Becoming Digital Nomads

Over on Twitter much of the chatter is about the instabilities that have been created by Elon Musk’s purchase of the platform two weeks ago and the series of rushed (and bad) decisions he has made to change the platform since that purchase. For people who have been using Twitter as a professional networking platform or a professional promotional platform (a large segment of the publishing world) this instability is alarming. Some people are having to completely re-think their business plans around the possibility that Twitter will crash and burn. I haven’t been panicked, but only because I’m tired and having a tech giant make a decision that requires me to reconfigure my business is a familiar problem. I’ve come to recognize that any tech platform I use I might need to abandon or it might abandon me. Both Google Ads and Amazon associates were at one point a large part of our income stream. Both cut us off with no warning and no appeal. Both Patreon and Kickstarter have made moves which had me wondering if I’d need to leave, and if I left how I was going to continue feeding my family.  And now Twitter.

I’ve begun looking at all of these social media platforms with a very important question: If I have to pick up and move, how do I carry with me the connections I want to keep?  Because that is the real question, the real value of social media, it allows people to easily make and maintain connections. The heart relieving secret is that those connections don’t actually exist in the social media platform. They exist in the minds and hearts of people. Which means that if a connection pathway burns out, the connection can be re-made elsewhere. Theoretically. But it requires all of us to do the work to identify our important connections and make sure they flow through multiple points of contact instead of just one. It has become extremely popular for people on twitter to post “here is a list of other places you can keep in touch with me.” I’ve done it myself. And I’ve followed the links of others, followed on Instagram, signed up for newsletters, made a Mastodon account that I feel very ambivalent about.

In a strange way this process of identifying connections I want to keep has been heartwarming. I’m seeing alternate sides of my Twitter acquaintances, because different social media bring out different aspects. Also, every new follower on Instagram or for my newsletter is evidence that someone doesn’t want to lose connection with me. It is like getting a note in elementary school “will you be my friend, check yes or no”.  I’ve told my kids multiple times when they were trying to figure out friendships, that if you want to turn an acquaintance into a friend, you need to bring them into a different aspect of your life. A school friend stays just that unless you invite them to come hang with you at home or at the park or at a movie. So I’m in a period of discovering which Twitter friends will become Instagram friends or newsletter friends, or convention friends, or pen pals. We’re all shaken up and open to these possibilities in ways that we weren’t a month ago when the connections were comfortable and settled. It is oddly enlivening and fraught with possibility as well as fear.

I am not a nomadic person by nature. I have one childhood home where my parents still live. I currently live in a house that I’ve owned since 1998 (twenty-four years and counting). I tend to settle in and stay put. But I’m learning to think nomadically in the digital portion of my life. I’m learning to configure my connections so that they are portable: an email list that I can download, a contacts list on my phone which I can back up, a physical address book or address spreadsheet I can reference in case my phone decides to brick itself and I lose half my contacts. (Learned that last on the hard way two months ago.) Putting in this work to identify people I want to keep has helped me remember people I’ve already lost. It happens all the time, someone fades out of social media (or departs deliberately) and I didn’t see because all there was to see was an absence. Absence can so easily go unnoticed. Yesterday I looked up a woman whose blog I used to enjoy and follow to see if there is any trace of her online, any way to see if she still lives in a yurt doing yoga. I found nothing, so I’ll continue wondering how her backbend is progressing and if she finished knitting the sweater she was working on six years ago. There are so many people online who fit into that same space for me. I enjoyed getting glimpses into their lives. I learned so much from those glimpses. My life was enriched, but I don’t know if I ever interacted directly with them.

The challenge of being nomadic, even digitally is that everything you want to carry with you represents work. When you stay put, things can accumulate in undisturbed corners, but the moment you move suddenly everything you take has an opportunity cost. There is a limit to the number of friendship connections one person can reasonably maintain when that maintenance requires conscious attention. I’ve been feeling the reality of that as I contemplate what I’ll do if Twitter dissolves and as I look at how I’m interacting with the communities I already have. I’m already over stretched and not fully participating in some of those communities, even the ones I’m trying to build.

And thinking of that brings me back to the beginning of this post. I’m tired. I didn’t want to reconfigure my business model for the fifth time in three years. I’m also hugely grateful that the Twitter shenanigans got into full swing after our latest crowdfunding venture was already doing well. Whatever comes next, we’ll have some financial resources to carry us through the next six months. That piece is probably a large portion of why I’m able to write a philosophical post instead of being locked up in tight-lipped panic. I wish all of my Twitter friends could also have a similar stability, or something even more long-lastingly stable. I wish that Twitter weren’t being unstable at the same time as the economy is shifting, at the same time that publishing is having some upheaval, at the same time that we’re all still riding out the social and physical health waves of pandemic.

But these are the conditions we’ve got, and so I hope that Twitter sorts itself out without totally imploding. I hope that we’re all able to build ancillary connections that allow us to keep and strengthen critical supportive networks. I hope that as we move, if we have to move, we pay attention to who falls through the nets because the new platforms don’t serve them well. We can be the “no one left behind” type of nomads instead of the “those that fall behind stay behind” version.