Participating in a Hashtag Community

Recently, we looked at participating in Facebook communities as part of our learning network. Other social media platforms are important to building your learning network, too, but not all of them offer a way to gather together easily. That’s where hashtags often come in. It’s easier to gather people on Twitter and Instagram around an event- or interest-related hashtag, and there are communities that make great use of them.

I’m part of a couple of hashtag communities on Instagram. One of them is led by a user with a crazy awesome level of understanding of how hashtags work and how to make them work. The overall community has a hashtag, and then each weekly challenge has a hashtag related to the community hashtag. So through the first, we can find everyone’s post in the community, and through the second we can find everyone’s posts related to a challenge. It’s great!

Another of these hashtag communities…has all but left Instagram for a Facebook community over the last year. (And it’s funny to watch those who recently joined the Facebook community start discussing moving over to Instagram.) The community centers around a series of daily challenges, organized by month, where the challenge’s name is the hashtag. At first, things went well. But then people who were practicing a similar craft, but didn’t understand that particular hashtag went to a particular activity, started using the hashtag. And they did it on all of their posts, regardless of what that picture was.  So the community altered their hashtag slightly in an effort to make the hashtag’s intended audience clear, but the same people jumped on that hashtag as well. The hashtag has effectively been ruined on Instagram by people who couldn’t be bothered to learn what a hashtag is, or what hashtags were relevant (or in this case, off limits) to their own work.

If you’ve read my Facebook post, you already know where this is going.

When you use an event- or interest-related hashtag for posts that have nothing to do with the event or interest, you’re hijacking the hashtag. And hijacking hashtags doesn’t help anybody, the hijacker least of all. Some hashtag hijackers are just trolls, out to ruin other people’s fun because they have no skills or interests to focus their time on. But others do it because they’ve decided the best way to show off their skills is to blast it out to anyone who might have even the tiniest possible interest in their work. I can think of people I will never follow (and in some cases have blocked) on Twitter and Instagram because they engaged in hashtag hijacking trying to get their posts more widely seen. I’ve even been known to mark posts as spam because they hijacked a hashtag.

So…if you are thinking about using a hashtag (and used correctly, they’re a great tool for meeting and interacting with people…or for just getting your snark on), research the hashtag first. Make sure your post will contribute to the discussion going on in that hashtag, or fit in with whatever is being showcased. Don’t just throw on a hashtag in the hopes you’ll gain exposure, because you will gain the wrong kind of exposure and might find yourself shut out or ignored.

Participating in a Facebook Community

One of the things I like to talk about around here (when I talk at all *wink*) is the importance of communities of practice. These are groups that come together to learn, practice, and share information around a given topic or skill. And one of the easier ways to accomplish this is to join related Facebook groups (unless you’re one of those who has decided Facebook is not for them, and that’s perfectly fine. You may not gain much from this post.) I’ve been joining a fair few groups lately, some related to my professional interests, some related to personal interests. Meeting a new group of like-minded people can be pretty exciting, but there are some things to be aware of to make the experience smoother.

Communities have the ability to lay out guidelines, and many of them take advantage of this feature. On the website, these guidelines will be in a box in the sidebar or on the About tab. On the app, there will be a link to them just below the cover image. Some communities prefer to use a Pinned post, so look at the top of the community. It’s your responsibility to find and familiarize yourself with the community’s rules. Some communities have little to no tolerance for those who cannot be bothered to read the rules and abide by them.

Once you’ve read the guidelines, take a few minutes to skim the group and see what people typically post. If the majority of posts are of one type (text, for example), do not think you are being clever posting a different type because you want to stand out. It’s quite possible the community makes the type of posts it does for a reason. If you see no self-promotion posts, do not think you will be clever for doing it first. There’s probably a reason why you aren’t seeing those posts (possibly laid out in the guidelines? *wink wink*).

If you don’t see any “Thanks for adding me” posts, do not think you will be clever by being the first. If you really, truly are incapable of stopping yourself from writing a nonsubstantive “Thanks for adding me” post, see if the community has an Introduction thread. Many do in an attempt to curb those pointless posts, and your comment will cause the post to pop up in the community, allowing existing members to know you’re there and what you have to offer as a member of the group. (Also, seek help…and maybe three or four hobbies. Because, honey, if you are that desperate to be seen and think it’s acceptable to only be seen by taking up space pointlessly, you have issues.)

