something is rotten in the state of…Twitter

I read another article yesterday on The Death of Twitter: they’re multiplying, these narratives, just like the fruit flies in my kitchen.

Like fruit flies, these lamentations for Twitter do not spontaneously generate, but are born from a process of decay: they are the visible signs of something left neglected, something rotting quietly out of sight.

Since I’m currently in the extended throes of researching Twitter for my dissertation, I read these articles like I used to read Cosmo back when I was twenty: half-anxious that Enlightenment will be contained in the next paragraph, half-anxious it won’t. When I was twenty, I had Cosmo to make me feel miserable about the gap between what I valued and what I saw reflected and valued by the world. These days, I have The End of Big Twitter.

I wonder about what it means to research something changing so quickly, so drastically. Will my dissertation end up being about the Twitter that was, rather than whatever it is in the process of becoming? Can a person become an historian by accident?

Is this all there is to say, anymore?
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Because once there was more, at least for me. Way back in the arcane days of 2006 and 2007, I went to live among another culture – participatory culture, in its heyday – and felt at home for the first time. A particular confluence of privilege and obscurity and the need to speak things I had no place to speak aloud contributed…and the experience was mostly good. Not always ideal, by any means, but networks and Twitter in particular opened for me whole worlds of conversations and ties that I would never – flat-out – otherwise have had access to. And those conversations and ties have shaped my identity, my work, and my trajectory in life dramatically over the last eight years. Yet I sense the conditions that made all that possible shifting, slipping away.

I do not know what comes next, at this strange intersection. This post is My Own Private Fruitfly: its lifespan short and humid. It may be dead or obsolete in fifty days. But it is what I see, here and now, on the heels of a sweltering and disturbing August.

“The Death of Twitter” is Not About Twitter
I’m no great fan of their recent platform changes and even less of the likelihood that they’re about to make what I see in my feed far more algorithmically-determined, a la Facebook. But I don’t think a new platform will arise to save what’s getting lost and lamented about Twitter. The issue all the articles point to is about Twitter As We Knew It (TM) as a representation of an era, a kind of practice. At the core, it is about the ebbing away of networked communications and participatory culture – or at least, first-generation participatory culture as I knew it, as Jenkins is perhaps best-known for describing it.

It is also about the concurrent rise of what I *hope* is peak Attention Economy.

(Of course, the founding premise of the Attention Economy is there’s no such thing as too much Attention Economy, so yeh, I’m probably wrong on the peak front .)

Consolidation of the Status Quo
Some of this is overt hostile takeover – a trifecta of monetization and algorithmic thinking and status quo interests like big brands and big institutions and big privilege pecking away at participatory practices since at least 2008.

Oh, you formed a little unicorn world where you can communicate at scale outside the broadcast media model? Let us sponsor that for you, sisters and brothers. Let us draw you from your domains of your own to mass platforms where networking will, for awhile, come fully into flower while all the while Venture Capital logics tweak and incentivize and boil you slowly in the bosom of your networked connections until you wake up and realize that the way you talk to half the people you talk to doesn’t encourage talking so much as broadcasting anymore. Yeh. Oh hey, *that* went well.

And in academia, with Twitter finally on the radar of major institutions, and universities issuing social media policies and playing damage control over faculty tweets with the Salaita firing and even more recent, deeply disturbing rumours of institutional interventions in employee’s lives, this takeover threatens to choke a messy but powerful set of scholarly practices and approaches it never really got around to understanding. The threat of being summarily acted upon by the academy as a consequence of tweets – always present, frankly, particularly for untenured and more vulnerable members of the academic community – now hangs visibly over all heads…even while the medium is still scorned as scholarship by many.

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You’re Doing It Wrong 
But there’s more. The sense of participatory collective – always fraught – has waned as more and more subcultures are crammed and collapsed into a common, traceable, searchable medium. We hang over each other’s heads, more and more heavily, self-appointed swords of Damocles waiting with baited breath to strike. Participation is built on a set of practices that network consumption AND production of media together…so that audiences and producers shift roles and come to share contexts, to an extent. Sure, the whole thing can be gamed by the public and participatory sharing of sensationalism and scandal and sympathy and all the other things that drive eyeballs.

