Antigonish 2.0 – the plan

America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I’d better get right down to the job.
It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts factories
I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

– Allen Ginsberg, America, 1956

The Backstory: Fifteen years ago, I lived in the suburbs of Bratislava, Slovakia, next to a corner store that sold absinthe.

Bratislava’s medieval city centre was all cobblestone and Hapsburg extravagance, but the suburbs where the teachers’ sublets were located were concrete sameness for miles, broken only by public statuary and tram stops and the requisite pubs and potravinys.

My apartment came furnished with an old secretary desk, two chairs, a bright red plastic rotary phone, and a folding couch that served as a bed. I thought of it as mid-century modern, even if was more Soviet than stylish. I loved that apartment.

In Bratislava in 2002, I drank absinthe and cheap wine and listened to mixtape CDs I’d burned on Napster: Tom Waits and Edith Piaf and Stevie Wonder and Allen Ginsberg reading America, aloud. I was thirty; a Canadian English teacher abroad. I only made $400 a month, but I’d paid off my student loans and I’d helped out my mother and I didn’t know enough to know that I should aspire to more. I read Umberto Eco. I was trying to self-educate my way into getting a grip on the 20th century, even as the 21st was shaping up post-911 to be a spectacle of a different sort.

I walked a lot. In the middle of Bratislava, in a square near the Danube, there was a monument…a striking, harsh-looking modernist metal sculpture topped by the Star of David, and chains. It stood out from the other Fathers of the Revolution monuments.

This sculpture is Slovakia’s monument to its Jews. It is a strange, stark public penance. A plaque tells its story.

In WWII, Slovakia sold its Jews.

The Slovak Republic – a client state of Nazi Germany established in 1939 after Hitler mobilized into Czech territory – made a deal. In exchange for keeping Slovak workers out the war effort, they agreed to deport their Jewish population, whose roots in Slovakia went back 500 years. In the deal, the “republic would pay for each Jew deported, and, in return, Germany promised that the Jews would never return to the republic.” According to Wikipedia, the deal was initially for “20,000 young, strong Jews,” but the Slovaks eventually agreed to deport the entire Jewish population for “evacuation to territories in the east.”

In 1942, the first mass transport to Auschwitz came out of Slovakia. In total, in 1942 alone, 58,000 Jews were deported by the Slovak Republic. 99% of them are reported to have died in the concentration camps.

I took the above picture of the monument one sunny autumn afternoon, in black and white film on an old Pentax K-1000.  I framed it in the frame with the little wooden doors, and it has lived with me on three continents since. I still don’t know entirely why.

It makes me think of Allen Ginsberg’s voice, intoning America aloud in that little Soviet-stark apartment, teaching me histories I didn’t know. It reminds me of things I’d rather not acknowledge about human nature.

We sell each other out, we humans, the picture cautions me. Our better angels regret it later. But we sell each other out.

The picture forces me to ask what part I am playing in the world, what wheel my shoulder is turned to, or turned away from.
***

The Rest of the Story: Back at the end of November, I wrote about adult education and a piece of history far closer to my own part of the world.

The Antigonish Movement was, in the 1920s and 30s, an adult education & cooperative movement based out of the Extension Department of St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. Led by Father Moses Coady and Father Jimmy Tompkins, Irish Catholic cousins from Cape Breton, the Antigonish Movement fostered the idea that ordinary people could take control of their circumstances and their economy through critical thinking, scientific methods of planning and production, and co-operative entrepreneurship, taught in kitchens and community halls, and via radio and whatever means were available.

It had a huge impact. Even today, the legacy of the Antigonish Movement dots the Maritime provinces in the form of credit union buildings, which got their start through the cooperatives that Coady and Tompkins fostered.

So.

I look at our media literacy and information literacy landscape – our democratic society, interconnected and border-blurred as it is – in the lead-up to Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States on January 20th, and I shudder. Arms race tweets. Putin. Fake news. White supremacists gloating. Wikileaks uber alles. Basically, it’s the West Wing version of what danah boyd calls the hacking of the attention economy, not just by trolls but by a Troll in Chief.  Messy through multiple lenses…and by my lights, potentially terrifying no matter where one lives or what one’s party affiliations are.

