What Your New Year’s Facebook Posts Really Mean

So I did that Facebook “Year in Review” thing a week or two ago even though I’m moderately sure it serves up some extra layer of data-mining capacity on a platter to Zuckerberg’s new personalized learning minions. Encapsulated in ten photos, my reductive 2015 in review looked…nice.

Really nice. A lot of travel, a lot of family time, a Ph.D earned, a conversation on Twitter with David Bowie’s son. Some excessive (expletive deleted) snow, but otherwise nice.

It left the rejected papers out. The time my son wore the same socks for four days. My posts about alcohol and fascism and friends leaving town all stayed conveniently out of the frame, presumably because Facebook knows these are not the prettiest things upon which to reflect fulsomely at the close of the year. Or perhaps Facebook only *knows* that because nobody much liked those posts.

All in all, it made me appear more or less like an amalgam of the identities I aspire to. Yeh, yeh.

You already knew that about Facebook.

But I think there’s more going on there. Today, on New Year’s Eve, my Facebook feed is a radiant orgy of Auld Lang Syne recollecting the year gone by in (mostly) tranquility and (mostly) appreciation, with a smattering of don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out, depending on what kind of a year people had & also where they self-identify and perform on the emo-to-chirpy spectrum. It is also, increasingly, a site of exhortations to do better as a society in 2016, a space for calling out the broken social contracts and structural underpinnings that differentiate individuals’ life chances so drastically even in some of the wealthiest countries in the world.

It occurred to me this morning that a thousand years hence, should archaeologists or aliens dig up the remnants of bourgeois North American “civilization,” such as it is, they will be sorely challenged to understand a damn thing about who we were and how we lived without our Facebook feeds.

If we cared about the future, people, we’d be chiseling this stuff into stone.
***

I got a book for Christmas – thanks Santa Dave! – called A Colorful History of Popular Delusions. Like all good gifts for fledgling academics, it has me thinking about work, even while I appear to be lolling in sloth over the holidays.

The book is a cultural history – without excessive depth, but this is not a peer review – of mass phenomena that overtake pockets of society at various intervals: fads, crazes, urban legends, mass hysterias. It details examples of each of these phenomena, from the tulip craze in Holland through the Salem witch trials and McCarthyism, and some of the extenuating cultural factors that generated them.

Two things strike me:

  1. We, as humans, are profoundly adaptable – we have, historically, in matters of weeks and even days, on occasion adjusted the norms and compasses of our societies – in ways that seem almost unimaginable later on – in response to triggers that prey upon particularly cultural powerful fears, aspirations, or repressions.
  2. We, as cultures, are profoundly vulnerable to the narratives that we circulate and enact as members of our societies, particularly surrounding fears, aspirations, and repressions.

What does this have to do with Facebook?

Facebook – and more broadly, social media in general…but Facebook remains for the moment the space of the widest participation across demographics even while targeting ads designed to keep people IN their existing demographics – is the stage upon which the battle over dominant cultural narratives is played out.

Social media is where we are deciding who we are, not just as individual digital identities but AS A PEOPLE, A SOCIETY. Or perhaps, as we haven’t quite acknowledged yet, as almost separate societies within the same geopolitical entities, subject to laws and policies that have differential effects on different bodies and identities. Day-to-day, social media is the battleground for the stories we live by. It is the space where our cultural fears, aspirations, and repressions circulate.

Previously, at least as my book loosely outlines it, these narratives tended to be nursed and cultivated through a combination of institutional and moral edicts, generally protecting whatever the status quo was except in times of upheaval wherein individual voices – or, occasionally, intentional power gambits – destabilized those normative belief systems and identities and galvanized new ones around them, even if only for a brief window of time.

I’m not naive enough to think this means we’re free from our institutions, the media perhaps most outsizedly and dangerously powerful among them in terms of narrative capacity, but as any of us who have had any level of professional media exposure via social media participation can attest, even the media now draw their sense of the tenor of things from social media, even if they insist on repackaging them in binaries in the process.

