Twitter for Teachers: an experiment in openness

So. Nine weeks of teaching Educational Technologies with a Bachelor of Education class. Out in the open. Quite an experience.

At the intersection of the Internet and education, ‘open’ seems to be the word on which directions hang. Openness is everywhere: in code, in the shift from scarcity to abundance, in OERs and MOOCs and all those Big Things that are going to change Everything. Um, somehow.

The issue is that ‘open’ is open to interpretation. As a signifier in the world of education and technologies, it’s a word that means different things to different people.

Most of those things – open education, open access, open content among them – have their own histories and interests. They intersect around sharing and re-use of resources, to an extent, but are not interchangeable.

Each of them has important contributions to make to education, particularly in relation to the rise of the venture capital xMOOCs and Khan Academy models, wherein ‘open’ increasingly looks like it’s being taken up as a precursor to the words ‘for business.’

But all these forms of ‘open’ tend to be tied in some way to the paths via which the Internet bypasses closed and traditionally-monetized systems.

There’s another form of ‘open’ that the internet makes possible.

Why Openness?
I think it may be the most important one, in terms of education’s potential. But it’s tied to a concept of value that doesn’t necessarily monetize well.

It’s ‘open’ in the personal sense, where the boundaries of privacy and professionalism blur. It’s still about sharing and re-use, but from an individual node-in-network perspective. Here is my stuff, it says. My learning, best as I can sum it up or package it right now. My efforts. Here is my work, my passion, my humour, my stumbling in the dark. Here are my people, my conversations, my ideas in raw form. Maybe you can do something with it. With any of it. Go.

It’s the kind of ‘open’ at the centre of Alan Levine’s longstanding True Stories of Openness project (recently re-branded from Amazing Stories of Openness thanks to closed copyright issues), which captures powerful stories of individual experiences of transformation and opportunity and travel (and more!) all stemming from sharing and re-use at the personal level.

It the kind of ‘open’ that takes traditionally-closed subject roles like ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ and forces everyone to navigate new ways of interacting, based less on the safety net of hierarchy and formality and more on plain old engagement with ideas.

Why Twitter?
I’ve been writing and working professionally in the open, in this sense, for years, blogging and sharing and Tweeting and somewhere along the way, building up an incredible network of people whom I talk to about education and writing and technologies and parenting and learning and…welll…just life. I’ve gotten great value from it all, and while much of it started for me with my blog, it’s been Twitter that’s really opened up and enriched my circles these past few years.

So this past term, when I had the chance to build Twitter into the Technologies in Education course my friend & colleague Daniel Lynds & I were developing and teaching, I leapt. I’ve introduced classes to Twitter before, and even had them utilize it for particular assignments, but I’ve never made it a central (and required) thinking and sharing space over the length of a term. And I’ve NEVER shared a class hashtag with two other sections (I taught one section of #ed474; Daniel taught two) of the same course, effectively making the Twitter space an open, cross-class forum for seventy-ish people, a good three-quarters of whom went in quite unenthused about the whole Twitter prospect.

It turns out it’s fun. And one of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a teacher.

Here’s some of what I (and we) learned in the process.

The Plan: Participatory Education 
The course was titled “Technologies in Education.” When Daniel & I were hired, we were asked to keep the syllabi fairly parallel, so we designed the course structure together, building in part from old course descriptions and timelines but creating an entirely new reading list, with new assignments.

One of these? Twitter. At least four tweets a week, for nine weeks. At least half these had to be conversational, directed at other classmates or authors of articles or us as instructors, or anybody else brave enough to take up the shared and public #ed474 hashtag. At least one tweet a week was supposed to share a link, with synopsis, related to our readings and the reflective assignments going on behind the scenes, in the Moodle LMS spaces assigned to each class.

The main goal of the great #ed474 Twitter experiment was basically to try to scaffold students into meaningful engagements with the real affordances of the Internet: openness, sharing, collaboration, networking beyond geographic limitations.

Yeh. Nothing ambitious. ;)

We wanted to model participation: Twitter tends not to make sense to anybody in the first few weeks they try it. It’s a participatory medium – sustained engagement is key.

