bringing back the participatory: a story of the #ProSocialWeb

So. We need to talk about the web.

Disclaimer: I spent the early part of April living the Very Best of the Web. I’d doubted, frankly, that “best of the web” was a phrase I’d be likely to use again, but…life is funny.

A whirlwind journey landed me in Virginia, Nova Scotia, and Ireland over the first half of the month. In each space and with every collection of people, I framed the web in dire terms.

“We need to talk about the web,” I’d say, and I’d launch into a rat-a-tat battery of images depicting digital spaces in our present: the weaponization of attention. Monetization. Quantification. Algorithmic-decision-making. Surveillance. The enclosure of commons by totalizing technical systems. Basically, THIS:

I’m fun at parties.

But the conversations in the hallways and the restaurants and pubs and hotel spaces – and, yep, online – after each of those talks actually reminded me what the web can DO.

Because I would not have been in any of those rooms if it weren’t for the web.

The participatory web, originally – the old-skool Web 2.0 where readers were also writers and contributors and people were tied together by blog comments – but also social media. Twitter. Even Facebook. Together, these various platforms have networked me into some of the most important conversations and relationships of my life.

And at each stop on my trip in April, ties that had started online brought forth hopeful, meaningful exchanges, and real intellectual and emotional connection to other human beings in spite of geographic distance between our day-to-day lives. Moments of shared purpose and learning and capacity-building. Even in 2019.

This is the the Very Best of what the web makes possible. It was a mini-version what Jim Luke called, in his #OER19 reflection, “technology in the service of people.”


We *do* need to talk about the web. But not just so we can all opt out and go home. Those of us who are already there, and for whom the web is more than just Google and a garbage fire, need to talk about it differently.

We need to make the participatory web visible again, in our small human corners of it…even amidst the sea of bots and surveillance and polarization.

NOT because we can drown all that out. So that we are not drowned by it. So we can help others struggling against the current. So we can build rafts, together…until we figure out how many rafts it takes to make a dam, perhaps.

Obviously, the toxicity doesn’t stop with digital systems.

It was Earth Day yesterday. I need to stop flying around. I need to work towards the fundamental, drastic changes that will mean my kids have the possibility of a long-term future on this planet. I gotta go deeper than the “one-car family with a hybrid car” schtick and actually change.

I’m reading pieces like Monbiot’s Only Rebellion Will Prevent an Economic Collapse. I signed up for notifications re Extinction Rebellion protests in my area. I note my area does not have an Extinction Rebellion Coordinator.

That kind of work is hard: change work, drastic non-status-quo work. I didn’t even know what a Community Organizer *was* until Obama came to prominence and people started throwing the term around in a loaded way.

When the next US President got elected, though, and terms like “fake news” started to be tossed around like grenades, there was a hot second where I thought maybe *I* could coordinate something. My professional background is part media literacy and part adult ed, and late one night I rambled my way to the idea that maybe we could model off the 20th century Antigonish Movement – an extraordinary Eastern Canadian legacy that brought people together to learn, and to fight The Company Store.

I thought an Antigonish 2.0 for community, citizenship, and information literacy might be a way to address some of the yawning literacy gaps of our own time.

A LOT of people signed up.

I found an amazing ally based in Antigonish, and we started writing grants and spreading the word in places like Educause and via DavidsonNow’s #engageMOOC.

And then we hit a wall. And realized that – whoopsie! – a lot of models of coordination and community organization require a structural position of power within whatever community you’re trying to organize. The #Antigonish2 model needed universities as its centre layer, in addition to networks and communities.

As precarious staff at our respective universities, my ally & I could hustle up a network and publish and write grants on our own time and plan community events and even generate *some* institutional support, but ultimately we did not fit funders’ models for Principal Investigators and we did not fit our institutions’ ideas of the package Strategic Change should come in.

You cannot leverage an institution when you have no real foothold IN the institution.

So. Ultimately I uprooted my family from the Maritimes, and #Antigonish2 lay low for the better part of a year. Until I got an invitation – thanks to the networked and institutional roots my ally had laid down – to go TO Antigonish and deliver a keynote for THATCampX in April.

