Susan Orlean, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is also known as one of the most prolific and beloved Twitter users on the planet. On March 10, she'll be part of HuffPost Women's South By Southwest Interactive panel on "Performance Anxiety: How Women Present Themselves in the Digital Age." In advance of our panel, we caught up with Susan to ask about the role social media plays in her life and how women use the social web differently from men.
Obviously people adore you on Twitter, especially women. You know you have a lot of female fan girls, right?
That’s so nice!
I told one of my friends that I we would be talking to you and she said, "Oh my god, her chicken article! Tell her I loved the chicken piece!"
People really just love me for my chickens. It’s very simple, that’s all it is. I need to accept that.
So are you really yourself on Twitter?
Yes. I don't have a Twitter persona. I got on Twitter fairly early, without any real expectations or plans, so it is authentic. I didn't expect to have any followers!
I mean, I make an effort to craft what I’m writing to be lucid or funny. I’m not unconscious of the fact that it’s being read, so it’s not just coming off the top of my head, but it is pretty close to my real voice.
Doesn’t that craft take time? You tweet so often.
More than actual time on a clock, it occupies mental space. It’s on your ongoing mental to-do-list, and I think once you start building up a readership, there’s a kind of expectation. Yesterday I thought, "Oh great. I’m home, and I have a bad cold, and I have nothing to say, and I don’t want to say, 'I'm home, and I have a bad cold,' although that’s a perfectly acceptable tweet.
How would people have responded if you had tweeted that?
People are immensely empathetic and generous online, I think even more than they are in real life. So, saying "I’m home and have a bad cold" is not a tweet that would make people think, "Shut up." I think they say, "Oh my gosh, that’s terrible. Have you tried Airborne?"
Do you ever worry about what people who encounter you on Twitter and Facebook think of you? Of your life and the things you share?
I have on occasion posted something and then thought better of it and taken it down very quickly. I’m very aware of some people on Twitter appearing very vain or posting endless good news about themselves, and I’m extremely careful about that, even to a fault, because I find it so obnoxious. And vanity is something I watch for [in myself].
It’s not like I sit and review my posts before I put them up with a great concern for how is this going to look, but I’m conscious of it, and I think about it and mostly that’s done on a subconscious level, but I’m definitely aware of it.
In your experience, how do women use social media differently from men?
I guess it echoes the difference between men and women. I think women look for and gravitate towards community and virtual friendship. Men tend to use [social media] as a place to post billboards.
What do you mean by billboards?
Statements of opinion or fact that don’t necessarily include a personal element as much as simply saying, "This is what’s on my mind today."
What's unique about female community online?
I notice people talking about things that are deeply personal. I’ve just been following this woman who I don’t even really know, but she’s a Facebook friend -- I accepted her friendship request. Her husband has just come out to her as transgendered, and she was detailing going through this experience. I was reading it, and I was kind of fascinated both by what was happening [to her] but also the fact that it was being posted on Facebook to people like, for instance, me, who don’t know her at all. I thought that was kind of fascinating, and if a guy was just told by his wife that she was transgendered, I doubt he’d be posting it on Facebook.
So what is that impulse that has someone sharing something that intensely personal on her Facebook wall?
I think the perfect analogy is to a confession booth. Even though you are being heard, you have the illusion that you are standing in the woods talking to a tree, that there is no judgment that will follow. There is back and forth, but not nearly what it would be like if you were sitting at coffee with five friends and said, "Guess what?" I think often people forget that it’s not at all like talking to a tree, that it’s being read and can be shared, and there’s no privacy involved. But I think that sensation is totally liberating.
What’s the most personal thing you’ve ever shared with your followers?
My mom is getting very senile, and I had a moment where I suddenly realized that there might come a day in the not so distant future where she might not recognize me. I posted about that, and I got so much response, all very kind and sympathetic. Afterward I felt sort of surprised that I did that -- it was very personal and very emotional. And yet it was very authentic. That was what was on my mind. That’s the nature of the confession booth.
What won’t you talk about on Twitter or Facebook?
My marriage. My husband is very private. I mean I tease my husband occasionally [online], but, well, he follows me. It would never be comfortable to say, "I had a fight with my husband." [I write] certain mocking things like, you know, "How come men can never find anything?" but I would never talk in a personal way about my marriage. I don’t think it’s fair to him.
Say you get a bunch of hateful responses to a status update or tweet? Does that feel different from having coffee with five people and receiving criticism from them face to face?
Absolutely. First of all, there’s no physical component [to using social media]. It’s very different to have someone say to you to your face, "You know, I always thought your husband was weird," versus reading it. You know you can choose not to read it, or you read it when you want, in whatever circumstances you [choose]. It's so different.
Now that you have the number of followers you do, do you have a sense of being on a stage?
Definitely more so. You begin something with no expectations, and once you suddenly feel that you have accomplished something, you are aware all of sudden of the potential of loss. You think, "Wow, I have all these followers. I don’t want to lose them," even though I didn’t set out to get them. So there’s much more awareness of wanting to do a good job, wanting to make their attention to you worthwhile.
How could you lose them?
You feel like your life is boring and you have nothing to say, and you have to think a little bit. In fact, one of the most retweeted things I’ve ever written was when I [said], "When you feel your life is boring you have nothing to say, thank god for the retweet." Because that is what I and many people do. Wouldn’t it be nice if in real life, when you’re at a party and can't think of anything interesting to say, you simply repeat what someone just said, giving them credit?
If you didn’t tweet, how would your thinking and your life be different?
I’ve made a lot of friends, which I always hesitate to say because it makes you sound like such a geek -- to think that you’ve made friends on Twitter. But I have made real friends, actual real flesh and blood friends.
There is nothing about social media that I would get rid of, except on occasion that little nagging feeling of, "I haven’t written anything interesting in a while on Twitter or Facebook, and I should."
What's your advice for women anxious about how they appear on social networks?
I think that the main thing is to find a sort of confidence. So many people ask, "Why would anyone care that I had a ham sandwich for lunch?" Writers confront this all the time: "Why would anyone care about a dog in Hollywood? And why would anyone care about my story about a dog in Hollywood?" You can’t think that way. You have to really embrace this idea of being a storyteller. Stories can be observations, jokes, links, challenges, questions, whatever, but it all goes back to the very basic thing: Storytelling requires a certain kind of confidence that you can make something that will engage people.
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