Binaries, Polarisation and Privacy

White Noise by Scott Joseph CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
White Noise by Scott Joseph CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In my writing, reading and thinking during the last year or so, some of the recurring themes are ethics, learning, diversity, popularity and polarisation in Internet culture.  Encouraged by my experience at the smallest federated wiki, I am trying different ways of writing, experimenting with partially-formed ideas, linking with and building on what others have written.  I have always blogged in this way but the experience of federated wiki has encouraged me to work in smallish chunks of writing that I can link to others’ smallish chunks without any overarching plan of where I am going.

This post is a bit different from my fedwiki writing. I want to set down some different ideas that seem connected to me because I suspect that I can come back to them later and make different connections, with your help.  I did this in an earlier post that is still ripe for connections for me.  If this post generates anything like the richness of the earlier post’s comment stream, it will be productive labour.

In some ways, we are moving away from limiting old binaries and dualisms like real/virtual, global/local in our exploration of (digital) communication and culture.

Polarisation in public discourse online is a theme that has preoccupied me, and some cogs in my thinking shifted a little when I read this excellent article by David A. Banks, Very Serious Populists.

Just like its government equivalent, voting on social networks is also a nice way to give the illusion that anything and anyone can succeed on merit while actually maintaining the status quo through sociotechnical structures. Tech entrepreneurs deploy voting to show allegiance to their fantasy of a color-blind and genderless meritocracy, predicated on what PJ Rey has shown to be an outdated and debunked notion that the Internet allows us to transcend race, class, and gender by entering a space of pure information. Popular posts are good, the logic goes, because only the best makes it to the front page.

David’s critique of voting on social networks argues powerfully that the ‘binaries’ of up-voting and down-voting are inadequate for dealing with ambiguity and divisive topics. They are a tool for polarisation not a means of going beyond it, and as David suggests the status quo of domination of spaces by white males is maintained, and even reinforced by sociotechnical aspects such as ‘voting’. The idea that someone’s popularity lends additional weight to what they have to say is interesting and deserves to be unpicked.

Another ‘binary’ that has attracted much attention is public/ private – which probably never was and certainly is no longer a binary – and deeply embedded in power relations.   danah boyd’s work has revealed that young people can regard online privacy as a strategy, more to do with who’s there rather than the features of the space itself.

We are all finding our way in the complex private/public spaces we increasingly inhabit and so it’s important to reflect, acknowledge our successes and mistakes and think of how we might do things differently.

In a powerful post, based on recent events and her own frightening experiences, Audrey Watters drew our attention to the nasty practice of doxxing, posting online someone’s personal information (such as social security number or home address). Audrey highlighted the network aspects of doxxing.

After all, doxxing relies on these sorts of large networks. Doxxing relies on amplification.

So even if we are reposting something already ‘made public’, we can be increasing the risks of the doxxed person being subjected to threats and nuisances by others. We can become part of that network of harm.  In the example that Audrey gives, both the original poster and the re-poster may well have seen themselves as on the side of the angels in their wish to defend student privacy.

And for me that links back to polarisation, it may be that we are at most danger of being drawn into networks of harm when we are hell bent on supporting a good cause.

The other thing that is puzzling me is whether or not the binary nature of much of our online participation like/not like, friend/not friend, follow/ not follow, click/not click, upvote/downvote, block/ not block might be seeping into our culture,as well as the platforms on which we enact it.  These are hard clickable binaries trying to capture a world where dualisms can get in the way of understanding complex contexts. I am not suggesting an essentialist view that our use of ‘likes’, etc. will cause polarisation of views but wondering what the impacts of ‘binary participation’ may be in different communication contexts. It’s not just about our choice to click/like but also about how that is used by the algorithms that serve up our feeds, shaping our view of what others say and do.

I would love to hear your thoughts or your links to other writers.

Women making social media work for good causes

On International Women’s Day I would like to highlight the work of three women doing good with the help of social media and those who participate.