But I am not a foreign policy analyst. I am a digital literacies educator…and that is the lens I focus through.

So I proposed a new adult education movement for our times, an Antigonish 2.0. With a media and information literacy focus.

I said: To me, at this current moment, it is our societal lack of understanding and agency regarding media literacies and digital literacies – and thus the stories we tell ourselves about truth, decency, and each other – that is the poverty I know how to address.

And a whole freaking whack of you said…ME TOO.

So I’ve spent the past month in conversations with people – individual educators, people on the street, government folks, the excellent & quick-thinking Wendy Kraglund-Gauthier from the Coady Institute (yes, named after THAT Coady) at St. FX University – and we officially really and fer real *do* have an Antigonish 2.0.

We’ll draw on the model of the original Antigonish Movement of participatory learning – see below – but re-tooled for the 21st century and the local and global connections that digital makes possible. It’s particularly meaningful to get to do this with Wendy at St FX.

The Plan, As It Stands: As I noted in the first post, the Antigonish Movement had three key structural components: mass meetings, organized with community members from villages and towns around the entire region, study clubs, where community members gathered together in homes to study materials available, and the school for leaders, where members of the study clubs could attend six-week programs at the university in Antigonish, to prepare people for action and minimize business failures.

I see Antigonish 2.0 as having three potential layers or structural pieces, too.

The first layer will likely be mostly the people who commented on the original post – a distributed international network of people. Maybe mostly educators, with relatively high digital presence and the knowledge capacity to lead this kind of work, but in need of something to coordinate around and up-to-date resources on specific media/information literacy conversations. And the broader epistemology and truth conversations that we all need to work our way through to understand the times we’re living through.

Building a site and awareness and a hashtag around this first layer – and getting people connected to the work that initiatives like the Digital Polarization Institute are on about – would be how this layer would get started. INPUT WELCOME ON WHAT IT WOULD ACTUALLY NEED TO FUNCTION FOR PEOPLE. But basically the first layer would be self-selecting and networked; our mass meetings, for people who might be interested in taking on aspects of levels two or three in their institutions or their communities or spreading the good word.

The second layer – from our perspective here in the Maritimes – would be capacity-building among local institutions as well as among any Layer One individuals interested in joining in with an eye to building institutional media/digital literacies and capacity. We’re looking at a grant to hold a summer institute or mini-conference – essentially our school for leaders – that would be open both to members of Layer One but also focus on getting buy-in from Atlantic institutions, for faculty and staff development….for people interested doing media literacies and critical literacies stuff in formal classes. We’re looking at August 2017. We have a lot to figure out.

The third layer is my real, original goal, the study clubs: getting past institutional boundaries to having the Layer One and Two people starting up localized workshops for people in their own communities, people not necessarily affiliated with higher ed. Workshops at libraries. Discussion series in bars or restaurants. Participatory art events. Kitchen parties. This is the part where people get – collaboratively – the kind of information they need to be critical citizens and consumers within an attention economy run from the top down; our Hunger Games mediasphere come to life. This is the part where people (maybe?) learn to rise and hold mass media accountable for the narratives we are sold. This is where, in whatever small part, I can put my queer shoulder to the wheel of spectacle that’s turning our time, right now, and try to make a difference.

So that sometime down the road I don’t find myself standing in a square in front of a sculpture, saying about some population being symbolized in wrought iron, Yes, a terrible shame. We sold them out, to Nazis. We even saw it coming. (shrug) What can you do?
***
If you’d like updates on this initiative as Wendy and I work to get it up and running…send an email to bstewart@upei.ca. We welcome you. :)

nasty, brutish, and short

Lately, when I think about the internet, I keep circling around to the idea of the social contract.

I dallied with it in a quick video I made for MOOCMOOC back in August, where I talked about how MOOCS – especially distributed, connectivist-style MOOCS where you participate as you want – are disorienting in part because they challenge the implicit social contract we’re all schooled in. I’ll take that idea further, soon, as part of the xEdbook.com thinking aloud process.

