The Other Side of The Coin
Why modern social media is damaging educator networks
Last week I wrote a piece wherein I extolled the virtues of being part of a network of educators and the benefits of networks for improving teaching practice. Looking at that piece several days later, I think the underlying thoughts hold up, but I worry that I didn’t make clear something significant: Social media is broken, and its dysfunction is having an increasingly limiting effect on its utility for teacher networks.
This is not some profound notion. In retrospect, it seems like the most significant issues on these platforms have been around for years. But for a variety of reasons, unfortunate dynamics that used to be tolerable have become too big to ignore. Twitter has been almost wholly given over to a combination of the promotional style and the uncritical simplistics of #eduTwitter. While I had hoped that these types of interactions would smooth out as the platform developed, they seem to only intensify as things get bigger. The place is a combination of people selling their books and passing around meme-base pabulum dressed up to resemble something profound. Facebook has other problems. Chief among them is how hostile the user-experience is. I don't think the user interface has changed in any meaningful way since at least 2011. Facebook search is not very good at all, leaving me in a position where I can't find things more than a few days after they happen with any reliability. Most problematic for me is that the combination of an opaque algorithm and a firehose of content means that I live my life in the space paranoid that I am missing large tracts of what is happening with people I care about on the site. Whole conversations that seem like they would be useful or interesting to me are regularly missed, only to be discovered if I blunder across them. It's an interesting definition of "friendship."
More broadly, it has become apparent to me that advertiser-driven social media platforms are psychically damaging. The research here is very much ongoing, but maybe we should listen when people like Mark Zuckerberg tell us that “passive” use of social media is not so good for us, or when Facebook’s research team demonstrates similar things. I’m also not comfortable with the culture of hyper-shaming that has come to exist, and how easy it is to fall into that type of behavior in the spaces. The better angels of our nature seem to go out the window more often than we like once we are communicating through lazy text on the internet. And none of that even touches questions related to how our participation in social media might make us complicit in the ongoing subversion of democracy, or the numerous problems associated with our national disgrace.
All of which is to say that I don't think it's outlandish to suggest that social media sucks right now. How does an educator simultaneously maintain a professional network and remain suitably cautious about the issues described above? Here are a few things that seem to be working for me:
Use it less. Try to look at social media no more than once a day. You’ll probably fail, but I think that’s a good goal. This probably requires you to take it off of your phone, and break any other patterns that you’ve established wherein you check your feeds like a rat hitting the food pellet button. But you don’t want to be a rat hitting a food pellet, do you? So do what you need to in order to disengage.
Use it with a (good) purpose. When you do check your feeds, make sure you have a reason for doing so. For me, that’s checking my notifications, following up on the ones that I want to, and then getting off the feed. Quick in and quick out. I've started to relate to the major social media platforms similarly to how I do a scuba dive. It's fascinating, and a worthwhile place to visit, but I don't want to stay there too long, or bad stuff will happen to me. I’ve increasingly tried to move any ongoing communication off of social media. Taking things off of public feeds tends to lessen the performative dimension of communication that I find so disagreeable on social media.
Use other things. An argument can be made that a platform like the AP Biology Teacher Community is social media. But I don’t think it’s anywhere near similar to Twitter or Facebook. For one, it’s not looking to turn its users into advertising dollars, so no algorithmic guide rails are controlling how people use it. For another, threads quickly become essentially private communication between interested parties as everyone else stops paying attention. Both of these make a platform like the Teacher Community more agreeable to my sensibility than Facebook or Twitter. I’ve also found myself increasingly interested in platforms like Slack that are similarly oriented. In fact, if you’re reading this and would like to be invited to a Slack chat that is specifically for science teachers, let me know, and I’ll send an invite your way.
Don’t worry if 1-3 aren’t working for you. The point of the above is not to be some sacrosanct list of what you should be doing concerning social media and its use. It’s just an acknowledgment that things on social media have changed and that those changes have not been for the better. Assuming you agree with that thesis, the important thing is that you recognize it and adjust your behavior as a user. However, you decide to do that is up to you.
These are some things that are working for me as I wrestle with the transmogrified social media landscape of 2018. I’m sure my thoughts on the subject will continue to change, and my usage patterns will adjust as well. But for now, I think you’ll find a lot less of me on Facebook or Twitter. I want something that better resembles why I ever wanted to be connected in the first place. With a little luck, I'll get it.
How are you managing the toxic modern social mediascape? Or maybe you think I'm channeling Chicken Little here? Drop me a line or leave a comment if you have something to say.
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