more info. The might not need it, not if it is all there, put there by your good self.

    Hibernation is a thing squirrels do. Do magic baby dragons?

  2. Just because Puffles has gotten more followers does not mean that they are all of the engaging type. Most people are not that chatty on Twitter as a few of us are? Has the level of chat gone down or just the proportion chat vs. followers?
    Sorry I have not been so engaging lately as I’ve been preoccupied with setting up election campaign in Denmark and hence concentrating on what is going on in Denmark more than in UK.
    If you ask me, then keep doing what you want to do, so if you want to interact more then do so. But you should do what you feel most comfortable doing, not thinking of a particular outcome from doing it, unless the outcome is more important than the being and doing.
    (Hope that made sense, was a bit rambling)

  3. Hi Antony, I don’t follow Puffles on Twitter but I do pick up your facebook posts and links to the blog, which I think has some very good content. I stopped following Puffles on Twitter because I found there were too many posts which I couldn’t/didn’t have time to make sense of and I try and keep my Twitter feed under control in that respect.
    Is your frustration that you don’t feel it’s producing the change that you would like to see? Online tools are great but I don’t think you can beat getting people together in real time and space. I think your community group fresher’s fair idea has great potential. Very happy to talk about how to make this happen.

  4. I sympathise. I have the same problem…..well, actually in a way it’s worse, because my Twitter account is my real name. “Frances Coppola” has become a brand. Defiantly, I continue to interact chattily with people, but I know that my output has become dominated by the things people expect to see from me. Jules Clarke commented the other day that all she sees from me now is “BANK” and “ECONOMY”. The days are gone when I could have a virtual cup of tea & chocolate biscuits with friends, and I have to be careful what I say on some subjects (politics, religion for example).

    Like you, I’ve wondered about having a second account. Indeed I do have a second account, but I rarely use it. The Twitter overhead is just too great: in many ways Twitter is pretty hard work and running two accounts just didn’t work for me. I use Facebook instead. Twitter is my public face: Facebook is my private self. On twitter I have nearly 8,000 followers – though I have discovered that who follows you is far more important than how many do. On Facebook I have maybe a couple of hundred friends, and I have no intention of expanding this.

    1. Tricky. Maybe the challenge for Puffles is a challenge for Twitter more generally. It seems to have becomemore “professional ” space since 2010 – all down to who you choose to follow I suppose but can make frank and friendly debate more difficult.

      This has had the byproduct that some who previously used Twitter to engage now use it more to broadcast. Less risk that way but less interesting too. I blame corporate social media policies.

      Could Puffles’ size be an issue too? “Gosh, look at all the followers Puffles has. He/she/it won’t want to talk to little old

      I like Puffles being around. Puffles reminds so-called professionals like me that we need to think, listen, reflect and act with a bit of humility rather than self-importance. Puffles speaks truth to power (and to technocrats) and while the focus might have shifted a bit over the 3 years that central message still remains.

  5. Nothing is forever, not even dragons.

    An interesting blogging and twitter “avatar”, Puffles the Dragon Fairy, seems to have reached something of a crisis. Starting out as a blogger within the straightjacket of Whitehall, “Puffles” was a great way to subvert the stiffling inertia of the Civil Service. but since “Puffles” author has left the CS, it has become more “catholic” in its output.

    So what to do? I had much the same problem with my blogging “persona”. I set up “Whitehall Watch” almost 4 years ago in not dissimilar circumstances. My home institution – then Manchester Business School – was at best unsupportive and at worst downright hostile to the idea of academic blogging. So I set up “Whitehall Watch” on my own and “WW” was sort of my “avatar”, a brand name not a personal one. Nearly 4 years later I found myself with a substantial following, modest in numbers but high in influence.

    I tried several times to recruit academic colleagues to join this venture, but every effort failed. “WW” was still, essentially, a one man band. But about 18 months ago I was asked by our Vice Chancellor to to report on how Manchester University could up its profile in the public policy world.

    Out of that came the “Policy@Manchester” initiative and, without going into too much boring detail, eventually we have established Manchester Policy Blogs (MPB) as a platform, incorporating my Whitehall Watch. And – hey presto – suddenly we have lots of academics blogging on policy issues at Manchester.

    It was an enormous wrench “letting go” of Whitehall Watch to incorporate into MPB. I’d invested a lot of personal time, energy and emotion in building it up. Over nearly 4 years it had getting on for 200k “hits”. I knew it was read in important media and government places. Letting of of my “baby” was hard.

    It has been done. But I realised quite quickly that in “institutionalising” WW I’d also lost an important dimension of my online “identity”. So, I have launched an as yet very underdeveloped “personal” blog-space as a vehicle for saying the things I can no longer say through my more “official” presence. And I’m combining in this space both some personal history and some non-day job related stuff. I don’t care so much about volumes on this new space, I care much more about the quality of the content and leaving a “legacy” for those who care to read it.