But more and more, I’m thinking the idea of the social contract has value way beyond shedding light on MOOCs and higher ed. I think it’s a framework that may be useful for talking about some of the things we most desperately need to talk about as a culture right now.

The idea of the social contract originates with political philosophy. Philosophy’s finer points aren’t exactly experiencing what you’d call a cultural heyday, at the moment, but suffice to say the idea’s a relic of the Enlightenment, with earlier origins in the Biblical covenant and in Greece and Rome. It connotes the relationship we all have to the structures of power and order in our societies.

The social contract, at its simplest, is about what we expect from others and ourselves: the deal we believe we’re in regarding the give and take of rights, freedoms, and responsibilities. Most forms of the social contract, historically, argue for the giving over of certain freedoms – though what these are and how they are expressed can vary – in exchange for protections of the state or the civilizing influence of society.

We used to, in short, make those deals with some kind of monolithic power – a God or a state or what have you. That was the old school social contract. At some level, most of us are still kind of inclined or trained in this direction, and the divide between God and state – or least interpretations of what ‘state’ means and what rights and freedoms are involved – may serve to explain the increasing partisanship and vitriol in contemporary postmodern politics. Red states and blue states aren’t necessarily in the same social contract.

But it’s even more complex than that. We now live in some crazy kind of incarnation of McLuhan’s global village: the world’s biggest small town. Most of us are wired into some kind of relationship with our capitalist, consumerist, media society, by our bank cards and our status as citizens of postmodern globalized nation states. Our society operates – as do an increasing number of us at the individual level – more on network logic than on the one-to-many logic of hierarchical monoliths like religion and the state.

So we are, in our day to day interactions as humans in the 21st century, constantly trying to establish and operate within the terms of unspoken and often hugely divergent social contracts. We are no longer just entering into an implicit deal with the powers-that-be. We are each others’ powers-that-be.

And we need to learn to navigate those negotiations openly and explicitly; to own the power we have and not wait for the big and mighty to make it all better for us.

Two stories all over the news this week brought that home to me with a couple of unsettling parallels.

One is the story of Amanda Todd, the BC teen who committed suicide. It keeps being tagged as a cyberbullying story, but that seems to have more to do with the fact that she was young and Facebook was an instrument in her torment and we are, culturally, in the habit of making the equation of teen + FB + suicide = cyberbullying!!! than because we’ve actually heard and digested the lessons of her story.

Make no mistake, Amanda Todd was cyber-bullied. Her network of peers appear to have contributed to her shaming via Facebook. But if a kid were stalked by a pimp on a school playground and the pimp then manipulated the playground gang into participating in the abuse, we wouldn’t frame the story as a bullying story, first and foremost.

This is a story about abuse of the power of the internet, first and foremost. It’s about the ways in which anonymity enables people to prey on the vulnerable, and about the ways in which our social contract has not yet worked out the lines between the right to free speech and the ways in which anonymous speech *can* bring out the absolute worst in those who want to exercise more power than their embodied lives necessarily afford them.

Amanda Todd’s stalker took advantage not just of Amanda, and of teens’ willingness to ‘pile on’ to someone singled out for shaming, but also of our culture of spectacle and bystander silence; of our willingness to blame people for stepping outside the boundaries of our social contracts.

We have been told for generations in small-town cultures that people must bear the consequences of stepping outside the approved social contract of behaviour and decorum. This is one of the few places in society where ‘people’ has traditionally mostly meant young women and the marginalized. Exploitation followed by slut-shaming preserves power.

But when you translate this old patriarchal model of the social contract to a network society, it gets really messy.

The second story works the same. It’s the story of ViolentAcrez, the Reddit moderator and notorious troll who was outed by Gawker as a middle-aged white man. Violentacrez spent vast swaths of his life creating and managing subreddits full of upskirt shots of young girls, sexually exploitative stuff about women more generally, and inflammatory and defamatory crap about other marginalized people. That kind of baiting was his brand. He functioned as a bastion of that old-school patriarchal model of power and social contract exposed at its most base by its anonymity in the network: his small-town was the whole world and he didn’t even have to wear the public face of upstanding citizen.

