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Nicholas Carr

Seeing and Being Seen

For all symbols are fluxional; all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Poet

In part because I am not satisfied with the conclusion of my thinking about social media, and because the conversation about social media platforms has been peaking in the news cycle, I am writing a third post in what is most likely my ill-fated mini-series, Why I don’t use Twitter.

My decision not to use Twitter, as I have explained from the beginning, is that I don’t have the time. I am in love with language, and what language lovers call discourse; and I devote a good deal of time to reading and writing—reviews and commentaries, articles and essays, and books. And, for over ten years, I have been writing on web logs. My practice writing on blogs has modulated between sharing what I have experienced or might know, delivering something to a reader, and seeking or acquiring understanding of one thing or another. Writing helps me figure things out (or not), including what I think, at best on the way to discovering what my thinking might actually mean. The other reason I have chosen not to use Twitter is rooted in a deeper concern about the particular ways the platform shapes forms of expression and social engagement.

Over many years, I have used blogs and wikis, feeds that aggregate content, and social media. Indeed I can say without hesitation that my personal and professional life has become richer as a result of the social and cultural changes digital technologies make possible. It has been breathtaking, to put it another way, to be engaged in literacy and education as digital technologies have proliferated. My doctoral work centered around theories of inquiry, and how the literary activities of reading, thinking, and writing have constituted democratic literacy and culture. And working in a writing center and co-directing a large university writing program put teaching and pedagogy at the center of my intellectual development during graduate school. Sure, my mind was entangled in the beautiful intricacies of intellectual history, theory and criticism, and poetry and poetics; at the same time, I was deeply engaged with teachers and students in heady conversations about teaching and learning–and technology.

The tidal flow of technology felt inevitable: typing up a research project using a word processor for the first time; the first experiences with the graphical user interfaces that began replacing the MS-DOS text commands typed on a keyboard, such as “dir” to list the files in a directory and “del” to delete a file, all taking place with students in the “computer-integrated classroom” in which I volunteered to teach; the department bulletin boards, the local area networks, electronic mail; file transfer protocol, html, web browsers, and the web log; then the proliferation of web 2.0 applications, Friendster and LinkedIn and MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, Google+ and then later applications such as Snapchat and Instagram; video sharing platforms like YouTube and music services such as Spotify; and the integration of live stream technologies in Facebook and Twitter.

When I began working full-time as an assistant professor of English digital technologies had taken shape in teaching and learning management systems. Moodle, Blackboard, and Canvas were presented to educational institutions as products to manage learning through a modern conception of system management. The history of learning management is a history that includes Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Midvale Steel Works in Pennsylvania, specifically his 1911 treatise Principles Of Scientific Management in which the systematic laws, rules, and principles to improve manufacturing processes sound all too familiar in an age of standardized testing and learning assessment regimes designed to manage and improve educational outcomes. “In the past Man has been first, in the future the system must be first,” Taylor asserts in his brief introduction.

The design and uses of digital platforms are haunted by Taylor’s vision. The learning management system, or LMS,  put the system at the center of learning: it encouraged the use of so-called best practices, created efficiencies for teachers, standardized learning, and facilitated pathways for knowledge transfer. These proprietary systems are designed to monitor student learning in and across courses as well, creating increasingly flexible and “responsive” learning environments. Teachers and administrators have readily incorporated the LMS into their classrooms and institutions. And, if you read Taylor, it is not difficult to understand how the LMS has taken hold. But in this acceptance of the system–that is, once the domain of management becomes the conceptual framework for the domain of teaching and learning–then it becomes all the more difficult to work with a different metaphor. The concept becomes inseparable from the technological and administrative routines of the institution. Teaching and learning is management.

My point is that conceptual metaphors determine the way we think–in this case, how we think about and experience the Internet through the various networks of web pages and sites and services we call the web. To describe the Internet in terms of a stream rather than a network, to take another example, normalizes the increasingly sophisticated algorithms that stream information and news, to provide users more of what they like, and that conveniently construct a personalized information stream.

