Platform Literacy in a Time of Mass Gaslighting – Or – That Time I Asked Cambridge Analytica for My Data

Digital Citizenship and Curiosity 

In the beginning of 2017 I first discovered Cambridge Analytica (CA) through a series of videos that included a Sky News report, some of their own advertising, as well as a presentation by their CEO Alexander Nix. I found myself fascinated by the notion that big data firms, focused on political advertising, were behind those little facebook quizzes; that these data firms were creating profiles on people through harvesting their data from these quizzes and combining it with other information about them like basic demographics, voter and districting information, and who knows what else to create a product for advertisers. I was in the process of refining a syllabus for a class and creating an online community around digital citizenship so this was of particular interest to me.

My broad interest in digital citizenship is around our rights and responsibilities online and I was compelled by the thought that we could be persuaded to take some dumb quiz and then through taking that quiz our data would be taken and used in other ways that we never expected; in ways that would be outside of our best interests. 

I had questions about what we were agreeing to: how much data firms could know about us, what kind of metrics they were running on us, how the data could be shared, and what those messages of influence might look like. I started asking questions but when the answers started coming in I found myself paralyzed under the sheer weight of how much work it took to keep up with all of it not to mention the threats of financial blowback. This paralisis made me wonder about the feasibility of an everyday person to challenge this data collection, request their own data to better understand how they were being marketed to, and of course the security and privacy of the data.

Cambridge Analytica is again in the news with a whistleblower coming forward to give more details – including that the company was harvesting networked data (that is not just you but your friends’ data) from facebook itself (reactions, personal messages, etc,) and not just the data entered into the quizzes. Facebook has suspended the Cambridge Analytica’s accounts and distanced themselves from the company. Additionally, David Carroll, a professor from the New School Parson’s School of Design, filed a legal action this past week against the company in the UK. The story is just going crazy right now and every time I turn around there is something new.

However, much of this conversation is happening from the perspective of advertising technology (adtech), politics, and law. I’m interested in it from the perspective of education so I’d like to intersect the two.

The Request

A few weeks after I found those videos, featured by and featuring Cambridge Analytica, I came across a Motherboard article that gave some history of how the company was founded and how they were hired by several high profile political campaigns. Around this time I also found Paul-Olivier Dehaye of personaldata.io who was offering to help people understand how to apply to get a copy of their data from Cambridge Analytica based on the Data Protection Act (DPA), as the data was being processed in the UK.

My interests in digital citizenship and information/media/digital literacy had me wondering just how much data CA was collecting and what they were doing with it. Their own advertising made them sound pretty powerful but I was curious about what they had, how much of it I’d potentially given to them through taking stupid online quizzes, and what was possible if combined with other data and powerful algorithms.

The original request was not to Cambridge Analytica but rather to their parent company SCL Elections. There was a form that I had to fill out and a few days later I got another email stating that I had to submit even more information and GPB £10 payable in these very specific ways.

 

Response from SCL asking for more information from me before they would process my Subject Access Request

Out of all of this, I actually found the hardest part to be paying the £10. My bank would only wire transfer a minimum of £50 and SCL told me that my $USD check would have to match £10 exactly after factoring in the exchange rate the day they recieved it. I approached friends in the UK to see if they would write a check for me and I could pay them back. I had a trip to London planned and I considered dropping by their offices to give them cash, even though that was not one of the options listed. It seemed like silly barrier, that a large and powerful data firm could not accept a PayPal payment or something and would instead force me into overpayment or deny my request due to changes in the exchange rate. In the end, PersonalData.io paid for my request and I sent along the other information that SCL wanted.

Response

After I got the £10 worked out with Paul I heard from SCL pretty quickly saying that they were processing my request and then a few days later I got a letter and an excel spreadsheet from Cambridge Analytica that listed some of the data that they had on me.

It was not a lot of data, but I have administered several small learning platforms and one of the things that you learn after running a platform for awhile is that you don’t really need a lot of data on someone to make certain inferences about them. I also found the last tab of the spreadsheet to be disconcerting as this was the breakdown of my political beliefs. This ranking showed how important on a scale of 1-10 various political issues were to me but there was nothing that told me how that ranking was obtained.

Are these results on the last tab from a quiz that I took; when I just wanted to know my personality type or what Harry Potter Character I most resemble? Is this a ranking based on a collection and analysis of my own Facebook reactions (thumbs up, love, wow, sad, or anger) on my friend’s postings? Is this a collection and analysis of my own postings? I really have no way of knowing. According to the communication from CA it is these mysterious “third parties” who must be protected more than my data.