His exploitation and slut-shaming – “you shouldn’t wear a bikini in public if you don’t want your picture taken,” went the logic – went hand in hand with his embedded role in the structure of Reddit: he was acknowledged openly as a troll and a baiter, but also embraced as an insider. He was a keeper of the keys, and his insider status overtly legitimized misogyny and exploitation and general dehumanizing behaviour as a part – not the whole, but a real and accepted part – of the culture of Reddit.

The fallout in the two cases is illustrative. In Amanda Todd’s case, memorial sites to the teen were deluged with nastiness blaming her for the topless pictures she took as a twelve- or thirteen-year-old that enabled her cyber-stalker to continue to blackmail and shame her. In ViolentAcrez’case, Reddit – the self-styled ‘front page of the Internet’ – exploded with outrage about the outing, and (initially) banned all Gawker links from the site in protest.

That’s the old-school social contract in operation.

Then the networks – or the vigilantes, or the community, all depending on how you look at it – got involved. And the effects – which were of course already very real for Amanda Todd and her family – began to filter offline and point out the ways in which both these stories depend on the false idea that somehow the online world is separate from the offline, and governed by a different social contract.

ViolentAcrez lost his real life job, and with it his health insurance. One of the more vicious commenters shaming Amanda Todd after her death was tracked down by a Calgary mom and lost his job after the mom sent his boss an email detailing his commentary. Amanda Todd’s reported cyberstalker was tracked down and outed by Anonymous, and death threats and sites have ensued.

I don’t find any of those people particularly sympathetic, and yet I do wonder about them today…how they feel, suddenly exposed as real and vulnerable themselves.

In truth, we are all bodies somewhere. When we utilize the internet anonymously as if it will never touch our so-called real life, we’re making a terrible mistake. And we’re threatening the social contract of both the old school and our networked society.

Because in a real small town, people don’t get to forget that there are always limits to what they can get away with. Depending on whether they’re powerful or vulnerable, those limits may be very different, but they exist.

They exist online, too. We are traceable, as Anonymous reminds us. But we are also accountable – or we can be, if the majority of us networked into each others’ worlds hold each other to that social contract. In the fifteen or twenty years since we began discovering ways to be together online, we’ve allowed internet anonymity to operate as if it were simply free speech incarnate, beyond the boundaries of any kind of social contract. And in doing so we’ve given power to the worst angels of our natures.

Will this be a tipping point for us as a culture? Will Amanda Todd’s death help us realize that, online, there really are no innocent bystanders when something goes wrong?

Thomas Hobbes said, a long time ago, that without the social contract our lives would be “nasty, brutish, and short.” In a world where our contracts are in part to each other, we need to step up and speak against cruelty and bullying and exploitation where we see it: no deus ex machina is going to step in and stop it for us.

This giant small town is where we all live. Let’s make it liveable.

 

the death of purity

This is not a post about Steve Jobs. At least not mostly.

When I started writing yesterday, I’d considered calling it “Jobs Are Dead.” Small “j” jobs, that is, not Jobs himself. But in the spate of elegies and eulogies spinning round the web today, the title just looks like a misuse of the plural verb.

Yet the two are, perhaps, related. Jobs, Apple CEO and innovator and cultural poster boy for outside-the-box-thinking, was a pretty singular dude. He deserved a lot of the reverence he inspired.

I also suspect that the claims that we will not see his like again are actually accurate.

But that is not entirely due to his own personal singularity.

Rather, I think of it as a marker that the age of singularity is over. While Jobs himself was certainly brilliant, a man with a lifelong and apparently self-sustained vocation, that very figure of manhood – the iconic hero, the exceptional genius – has actually been dying for years.

Our old model of the discrete and stable Enlightenment human, imbued with utter individuality and backed by institutions, is crumbling.

And Jobs’ work – his continual pushing of the envelope, his delivery of connectivity to non-programmers, his pretty white gadgets that revolutionized social media – arguably did as much as anyone to kick while it was down.