We also wanted to model networking. There were twelve required readings in the course, plus a number of suggested videos and other resources. The majority of these were by people working actively and openly in the field of Technologies in Education. People on Twitter, people who students could engage with – maybe – if they tried. People whom students could make part of their own long-term, sustainable professional development networks. People whom students could, in effect, leave our classrooms and take with them. People like Will Richardson, who took half an hour to Skype with my class and talk about an article many of them had found inflammatory on first contact. That half hour – and that sense of connection, which both they and he continued on Twitter – may have been the factor that opened the door to what ‘open’ can be, for many of them.

In education, we talk a lot about student-centered learning and collaboration and real-life engagement. These are important, we tell pre-service teachers. But we don’t always do a great job of modelling them. We figured if we could make this experiment work, even a little, students would come out not only with skills in utilizing social media for professional and educational purposes, they *might* also come out with a far more 21st century sense of what it means to be an educator.

Mutiny in The Open?
Even aiming in this direction – for Daniel and I – meant changing our senses of our role and its entitlements, as well.

Academia tends to be one of those (literally) old-school closed structures. Education is about and has always been about systems of power. It’s also about learning and transformation and all those things, but the traditional classroom system privileges the teacher as authority. We’re trained from childhood to pay attention when the teacher raises her voice or flicks the lights. There’s no equivalent process in social media. When you open things up and get three classes of students actively sharing a hashtag, you change the power differential. Not entirely, but more than is comfortable, sometimes.

A few weeks into the course things got tense. Daniel & I hadn’t fully managed to get students onside, I don’t think, with the structure and intent of the course overall, and there was anxiety across all sections about an upcoming in-class assignment. The individual circumstances governing our classes differed, and Daniel ended up postponing that assignment for his two sections.

Ten minutes later, the first Tweet came across my screen: “can we get an extension too?”

One student asking quickly became three. In the open, indeed.

Our class didn’t actually have the same reasons for postponement: this was a participatory assignment and my instincts were that to build energy and buy-in, I needed to engage them, not postpone. But I also needed to address the request Right That Minute, in a public way, in a series of 140 character tweets that let them know I heard and respected their concerns.

Because if I’d walked away, by the time I came back, the requests would have built to a clamour. And by the time there’s a clamour, people have dug in.

I gulped. Then I put on my Very Best Self and listened and and tried to hear what was actually being asked for. It sounded like fairness was being asked for – they needed to know there were real reasons not to postpone our group given that the other group had been. Fair enough.

That’s the thing about working in the open. You can’t simply dim the lights and hush everyone. You’re part of something, and you may be guiding something, but you don’t control that thing. You’re in it with the network you’ve built. If that network includes your students, then they have public voices within it. If they mutiny, the mutiny will be active and loud and confusing unless you understand what’s going on. They’re not being insubordinate (usually). Networks are not hierarchies. And the medium encourages overt performance of discontent or questioning in a way that the classroom simply doesn’t, unless you’re in Dead Poets’ Society.

And however you all succeed or fail or muddle through, everybody’s watching. No pressure.

In truth, though, as someone who is both a teacher AND a student and has worn both hats simultaneously for years, this openness is a Good Thing. It begins to unpack the power structures around teaching. But your role won’t be the thing that backs your authority. It’s only you, and your fairness and accountability and willingness to both listen and lead.

The End Game
The jury’s still out on whether the course worked, particularly in its Twitter incarnation.

I think, for some, it did. Others went along but aren’t likely to leave enthusiasts of the platform. Daniel has a theory that there are Stages of Twitter, like Stages of Grief. People start with Reluctance (or Derision, even), and might stay there forever unless some form of necessity (like, say, a course) forced them into the environment. Once there, they flounder through Confusion, Awareness, Acceptance, and…if all goes smashingly well, into Engagement (even Enthusiasm!)

I think a few of our students made it to Enthusiasm. One – bless her – said, via a series of Tweets: “In our program so much of the theory speaks to collaboration but it wasn’t until #ed474 that I was was able to put this theory to practice through tweeting and moodle posts. Learned a lot & enjoyed #ed474 – look forward to keeping up these connections for my continuing professional development.”

A couple, out of the nearly seventy, stayed firmly if respectfully in Reluctance. Most made it to at least Awareness, if only because Confusion simply tends to fade after a few weeks of sustained usage, whether you like what you’re doing or no. A good number, I think, will keep their accounts.

