Sunday, January 19, 2014

Why I'm Smiling (It's Not What You Think)

A year after the onset of my constant, unyielding headache, my partner Brendan came home from a visit with a close family member visibly frustrated. This loved one, on board since the onset of my pain, had made an offhand comment about how I couldn't be doing that poorly, since every time he saw me I was smiling.

Two years into chronic pain, B and I decided we could not put off international travel plans indefinitely and braved a 2 1/2 week trip to southern Africa to visit a dear friend in the Peace Corps. I vomited three times the first morning in Botswana, going on to average at least one pain-induced puking session a day over the course of our trip. But that first day, I was also given my Tswana name by a few of the locals in Molepolole: "Bitumelo," which literally means "happy." I was smiling.

Pain isn't always written on our faces.
These are just two quick examples of a situation the chronically ill/hurting face on a daily basis. Unless we spend the duration of an encounter crying, whining, or stoically silent, we open ourselves to questions like, "Do you still have [insert condition here]? You seem so energetic." Worse, others don't even ask; they make statements full of assumption: "You look so happy! You must be feeling better."

I understand why people associate smiling with well-being. Studies show that even doctors treat and prescribe differently based on a patient's physical presentation. (For more on this, see my piece on Gender Bias in Pain on Adios Barbie.) But let's face it, there are many socially-sanctioned reasons to smile. Many of them have nothing to do with feeling good, and when dealing with someone who has chronic illness or constant pain, entertaining only one interpretation of a smile can be extremely invalidating of our experiences.

A few reasons I may be smiling:
  • It's polite. In our culture, bright eyes and a smile are the easiest ways of making oneself friendly and approachable. This expression says, "I'm paying attention to what you're saying. I'm interested in you." And it isn't exactly socially acceptable to curl up in a ball and whimper, even if that's what I feel like doing.
  • I'm happy to see you, despite my pain. This is twofold: As a person who rarely gets out of the house, I genuinely smile as a response to seeing someone I love, but I also particularly make an effort to smile to show you that I'm happy to see you.
  • I'm protecting you. I get it. It's hard to maintain a relationship with me when I am so low-functioning. I want our time together to be pleasant, and I recognize that me acting like a Debbie Downer is depressing, and won't encourage you to hang out with me again.
  • I'm protecting myself. Sometimes, I just want to pretend I'm "normal" for a little while, to get a mental break from the discomfort and monotony that make up my days. Sometimes, I am in so much pain (or so exhausted) that I feel like I might burst into tears if anyone probes farther than polite greetings.
  • It releases endorphins, the body's natural painkillers. It may seem ridiculous to a healthy person, but I have to make conscious efforts to engage in activities that produce particular chemicals in my brain in order to reduce pain/stress and increase feelings of well-being. I eat certain foods, I meditate, I do yoga, I listen to music, I get out in nature... and I smile. It's one of many healthy, natural forms of self-medication.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and it's important to recognize that the reasons those with chronic pain or illness might smile are as varied and individual as the people themselves. It's merely meant to open the door to discussion and personal reflection. Maybe the next time a loved one makes an assumption about your smile, you'll feel comfortable offering a gentle correction. Maybe the next time you see someone else smiling, you'll think twice before jumping to conclusions, and ask an open-ended question instead.

Why do you smile? Feel free to chime in in the comments section below, or join me on Twitter (suggested hashtag: #ismilebecause).

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Creative Cursing for Chronic Pain Relief

When I first learned that cursing helps pain tolerance, I couldn't wait to tell my partner Brendan. While I keep my language appropriate for the company I'm keeping (ie, keeping it squeaky clean around children, elders, and strangers), I do enjoy a good expletive and have never been shy to use one to emphasize a point. Thus, I got a real kick out of discovering that my fondness for certain swear words might help relieve my chronic pain.

Brendan was similarly amused, but brought up an interesting question: Is it the actual curse words themselves that provide the benefit, or simply the act of exclamation itself? We chuckled over the idea of vehement outbursts of "Butterflies!!!", "Unicorns!!!", or "Rainbow!!!"--words with traditionally positive connotations. But once we'd stopped giggling, I started to think about this idea in earnest.