Nicholas Carr offers a parallel commentary on the metaphors we use when we are thinking about data. As he explains, the terms “mining” and “extraction” are indicators of a conceptual metaphor that determines the limits of our thinking. The problem, he explains, is that data “does not lie passively within me, like a seam of ore, waiting to be extracted”:

Rather, I actively produce data through the actions I take over the course of a day. When I drive or walk from one place to another, I produce locational data. When I buy something, I produce purchase data. When I text with someone, I produce affiliation data. When I read or watch something online, I produce preference data. When I upload a photo, I produce not only behavioral data but data that is itself a product. I am, in other words, much more like a data factory than a data mine. I produce data through my labor — the labor of my mind, the labor of my body.

Carr then turns to Taylor, which surprised me at first, for I had made the connection to Taylor in my attempt to make sense of the LMS. But then my surprise turned to a wider recognition:

The platform companies, in turn, act more like factory owners and managers than like the owners of oil wells or copper mines. Beyond control of my data, the companies seek control of my actions, which to them are production processes, in order to optimize the efficiency, quality, and value of my data output (and, on the demand side of the platform, my data consumption). They want to script and regulate the work of my factory — i.e., my life — as Frederick Winslow Taylor sought to script and regulate the labor of factory workers at the turn of the last century. The control wielded by these companies, in other words, is not just that of ownership but also that of command. And they exercise this command through the design of their software, which increasingly forms the medium of everything we all do during our waking hours.

Once conceptual frameworks become visible we are able to imagine other ways of describing the problem. “The factory metaphor makes clear what the mining metaphor obscures,” Carr explains. “We work for the Facebooks and Googles of the world, and the work we do is increasingly indistinguishable from the lives we lead. The questions we need to grapple with are political and economic, to be sure. But they are also personal, ethical, and philosophical.”

Personal. Ethical. Philosophical. . . . On the one hand, the digital tools are useful for building and sustaining a democratic culture–for sharing information, accessing new dimensions of experience, building community, and bringing people together for forms of social engagement and action. At the same time, these platforms require user consent—to the collection, transfer, storage, manipulation, and disclosure of user information. In Pedagogy and the Logic of Platforms Chris Gilliard explains how

a web based on surveillance, personalization, and monetization works perfectly well for particular constituencies, but it doesn’t work quite as well for persons of color, lower-income students, and people who have been walled off from information or opportunities because of the ways they are categorized according to opaque algorithms

Questions about how the web works are always already questions about who the web works for. And the implications for educators should be clear. For when “persistent surveillance, data mining, tracking, and browser fingerprinting”  become normative practices we easily overlook the same strategies at work in the learning management systems at work in the digital infrastructures of our colleges and universities.

An article by John Hermann, a technology reporter for the New York Times, offers a useful description of the business model that has determined the design and use of these platforms in the digital ecosystem—that is, the tools we use to express ourselves and to connect with others:

Since 2012, online platforms have moved to the center of hundreds of millions more lives, popularizing their particular brands of social surveillance. Services like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are inextricably tied to the experience of being monitored by others, which, if it doesn’t always produce “prosocial” behavior in the broad psychological sense, seems to have encouraged behaviors useful to the platforms themselves—activity and growth.

The model is successful precisely because it is predicated on expanding, on finding “new ways to monetize the powerful twin sensations of seeing and being seen by others.” These sensations have become a distinct feature of digital experience—so much so, in fact, that they have become ubiquitous beyond social networks as well. If one reads digital editions of New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, for example, retargeted ads appear in margins or the middle of articles. As these modes of surveillance become more visible we might consider that we are being watched and that we have agreed to being watched.

