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allegiance to their fantasy of a color-blind and genderless meritocracy, predicated on what PJ Rey has shown to be an outdated and debunked notion that the Internet allows us to transcend race, class, and gender by entering a space of pure information.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.

A Dialogue for Shaping Educational Technology

This post was triggered in part by Stephen Downes’ response to Audrey Watters post, and in part by my experiences at and discussions around fedwiki ( Link to reflections).  For me, doing fedwiki has allowed me to try out ideas in the company of other ideas from and with people who think like me sometimes but also sometimes very differently, and that’s the joy of it. Sometimes we are influenced by a post and might build on it, sometimes we read and then ignore a post, and sometimes we just miss stuff.

Stephen Downes and Audrey Watters posts both touched on building educational technology.  I could think about what building means at fedwiki – there are people, guided by the inimitable Ward Cunningham building/ making code. At the fedwiki happening Mike Caulfield shepherds us and curates us as we mine ideas, explore what fedwiki can do – another sort of building of found ideas that (sometimes) collide and spark with each other.  Some of that is adapting information couched in a technical dialect into language that non-technical users could understand.

Considering the role of the ‘user’ in ‘innovation’ is not new, it’s just not as loud as the hurrah that surrounds ideas like ‘disruptive innovation’.   A rich body of work in Science and Technology Studies has built and accelerated in the 1980s but traced back to the 1960s and before.  If you wanted to read just one paper, my recommendation would be Stewart & Williams (2005).

James Fleck gave us a non-linear model that combined innovation and diffusion approach to technology that he called ‘innofusion’ by incorporating feedback into the innovation process. Fleck (1988) emphasised the reflexive relationship between innovation and use; and Williams & Edge (1996) portrayed the contingent evolution of innovation as a ‘garden of forking paths’, both cited in Wiegel, V. (2011)Hippel and Katz (2002) gave some good examples of how technology companies engaged users in innovation in the late 20th/ early 21st century and some ideas on how they could use toolkits to surface innovations from users.

Thinking about what building means in the context of educational technology led me to recall the onion model of computing that I studied on my Masters in IT in the late 1980s.

onionmachine architecture
Example of Onion model, similar to one I studied


I wondered in which layer building ‘counts’ in that model.  Are the hardware engineers the real builders and the programmers who write the applications not real builders?  Of course not, and if I thought that layer models were a good representation of what is going on then I could add a lot more layers to that model.

Web 2.0 seemed to bring the opportunity of valuing users’ contributions to content and features but there are prices (in terms of loss of ownership and privacy of your data)  to pay for the sharing and contributing that users do on ‘free’ platforms.  It is often said that on Facebook, you are the product not the customer.  Educators, like others have engaged in glorious creativity with the plethora of ‘free’ web applications available.  However, those who contribute their creative works to an online service may find that the service has disappeared overnight or transformed into something radically different, and less usable for their purposes.  Watters(2014) highlights the strong connections between technology innovation and education by highlighting examples of student work that evolved later into mass market products eg Marc Andreessen’s development of the Mosaic web browser.

As Audrey Watters and others have pointed out, disruptive innovation plays into the myth that the old is destroyed.  In the case of educational technology, the new technology that the entrepreneur has developed is often portrayed as fixing ‘broken education’.

Another way of looking at a possible future is of shifting the financial resources of a public education system from people-rich services like teaching to the tech industry where the services may be worse not better, and the people whose employment has shifted from the public to the private sector are poorly paid and constrained from doing what they can do better than ‘Teaching Machines’.  The history of Atos Healthcare’s contract with the Department for Work and Pensions makes for chilling reading from another sector.

It may be that fiasco stemmed mainly from political ideology but the separation of context from technology innovation is also important. Hippel and Katz (2002) identified the role of language in joint user/development innovation and that has come up at Fedwiki.

So I am proposing that building technology is more than the heroic story of invention that it is sometimes made out to be,. There can be a joint enterprise of getting technology that improves education through the experiences of learners, teachers and others who support them.

Dialogue about building and innovation in educational technology is already happening – I am curious to know how we can extend and enrich is – and (this is the really challenging part) enable practitioners of learning to shape the technology that can improve education and learning.

Please point me to rich dialogue spaces, share your ideas, and generally engage with these ideas and others.



Hippel, E. Von, & Katz, R. (2002). Shifting innovation to users via toolkits. Management Science, 48(7), 821–833

Stewart, J., & Williams, R. (2005). The Wrong Trousers ? Beyond the Design Fallacy: Social Learning and the User. In H. Rohracher (Ed.), User involvement in innovation processes. Strategies and limitations from a socio-technical perspective (pp. 39–71). Munich: Profil-Verlag.

