Two Takes on Social Media

The algorithm that serves as Facebook’s beating heart is too powerful and too lucrative. And the platform is built upon a fundamental, possibly irreconcilable dichotomy: its purported mission to advance society by connecting people while also profiting off them. It is Facebook’s dilemma and its ugly truth.

I joined Facebook in 2004 in my Freshman year of college, deleted that account in 2012, and then rejoined the Facebook orbit with an Instagram account a few years later. (I dislike Facebook, but Instagram preserves the parts I liked without most of the noise and lies behind my growing interest in photography.) Along the way I picked up and discarded a variety of other social media accounts, most notably Twitter.

In short, my entire adult life has coincided with the era of social media.

2021 has been the year when social media finally made its way into my reading, starting with Fake Accounts earlier this year. Recently I added to this theme two more books published this year, Tahmima Anam’s The Startup Wife and Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia King’s An Ugly Truth.

I read the fiction first.

The Startup Wife is a send-up of start-up culture. Asha Ray is a brilliant coder working on a PhD on neural networks that seems to be going nowhere when she reconnect with Cyrus, the boy she had a crush on in high school. For his part, Cyrus is different. He spends his time wandering from reading and absorbing ideas, but also lives with a friend, Jules, who has a trust fund. Yet, people gravitate to Cyrus to create unique rituals. Asha likewise finds herself in Cyrus orbit, as well as his bed.

Soon, Asha drops her PhD to begin coding a new project: an algorithm that will harness Cyrus’ preternatural gift for ritual. With Cyrus’ mind, Jules’ money, and Asha’s code, the three found WAI (pronounced “why”), which stands for “We Are Infinite” and get inducted into a startup incubator, Utopia, that is preparing for the end of the world. As WAI begins to catch on, Asha faces the personal and professional challenges that come with managing a start-up—everything from how to monetize this platform without selling out to being forced to share her husband with everyone on the platform.

Tahmima Anam writes from the experience of her husband’s start-up company, lending believability to the steps taken to seeking capital, even when the specific details of the meetings are absurd. Likewise, this background infuses the story with the frustrations of a woman who has had the distinct displeasure of hearing how women get talked about in the startup world and of being overlooked in board meetings.

The post-IPO wife is the butt of many of our jokes. We’d been tetchy when that first lawyer brought it up (Your odds aren’t good!), but now that Cyrus knows more of these people, we realize Barry wasn’t singling us out, because divorce after great success is actually a trend. Not a dirty little secret but like a totally sanctioned and okay thing that men do once they hit the big time.

The personal side of The Startup Wife—Asha’s marriage and her frustrations with startup culture—provide both the comedy and the emotional resonance of the book. The WAI algorithm, by contrast, provides the depth. The premise of the site is simple:

We have devised a way of getting people to form connections with others on the basis of what gives their life meaning, instead of what they like or don’t like.

The founders of WAI are all generally well-intentioned, but what does it mean to do no evil? Obviously this precludes physical hard and predatory behavior, but does it extend to keeping the platform free? What about keeping profiles active after the owner dies? How much editorial control should Asha and the team exert over the community?

Ultimately, The Startup Wife is better at raising questions than answering them, but it nevertheless offers a romp through this world that is troubling and funny in equal parts. An Ugly Truth, by contrast, is just troubling.

Frenkel and King lay out thousands of hours of reporting in this new exposé of Facebook that tracks the last decade of its existence. The story opens with Facebook cresting a wave in 2012—ironically about the time I deleted my account. Sheryl Sandberg had joined the board and was successfully monetizing Facebook’s algorithm. Facebook still touted its utopian vision for society, but amid the obsession with growth lay the seeds of something darker—questions particularly about speech given that Facebook’s algorithm capitalized on engagement and amplified anything that received an emotional response.

Facebook technically barred hate speech, but the company’s definition of what constituted it was ever evolving. What it took action on differed within nations, in compliance with local laws. There were universal definitions for banned content on child pornography and on violent content. But hate speech was specific not just to countries but to cultures.