The broader consequences of accepting the terms of this agreement, of seeing and being seen, are, Hermann claims, “a social-media ecosystem that has annexed the news and the public sphere.” Indeed it is unsettling when one becomes aware of the “nascent but increasingly assertive systems of identity and social currency that seek to transcend borders while answering only to investors.” But what really concerns me are the constitutive features of the experiences we identify in terms of identity and social exchange; for as Hermann explains“having constructed entire modes of interaction, consumption and identity verification that are now intimately interwoven with our lives,” these modes become so all-encompassing that they’ve practically become invisible. In fact, to “stop using these products,” Hermann concludes, “is to leave the Internet, and these companies made it their mission to make sure there isn’t anywhere else to go. Of course, this is the deal we have entered into with such services: our data for their products.”

The question social media platforms such as Twitter raise have everything to do with what we mean by community: for social media platforms shape the freedom to define community through surveillance technologies. The invisible but intricate tools for online data collection are monetized for sure. But as April Glaser points out in an article on digital privacy in Slate, “corporate data collection feeds into government surveillance—and it hits people in real ways, too.” And, in a provocative piece that should be required reading for anyone “building communities” online, Carina Chocano’s What Good is ‘Community’ when someone Else Makes all the Rules?

The digital platforms where we fall into all our different groups make us a similar offer, presenting the communities they host as rich, human-built spaces where we can gather, matter, have a voice and feel supported. But their promise of community masks a whole other layer of control — an organizing, siphoning, coercive force with its own private purposes. This is what seems to have been sinking in, for more of us, over the past months, as attention turns toward these platforms and sentiment turns against them.

This is precisely what I have been arguing about the bargain we negotiate when we participate or, through our teaching, invite students to build community online. By framing the use of social media platforms in these terms, especially when using these platforms for teaching and learning, we acknowledge the dilemma.

As anyone who has actually read Gramsci’s The Prison Notebooks will tell you, hegemonies exist. More importantly, consent (or resistance) to a coercive cultural regime or institution does not preclude acknowledging that cultural regimes and/or institutions can also do good. More importantly, these structures are by definition fluid, and so can change.

The questions, then, may be more large, terrifying, and unpredictable: is social media good or bad for democracy? This question is posed in a January 2018 commentary posted in the Facebook Newsroom, of all places, by a professor of law, Cass R. Sunstein:

On balance, the question of whether social media platforms are good for democracy is easy. On balance, they are not merely good; they are terrific. For people to govern themselves, they need to have information. They also need to be able to convey it to others. Social media platforms make that tons easier.

There is a subtler point as well. When democracies are functioning properly, people’s sufferings and challenges are not entirely private matters. Social media platforms help us alert one another to a million and one different problems. In the process, the existence of social media can prod citizens to seek solutions.

Sunstein’s commentary Is Social Media Good or Bad for Democracy? is part of a series called Hard Questions: Social Media and Democracy comprised of an introduction by Samidh Chakrabarti of Facebook’s civic-engagement team, Sunstein’s essay, as well as essays by Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia, and Ariadne Vromen, a professor of political participation at the University of Sydney.

As Sunstein concludes, “Social media platforms are terrific for democracy in many ways, but pretty bad in others. And they remain a work-in-progress, not only because of new entrants, but also because the not-so-new ones (including Facebook) continue to evolve.” As such, may be room for imagining new uses, hacking, or performative interventions: for “they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better,” to borrow apposite terms from Emerson’s commentary on social and political institutions. For the most part I find these kinds of ameliorative outlooks quite congenial.

Though such an outlook in no way resolves the ethical dilemma facing any person who makes use of social media platforms in their current forms. Indeed, to ask a student to create any online presence, or to use any online tool, is a personal, ethical, and philosophical choice: it is a form of consent to both the good and the bad–the ideal and the reality of democratic life.

“What would the web look like if surveillance capitalism, information asymmetry, and digital redlining were not at the root of most of what students do online?” asks Gilliard. In part because we do not really know the answer,  “when we use the web now, when we use it with students, and when we ask students to engage online, we must always ask: What are we signing them up for?”  The asymmetrical relationship each of us has with digital platforms is a consequence of the powerful economic forces that structure the web.