That keynote is here. Its ending is probably more radical than its opening…but it posits that datafication and AI are the new Company Store. And it suggests that resisting the technocratic systems encroaching on our institutions and our lives means – in part, for those of us already online – bringing back the participatory web.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. It is, however, a call to action…and a way of returning the #Antigonish2 name to its rightful home while building next steps for the network who were keen and generous enough to sign on. It’s rooted in what Dave & I have been calling “the #prosocialweb:” an invitation to think and write and build together.

The idea of the #prosocialweb assumes that our small social worlds matter.

Few decision-makers have lived the Best of The Web. What if those of us who have were able to make it visible? To counter the Company Store mythology of capital data solutions that’s gone viral among our leadership strata?

If our contemporary information ecosystem has taught us anything, it should be that that humans are VERY vulnerable to social contagion. All the systems we’ve accepted are neither natural nor inevitable.

And the system I am positioned to make a difference in – at the coordinating level – is networks…so the web and this idea of the #prosocialweb is where I’ll take the subversive hope that underpinned #Antigonish2, for now. To try to counter misinformation, yes. But also to try to push for change, and for a more pro-social and humane digital space through three key ideas: complexity, cooperation, and contribution. To try to foreground the “ethic of care” that Kate Bowles called for at #OER19, quoting Giroux:

Hope is not a pipe dream, it is the most important resource we have. It is the heartbeat of our politics.”

If no one believes there are alternatives to this inexorable march towards The Company Store of datafication and automation and extinction that we seem to be on…there won’t be.

But the people I’ve met through the participatory web keep me believing in alternatives. And believing I am not alone.

8 Comments bringing back the participatory: a story of the #ProSocialWeb

  1. Kate Bowles

    Bon, this is great. I’ve been wondering how Antigonish 2.0 fit the picture, and this lays it all out very clearly.

    For me, one of the deep challenges of prosocial repair is to recuperate an idea of tolerance from a situation that increasingly calls us to vigorous and uncompromising rebuttal. This is one of the really toxic outcomes of the fake news cycle, that it’s warped our attention away from the possibility of “OK, well, I’m not really with on you on this but let’s keep talking and see if we can agree.” Trolling culture makes holding space for new ideas simply impractical, and resistance mocks it as civility. So we all end up shouting into the hurricane about how wrong everything is.

    I came to this thought via your comment on complexity, and the conversation we had about accepting political candidates who aren’t perfect. At the heart of tolerance for complexity is an ability to sit with what can’t be finished with or fixed for now–a capacity to accept that an idea is half formed or even partly wrong headed, but that in it may be the seed of a thing that we could use.

    Thanks to this beautiful post I am thinking about scale, and the need for patient attention. I’m also aware that I only saw it because of jet lag, and I caught a mention of it on Twitter when I’m normally asleep. So that piece of the puzzle — how we actually come to hear from each other, once we all stop flying everywhere — is something I’m still trying to figure out.

    1. bon

      Kate…me too. On a bunch of fronts – both how we come to hear from each other and connect, and how we learn to tolerate complexity and imperfection long enough to work together.

      To the latter conversation…PEI’s first election of a minority government since 1890 last night was kind of heartening. I am NOT a conservative and they took the largest number of seats, BUT with a record-setting number for the Green Party and with gracious and humane victory and concession speeches all round. The PCs in PEI are not a populist party overall and so I am going to practice what I preach and wish the whole lot compromise and goodwill as they try to navigate their way to what I hope will be democratic governance… ;)

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  4. bon

    If it were 2012, I’d probably just write a whole followup post on this, but as I try to rebuild my own pro-social practices and trails, I’m starting with a comment-sized undertaking, a sort of note to self.