We are, for better or worse, connected and collective and fractured, now, all at once.

You wouldn’t know it today. Today, we are inundated not just with the identity cult of Steve Jobs himself, but with an apologia for identity cults in general, with adulation of singularity and exceptionality. Jobs was given up for adoption at birth, read one heavily retweeted gem, quit school, and STILL changed the world. What’s your excuse?

Indeed.

Now, I want people to want to change the world. And I thought it was nice to have at least one CEO in the world who claimed the creative, wired outsiders of the world as his own, and vice versa. We all need role models.

But I think Jobs the icon and Jobs the inventor and world-changer were actually at odds, antithetical in their message and their potential impact. Mac and the iPhone have made the world of connectivity accessible and personal and mobile. They’ve made possible the breakdown of institutions and institutional thinking. They’ve also broken down the structures that support that notion of individual exceptionality: there is no room for Great Men in the cloud. Greatness of scale, perhaps. But all are nodes in the network, all connected.

The institutional breakdown frees a lot of us who owe a debt to Jobs.

But it also opens whole other, very real cans of worms. Worms of debt, and the decay of small “j” jobs, and the kind of society we believe we live in.

Because just as Jobs is gone, so are the jobs. Particularly for the types of people his brand spoke to the most.

I see the stories everyday. Richard Florida’s creative class – those of us reputedly liberated by Steve Jobs – is being hollowed out. Our most educated specialists, after years and years of study, face the reality that the academic job market they’ve trained for is, essentially, gone. Universities are caught between their old institutional structure and newly institutionalized corporate realities which make tenure look untenable.

Besides, we have new ways of gathering to share and build and learn together, like the #change11 MOOC I’m involved in, or the Stanford version with its 130,000 enrollees.

The NYT article on the Stanford Open Online Course talks about its potential to disrupt education. I’m all for disrupting education.

But. If the model succeeds – perhaps not this round but over years – what happens to Stanford in the long run?  And to universities in general? And beyond the idea of the university as a bricks-and-mortar institution, to the concept of public education and the jobs affiliated? Sure, many will find creative ways to innovate and monetize and perhaps even deliver and share free knowledge and content. I celebrate that. I’m hoping for that.

But they won’t do it by being isolated specialists in particular canons, unable to speak or understand the discourse of others. They won’t do it by having clear, pure vocations in which the lines are all tidy and what they do and don’t do remains delineated over time.

Yet we still raise and educate kids to think of success on those terms, and to have expectations that their lives can or should work that way. We lionize singular figures from our cultural mythology as purists, nobly certain of their vocation or their goal or their results-driven management style. We praise Steve Jobs for being the model of the very kind of self-made genius that his own inventions worked to undermine.

Fierce independence and inspiration – the capacity to see things differently – are the answer to change only so long as the centre holds.

Similarly, Jobs’ outsider identity and his advice to “stay hungry, stay foolish” only makes sense if you assume a stable, institutional PC or IBM-style culture; a machine against which to rage.

If everybody is actually hungry and there is no stable centre, you don’t get innovation when everybody scrambles to be extraordinary. You get collapse. Or bloodshed. Suggesting we all be exceptional all by ourselves just like Steve Jobs?  Ignores the fact that even creative rogue CEOs are backed by the ultimate contemporary institution: corporate power.

I fully agree that Steve Jobs left us a legacy. But it is not to BE him.
***

Those of us who identify with the Jobs/Apple perspective on the world need to accept, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, that “the jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.” We need to stop calling it a “job market,” especially for creatives and academics. It’s a dead model. Our industries do not work that way anymore.

This leaves us with two problems.

The first is this: culture change and social media alter our systems of money, status, and knowledge, wide open. But most of us are still in need of some means of garnering money, status & knowledge, even when there is no institutional centre to define those things or the paths to them.

The second problem is tough for Jobs’ tribe: as the institutional centre’s Swiss cheese holes threaten the entire structure, how do we stand outside?