(Those who do will notice I unfollowed them. NOT because I don’t want to be in their networks…I do. But forcing people on Twitter and then hoping they’ll stay but making them feel stuck with me feels…Big Brotherish. So I’m giving them the out. If they want me in their professional networks, they just need to say hi and I am THERE. Will follow again. But if they want to use Twitter henceforth to talk solely about…well…whatever…without me, they can. At least as much as one can on a public platform.)

Many may only use it now and then, from here on in, but from the feedback I received from my own class, at least, a fair proportion did genuinely take away some kind of real, hands-on understanding of participatory practices that I’m not sure we could have modelled for – and with – them without it.

And that’s really all I’d hoped for. I’m not a Twitter fan in any true *geek* sense of the word – I don’t find the platform elegant or appreciate the growing corporatization of the space, and I think for teachers working with younger students there are real alternatives that may still develop some of the communications affordances that Twitter does while NOT throwing everybody into the great wide open.

But out there, and only out there, in some kind of busy open network, can they get the sense of possibility that I think all the hype about “21st century technologies” in schools tends to miss entirely: these technologies are supposed to be connecting people in new ways for learning purposes, not just entertaining them.

At its best, Twitter does both. And #ed474 certainly gave me learning and connection opportunities that I’ve really never had with students before, this term…even just in laughing together on a dull Friday evening while we all stayed home writing papers.

And in the end, that felt like a kind of openness I could really get behind.


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 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 unbearable lightness of being…digital

The other afternoon, I’d hoped to hang out in George Siemens‘ #change11 live session on sensemaking and wayfinding in digital environments, but taxes and dinner and all the other demands of living got in the way. As ever. So I caught up this morning.

Which is fitting, since sensemaking and wayfinding as a construct deals in part with the challenges of engaging with live, participatory media when one can’t always be present in the firehose of information onslaught that it generates.

Sometimes this digital identity stuff gets overwhelming.

Not the thinking and the research. The living it.

The Learning Curve: Digital Identity & Sociality Mean Constant Sensemaking & Wayfinding
Connect, filter, engage, share, participate, curate, perform, strategize, relate, produce, add value: these are some of the verbs and phrases affiliated with identity in the age of social media.

I think “locate and tether” need to be added to the list.

I don’t think of my digital life or self as particularly separate from my so-called “real” one. I’m interested in the phenomenon of enmeshed, augmented identity: how our digital practices shape and are shaped by the multiple other aspects of our lives. Most of us today live in atoms & bytes, both. Your mileage may vary, but for me, the online world is both the stage and repository of central aspects of my self and life.

But the particulars that distinguish my digital identity and existence from how I operate when the laptop is shut?

In two weeks’ time, I’m leading the second-last of the change11 MOOC topics, on digital identities and subjectivities. In short, exploring who we are when we’re online. I’m also in the middle of writing the methodologies chapter for my thesis proposal, explaining the ethnographic study I’ll be doing next year on digital identity.

I think of these kinds of adventures as exploratory learning curves: I’ve never facilitated a MOOC, nor outlined a methods and methodologies plan. I’m learning, cobbling together ideas as I go.

Dealing with constantly making sense of semi-contextualized information is a part of navigating anything new. It can be stressful, but also exhilarating and rewarding.

But when digital identity isn’t just your field but a huge part of your so-called “real life” – the way you interact with vast swaths of your personal and professional world – then the constant sensemaking and wayfinding and learning?

I wonder if it isn’t the hardest part of social media practice.

Digital Identity Means Farewell, Linearity?
See, I’m not much of a morning person. Every day, far too shortly after dawn, I half-open one eye. I croak with forced cheer at the children as I exhort them to dress and make their beds and eat. The coffee gets made, and then the world gradually shifts into focus and lunches get packed and off we all go.

What makes mornings doable for me is that my fridge stays in the same place every day. There are few variables for me to navigate in my blurry, unresilient state. Sure, the kids have moods and some days I need to actually shower or remember to write a cheque. But overall, there’s a routine I can stumble through in linear fashion.

Minimal sense-making and wayfinding are required.

HEY! Who Moved the Damn Fridge?
Online, my digital identity enters a new and multiple and constantly-shifting world everyday.