    I don’t write talks out, but the talk posted above was the second and longest in the series I gave in early April all riffing on this theme of ‘what do we do about the web?’ In the slide deck, in addition to the #Antigonish2 images and ideas and the Cynefin and Haraway references that distinguished this talk from the other two, there are a collection of images from Marshall McLuhan’s DEWLine cards (1969) that I photographed at a McLuhan exhibit here in Windsor – McLuhan taught in Windsor during WWII – back in March. At the time, I was just struck by the card deck and the DEWLine concept…and as I worked them into the talk I was thinking about the idea of the DEWLine, both literally and metaphorically. The DEWLine was a series of Cold War Distant Early Warning radar (I think?) stations across the north of Canada…which happened to spark my own adolescent terror of nuclear war in 1982 when I visited my dad for the first and only time in the Canadian High Arctic, in what is now Nunavut. The idea that the DEWLine was there as a network, to me as a kid living through the Reagan era and what was about to escalate into Star Wars and The Day After in the sociocultural imagination, was physical proof of the threat being real. And in the talk, I was trying to express that maybe our participatory practices, our #prosocialweb practices, can somehow serve as a DEWLine to make visible the threats of datafied audit culture and surveillance culture to those who otherwise might not see them that way. I’m still not sure it works, but it was a metaphor that intrigued me.

    And, the reason I’m leaving this here…I just found this link to a quite separate idea of McLuhan’s on identity violence that I think may be relevant to (or a barrier for? worth thinking through in relation to?) the #prosocialweb:

    McLuhan’s language of tribalism is culturally dated but reminds me of the work I did with Ong’s orality/literacy a couple of years back. The part that sticks out for me the most from this overview is the idea of how this “new integral electronic culture creates a crisis of identity, a vacuum of the self, which generates tremendous violence——violence that is simply an identity quest, private or corporate, social or commercial.” The blog author does an in-depth analysis of this violence as groupthink and signifier in the context of social media & esp Tumblr, here…but I’m just leaving this as a placeholder to return to thinking about violence and identity…

    1. Autumm

      Thanks for this addendum Bon… I’ve been following your (and Dave’s) #prosocial work for a minute now and wanting to jump in but couldn’t find anything to hold on to. Perhaps I needed a note in the margins, with some half-formed thoughts, as that is also where I’m at right now.

      Your talk of McLuhan got me out of my chair and over to my bookcase as I keep a copy of The Medium is the Massage out on top for general perusal and inspiration. I was reading through your comment and flipping through the book, practicing some kind of a new blog comment bibliomancy method which apparently I just invented in this moment, and four intersections jumped out. They are in the middle of the book focused on “environment”. There are photos of waterworks in Philly making a point about form in the old and new – but inbetween that there is a mostly blank intersection that are two completely blank pages that simply state “Environments are invisible. Their groundrules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns elude easy perception”. Which somehow rings to me of that datified audit and surveillance culture that you spoke of – ever watching but hard to be see. And the idea of using our #prosocial networked practices to make it less elusive rings true but there is this paradox I feel right on the edge and I can’t seem to shake it. Strangely enough in flipping through the book there it is on the next intersection (OMG there’s a page number – it is 89) where McLuhan gets at it. He talks about the Emperor’s New Clothes and how one has to be somewhat antisocial to see environments for what they really are and I think this is some of the conflict/paradox that I’ve been feeling around all of this. I’m not sure how it resolves but if it is like most paradoxes that I’ve encountered it might be more about ongoing practice than resolving… but how?

      Sorry if this is too much of a ramble – just thinking out loud – and flipping through a book.

      1. bon

        LOL please never apologize for commenting in whatever form your thoughts come out in.

        (Unless they’re super rude or something…but that doesn’t seem likely to be a major issue) ;)

        I *think* I grasp what you’re getting at with the paradox. We are social animals and when we feel social belonging to/in an environment, we will tend to extend our social feelings uncritically to the environment itself, without examining how it could be structurally better? For us or others?

        In some ways, I think one of the interesting things about digital sociality is that those of us engaged there/here/wherever is that there tends to be FAR greater criticality of these environments AS social spaces than I am accustomed to seeing, say, in academia as a professional social space. More parallels to how junior high kids can truly see through some of the shit their systems pile on them, while still (sometimes) being invested in the friends and sociality school creates access to, than to the ways adults invested in systems of power sometimes talk about collegiality while, y’know, stepping on the untenured heads of those “below” them…

        Doesn’t mean there isn’t a paradox. Just thinking about it.

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