What’s social media for?
Why should we use social media in schools? Is it for learning? Is it for connection?
I’ve have learned many things on social media and connected with many people, so I’m not denying those potentials. But we need to think through the purposes of social media, like all purposes in education, in a deeper way. What should we learn? Whom should we connect with?
Imagine that we get the class Instagram account, the students get set up on Twitter and blogs, and we tell them the standard “respect yourself and others online” (I’m re-thinking my own practice here also). We give the students a voice, and they are now connected with the abundant digital world and can learn anything they want.
So far so good.
But now imagine that as a student, your school’s curriculum continues to reflect mostly cis-het white people, and approaches poverty through a voyeuristic lens. The topic of sexual violence may be avoided or not handled very well. You already have a voice and story to tell, but to do so publicly in your school and online would make you vulnerable. Many of the messages on social media portray people like you in a negative light. And the cultural messages to ‘be good’ and ‘respect yourself’ only induce shame because you feel you can’t live up to society’s standards.
Would having social media in your school for learning and for connection really change anything?
Our schools are not neutral contexts and social medias are not neutral tools. Nothing ever is. Langdon Winner tells us that the “technological deck has been stacked long in advance to favor certain social interests”, and danah boyd writes that social media “simply mirrors and magnifies many aspects of everyday life.”
It’s true, social medias mirror and magnify life, but to stop the analysis there would neglect the logic of platforms, their extractive politics, that ℳąhą Bąℓi مها بال and Chris Gilliard illuminate in their keynote at Digital Pedagogy Lab.
Social media platforms extract so much from us – our data, our time, our emotions, our performances, and our labor – and if we introduce them into schools without radically rethinking our purposes, we’re just as likely to perpetuate the status quo and bubble ourselves. But just because the extractive logics of digital platforms create a high entry cost, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use them. If the revolutionary part of social media lies in its potential to help marginalized people find a community & to organize, then we need to teach kids where and how to look.
For social media to make a real difference in schools, rather than end up on the heap of ed tech that has failed to live up to its revolutionary potential, we have to be willing to accept the real risks: that students might challenge us with their voices and say things we disagree with, and that not all students navigate the digital world with the same mix of privileges and vulnerabilities.
As an act of resistance against the way social media is designed to capture us in feeds and bubble us with what we already ‘like’, we need to teach our students how to read widely and deeply, encourage them to be curious and open-minded about the world, and to reclaim the act of listening to other people.
The ‘Bigger World’
In It’s Complicated, danah boyd’s seminal ethnography of networked teens, she writes about the power that the internet held for her in the early 1990s:
“And my own interest in the internet was related to my dissatisfaction with my local community. The internet presented me with a bigger world, a world populated by people who shared my idiosyncratic interests and were ready to discuss them at any time, day or night. I grew up in an era where going online—or “jacking in”—was an escape mechanism, and I desperately wanted to escape.” (4)
And so rather than provide students with the relatively unhelpful – if not shaming – language of ‘self respect’ or ‘positive presence’ when talking about the digital (again, I am rethinking my practice here), we ought to provide students with an understanding of cultural markers and supports to find those online communities that offer that possibility of a ‘bigger world’. We don’t need to worry about helping students who like kale or basketball find those those communities online. It’s not hard. Nor is it risky.
But students will need some vocabulary to find transgender communities, as well as the knowledge of how to maintain what boyd calls ‘discrete contexts’. The freedom that a student can gain from having an online persona in a transgender community can be taken away if the contexts collapse and classmates or parents find out about it. We need to teach students how to manage their search histories and about what data the platforms extract and make public about them. Especially as the larger contexts we operate in can shift to more authoritarian governments, we need to be concerned about not just how our current audiences will perceive us, but also about how our social media posts might impact us in the future.
It’s not easy to be ever alert to the changes in policies on platforms and legal rulings about data privacy. Kris Shaffer notes how the changes in Twitter’s search policy (2013) has made the ephemeral nature of tweets more permanent, and so he argues we need to be more deliberate about our digital identities. Shaffer explains,
“Because of the rise of online abuse and harassment, I post less personal and family information on Twitter than I used to. And partly because of the potential for online abuse, or at least parasocial behavior, and partly because of the change in search capabilities, the kinds of conversations I had openly on Twitter in 2011 or 2012 are often the kinds of conversations that I would have on Slack or in private messages in 2016 and 2017.”