For one thing, it isn't practical to apply cursing (in its conventional form) as a pain-reduction technique precisely because of the audience concerns I raised above. It isn't socially acceptable to go around muttering expletives under one's breath (and as far as I'm concerned, this is a good thing!). But there are other problems, too. Recent studies show that the more one swears, the less the pain-relieving benefits. Beyond that, even someone as curse-friendly as I am has to admit that these words have a negative bent that I don't particularly want to reinforce in my life. But it can't be denied that these words do express anger, frustration, or pain better than words like "Mermen!!!" or "Cinnamon buns!!!"

Enter creative cursing. I began inventing my own "cusses," with all the satisfaction of the hard, explosive sounds most expletives contain, but without the negativity they connote. And as I did, they started to morph and change into new words. It became a game. These days, I am constantly coming up with new nonsense curses, much to the amusement of myself and those around me. After all, who can really keep a straight face after a string of curses like "Punkmonkey!!!", "Crunchbubbles!!!", or "Punchbucket!!!"?

So go ahead. Cuss up a blue streak. And by that I mean, start with "Periwinkle!!!" and run with it.

Friday, November 1, 2013

This Blog, It Is A-Changin'!

It's been over a year and a half since I've posted here. Indeed, until my return to Twitter about a month ago, it had been a year and a half since I posted on any public social media platform. This may seem bizarre given my career in online community management, but there are good reasons, both practical and personal. I suffer from constant, severe head pain (with migraine flares), which makes looking at a computer screen for any length of time pretty problematic. But beyond that hurdle lies another, bigger hangup: I have been living in shame.

I'm no stranger to this struggle. As an eating disorder and rape survivor, I have fought back my fair share of shame demons. As befits the woman my partner calls the Queen of Communication (that's me!), I dealt with these issues in large part by talking about them--not only to a therapist, to support groups, to my friends and family, but also to the public through performance, writing, and social media. My natural response to a socially taboo topic is to break the silence, loudly and repeatedly.

I've had this condition for over 3 1/2 years now. So why has it taken so long for me to break this silence? Perhaps it relates to the fear of drawing attention to one's physical ills that I mentioned in my latest piece for Adios Barbie on Gender Bias in Pain. Perhaps it's the daunting prospect of attempting to explain my illness that overwhelms me. There may be some fear of rejection; I would rather disappear quietly from people's news feeds, Twitter streams, and consciousness than face the fact that many of those people would quickly unfriend and unfollow me should I start representing my new self accurately. But more than anything else, I think, I have been ashamed that I am no longer the person I was before the pain. I have been afraid to admit publicly that my old life has completely fallen apart, and my new life is anything but glamorous. I don't want to admit it to the world, because I don't want to admit it to myself.

The 6th Annual Women in Pain Conference gave me the wake-up call that I needed. During the discussion of coping missteps and pitfalls, panelist Lynne Popadak (Co-Organizer, USC Quench the Fire Run) spoke movingly about the pressure to be strong and independent, to hold onto the person she was before pain and to continue to present that person to the world. Another panelist, Britt Johnson (aka The Hurt Blogger), talked about "putting [her] best face on," and the freeing power of honesty with friends and family. As the conference progressed, I started to hear a common refrain from many participants: social media (and the pain community therein) is a lifesaver when it comes to feeling connected and validated as a person living with chronic pain. And it hit me. If I wait until I'm "ready," until I feel secure, until I have it all figure out, I will never tweet, blog, or perform again. I will never be "ready." I have to start now.

Within a few days of returning from LA (an ordeal in itself), I unceremoniously started tweeting again. The rewards were almost instantaneous; Britt welcomed me with [virtual] open arms and I had positive interactions with several other WIP Conference speakers. And while many of my followers did unfollow me, I similarly unfollowed many of them. We simply had no common ground anymore. And that's ok. I found new tweeps with whom I share more, and having less industry news in my stream (reminding me of my lost career) proved extremely good for my mental health.

Encouraged, I am now slowly beginning the process of reforming my social media presence, creating more harmony between how I am represented online and who I am today. There are many things about me that remain the same: I love my family and the friends who've stuck by me as much as ever--if not more. I'm just as passionate about social justice. I still revel in edible gardening, cooking, writing, dogs, and roller derby. But I am no longer the energetic community manager who can work 60 hours a week on a Quantcast Top 100 site, and socialize 4 or 5 nights a week. I am a woman in (as yet) untreatable pain, mostly homebound, who saves her spoons all week for one carefully-planned outing. And as such, I still deserve a voice.

