What Happens When Twitter Dies?

I’m not really in a position to understand all that’s happening over at Twitter. I mean I realize Elon Musk bought it and seems to have the desire to change the platform and many feel it will either implode or turn into something they don’t want to support. But I don’t yet have an opinion. It’s partly because I’m not sure I care.

That might sound weird for someone that was around for as long as anyone I know. I joined the platform in January 2007. It was barely 6 months old. There was no such thing as social media or at least we didn’t call it that. Twitter was a major accelerator for network building for me. But as this all was happening, most of us had no understanding or intentionality of how we would use it. We were a bunch of educators playing around. I say educators because, at the time, that’s about all we’d see. The first 3-5 years of Twitter were the glory years for me. I created a network and made friends. This is one of the first things I wrote about Twitter. It was mysterious. It was innocent. It was fun. This post sums up how I have tried to use Twitter over these past 16 years.

I used to tweet a lot. I mean a lot. In the first seven years. I hit 100,000 tweets. I even made a stupid video about it.

I don’t remember when but I did get the coveted blue check mark. I don’t really know why, there are a lot more famous, important people using the platform but I got it. It didn’t really change anything for me. But it was around this time that the platform shifted and became more mainstream. That mainstream use came with the advantage of becoming more popular and important to many but also came with more garbage and sketchy players. In the last 8 years, my use has dropped 75%. Twitter has been evolving long before Musk took over and I’ve certainly lost much of my desire to spend time there but I got out of it so much. As I mentioned, I’ve made friendships, gotten connected to smart people, laughed, and played. I’ve even been able to secure speaking gigs on the platform so in that respect it’s probably made me a little money too.

If it blows up tomorrow, I share much of the sentiment written by my friend Alec who has a very similar Twitter trajectory. I’m good. I’ve got more out of the platform than most. I have a robust network and community (those are different things by the way). I’ve found other platforms to stay connected to those I care most about. The serendipity of finding new people has diminished greatly over the years but for me at this stage of my career, it’s fine. But what about younger educators?

This is where I’m most concerned. When I was teaching undergrads and even graduate students, part of my mission was to help them build their network and find a community that existed beyond the walls of their school or district. Early on I advocated the use of Twitter. That has not been the case more recently. The added noise and activity on the site made it more difficult to easily find people. I realized the cost/benefit of using Twitter to find a network was not favorable. I saw educators naturally shift to Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat, and TikTok. While I’m not sure those spaces can provide the access to the right people the way the old Twitter did, at least some were trying. But the idea that a teacher can find her tribe and then every year attend an event and meet up with that tribe to reinvigorate and revitalize her desire to teach may be gone. For those of us fortunate to have that we know what a difference it makes for us and our students and our well-being. At a time when wellness is such an important topic, the idea of an online community and support from outside voices is more important than ever and yet more difficult to build today than it has been. Twitter still has the structure that can allow for that but it takes effort to curate and understand how to do that. If Twitter dies, I’ll be fine but I hope we can figure out how to provide opportunities for young people to connect to the same kind of smart and caring educators that have encouraged and supported me for the past 15+ years.

Understanding How Communities Work

Having held the title of “Community Manager” and been directly involved in this work for a decade, you’d think I’d know more about the topic. The truth is I’ve been searching for a framework, structure or maybe a magic bullet the whole time. By many accounts and metrics, I’ve had success in this role. I can think of all the events, relationships and connections that I’ve made and fostered and feel pretty good. And yet, I still struggle with how to articulate what community really is and how it can be created, designed and how to grow and nurture it.

I suppose it’s much like teaching. Yes, there are many frameworks and strategies that can be useful ways to think about teaching but the reality is, teaching in schools is really about connecting with humans and that is something that comes with uncertainty and variables that are very difficult to control.

My current role with ALP includes a continued pursuit of building and creating community. It’s always a challenge to explain this to those inside the education world, let alone those outside it. I continually reflect on things that have worked for me and others. When I engage others in this conversation in broad terms, the way each of us thinks about community is very personal. While I know and believe there is no magic bullet, I’m trying to create enough opportunities and spaces for everyone I serve to find their community while still being able to see how they all work in concert.

