Nobody’s Version of Dumb

Shoes by Vincent Van Gogh CC0

I spend a lot of time on Twitter. I follow more people than I can actually keep up with and miraculously a bunch more follow me and I apologize that I can’t just follow right back. I’m overwhelmed. I lose threads and also get lost in reading. I miss a lot and what I catch can probably be attributed to Twitter’s algorithmic sorting which keeps the folks I most interact with close to the top of the tweets I will see. It’s an imperfect system. My interests and responses are being guided, steered, nudged to achieve the golden data outcome of ‘maximum engagement.’ As long as I keep clicking around on the platform and rewarding the algorithm that delivers those precious “In case you missed it” messages, I am holding up my end of the user-platform bargain. Twitter stays in business and I cultivate my little networked worlds almost as intricately as my 9 year-old’s Minecraft creations.

Then along comes a short thread like this:

There’s more but that’s the core.

I know this lamentation. It is familiar and well worn and different figures deploy it at different junctures. Of course, @gsiemens is not just anybody. He’s a public intellectual, well recognized in the tech and higher ed circles I frequent. So I also hesitate to publicly push back on this particular take. But, alas. I get tired of authority type voices telling me and others that Twitter is making us dumb.

Speak for yourself, I say. Rain on your own parade, not mine.

Look. Not everyone who comes to social media is looking for a fight. We have not arrived here to recreate Greek forms of debate. We are not showing up so that we can rattle our intellectual sabres. We are not turning up to punch each others’ academic lights out, argument for carefully crafted argument.

I, for one, came because I was looking for others who could help me grow. I was in the market for good writing and good people and I found them. The longer I stayed and the more I engaged, good people found me. Good writing – I mean, strong, critical, robust and also sensitive writing walked right up to me and said, “Hi!” I got involved. I created adjoining spaces and fashioned a new home to welcome some of that rich writing. And I found art, humor, compassion, support, care, and (*praise hands*) Black Twitter. My life has been tremendously enlivened and broadened through my social media connections. I am a smart person who is more open, more aware, more vocal and more critical due to my connections via social media.

You will rarely find me putting up my verbal dukes on Twitter but I will support those who do it well. When authority type voices trot out these blanket statements about our shared intellectual demise, they offer a point of view that can be as narrow and constrained as those they accuse of the same offense. And often such voices enjoy the comfort and yes, privilege, of established recognition through institutions, publications, speaking invitations and considerable social media reach. These statements seem to come when these, usually male, individuals no longer feel “challenged” – when their membership in the social media ‘Gifted and Talented’ program is losing clout.

When I first ran across this thread, I wanted to ignore it. Give it the ‘ho, hum, somebody’s bored’ non-response. But the annoyance stayed with me because I felt in those few tweets that my experience and the experience of too many others were being denied. And thoughtlessly so.

Some of us are here for community; to gather and confer with the like minded. To remind each other that our presence matters. For someone with a particular kind of status, this aspect might easily be overlooked. Not for me. I come to Twitter to prove to myself again and again that I have a voice and know how to use it. In other circles, my voice, my presence runs the very real risk being inaudible, invisible. But for an authority voice type, this instance may not occur or even register.

Formulating this kind of push back takes energy. It takes energy away from some things I’d rather read and write about. And I don’t wish to expend more energy delving into the right-left Twitter divide article which prompted these tweets. When George Siemens claims that his network is fairly homogeneous, that is something that he can fix if it’s a priority. But to drag us all down into a space that he in a later tweet describes as “closed, intolerant, narrow minded, and short sighted” is decidedly unfair and unnecessary and I refuse to be placed there by proclamation from on high.

Maybe this is precisely how and why I persist on social media: Refusing to be placed somewhere by someone who is not me. I place and position myself. I speak my own mind. I pick my own battles. I am nobody’s version of dumb.


Note: The image is from the The Met collection of Public Domain images which is well worth a visit.

21 thoughts on “Nobody’s Version of Dumb

  1. Well-stated. Thank you. You have me mulling deeper on a variety of issues and these tensions about Twitter and social media. Like you, I still find them enriching. I get to meet people like you, Sheri. But I recognize the limitations, too, and the ways social media can run off the rails.

  2. With you on this. I know you go out of your way to mix it up and think deeply. This man has assumed the worst of the rest of twitter. And, btw, words that label ppl with disability language are ableist slurs, so he might do well to visit disability twitter in order to grow. 🤷‍♀️

    The algorithm thing is annoying, but we are capable of working around it. In fact, finding a way around it makes us smarter.

    1. Thank you, Cynthia, you are right – finding those work arounds can make us smarter and force us to engage with a critical eye on what may be happening in the background, outside of plain view.