So there we have it. Welcome to my Ruud Awakenings.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Are You There, Pinterest? It's Me, Maddie.

Pinterest has been through a lot since their meteoric rise to popularity this year. Last week, they revised their rules to cover a gaping hole in their TOS in response to copyright concerns. This week, they added a clause to forbid pinning anything that "creates a risk of harm, loss, physical or mental injury, emotional distress, death, disability, disfigurement or physical or mental illness to yourself, to any other person, or to any animal." This comes in the wake of public outcry against pro-eating disorder communities and Tumblr's move last month to ban content that promotes self-harm, including pro-ED content.

Here's the problem: Pinterest is still saturated with pro-anorexic content. A search for the keyword "thinspo" (a term used by the pro-ED community to describe images that provide inspiration to continue eating disorder behaviors) turns up endless images of jutting collarbones, stick-thin legs, and concave stomachs. I know from years of experience in content moderation: Don't ban something if you don't have a plan in place to remove it.

But worse than these issues themselves is that Pinterest's team has remained eerily silent. I am particularly surprised that Pinterest's community manager is nowhere to be found. In fact, as the CM of a user-generated content site myself, I saw the copyright debacle coming and reached out to her via LinkedIn. About a week later, everyone was talking about it. I didn't take offense at her lack of response; she must be busy. But doing what?

This is the real problem with Pinterest, the one they're going to have to solve or sink. We all make mistakes, as individuals and as companies. Pinterest hasn't made any mistakes from which they can't recover. I've read a lot of criticism of the company, but I haven't read anything that indicates people aren't ready to forgive and forget. But when you make a mistake, you need to reach out to people and invite them to do so. Admit you're not infallible, and use that point to relate to your users, rather than remaining silent and risking a loss of brand trust.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Not-So-Illustrious Origins of #InflatableShark

It all started with an inflatable shark. Not even an actual, physical inflatable shark. Just the threat of one.

As the community manager of HubPages, I've dealt with a lot of persecution complexes. As I like to say, "the internet brings out the crazy" (often in otherwise seemingly sane persons). Online, as off-, people want to believe they're being specially victimized, rather than examine what responsibility they carry.

The original #inflatableshark moment arose from one of these situations. A user was highly indignant about one of his Hubs (articles on HubPages) being moderated as containing unrelated products. He insisted that all of his Amazon and eBay capsules contained products relevant to the subject (cable TV programs). The user sent several abusive emails to staff about the moderation, and we responded politely more than once to explain the problem. He ignored this and went to the public forums on our site to open a thread ranting that HubPages is staffed entirely by idiots.

I responded:
You have an inflatable shark in one of your product capsules. 'Nuff said.

Normally, I would not respond so brusquely, but having seen the emails coming from this guy, it was clear to me that he wasn't actually reading our communications to him. Partly, I wanted to be as succinct as possible to maximize the likelihood of him actually recognizing the problem. And partly, I was quite frankly sick of the guy. Perhaps not my finest moment as a community manager, but it gave rise to an internal meme around the site and office, which would quickly gather a life of its own.

Suddenly, the thread was hijacked by several users posting endless pictures of inflatable sharks... and some dolphins too! One of our moderators (anonymous for her own protection) pasted the image of an inflatable shark over the cowbell in a photo of Will Ferrell from the classic SNL sketch, with the caption "More inflatable shark!" Around HubPages HQ, we started referring to "inflatable shark moments."

When an Internal Meme Goes Public

As community managers, we all have these moments. We've all posted to our Facebook pages as ourselves instead of our brands, or mistakenly tweeted something personal from the company Twitter account. And really, these moments are not exclusive to community management. In a way, the user who prompted the whole meme was having one of those moments too.

In a #cmgrchat discussion a few weeks ago, I mentioned #inflatableshark on Twitter for the first time. The other community managers (and a few in particular) immediately latched onto the hashtag. I believe it was Michael Hahn who suggested we could use it as a funny codeword for a community mishap of any kind. Penelope Singer suggested t-shirts. A few days later, Matt Hirshfelt pointed out a daily deal site offer for inflatable sharks, and both he and I bought them for our respective offices. Rosemary O'Neill uncovered a forgotten inflatable shark on her table at home! We tweet each other regularly using the hashtag, sharing pictures, stories, and general camaraderie.