This is why hashtag activism matters, and why social media visibility is risky and why posting about mass shootings draws out your weird uncle (who otherwise never acknowledges anything you say) in full Gandalf “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” mode, even if Gandalf wouldn’t approve of his from-my-cold-dead-hands politics.

Facebook and the rest of social media are our day-to-day archive of who we are trying to become.

These are our times and they are fraught and sometimes ugly and we move too fast from fad to fad and whiplash to whiplash in the outrage generator that social media creates, absolutely.

Still, I watch people get a little bit more media literate all the time, make the wizards behind the curtain a little more visible, push back against witch hunts in ways that I’m not sure were possible in closed and isolated societies like 17th century small-town Massachusetts.

Sometimes I have hope that maybe this isn’t all just a one-way sinkhole. Sometimes.
***

Which brings us back to the New Years posts. We live lives of inexorable and relentless change, amplified by the bucket lists and planned obsolescences and precarities and excesses the kinds of lives Facebook seems designed to reflect. A lot can happen in a year of living one’s Best Life (TM), after all, and if one fails to reflect on it all with sufficient attention, one is committing the ultimate sin of those aiming for Best Lives. My thoughts on the pressure to live our Best Lives are not pretty.

But when I see our collective New Years wishes and reflections and updates and hopes less in the vein of the “yay me” holiday update of wonderfulness and more in the spirit of a mass ongoing narrative conflict in which we try to influence our peers’ understandings of what has meaning and value, of what our repressions are and what our fears and aspirations *should* be…I’m less cynical.

Bring on the New Years posts and wishes and wrap-ups. Maybe these little outpourings help us focus on bits of hope as we cross into a new turn around the sun, bring collegiality to spaces and identities that are often fraught. Even if the aliens and archaeologists never see it all, maybe it makes a difference to the rest of what they dig up someday.

Happy New Year, friends. :)

for shame

Dave and our friend Beth have a semi-regular gig on the local CBC morning show‘s social media panel…but this week, Dave’s away. Since it’s handy to have a literal in-house replacement to offer up, I got to play pinch hitter. And thanks to last week’s #FHRITP spectacle last week in Toronto, they were talking online shaming, which I’ve been thinking and writing about since the conclusion of my thesis.

So…I spent last evening to trying to unpack what’s actually happening with shame and scale in contemporary culture.

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Here are Beth & I at the brisk and perky hour of 7:30 in the morning, talking it all through. But being me, I made notes that could have filled a three-hour show, and it got me thinking about shame and scale and social media at a level that I couldn’t manage to pack into our ten minutes on air.

Here are the highlights of what a combination of years of background research into social media + frantic Googling + the threat of making a totally unprepared arse of myself on-air got me thinking about shame and all the sensationalism-driven conversations we’re having, societally, about social media and shame.

First, public shaming is in no way a new or online phenomenon. We may be experiencing a glorious new glut of it in our Twitter and Facebook feeds, but our fascination with it shouldn’t fool us…we’re not gawking because it’s new. We’re gawking because it’s uncomfortable.

We’re gawking because Call-Out Culture calls us out – no matter what sanitized shade of bland we may be as individuals – and reveals our participation in the engines of power that allow some people to chew others up. We’re not supposed to talk about power. It works hard to make itself invisible. But I think social media platforms hail us, in Althusserian terms, into complex and collapsed social and political ideologies of power in ways we can’t quite naturalize because the platforms are still so new and constantly changing. Online, we have to grapple with our own interpellation as subjects.

Second, there are two ways public shaming has always worked.

  • To control people, & force them to comply with the status quo. The Scarlet Letter is a great way to keep wives faithful.
  • To push back against that status quo or speak truth to power. If you can actually show that the Emperor has no clothes, you delegitimize his power and call into question the whole system he rules.

So I think online shaming and Call-Out Culture is a clash of these two archaic forms of public shaming. And which is which depends on where the speaker aligns – at that moment, in his or her complex and intersectional identity.

Here’s how you tell: does the speech act he or she engages in reinforce the status quo or challenge it?