The notion of purity – always messier than it sounded in the mythologies – is dead. The lines between inside and outside collapse along with the edifice. To make money as an artist, one must become a designer. To make a living writing, one must write to a market, or blog product reviews. Student science conferences on polar climate change are sponsored by BP. The breakdown of boundaries and purity makes it hard not to be complicit in the very things that outsiders have tended to critique about the centre.

Even Apple – yes, beloved Apple – has led the Internet away from the open sharing of the web and towards semi-closed, more profit-modelled apps. Like so many social media shifts, the effects of this have a lot to do with tying capitalism closer and closer to average people’s daily practices. Jobs didn’t talk about that overtly: it didn’t fit the anti-corporate-corporation stance Apple managed so successfully as a brand. If there were ever true purists, they were gone long before he came on the scene.

So if we want to honour Jobs, we do so not by buying the myth of the pure, individualist outsider genius. We do it by using the connectivity Apple was part of enabling.

We are in it together, in this changing economic and environmental and educational climate. Social media enables the possibility of collective knowledge, of distributed action, of working together on a scale never before possible. Maybe we can figure out how to innovate together, and create functional systems that allow for money and meaningful work and some kind of liveable, post-institutional world. Who knows? Maybe.

But we won’t do it by standing alone, trying to be geniuses.

Triumph of the Nerds, he called Apple’s success, once. It’s been clear to the industrial sector for years that the old era’s gone. We nerds have been slower to notice, busy thinking we were on the outside and waiting for our ascendancy in the Brave New World where the creative classes would shine, and our ships would all come in.

I think the ships have sailed, but here we are. The centre does not hold. Yet in this mass of connected people is more knowledge and talent and drive – all mixed in, impure-like, with ambition and complicity and mutual reliance – than even Steve Jobs could have wrapped his visionary head around. If we can only give up on the idea that we need singular geniuses to figure out how to use it.

Now THAT would be a real Triumph of the Nerds.

 

education, learning, and technology – #change11

One of the most interesting things I’m doing this year – learning-wise, research-wise, and community-wise – is the Change MOOC.

(For those of you not already signed on for this adventure, dimestore recap: a MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course. It’s free. Anyone can register and participate. There are set topics, assignments, and timelines, but you do what you want, via blog or FB or the central discussion threads: in terms of both your contributions and the platforms you use to share them, its entirely your choice. There are no gold stars – as yet – or credentials for completion, and no invalid forms of participation so long as you’re respectful of others. It’s a chance, basically, to be part of some coordinated conversations about learning, or whatever the topic, and to make some connections amidst the morass of people IN that conversation. A MOOC usually has participants from around the globe, at least within the English-speaking world. There are close to 2000 people registered for this one, I think.)

MOOCs are catching on these days: Stanford is even offering one. What makes the Change MOOC particularly intriguing is that while Stephen Downes, George Siemens, & Dave Cormier (yep, that Dave) – the godfathers of MOOC – will manage this course, they’re not doing the lion’s share of the facilitation this time.

The course is 36 weeks long. Each week has its own focus, under the overarching umbrella theme of “Change: Education, Learning, and Technology,” or how being connected changes learning. Which, as I see it, is a key site of contemporary cultural shift whether you come at it from the perspective of an educator, a geek, or simply a connected person interested in understanding social media practices more explicitly. Each week is facilitated – readings suggested, an online discussion session hosted – by a researcher or innovator or leader in the particular area being explored: this week, it so happens, is the theme of Digital Scholarship, led by Open University academic and author Martin Weller. Participants are encouraged to “write themselves into the course” by responding to topics, themes and assignments in whatever way they wish. In MOOCs, participants’ input often drives as much or more of the trajectory of discussion and interaction than does the facilitator. It’s networked, distributed learning.

I’ll be facilitating a week on social media identity come spring. I get to take my fledgling research into a classroom-ish setting and explore it with and through the participation of others, many of whom likely will have social media identities to bring to the table. (I’m the second-last week, mind you, so the 2000+ may either have dwindled to 12 by then or blown up to even more gargantuan proportions. We’ll see.)

But even better than getting to teach, I get to participate in the whole shebang. Student, faculty, and researcher all in one. Most of the 36 facilitators are also participants and researchers. Identity-wise, this levelling of hierarchical role separations obviously interests me. But so does the rest of the content.