But where there are shared contexts, the big nodes and the smaller nodes are – ideally – still people to each other, with longterm, sustained exposure and impressions formed. In this sense, drawing on Walter Ong’s work on the distinctions between oral and literate cultures, Liliana Bounegru has claimed that Twitter is a hybrid: orality is performative and participatory and often repetitive, premised on memory and agonistic struggle and the acceptance of many things happening at once, which sounds like Twitter As We Knew It (TM), while textuality enables subjective and objective stances, transcending of time and space, and collaborative, archivable, analytical knowledge, among other things.

Thomas Pettitt even calls the era of pre-digital print literacy “The Gutenberg Parenthesis;” an anomaly of history that will be superceded by secondary orality via digital media. 

Um…we may want to rethink signing up for that rodeo. Because lately secondary orality via digital media seems like a pretty nasty, reactive state of being, a collective hiss of “you’re doing it wrong.” Tweets are taken up as magnum opi to be leapt upon and eviscerated, not only by ideological opponents or threatened employers but by in-network peers…because the Attention Economy rewards those behaviours. Oh hai, print literacies and related vested interests back in ascendency, creating a competitive, zero-sum arena for interaction. Such fun!

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Which is not to say there’s no place for “you’re doing it wrong.” Twitter, dead or no, is still a powerful and as yet unsurpassed platform for raising issues and calling out uncomfortable truths, as shown in its amplification of the #Ferguson protests to media visibility (in a way Facebook absolutely failed to do thanks to the aforementioned algorithmic filters). Twitter is, as my research continues to show, a path to voice. At the same time, Twitter is also a free soapbox for all kinds of shitty and hateful statements that minimize or reinforce marginalization, as any woman or person of colour who’s dared to speak openly about the raw deal of power relations in society will likely attest. And calls for civility will do nothing except reinforce a respectability politics of victim-blaming within networks. This intractable contradiction is where we are, as a global neoliberal society: Twitter just makes it particularly painfully visible, at times.

Impossible Identities
Because there is no way to win. The rot we’re seeing in Twitter is the rot of participatory media devolved into competitive spheres where the collective “we” treats conversational contributions as fixed print-like identity claims. As Emily Gordon notes, musing about contemporary Twitter as a misery vaccuum, the platform brings into collision people who would probably never otherwise end up in the same public space. Ever. And that can be amazing, when there are processes by which people are scaffolded into shared contexts. Or just absolutely exhausting. We don’t know how to deal with collapsed publics, full stop. We don’t know how to talk across our differences. So participatory media becomes a cacophonic sermon of shame and judgement and calling each other out, to the point where no identity is pure enough to escape the smug and pointless carnage of petty collective reproach.

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Somewhere, Donna Haraway and her partial, ironic, hybrid cyborg weep, I think.

This doesn’t mean I’m leaving Twitter. I’m not leaving Twitter. If this post is a fruit fly signalling rot, it is likewise the testament of a life dependent on the decaying platform for its sustenance. The fruit is still sweet, around the rotten bits. And there is no other fruit in the basket that will do so well.
Perhaps it is not rot. Some would call it inevitable, part of the cycle of change and enclosure that seems to mark the emergence of all new forms of working and thinking together. I’m not so sure: that still smells to me like high modernity. Either way, I will miss Twitter As We Knew It (TM)…but I wonder: what am I not seeing yet? What paths of subversion, connection, hybridity are still open?

I’m over by the fruit bowl, listening.

hybrids & subversives: the cyborg as teacher

I began teaching online in 1998, the same year I encountered Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (1991) for the first time. Her cyborg – partial, ironic, always hybrid – offered a model for identity that helped me navigate that new environment. The cyborg’s emphasis on breaking down (and de-naturalizing) binaries enabled and encouraged me to grapple with some of the institutional and technocratic power relations that shaped our online learning context, in ways that have continued to influence my understanding of my educational practice and my research to this day.

The cyborg teacher is a hybrid, both an instrument of the schooling system and yet subversive to it: the cyborg teacher is a learner too. Teaching from the cyborg point of view helped me frame my digital classroom not as “less” or “more” than conventional learning spaces, but instead as a site for building ties of curiosity and affinity. It helped me escape the concept of the virtual and approach my online work very much as real; human and technological, both.

Now, fifteen years down the road, I see the cyborg particularly as a metaphor for networked identities. These are the kinds of selves cultivated when people integrate online social networks into their personal and professional practices not just as consumers but producers: when they blog, tweet, filter, curate, and share ideas within networks of shared interests.

In a time when our technological platforms are primarily corporate-owned and even mundane daily practices like bank card usage expose us to constant digital surveillance, the cyborg strikes me as a particularly important figure. A teacher by example, she collapses the binary distinctions our media narratives are so eager to create about social technologies.