By the 2016 election, Facebook hit a crossroads. Zuckerberg and his inner circle resolved to be scrupulously impartial in order to counteract accusations that they were partisan when, in truth, growth and engagement were the guiding stars. Partisanship was good for business, but it also led to discontent in the ranks among some staff who saw the site as stoking divisions and others who were ostensibly hired for security but then sidelined. Around the same time, rumbling started in Congress about regulations.

Zuckerberg responded to criticism by reaffirming his faith in Facebook’s ability to regulate itself with algorithms and circling the wagons. Instagram and WhatsApp were integrated into Facebook to make them harder to spin off and Facebook proper doubled down on privacy and private groups. According to the people Frenkel and King interviewed, the latter was a particular problem not only because it led to the rampant growth of conspiracy theory groups, but also because Facebook’s transparency was the very feature that allowed the site to help root out child pornographers.

Research had shown that people who joined many groups were more likely to spend more time on Facebook, and Zuckerberg had hailed groups as the type of private, living room chat he thought his users wanted to see more of. But he was growing disturbed by the number of people joining groups dedicated to conspiracy theories or fringe political movements, rather than the hiking clubs and parenting communities he had envisioned.

Facebook has nearly three billion monthly users and enormous amounts of influence. In An Ugly Truth, Frenkel and King make an argument that Facebook’s naive optimism that the truth winning out over misinformation belies how social responsibility is incompatible with the mandates of growth and profit. In other words, An Ugly Truth is the answer to the questions raised in The Startup Wife.

ΔΔΔ

I recently finished reading Nicholas P. Money’s book The Rise of Yeast. I hoped to glean information about beer and bread, but Money was more interested in the structure of yeast and biofuel—perhaps because he is a biochemist, as well as Leviathan Wakes, the first of The Expanse books. As a fan of the TV series, I am stewing over why I didn’t react as negatively going from TV to book as I usually do going book to series. I am now reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

You have just spent the last ten minutes doomscrolling through Twitter. Some of the posts made you laugh. Some made you anxious over the state of the world. Some made you insecure about what you are or are not doing. A couple made you think. Maybe you responded, but probably not. You might have clicked through a link, but, again, probably not. It is time to work. You close the Twitter app. Then, without so much as putting your phone down, you reflexively open the Twitter app and check out what is happening — if you’re anything like me, you didn’t even open another app in between.

Or maybe you went from the Twitter app on your phone to Twitter on a browser, or vice-versa.

Or, maybe, TikTok or Facebook are more your speed. Or maybe snapchat or a game. The specifics don’t matter because the end result is the same: people flit from one thing to another drawn like moths to a flame to advertisements, social media, and a host of other distractors carefully designed to harvest our attention.

This ubiquitous feature of modern life, naturally, leads to waves of hand-writing over the pace of life and how modern technology has entirely ruined the ability of people, but particularly young people, to focus for any length of time.

In an educational context, these fears has led to the question of how to best eliminate distractions from the classroom, whether through draconian technology bans or trying to convince students to treat class like a sanctuary where they should leave their concerns at the door for the duration. According to James Lang, however, these well-meaning impulses are asking the wrong questions. We can never eliminate distractions. Beyond the simple fact that our monkey minds are calibrated to look for distractions, it is too much to expect that students will be able to put out of mind a sick loved one, or a relationship problem, or a bodily pain, or any of an infinite variety of other concerns for a class that may or may not be all that important for them. If this wasn’t obvious before, it should be now given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s the bad news. The good news, as James Lang points out in the first chapter, is that latest round of laments for the prelapsarian days before distraction are strikingly myopic. That is, there was never a golden age when people were free from distraction and laments about its loss merely get updated to account for technology. In his posthumous novel “The City and the Mountains” (A Cidade e as Serras) from 1901, the Portuguese novelist José Maria de Eça de Queirós includes a dream sequence where the narrator is appalled by the frivolity of modern life:

“Leaning in His super-divine forehead which conceived the world, on the super-powerful han which created it—the Creator was reading and smiling. I dared, shivering with sacred horror, to peep over His radiant shoulder. The book was a popular edition, paper-covered. The Eternal was reading Voltaire in the new, three-franc, cheap edition, and smiling.”

