I am participating in a two-week long MOOC called “Engagement in a Time of Polarization,” hosted on EdX. It’s related to the Antigonish 2.0 project (you can read Bonnie Stewart‘s May 2017 Educause article for more: “Antigonish 2.0: A Way for Higher Ed to Save the Web.”
The course is broadly about what the title says: how to engage people together when the context around us emphasizes polarization. At least, that’s what I’m getting from the bit I’ve done of the course so far. As Chris Gilliard notes in his post “Power, Polarization, and Tech,” polarization is profitable for social media and many other parts of the web: “Polarization keys engagement, and engagement/attention are the what keep us on platforms.” So how do we engage with one another, create meaningful communities, work together to address issues we face in our local contexts, when our digital lives are influenced by moves towards polarization?
Meaningful participatory communities
Today I watched three videos in the course, from people working on different aspects of creating meaningful communities, of helping to create “participatory public engagement” (in the words of the introductory video for Topic 1 of the course). The Highlander Center in Tennessee, USA, is one group working on such efforts. According to the video interview of two people from the Center, (among other things) they bring people together to learn from each other about issues in their own communities, plan actions to address them, and carry those out. The emphasis here is on people bringing their own experiences, their knowledges and cultural practices, and learning from each other through those.
This sounded like an amazing group (they’ve been at it since the 1930s), and I couldn’t help thinking: okay, so the people involved learn and take action, but what about the next generation? And the next? How do we build something like this into just part of what it means to be living in a society (or at least, a democratic one)? I suppose one can do so through the three levels of the Angtigonish movement: local groups, k-12 and higher education, international networks.
Meaningful participatory communities on the web?
How might online platforms or other aspects of digital life contribute to such communities? Right now, often they don’t. As noted above, much of social media is based on profits that can be made through engagement, for which polarization is an important driver. What other opportunities exist?
I like to think blogs are one option here: they can encourage longer writing, longer reflections, deeper engagement. And then through comments people can connect together. But I’m finding there aren’t that many people commenting lately, whether on my blog or others’ (this is purely anecdotal!), and I wonder if social media is taking its place. Just do a quote-tweet instead and that’s your comment! And maybe doing so can connect more people (the message about the post gets amplified beyond one’s own original message on social media, e.g.). Still, social media posts, while permanent in some ways, can often be hard to find later, whereas blog posts and comments are a bit easier I think. Not to mention that social media platforms can filter what you see, or when you see it.
Another interesting option is social media that isn’t driven by profit. I posted about Mastodon on this course’s discussion board as one such option. The discussion question was about this quote and whether it is correct:
“It’s not that there’s anything particularly healthy about cyberspace in itself, but the way in which cyberspace breaks down barriers. Cyberspace makes person-to-person interaction much more likely in an already fragmented society. The thing that people need desperately is random encounter. That’s what community has.”
– John Perry Barlow, 1995, from http://www.lionsroar.com/bell-hooks-talks-to-john-perry-barlow/
I posted on the discussion board and then realized that that is not visible to people outside the course, and also that it will disappear once the course is finished in two weeks.
So I’m reproducing my post below.
There are probably never any truly random encounters in online spaces, because where you go depends on your past, your current experiences, your desires, etc., and others end up there too because of their context…but I have found that I have been able to reach out beyond my fairly small social bubble online through a new-ish social media platform, Mastodon (http://joinmastodon.org). When I joined in the Fall of 2016 it was a small space with a small number of users, few of whom were from my own, already-established online circles. As soon as I made my first public post someone replied to welcome me, and for awhile there was a culture of welcoming new people with a friendly reply, which I joined in as well. I got to know a number of people in those early days, some of whom are still there and some of whom have moved on. But it felt like a small community of friendly folks that I didn’t meet randomly, but that led to connections I would not have made on my usual social circles online.
Now Mastodon has gotten much bigger, but the nature of how it works still fosters small communities if one wants them. It is a federated social network, which means no one big person or company owns all of it. You join an “instance,” which can be big or small, general or focused on particular interests, and run by one or a group of people. The code is open source and anyone with the tech know-how can spin up an instance (and the helpful thing to do is to contribute to your instance host’s expenses and time with a regular donation such as on Patreon or something like that). Each instance has its own rules and policies; many are much stricter on hate speech and harassment, for example, than what you’ll find on Twitter.
But the beauty of federation is that you can still talk with people on other instances. You can either just see the posts from people on your own instance, or on all instances that yours federates with (usually, if one person follows someone on another instance, then that leads to the instances connecting to each other; but this may differ according to different instances’ rules/practices).
Not random encounters, but expanding circles. the ability to stay in a small community or branch outwards, The ability to be on an instance with policies you agree with and people you want to spend time with. And while there are disagreements and some ugliness at times, it is nowhere near the deep polarization and horror I sometimes see on places like Twitter.
I should also mention that there is even a co-op instance on Mastodon, where the members collectively run the instance, decide on policies, etc.: social.coop
I am not claiming that Mastodon will solve all our social ills…far from it. But I think it’s a move in the right direction because the way it’s structured has the capacity for instances to focus on engagement rather than attention, connection rather than polarization … in a way I don’t see current mainstream social media platforms doing.
And if you don’t want your attention and your data to be the product, be willing to put forward a little money to support your instance host! :)