This week’s Digital Scholarship discussion is particularly interesting. What does the capacity to share ideas outside traditional academic channels mean for scholarship in the 21st century? What will the impact of it be? It’s the impact piece – and the implications for traditional practices – that intrigues me. How do connectivity and the capacity for digital sociality suggest transformations in academia?

One of the readings Martin suggested for the week was the JISC (UK) report (2009) on the Lives and Technologies of Early Career Researchers: as an early career researcher, just starting on my second year of Ph.D studies, I’ve been conducting my own informal experiment over the past year into the subject.

Am I getting more input and feedback into my research and learning via traditional academic channels, or online?

It’s an unfair question, in a sense, because of scale. I’m in a tiny program, the first Ph.D in Education in this province. We are a cohort of three, with three additional students starting up this month. While there are a few broad overlaps in subject area, my peers and I share very little in the way of common focus, experience, practice, or expectation. So the level of face-to-face peer input into my research thus far – lovely and supportive though my colleagues are – has been seriously minimal. Tiny. Whereas from the time I started this blog back in January, the combination of my large-ish online community and my research interest in online identities and practices has made a wealth of sharing and input and feedback available to me, in spite of the fact that the majority of that online community are not in any way academics. They are, however, engaged in the culture of blogging and social media, which encourages reciprocality. Academia is generally still disposed and structured to be wary of reciprocality: it comes too close to plagiarism and treads on cherished Enlightenment notions of individual intellectual enterprise.

However, if I only had an online community of three, I might not have had the same experience. But it is very very hard to have an online community of three. The scale of connectivity in digital spaces and the potential for productive sharing, collaboration, and congruence therein is one of the biggest arguments, in my mind, for digital scholarship. Or at least, the digital engagement of scholars. Which usually ends up being digital scholarship, because people engage on topics that interest them.

As Martin Weller points out, though, there’s a conflict here. Research, in most traditional academic conceptions, relies on concepts of control, even where replicability is not required. New technologies are, from an institutional practice point of view, about letting go of control: giving it up to the crowd. And if academia lets go of its controls, of course, how does it validate knowledge? How does it verify and justify its own structures and practices? Yes, connectivity distributes research ideas far more quickly and broadly than traditional journals. At the same time, yes, crowdsourcing is (perhaps) a more vulnerable system of verification than peer review, Nature magazine’s 2006 experiment notwithstanding.

(Sidenote: have been reading Deleuze on Foucault lately. Foucault spoke about the institutional structures of the 19th century as the structures of a disciplinary society, juxtaposed against what he, Burroughs, & Deleuze called societies of control, in which continuous modulation of behaviours shaped by business principles along digital (or spectrum-based, non-analogical) models occurs. Control devolves from confinement by institution to a self-colonizing practice taken up by the crowd, by the individuals within. I think this has – ahem – some resonance for those of us interested in higher education and MOOCs, I’ll explore it soon, in another post).

The biggest best thing about the MOOC is that it’s a semi-structured opportunity to teach yourself to BE a digital scholar, whether in or out of the academy. To select what’s relevant from the stream. To curate. To share. To work iteratively, publishing ideas that – like this post – aren’t all you could say on the subject, but are at least a start. And letting some stuff go so as not to be entirely colonized, perhaps.

All are welcome, and there are still 34 mind-boggling-packed weeks ahead. Not too late. Think on it. Change MOOC.

I’ll let Dave explain how simple it is, courtesy of our SSHRC research project last year.

the man who sold the world

We passed upon the stair, we spoke in was and when
Although I wasn’t there, he said I was his friend

David Bowie, The Man Who Sold The World, 1970

(Of course Bowie makes me think about identity.)

I need a word.

A year or so ago, long before I started this theoryblog lean-to on the side of ye olde cribchronicles, I started groping my way towards exploring something, trying to capture something I’d never heard named. I assumed it had been named, somewhere, probably a few times over, but was both amorphous enough and fast-moving enough to have refused reification, mass currency under a single title.

