Since I was 10 or 11 years old, I have read the daily newspaper. I grew up in New York City, and the newspaper that was delivered to our doorstep every morning was the New York Times. I still have the NYTimes delivered every morning (at an educator’s discount).
About 30 years ago, as the Internet was expanding, I remember having an idea, one I have thought of many times since then. It went like this. I realized that as I read the paper each morning, I “edited” it on the fly. And that everybody else did so as well. Because, unless you have all the time in the world, you can’t read it all, every day. And a general-interest newspaper doesn’t really expect you to, either. Instead, you skim parts, and read other parts closely. For some, they might read the opinion pages, and the sports pages, and that’s it. For others, they would read the international news closely, and skip the sports pages (except for baseball season). You get the idea. (How do you read your daily paper?)
It hit me one day that it should be possible to configure your newspaper the way you read it, and have that printed automatically on your home printer (rather than centrally printed and delivered by burning fossil fuels). Looking back since then - as the internet has explosively grown - I have realized over and over what a terrible idea this was. Because as soon as we cut off certain types of news from getting to our doorstep, we create an echo chamber that we live in, and over time, our views start to narrow.
As an educator, of course our job is to broaden our students’ minds, not narrow them. So we expose them to myriad sources of information, and encourage them to read it all and build their skills of discernment.
In social media, what we do is “edit” what we see, just like my “customized newspaper” idea, only worse. Worse, because the amount of news is much greater, and the tools by which to filter it are much more powerful than what I originally envisioned. And so, whether the tool is Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or any other social media platform, we create our own “echo chambers” and live in them. And even worse than that, the algorithms run by these systems - tracking everything you look at - recommends more of the same. And when the “algo” shows you something you don’t like, you can block it, thus perpetuating the echo chamber even more. This cannot be healthy for us, or for our students. It becomes addictive entertainment.
There is a reason why we use these systems: they are absolutely amazing. We connect with family members around the world, see their pictures and their messages, easily forward them to others… we meet people in our fields of interest (there is a community for every hobby, every interest) whom we would otherwise never meet… we hear about things we never would have heard of or seen. Just last week, I saw a clip of a baby giraffe standing up for the first time soon after being born! When was I going to see that in my lifetime?
My biggest objection to social media is that it traffics in what I call “cotton candy clever broadcast.” As a colleague once said to me:
David, some of our colleagues on the faculty…
their walkie-talkie is stuck on transmit.
Over the nearly 14 years I have had an account on Twitter, it has seemed to me mostly stuck on transmit. Clever, yes, quite often. But also about as nutritional as cotton candy. Even threads and replies seem to me mostly like ping pong more than a real conversation. But there remains value - as long as it is a safe space for the exchange of ideas. And we must know and be sensitive to the fact that many members of marginalized communities do not feel safe on these platforms. They are often viciously attacked, mocked, and what passes for discourse becomes and incites hateful behavior. Massive staffs at these companies must be dedicated to rooting out such behavior, exposing it, and controlling it. Or the place just becomes a cesspool for those who think the same way on the same 5 topics.
I will not repeat here the incomprehensible actions of the current owner of Twitter since I wrote about his leadership of the company two weeks ago. I am sure you have seen or heard it all. But as I said then, we may not deserve, or be able to have, a “town square” in which everyone feels safe and we keep the good parts and get rid of the bad parts. We may not be able to have such a thing. But we should. And maybe we can.
What “the Sink man” - as I have come to refer to him - has done is show us all that we need to be more in control of these systems, and use them for our benefit, not the benefit of billionaire owners. And, as many of us have discovered in the last week, there are alternatives.
Mastodon is a distributed social media “fediverse” that runs on smaller servers where those of common interest gather. They are small(er) groups, but they are connected to the whole. Something you post can be limited to your group, and things you read as well, but you can also connect to the full fediverse and read and contribute to what is going on there. It is open-source software, as well as distributed and run by volunteers on each server “instance,” so there are no advertisements.
The history of technology is littered with sites or software that worked well for a while, and then they faltered and were overtaken. Many of these were so huge and successful no one could imagine they would ever fail. And yet fail they did, and then something new came along to take its place.
I am starting to think that “Sink Man” did us all a favor. And the direction we need to go in is to spread out, connect as needed, and police our own sites ourselves. Mastodon might be showing us the way.
You may connect with me here: @firstname.lastname@example.org
Please put your (new?) social media handle in the comments - and if you are moving to Mastodon, or Post, or Hive - or another one - please let everyone know.
Letters of Recommendation
My father left home when I was four, and being the only male left in the family (I had two sisters, one older, one younger), as soon as I could wield a knife, I was expected to carve the turkey at Thanksgiving. My mother used to say to me: “If you know how to carve and are single, you will always be invited to dinner parties.” (Sheesh, is that a throwback to the 1950s or what??)
Anyway, I did learn how to carve a turkey, and do not mind doing it. But shall we all admit? It’s a pain. Well, one of my brilliant daughters decided we should cook the turkey differently this year - on a wire rack, having been dismembered raw first and dry-brined overnight. It was fantastic. And an absolute breeze to carve for the table. Here is the recipe for the dry brine, and a video explaining how to deconstruct the turkey and cook it. Maybe save for next year?
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from Maria Popova, who writes a brilliant weekly newsletter called The Marginalian:
Few things are more seductive to us than a ready opinion, and we brandish few things more flagrantly as we move through the world, slicing through its fundamental uncertainty with our insecure certitudes.
I have been building up the courage to try Mastodon. I have enjoyed twitter for the ease of finding like-minded souls, and hated it for the pile-on if you get one syllable wrong. But my feed is becoming much reduced so I shall have to gird my loins sometime soon I guess...