Thanks so much for the wonderful comments on my last post both here and on Facebook. If serious conversations on social media are sometimes disfunctional, this is a clear counter-example!
Loren Terveen asks: Why do people post political things on social media? That’s a key question. One obvious answer is to persuade others to agree. When that’s the case, the poster needs to think hard about audience–will this persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree with me? As Andrea Forte astutely points out, to accomplish that you need a sense of your audience. What are their values? What issues matter to them? How can you establish common ground, and build from there towards compromise solutions? All of this is central to one of the textbooks, Writing Arguments, that we use in the class I’m teaching this term, CS 4001 Computing, Society and Professionalism. I’m fond of their example about folks debating public funding for a new baseball stadium in Seattle. If you are trying to convince someone to vote in favor of the stadium, it’s extremely helpful to know if their objection is about whether public funding should be used for sports arenas or to the planned retractable roof. (Indoor baseball? Sacrilege!) Argumentation is a balance between collaborative truth seeking and persuasion, and you can’t persuade anyone if you don’t know where they’re coming from.
But as Loren asks, is persuasion even the point of political postings on social media? In many cases I suspect it is not. A posting is also an affirmation of personal identity (I am the kind of person who supports issue X), an expression of solidarity with others, an affirmation of group identity…. People may in fact not be trying to change anyone’s mind at all, and yet the communication still serves important purposes.
Which brings me back to the current disfunction: in social media as currently implemented today, folks often lack appropriate contextual cues. Who am I really talking to? How is my message being received? Rob Miller at MIT has a great research project where his mailer pulls up tiny pictures of everyone you are about to send an email to before you hit send. He is trying to solve the accidental ‘reply all’ problem–if you are sending your message to 150 people you will notice the 150 tiny icons. It helps for context in lots of other things too–yes, your boss is actually a lurker on that project mailing list. A reminder of who you are talking to is always helpful.
Rob’s work is a great first step. As Kurt Luther and others pointed out, there is a huge design opportunity here. We need systems that make people more aware of who they are potentially talking to, who is actually listening, and how their message is being received.
A few months ago, a parent of one of my son’s classmates sent a political message to all the parents in the class. He started off by apologizing for posting it, but said the situation was just so important he wanted to make sure we were aware of it. This was clearly not an appropriate use of the parents’ email list. The specific content of his message also offended me–redistricting had put two highly qualified candidates into the same district and he wanted to persuade us to vote in the primary for the candidate who was historically our neighborhood’s rep because she is “one of us” (his exact words). By “one of us” did he mean “white”? I was furious because it would be inappropriate to reply to his message. I thought about sending him a private note but restrained myself.
His message was a boundary violation. Boundaries are healthy. It’s rude to discuss politics at work, because it’s too divisive. Grown ups know not to do that. Stay away from politics, religion, and the great pumpkin and we’ll all get along much better. Which brings me to my discomfort with Facebook this week. The Republican National Convention is happening this week, and some work colleagues are posting about it on both Facebook and Twitter. In my ideal fantasy world, my reaction to this would be:
Oh, interesting! I don’t know Colleague X well, and his views are certainly different from mine. I don’t agree with him on most things, but he had an interesting point about issue Y. I will have to think about that some more.
That would be a nice world, wouldn’t it? I wish we lived in it. Because you know what I’m really thinking:
Oh, I had no idea Colleague X is a moron! Who knew? I wish I still didn’t know. I am going to try to forget that I read any of that, but it’s going to be hard.
I know Colleague X would not say those things on a work mailing list, or send them to a mailing list of parents in his kid’s class. He would never do such a thing. But somehow Facebook makes it seem OK, even though those same colleagues and fellow parents are there. I sometimes post political stuff on Facebook too. I don’t do it a lot, but sometimes something seems important enough. Like I guess our local redistricted election felt important enough to the parent who posted about it? Eek.