It begins with the word itself. “Community” is one we toss around quite a bit. Is a classroom a community? Is the MOOC or course we take a community? Are those you interact with on Twitter a community? Yes? Maybe? No? Whether you use the word is not critical but I suppose I’m talking about someone consistent or known group of people that you feel some connection to and some sense of belonging. That to me is the key difference between networks and communities. Networks are weak ties and belonging and connection are not critical. Typically, the larger the network the better. People are nodes of information and ideas that you can access. Communities have some degree of obligation and affiliation. They can be named and identified.

As I think about online communities I’m trying to understand how platforms to support and influence communities. Sometimes communities reside in a single platform. These can be open or closed spaces. Closed spaces allow for more intimate, focused conversation that is better at creating a sense of belonging and trust. Open spaces are more inclusive and allow people more freedom to move in and out.

A great personal example for me that helps me analyze how online communities work is No Laying Up. They are a group of young golf enthusiasts who have built a large audience based on some fresh takes on the world of professional golf and golf in general. While beginning with a Twitter account, they are now mostly known for their podcasts but also have a Youtube channel where they are producing high-quality content as well as a message board and Instagram. They also host the odd in-person event and tournament which many take advantage of. My personal connections are mostly with the podcast and Twitter. The message board and forum are definitely for the hard-core members. I essentially consume the content without much interaction. Do I think of myself as a “community member”? Only in the sense that community is a word I understand and use frequently. Obviously, with their large numbers of followers/fans/members, each one would describe their associations differently.

So my wondering after all that rambling is what kinds of online community spaces, platforms and interactions work for you? Given my definition, what online communities do you belong to? Do they have an in-person component? What do you enjoy or benefit from most with those communities? I’m asking you to do a weird thing here and that is please leave a comment. Thanks.

Still Amusing Ourselves To Death

As much as I love the ability to connect with current practitioners and other smart folks around innovative and interesting ideas in education, we have a wealth of knowledge that lives in the recent and more distant past that is often overlooked. The bombardment of “new” through current media offerings tends to overshadow the truths that have been shared, considered and proven over decades and centuries.

When it comes to understanding media and communications, there are no better thinkers out there than Neil Postman and Marshall McLuhan. If you’re reading this and have never heard of these men, I would highly encourage you to seek out their writings.

I just finished re-reading Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman’s critique of the impact of television on our world.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.

I suppose some might not be able to see the connection between television and the Internet and while there certainly are differences, I found the parallels to be glaring. Without doing a full review here, I simply wanted to focus on one of his major points. He looks specifically at the way TV news is primarily entertainment and journalism is secondary at best.

No matter where you look today, the pace at which news is delivered, the emphasis on sensationalism and the sheer numbers of outlets, has turned important information and conversations into banal and destructive natterings. Postman might have suggested the same thing with television but the Internet, like it is want to do, has amplified this.

Postman didn’t have a problem with TV being a platform for entertainment. He thought it was well suited to make people laugh and be amused. His argument was that it was not a format designed for serious topics that required depth and time.  Although I didn’t have the context I made a similar argument about social media. That post is almost 10 years old. It’s only magnified in truth today. The places (Twitter mostly) I valued as a place to get to know people has turned into a dumping ground for soundbites and flawed opinions. In general, I don’t think people are smarter or more informed and part of the current polarization and divisions in our world are a direct result of social media. Its benefits for me lie in knowing more folks and finding other spaces to do meaningful work.

As someone who embraced social media early on, I was able to see what it could do to benefit our world. I wasn’t oblivious to the downsides but encouraged its use as a way to connect to smart people. Blogging was a way to provide a voice to anyone with an internet connection. I still see it as a potential space for deeper thought, however, long-form blogging, in particular, is not all that popular. If I was smart enough, I might even be able to determine how many folks clicked on this link and how many have made it this far. <insert joke/fact about how my writing isn’t engaging enough> Today I’m much less enthusiastic about the potential of these spaces and Postman’s writing has unfortunately fostered less hope. We are much more interested in amusement than truth. This is not a conscious decision as Postman argues but rather as a result of the nature of these mediums.

“Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.”  Neil PostmanAmusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Trying to be a truly informed citizen today is almost impossible. As an educator, this is where we have an enormous challenge. My work and presentations have me dabbling at this and yet being frustrated by the cultural tsunami of trite, bias and untruths bites that flood our feeds.

“Television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information – misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information – information that creates the illusion of knowing something, but which in fact leads one away from knowing.”  Neil PostmanAmusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Swap “Television” for “Social Media” and I think it’s still true.