Kate Granger is a witty and engaging woman doctor who has used her experience of being a patient with terminal cancer to launch a campaign that has made life better for thousands of patients worldwide. Watch the video of Kate telling her own story.  You can see the impact of the #hellomynameis campaign at  and Kate in operation at @GrangerKate.

I met Cristina Vasilica when she was a student at the University of Salford where she is now a lecturer and PhD student in the College of Health and Social Care. She is still in my networks, and so I have seen the good work she does at the Greater Manchester Kidney Information Network ( ) at Facebook as part of her PhD. As it’s a closed group I can’t link to it but if you are from Greater Manchester and could contribute/ benefit, please contact them via the web site or at @gmkin on Twitter.  You can find out more about her PhD work here - she is doing practical good and contributing to knowledge.

I came across Lou Mycroft on an online course last year, and she has introduced me to an area and philosophy of education that I knew little of before – social purpose education.  Lou works as a teacher educator at Northern College but it isn’t just her student teachers who can learn with and from her – you can too.  She is generous in sharing and the TeachNorthern web site is stuffed with goodies and is a jumping off point for even more. Visit the site, follow her on Twitter at @lounorthern

It’s no coincidence that all three of these women are great learners and teachers.

Open Access and Social Media: Networking around a scholarly article

(The short version is in the last paragraph if you want to skip to there).

Many places
Many places

Heterotopic communication

In writing about heterotopic communication (see Foucault’s Heterotopia ), the prescient Leah Lievrouw showed that public and private can relate to strategies for engagement behaviours rather than being properties of spaces (Lievrouw 1998 ).  As we communicate apparently within one space, we are simultaneously performing across multiple physical and digital channels and spaces with others who have related but different sets of spaces.  Communicating across spaces around the publication of an open access paper that I co-authored has been a long learning ‘moment’ for me over the last week, and I wanted to capture and share my reflections before I forget them.

OA Publishing and Social Media

I have been thinking about the links between Open Access scholarly publishing and social media for some time, inspired by my privileged involvement in two ventures. The first was Cristina Costa’s PhD entitled Participatory Web in the Context of Academic Research: Landscapes of Change and Conflicts. I learned so much from listening and talking to Cristina as she planned, conducted and wrote up her research. The second venture was my involvement as (then) co-editor in the move of the ALT journal Research in Learning Technology to Open Access publishing (including the entire archive). In the editorial of the first open access issue, we said

By attending to, and even influencing, the emergent practices of our members (as well as authors and other researchers) as ALT introduces innovations, we can continue to exploit the opportunities presented by the openness and web presence of articles in Research in Learning Technology. The read/write web, as represented by blogs and social networking services such as Twitter and Google+, offers the potential to develop conversation and interest around our articles, and thereby promoting their use.

That seems very relevant to my current reflections, since I find my own practices to be emergent, with rapid change having occurred in the last week.

Encouraging engagement via Social Media

On 13 Feb 2015, Jenny Mackness and I had a paper published in Open Praxis  an open access journal. Conscious that we wanted to maximise the impact of the fruits of our labour and that of the participants who supplied such rich data, we considered briefly how best to share it . We shared the (open) link to the paper on Twitter, including the hash tags for rhizo14 and rhizo15. Open Praxis use Twitter to market their activity. They stream their own tweets on their web page, and have some means of picking up occurrence of their links in Twitter that they then helpfully retweet including authors’ handles where they know them. On reflection, it occurs to me that it would be really helpful for connectivity purposes for (willing) authors to include their Twitter handles within the paper, and for a share button to be next to the paper that could include author twitter handles when the link to the paper is shared. I don’t know of any journals do this. I have checked out a few publishers and whilst some enable creation of post that links to paper, the twitter post often exceeds 140 characters and included publisher rather than authors’ handles. These look like devices for marketing rather than scholarly engagement.
We decided to blog the publication of the article at Frances’ blog and later at Jenny’s blog and the comment streams are evidence of rich engagement with the paper. We have used the posts to link to activity on Twitter and elsewhere. For example, the very wonderful Laura Goglia decided, on the spur of the moment, to live tweet her reading of our paper (we recorded this via storify) and she blogged the experience too.
Twitter was a very useful way of sharing and commenting around the paper. One less positive (for me) use of Twitter was a reader who used Direct Messages to quiz me about aspects behind the paper ( 17 messages in less than 30 minutes). I suggested redirection to the blog.
During the live tweet there was a playful suggestion that what the paper needed was a hashtag but perhaps this turns out to be something worth deciding at the start (possibly even including within the article as a keyword). We used Storify to capture the chat around Laura’s live tweet of the blog post.