Wiegel, V. (2011). Tracing innovation: an activity theoretical approach. In European Conference of Information Systems. AIS.

Williams, R., & Edge, D. (1996). The social shaping of technology. In Research Policy (pp. 856–899). Institute of Physics Publishing.

Reflection on #fedwiki: Two Tales of Two Forks

Reflection of Fedwiki Happening

If you have read my last two posts Dazzled by diversity and Layers of meaning at #Fedwikihappening, you will know that I was one of the privileged people who took part in a Fedwiki Happening, led by Mike Caulfield, and inspired/ supported / birthed by Ward Cunningham.  It has been an amazing experience.  I reflected before the happening (from reading about fedwiki), I reflected during it as I played and puzzled and learned (about what I could do and what I didn’t know). I am reflecting now, and I am sure will still be reflecting in the months to come so please don’t taken anything written here as other than provisional.

The first thing to say is that I have learned more about some very interesting topics posted, edited and linked by happening participants.  Here’s a flavour – if you track across the versions of the page, you can picture the development of the ideas

I would like to reflect further on the enticing possibilities of intimate and rich collaborative writing with Fedwiki but in this post I’ll share my concerns about the uncertainty that newbies may experience.

In one of the daily newsletters, Mike shared a published exchange between students (not his class) where the punch line was ” <name> DO UR OWN PAGE”.  The moral that Mike (quite rightly) drew out of this was that much of students’ experiences of wiki  was more like a lego bricks placed side by side rather than true collaboration where their bricks made a magnificent structure.  Well of course that is true, but I am a Brit and I couldn’t help thinking about that underdog student.  What if they were frustrated by their lack of understanding of the wiki technology, and that student who edited their page was really painful outside class, and was now trying to squash them in the wiki.   So I can imagine that in Mike’s classes where he knows and listens to students, and gives them lots of support and opportunities to vent that could be solved but out in the wild, learners could think they have to put up or shut up – so they turn off.

I like diagrams so I decided to invent a development process for a post, offer two interpretations, share it at #fedwiki and see what people say.  Here is what I have just posted at #fedwiki – please don’t take it too seriously.

Two Tales of Two Forks

Accidental or Deliberate Forks  - open to interpretation
Accidental or Deliberate Forks – open to interpretation

Note: This is not based on the history of a particular post but is sparked by some observations of forking at fedwikihappening.  No doubt the tales contain inaccuracies but are intended to open up discussion of the social and technical practices around forking.  These tales are two different interpretations of the development of the post shown in the diagram.

  1. A tale of accidental forking of ideas

Shilpa posted about bug-eyed monsters on Monday morning.  Siobhan noticed the post as she was very interested in bug-eyed monsters and immediately tweeted Shilpa (whom she knew from the Bug-Eyed Monster Society) to let her know she was forking her post and adding to it.

On Tuesday morning Rajesh noticed Siobhan’s edit of the post .  He forked it and contacted his mate Tom via Twitter as they had a mutual interest in bug-eyed monsters.  They tweeted back and forth, then met for coffee on Wednesday morning.  On Wednesday afternoon, Tom forked the post and made substantial edits.  Tom and Rajesh felt that they had really built on the original ideas from Shilpa and Siobhan.

Meanwhile Shilpa saw Siobhan’s post (as she but not Rajesh was in her neighbourhood), forked it and added to it, letting Siobhan know what she had done, and Siobhan responded by forking and editing on Wednesday morning.  On Wednesday afternoon, Shilpa checked the Conversation Club, rather than her usual approach of Recent Changes in her neighbourhood.  She was really surprised that the new and improved version seemed to be missing Siobhan’s and her recent additions.  Kurt scratched his head.

  1. A tale of independent development of ideas ( and a little bit of angst)

Shilpa posted about bug-eyed monsters on Monday morning.  Siobhan noticed the post as she was very interested in bug-eyed monsters and immediately tweeted Shilpa (whom she knew from the Bug-Eyed Monster Society) to let her know she was forking her post and adding to it.

On Tuesday morning Rajesh noticed Siobhan’s edit of the post .  He forked it and contacted his mate Tom via Twitter as they had a mutual interest in bug-eyed monsters.  They had already decided not to join the Bug-Eyed Monster Society as they really disagreed with their hypotheses on the reasons for the bugginess of the monsters’ eyes.  They tweeted back and forth, then met for coffee on Wednesday morning.  On Wednesday afternoon, Tom forked the post and made substantial edits to correct what they saw as the mistakes that Shilpa and Siobhan had made.

