When I set up a Twitter account for the Marginalised Families Online project, my main goal was to create an avenue through which I could communicate with academics and stakeholders, and also share useful resources with families; to try and give something back to the communities I’m researching (LGBT, solo and adoptive parents). I also had a vague idea that it might be a helpful way to gain a better understanding of the experiences and practices of these groups before I start interviewing participants. That vague idea turned out to be a bigger deal than I’d first thought. In this post I want to share what I’ve learned from using Twitter to explore the field in the last couple of weeks.
So far I’ve followed 221 accounts, and they are mostly parents who are LGBT, solo, and/or adoptive; some are all three. I started by following family support charities I already knew about, then searching people for terms like ‘adoptive mum/dad’, ‘single mum/dad’, ‘donor conception’, ‘single parent by choice’, ‘lesbian mum’ and ‘gay dad’. After that, Twitter started to do the work for me; I found new Tweeps by looking at the posts others had liked and retweeted, who they followed, and Twitter’s pop-up suggestions. I’ve been looking at my timeline several times a day, following links and seeing where they lead, and retweeting any resources that look particularly interesting and valuable. I’m going to share just a few of the things I’ve learned so far from doing this.
1. Situating myself in the field. I already knew that I was part of the social world I’m studying (see my previous post). Yet somehow, seeing myself in the content I’ve stumbled across has still come as a shock. It was finding Lara Lillibridge’s article for the Guardian (I was taunted for having two mums in the 1980s) that really set me on this path of realisation. When I first saw the headline, I thought ‘Oh, this resonates with me’. But I wasn’t quite ready for how closely Lillibridge’s experiences mirrored my own, and it brought up a flood of memories and feelings that I had been ignoring (or trying, anyway) for a long time. I followed Lara down the Twitter rabbit-hole and found, for want of a better phrase, my people. This hadn’t really happened to me before. I realised that I was finding out first-hand how valuable social media sites like Twitter could be for connecting with people who are like you, when you had previously felt that no-one quite understood where you were coming from. ‘This…’, I thought, ‘is why people share’. It was the first time I had *really* experienced a moment of absolute recognition, of seeing myself and my own experiences in someone else, and realising that I was not alone. It was very powerful and I won’t forget it.
2. Negotiating collective meanings, values and practices. Despite the value of sharing experiences, collectivisation practices like hashtags can be sites of intense negotiation and conflict. I saw this first-hand last week, which happened to be National Adoption Week. Of the three intersecting parental identities that I’m interested in, adoptive parenting is the area I know least about. So when I saw the hashtag #NationalAdoptionWeek, I thought, ‘Great! Time to watch and learn’. What I saw around this hashtag was very different from the snippets of information I had gleaned about adoption from my limited life experience in this area. I was surprised, for example, that many of the most dominant voices I follow were reluctant to use the hashtag at all. Many used this platform to explain that #NationalAdoptionWeek felt like a marketing ploy, and was not really serving adopters and adoptees at all. They shared their dismay that this week was full of smiling families and urgent reminders of the large number of children still waiting for adoptive parents. They suggested that the hashtag had come to symbolise the commodification of adoption, glossing over its complexities and the gross failings of the system (to keep more children with their birth parents, for example, and to adequately support adoptive families). Some pushed the alternative hashtag #SupportAdoption, emphasising the need for support and understanding, not recruitment. Others drew attention to the absence of adoptees’ voices in the campaigns, posts and articles that were doing the rounds.
3. Effecting change. Another important lesson I took from my observations last week is that marginalised families have power when they come together online. Amidst the tensions and negotiations around National Adoption Week, GiffGaff’s ‘Monster Family’ advert appeared on my timeline. The ad showed an unconventional (but loving) ‘monster’ family, whose apparently human daughter is wrenched from her parents, taken to a ‘normal’ (but terrifyingly cold and false) family, and forced to sign an adoption contract. In a happy ending, she is returned to her loving monster family’s arms. The speed with which adoptive parents and families responded to this ad, which many argued had demonised both birth and adoptive parents in one insensitive swoop, was impressive. GiffGaff was flooded with complaints that carefully explained the damaging messages they had communicated to and about an extremely marginalised and vulnerable community. Within 24 hours, the ad had been removed, and the company apologised for the hurt they had caused.
So, it seems, my fieldwork has already started, a little earlier than I expected. My explorations so far have strengthened my certainty that digital technologies are hugely important for marginalised family groups, providing media through which they can share experiences and resources, find support, negotiate meanings, and campaign for better understanding of the issues they face. I’m looking forward to learning more.