The architecture does tend to remain the same – though it is occasionally altered at random, leaving me wondering where the bloody fridge got to or why my Direct Messages have disappeared – but instead of four people trundling through the relative routine of getting dressed, fed, and out the door, there are thousands of people going every which way.

It’s like waking up in a brand new train station every single day. Some good friends and interesting acquaintances are usually there with you, passing through, but you can’t be sure any of them will actually be present. And, rather like my offspring, there’s no predicting or accounting for what kind of knot people’s knickers will be in on any given morning.

Digital Sociality: The Stress of Waking Up in a New Train Station Everyday
This is all part of what makes social media interesting. It also adds the stress and pressure of constant, public navigation of non-linearity to what are basically daily, mundane interactions.

Digital sociality means constantly trying to ascertain if you’ve understood the context of a conversation enough to enter it.

Digital sociality means having to re-orient yourself in space and time and relationality each time the context changes, which can be minute-to-minute.

Digital sociality means patching together disjointed fragments in order to frame a present in which to be.

Digital sociality means the effort to communicate intent and tone and personality with economy and concision, without necessarily being sure who’s listening or how they will hear what you say.

Digital sociality means pressure to maintain enough of a traceable public identity, via blog and social media platforms, that people can build the trust necessary to engage with you as an actual entity and not an anonymous troll (I waxed didactic on this one in Dave’s comments section this morning).

Now, these are – boiled down – simply a part of human interaction.  Other than the final point, which is specific to dis-embodied and distributed engagements in environments where people may not necessarily have pre-existing social ties, they’re part of social life in all arenas. Humans are semi-predictable creatures, at best.

But the architecture of our daily lives – our homes, our streets and offices, our built environments in general – are pretty static.

Online, this tends to be less true. Law & LaTour’s work in – and beyond – Actor Network Theory goes so far as to posit that technologies can be actors and agents in relational interactions. My own dissertation focus will be on practices, thus foregrounding the human, but from the assumption that human practices are shaped by technological affordances: I am wordier on Facebook than on Twitter, simply because I can be.

And where we interact via platforms that we have no ownership of or control over, like Facebook and Twitter, we can truly wake up in the morning and find the fridge gone. Or in the basement. Change can happen very quickly, in a way not paralleled in embodied spaces.

The challenge of digital sociality is it’s all a constant, repeating learning curve.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Digital
In social media, the sensemaking and wayfinding processes that George foregrounds – how we make meaning, how we know what we know, how we understand others – have to be on overdrive all the time, trying to orient me to relationships, contexts, and goals all at once. It’s a tall order.

And when they fail to operate optimally – these untaught, gradually-acquired habits of navigation and constant re-orientation – I find myself accidentally floating away.

I follow a random link to cupcakes or world peace or the latest news in post-structural feminism, it matters not, and half an hour and sixteen links later, I surface, bewildered, wondering what in Jesus’ name just happened.

My digital self may not be especially different from my embodied person, but it sure has a hell of a harder time finding the fridge in the mornings. It has to work harder to stay focused on why it went to the fridge for in the first place. As a digital being, I have to work constantly to orient and re-orient myself to where I am and what I’m doing; to why and with whom I’m engaging.

This will be part of what we take up in my #change11 week starting May 7th. If you want to join in, even if you’ve fallen away from the MOOC or haven’t been part of it til now, you’re very welcome.

And in anticipation, I’ve started a Mendeley group on digital identities. After a week or two of initial neglect because I floated away from it and forgot to go back, my plan is now to start populating it with papers – and hopefully discussion – on the topic. Feel free to join in, and if you’ve happened on anything related to the idea of digital identity – please contribute. Crowdsourcing is one of the great benefits of digital sociality, after all.

Just don’t float away on your way on over. ;)

“find your niche” can suck my elephant: on Bourdieu’s distinction, and social media identity

Find your niche, they tell us, all those contemporary exhortations to success. 

Do the thing you love and the money will follow! 

I’ve been reading Bourdieu, thinking about his concept of distinction. Distinction is at the heart of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural consumption, or how we divide ourselves by class in contemporary culture. In his work, class distinctions go far beyond economics to other forms of capital. Symbolic capital and cultural capital – the ineffables of class captured in phrases like “high class” and “classy” – manifest in aesthetic preferences that are actually marks of taste, or belonging. They refer less to money than to status and aesthetic status markers.

