Managing the Personal-Public Boundary On-Line

The EPSRC-funded Digital Brain Switch project has been examining some of the issues also of interest to us at VolEx, in particular the implications of digital media for how individuals manage work-life transitions.
Digital Brain Switch Project
The project collected video diaries and conducted follow-up interviews with students, office workers and social entrepreneurs, and it is the findings emerging from this latter group that may particularly begin to provide additional ideas about volunteering in a digital world.
Social Entrepreneurs (SEs) ‘employ market-based methods to improve social problems’ (Grimes et al, 2012), setting up businesses whose profits are fed back into socially meaningful projects, often within local communities and directed towards addressing those communities specific needs. Some of these social enterprises rely on volunteers (and sometimes family) to help deliver these projects.
The findings of this project are just beginning to emerge but a clear message that comes across is the dedication that social entrepreneurs, like volunteers, feel for their cause, strongly identifying on a personal level with their work which can then lead to issues in maintaining a work-life balance. Indeed many SEs would not talk in terms of work and life as being separate but rather fully integrated in a way they felt they were not able to achieve in paid employment.  We may find parallels here in the ways volunteers feel about their voluntary work.
It is clear that Social Entrepreneurs in particular make extensive use of social media in pursuing their goals, especially as it provides an inexpensive way of advertising the social enterprise and engaging with stakeholder groups. The SEs often have several Twitter and Facebook accounts, moving between these to engage different elements of their supporters and target audiences.
In general then SEs find social media and the internet invaluable but the picture is rather more complex than this, for example:
• SEs felt under some pressure to be regularly on-line servicing their enterprises’ profile so that the enterprise appears clearly active and engaged. This could mean blogging and tweeting at all hours and often when engaged in another activity, and not being able to easily switch off because there is always more to be done.
• This intensive engagement with social media and close identification with their work, means that the issue for SEs is less about drawing a boundary between ‘work’ and ‘life’ but rather between the ‘public’ and the ‘private’. For example, how much of themselves should be exposed on line in order to underline their dedication to the cause and how much kept private in order to avoid exposing others close to them?
• In those larger social enterprises that employed volunteers, there could also be concern over how volunteers engaged with social media – even as private individuals – as some on-line activities (even just ‘liking’ FB comments) could conflict with the message and goals of the social enterprise. At least one of the participants in the project therefore ran training courses for volunteers in using social media.
While the focus of the Digital Brain Switch project is not volunteering, some of the issues here clearly are relevant to volunteering and raise issues about both how volunteers manage on-line identities and public-personal boundaries, and how third sector organizations may engage with volunteers’ social media activity.

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About gilliansymon

Gillian is Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. She has particular research interests in the use of technology in work and non-work contexts, as well as in identity at work, sociomateriality and qualitative research methods. She is currently involved in an EPSRC-sponsored research project exploring the links between digital technologies (lie social media) and work-life balance: The Digital Brain Switch Project.

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