    So my answer to “Puffles” is simply – nothing is forever. If you
    need to move on, do it.

    A christian prayer says “God give me the strength to change what I can, the patience to cope with what I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference between the two.” As a non-christian I’d take out the “God” bit, and I’d add a simple “today” to the end. Because what is fixed and what is changeable is fluid and ever changing.

  6. I am a recent follower attracted by just a few Retweets that came my way. The comments in this thread are intelligent and incisive but for me, Puffles simply sees the world in a way that appeals. My Twitterfeed would be a much sadder and duller place without Puffles – long live Puffles.
    Merry Christmas.

  7. I’m at Anglia Ruskin (I’m @effjayem) and they are just starting to talk about how to use social media. I’ve been taken aback by how few of my colleagues have soc med accounts. Maybe you’d like to bring Puffles to class?

  8. I am one of your very quiet followers, although I am occasionally moved to reply or retweet if something you’ve said tickles, provokes or intrigues me.

    Although I appreciate what you say about putting the social back into social media, Twitter allows people to follow you if they find what you say interesting! As a more recent follower, I didn’t even catch the tail end of your time as an ‘insider’, but your insight into that world remains interesting. I don’t live in Cambridge, but many of the issues you raise about how it copes in the changing world apply outside of it as a geographical entity.

    Finally, as one of the quiet 5,000 I don’t have any expectations of what you say. I do understand what Frances Coppola says in her comment about maintaining the Brand, but I don’t think it is necessary for you to bend to the will of the expectant. Unless the number of followers you have is more important to you than the content of your own tweets, I think you can afford to relax a little bit and revel in being a complete person, whose interests aren’t necessarily about just one subject. Perhaps it’s a difficult balance to strike – even people with far fewer followers may have joined Twitter for one reason, attracted some followers, and found themselves predominantly discussing other things. Crucially though, I don’t think the burden is on the Tweeter to provide entertainment for their audience.

    If people don’t like the breadth of subjects you cover, then they should ultimately choose to unfollow you, which would perhaps address a couple of the concerns you mention above!

    I don’t expect to enjoy or relate to everything you tweet, but when I see something I’m interested in, your perceptive, unique and interesting analysis of things makes for some fine reading. Whatever you choose to do about the future, I would hope that I could go on enjoying the privilege of your insight into a variety of things. That all said, I would hope nobody would expect you to carry on regardless if you aren’t happy doing it.

  9. I’m lucky enough to know Puffles’ best buddy in person, and to be honest, you could leave the dragon behind, especially for Cambridge stuff. You don’t need (nor can you maintain) the anonymity in what is at heart a very small town, and you now have sufficient legitimacy as a local commentator in your own right. Perhaps Puffles could look beyond Cambridge, but his BB could stand on his own two feet on his home turf?

    1. I would hope that there is still a lot of potential for new faces in local Cambridge circles. I wouldn’t have known Puffles’ BB when he turned up at a Cambridge Cycling Campaign meeting but for the dragon fairy. I think it’s still beneficial for people to be able to identify and remember Puffles’ BB easily, and beneficial for Puffles’ BB too if he wants to be heard and make connections. It is at least one benefit I find for myself by having brightly coloured hair. Which then only leave the problem of recognising and remembering the people who recognise you…

  10. As another quiet follower who, like Farah above, is in a world where Social Media doesn’t yet have much penetration (Local Government, specifically Democratic/Committee areas), I’m finding that your struggle to determine your ideal voice on Twitter/Social Media is actually itself part of a valuable story.

    Many (and I most certainly include myself here) are only tentative users of social media and it really helps to see others describe what does and doesn’t work for them and to follow the way their online presence evolves. I look forward to reading about where you go next with or without Puffles and hopefully we can use your experiences to help shape what we as officers and organisations do on social media too.

    From a personal point of view I think that having a mascot helped on Twitter as you stood out from the crowd and I think that still applies. Gets you noticed. Maybe Puffles is good on national stuff even if not required in Cambridge?

    As for levels of interaction, I follow you on Twitter but I’m not so good at interacting partly because I find it difficult to keep up with Twitter given the pace it moves and partly due to working in a politically restricted post at a political council I’m very cautious about what I say online. I hope that becomes easier with time but I suspect quite a few of us are still pretty tentative. As you grow you will inevitably collect far more followers like me. I appreciate we may not feel as useful/supportive/interesting to you but I would say you are still useful to us. (but I don’t think you ‘owe’ us followers anything so go for whatever feels right.)

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