In the end, Gilliard’s ethical questions are the questions I am left asking:

Technology platforms (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) and education technologies (e.g., the learning management system) exist to capture and monetize data. Using higher education to “save the web” means leveraging the classroom to make visible the effects of surveillance capitalism. It means more clearly defining and empowering the notion of consent. Most of all, it means envisioning, with students, new ways to exist online.

The use of social media platforms in the classroom, and the use of learning management systems, are choices we make. They are ethical choices. And they are choices that have everything to do with the ways we have chosen to define digital identity, fluency, and citizenship.

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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

Gilliard, Chris Pedagogy and the Logic of Platforms and Digital Redlining, Access, and Privacy

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

Leetalu, Kalev Geofeedia Is Just The Tip Of The Iceberg: The Era Of Social Surveillence

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

Shaffer, Kris Closing Tabs, Episode 3: Teaching With(out) Social Media and Twitter is Lying to You

Stoller, Matt Facebook, Google, and Amazon Aren’t Consumer Choices. They are Monopolies That Endanger American Democracy

Stommel, Jesse The Twitter Essay

Walker, Leila Beyond Academic Twitter: Social Media and the Evolution of Scholarly Publication

Watters, Audrey Selections from Hackeducation

Zeide, Elana The Structural Consequences of Big Data-Driven Education

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Nota bene: If you have been reading my blog of late you might wonder whether I had just discovered the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson. What is actually the case is that I have spent the past two years with his writing, as well as with the history of commentary on his works, and a good deal of my unscheduled hours in March and April copyediting the proofs—and now compiling the index—for our forthcoming book of essays on teaching Emerson.

More on Twitter

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.”

The Walt Whitman Archive. Gen. ed. Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price. http://www.whitmanarchive.org

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 LoopIt 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

Gilliard, Chris Pedagogy and the Logic of Platforms and Digital Redlining, Access, and Privacy

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

Leetalu, Kalev Geofeedia Is Just The Tip Of The Iceberg: The Era Of Social Surveillence

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

Shaffer, Kris Closing Tabs, Episode 3: Teaching With(out) Social Media and Twitter is Lying to You

Stoller, Matt Facebook, Google, and Amazon Aren’t Consumer Choices. They are Monopolies That Endanger American Democracy

Stommel, Jesse The Twitter Essay

Walker, Leila Beyond Academic Twitter: Social Media and the Evolution of Scholarly Publication

Watters, Audrey Selections from Hackeducation

Zeide, Elana The Structural Consequences of Big Data-Driven Education

Why I Don’t Use Twitter

Questioning digital technologies is a core value of the KSC Open project. And we have much to learn.

For many years I have been asking myself—and people keep asking me—why don’t I use Twitter? Sure, like a lot of people, years ago, I signed up for Twitter (and Facebook), mostly out of curiosity about what are now ubiquitous social media platforms. I have never really used my accounts, though. One reason these digital tools have proven less enticing is that technology is now woven into my day-to-day life as a college professor. E-mail and other open-source web applications now keep me peering into the pixels of a screen for a good part of my days—reading, thinking, writing, and collaborating, with students and colleagues, near and far. This is my ready-made answer to this persistent question. The last thing I need in my life, to be honest, is more time in front of a screen.

But working on the open web puts in play more fundamental questions. How do we question digital technologies? How do I hold in mind both the promise of teaching and learning mediated by digital technologies and the critical questions we should always be asking about our digital lives?

Screen Shot 2018-04-06 at 1.25.38 PM

In our Domain of Ones Own project we value digital identity, fluency, and citizenship. Each of these areas is deeply and inextricably woven into the values of public higher education as well as the ideals of democratic culture. We talk about digital identity in terms of agency—of making deliberate decisions about presence, expression, and integrating personal learning and interests. We value fluency as essentially knowing what you are doing, and then doing it well, using platforms and tools that are poetic—for they allows us to build, to make, and to construct sustainable spaces for participation in the public domain. And we imagine citizenship as participatory, whether we are engaging with others or shaping communities. Working on the open web is ethical work because questions of identity and citizenship are by definition ethical domains. There is an etiquette to freedom.

