Reclaiming My Timeline
How starting over on Twitter helped me leave behind the toxic parts of the women in tech community.
(This post was inspired by Anil Dash’s essay on unfollowing everybody and starting fresh.)
I joined Twitter in 2009, back when there were only 140 characters, no retweet button, no quote tweets, no threads, no bots and of course, the fail whale. I tried to convince my friends to join too but only a few did because they just didn’t understand the point of Twitter. Why would you post random thoughts into an abyss?
Twitter reminded me of the early days of blogging where many blogs were basically diary entries. Sure, we were a bunch of strangers reading about the daily lives of others but there was something delightful about knowing that someone out there was connecting with the things I had to say and had an interest in my experiences. They didn’t have any obligation to show interest. They weren’t reading or commenting to be polite. They were there because they wanted to be. Twitter felt similar but in smaller chunks, which is probably why it’s often referred to as a micro-blogging platform. It was a place where you could see people’s thoughts and conversations, whether you knew them or not. And you could either stay in the sidelines or join in.
I started by following the friends I convinced to join, some co-workers, a bunch of tech blogs and “notable” tech people, so I could keep up to date on what was going on in my industry. Then, I started working at an agency where everybody was on Twitter and so we all followed each other. Most of us had the app open all day. I started becoming a more active user.
During some downtime at this job, I wrote a blog post about being a woman in tech. (I was the first female developer hired at this company.) When I look back at it, it feels like such a puff piece. I was still fairly early in my career and my previous jobs had many women doing development and in senior roles. So while I knew issues existed, I hadn’t personally experienced any yet. But since the piece was on the company website, it got the attention of others in the industry. This led to gaining a more specific type of following.
With this post, I had also unintentionally became part of the women in tech movement that was starting to gain traction around that time. Soon I was getting a lot of new opportunities as people were looking to put more focus on getting women into tech. It was great at first. I got into teaching workshops, courses, doing talks and interviews. I was able to introduce many women to programming through my work. I got so many wonderful letters, emails and tweets about how they were inspired and appreciated having a welcoming space to learn and someone to relate to. I enjoyed helping people, but not gonna lie, hearing all these nice things felt pretty good too. I got swept up by all the attention.
After awhile, how I used Twitter started to change. What was once a place to see what people were talking about and to get some jokes off, started feeling more like an extension of work. I wondered if I should post more “tech things” because I assumed that was what the people wanted to see, since many of them found me through my work. I was also surrounded by people who used Twitter as a tool to brand themselves and for self-promotion. So I too, started thinking about what my brand should be.
My timeline wasn’t fun anymore
My first two jobs must have been an anomaly; there were many women and POC in development and management roles. But at this point in my career, the tech spaces I was in got whiter and whiter. Even in the supposedly diversity-centric spaces. I live in a large city where about half of the population identifies as non-white so it often felt like a different world as soon as I walked through those doors.
Being a person of colour working in tech was always something that affected me more than being a woman. Not to say that everyday sexism doesn’t exist. I just didn’t experience it much earlier in my career. Ironically, when I did witness and experience sexism in the industry, it was in the women-in-tech spaces. Also, much of the diversity work focuses on women so I was usually the only person bringing up other issues. People seemed to only want to talk about gender, without taking account into how other factors, such as race or class, contribute to the overall experience. Instead, I would be told “it’s just in your head” or “most people don’t feel that way.”
I was starting to see how some of these women’s groups operated more like cliques than an actual community. It wasn’t always welcoming if you didn’t fit the mold or at least tried to. White feminism and corporate feminism was rampant. Having mentors and support from other women is important. But equating female friendships as feminism is one dimensional. The work should move towards giving all women the same social, economic, and political rights as men, not just your besties. But doing feminism-light made for good PR and easier to look like you were doing something.
Some of the women in these spaces continued to participate in sexist practices. At times putting the concerns of some men ahead of other women. Or choosing to highlight (white) men over similarly or more qualified women. These men were often propped up as what we should aspire to be. Imagine hearing more than one prominent women in tech advocate proclaim that “we need to hire more men.” Or being reprimanded for not being nice to a man that overstepped his boundaries.
I also witnessed women deploying the same bullying tactics and biases we were supposedly fighting against, to propel themselves further, while using their Twitter feed to create the persona of someone who cared about the cause. They could hide behind feminism to combat critique. “Oh people are just judging me harshly because I’m a woman!” Their followers would come to their defence, often people with no personal connections to them but believed in the persona created with the carefully crafted tweets. While it’s true that women do get judged more harshly for exhibiting certain types of behaviours, it doesn’t absolve the women that are actually being awful. Especially when done under the guise of women’s empowerment.