They aren’t only the purview of the ruling classes, though. Every group within society has its markers, its distinctions. We think of them as our tastes, but they are – says Bourdieu – markers of our class identities, internalized and usually invisible to us. (Or they were until the hipsters started drinking Pabst, at least.)

Distinction says “I am not that. I am this.”

In Bourdieu’s work, “all cultural symbols and practices, from artistic tastes, style in dress, and eating habits to religion, science and philosophy – even language itself – embody interests and function to enhance social distinctions” (D. Schwartz, Culture & Power, 1997, p. 6).

Bourdieu is helping me understand why I shudder when I hear “find your niche.”

I am in the middle of designing the study around which I will build my dissertation. 

Any act of writing, really, shapes what comes after. And while you’re not married to your dissertation, it IS a significant relationship. It’s years of your life. And a carving out of intellectual territory, particularly if your research is your own.

And so each of the small choices by which I’m gingerly shaping the direction of my Research Ethics Board proposal feel amplified, like echoes that bounce ahead into unseen territory. Most aren’t likely to cause rockslides, really, but the fact that I cannot tell the difference is ever intimidating.

I am relearning, again, the story of the blind men and the elephant.

The field of education is a strange animal. It straddles the disciplines of the academy, but it is not – at least so far as I understand it – a discipline unto itself. It is, rather, an elephant.

In the nearly twenty years since I started my Bachelors of Education program in 1993, I’ve run the full gamut of wise blind men – and women – clutching at tails and feet and ears. Some swear the entire animal corresponds to the piece they hold. Some work hard to see and appreciate the whole, except for that cancerous hunk over there, with its discourses irreconcilable to the piece they have spent their careers grooming.

It’s rather like distinction. The “I am not that” is as important as “I am this.” And all of it is tied to practices and discourses and identity.

And I, of course, am no different. All the more full of hubris, because I keep believing I’ve discovered the outline of the whole beast only to slip again in elephant shit.

But now, I must choose a part of the elephant to tie myself to, upon which to build the rest of my career.

The last time I planted my own stake firmly in the poor old elephant it was for only a Master’s thesis and really, it was neither a professional nor a public enterprise then. There was no social media and nobody much outside my committee ever read it except Dave, bless him. That it got published a few years later was a great joy to me, because publication wasn’t what grad school seemed to be about, then and there. I thought then that education was a societal enterprise best geared toward social justice and analyzed via poststructuralism and if I didn’t fully understand what all that was, well, the rest of the class were still stuck debating whether kids should wear hats in class or no.

But I am now in a faculty far more strongly aligned with the social sciences and that has opened up new doors for me into my research. And so I am a neophyte all over again, self-consciously grappling with a part of the elephant I’ve never held or named.

And all the while, the elephant itself keeps changing.

Higher ed in general is far more self-conscious and self-aware and strategic than it was fifteen years ago. The world of knowledge and cultural production has had its gatekeeping industries exposed and deconstructed; its institutions questioned.

That’s the narrative around which my dissertation and my research study are designed: I’m interested in our practices as social media subjects because I think social media and its ever-encroaching neoliberalism has changed the cultural and knowledge production industries most  – or at least first – and academia, according to Bourdieu, is one of these industries. The find your niche prescription for success that permeates contemporary culture echoes strongest out here in social media, where we make ourselves in words and pictures everyday, and are taken up by others as we portray ourselves. But it is part of the academic process too: hence the meta-dilemma of this act of picking which part of the elephant to stand in. Or on. The cultural pressure shaping both is largely the same.

As I saw in my tweetstream just yesterday morning, via @resnikoff: “Ubiquity/structure of social media mean you’re now an eccentric if you *don’t* treat your public presence like a corporate brand.”

In finalizing my research direction, I’m in effect branding myself, tattooing myself all over with identifications, with labels and signifiers.

I am making my niche as a scholar, just as surely as I am making my niche publicly by writing and tweeting about social media media identity.

And in making my niche, I end up not just getting stuck with one part of the elephant, but in all the conversation about the damn elephant, too: all the baggage of generations of scholarly debate.

That’s the problem with “finding your niche,” people. It mires you in everybody else’s distinction processes. Wonder why everybody’s slagging everybody else so hard these days for seemingly mundane choices? We’re not actually arguing with each other, anymore. We’re just enacting distinction. We’re shouting about our part of the elephant.