Or one could look to the collection of quotes on the subject collected by Randall Munroe in XKCD:

In other words, to be distracted is to be human. Even as I write this, I am distracted by a kitten who doesn’t understand it is a problem for her to repeatedly leap onto my desk, chew on books, papers, and pens, and nuzzle my hands while I type. She is also fascinated by my fingers when I am touch-typing.

Lang’s thesis in Distracted is thus that we should not pursue the quixotic aim of eliminating distraction, but that we should be leaning in to strategies that cultivate attention. Sometimes this requires temporarily eliminating distractions — when I am doing my academic writing, for instance, I set a length of time during which I turn off my email and won’t check social media —but, more frequently, the strategies involve finding ways to redirect and renew attention when it flags over the course of a class and a semester. Learning is hard work and if you’re anything like me your attention span dips precipitously when you’re tired. The same thing applies to students.

This thesis might be simplicity itself, but actually pulling it off in a classroom setting requires practice and attention.

Like his earlier book Small Teaching, Distracted is not prescriptive. Lang mentions several times that he is generally agnostic about a lot of teaching methods because good teaching can take many forms. What works for one teacher — or student — won’t necessarily work for another. Rather, he lays out current research into the science of attention and uses numerous examples of activities and practices to establish principles that any teacher can adapt to their class.

I concluded of Small Teaching that its simplicity was the greatest sign of its success. Distracted tackles thornier issues and Lang dedicates the entire third chapter (~35 pages) to the tech ban debate that couches his suggestions in the awareness that his own policies have changed quite dramatically over the years. This and other portions of the book take a more process-oriented approach that encourage the teacher to be conscientious of how the policies affect the classroom atmosphere.

Other portions of Distracted are more like Small Teaching. The book’s second part offers six “practices” of attention and how they can help draw students toward the material you have to offer. These range from the simple — cultivating a community through the use of names and modeling the behavior you want to see by leaving your phone in your office — to engaging student curiosity to techniques for focusing attention by switching between activities or with quick attention renewal devices in which he gave the example of a preacher asking an audience for an “amen” when they start to drift. Lang also makes the case that assessments are a critical component of attention because they work to direct students toward the material that you believe is important in the course. Sometimes this means crafting assessments with attention in mind since many students will never be more focused on your material than when writing a big test, but other times it involves no- or minimal-grading on repeated assignments that ask the students to connect what they’re learning in the class to life today. Students might find the practices unfamiliar at first, but with practice and attention on the part of the teacher they can pay dividends in the classroom.

Much of what Lang writes in Distracted echoes the direction I have been moving my courses over the past few years in terms of building community and keeping the classroom fresh, particularly on low energy days. It doesn’t always work, of course, but each of the chapters in Part 2 offers a wealth of ideas to help draw students back in. For this reason I fully expect that I will return to Distracted for inspiration and found that it was an ideal book to read while putting together my courses for the semester. In fact, I often would read something that inspired me to put down the book mid-chapter to modify language in a syllabus or tweak an assignment. It is possible to quibble with a small individual observation or policy or suggestion, and I did at times, but for every one where that happens two more will land home.

Distracted is not necessarily where I would start for a new teacher looking for tips on teaching (my current recommendation is David Gooblar’s The Missing Course), but it is both one of the two books I would suggest after that (along with Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom) and a book with a lot worth considering for even the most experienced teachers.

My #Content 2020, or where to find me

Note: This is a post meant to be something I can point to. I last surveyed my internet presence back in 2017 before finishing my degree, and am overdue for an update.

