Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Openness & connection: Breaking up with facebook vs Love letter to twitter

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It’s interesting to be thinking a lot about openness and connectedness, two things I am passionate about, while starting the #whyopen MOOC, and looking forward to the #ccourses one… And then to, in one morning, read these two articles, that made me think a bit more about the underlying risks we take, in our zeal for openness and connectedness (one focuses on facebook the other on twitter, for different reasons). I really value critical perspectives on ed tech by people who know and use ed tech, rather than people who fear and dismiss it out of ignorance. I know the topics in these two posts are current, that they have been discussed a lot recently, that they deserve attention, probably much more than I will do in this blogpost (or possibly ever), but I wanted to capture my thoughts and reactions here, to help me reflect.

I am not a particularly cautious person in my openness (f2f or online), I’d even consider myself a bit rash, but I also care about other people’s privacy and their right to it, their concern for it. I am aware that there is malicious abuse of openness (e.g. Alec Couros says others have tried to take on his identity; other examples include people photoshopping someone’s photo and posting it online for example), but there are also things done carelessly, or unintentionally, that can harm others (simple example is someone tagging another person in a photo and posting that photo on facebook, when such a photo shows them doing something that would not look great to employers, parents, spouses, etc.). I always remind my students to keep their potential audiences in mind when they blog, because I don’t want them to make criticisms online that can get them into trouble (obviously), but unlike other educators around me, I don’t think the solution is to make their blogging protected or private (unless there is a good pedagogical reason to do so, which can be the case for emotionally-charged blogging, for example); it’s to make them more critical in their digital literacy, to use openness for how it can help them. I also teach educators about ethical and legal issues in ed tech, and I know I have not had the chance to cover privacy in as much depth as it needs to be covered and discussed and debated, because there are so many other issues we talk about (suggestions for good readings on this at a simple level of English would be much appreciated). But privacy is coming to the forefront. The two articles I read today are:

** Roopika Risam’s Love letter to twitter (I almost wrote a blogpost with that title but mine would have just focused on how Twitter helps my academic career – hers uses the recent Salaita incident to raise questions about academic freedom on social media)

** Estee Beck’s Breaking up with facebook (been putting off reading that one because I just don’t wanna face up the abuses of facebook!

I’ll talk about the facebook article first. Beck asks:

” Do we want to live our digital lives being constantly tracked? Do we want our legally tracked digital data sold and possibly used in ways that harm instead of support us?”

She provides suggestions for how to critically engage students with discussions of privacy and privacy policies as part of our regular courses… But I think this does not take into consideration that some disciplines like biology or history or engineering might not have room for such discussions within the regular flow of a course. Some particular course in the discipline might, but generally, they wouldn’t. Some teachers would not feel equipped to handle this, so I’m hoping that at least a couple of courses outside the disciplines that are required for all students would cover these things – in my university, those would be the information literacy non-credit course, and the Rhetoric and Composition course. Heck, I teach ethical issues in ed tech and I do not always feel equipped to teach all aspects of it (yes, I don’t know everything, surprise!).

When people talk about the dangers of digital surveillance in the West, I guess they’re aware of the magnitude of the issue, but they are not people who live in a country like Egypt where a blogger can (easily) get imprisoned and tortured for writing about particular political views. Then again, academics get imprisoned for their views as well (much less of a problem than the Salaita problem coming up in a minute). I guess they imagine this happening where they are, but I assume they rarely think it is going to actually happen to them, or to that extent. But let’s not talk about that, shall we? Because it does not apply to most people reading this blog, anyway. And not too much to me personally because I don’t blog too much about politics (ever wondered why? It’s not what you think)

On a broader level that concerns more people, I am more concerned about the scandal earlier about facebook filtering content in order to manipulate users’ emotions. I am also aware of how facebook shows me feeds of particular people based on my responsiveness to them, though I understand this latter to be a way of trying to customize the user experience, probably well-intentioned. I do a lot of “academic” facebooking and suddenly I find on my feed only stuff from my rhizo14 and clmooc friends, very little from my Egyptian friends, therefore I end up doing more of what I was doing and less of what I was not doing. I get where the algorithm is going with that, I’m just not sure it’s really useful because it sort of makes me feel like I don’t have anyone else on facebook but these folks, and love them as I do, I actually don’t get to see my own mom’s status updates anymore!!! But I get it. There needs to be a filtering mechanism somewhere, right? I only wish it would ask explicitly rather than assume. I.e. I wish it would ask me how important each “friend’s feed” is to me (I still don’t know how the “follow” function works), and prioritize accordingly, or “tab” it in some way, like Gmail allows me to make certain posts ‘priority’ emails and others not. Like Amazon asks me to rate books I read rather than just base recommendations on books I bought (Amazons algorithm seems to focus more on what i bought, i wish they’d focus more on what i liked! It’s not as good an algorithm as people claim, in my view).

But now there is also the Salaita story, where the prof was supposedly fired based on his social media statements about Gaza. Which is the topic that comes up in Roopika’s article, where she asks:

“Simply put, how can academics who use Twitter navigate the tension between academic freedom and social media”

Because, she notes,

“For those of us who view Twitter as an extension of our professional identities, the implications are nothing short of horrifying: peer-reviewed scholarship is protected by academic freedom; your tweets are not.”

The Salaita story is particularly interesting to me because it seems that the issue is not about the hyperbolicness of his statements, per se, as much as whom they are directed against. If he made such hyperbolic statements about a less politically-charged topic, I doubt anyone would have looked twice. If the international community weren’t so sympathetic to his cause specifically (both the academic freedom and the Gaza part), I doubt he would have been receiving as much attention. That’s not a bad thing, really. Both topics deserve the attention.

I am glad, though, that both Beck and Roopika (I use Roopika’s first name because I know her; Beck’s last name because I don’t) end optimistically. Beck says she may some day reunite with facebook, but she feels it’s time people took a stand against its violations. (I agree but can’t bring myself to break up with it anytime soon)

Like Roopika, I am extremely grateful for what twitter has done for me as a junior academic; like her:

” I can see, all too easily, what my experience as an academic would have been like without Twitter in it: a lonely one. Couldn’t we all use a little less of that?”

And I am glad that her article ends with a promise to continue advocating for Twitter and academic freedom, a call for senior academics to help protect younger academics’ freedom to use Twitter for their scholarship and more…

[right, 3 blogposts in one day, but to be honest, this is the one I’d been working on all day; the others were spontaneous; ah well, poor connectivity means this post goes up a few mins past midnight Egypt time, so technically, it’s a new day hehe]

5 Comments

  1. Pingback: You can do the half-egg on TwitterReflecting Allowed | Reflecting Allowed

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