Niches, of course, are boxes. Rather like the academic disciplines, niches first coalesce areas of interest and then harden lines of communication and their underlying ideologies. If you have a niche, your interactions with the world tend to take on something of a “stay on message” party line. And especially in the social media sphere – which is generally where one is magically supposed to find one’s niche, or at least the market for it -even a purely professional niche becomes a central component of the identity around which relational interactions with others are built.

The “find your niche” mantra is a discourse that reduces a world of complexity to false simplicity. The neoliberal market assumption that there actually IS a niche for everyone makes inherent value judgements about the kinds of people and practices that matter, and it tends to elide the issue of all those who do not fit its precepts. Don’t have something of market value? Don’t want or know how to shill it? You don’t count as a “you,” then, apparently.

Or better yet, you’re arrogant for not self-promoting. Yeh. Far better to find your niche as a pompous zealot.

But then I think, hush, Bonnie. Because my reaction to that kind of extreme neoliberalism is just MY distinction processes at work.

As an educator, yes, it’s part of my role to consider the literacies and privileges and means of production that tend to be necessary for people to actually engage – successfully or no – in the cultural production processes of social media and contemporary commerce. It’s part of my role to value, recognize, and foreground things that the market is not designed to reward. And that role is part of my identity.

But the tastes in discourse and values that led me to choose that role? The ones that are largely invisible to me as anything other than the way the world *should* be?

Those are products of distinction. Just as is my preference for complexity over simplicity.

You are not that, distinction tells us. You are this. And this is good. Our tastes go unrecognized for what they are: the ways in which we construct and are constructed by the hierarchies of society in our turn. Distinction  makes aesthetic and taste and identification preferences appear simply natural.

So. Here’s my hypothesis:

In my research study on social media identities and practices, I want to explore whether and how distinction, as part of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural consumption, can be applied to cultural production, too.

One of the tenets of social media identity is that we are prosumers, involved in processes of produsage. We put our own work out there, and consume and comment on that of others. Thanks to the weakening of those traditional gatekeeping industries that protected the role and status of cultural knowledge producers in academia and journalism and the arts over recent years, we have become part of the cultural production conversation. Production, in other words, is no longer so separate from consumption.

I suspect this is how the so-called culture wars have gotten so nasty over the last few years. As cultural production’s come uncoupled from the traditional gatekeeping institutions – which themselves all had roles in the hierarchies of cultural and symbolic capital – it has become increasingly overtly aligned: the once-naturalized taste distinctions between opera and bluegrass music, for instance, have been gradually blurred and broken down. Cultural products that once carried high class status became visibly commodified, and the ease of technological reproduction and sharing has made awareness of products that were once marginalized appear more exclusive and “authentic.” This lent them a particular sheen of symbolic capital, because their ties to any sort of economic interest were less visible.

In other words, things have gotten messy. Add in a panoptical site of identity performance and prosumption like social media, and you’ve got people’s distinction reactions bouncing up against each other All The Time.

I think our webs of alignment and values have gotten all tangled up. We can see and feel the alignments at an identity level – and react accordingly, with our “I am not that!” defenses of whatever it is we feel is threatened – but because of the way distinction operates, we can’t name them or unpack them particularly well.

We find our niches – even those of us who resent the idea for its reductionism and its misrepresentation of overt economic interests as natural and good – and we cling to our pieces of the metaphorical elephant like blind men, insisting we see the whole, and we wonder what the hell happened.

Does this make sense?

In my research, I want to explore our social media practices, our identity performances, and our alignments of distinction within this newly fragmented field of cultural production, or prosumption. And I want to consider the ways in which dominant neoliberal social media discourses like “find your niche” – which encourage strategic thinking but also naturalize and assume universal market reward without need for other systems – affect our identities and our sociality. All while I unpack my own distinction processes and biases as I go.

Now, I just need to frame this in a way that makes sense to the various keepers of the elephant.



the matter with metrics

Twitter is my personal canary in the coal mine of world events.

A coup? An outrage? A celebrity death? I miss nothing. Why, I have mourned the loss of leading figures before they themselves even heard they were dead (sorry ’bout that, Gordon Lightfoot.)

Yesterday, I heard the wailing and gnashing of teeth as soon as I opened my laptop after lunch.