Twitter: @jpnudell

Twitter remains my primary social media platform and has been for nearly a decade now. I use the platform for collecting news, jokes, chatting with colleagues, baby animal pictures, and scholarship, roughly in that order. My usage rate has spiked over the past few years and did again early this year when life became suddenly very online. In my last post I hemmed and hawed about not knowing “what I want my Twitter account to be for,” but I have largely made peace with it. Despite sometimes falling into a doomscrolling cycle, I am insulated by my presence as a cis-gendered white man and a quick trigger finger on the mute button and so don’t have nearly the same negative experiences on the site as a lot of other people. It can incite rage and fuel my imposter syndrome, but I have also found my community on Twitter to be incredibly supportive and made many friends through the site. I still need to better regulate my usage lest I never get any writing done, but I don’t have any plans to quit Twitter anytime soon.

Instagram: @jpnudell

My secondary social media platform is instagram, which gives me everything I liked about Facebook with none of the garbage. I use this account to document my baking projects, the books I’m reading, the antics of the cats, and assorted photos of trips and the like. I keep meaning to organize my photos using a Flikr or similar platform, but whenever I go to work on an organizational project like that, I think I should be writing. Perhaps something to work on this summer.

Facebook: 404 Error Page Not Found

Copied from the last entry: I deleted my Facebook account in 2012, announcing it in a post where I declared that Facebook failed. I should amend this statement. I was commenting on Zuckerberg’s stated purpose of bringing the world together by getting people to live in a fishbowl, but, ultimately, that isn’t Facebook’s goal. Facebook has been unbelievably successful in getting people to turn to it as a standard place to write, communicate, organize events, and post information and pictures. It is an addictive ecosystem that makes it particularly easy for other people in the system to use while being annoying for those on the outside. For all of that, I also believe that my life is significantly better for not having an account.

Ello: jpnu

Technically this page still exists. I liked the UI and posted a few short form pieces and pictures years ago but liked it more in principle than in practice. I didn’t find a community there and without the audience I don’t know if I’ll go back to posting there.

Humanities Commons: @jpnudell

Humanities Commons is a site started as an open-access alternative for Academia.edu, hosted by the MLA. I migrated most of my Academia.edu materials there, but have largely left my page remain dormant, just periodically updating the materials so that they are current. I like HC better than A.edu in both interface and ideology, but haven’t found its footprint to be significant enough to justify the time and energy to promote it. I keep much more of this information here on my personal site, regularly updating my research pages, including current projects and publications. I will upload my articles here as they become open access and am always happy to share offprints with anyone who asks for them.

Academia.edu

I deleted my Academia.edu account in 2017 after calls to delete the platform by people like Dr. Sarah Bond pointed out its extortionate practices. I have since reactivated my account, but only to read papers uploaded there by mostly European scholars. I feel a smidge of guilt over my lack of reciprocity, but I do not actually use the site myself. My work is available here or on Humanities Commons.

Linkedin: in/jpnudell/

I, uh, have an account here. I don’t use the site for much other than networking and starting a non-academic job search, but as I transition that direction more aggressively my activity there will likely ramp up.

Hate in a Digital World

Despite how exhausting the 2016 election cycle was in this regard, I continue to be fascinated by the effect of social media on interpersonal relations, something I wrote about a little bit in 2012 when I deleted my Facebook account, in 2014 about the intimidation of professional Twitter, with respect to activism in 2015.

I stand by most of what I wrote before, about the ways in which social media is performative (there is an entire genre of Instagram posts comparing posed and “natural” pictures), is intimidating even when interacting with well-meaning enthusiasts, and isolating. I would revise my assessment of its role on friendship, something I was reminded of this week in light of a thread on Twitter. The general point, since this is not my main focus here, is that when there is a reciprocal interest, social media and other forms of digital communication are an immense boon to friendship. The catch is that reciprocity is foundational, so while it has allowed me to maintain several friendships with people who I have only seen in person once or twice in a decade, many others have withered as one or both sides in the relationship have lapsed. This is not explicitly the fault of social media—people have busy lives and many other responsibilities—but I think Facebook and other social media sites that give the appearance of intimacy make it easier for people to not put in the work to maintain relationships.