The first is trolling. Trolling silences through shame. It reinforces status quo power positions: male over female, rich over poor, white over black, abled over disabled…any of those societal norms that govern who gets heard.

The second is hashtag activism. Hashtag activism allows people who experience marginalization to band together to speak back – to call out and critique others for the degrading or insulting or even just casually ignorant thing they’ve said in public.

Sometimes people have a hard time figuring out which side that status quo is actually on. Both trolling and calling out can be nasty, from a personal perspective, and people like to feel righteous, so you’ll see cases like the dude with the TV reporter who’s acting all offended that she’s calling him out for having leapt into her WORK to sexually degrade her for his own entertainment and…what? Fame?

Well, he got his 15 minutes. And he needs a new job.

And call out culture can be like that – when the hashtag activists succeed sometimes the consequence can seem out of proportion to the offence. But it raises real questions of what SHOULD the consequences of public speech be?

Because if people DO get away with disrupting and degrading others just to reinforce power positions – oh hey, it’s funny, can’t you take a joke? – then REAL PEOPLE end up living with that, feeling degraded…and that has consequences too.

Both individually and for that status quo of who gets to speak and be heard.

We don’t want a society entirely driven by shame. Those always turn out dangerous. But I am wary of the ways that pundits and media are lining up to denounce shame at this juncture, particularly when their words tend to sympathize with the risks that white, middle class Justine Saccos face in this “mob morality,” rather than with the risks and shame that those #FHRITP guys were trying to inflame as they aggressively asserted their own right to complete and utter shamelessness. Shame should not be a zero-sum. Shame as a tactical response to marginalization should not be needed…but if it works, let’s not focus on shutting down the very few effective means we have for speaking truth to power at scale.

The Old School – Sexism, Social Media, Campus Culture, and Identities

Mostly, when I write and talk about social media, the riskiest thing I’m doing is destabilizing a few people’s dearly-held concepts about the ways in which scholarly influence operates and circulates within academia.

This past weekend, though, I had the privilege of doing something that felt much more dangerous – I talked about the culture of sexism and sexualized violence on campuses and in society at large. In a keynote, on a campus where last year’s student orientation chant about non-consensual sex hit Youtube and made national and international news. The audience, mostly from Maritime Canada higher ed institutions, were lovely. Designing the talk was terrifying.

Not because I was talking particularly outside my field: I wasn’t. I talked about it all through the lens of social media, as both a symptom of and contributor to the problem. I talked about #yesallwomen and about the UCSB shooting and Men’s Rights Activism sites and about how social media amplifies all aspects of who we are and what we think and believe, and reflects society’s power relations as much as it also actively tries to shape them. I talked about how the stories we tell ourselves about technologies are often deterministic, even scapegoating, focusing blame on gadgets rather than on ourselves. It was a culture talk, a structure talk, and a history talk, in addition to being a social media talk. I was proud of it.

And it went well, though I can’t entirely credit my carefully-crafted navigation of the semiotic landscape of gender and power. It worked in part because I didn’t actually have to introduce the topics of conversation or carry them into the arena for discussion: I followed on the heels of the very sincere and very illustrious Wayne MacKay, whose bio features his Order of Canada and the fact that he chairs committees and councils on cyberbullying and sexualized violence on campuses and is a lawyer and professor and former President of my undergraduate institution.

(My bio, on the other hand, pretty much mentions that I have a Twitter account. To thine own self be true.)

It wasn’t punching above my weight that felt dangerous. It was the in-between space of the topic: the fact that what is sayable about the reality of gendered identities and sexual politics these days is fraught and limited. The fact that – and this is at the core of everything I tried to say – they have ALWAYS been fraught and limited. The fact that as a 42 year old grown woman with a big-ass vocabulary, using the word “patriarchy” in a public conversation – online or in person – still makes me nervous. Because I don’t much enjoy being diminished and abused, full stop, and while correlation may not be causation, I tend not to stick my hand back on the stovetop after a burn.