Once you’ve read the guidelines and familiarized yourself with the content expected from community members, it’s time to write your first post. Think about why you joined the group, what you’re hoping to gain from the group, and then write a post that reflects that. In other words, add value to the group. Make sure your post conforms with the community guidelines, and ask yourself if your post is relevant. If it fails either condition, maybe don’t write the post. And if you’re posting just to post in a community, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Facebook communities can be a great asset to your learning and skill development, but it’s important to do your part to be an asset to the community.

Surviving Downtime When You’re Hopeful or Determined

I feel like I’ve been party to conversations around the struggles of chasing creative work a lot lately. This isn’t an entirely uncommon conversation when a group of people at various points in their creative journey hang out. And the people starting the conversation are at different stages in their career. Some are experienced, but not where they want to be (sometimes not getting anywhere). Others are new to the field, trying to figure out how to break in or at the very least determine what steps they can start taking to get into the game. At some point, all of us who do creative work find ourselves in this waiting space.

Something I’ve noticed in these conversations, and just in watching fellow creative types in general, is that people facing downtime tend to react in one of two ways: They either work on their craft and find ways to get themselves and their work out into the community (where they may or may not get noticed as much as they’d like), or they sit quietly and wonder why no one notices them and the work they’ve done. The thing is, it’s what you do when you have that down time that shapes how your career moves forward.

Those who spend their downtime working on their craft have it a bit easier. They’re taking action, they’re doing the legwork, and they’re finding (or making) opportunities. They’re doing a lot of things right. They may still be gathering rejection notes or making connections that don’t work out the way they hoped, but they’re getting their name and their work in front of people, which puts a possible light at the end of the downtime tunnel.

Some downtime advice for the experienced or the driven who aren’t as successful as they’d like to be (according to their own definition of success):

  • Take a class. This might be nothing more than putting together your own set of resources if your funds are tight, but do it. Work on a skill that’s been frustrating you. Maybe learn a new technique to increase your versatility, or pick up a complementary skill and see what doors that opens for you. You really never know what’s going to click until you try. (Classes are also a great way to meet others in your field and make connections.)
  • Create your own projects. Regardless of your medium, you can probably develop and create your own projects. If you’re a visual artist, set up a profile on one of the creative repositories and create for that profile. If you’re a writer, same thing. If you’re an actor or a video producer, same thing. It’s much easier to prove your skills when you can point to something and say, “Look at this thing I made with my own skills.” Developing your own projects while searching for other work also shows  just how dedicated you are to your craft.
  • Start working on the next project. While you’re auditioning, interviewing, submitting, pitching, always keep a personal project in development. It helps you stay in practice, keeps you focused on what you’re ultimately trying to accomplish, and creates a body of work that demonstrates your passion and your skills. You might even create something that you can sell (or sell access to).
  • Experiment and innovate. If you’ve been marketing your completed projects for some time without success (or with minimal success), find new, creative uses for your product or find ways to extend it with those new complementary skills you’ve been developing.
  • Meet people in your field and related fields. We live in a pretty exciting time where we can, with nothing more than a connected piece of technology and a basic understanding of how to search for things, find and connect with other people pretty easily. Power up your favorite search engine and search for your skill set. Go to your favorite social media platform and search for your skill set. There are very few creative industries that don’t have places where their practitioners can gather, and many of these groups are often newbie-friendly. Just remember your manners. If you’re introverted (like me), start small. Find one or two people to connect with and grow from there.

If you really enjoy what you’re doing, there are ways to find your path. But it’s up to you to take charge and shape that path.

Nest time, we’ll talk about those who are claim to be thirsty but are more inclined to sit and wait for rain.

Communities of Practice and Credibility

There’s nothing like finding what you really enjoy doing. It gives you a sense of empowerment, an energy that nothing else does. And that’s great. That’s exactly how it should be. But as the internet records everything, you now have to be very careful about how you present yourself to your new field.