Like a lot of people, I have been impressed with the high school students from Florida and elsewhere in the country organizing marches and keeping up the pressure on issues such as gun control. Their ability to sustain pressure online is the one thing that gives me hope that this time, in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting might result in change. Not immediately, and probably not enough, but something.

On the other side of the equation is this:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

As the Twitter user mentions in subsequent tweets, the origin of this photoshopped image could well be a Russian troll farm, but it still has its intended effect. This and the issue of privacy, brought again into public discourse by the revelations about Cambridge Analytica, are the legacies of the first two decades of social networking.

The features of the internet that were meant to bring about an enlightened, educated populace and connect people have done that. There is more information on many more topics on Wikipedia than there ever were in the old, lacunate collection of hardbound Encyclopedia Britannica’s I pored through as a child. Sure, it might not have the same specific figures for the size of the East German army as in EB, but in terms of breadth, depth, and (if you know how to look) granularity of the information online, even just counting the content that isn’t behind paywalls, is astounding. News travels at an incredible pace, though rumor still travels faster. The diversity of voices and ability to communicate online is remarkable.

And yet, these same features have their perversions. Falsehood, rumor, myth, and propaganda abound, reinforced and socialized in niche communities. The intersection of the intimate and the impersonal are particularly insidious in this respect. Beyond even the fact that it is easy to attack someone anonymously, the tools of the internet make it easier to attack someone for several reasons.

1. It is possible to see someone like David Hogg as a social media avatar rather than as an individual. He is a face to an issue, not a person expressing one. Besides, if everyone is performing to some extent online, then who is to say that school shooting victims aren’t actors?

2. There is the impersonal nature of the internet. Not only is it easier to attack someone who you will never meet, but it is also easier to caricature or otherwise other them.

3. It is easier to engage with a partial or corrupted versions of ideas rather than their entirety. This happens on all sides; I know I have been guilty of falling for fake Twitter accounts or buying a misleading headline of an article that I didn’t read.

4. This is always the case, but the acceptance of a truth is the responsibility of the beholder. Some facts are more verifiable than others, but accepted truth is just that: a social consensus that is usually based on a deference to authority. With an abundance of information and misinformation online, anything and everything might be regarded as “Fake News.”

Here is the thing: none of this is new. Each of these forms of slander and misinformation has been used against people for as long as there has been communication. For instance, portraying your opponent as an “other” (the more grotesque the better) is a common feature of anti-Jewish, Bolshevik, Irish, and German iconography. Partial truths and outlandish fabrications fill the pages of ancient texts. Some of these come from cultural misunderstandings and curiosities, some from deliberate propaganda, and some out of simple malice. These stories have been the justification for slavery and the cause of wars.

What has changed, in my opinion, is how easy the internet has made the transmission of information. In other words, hate in the digital age is not new. It a cancerous mutation of old problem.

Calcification of opinion

I am hardly alone when I say that recent politics has been a major drag on my mental and emotional energy. I don’t know what is going to happen in the near future, but the current direction scares me in more ways than I care to mention. Still, I find myself thinking a lot about politics and doing my best to stay informed because, as difficult as it might be, that remains a civic duty. I also remain problematically addicted to checking my Twitter feed, albeit recently in shorter and less-comprehensive bursts.

These moments of checking Twitter have led me to a realization about the current superficial maelstrom, as epitomized and led by the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That realization is this:

There is nothing that President Trump could post to his Twitter account that would change my opinion of him.

Sure, there are things that he could post that would change the trajectory of the country and do good in the world, but that would mean one of three things: 1) the account was hacked; 2) someone else was managing the account; or 3) that President Trump decided to make an about-face in order to be more popular. None of those three options would change my opinion of him, while what he does post simply digs deeper. I still see people retweeting (usually with sarcastic comment) what he says or dredging up past posts looking for inconsistency. Neither genre of tweet does much for me and in many cases both distract from the substance of issues—not to mention that feeding the ego of someone who fundamentally wants to be the center of attention, whose interests run toward habitual misinformation and complaining about media coverage.