The message of the cyborg, as I see it, is that we are complicit, part of this digital world. But we are not necessarily subject to its terms: in an age in which human agency can seem dwarfed by the innumerable invisible digital systems we interact with, the cyborg – illegitimate offspring of the very things she subverts – stands for me as a figure of hope.

why cyborgs are education

In writing my way through the drafts of what I hope will eventually be my dissertation proposal, I keep coming up against what appears to be a glaring absence, a hole in my work. When I talk about what I’m doing, the hole gets reflected back at me: politely but quizzically, a frequent “yes, but…” response.

The name of the hole is education.

I’m in a doctoral program in Educational Studies. I identify as an educator: I’ve been at this professionally since I was 22 years old. I’ve been a high school teacher and a special ed teacher and a travelling ESL professor and a sessional lecturer in academic writing. I’ve done educational project management and educational program development, written curriculum, designed rubrics. I’ve worn all kinds of different hats in my work life, but almost all of them have been in some sense or other education-related.

Then I enter a Ph.D in Education, and I stop.

What I’m writing about? Subjectivities. Cyborgs. Identity in social media. Technologies and reputation and social capital and cultural capital and money all circulating within social media networks, all of them shaping us just as we shape them by tweeting about our breakfasts. It’s big and messy and interesting and I haven’t even gotten to the part where I talk about knowledge or learning. It’s philosophy and sociology, with a nice smattering of psychoanalysis thrown in for good measure. I can’t blame anybody for asking where the education is.

It’s there, though, I’m convinced of it.

In the opening lines of The Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway claims that her cyborg is faithful to its origins “as blasphemy is faithful” (1991, p. 149).  The next time somebody asks about my research’s location within the field of Educational Studies, I’m going to claim blasphemy. My research emphasizes – and critiques – the theoretical underpinnings of current educational practices, though its scope is not contained within notions of classroom or curriculum. And any work wherein education intersects with technology is vulnerable to visions of post-institutional worlds and DIY education. Yet as Haraway points out, “blasphemy has always seemed to require taking things very seriously” (191, p. 149). I have two children on the cusp of entering the public education system: there is not much I take so seriously.

Haraway called The Cyborg Manifesto “an ironic political myth” (1991, p. 149). I aim to make my exploration of the branded cyborg subject an ironic educational myth, one that visions possibilities for the public trust of education through a more detailed understanding of social media.

My almost five-year-old son did his first dinosaur podcast this past weekend, with his dad. Charlottetownosaurus, Episode One. Because if you are Oscar and you’ve been busily devouring all things dinosaur for almost two years now, you’ve accumulated a great deal of knowledge to share with the world. And because when you’ve accumulated knowledge or ideas or just plain passion for something, whatever it is, sharing it and getting feedback from other people on it? Matters. Even if you’re not yet five. He found out his babysitter listened to it and tweeted me about it and you would have thought he’d won an Academy Award.

He has been in full-time preschool now since September, in the daycare attached to the French school he will attend come next year. He went in with only a cursory vocabulary in French: now, he’s almost comfortable in the language. He’s certainly comfortable correcting my stilted Anglo pronunciations, and I grin at him and try again to match the sounds that suddenly, wonderfully, roll off his tongue.

His teacher’s experienced, and kind, and I think she’s good at what she does. But even after six+ months in a French class with only ten kids, this boy who’d happily eat and sleep dinosaurs all day long and has picked up five-syllable Latin terms just from having books read aloud to him still doesn’t know any dinosaur names in French. Nor the words for fairly familiar concepts like “herbivore” and “carnivore.”

Not a deal-breaker.  Not a personal criticism of his teacher, whose (underpaid) job it is to teach themes of seasons and foods and holidays, to organize and facilitate (rather beautiful) crafts with the kids, to read stories at circle time (which Oscar inevitably interrupts because he wants desperately to tell about the things he knows).

She is a good teacher. She makes homemade play-doh. He is learning from her.

But he is not learning that the things that drive him and the things that he can do are exciting and engaging, things to be built on. He’s not learning that his interests are valid or worthy of creative attention. He’s not learning how to participate in a produsage or prosumer world, where consumption and creation blur.

And that’s okay, I think. He’s not five. And he’s learning some of that stuff at home. And learning to take turns with the play-doh matters, absolutely.