Taking into account that the courts have now allowed the Trump government access to data about who visited an anti-Trump website, we need to shift our pedagogy, as Jade E. Davis argues:
Serious implications students visiting websites with strong positions as part of their coursework. Print as PDF give to your students. https://t.co/43FiuBxfBP
— Jade E. Davis (@jadedid) August 24, 2017
In the K12 discourse about social media, enthusiasts often paint the main concerns as cyberbullying and sexual predators. I’m not denying that those are real concerns, but I don’t think they should be our main focus. Rather, we need to look broadly at how each student is vulnerable in different ways to the extraction of data, harassment, exclusion, damage to self-image, and being bubbled. Any broad consideration of the goods of social media needs to keep up with the most current concerns.
THIS IS IMPORTANT. Words like "public" and "open" are treated like neutral/objective goods, but openness also opens us to violence. #digped
— Hannah McGregor (@hkpmcgregor) July 30, 2017
I am in no way arguing that we should keep kids away from social media. The potential for connection, and the difference that might make for the most marginalzed students, means we cannot simply dismiss social media. In conversation at DigPed in Vancouver, Penny Andrews used the example of how many universities and dormitories may have Facebook pages for incoming students. If we simply scare students away from platforms as they make this difficult social transition, we may unintentionally negatively impact those students who need connection the most.
At the same time that we question what it means for students to be on social media in schools, we also need to question our own presences, individually, and more importantly, institutionally. While many guides to using social media in schools emphasize that we need to be good digital ‘role models’, what that means is not so clear. What would it mean for African American students to see people they look up to online tweeting about #BLM while their schools tweet math problems of the day? The reluctance for schools to jump into politics is also political.
If we bring that reluctance for schools to be ‘political’ to the fore, as well as the metaphors we use to conceptualize online presence such as ‘digital citizenship’, then the necessary work becomes examining ideas of community as much as the platforms themselves.
But citizen metaphor at least opens up our fraught relationship to platforms and corporations as state-like owners of the system. #digciz
— Kate Bowles (@KateMfD) June 29, 2017
— ℳąhą Bąℓi مها بالي (@Bali_Maha) July 1, 2017
Building Network Internalities
The learning curve to use twitter or create a blog is not that steep, but building and tending to communities takes real time and effort. It’s easy to fall under the illusion that we have accomplished something when we make a post on social media and gain some likes or raise some money, but the real test comes in building what Zeynep Tufekci calls strong network internalities. The external gains in networks are easy to count – how much money did we raise? how many people showed up? – but the “internal gains achieved by acting in networks over time” really matter. Tufecki writes,
“Network internalities do not derive merely from the existence of a network – something digital media easily affords – but from the constant work of negotiation and interaction required to maintain the networks as functioning and durable social and political structures.”
I have had success with students using social media to raise awareness for charity drives. But suppose that something goes wrong in the process: the van to transport the goods doesn’t arrive, or the donations are lost or stolen. How resilient would we be in the face of those setbacks? What new tactics would we be able to muster so we can move forward?
Tufekci’s point is that organizing a large event in the pre-digital network age required building internal capacities to negotiate, deal with change, and surmount disruptions. Social media and email can make it easy and fun to produce a quick result, in the form of likes or an attractive website, which means that we need to spend even more time on the difficult and less fun work of building strong network internalities.
Many of the K12 takes on ‘networking’ on social media emphasize the vocational value of students developing personal brands, and argue that they should become ‘content creators’ rather than mere ‘consumers’. Sometimes this argument is paired with the idea that kids need or want an ‘authentic’ audience for their work.
I have a very strong reaction against the idea that we should teach students how to brand themselves, especially given the broader economic context where those good google jobs aren’t handed out equitably based on online portfolios. But I think there is a strong argument for teaching children how to manage as best as possible what search engines will find when they are googled. Maybe there is room for teaching how to be less than your whole self, selectively curating different slices of you for extraction at a later date. On the flip side, students may not want to act out their most meaningful or ‘authentic’ learning on the most public of platforms. Schools have a role as a carapace.
As much as we can teach students how to navigate the platforms we do have, we must guard against the greatest danger: inculcating a sense of complacency in the face of the existing platform logic as if it forms an inevitable and incontestable future.
As always, these thoughts are the fruits of generous conversations with Julie Fellmayer. Mistakes belong to me.