I’m torn. Part of me wants to rejoice in this new openness. Could we be moving towards a revitalized public sphere, where serious issues can be thoughtfully explored? Can we understand one another better because we have seriously listened? But most of me thinks those hopes are naive. No one is listening to anyone in politics these days, and breaking down the boundaries of discussing politics in polite company is not helping one bit. Psychologists argue that certain kinds of appropriate boundaries are a key component of mental health and harmonious relations, and I believe they’re right. And social media are mucking about with those boundaries in an unhealthy way.
I was amused by this Facebook status update from my friend Christian Sandvig (reproduced with permission):
Three contractors promised me an estimate for a job by today. First contractor: “My Internet’s down.” Second contractor: “Family crisis.” Third contractor: “Didn’t we say Wednesday?” Remind anyone of teaching?
It indeed does–sad but true. But taking this seriously for a second, I’ve always wondered: does our grading system encourage mediocrity? Some students will knowingly say, “well, that’s OK–I’ll at least get a C.” Does the student who thought the homework was for Wednesday turn into the contractor who thought the meeting was Wednesday?
My post on a teacher’s view of the Olympics generated some fascinating discussion and responses, including this one from my colleague Ian Bogost. My post had several different issues mixed together, and I think it’d help to separate them a bit. So here goes:
Collaboration Versus Competition
Our cultural rituals both reflect and create who we are as individuals and as a culture. I don’t at all think competition should be eliminated. I just think the balance is off, and we would all benefit from more rituals that celebrate collaboration. As many people pointed out, team sports are a great example of collaboration and a nice integration of collaboration (within a team) and competition (between teams). We need more pastimes and cultural rituals that celebrate collaboration. Sure competition has value. But so does collaboration. Competition is easier to weave a narrative around, and we are inundated by it every day. I would love to see more Wikipedias and more cultural rituals that celebrate collaboration in all its forms.
Youth Sports and Life Balance
Some people probably choose well when they decided to obsessively dedicate themselves to one pursuit, whether that’s gymnastics or the violin or winning the Intel Science Talent Search. I get that. I’m glad my kids and I aren’t among those people–folks that focused give up a lot (and get a lot). For most people, a more moderated participation is wiser. Sure you need to play the violin every day to get good at it, but not everyone needs to play 8 hours a day like someone prepping for a symphony audition. Ideally, there should be a spectrum of possible degrees of participation, and individuals should be able to choose a level of intensity that is appropriate for them.
Here’s the problem. It’s not logistically possible to provide lots of different degrees of intensity–we can’t have ten soccer leagues and let you choose on a spectrum from totally laid-back to pre-professional. Our institutions that support youth sports are pushing large numbers of kids towards the super-intense end of the spectrum. For some people, sport should be a quest for true excellence at all costs. Some people are aspiring professional athletes. For others, sports are a recreational activity that is part of staying healthy and achieving a balanced life. Our youth sports institutions are pushing too many kids to take the super-intense path. Our culture is so focused on excellence in all things that a recreational “the kids are here to have fun” philosophy is getting harder to find.
If you want to be a professional athlete, you should go try out for a minor league sports team. If you want to get a college education, it should be free if you work hard and keep up your grades (like Georgia’s Hope Scholarship). Free for everyone. The system that tries to shoehorn these two things together is hopelessly broken. Right now kids of less economic means dream of earning a free college education through sports. And if they get there, may not actually get the full benefit of that college education because their sports are so time consuming. Does this make sense?
At some point in history, we made a decision that education should be free through high school and compulsory through age 16. The demands of our knowledge society are such that I believe it’s time to make college free, for those who work hard and take advantage of the opportunity being given them. And if you happen to choose to play sports when you get there–fantastic! But those sports shouldn’t be so demanding that they prevent students from getting the full academic benefit of their college education.
More to come on winners and losers, grading on a curve, and forcing populations. Thanks to my friends and colleagues for such a super discussion–wow!