Rhizo14’s most active space is the semi-permeable Facebook group that has a membership of 320 of whom a small proportion are active.  Typically, longer threads will engage ten or more people but one has a sense of not so much an invisible audience, but rather an unnoticed audience. We had not directly posted our paper to the Facebook group but two threads emerged around a link to the paper. The first was started by a positive comment and fizzled out fairly quickly. The second thread was introduced by a comment raising doubts about the extent of ethical obligation of the leader of a voluntary extra-institutional cMOOC like Rhizo14, and ran on to include some other concerns about the paper. post by Rebecca Hogue that was actually about her planned blogging course but I mistakenly thought was about the rhizo14 cMOOC.  I engaged in both threads, trying to respond to points about the paper as they were made. It was strange – I had been active (less so in recent months) on this Facebook group for over a year but I came to feel that my presence as author (particularly in the second thread) wasn’t helping the discussion that people wanted to have (see my comments on cognitive dissonance). Eventually one participant expressed that they felt that I was categorising them and lecturing them. I was mystified by the first point but reread the thread and could see that my contributions could be seen as having ‘lecture-like’ attributes. I was speaking about collaborative work with Jenny on which I had spent many hours, and unsurprisingly my contributions were in an authoritative register that was probably out of place in the context of this particular Facebook group, for some participants at least.

So what are the outcomes of my reflection?

  • there are positive links between open access and social media
  • open access publishers can and do support the dissemination of articles using social media and this can increase the readership of articles
  • publishers and authors could investigate the possibilities of using social media to create engagement with the article that could more easily include authors themselves (if that is what authors want)
    consider creating a hashtag for an article that can be used to tag it and aggregate discussion around it
  • it can be useful for authors to blog the publication of an article, enabling dialogue and using this as a hub to link to other direct and curated interactions around the article
  • Twitter has many affordances for supporting sharing and commenting around articles but DM was less useful from my point of view
  • in future I would not directly engage with discussion of our work in the Rhizo14 Facebook group as my engagement seemed to be of little use to the group participants or to me

Cyberbullying film as a resource

Cyber BullyMariana Funes pointed me towards this Channel 4 film and I watched it mesmerised.  If you are in UK you will be able to watch it on catch up at rammes/ukip-the-first-100-days/on-demand/58485-001 .

It’s a story of a young woman who is pursued online by someone who wants to expose to her the cyberbullying that she has conducted.  As Filipa Jodelka says in her review “Cleverly, it’s never totally clear whether Casey is the victim or the perpetrator”. And Channel 4 made a good choice as Filipa Jodelka says “The first and biggest thing they’ve got right is casting Maisie Williams – Game Of Thrones’s Arya Stark – as protagonist Casey Jacobs. ”

So by all means, just watch this film and enjoy it, let it make you think, but if you are an educator, then also consider how the film might provide a prompt for productive conversation with young people who will be experiencing all of the ambiguities that the film reveals.  Of course facilitating such a conversation would require an outstanding teacher/educator but I know that everyone who reads my blog is such a person or knows one.

Its life on Channel 4 catch up might be limited but perhaps we should lobby Channel 4 to release it for educational licensing.

For those of you who can’t see the film there is an account of it on Wikipedia (second best).