Taking those bad moments and laughing about them is vital, not only in community management, but in life. I see this user's quiet exit from HubPages (without even responding to the thread he himself opened) as a lesson. If you take yourself too seriously, if you can't take responsibility for your actions, if you can't laugh at yourself when necessary, you're doomed to a very unhappy on- or offline existence. Bottom line: we all make mistakes. It's how you recover from them that counts.

What #inflatableshark moments have you had recently? Join me on Twitter and share.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Future of Community Management: Thoughts from 2/29/12 #cmgrchat

I've recently started participating in the weekly Twitter chat #cmgrchat, hosted by lovely ladies Jenn Pedde and Kelly Lux. Today's chat focused around the future of community management, and specifically how we (as members of the Community Manager community) would like to see it develop as an industry and profession.

Here are some of my thoughts following the chat.

The future of community management still isn't clear. There's a lot of exciting and varied discussion around the future of the Community Manager role, with some common themes:

HappLand!There's general consensus that as CMs, we'll need to continue to increase our coverage and rally more resources around ourselves. Suggestions ranged from a universal tool for updates across all social media platforms, to easier analytics, to self-cloning, to caffeine IV drips, to unicorns. (Unicorns make everything better.)

Another point of agreement was that we need to stay focused on the human element of social media. Too many brands overwork the tools and forget the people they're trying to reach. This ties right in with my last post regarding individuality in community management.

There were many points of contention as well. Heated discussions arose around the pros and cons of outsourcing community management, as well as whether or not we envision the creation of a C-level position (Chief Community Officer). The pros of keeping community management close to the ground are clear: better brand knowledge, better connection to the pulse of the community, more honest human interaction. But many companies think they cannot afford to hire dedicated CMs, or believe that outsourcing to a dedicated agency will get them better results. In my opinion, as the web becomes increasingly social, pretty soon companies won't be able to afford not to have a community manager. And I see it as our job to convince them.

I'd like to give a shout-out to everyone who contributed to today's #cmgrchat. It really is one of the highlights of my workweek. If you're a CM, or interested in community management, I highly recommend it as THE place to hangout at 2 pm ET on Wednesdays. :)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Be More Than Your Brand: Individuality in Community Management

The conversation amongst online community managers often centers around brand advocacy: how we represent our products in social media; how we maintain a consistent message across multiple platforms; how we turn customer feedback into positive change; how we build lasting relationships for our companies, both with our users and with other brands. These are valuable conversations, but too often I see community managers single-mindedly interacting as their brands, where in many cases a little touch of individuality would go much farther.

I am not a robot. Believe me, I've been asked. I've also been asked for my "customer service ID number" so that the user would not have to deal with someone else... at a company of (then) 14 people. I saw both of these interactions as failures on my part -- not necessarily failure to represent the brand, but failure to be an individual within that brand.

When I came into community management in early 2008, the industry was still in its infancy. It was derived in terms of other established roles (customer service, marketing, content moderation). Today, we're [mostly] respected in our own right, with a dedicated position in the corporate hierarchy. We no longer need to fight tooth and nail to have our jobs validated as necessary, and can dedicate those resources to making ourselves -- and our brands -- more approachable. The key is humanity, but even more than that, it's individuality.

By no means am I advocating flooding your branded Twitter feed with personal updates about what you ate for breakfast. Chances are, you were hired as community manager for your brand at least in part because your temperament meshes well with the culture of the company. Trust yourself to choose appropriate moments to share, and the appropriate time and forum in which to share them. Posting pictures, videos, and written anecdotes of the office, staff, and team outings are an easy place to start. There's not too much controversy there. But I recommend going further.

Introduce and promote the [public] social media profiles of your staff. On your own personal accounts, share not only industry news and product updates, but twinklings of personality. I tweet quite a bit about HubPages and community management in general, but I also throw in links to my food blog, silly Instagram photos (as at right), the occasional FourSquare check-in, and a weekly #FlashbackFriday video highlighting the memes of years past.

I understand the instinct to completely compartmentalize, but the truth is, illustrating your humanity to your community can only help your brand image -- assuming you do it responsibly. As we're all tired of hearing, online activity is becoming increasingly social. To engage socially, you need to be more than a bloodless, faceless organization. You need to be a living, breathing organism. You have to be human.

Coming soon... "The Balancing Act: Personal vs Brand Sharing on Social Media."