One critical approach to digital culture, then, would be to pose ethical questions. For example we might think more about the relationship between public culture and consumer culture. This close and complex relationship is difficult to think about because the putative open, public space of the internet is now largely constituted as commercial space. In fact the for-profit social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are case studies in what the twentieth-century critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer pointed out decades before we had computers networks: that public culture has become essentially consumer culture. And today the culture industry replicates itself using what tech people habitually call the “affordances” of digital technologies.

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. One question, then, might be whether there can be an ethical social network. For it is quite 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. I take this formulation from David Garcia, a computational social scientist at the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna, who studies privacy issues in social networks. As he explains, “the customers are advertisers that place targeted ads or third parties that buy user data.” The design and the purpose of these digital platforms define the horizon of agency and citizenship. “My empirical research suggests that the problems we have been observing with Facebook are not a bug, they are a feature.” His elaboration of this problem in an article by Lindsay McKenzie, pulls a number of ethical questions back into view:

Problems at sites like Facebook don’t stem from bad algorithms, said Garcia, as has been recently suggested in the media. “The real problem comes from the design and purpose of these sites, not the technicalities of how they process the data,” he said.

Recently Garcia has been considering how much control individuals have over their private information at sites like Facebook. His early research suggests that sharing private data “is a collective decision and not an individual one.” Even if you don’t give permission to a company to collect information about you, information about you can still be collected through your friends on social media.

There are a number of compelling reasons to use social media platforms. At least I find them compelling. These reasons include sharing experiences, sustaining relationships with friends and loved ones, building connections with other people, even shaping the contours of public life through self-expression and sharing information, or engaging others in common cause. My academic colleagues, moreover, are using these platforms in creative and interesting ways that engage students and that I admire for this reason alone.

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.

But to build your own presence on the web using digital technologies and tools that are designed to define you as a product in the marketplace, again, raises difficult ethical questions. Using these tools in the ethical spaces of teaching and learning has consequences, too, as we are shaping the habits and behaviors of what we so charmingly call lifelong learners.” In our now daily routines of posting and sharing untold amounts of information on these platforms–whether in our roles as teachers or learners–we have at the very least made consequential ethical choices.

I’m not sure we need to trundle out Marx’s concept of the means of production, or fork in the discourse about the commodification of culture from the Frankfurt School, to make visible the cultural dynamics in play when we create and post a photograph or video to Facebook, type out or follow a hashtag on Twitter, or require a group of students to log in to a Learning Management System (LMS). However, I do believe that 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.

For these reasons we need to question the digital platforms we use. We need to wrestle with the complexity and irreducible ethical questions that arise when we make personal and collective decisions about our digital lives. And we need to think as we act, whether we are signing up for a new platform, deleting an account, or considering the always already ethical choices in shaping a digital identity and practicing the delicate arts of citizenship

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

Gilliard, Chris Pedagogy and the Logic of Platforms and Digital Redlining, Access, and Privacy

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

Leetalu, Kalev Geofeedia Is Just The Tip Of The Iceberg: The Era Of Social Surveillence

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

Shaffer, Kris Closing Tabs, Episode 3: Teaching With(out) Social Media and Twitter is Lying to You

Stoller, Matt Facebook, Google, and Amazon Aren’t Consumer Choices. They are Monopolies That Endanger American Democracy

Stommel, Jesse The Twitter Essay

Walker, Leila Beyond Academic Twitter: Social Media and the Evolution of Scholarly Publication

Watters, Audrey Selections from Hackeducation

Zeide, Elana The Structural Consequences of Big Data-Driven Education