Cycling between private and public in researching Rhizo14

Howling at the moon
Howling at the moon, Sculpture Park, Aalborg

Our first paper Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade from the research we conducted at Rhizo14 was published last week at Open Praxis.  We would love you to read it and respond.

One of the themes that has engaged us in the research process is the delicate dance between the private and the public.  Public and private can relate to strategies for engagement behaviours rather than being properties of spaces (Lievrouw 1998). We found that offering privacy in data collection was a good strategy in that we are able to reveal some things that were not apparent on the surface of Rhizo14, adding to our partial, provisional understanding.

On the other hand, we are pledged to publish only in open access journals, and shared our data collection approach with Rhizo14 participants who helped us to shape it. Dave Cormier, the convener of the MOOC kindly agreed to a private conversation reflecting on Rhizo14.  We have spent a long time (a year) reading and analysing the data, reading other writers, and writing, alone or together.

We have also presented interim findings at a conference at University College London, blogged over several posts and we have blogged our ideas before, during and after Rhizo14.  It was great to get feedback at the conference and on our blogs.

And now we have published an article that was private while it was being written, reviewed and edited, and we look forward to getting your feedback on what we have said. Of course this apparently fixed article is only a snapshot of ideas. Our ideas have moved on even in the relatively short period since we completed this article (November 2014), and it would be different if we wrote it today.  We have, this month, submitted a second article on the rhizome as metaphor and concept, and we are currently working on an article about community formation.  But the cycling between private and public – reflecting, reading, thinking, writing – that’s so important. If our paper motivates you to respond, we would be thrilled to hear your ideas.  We don’t want to howl at the moon.

Lievrouw, L.A., 1998. Our Own Devices: Heterotopic Communication, Discourse and Culture in the Information Society. The Information Society, 14, pp.83–96. Available at:

Jenny Mackness @jennymackness

Frances Bell @francesbell

ALT Annual Conference 2015: Shaping the future of learning together – submission deadline approaching

Snapshots of ALT-C
Snapshots of ALT-C

The ALT-C 2015 Conference is at the University of Manchester 8-10 September, and will be hugely enjoyable if my experience of previous conferences is anything to go by.  Two excellent keynote speakers have been announced: Laura Czerniewycz who does great work in Open Education and Steve Wheeler , a prolific and popular blogger and tweeter.

The programme will reflect the theme of shaping and sharing learning through breaking down the traditional divisions between stakeholders and between their roles, with a focus on:

Harnessing the power of the crowd – collaboration and connectivist learning;

Social media in learning and teaching;

Open educational practice;

Learners as agents of change;

Participatory approaches to the development of learning technologies.

This has encouraged me to prepare a submission – we have until Friday 13 March.  But what has really excited me is a change to the organisation of the sessions, and to what they might lead to.  Instead of categorising them as workshops, presentations or research papers they are just sessions with clear criteria for audience engagement.  I think that can offer opportunities for creativity for presenters and audience.

There is also an open and flexible concept of education that is dear to my own heart

Here education is considered broadly and includes formal and informal learning settings in schools, colleges, universities, the workplace, homes and communities, at any stage in learners’ lives.

I recommend you to visit the web site and read the Call for Papers. I am a former editor of Research in Learning Technology, and I really welcome the shift of focus from inviting Research Papers for the Conference to supporting authors to develop the work that they present at the conference into a paper for Research in Learning Technology.  As the Call says,

This is a new opportunity we are offering this year with the intention of increasing the work showcased at the conference being published.

This is a wonderful opportunity to increase the relevance of the conference and the journal to each other. I am imagining more conference attenders writing and reading papers from RiLT and elsewhere, and exciting topics, articles and multimedia making their way from the conference to the journal.

One of the aspects that really excites me is the potential for collaboration all through the process – co-authoring the abstract, getting feedback from reviewers, presenting the session and interacting with participants, getting feedback there and via social media, co-writing a research paper, getting feedback from editor and reviewers, rewriting and finally publication, then getting feedback via social media, since RiLT is open access.  I could even recommending blogging as part of the development process – see the rich discussion around this blog post

So go on – submit a session abstract and hopefully I will see you in Manchester in September.

