Listen: We Need a Community

It’s a funny thing about social media. Sometimes, it can be kind of social.

That’s fantastic. It’s great for democracy. It’s a monumental shift in how information is managed. It changes the structure of power.

Everyone has the means to widely disseminate ideas. Everyone has the ability to engage in the conversation. Everyone can reach a global audience.

The gatekeepers are gone. No one is determining which ideas are good enough for wide distribution. No one is controlling the message.

The problem, though, is now that everyone has a voice, some people are choosing to use it. That, in itse

lf, is good. But we’ve lost much of the civility of engaging in the community. Somewhere along the way, everyone started talking and stopped listening.

A year or so ago, a social news experiment called Patch started to catch on. The idea was to fill the local news vacuum in small communities. Local editors were recruited to attend city council and school board meetings. They wrote of short pieces of a hyper-local nature. Readers were encouraged to participate. There were lots of open-ended questions and prompts for discussion. Residents could share their news as well. The editor curated the content, and through the comments, the whole community could participate.

Originally, Patch had a policy that required people to use their real names. They wanted you to participate, but they also wanted you to be accountable for your words. So users with anonymous handles were politely asked to add their names to their profiles. As time went on, this became harder and harder to enforce. At some point last summer, a policy change allowed people to be anonymous on Patch. Since they couldn’t enforce the rules, they changed them. Participation soared. Advertising revenue (I’m assuming) went up. All was good.

But the level of discourse took a nose dive. No longer hindered by their reputations, users migrated to extremes. The comments quickly devolved into pointless vitriol and personal attacks. I stopped commenting. Then, I stopped reading. It turns out that the allure of the anonymous megaphone is strong enough to overcome any sense of civic responsibility to the community.

We see that in other places as well. In January, I attended my third EduCon conference in Philadelphia. This is a co

nference of conversations, centered on getting smart people in the same place at the same time to discuss big issues in education. While the sessions are carefully planned by the facilitators, they involve an enormous degree of interactivity. There are no audience members. Everyone is a participant.

This year, for the first time, I saw participants with megaphones. Rather than respecting the norms of the community and participating in civil discourse around the topics of the sessions, a very small minority brought their own agendas, and attempted to steer every conversation toward their theses. Pearson is evil. Common Core will destroy American education. The Internet is full of predators and too dangerous for children to use. Fine. Bring your arguments. Let’s have a conversation. But it got to the point where nearly every session devolved into soapboxing by the same people on the same topics. That’s not respecting the community.

And now, this brings us to EdCamp. In a few weeks, we’re hosting this opportunity for anyone interested in education to come together to discuss the topics that are important to them. The attendees will determine the schedule for the day. You’ve probably already heard all about it. If you need more info or want to come, check out the web site.

But I’m worried about conversations being hijacked. EdCamp is a community of convenience. It’s not a place where the same group of people has been interacting and has formed a community with standards of behavior. Maybe it will become that some day, but right now, it’s just a diverse bunch of people. There’s already some evidence that a vocal minority is bringing megaphones to EdCamps with the goal of preaching their own personal Gospels.

We’re doing a few things to try to give everyone a voice. The web site is featuring a series of Participant Perspectives, highlighting people who are coming to EdCamp and giving some background about who they are and why they’re attending. The goal is to raise the level of discourse, and to highlight the diversity of the attendees. There are also some posts that go into more detail on what an unconference is, how the day will be structured, and what people can expect when they come. The idea is to build some expectations among the attendees, who are ultimately the only ones who can ensure that everyone has a voice. Finally, we’re not going to build the session schedule ahead of time. Over the last year or so, several EdCamps have opened the board a day or two in advance, so people can start scheduling sessions. This just encourages people to bring their leftover presentations from other conferences. While we may solicit ideas for topics ahead of time, nothing is going on the schedule until the day of the event.

All of this involves listening more than talking. The most important part of the conversation is not what you’re saying, but how you’re reacting to the things that others are saying. Sometimes, it’s easy to lose the conversation skills when there are so many megaphones around.

I hope that the education community can reach a level of civility and discourse that’s not being modeled in the wider society. I’m sure we’re up to the task. But we have to start by listening.

Photo credit: The Infatuated on Flickr.

My Word

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

In 1993, Peter Steiner captured the sentiment that I was trying to convey to my students. The Internet was the great equalizer. Middle school students can be pretty judgmental. If you don’t have the right clothes, or the right hairstyle, or like the right kind of music, or have the right body type, or reject the right authority figures, you can quickly find yourself ostracized. Most of them have felt that pressure to conform, to be the same as everyone else.

I was trying to explain that it’s okay to be different online. Maybe you weigh a lot more than others your age. Maybe you speak English with a thick accent. Maybe you have a physical handicap. Maybe your skin is a different color. That’s okay. On the Internet, people judge you only on the information you give them. It was a very liberating idea, where the exchange of ideas can take place on their own merit, without all of the preconceptions that come with our physical interaction.

They were such simple, naive times, those early days before the world wide web was, well, so world-wide.

A few years later, I took this a step further. From the lens of online safety, I explained to my eighth grade boys that, statistically speaking, the cute 13-year-old girl they just met in an online chat room is more likely a 45-year-old man. They didn’t care for the imagery, but they got the point.

What I told my students way back in the dark ages is still true. You are judged online only by the information you give people. But if your name is one of the things you don’t give, then your ideas have no weight. Take a look at any site that allows user comments. If anonymous comments are permitted, there’s almost certainly an inflammatory conversation taking place. I was sad to see Patch reverse their rule requiring that the site’s users use their real names. The result was an immediate degradation in the quality of the discourse, to the point where I no longer bother to read comments on the site.

The same argument can be used to defend Google’s position in the Nym Wars. If we really want people to behave civilly in an online environment, we have to tie their online identities to their offline ones. In short, we have to know who they are.

We’ve had problems in our high school recently with graffiti in our restrooms. Our students seem to take great delight in decorating the stall walls and doors with their artwork. I sense that they’d be somewhat less inclined to do so if they weren’t anonymous. Almost none of them signs their work.

Take this to the political arena. I’ve stopped consuming mass media entirely until after the election, because I’m tired of the constant barrage of ads. Most of the political ads we’re seeing now are attack ads. They don’t promote or advocate for the election of a candidate. Instead, they attack the candidate’s opponent. And where do these ads come from? So far, $374 million have been spent in the presidential election by super PACs. These are political organizations that collect money from anonymous donors and use it to smear the preferred candidate’s opponent. It’s anonymous, just like taking a sharpie to the bathroom stalls of the White House.

I’m a believer in the first amendment. I believe that we (we, the citizens of the world, not just we the people of the United States) should be able to say and write whatever we want most of the time. We should be able to challenge our governments. We should be able to speak out for the oppressed. We should be able to act like jerks and say things that don’t make any sense and support candidates who have no business seeking elected office. But we should also have to stand behind those words. You don’t get to be an invented troll online who exists only to argue.

Despite my initial embrace of the potential of anonymity online, I’m only one person. My words are my words. And when I put them online, I attach my name to them. If you don’t do that, I’m not going to pay attention to you.

Photo credit: Matt Westervelt on Flickr.