A while back, I ran across a college student offering classes in her field. She was up front about being a college student. about her history working in the family business (which is a different field). She explained she had years of experience in her field, and it’s possible she spent time during her childhood pursuing the field. She claimed to be a communications major, but her website lacked design principles or readable copy. I appreciated her enthusiasm, but closed the tab. She just hadn’t inspired much confidence in her claims.

A couple of weeks later, she came into a LinkedIn group and, in an overly bubbly manner, introduced herself as being brand new to the field and just so excited to break in. Recognizing the name, I said nothing but went back to the website, which did in fact claim she was experienced at both the craft and managing other practitioners of the craft. I checked the Facebook groups for some of the other local industry groups. Her name was nowhere to be found in either membership or posts. Her website’s credibility was shot.

It’s something to keep in mind as we’re putting ourselves out there. Take an interest in something. Join local and online groups interested in the same industry. Contribute what you can, but never, ever represent yourself as something you aren’t. I didn’t bust this poor college student, but it won’t take long for others to uncover the same things I did, and then she’ll have to deal with the trouble of cleaning up her mess.

Learning by Osmosis

When I was a kid, there was a comic going around of a student napping on a pile of books. The punchline was that he was trying to learn by osmosis. If only it were that simple, right? Not that books make the best pillows, but think of all the books you could draw knowledge from this way.

While osmosis may not really work that way, drawing knowledge from something you haven’t actually experienced can. That sounded a little weird, didn’t it? It’s okay, because it’s something you’ve probably engaged in without ever realizing it.

Think back to your school days. (If that’s too far back or too painful, you can think back to the last time you watched someone play a video game or went through some sort of hands on training.) More than likely, you hoped you would never be the first person to try something. You wanted to see how other people handled the hands-on so you could see what worked and what didn’t work for them. If you were really lucky, you’d be near the end, and could see everybody’s else’s struggles before you had to step up.

While you were grateful to look less foolish than those who went before you, what you really did was learn vicariously through everyone else’s experience. Every time someone made a mistake, you thought about what you would have done to avoid that error or you watched to see if maybe something useful was overlooked in the hopes you would remember to be more mindful when you got your chance.

That’s the catch. You have to be mindful as you watch. You have to think about what worked for the person you’re watching, what didn’t, and asking yourself critical questions that will help you process what you’re seeing. And you’ve done it already. You’ve done it most of your life; you’ve just internalized it.

Tools of Innovation in Networked Learning

The online class I’m taking gave an assignment last week based on a common innovation exercise: The Five Whys? This exercises is well known as the one Toyota uses to incite innovation among its employees. Someone brings in an idea or prototype, and other people ask, “Why?” five times. The idea is that each “Why” is really asking the person in the hot seat to further clarify or respond to what they just said, and that by the time you hit that fifth “Why” you’ve really drilled down to an idea worth working on.

It’s been rather successful for Toyota, but I noted in my reflection that it was somewhat ineffective in our class setting. We were given the assignment detailing the process, and then given a week to find a partner and do the exercise. Despite finding a partner and completing the activity relatively quickly, both my partner and I admitted that we’d self-interviewed ourselves already. We’re both the sort who do that. In effect, we ended up doing the assignment twice and not the way it was intended. (That said, I did come up with an extension for my object that I hadn’t thought about before while self-interviewing, but I’m used to doing that with my own work.)

This week’s podcast explained how to do the assignment…the day after it was due. Apparently, I wasn’t the only student concerned about how the assignment shot itself in the foot, and the professors kindly informed all of us who are like me that we’d done the assignment wrong. (The instructors have proven open to conversation on this.) Again, we’re overthinkers. It’s our nature. With the assignment sitting right in front of us, how could we not?

I’ve been sitting here since listening to the podcast trying to think about how they could have conducted this assignment to get the actual reaction they wanted. In a classroom, it would have been simple. We wouldn’t have been given the assignment until after we paired up. In a distributed classroom situation like a MOOC, they could have asked us to pair up and then contact them for the assignment. But we’re working in teams and everything goes into the team documents. Once the first pair completed and posted the assignment, the other pairs would know what the assignment was and it would trigger any overthinking tendencies in them.