Sometime around noon, Klout’s algorithm shifted. And revealed a great deal about itself – and us – in the process.

Klout defines influence as “the ability to drive action.” Klout claims to measure influence across social media platforms. It collects data on users’ engagement on Twitter, FB, G+, Flickr, etc., and collates those multiple analytics into a single, shifting number. You go up if you’re doing well, down if you’re losing influence. Or, say, if you spent a whole day offline. Merciful heavens.

Klout has been embraced as an objective third-party tool for business to tell which self-promoting social media gurus actually have real capacity and reach. It has also been embraced a pet hobby for bloggers intent on giving each other mischevious +K points on topics like “belching,” “Kansas City airports,” and “hairy backs.” It promotes that use less loudly in its press releases.

Klout claims to measure both reach – how many people you influence – and scale – how much you influence them. It also takes into account the influence of those you influence. Meaning, on the surface, if you engage with leaders in your community or corner of teh internets, you yourself are more likely to exert leadership influence.

If you’ve been in the habit of checking your Klout, you may have seen a change in your score yesterday. And if you had Klout anywhere above, oh, 55 or so, you may have seen a drop. Klout posted a graphic (scroll down here) to support their claim that the majority of users would see their score stay the same or go down, but a straw poll of the canaries tweeting out sturm und drang on my Twitter feed yesterday afternoon suggests that the people clipped hardest by the new algorithm were the ones best positioned to actually give a shit about Klout.

(Disclosure: I went from an all-time high of 64 to a 57. Pass the hankies.)

Last week I ended an academic presentation of social media with a screen capture of my Klout score at the time, tongue-in-cheek. Thank god. I’ll never see that number again.

But, as I noted on Twitter, showing it off to a non-social-media-using audience isn’t a whole lot different than bragging to them about that high score I got in Super Mario Brothers back in 1993. It, too, was still a lot lower than some friends’ scores. It was higher than others. What it gave me was a sense I was improving at a game I was trying to learn…which is pretty much what I think Klout is good for.

(Admittedly, the old algorithm could be gamed, and was skewed by random RTs by celebrities, for instance. It rewarded cliqueishness, and highly sociable people with access to established networks. However, while the new Klout claims to be more transparent, I don’t actually see the explanations of how my acts translate into data anywhere in my new Klout interface. I’d like to: for my thesis research, it’d be fascinating.)

But. The lack of transparency, however touted, is not the problem with Klout’s new algorithm.

Maybe Klout needs to become my new canary in the coal mine of social media. Because the problem is bigger than Klout, and it is threefold.

1. We are beginning to buy into what we think our Klout tells us about ourselves.

Social media practices are identity practices, particularly on networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook (the prime sources of Klout data). Many of us put a lot of time into social media, and are aware that our expertise has growing cultural capital. People have learned to care about their Klout. For some, it’s a very real calling card for very real money. For others, it’s one of the few reflections available of whether we’re succeeding in a varied game in which there are no maps. Even if we watch it tongue-in-cheek, clearly a lot of us watch it.

This accords power and veracity to the metric.

Now, social media has always involved metrics: comments, Technorati, numbers of Twitter followers. But, for the most part, if one desired to increase those numbers, the path was relatively straightforward: one engaged more. Klout, with its complex algorithm drawn from big data that judges our most mundane interactions, is different. It’s not only measuring us, it’s assessing us. It’s designed on behaviourist principles, with rewards and virtual pats on the head when we – ratlike, often not entirely sure what we did to warrant the praise – succeed on the terms its algorithm values, and framing losses in score with banners that proclaim “Oh no! Your life is over Klout has fallen -1 in the past 2 days!”

We are highly conditionable beings. Klout is conditioning us to care about Klout, and to value ourselves – in this identity economy of social media – in terms of it. Which one could argue we’ve been doing ever since 2001, when Joe next door got more blog comments than we did and we cried in our beer and felt small and alone, but. It’s not the same. Because not all engagement is created equal, in Klout.

2. We’re being influenced by our own “influence.”

Used to be, if you happened to be someone who valued the metric of comments, a comment was more or less a comment. Yes, a comment from a blogger of known scale could feel somewhat a visitation from the archangels, but at the end of the day, the comments added up and like votes, each counted (if you were counting).