At this point I have a couple of personal responses that I’m trying to deploy:

  • Talk less. I’m not likely to engage in any type of political discussion or even important educational conversations on social media.
  • Question everything. No matter what perspective or bias, assume it’s likely false. Hold your opinions until you’ve taken the time to investigate.
  • Utilize the right spaces for the right purposes. Social media, in my view, has always been best to socialize. This space has always been best to think out loud. Face to face extended times with the right people can be fruitful places for deeper discussions.

I’d encourage you to read something with some historical context because as much as we see the current age as so new, smart folks like Postman saw this coming a long time ago.

“To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple.”  Neil PostmanAmusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

 

 

Look for People, Not Just Resources

After spending a few weeks looking at the visitor vs resident notions it became clear today why it’s such a big deal.  During a unconference today in Halifax a group of teachers were discussing and exploring Project Based Learning. Specifically one of the participants had been looking at the Buck Institute’s resources and for implementing PBL. I told them as a kind of “fun fact” that I knew the latest consultant and that she happened to be from Canada. While that fact was mildly interesting I realized what would be more significant would be a more formal introduction. I messaged Shelley who happened to be online and she agreed to an impromptu session with this group. Within minutes she was sharing with them her own story and some advice for beginners. While the day was filled with lots of resource and idea sharing, the most impactful moment was sharing and  finding new people.

I’ve been saying for a long time that the old adage, “If you leave a conference with one or two ideas you can use in your classroom right away you’ve done well” is not nearly as good as “if you leave here with one or two people you can continue to learn with you’ve done well.”

The reality is for most teachers the notion of connecting and sharing in this immediate, personal way is still very foreign. For me to tweet someone to join a hangout is no different that it was asking the teacher next door to me for supplies. In fact, this is easier. And yet teachers are nonetheless surprised by the ease at which this can happen.

I’m reminded of a quote by Clay Shirky,

We systematically overestimate the value of access to information and underestimate the value of access to each other.

Part of this struggle continues as people see the web in visitor mode, a place to find and get stuff. Those of us who see the web in a more resident mode,  continue to take advantage of the affordances of connections and create both strong and weak ties that make life easier and better.

Pay Attention to These Folks

John Pederson is a fan of asking “Who has your attention?”   I would add to that and say, “Stop looking for great resources and start looking for great people”. I have no shortage of great people in my life many of whom are well known people in education and technology. But I love to share and find hidden gems, people that you may not be paying attention to but ought to. Here are three:

Darren Kuropatwa

Darren actually is fairly well known as a great presenter, storyteller, Math teacher and inventor of the Scribe Post. But lately he’s been doing something that’s inspired me in a few different ways and you may not be familiar with what he’s been up to. After many discussions around the challenge of blogging, Darren has been playing with an app called Social Cam and has been using it to offer daily or almost daily reflections of his learning called “While Walking”. Not only are these often provocative ideas that has enabled him to practice active reflection but it’s helped make him stronger connections in his local community. I’ve used this tool now a few times and have plans to incorporate it into our DEN community as well. I also love the fact that it demonstrates that reflection and blogging isn’t always about writing. While there are certainly challenges to overcome being brave enough to speak into a camera, it does alleviate some of the stress around writing. 

 

coriCori Saas

Cori is a former student of mine as well as teacher in Prairie South. The first conversation I had with Cori after our initial class centered around her belief and hope that technology would be used to make us more human, not less. That was a shared value that made me pay attention to her from that day forward. Since then I’ve watched Cori grow in her understanding and connect with some great people. Cori’s passion is stories. In fact she’s begun her graduate work  focusing on narratives in curriculum. Her blog posts since September have been particularly enticing as she’s been exploring the rich nuances of storytelling. You can tell every one of her posts are done with care and great passion. If you are into stories, you need to be reading and connecting with Cori. 

 

Kyle Webb

Kyle is also a former student. Kyle is now teaching Math in St. Louis at MICDS, a school I’ve been fortunate to work with a few times. Kyle was the first student I had to take me up on the idea of getting his own domain. He worked hard at building a nice portfolio and had some early success blogging about some difficult but important issues. After a semester settling into his new job, he’s pledged to renew his commitment to blogging. As a new teacher Kyle is very inquisitive and working hard to establish and explore new classroom practices. But along the way offers some great resources and ideas.