I could never bring myself to follow Trump’s twitter account, but, for months, I would regularly check in, caught up in whatever the latest utterance was. No longer. The campaign is over and I don’t need to actually see the latest bout of internet logorrhea in order to know what he said, at least in reasonable facsimile. I can’t live isolated from the news, but that doesn’t mean that I have to partake in online farce.

A broken record

I have spent most of the last month feeling downright foggy as I ran the gamut of teaching, revision, and paperwork in the final weeks of my graduate career. But this only partly explains my general silence. I am still working on putting thoughts in order about life, the universe, and everything, and in so doing am developing a newfound appreciation for the genre of “fragment” posts where the author tossing out snippets, thoughts, excerpts, and musings that are explicitly incomplete.

The more ominous issue is one I have had before, namely that I don’t want to sound like a broken record. I think this is why I like writing down reflections (or reviews) of books. It is a genre that allows for a little creativity and reflection, while providing a clear prompt and definite strictures. Increasingly, though, I find myself writing things that I get halfway through only to find them repetitive. Some I find are my own hobbyhorses generally, but also the current political climate has me feeling very much like the topics I think about are ever more limited. Others, though, come from a more debilitating premonition that whatever joke, insight, or observation that I am about to write here or on Twitter has already been said better, but that the extreme fragmentation online means that I have missed it. My fear, then, is that I will be but a pale shadow chasing after someone else’s moment or that I am making a mountain out of a fairly banal, commonly known truism.

At some level I know that I will turn a corner as I work into a new writing routine in the coming weeks, finding new tidbits in my research and teaching. More practically, though, the solution may be that if something is worth saying, it is probably worth saying more than once. Real-time maps of internet traffic are mesmerizing and drive home just how much is said online, so it is a fools errand to be ashamed of repetition. Give credit where it is due, and don’t infringe on people’s economic livelihood, but life is too short to give in to this sort of shame.

Social Media and an Academic Conference CAMWS 2016

Last weekend I attended the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) annual meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia. It is a conference I have been to before, but, for a variety of reasons, some of which are the topic of this post, I had a different interaction with it than usual. For a compilation of the tweets I sent during conference, see here.

I went into the CAMWS meeting figuring that I would be at least somewhat active on Twitter; my posts there ebb and flow depending on a number of offline factors, including an internal debate over what I want the platform to be “for.” But I am active on Twitter and figured, as is my wont, that I would post something. I was not going to make an attempt at live-tweeting sessions, knowing my attention span, but I thought I’d do some posting after the fact. This was facilitated because, for once, the venue had fast, free, widely available wifi.

Then a funny thing happened: early in the conference a debate popped up on Twitter from people who couldn’t make it to the conference asking why there was an apparent zone of silence over the conference. More and more often conferences and meetings are pushing toward digital interaction, often establishing a conference hashtag right up front and, in at least one instance that I saw (on Twitter), offering to put a member’s Twitter handle on the name tag. I think CAMWS was interested in this being a thing at the meeting, but to the extent that the information was there it was somewhat buried.

There are certainly an issue of ethics when it comes to live-tweeting a conference, and the debate on Twitter moved in that direction, including one person arguing that, if done well, this sort of publication actually protects copyright because the idea is linked to the name. For whatever reason, the media presence from this particular CAMWS meeting was limited to a small handful of people.

Partly inspired by this debate, my Twitter “agenda” changed over the course of the meeting and thus my interaction with the meeting changed. Originally I was only going to do sporadic posts, but because of the external debate, I decided to do recaps of papers I saw. A lot of these tweets were developed back in my hotel room in the evening or in the airport waiting for a flight, but I was more assiduous about taking notes while in the sessions knowing that I intended to post them online later. Even so, I found myself struggling to find a consistent format on Twitter, particularly once I was posting more than one comment per paper, and trying to find a way to link the tweets about a given paper together. This was easier once I storified the whole thing, but I wanted to find a way to link on the main feed. Yet another reason to avoid the algorithmic timeline.