But Toyota employees grounded in realspace know that The Five Whys is a common practice, and it’s one that still benefits the company. So, maybe they’ve figured out a way to not self-interview themselves.

Or maybe they haven’t. I’m not sure there is a right answer here.

Critiquing and Levels of Knowledge

One of the benefits of participating in a community of practice is that the community is often made up of practitioners of varying levels. I’m pretty sure I’ve written on this before, because communities of practice where there are multiple skill levels present are ripe spaces for peer teaching, for craft-related discussion, and for craft innovation and evolution.

But there are problems involved with communities of practice that come together organically. Members do not only have different levels of experience, but there’s often no uniformity in their training or skill development, which can lead to differences within similar skill levels and a lack of common vocabulary for talking to each other and to other skill levels. There is also a problem for both those who are formally trained or self-taught in that self-assessment, especially in relation to others in the group, can be cloudy. Ego and self-esteem play a part in this, but fairly often it comes down to our ability to look at our own capabilities objectively. This can lead to situations where an experienced person doesn’t share their knowledge because they don’t feel they have the right, or where a newer practitioner feels the need to offer too much advice (too often proceeded by the word, “ideally”) when they should be listening to those who’ve already made those mistakes.

There is much the experienced voice has to offer. For one, they’ve already been there. They’ve made mistakes and learned from them. That’s why advice in communities of practice often flow from the experienced to the new. They’re the voice of authority. That’s also why advice tends to flow more freely among practitioners of similar skill level. They all have this set of knowledge and skills, and can learn from each other as they talk about how they got there and what experiments they tried in getting to this level. It can be intimidating to the new practitioner, because they often think they have nothing to contribute to the conversation, or that their own experiences are silly next to that of the more experienced members.

And that’s where the new practitioner is wrong. Their voice is just as valuable. Their point of view most likely hasn’t been boxed in by traditions and expectations of the craft, giving them an opening to say something that can spark a conversation that leads to new directions for the craft. Depending on their training route, a new practitioner speaking up is in the best position to trigger a peer teaching moment as what they say demonstrates where they are in their own skill development and training. The experienced practitioner can then correct any misguided notion the new member has acquired, or give them the nudge they need to level up. This does unfortunately lead to the occasional situation where an experienced member feels threatened by someone in the up-and-coming crop and tries to troll them out of the group, but an aware community can catch this and minimize its damage to the new practitioner.

Ultimately, communities of practice are made stronger by having members of various skill levels, experience, and training, especially where there is an environment that encourages and supports all members interacting comfortably, regardless of their background and current skill level.

Vetting Learning Resources

It’s always a good idea to shake up your practice, and so that’s what I’ve been doing recently. In my free time, I’ve been looking at what I’m doing, how it’s helping, if I even still need to be learning a skill, and then finding ways to change things up. In some case, I’ve been changing the activities I do for practice. In others, I’ve been switching around the blogs and podcasts I follow.

The activities part hasn’t been too bad. For both writing and voiceover, there are plenty of experienced practitioners willing to share what they know, what works for them. Wading through all of that knowledge to find things you don’t know or haven’t heard before, or to find practice ideas you never would have thought of in a million years, can be a lot of fun. There are some crazy, generous, wonderful professionals out there.

There are also some crazy, generous, self-conscious people out there. They tend to fall into two camps: those who are stalled out because they feel like they’ve learned enough and are fine with where they are (or sometimes a bit bitter they aren’t farther along), and those who just don’t have faith in their skills.

The first group is mostly harmless. They’re passing on information that was probably valid once upon a time, but has since fallen out of style for whatever reason. As you move on from reading or listening to their advice, you quickly find that the industry has moved on from that advice…and they probably did so ten years ago. So members of this group are stuck peddling out-of-date information, simply because they didn’t get the memo the industry moved on. Not the most helpful learning resource, but they’re often who you first encounter when you’re getting into a new industry. When you encounter them later on, you usually know enough to recognize the limits of their knowledge and politely pass them by.