Meanwhile Shilpa saw Siobhan’s post (as she but not Rajesh was in her neighbourhood), forked it and added to it, letting Siobhan know what she had done, and Siobhan responded by forking and editing.

On Wednesday afternoon, Shilpa checked the Conversation Club, rather than her usual approach of Recent Changes in her neighbourhood.  She was really surprised that the newest version of the post was so radically different from the one she had been working.  She wondered what to do next.  Kurt sighed.

Some observations

We could write another version of this tale where Kurt invited Shilpa, Siobhan, Rajesh and Tom to a Google Hangout , and they came up with ideas on how to restructure the post into a series of linked posts  that displayed the alternative theories on bug-eyed monsters.  But, but, but … Kurt was an old hand, the others were new and were still learning about forking, journal and the implicaions of neighbourhoods.  Also, the technology is quite new, operating across servers in different continents and time zones.  In a context where there is socio-technical unpredictability, maybe we need Repair Strategies.


I would love comments, here or at #fedwiki on Twitter or on the post at #fedwiki itself.  I will try to collate what I have learned and repost at all three places.

Layers of meaning at #Fedwikihappening

I am taking part in a two week experiment with a federated wiki, and this a good explanation of what it’s about.  I don’t really know how I managed to get on board and sometimes feel like I got on the wrong train, and with a forged ticket, but I do know that I am privileged to be taking part. Mike Caulfield calls it a happening and he is an excellent event organiser. The really exciting thing is that Ward Cunningham, the creator of the original wiki and the smallest federated wiki, is present. Poor man, he has suffered two Google Hangouts with me, and I am still blundering around in the technology without much clue of what I am doing.

View in lightbox! Anisa C

“I Saw a Nightmare…”Doing Violence to Memory: The Soweto Uprising, June 16, 1976 tells the story of the Soweto uprising in South Africa in 1976.  It sustains a narrative by the author, Helena Pohlandt-McCormick, and yet offers an archive including photos and stories in people’s own voices [ html].

This seems relevant to what we are doing at #fedwikihappening (FWH) but I am not sure how.  I am still struggling with the idea of forking posts: it seems related but somehow very different from layers of meaning in the book about Soweto.  There’s something about the wiki concept (in my mind at least) that assumes a sort of knowledge coherence within pages, even if different knowledges can exist in different forks. The dialogical layer takes place mainly on Twitter, and may not be visible to the reader. Sometimes commentary exists on a page but comments are discrete, not synthesised.  For this reason, although I have uploaded some of the ideas in this post to #fedwikihappening, they are a sub set of what I have written here.

One of the activities participants have done is ‘idea mining’ where we go and find interesting snippets to bring to the happening with a little wrap-around for ourselves.  I did this the other day with a blog post from Esko Kilpi, Advanced Work.  Although I enjoyed reading the article, and thought it would be of interest at FWH, I had a critique of it that I have not yet shared on the wiki.  This feels a bit like a dirty secret, that I am compromising my identity but I honestly don’t know how, socially and technically to bring my critique to FWH, or even if I should.  And if critique is not appropriate at FWH, what does that mean for people’s voices and identities?

Although identity is discoverable (in theory at least) at FWH, close collaborative writing is encouraged without paying attention to who has written what.

Quote from McCormick

Over time, memories similarly pass through layers upon layers of experience, and public and private thought and interpretation, and they are influenced by changing ideology and identity. In this way, all narratives changed with time.

I am really wondering about those ideas of ideology and identity. Of course, the people at FWH are really lovely, and don’t share violent experiences and history like Apartheid and the Soweto uprising, but cultural differences still exist.  Within the temporary emergent culture of FWH, people come from different places (programmers, educators, researchers and random folk like me) and heading in different directions in the future.

Engaging in close collaborative writing at FWH reminds me of satisfying writing partnerships I have experienced where looking at the finished article, I can no longer see who wrote what in some parts, at least. But that collaboration took place within small groups with people I knew or came to know well.

Within larger groups – or community as FWH is styled – how will that work?  And if we use neighbourhoods to form smaller groups, what about those who are excluded?

Helena Pohlandt-McCormick concludes the Soweto book with the sentence

This book is about those and for those who helped me break silences.

Can close collaborative writing on FWH help to break silences, or to make silences, or both?