I called it brand, half tongue-in-cheek. I’ve always found brand a vulgar word, flagrant and blatant in its commercial intent. The online universe – especially in the education and narrative blog circles I run in – is not always so open about its own embeddedness in the capital exchange process. I chose the word to provoke, to try to force that conversation.

But mostly I chose it to keep me honest.

It forced me to look at my commercially lilywhite self and own that I am as embroiled and invested in online circulations of capital and power as the trashiest review pimp out there. Because you cannot use social media and not be embroiled. As you connect and share and have your work recognized by others, your social capital is amplified. As your social capital is amplified, your capacity to leverage it increases, often exponentially. You don’t have to: the monetization of the sphere is not obligatory. But ignoring it doesn’t mean it’s gone away.

I wrote three posts in quick succession on the subject. In the last one, I said it like this:

be it beauty or ideas or humour, it matters not. if you put it out
there and it works, it builds reputation. reputation can be leveraged,
sometimes into capital, sometimes into opportunity, sometimes
simply  into connection. we all have our eyes on a prize; we are
none of us pure, without want.

branding is what is read on to you, how you are perceived, what
you signify in the eyes of everybody else. it is not you, but a version
of you. it is an act, and a group act, one that does not exist without
a network of some sort to reflect and amplify it. it is ephemeral, a
wisp on the wind. it is not about content or truth.

it is about image and perceived capacity.
(own it, cribchronicles.com, June 8th, 2010)

I think of all of us out here using social media in our myriad of ways as branded selves, branded cyborgs whose online and offline lives blur. Within the walls of the academy, where the branded cyborg is my dissertation topic, I tend to use the words digital identity or digital subjectivity to describe the idea, depending on which discipline I’m addressing. I see them all tied together in Butler’s idea of the performative: that subjectivities are created by the constant and ongoing citation of the (gendered) societal norms that circulate in discourse. What makes me different from you is how I perform myself – online or off – in relation to those norms.

And what makes me a branded cyborg is that the circulations in which I reference and identify myself include the spheres of social media and concommittant capital. And some version of me – my brand, or my digital identity – continues on performing me in circulation even when I’m not there. Ahem. That’s all. But that’s not an easy thing to explain.

It’s hard to name a social aggregate, an “it” in circulation. As Bruno LaTour puts it in Reassembling the Social, “…Social aggregates are not the object of an ostensive definition – like mugs and cats and chairs that can be pointed at by the index finger – but only of a performative definition. They are made by the various ways and manners in which they are said to exist” (p. 34).  The performative definition of a group draws attention to the means necessary to keep it up, and also to the contributions made by the fact of it being studied or analyzed.

Goody. I need a word to cover the performative definition of performativity in the world of social media.

Amber Case (here at TEDWomen) is a cyborg anthroplogist, which basically means she studies human life as a product of humans and technologies, or objects. She calls the ephemeral us-ness that others interact with online our “second self.”

I’m wary of this term. The idea of a second self ignores the fact that the identity distinctions between online and offline life are increasingly minimal and blurred and often meaningless: tomorrow, for instance, I’ll travel to another province to hang out with a bunch of bloggers, word made flesh. The transition from screen narratives and flurries of Twitter conversation to clinking glasses will not be particularly jarring: in fact, because the group of us interact far more regularly than most of us do with friends we know only in the flesh, the awkward stage of polite catching up will be largely bypassed. We are intimate, because we are regularly online together. Are you listening, Sherry Turkle?

Nathan Jurgenson of cyborgology – who adeptly critiques the binary implicated in the second self idea here – calls it a Profile, an aggregate sum of all the data out there about you. I think we’re on the same page conceptually. There’s something fluid about the word: its connotations are less laden than that of brand, or identity. Yet to me it suggests something flat, surface-like, easily tied up. Does it allow for complex performances of digital identity? Does it represent who we are when we’re not there?

I need to talk this out. Last time I asked – when I asked who you think you are online – I got an extraordinary collection of responses and discussion. This is part two, the simpler question, really: what would you call this you I know out here, your online doppelganger, your disembodied you? Profile, brand, second self, digital identity…what works?