When high-status white males lend their voices to framing these conversations, it’s easier. Their very presence does the discursive work of legitimating the topic, making it a Very Important Thing and not an attack from the margins. In the case of Saturday’s conversation, it also helped that we were addressing college and university student services professionals who live and walk the talk of diverse, inclusive campuses far more adeptly and viscerally and vigilantly than many in higher ed. But Wayne and the gentleman who opened the day also introduced terms like misogyny and rape culture to the conversation, leaving me free to deepen that conversation rather than spend my hour trying to justify having it in the first place. Their acknowledgement of sexism and sexual violence as problems within campus cultures was key.

But the very identity positions that enable white Boomer males who sit at tables of power to speak of sexism and sexual violence without being seen as accusing also allow them to reify frameworks that neutralize and distance these phenomena, whether they mean to or not. Talk of hookup culture and social media and values serves to make this a “kids these days” conversation, not a conversation about the imbalance of power and identities in our culture. It makes the problem new. It makes us – the grownups – less complicit.

Let me be very precise. This is not new…it is old school, in the most literal sense. We are simply forced – by virtue of an immersive and intrusive news culture and the rise of risk management and institutional optics – to talk about it.

I talked about this in terms of stories. Stories are the ways in which we understand who we are, and our stories of culture and technologies right now are failing to give us any tools we need to develop productive identities for the world we’re in.

I told a story about obscene phone calls. When I was nine or ten, my mother and I had a caller who harassed us for months before the threat of being traced finally got rid of him. Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 9.32.07 PMEarly on, before my mother banned me from answering, I heard the deep, heavy breathing on the other end of the line. I suspect he said more to my mother, because I remember the sharp staccato of her voice, fearful and indignant. I knew from my friends that if we’d only had a man in the house he could’ve gotten on the line and scared the caller into going away. I decided that when I got old enough to get my own phone line I’d put it in my initials, not my name…because I was female. I also began cultivating the deepest, most rumbling voice I could. I wanted to be heard.

Of course, by the time I got old enough to have a phone line of my own, call display had largely wrecked the obscene phone call market and its capacity to assert power and create fear without actually facing personal consequences. The heavy breathers had to go underground and wait for the Internet, for underbelly pockets where they could congregate, no longer isolated, and reflect and amplify each others’ fledgling desires to exert power without consequence, to create fear in vulnerable others. The desires are not new. The technologies of our time regulate and constrain the identities we get to try on for size.

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Mount Allison women’s rugby, 1993

So do our cultural artefacts, and our frames of reference. I  told a story about the chant that scandalized Canadian higher ed last fall. I said that while I shared Wayne’s dismay at the fact that it was part of orientation in 2013, I didn’t share his shock: I knew the words. Twenty years ago, at the university where Wayne was later President, I learned that chant at a rugby game.

The student leaders interviewed last fall about the chant said they’d never really listened to the lyrics. I had. I’d heard and understood, just as I understood the rest of the songs that made up the raucous rugby identity: I just didn’t know what the hell to do with any of it, because I did not know if I could object and still belong. The rugby club was the first mixed-gender space I’d found where I did not feel diminished by the fact that I did not interact like a *lady.* Rugby didn’t take itself too seriously, and I thought I had to not take myself too seriously, either. So I sang along and I drank along and I tried to straddle the cognitive dissonance of it all, and mostly I failed and felt prudish and then tried harder. I did not even know it was supposed to be different. I did not know how to get outside it. It was called a tradition and it appeared to be the water we swam in and so I joined in and perpetuated it because I wanted that sense of belonging and I had no role models for a different discourse. And that is not new, either…but in the smallest ways it is shifting. Because peer-to-peer media don’t just de-isolate the heavy breathers, but those on the other end of the line. They allow outpourings like #yesallwomen as much as they allow forums for MRAs and PUAs. They allow those of us who work on campuses to connect and engage and try to set different frames of reference for campus identities, different examples, different discourses for belonging. They will not magically solve anything. But used well, they can be the kind of signal that enables people – male, female, whomever – to begin to be able to think about objecting, and changing traditions, without having to give up hope of belonging.

Or so I said Saturday. In the end, that talk didn’t feel nearly so risky in the delivery as I’d feared and I was heartened and for a minute I even thought, “maybe it’s not so hard to have this conversation after all.”