But in terms of his subjectivity, his sense of himself in the world and the stories he belongs in, school – in this traditional model of learning to engage on externally-set terms – makes me a little sad.

He’s a pleaser and a connector, by nature. That’s where the interruptions at circle time come from, however misguided: he’s a kid who will offer up every last thought he can think of in hopes of gaining the engagement and attention of another human being. When that happens, and a positive reflection of himself shines back at him, his world’s complete.

We all need to learn to deal with our worlds not being complete all the time. I work hard with Oscar on a daily basis to help him see – and seize – moments when others might be open to engaging, and when they’re just busy with the damn dishes and getting him a glass of milk, thank you very much.

But humans who need to connect aren’t well-served by systems that externalize what happens to us, that are structured to emphasize compliance and passivity over the scramble to share all the wonders that flit through our brains. It is human to clamour, but it is particularly hard to pay attention to clamour in systems where the audience for the clamour is smaller than the number of clamourers. School is an anti-clamour system at least in part because there are almost always more students than teachers, and human engagement does not thrive in that climate of division, nor on demand.

Human engagement can survive division, however, if it is not required to physically respond to multiple demands at once. Particularly if it has some agency over what it engages with. Clamour, I would argue, is alive and well.

It’s online, in social media.

My Twitter feed is full of people scrambling to share the wonders flitting across their brains. I learn from some of it. I am moved by some. I tune some out – but I don’t need to hush anyone for demanding anything of me, because they’re not. They’re just putting their stuff out there, in a forum where others can engage or attend if they want. That kid who was always waving his hand around in preschool circle time, the one the teacher probably wanted to throttle? He may have grown up to be one of the richest resources out there in his field, connecting and sharing and repackaging what he knows, just in case you want to know too.

He’s a cyborg, and social media is the world’s biggest circle time.

And so that gap between my emerging dissertation and education? I don’t think it’s there. I have a lot of work ahead of me to try to understand what it means, subjectivity-wise, to engage and live and learn in the clamour, but I hope eventually to be able to show that the clamour is not the enemy of learning, only of a model of schooling which need not be the alpha and omega of the field of education.

That would be an ironic educational myth, indeed.


the branded cyborg manifesto: identity in the public domain

It’s just me.

A person isn’t a brand.

If “online” is just another place to manage identity, why does digital identity deserve special treatment?

Thanks – big thanks – to all of you who gave me input on digital identity and how you think of it and name it. The paraphrased quotes from the last post’s comments all helped me dig deeper into the specifics of what I’m aiming to explore with this dissertation-in-the-making. I both agree and disagree with each: the conversation hones my thinking and my writing, and I am grateful.

Here’s what I think: the specific kind of cyborg identity that interests me is new. People have, arguably, depended on technologies to construct and perform identity for thousands of years: the wheel created social structures that shaped who people were and how they saw themselves, and writing – to Socrates’ chagrin – enabled a persistence of self over time that has deeply shaped our notion of what it is to be human.

But what I call – for now, at least – the branded cyborg is a particular hybrid of human and social media platform that creates a circulation of identity different from previous incarnations or understandings of self. It is a reputational identity with tangible, visible, measurable attributes, and the economy in which it operates makes demands on the entity who generates it.

In this sense, I think the branded cyborg – for those of us who are one – is us and reaches beyond us, at the same time. It is identity in the public domain. And I think how it operates matters.

That’s why I think digital identity deserves special focus, even if it is perceived by social media users as a simple extension of themselves. Operations of power and interaction are not actually the same online as they are in so-called “real life,” no matter whether we try to conduct ourselves the same or no. The speed of connections, the flattening (to an extent) of hierarchical relations, the reputational and corporate economic aspects of social media, and the ways in which power circulates and allows for different performances and different recognition of performances all change the subject positions that the environment creates and privileges.

Donna Haraway first wrote her particular version of the cyborg into being in 1985: a creature without origin and without innocence, resolutely committed to “partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity.” A couple of years ago, in response to the irritatingly popular mythology of the digital native, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek cyborg momifesto, on the cyborg nature of mommybloggers. We perform aspects of self for each other, intimately, but accept that the whole is seldom represented. We often parody notions of what motherhood should be in an effort to resist the discourses that frame our identities. We are hybrids of human and technology just as surely as our children are touted to be.

My ‘we’ has expanded since then, but I still find the figure of the cyborg valuable as a representation of the particular kind of digital identity I want to explore. In my dissertation, I’ll revision Haraway’s late 20th century version of the cyborg as a 21st century digital subject; an entity of social media.