I almost called this post “Two Days of Minor Internet Celebrity,” because my conference tweets were picked up by Classics twitter writ large, including Rogue Classicist. This gave me ten new followers and spiked the “impressions” from a few hundred a day to fifteen thousand in two days. Those have since subsided somewhat now that I am falling into more usual patterns of activity, but it was nonetheless an interesting experience, no doubt aided by relatively few people tweeting from the conference and a relatively large number of interested parties who couldn’t make it.

As much as this was a good experience for me, I wish I had been more organized and prepared to tweet from the outset. I did put my twitter handle on my handout, but with so few people doing anything with it, I’m not sure this made an impression. This is not to say that I won’t put my twitter handle on future handouts, but that I might want to call attention to it, either myself or in the introduction in the future. As for the conference as a whole, there could have been a more concerted effort to foreground the hashtag and other social media opportunities in the program and packet. I heard belatedly that there was this information, but I was using the online program and often found myself searching in the page for names or topics, or otherwise skipping around, rather than reading it in a linear way. Similarly, if there had been hashtags associated with particular panels (as Hamish Cameron was adding to his live-tweeting, I think), then there would have been greater awareness that the conference endorsed social media outreach. That said, the conference had the single most important thing for this sort of engagement, which was wifi.

This is the first time I offered dedicated tweets from a conference, but it won’t be the last. As long as I am going to be part of this academic world, I plan to make the most of it.

2016 CAMWS Meeting: Storify

Via Storify, here my Tweets from this past weekend’s CAMWS meeting. In the next few days I will have a post working through various issues concerning social media that came up at the meeting–or, particularly the discussion that took place on Twitter with people who were following along from afar.

Social Networking II: The Twitter

Just about two years ago I deleted my Facebook account with the declaration that, from my perspective, it had failed. I do miss its convenience for contacting people whose phone numbers or emails I do not have readily available and am disappointed by the occasional missed invitation (the “oh right, you’re not on Facebook” by way of apology gets old quickly), but gchat has replaced Facebook chat and my life is improved having rid myself of that attachment.

With Twitter I get all the aspects of Facebook I liked, with none of the annoyances. By using Twitter clients I’ve even mostly managed to avoid the “new layout” angst. In particular, I find the micro-blogging more conducive to mixing work, hobbies, social commentary, and jokes. I also prefer it as a platform for sharing links despite–or perhaps because of–the limited space for commentary.

At its best, Twitter is a place where I can share my love of food, sports, history, and literature with like-minded people, including those I know offline and those who I respect, but who I have not yet met in person. I’ve also had discussions about ancient sources and topics that have proven valuable in my own work. On the other end of the spectrum, Twitter takes on the worst aspects of demagoguery, leading to all manner of harassment both for good and for ill, and sometimes for both simultaneously.

But more than its penchant for channeling outrage, I’ve recently been having a second problem with Twitter: its intensity. As I was with Facebook, I am too capable of simply watching the world flit by on Twitter instead of doing my own work, let alone going out into the world and thus being limited by whatever there is around me. This escapism also prompts me to frequently reopen the Twitter page when it is closed, sometimes for fear of missing out on whatever aphorism, quip, or thought has just been posted, but more often because I am struggling to write or read whatever I am working through at that moment. Unlike Facebook, though, I am much better at closing down Twitter and coming back to it at more regulated intervals and accepting that I am not missing anything important in doing so. Still, this aspect of Twitter is less time-intensive (at least for me) than Facebook was.

What I mean by intensity is that many people I follow have crafted erudite and intelligent professional personae on Twitter and tweet with passion about professional matters from their current writing projects, to the articles or sources they read and recommend, to thoughts about the academy. In isolation, this is a good thing and when my own work is progressing to my satisfaction, I am encouraged to see such a positive and enthusiastic community on social networks–and, in my experience, it is an incredibly positive and supportive group of people on Twitter. The problem is that when it seems that my own progress has stagnated, the same positive and enthusiastic community becomes intimidating. A swarm of Care Bears, puppies, or kittens remains a swarm, particularly if one appears, solipsistically, to be on the outside of the given group.