It was frustrating but I figured at least I was still helping people, specifically those that felt marginalized in these spaces. People often came to me to voice their concerns. There were private tearful conversations and whispered discussions in stairwells. It was ridiculous that many women didn’t feel supported or safe in spaces that were supposed to be for all of us.
Some of these private conversations also created a mistrust. Some would come to me to air their grievances and commiserate. I would do my best to offer support. Then I would scroll through my timeline and see a tweet from said person, praising the one they just agonized over for hours. The one with the most power often got away with terrible behaviors because others were afraid to speak up, which is totally understandable. But some just didn’t want to risk losing the privileges that came with being tangentially connected to a more powerful person. And the ones who didn’t want to play this game were push out, discredited, relegated to the margins or simply left. It became harder to separate the real from the fake.
I felt like I had fallen into being a part of pushing a false narrative and after awhile, it was too much for me. I did have some positive experiences and met people who really and truly cared, but I could no longer reconcile the growing overall dissidence between what was presented on social media versus what was actually happening. Between the in-fighting, the mistrust, low pay, feeling under-appreciated and tokenized, it was a fight I could never win. I certainly couldn’t help others if I couldn’t help myself.
So I decided to remove myself from the community. Physically and on my timeline. I needed a break. I went through my list and unfollowed most of the tech stuff (no need to be overwhelmed by all the new trends) and those I didn’t want to associate with anymore. There were also colleagues I had no issues with but were still connected to communities I didn’t want to be a part of so I didn’t really know what to do about those relationships. It’s kind of a like a contentious break-up. Who wants to see updates from or about an ex?
These days, I still work in tech but more so from the sidelines. I’ve been creating online courses, mostly for LinkedIn Learning. I feel really lucky to be where I’m at now. With these courses, I can still teach, introduce others to programming. And luckily, LinkedIn Learning is a large platform so I don’t have to worry about doing much promotion. I may post a “new course!” tweet or some tech tidbit I actually find useful or interesting but these days I don’t really use Twitter as a professional profile or worry about whether my tweets match my “brand.”
I also decided to separate the personal from the professional by creating a separate instagram account (@christinaisonline) for code things and post the majority of my work-related updates on LinkedIn.
With my new followers, if I knew them, even if we talked only once, I would follow them back. It seemed like proper etiquette. When I was teaching, some of the students would follow me and I’d follow them back as well. But after seeing a student talking shit about me after I gave them a (deserved) failing mark, I realized that maybe it wasn’t necessary to follow everyone back.
Every now and again, when my timeline started to feel unruly, I would prune my following list. I unfollowed people who hadn’t tweeted in years or someone I don’t remember following or why. One thing I always found amusing when doing this exercise was seeing who had already unfollowed me. My first thought is usually “Wow, what did I say to make you unfollow me?” But then I just laugh because most of the time it was a socially-obligated follow back anyway.
Maybe it was personal, maybe it wasn’t. Sometimes when you don’t have that common thing to connect you anymore, the relationship runs it course and there’s no need or interest to keep in touch. Or maybe they too forgot who I was and why they followed me.
Outside of tech, I had different interests. So I started following writers, artists, or random people that had interesting or funny tweets. I was hoping that would also change the algorithm. Maybe people who had the same interests as me would find me too.
As my following got larger, my engagement also got lower. I don’t have a huge following but I have a couple thousand. But there seems to be only a small group of people that interact with my tweets. I don’t know if it’s the result of tweets not being shown in chronological order, users following a lot of other people, or because I don’t tweet as frequently as others. Or maybe they just don’t have any interest but are also engaging in the polite follow back and probably have me muted!
For the newer followers, I think partially because of my courses and a lot my earlier followers and followings — co-workers or associations — the algorithm will suggest me in relation to people in these spaces. So perhaps they are just following because I popped up as a suggestion. I almost want to tell them, “Hey, if I was a suggested follow because you followed this person, you’ll probably be disappointed by my tweets.”
So all this to say, I’m unfollowing everybody and starting over.
Maybe it’ll change the algorithm. Maybe I’ll stop getting follow suggestions for people I purposely don’t follow or maybe I’ll become a suggested follow to people who have the same interests as me.
I’m reclaiming my timeline.