Now, I don’t think everyone online is a cyborg, or at least not a branded cyborg, not really. It depends on what we DO online. Those of us who live “in the open,” to an extent, who engage in the creation/consumption sharing cycle of the produsage economy and who put our own work out there to our networks and actively try to grow audience for those networks under a particular name (or names) that represent us? WE’RE branding. If you have a Facebook account and the rest of your online activity is mostly surfing, maybe you’re not branding. It’s about level of engagement in that reputational, rhizomatic economy. It’s about sharing, putting aspects of self out there, seeking recognition and being open to new connections in the network. It’s about reciprocity, as well: sharing the work of others, leaving comments, participating in the circulation.

So the digital identities of cyborgs are multi-faceted representations, contributed to and amplified by others as part of the etiquette of social media. Cyborg subjects involved in social media produsage networks ‘create content’ such blog posts, tweets, video work, slideshows, or comments attached to a particular digital identity that circulates in the open, building social – and potential financial – capital for its creators in the process. Traditional media appearances or in the online work of others will sometimes factor into a person’s digital identity: the traces that register with Google as a part of our digital identity are not always fully under our control. However, as Google’s page rank works on scale of views, longterm commitment to a particular digital profile or identity means that sites or accounts managed by the user will usually end up outranking random facets of identity originating with other subjects. The identity can encompass many platforms: depth and frequency of use lend gravitas, as do statistical data like blog pageviews and public rankings like Klout.

For Judith Butler, we are called into being as subjects by the operations of power and discourse, and our agency is concommitant with our subjectivity. What does this mean for digital identity? Cyborg digital identities are the product of already-formed subjects: the traces of us that circulate online are deployed in that environment by subjects always already navigating discourse and power. The digital identity may be constructed the same, psychically and discursively, but operates in a different environment. It is the agency of the digital subject – and whether the digital environment offers alternative opportunities for agency not previously available to the subject in embodied form – that interests me.

As an educator, I’m also interested in whether these potentially new digital subjectivities and their agency then impact the embodied subject and his or her expectations. In other words, what does it mean to teach a branded cyborg in an educational system premised on very different subject roles and agentive constructions than are available here online?

This is why I don’t believe that your online identity is simply ‘you.’ When a subject chooses to engage in the produsage economy, creating and sharing content and contributing to the consumption of others’ content as a means of connecting and building visibility and reputation, a cyborg digital identity comes into being. This digital identity, I will argue, cannot be identical to the subjectivity of the embodied person creating the content, even if the person intends it to be. The digital identity will almost invariably end up being recognized and interacted with differently than the embodied person, because the medium allows for and privileges different types of engagement. Few people, even if they write for a living, walk into an office in the morning and are told outright what a wonderful writer they are. Few students can walk into schools, even with the most well-intentioned teachers, and say Hey! This really amazing/terrible/striking thing came across my radar last night and I’d like to take this morning to respond to and share it creatively. Not everyday. And I’m not sure school should be about that every day, though I’m not sure it shouldn’t. But most students learn from their earliest years that schooling means a set of power relations that tend to preclude and sanction statements like that. They learn a different subject position, one with a very different sort of agency than they will encounter online, as cyborgs.

In this context, then, new forms of agency and specifically digital subjectivity are indeed jointly called into being. The discourses and power relations that create the specific subjugation that calls each individual into cyborg identity would, I assume, be individual: I will want to explore Butler’s work on desire and on giving account of oneself in order to consider the myriad of ways this may operate. Certainly, in my own experience, it was subjugation to and representation by a discourse of motherhood that I felt excluded my experience of loss and attachment that led me to try to narrate my own story online, visibly: in creating cribchronicles, I created my own agency to speak a counter-discourse.

This all sounds delightfully, misleadingly emancipatory. I don’t mean it to. I see change as carrying good and bad, cultural gain and cultural loss: I want to explore both. Social media is neither saviour nor sin, in my mind. And lots of people, I’m sure, go online mostly for the porn.

My read of both Haraway’s original cyborg and Butler’s notions of subjectivity and performativity is that the messiness is okay; that clean trajectories are to be mistrusted, interrogated, that porn – and all the aspects of humanity that it stands for – are part of the package I’ve taken on here, in looking to study identity in this public domain of the digital.

My hope, really, is that in exploring what it means to be a branded cyborg I will stumble and grope my way to a more complex understanding of what it means to be human, here and now.