Then George Will popped up in The Washington Post yesterday. And I laughed at my naivete and realized this conversation has barely begun.
***

You’ve probably seen the article by now, deriding “the supposed campus epidemic of rape: aka “sexual assault.” Note the scare quotes. That’s the tone of the whole piece: “micro-aggressions” and “survivors” get the same contempt. The article conflates the recent trigger warning kerfuffle with an overall moral panic about how progressivism has made everyone on campuses “hypersensitive, even delusional, about victimizations.” Will asserts that victimhood is a coveted status on American campuses, one that now confers privileges.

I won’t bother to explain that it is not a privilege but a human right to assert that one is not just a sexual object, even when one is treated that way. I won’t bother to explain that when one DOES assert this right one is often treated to the very questionable privilege of being publicly excoriated and shamed by people like Will himself.

(I will bother to explain – to all of us, even the most active in peer-to-peer communications – that when the surge of people talking about structural grievances like racism and sexism and rape threats and able-ism and the right to speak from identity positions we do not happen to fully understand, share, or agree with begins to sound like victimhood as privilege, we might want to hold that judgement. Because yes, identity and power politics are messy and conflated right now. Yes, it can make some of us with actual structural privileges in the matrix of societal domination feel unfamiliarly – even unfairly – silenced in arenas we are unaccustomed to, and yes, some people will navigate these new discursive regimes in ways that are sensationalist or distasteful or whatever. This is the price of a performative public sphere. Nobody gets to be neutral).

But the privileges of victimhood are not the conversation Will is actually in. He’s in the conversation about who has the right to do what to who; the conversation about what we uphold as unwritten codes of whose bodies and actions and decisions count. This is smack in the middle of Todd Akin “legitimate rape” territory. This is about the privilege to exert power without consequence, to maintain stability in the categories of who counts as a vulnerable Other. This is an old conversation, but one we didn’t have to have publicly for a long ol’ time because respectability politics is powerful, silencing stuff and belonging has long been the price of speaking back.

So I’d like to thank George Will for prompting me to take my keynote from Saturday public. Again, let me be very precise. This issue is not new, and the only privilege here is the privilege that Will is daring us to wrest from him, in Charlton Heston “from my cold, dead hands” style. He may dismiss the #survivorprivilege hashtag that arose in response to him. But he cannot silence it. And as someone who has worked on higher ed campuses for the past fifteen years, I see that as a positive beginning.

Learning in the Open: Networked Student Identities

This weekend, I gave a short presentation at a great little student conference hosted here at UPEI: Difficult Dialogues: Exploring Relationships Between Identities and Power.

(When I say “short” I mean I was still talking when the poor timekeeper started waving the STOP sign in front of my face: it’s been awhile since I tried to encapsulate ideas into fifteen minutes.)

I made a few quick alterations to the slides after the presentation thanks to the really good questions and conversation that emerged, and in hopes of making the ideas reasonably clear on Slideshare even without an audio track. This is the first time I’ve really taken up this particular thread on the intersections between “student” and “networked learner”, so thanks to everyone at Difficult Dialogues for engaging with and supporting these ideas as I begin to work them through.

Learning in the Open:

It’s what I didn’t say that’s more interesting, though
The fact that I ran over time is apt, given how it mirrors my own current overwhelm as a learner.

The presentation troubles some of the categories of student that academia comes with, and how differing forces and logics govern the two spheres and the way learning is practiced within them. But I didn’t go far enough. While I’m a living, breathing advocate for the benefits of networked learning, it may be the problems with it that are the most instructional.

The keynote for the conference this weekend was S Bear Bergman, who gives one hell of a talk on sex, gender and trans identities.  And while what I do may not intersect on the surface with Bear’s work as a thinker or a presenter, ze reminded me of something I know but have failed to transfer over to my analysis of learning and learners.

We are always signalling and reading 
Engaging with each other as humans is a process of reading codes and signals.