Relationally, the comment from a famous blogger might be an avenue to connection and networks that might ultimately serve some strategic purpose, but use value can’t really drive relationships in a one person-one vote economy.

Klout, though, works to devalue the nature of many social media communities, particularly those whose networks and relationships aren’t based entirely in use value. Some animals are more equal than others. In new Klout, I now get notices along the bottom of my screen about which contacts have gone down in score recently: in case I want to dump them, I assume, like dead weight. Bye, Mom! It’s all business.

Social media wasn’t supposed to be all business, especially business as usual. Social media is, uh, social. And relational: it’s a form of augmented reality, a network for all sorts of purposes, well beyond use-value networking.

But because Klout rewards use-value networking over other forms of engagement, it fosters an increasingly use-value environment. In Klout, it matters a lot more if you get a famous person to click your link or RT your content, especially if that person doesn’t regularly engage in clicking or RTing or sharing or whatnot. This makes some sense, in terms of assessing influence. But IT ALSO AFFECTS BEHAVIOURS.

The peer-to-peer relationality of social media – already grappling with a relatively new breed of user whose sole goal is building platform as a path to old guard institutional or corporate success – is undermined by the kind of behaviour that cultivates status over relationships. Status is part of the game. But when it becomes the whole game, the broad, rhizomatic networks get boxed in and wither, and then we’re back to something a lot less interesting than social media. And like the new Google Reader, a lot less social.

Yes, there is a pattern here. We are gradually being directed away from sociality and towards business-like behaviours by the business interests that design and profit from the platforms we use.

Social media, which was once a bit of a rogue blowing smoke at the establishment, is being taken in hand and given a tie and a briefcase. We’re like the rebel who’s been told s/he got the highest mark on a class test: we suddenly don’t know what to do with ourselves.

The problem: the test was rigged. And will always be rigged.

3. We’re allowing a metric to do a human’s job.

I’m not saying Klout isn’t trying, in terms of assessing influence and engagement fairly. The problem is, it can’t.

Klout today claims that I am as influential as Her Bad Mother. HA. Klout also puts me two points ahead of Finslippy and three ahead of George Siemens. If I buy that, I’m ON SOMETHING.

My influence and reach and social media fame and probably my throw to third base are all somewhat more modest than those three. My Klout score ultimately reflects that I’m frittering away more time on Twitter than they are, as they’re too busy with jobs or book tours or speaking engagements.

Because their actual influence – their name recognition within their respective fields, their public profile, their contacts, their capacity to leverage social media influence into dollars – is, in each case, greater than mine. That doesn’t negate mine, or anything. But just because Klout says I have equal influence doesn’t make it so.

Klout attempts to create an objective representation of something that is complex and subjective beyond the capacity of any algorithm to capture.

It appears that a lot of business interests have bought into the idea of Klout as a marvellous, miraculous objective third party observer, collating all the variables and doing the dirty work of sorting out for them who matters.  But just because scoring is helpful in a competitive neoliberal economy – “crucial,” even, according to the author linked above – doesn’t mean it’s actually valid. Or even possible.

All algorithms and metrics are products of their design. They are rigid, no matter how flexible and complex, and they cannot make exceptions or comprehend the subtleties of human relational interaction based solely on numbers, no matter how many numbers they use.

Influence is a relational measurement. It is a human measurement. Like intelligence and learning all the other things we stupidly insist we can measure, simple because we NEED effective comparisons, influence exceeds our grasp.

We may need to understand how to compare apples and oranges. It doesn’t mean we can, especially with mere numbers. This is true in education, and this is true in human relations and influence.

And while the game of seeing how we measure up may be entertaining, it’s only valuable if one is embedded enough in the relational networks it claims to assess to know when to take it with a grain of salt. Liz Gumbinner at Mom 101 wrote an exceptional post about this last month, giving thanks for savvy PR people and corporations who recognize good writing when they see it, who understand that this game is more than numbers.

I’d like to see more of them. I don’t wish my Klout canary in the coal mine of social media dead, but I’d like it seen for what it is: a decorative little bird, useful for entertaining and reflecting back the notes one is, uh, tweeting. NOT the measure of value in social media.

We need to stop handing over so much power to metrics. They have a place. But it’s THEIR use-value we need to assess, not the other way around.