The second group is harmful, and it’s not unusual for its members to be unaware that they’re being harmful. It’s also not unusual for its members to be completely aware they are being harmful. In this group, the problem lies with the character of the person. They often suffer from low self-esteem or little faith in what they can do, no matter how well they’ve proven to themselves and others that they have the skills at a level they want or need. So, they start sabotaging others by giving them bad information. The more aware ones become discerning, identifying those who are good enough to “threaten” their career  and focusing their sabotaging efforts on them. The less aware ones usually lose credibility and then spiral into out-and-out crazy. It’s occasionally fun to watch. (Just when you thought this behavior was reserved for villains of bad YA stories, right?)

What makes that second group especially problematic is that you really can’t know you’ve fallen in with one of them unless someone experienced with that person warns you or you fall victim to their misery.

I guess what I’m really wanting you to take away as you’re working on building your training path is to be mindful and diligent about who you’re adding to your collection of resources. Don’t be afraid to sample a wide variety of learning resources. Don’t be afraid to listen to other people’s tales of their experience, good or bad, with a learning resource. And don’t be afraid to cut ties gracefully when it’s time to move on from that learning resource.

Text Analysis as Conversation

A while back, I was working through some notes that included margin notes I’d made in books, and it got me thinking. When we’re in school, English teachers have us engage in close reading, or text analysis, to more closely consider the text. They often then follow up with that dreaded question, “What was the author trying to say? Why did the author choose this word, this element, this shade of green?” Sometimes, the author is trying to make some sort of metaphorical statement. Sometimes, they just really liked that shade of green.

But being asked to find meaning where it may or may not be kind of leaves you with this feeling that text analysis is a torture device invented by English teachers. (Sadly, we math teachers don’t get to have all the fun.)

What I think English teachers are really asking us to do, mainly because I’ve heard so many writers explain how they use close reading in their own work, is to learn to question the text. Sometimes, that question is, “What was the author really trying to say here? What does this foreshadow? How does this reflect the author’s time and life?”

Sometimes, though, that question is, “What does this mean to me? Why did this catch my attention?” And then the text analysis becomes a personal conversation with the book, giving it a deeper personal meaning and giving it permission to inspire and influence you. When you talk about a book that has stayed with you for years, that’s deeply affected you, what you’re then really saying is, “This is a book I had a great conversation with.”

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. Do you feel that you converse with books through your highlights, your margin notes, your clippings? What books have you conversed with?

Show Us Why You’re Awesome

I’m starting this monthly wrap-up with a call to action. I know…I’m doing it backwards, but if I want you to take anything away from this month, it’s to not be afraid to share your work with someone. It can be your best friend. It can be your club. It can be the entire internet. You’re doing something. If it isn’t utterly, completely, mind-blowingly awesome, that’s fine. There are going to be elements of awesome in it, and someone else might be able to spot it and help you bring it out. That’s why we gather into communities of practice, to help each other.

So, that’s what I want. I want you to show to an audience size you’re comfortable with what you’ve been working on. (You can even share it with me if you choose. I like seeing what people are working on, but I feel I should warn you that I have a very difficult time shutting up either my inner teacher or my inner editor and the feedback might be a bit more thorough, questioning, or direct than you might be expecting.)

All right. Let’s wrap up this month correctly. We haven’t covered a whole lot of ground here, simply because so much of it has been covered in other ways on this blog and because so much of it is advice that can be applied at many levels of experience. When you put in the time doing research, doing work, bringing something into existence, then you should put it somewhere where the right people will see it and help you improve it or will look at it and think, Holy taco! This person has an amazing grasp of this idea or skill. I should tell them, or hire them, or approach them to collaborate.

When we share our projects, we’re telling our audience, “This is what I can do. This is what I’ve learned. This is what I think. I’m choosing to share this with you.” And that’s pretty awesome.

So, as we wrap up this yearlong study of the personal learning environment, I’m challenging you to show off your awesome.


As I said last month, I am shifting away from the monthly theme format after this month, so thank you for indulging me this year while I experimented with the format. I’m still not sure how I’m going to proceed from here, but so much in my life has changed over the last year and it’s time to align my blog to my new life. Hopefully, you’ll stick around and keep reading. If not, I understand and appreciate your reading this far.