(Okay, not entirely perhaps: I won’t wade into the “we are all texts” ontological discussion here.) But if our material and discursive signals  to others aren’t readable or legible within the frameworks by which they comprehend the world, we tend to be rendered Other: either seen as transgressive or simply not seen at all.

In identity terms, visibility and speakability are necessary for legitimacy, for non-erasure. Only in the past few years have the identity signals and codes performed by queer and trans people begun to become readable and speakable on a scale that extends beyond those communities and makes those identities visible within the broader society. And slowly, slowly, mutually constituted with the very possibility of this legibility of trans people, society’s concepts of sex and gender are shifting.

Signalling networked learning
So perhaps it is with networks, though with far less advocacy, pain, marginalization and struggle, let me be very precise. But I believe learning – whether in online social networks or straight from the canon, bound in leather – involves being able to read and make sense of the codes and signals being given off by those you interact with, particularly those you expect to learn from. These are what I refer to when I talk about “legitimacy structures” within academia and networks in the final slide of the presentation above.

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They are, in a sense, literacies. They’re what I’m stumbling towards when I talk about the networked or digital literacies that MOOCs – if they connect people – help develop.

I’ve been struggling to say what I research lately. Is it social media? Identities? MOOCs? Networks? My research is a process of trying to grasp and make visible a few ideas and realities from the midst of a flood. It’s about filtering and reflection and constant observation of moving targets. My sense of focus doesn’t shift so much as the ways in which it’s likely to be understood change all the time.

Part of the problem is filtering: I’ve realized recently that in my dissertation work I’ve failed, so far, to build a robust framework through which I can filter the seven hundred vaguely-related-to-the-Internet-and-learning-and-identities ideas that I encounter out here every day in my brilliant network. I meander in circles, fumbling to re-word and re-work things, trying to translate or adapt concepts I encounter and figure out whether they fit into the big picture of what we’re doing out here in this world of networked practice. Sometimes they do. Often they are rabbit holes. Seldom can I tell the difference in advance.

But what I learned at the conference on the weekend is that the filters and structure aren’t the whole challenge: how to translate and signal what I’m learning to two different audiences is also a process I’m going to have to address overtly. Because there are power structures that support and prop up societal views of knowledge that make networked knowledge and practices appear invisible or illegitimate.

For the many networked learners who are also formal students, this can be a very real problem: it can negate or frame as transgressive what is simply different. And within fields of knowledge and the academy in particular, it makes pressing contemporary conversations about online learning into polarizing and misleading soapboxes about what counts as real.

The fact that networked learners DO have signals and codes by which we connect and speak, though? Is a very important – and useful – fact. Because signals and codes – like all things that are read – can be learned.

The lack of face-to-face is not a void, only a lack of literacy
Whether networked learners are formal students within the academy as well, or no, many of us regularly come across sincere – and often deeply-thought-out objections – to the idea of online learning in general, and to its lack of the ineffable quality of authenticity in particular.

I think there are multiple axes of thought behind these objections, some of which lie in determinism or digital dualism or nostalgia or overt privileging of the physical over the virtual. But even among many participants of the MOOCs I’ve engaged in so far this winter – #MOOCMOOC, #etmooc,and #edcmooc – I see a strain of genuine hesitation to fully embrace networked learning as legitimate, or at least as AS legitimate as face-to-face learning.

And I think it’s a literacy issue. These people are, for the most part, highly traditionally literate – many are teachers and academics – and they are, to their great credit, game to give networked learning a try even if they’re not entirely sure it’s valid. But they are new to the game, and they haven’t yet put in the longterm immersion and reflection usually required to build literacies in a new environment: they can’t yet read the signals and codes by which we interact.

Because networked learning is not about technologies, or a lack of the human touch: these are simply common and understandable misconceptions given the narratives that circulate in our culture on the subject. Rather, if it’s truly about networks and not just mass broadcast, it’s about engaging with humans; about performing networked identity via the codes and signals that we digital selves share openly.

Just because that may not be visible doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. But those of us to whom it is visible…we have a job ahead to continue to assert and translate and help make our identities readable and legitimate in the field of knowledge.