  3. Such a great post Sherri. Thank you for writing it. I know that my work and life have been enriched by meeting people (like you) on Twitter. I think you know I’d be happier if you all came over to Mastodon, but until then I’ll straddle the two sites because of the phenomenal value I get from the people using them.

    P.S. Kevin Hodges does a fair number of remixes of #shortstories on Mastodon. (just sayin’)

    P.P.S. Several of my rantier comments and blog posts have been triggered by George Siemens’ social media comments, and that too I think is evidence that social media forces me to be more critical in my thinking and forces me to take the time to articulate *my* thoughts. If that is me getting dumber, so be it.

    1. Thank you, Tanya for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate that you are willing to straddle both streams of Mastadon and Twitter as I have not yet been up to that challenge. The notion of Twitter making us dumber leaves out our ongoing sense of agency. We have agency and we can strengthen it or let it become weak but in our choices it definitely exists.

  4. Thanks so much for this post Sherri. It has provoked me to think and check a few things out and now my mind is moving on to other things so that’s a win for me having you in my network. I am quite interested in what I would see as polarisation on social media but I don’t see that George’s designation of his network as homogenous tells us very much. I don’t even know what he means by his network. He will see what is tweeted by those he follows if their tweets happen to be in the subset of his stream that he actually sees. So he is likely to see more from the around 1400 people he follows in his time zone. People from those of his 22k followers he doesn’t follow may ping him otherwise he won’t see what they share. So the agency that determines how homogenous George’s experience of his network is shared between him, those he follows and Twitter itself. He could follow different people and hashtags.He could engage differently.
    A great example of agency was Anil Dash’s year when he didn’t retweet men for a year
    George seems to be scolding people for relying on pithy statements for communicating in 140 chars and blaming Twitter for making them dumb. That made it so easy for me to unfollow him this afternoon 🙂

  5. I stand by, with you, Sherri. I refuse to grant that twitter, or any technology, or anything in this world has that power. I will not give it that power.

    Like Kevin (whom I have never met and know only through twitter, blogs, hangouts) without twitter I’d likely not read and benefit from your writing here. Like Frances (whom I have known first through blogging longer than we may want to admit) I think George’s tweets sound like he is passive towards twitter effects. Like Tanya (whom I have met, but gotten to know even better through multiple online channels), I’d agree that the negativity can make us be better people by critical response (as you do here).

    I’ve known George a long time through similar channels, I have spent time with him, I have even stayed in his house. But I cannot say for sure what his motivations are here, whether he is asserting this, or whether he is fishing for pushback. And that’s the problem in these channels, especially where communication is via short text, we lack info on intent, on body language, a whole lot of context. Yet we infer them.

    Serious and **** things happen via twitter but my approach is not to take my part in it so seriously. My favorite things are being goofy, sarcastic, but also saying hello to, acknowledging people I care about, even if I don’t know them.

    Yet. My network has signalled more world events immediately to me than I would through other means, from Ferguson to Charlottesville to natural / human disasters all over the world.

    No, I reject the idea that twitter can make us “dumb” (and I agree with missdayvt this is a horrendous term to use), we do that all by ourselves.

  6. You are so right about this. Twitter has opened up a world to me, not closed it off. The opportunity to find like-minded colleagues to collaborate with is worth it. And I have found many who push me when I need it, even if I lurk in the shadows of a great conversation. Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. Thanks for writing this, Sherri.

    I think there are massive problems with Twitter. It is, by design, a platform for harassment. Think, for example, of how easy it is to retweet something in order to create a “pile on.” @-mentions pile up. The app becomes unusable. And there is nothing in Twitter’s architecture or in its business model to stop you being DDOS’d like that. Twitter *is* a platform for anger. George is right about that.

    But that does not mean that Twitter is a homogenous, “safe” space and we are only exposed to ideas we agree with. A great deal of what happens on Twitter is wildly unsafe because of vicious, vicious disagreement. We all experience that differently, of course, based on identity — race, gender, religion, and so on.

    Twitter is also, by design, a platform of brevity. It’s so easy for 140 characters to be insufficient — even when threaded together into longer arguments. It’s so easy too for 140 characters to be taken out of context. Again, by design.

    Twitter is also, by design, a platform of celebrity. If you have the blue checkmark, as celebrities and media personalities and whatnot do, you are granted a “quality filter.” I’m not sure what that entails — my god, what constitutes “quality” on Twitter?! Who decides?! But I gather it means you are less likely to see the things that the unverified masses (that you do not follow explicitly) tweet. Celebrities tend not to be part of communities. (They really can’t be, because people can be ridiculous.)

    All this makes Twitter a terrible place for community, but humans’ desire for community and communication are much more powerful than that. In the face of all the infrastructure that encourages us to clap back, there is at the very same time (and often in the very same users) a strong incentive on Twitter to care.

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