There appear to be two root causes of this dissatisfaction above and beyond the frustration with my own work. The first is that I do not use Twitter as an exclusively professional medium, but one that brings together a variety of aspects of my life, a fact that make me feel like a dilettante rather than a scholar. The second returns to the idea of a swarm. Everyone has periods where they do not write as much as they would like, if only because most go through periods where the immediate demands of teaching and grading cut into writing time, but, because there are one or two hundred scholars whose social media personae I follow, there is a constant stream of positive information about research in progress. Very often, I find the torrent a source of motivation and encouragement. The problem is that when the current ceases to be uplifting, I find it entirely overwhelming and I am further paralyzed.

I do not foresee myself deleting my Twitter account anytime soon. Rather, I noticed an ebb and flow of my own activity, writing here on my personal blog and production of pages on my dissertation and a correlation with my enthusiasm for and activity on Twitter. Twitter does not cause the ebb, but neither does it always inspire a rebound.

Assorted Links

  1. For the Love of Learning– A blog discussion of schools and the mechanization of teaching such that students are passive and learning is something done to them.

    His quote: “Because school defines learning as passive, learners come to see education as something done to them. When students are stuck in the middle of a problem, they don’t try and figure out what makes sense to do next; instead, they try to remember what they are suppose to do. If this is the premise for learning, is it any surprise that learners become less autonomous, more dependent and ultimately mindless?”

    I agree entirely and find that the part of school my students are least prepared for is analysis and developing arguments. As a general rule, they can find the answer to a specific, factual question, but when asked to draw from multiple sources to analyze a topic vis a vis a specific question, they become panicked and want to know what the “right” answer is. The uncertainty is frightening to them and they are hesitant to take a stand for fear of being wrong. But education is a process. Admitting your ignorance and then seeking to rectify it is the key to education, which is an issue that reminds me of a now several year old essay about the importance of stupidity in scientific research. Certainty is absurd and ignorance should not be an excuse for inaction, but an opportunity for finding answers.

  2. Most Citizens of the Star Wars Galaxy are Probably Totally Illiterate– An thought-provoking piece on Tor.com where the author discusses the the inner workings of fantasy universes, but particularly examining Star Wars. He posits “functional” illiteracy for most inhabitants of that universe, pointing out audio, video, and pictoral records, with most of the literate people having only a working knowledge of the language, enough for their jobs. The comments particularly tear the author apart on the lack of reading in most fantasy (fairly well, I think), and some make counter-examples from the Star Wars universe, including the argument that it is a huge universe. Most, though, concede that this is at least a provocative discussion. The author and at least one blogger make allusions to the modern world in this analogy. I wonder if this is at all paired with a discussion that I saw over the weekend (using the 50 Shades main character as an example) that characters in stories people are drawn to often are more well read than the audience itself.
  3. Why Handwriting Matters– Another story in the Guardian about handwriting, specifically focusing on the personalization and intimacy that digital writing eliminates.
  4. Brewmaster Makes Beer from His Beard Yeast– A curious story about the brewmaster from Rogue Brewery finding a new yeast with which to brew. I am not sure I’d want to try it, though the process of brewing should eliminate anything harmful.
  5. Dark Social– A discussion at the Atlantic about the nature of social media and how people interact with the internet. The author seeks to debunk the pervasive notion that social media sites created a social web. Instead, the author posits that the majority of social interaction on the web takes place through mass emails, chat programs, and message boards. Social media has lent structure and a public appearance to some of the same communications, but has not replaced them.
  6. Inequality and the world economy: True Progressivism– An article in the Economist that calls for a new progressive era in radically moderate way (promoting competition and capitalism while mitigating inequality). I don’t wholly agree with the article, but the intention is laudable.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?