I’ve been puzzling over why the Olympics are depressing me. When I was a kid, I loved them. I was 9 when Nadia Comaneci earned her perfect 10s, and I couldn’t have been more captivated. Look at her go! A little girl like me–strong, beautiful, successful! The world is watching her! It still makes me smile. But watching the London games, I couldn’t help but feel mostly sad. (Look at Jordyn Wieber cry on international television! Why am I watching this? Why did she devote her life to being humiliated on a world stage?) I think I’ve figured out why my reaction has changed: I’m now watching as an educator. As an educator, I look at young people and want to see positive outcomes for all our kids. And I wonder why in the world we need a social system that creates so many losers.
For every inspiring success story, there are thousands of failures. Kids all around the world have taken sport beyond healthy exercise to an obsession that dominates their childhoods. My cousin trained for the Olympic ski team, and spent his winters on the slopes, doing school work on his own at off hours. I don’t think he’d change a thing, but I wonder if it was the best thing for him. For the thousands of kids like him with big dreams that don’t pan out. And even if he had made the team, had won a medal, would it have been the right choice then?
A lot of our formal education system unfortunately also creates winners and losers. The best students go on to elite colleges and bright futures. It’s a sorting algorithm. But does it have to be that way? We need lots of capable people–every one we can find. I have never graded on a curve. I expect every student to master the material, and I personally approach anyone who is falling behind to ask how I can help.
Georgia Tech PhD alumni Jose Zagal and Jochen Rick wrote a great paper about lessons learned from collaborative board games. Why aren’t more of our pastimes collaborative? It’s a profound question. Our cultural rituals both reflect who we are and create it. So here’s a design question for you: What would a more collaborative cultural ritual look like? Could school sports be more collaborative, where everyone is working together to meet a shared goal? Could we get a group of folks together to accomplish something amazing, and celebrate what people together can do for the greater good? Those sorts of events actually happen all the time–fund raising walks where we are proud of everyone who finishes, barn raisings where a community builds a home. I wonder what it would take to get our media to celebrate collaborative events with equal enthusiasm as competitive ones. Or for our economic system to devote equal resources to making them possible.
There’s always a lot of discussion about violence in video games, but not as much about other values. Lately I’ve been playing Diablo III. The primary activity in the game is killing monsters, but the predominant value expressed and enacted in the game isn’t really violence–it’s consumerism. In D3, you wear several pieces of armor and use a weapon. And your gear is everything. Having trouble with a tough boss monster? Go shopping! You can buy and sell gear in both pretend money (“gold pieces”) or real money (US dollars) auction houses. A better weapon or magic helmet can take something impossible and make it trivial. Your capabilities are your possessions. You are what you own. Shopping solves all problems. It’s the ultimate interactive enactment of consumerism.
I still think a lot about the impact of video games on behavior. Some of the same folks who say “violent games don’t make kids violent!” turn around and say “Look at these educational games we’ve made! Look at how much kids will learn from them!” They can’t have it both ways–as my friend Liz Losh often points out, either video games are mimetic or they’re not. So are they? I find the issue of consumerism in Diablo III an interesting alternative view of the issue. Am I more consumerist because of playing this game? I think I’m a grown up and not that easily swayed. But is being surrounded by consumerism in a wide variety of media, over all, influence the choices I make? Yes, of course it does. It influences who we are as a culture and what kinds of decisions make sense within our cultural logic.
I do not believe that sane people are made any more likely to commit horrible acts after playing violent video games or watching violent movies. The situation for insane people is perhaps more complicated–we don’t yet know to what extent the Batman franchise had anything to do with the Aurora, Colorado massacre. But does being surrounded by violence change us and our culture? What about consumerism? Clifford Geertz wrote that the Balinese cockfight is a story that natives of Bali tell themselves about themselves. What we find compelling is both a reflection of who we are and an act that creates who we are–as individuals and as a culture.