In my previous post about why I don’t use Twitter I found my way to two sentences that have stood out for a couple of my readers and that I think may offer me a provisional answer to the questions I have been asking myself:
The personal learning networks and media platforms on which we are defining our identity at once constitute the promise of democratic citizenship as well as commodify our democratic impulse to participate.
. . . we need to keep in mind Antonio Gramsci’s insight that cultural hegemony works precisely when a social consensus emerges that makes a set of cultural practices appear to be natural, if not essential—to who we are, what we do, and who we might want to become.
Corporate media platforms like Twitter and Facebook promise and deliver. But the delivery comes at a cost. Here I can’t help but think of a beautiful and haunting line of verse by Walt Whitman. “Something startles me where I thought I was safest.”
Years ago, on a warm August afternoon of 2010, I read a brief article in the Keene Sentinel that includes a commentary by Mike Caulfield. In Complaints about Facebook are a growing trend, Mike succinctly describes a problem that is in the news this week: “Facebook has been notoriously tight-lipped about how it shares users’ information with potential advertisers, who want to target people,” Mike observes. “One’s an issue of openness and the other is more of a standard privacy issue: to what extent do you control the rights of the information you produce,” he goes on to say. The article then concludes with Mike’s larger worry. “He’s worried if social networking doesn’t address the bigger concern, the connective nature of the Web could suffer.” As it happened, at the time, I was experiencing connections on the web in surprising and exciting ways. But the connections, and my continuing investments in what I am now able to describe as open pedagogy, have have become inseparable from question I am asking as a college professor engaging on the open web with students in the study of literacy, literature, and culture. And so, for better or for worse, here I am writing on a subject I know little about to help me think through the consequences of the professional work I am doing
The use of Twitter is a fascinating case. Do the advantages outweigh the risks? Well, there has been a lot of discussion. In The Rules of Twitter Dorothy Kim describes the space as a “corporate-owned digital medium that has become a hacked public digital media space.” Her piece appears relatively sanguine about the ways that “the medium has been bent to the purposes of its users.” What is missing from this formulation is what I have already written, that as educators it is “difficult to imagine the kind of agency we value as educators when the for-profit social networking platforms we are using define users not as customers but as products.” Users are more than users and the social and communal purposes of media platforms like Twitter have been deeply compromised by their design as well as the ineluctable complexities of social interaction in the medium
We need to learn more about the convergence of social graphing and news feeds. The first idea, the social graph, is a solution to the problem of mapping connections between groups of people. As Matt Locke explains it, “For these sites, the social graph was implemented mainly for users’ benefit —to help you find a connection with another user or to see what your friends were doing on the site. The second idea, the news feed, “was a fundamental shift in how social media sites were structured. Early social media sites, like Blogger, assumed that its users were creators, and so they focused on making it easy for users to publish their own content. Reading other people’s content meant visiting their individual blogs or using a service like an RSS reader to aggregate posts from the people you wanted to follow.
When Twitter launched in 2006 as a micro-blogging platform it was focused as much on reading your friends’ updates as posting your own. Locke explains, the very first version of the homepage “introduced the timeline — a list of updates sent by people you followed. At that time, posting to Twitter was via SMS, so the website was mainly focused on reading your friends’ updates, rather than posting content. The social graph and the news feed changed everything. The shift positioned the user as a consumer rather than a creator. Control over what you publish, on a site that you control, was replaced by a digital medium aggregates content into a never-ending and personalized stream for the reader, not the creator. Locke explains,
This shift from viewing users as producers to consumers was critical to Facebook and Twitter’s growth. Both sites gradually realized that they could be the hub of a new kind of media service, mixing updates from friends, celebrities, and brands into real-time streams of text, images, and video. Then, in 2007, the launch of the iPhone gave users the perfect tool for browsing those streams.
This is how the democratic promise of social media shifted. The convergence of the social graph and the news feed offered users free social media platforms to connect to one other and at the same time the data users produced was used to frame the way users would see the world.
Pioneers in the use of Twitter for academic purposes have, for many years, understood that the promise comes with a cost. If you are interested the persistent opportunities and risks of using Twitter you may want to set aside forty-five minutes for an episode in the “Closing Pods” Podcast. In Teaching without Social Media, Jeese Stommel and Kris Schaffer describe years of pedagogical work on Twitter, often requiring students to create accounts, tweet about their coursework, even crafting assignments where a single tweet was the assignment. What is interesting is that these heavy users of Twitter have determined that it comes at two high a risk for students. Why have they made this choice? What do they do instead? How do they help our students navigate the world of public, digital scholarship in a world increasingly dominated by harassment, abuse disinformation, and polarization?