The Flexible concept of the Terrible Sea lion

I saw this cartoon again a week ago and it reminded me of my first reaction to it so I went off to see what some others thought.

The Terrible Sealion
David Hopkins gave the following response to the Terrible Sea lion cartoon

“I don’t tweet, but I’ve found the Sea Lion strip quite thought-provoking. The most interesting thing about it to me is that it’s quite ambiguous to me which of the parties is supposed to be “in the wrong”. The general reception of the strip seems to be “oh yes, I recognise that archetype, sea-lioning is an obviously terrible thing to do”. But that’s not at all how I read it originally.

If the person in the car was saying “I don’t mind most queer people, but transgenders? I could do without transgenders”, the sea-lion character would be a heroic person standing up against off-hand degrading comments of a bigot. The sea-lion character is, in fact, unfailingly civil, just as they claim. There are no ad-hominems, no doxxing, no abuse or threats. The woman never justifies her initial comment, or apologises for it either. The sea-lion’s following around of the people and invasion of their private space isn’t really a great metaphor for Twitter or Facebook, considering that those are explicitly public spaces where users can disengage freely at any time (and/or switch to a more private mode of communication). If tweets or status comments are bothering you at breakfast or in bed… maybe just put your dang phone away?

I dunno. Maybe my objection is based on not having experienced such an interaction myself. Like I said, I’ve never chosen to engage in the Twitter-sphere, so I don’t get random internet strangers challenging me on my assertions much. I’m aware of my “privilege” in this domain.”

When I first saw the cartoon, I found it to be ambiguous too and perhaps that’s its value. Apparently, sea-lioning has been adopted as a verb making it more negative but just as ambiguous. So I can imagine that some would want to argue the toss about the ‘real meaning’ of the Terrible Sea lion but claiming of terms is an unedifying but common practice on the social web as far as I can tell. I would want nothing to do with that.

My default explanation for tetchy disagreement on the social web is misunderstanding exacerbated by assumptions and reduced social cues. In relatively closed groups, there may be shared language and customs, an understanding of ‘what we do around here’ and even explicit or implicit figures of authority who pronounce on who is in the wrong. And groups can implode – as Clay Shirky says ‘you have to find a way to spare the group from scale’
What we see on Twitter is people doing a lot of different things without always realising what others in our network are doing. There can be tight groups socialising, acquaintances chatting, people looking for ideas or people new to them, or people organising campaigns to bring down the wrong sort of person (in their shared view) who has poked their head too far above the parapet. My default explanation does not work for this latter group but I think that most people on the web don’t have evil plans. The asymmetry of relations on Twitter (that you can follow someone without them following you) can work for and against a happy Twitter experience. Unfortunately, when people engage in group behaviours on an open network like Twitter problems can occur. I think that the best possible solution to that involves (and this advice is aimed first and foremost to myself):
increased tolerance – if someone questions us, why not assume good faith (to start with at least) and just answer them politely? If you were referring to them inappropriately, why not apologise and take it from there?
decreased sensitivity - when problems occur, why not consider the possibility that you may be at least partially to blame? they may even return the favour – and remember that if you follow someone solely to monitor their behaviour, don’t be surprised if they don’t like it
ignoring the sealion – if none of that works then ignore the offended or offending person by power of will, muting or blocking

Here are the collective nouns for a group of sea lions
A bob of sea lions, A colony of sea lions, A crash of sea lions, A flock of sea lions, A harem of sea lions ………….. a group of females, A herd of sea lions, A hurdle of sea lions, A pod of sea lions, A raft of sea lions, A rookery of sea lions, A team of sea lions.

One last thing – if you are going to be a sea lion in the positive or negative sense, it’s probably a good idea to fly solo where possible – noone wants a crash of sealions.