Adventures in Social Media: Privileged Edition

Social media platforms are microcosms of our broader society, and as a result, those platforms are often toxic for women.

This is my story of social media, a story of privilege that in no ways ignores or endorses the misogyny found routinely on social media.

My experiences are in many ways an inverse reality to how women are marginalized, mansplained, and harassed—while also reflecting the good, the bad, and the ugly of virtual experiences.

I was very hesitant about joining Twitter and Facebook until I recognized how many scholars and creators used these platforms in ways that are more professional than social. I had no interest in the “social” of social media.

Boosted by venturing into my own blogging platform with WordPress at the very end of 2012, my Twitter adventures began in early 2011 as a way to join the scholarly and creative communities I value as well as a way to amplify my writing, to build an audience.

I have been surprised that my blog (10,000+ followers) has attracted significantly more followers than my Twitter account (almost 6000 followers), but I also have learned some important lessons about a virtual existence through my distinctly different experiences on Twitter and Facebook.

Social media are, of course, designed to be interactive so my blog, Twitter account, and Facebook page all attract comments. Here is where I experience interesting differences.

Let me interject first that I have joined social media as a writer and (for lack of a better term) as a public intellectual mostly concerned with literacy, education, equity and social justice, and the inequities of classism, racism, and sexism. However, I have not joined social media to have discussions or debates with people who have no expertise or experience in the areas I address (keep this in mind as I discuss my experiences below).

Well before joining social media, in fact, I had rejected the idea that issues are debatable just because someone will debate; in other words, many issues simply do not have two or several credible sides. For example, I do not debate corporal punishment just as I would not debate a Holocaust denier.

Further, when an issue or topic does warrant debate, I also refuse to engage with anyone who isn’t credible because by doing so the debate stage presents those engaging as equal. This was a recurring problem when I wrote a book on school choice and was regularly asked to debate choice advocates, almost all of whom had no experience or expertise in education—were in fact simply ideological choice advocates.

As everyone has, I imagine, I have contentious and negative exchanges across all my platforms. I made mistakes, but I also have been accused of intentions and actions that I never held or enacted. Some of these experiences have been beyond my control, and others, I deeply regret being complicit even when having good intentions.

Overall, I feel more and more regret about the antagonism and nastiness that characterizes social media. In my experience, though, I witness very little of that on Twitter while I must routinely delete comments on my Facebook page—from the same people who do not meet my guidelines above but refuse to recognize they are invading, un-welcomed, another person’s social media space, a space that I use primarily as a professional record.

Twitter has been recognized as a toxic environment for women, seemingly fertile ground for trolls and misogynists. Twitter, for me, has been mostly a vibrant community among people I admire and respect—a virtual library and classroom. Few of my exchanges there are negative.

The sources of those differences, I think, are first and foremost my privileges as a white man, and then significantly the distinct differences between my Twitter and blog followers and Facebook friends. Audiences matter.

These distinct experiences have made me think very seriously about the problem with the marketplace of ideas argument, the retort from those whose comments I delete (for being false claims or simply personal attacks) that I am not engaging because I refuse to listen or entertain different ideas.

The problem with a simplistic view of the marketplace of ideas is the same as the problem with school choice—or any market.

Market outcomes are directly the result of the consumers driving that market; ideological and ill-informed consumers create outcomes unlike informed and ethical consumers.

The market, capitalism, is an amoral dynamic. The only ethic is the ethic of supply and demand, and outcomes are not right or wrong on some moral spectrum but completely at the whim of the consumers, regardless of their experiences, expertise, or moral/ethical intent.

Setting aside Henry David Thoreau’s libertarian streak, his “Civil Disobedience” makes a compelling case against the tyranny of the majority (specifically that a majority in the U.S. allowed slavery) and argues:

After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?- in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislation? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience.

On balance, I value very much social media even as I recognize how those platforms reinforce my own confrontation of my privileges and create tensions in some spaces, tensions I fear cannot be alleviated.

My more tightly controlled (and ideologically similar) social media environments—blog and Twitter—are mostly a good experience for me, but Facebook, more representative of the general public, is not; Facebook is often frustrating and a drain on my time spent monitoring that false and offensive comments are not visible on my space.

My major take away so far in this adventure in social media is recognizing why I am on these platforms, and then remaining vigilant about the fidelity of my spaces—spaces not open to the whims of others who hide behind the tyranny of the marketplace of ideas.

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Social Media: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I would like to call Chenjerai Kumanyika my friend and colleague, but when I shared his excellent open letter to Dabo Swinney with my students, I stumbled over exactly how to describe our connection, which is entirely through Facebook and Twitter.

In fact, a significant amount of my professional and personal connections are now virtual. I have met Diane Ravitch and Paul Gorski in person once each, but my contact with them remains an electronic venture.

I would be hard pressed to list all the people I count as friends and professional colleagues who I have never met in person.

And just this morning, I shared an article with a former student, current friend who asked how I found so many good articles—to which I replied, social media.

My mornings are filled, in fact, with my Twitter and Facebook feeds—treasures of commentary and research that fuel my teaching and writing in ways that I could never accomplish on my own.

The incredible “good” of social media is that it is my daily education among the smartest and most diverse teachers possible. As much as I love and value my formal education and all my teachers and professors in the real world, it pales to my virtual daily education.

But, of course, there is the “bad”—and the “ugly.”

That often is blurred, but it certainly is a range.

When I post a blog or comment on social media, I often receive, even from “good” people, smart people, responses that reveal how social media lends itself to careless and lazy conversations.

People respond without reading the posts, or if they do read, their responses are about what they want to say, not what the post is about.

People respond to their assumptions about me—and, again, not to the content of the post.

Often, people responding assume that since I teach at a selective liberal arts college, my expertise or voice is anchored in that privilege—only.

My 18 years as a high school English teacher and coach—responding to 4000 essays and an additional 6000 journals per year—rendered invisible. My working class background, my redneck past, also invisible.

The really “ugly” comes from those who project—casting their own weaknesses and biases onto my work, and me. It is here that there is no dialogue, there is no hope of anyone learning anything.

The good, the bad, and the ugly of social media may be the inevitable given of the media—and I think on balance I am willing to tolerate that range.

Social media is very accessible, and very fast, as a way to interact with people, research, commentary, and information.

I suppose we cannot be angry that responses are equally fast, and thus, sloppy, careless, and just plain lazy as well as mean and belligerent.

It may benefit us all to slow down, and also step back, as we navigate the virtual world. Because even the virtual world cannot assuage the dangers of “assume”—making an ass out of you and me.