You might follow up the podcast with Kris Schaffer’s fascinating collection of posts Propagandalytics and specifically his piece Twitter is Lying to You. Schaffer concludes this blog post with one plan for anyone who is feeling a wee bit uncomfortable or uncertain of the ways that the digital ecosystem in which social-media propaganda thrives. His advice? Learn more. Make an exit plan. Use email newsletters. Write on blogs. Use other tools to create social networks. Use simple bookmarks. He then concludes with the following:
I’m over social media. It’s not that Twitter the company is bad, but Twitter the service is good. I’m over the whole idea. I still value relationships, serendipitous learning, and allowing others a channel to suggest new ideas that I wouldn’t otherwise consider. But the always-on, easily manipulable platform is part of the problem. Even open-source software and non-profit organizations won’t solve that aspect of it.
Perhaps we all need to be working more diligently to think again: to wean ourselves as best we can from the conceptual metaphor of the web as a stream and work to find creative ways to rebuild the web as a network. If the conceptual distinction between the stream and the web is not clear, I elaborated a bit on its constitutive presence in our online activities in a blog post on hyperlinking that I wrote for my class this semester called Houses and Chairs.
But there is one more thing. There is no question that the costs or tradeoffs of monetized corporate social-media platforms are inextricable from the pleasure-seeking system in our heads we call our brains. Years ago, as I watched with mild discomfort as my kids became digital omnivores, I read an interesting piece on dopamine research. The research was a marvelous way to pursue one of my favorite pursuits, confirmation bias, for it suggested another reason why social media has become so ubiquitous—and more importantly, why we are so adept at accepting the risks. (Remembering I was reading in this research may be one of the answers to my question why I chose not to use Twitter.) The short review article Why We’re All Addicted to Texts, Twitter and Google offers a useful take from the intersection of research on the brain and behavioral psychology:
With the internet, twitter, and texting you now have almost instant gratification of your desire to seek. Want to talk to someone right away? Send a text and they respond in a few seconds. Want to look up some information? Just type your request into google. Want to see what your colleagues are up to? Go to Linked In. It’s easy to get in a dopamine induced loop. Dopamine starts you seeking, then you get rewarded for the seeking which makes you seek more.
In fact the author, Susan Weinschenk, I just discovered, wrote a follow up last month The Dopamine Seeking-Reward Loop. It is, to say the least, a fascinating time to be alive in the sea of information.
If these kinds of questions are of interest to you there are places to go. Have a look at the series of articles on Twitter in the online journal Digital Pedagogy. In particular, Liela Walker’s 2016 piece Beyond Academic Twitter: Social Media and the Evolution of Scholarly Publication has a nice way to reframe the conversation. “Ten years after Twitter’s launch, we need to stop asking what academics should do on Twitter and start asking what Twitter has done to academics.” Her broad argument is that digital platforms, “from Twitter and personal blogs to e-journals and iterative monographs, are creating new ways to publish and new publishing opportunities.” As she concludes, “In this new model of academic publishing, Twitter interactions exist on the same spectrum of activity as peer-review and scholarly editing. But more importantly, new models for scholarly publication are creating new ways to engage in public scholarship beyond traditional publication, fundamentally blurring the boundaries between publication, conversation, and community.” This statement is good as far as it goes. But I am not confident it goes far enough.
Further Reading on Social Media, Digital Ethics, Education, and Democracy
This post is one of three in my mini series that begins with Why I Don’t Use Twitter. The second Post is More on Twitter and the third post is Seeing and Being Seen. Should you be interested in further reading, below is an incomplete and unscholarly reading list—some of the material I was reading as I was writing these posts.
Carina Chocano What Good is ‘Community’ when Someone Else Makes all the Rules?
Carr, Nicholas. I am a data factory (and so are you)
Collier, Amy Digital Sanctuary: Protection and Refuge on the Web?
Cottom, Tressie McMillan Digital Redlining After Trump: Real Names + Fake News on Facebook
Dwoskin, Elizabeth and Tony Romm Facebook’s rules for accessing user data lured more than just Cambridge Analytica
Eubanks, Virginia Want to Predict the Future of Surveillance? Ask Poor Communities
Glaser, April The Dogs that Didn’t Bite
Hermon, John Cambridge Analytica and the Coming Data Bust
Johnson, Jeffrey Alan Structural Justice in Student Analytics, or, the Silence of the Bunnies
Kim, Dorothy The Rules of Twitter
Locke, Matt How Like Went Bad
Luckerson, Victor The Rise of the Like Economy
McKenzie, Lindsay The Ethical Social Network
Noble, Safiya Umoja Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism
Noble, Safiya Umoja and Sarah T. Roberts Engine Failure
Stommel, Jesse The Twitter Essay
Watters, Audrey Selections from Hackeducation