Excerpt from the original response to the Subject Access request from Cambridge Analytica

In looking to find answers to these questions Paul put me in touch with a Ravi Naik of ITN Solicitors who helped me to issue a response to CA asking for the rest of my data and more information about how these results were garnered about me. We never got a response that I can share and in considering my options and the potential for huge costs I could face it was just too overwhelming.

Is it okay to say I got scared here? Is it okay to say I chickened out and stepped away? Cause that is what I did. There are others who are more brave than me and I commend them. David Carroll, who I mentioned earlier just filed legal papers against CA, followed the same process that I did is still trying to crowdfund resources. I just didn’t have it in me.  Sorry democracy.

It kills me. I hope to find another way to contribute.

Platform Literacy and Gaslighting

So now it is a year later and the Cambridge Analytica story has hit and everyone is talking about it. I backed away from this case and asked Ravi to not file anything under my name months ago and yet here I am now releasing a bunch of it on my blog. What gives? Basically, I don’t have it in me to take on the financial risk but I still think that there is something to be learned from the process that I went through in terms of education. This story is huge right now but the dominant narrative is approaching it from the point of view of advertising, politics, and the law. I’m interested in this from the perspective of what I do – educational technology.

About a week ago educational researcher and social media scholar danah boyd delivered a keynote at the South by Southwest Education (SXSW Edu) conference where she was pushed back on the way we approach media literacy with a focus on critical thinking – specifically in teaching but this also has implications for scholarship. This talk drew a body of compelling criticism from several other prominent educators including Benjamin Doxtdator, Renee Hobbs, and Maha Bali which inspired boyd to counter with another post responding to the criticisms.

The part of boyd’s talk (and her response) that I find particularly compelling in terms of overlap with this Cambridge Analytica story is in the construct of gaslighting in media literacy.  boyd is not the first to use the term gaslighting in relation to our current situation with media but, again, often I see this presented from the perspective of adtech, law, or politics and not so much from the perspective of education.

If you don’t know what gaslighting is you can take a moment to look into it but basically it is a form of psychological abuse between people who are in close relationships or friendships. It involves an abuser who twists facts and manipulates another person by drawing on that close proximity and the knowledge that they hold about the victim’s personality and other intimate details. The abuser uses the personal knowledge that they have of the person to manipulate them by playing on their fears, wants, and attractions.

One of the criticisms of boyd’s talk, one that I’m sympathetic to, is around the lack of blame that she places on platforms. Often people underestimate what platforms are capable of and I don’t think that most people understand the potential of platforms to track, extract, collect, and report on your behaviour.

In her rebuttal to these criticisms, to which I am equally sympathetic, boyd states that she is well aware of the part that platforms play in this problem and that she has addressed that elsewhere. She states that is not the focus of this particular talk to address platforms and I’m okay with that – to a point. Too often we attack a critic (for some reason more often critics of technology) who is talking about a complex problem for not addressing every facet of that problem all at once. It is often just not possible to address every angle at the same time and sometimes we need to break it up into more digestible parts. I can give this one to boyd – that is until we start talking about gaslighting.

It is exactly this principle of platforms employing this idea of personalization, or intimate knowledge of who a person is, which makes the gaslighting metaphor work. We are taking this thing that is a description of a very personal kind of abuse and using it to describe a problem at mass scale. It is the idea that the platform has data which tells it bits about who you are and that there are customers (most often advertisers) out there who will pay for that knowledge. If we are going to bring gaslighting into the conversation then we have to address the ability of a platform to know what makes you like, love, laugh, wow, sad, and angry and use that knowledge against you.

We don’t give enough weight to what platforms take from us and how they often hide or own data from us and then sell it to third parties (users don’t want to see all that messy metadata…. Right?).  I’m not sure you even glimpse the possibilities if you are not in the admin position – and who gets that kind of opportunity?

It would be a stretch to call me a data scientist but I’ve built some kind of “platform literacy” after a little more than a decade of overseeing learning management systems (LMS) at small colleges but most people interact with platforms as a user not as an admin so they never get that. I’m not sure how to quantify my level of platform literacy but please understand that I’m no wiz kid – an LMS is no Facebook and in my case we are only talking about a few thousand users. I’m more concerned with making the thing work for professors and students than anything, however, in doing even a small amount of admin work you get a feel for what it means to consider and care about things on a different level: how accounts are created, how they interact with content and with other accounts, the way accounts leave traces through the content they contribute but also through their metadata, and how the platform is always monitoring this and how as an administrator you have access to that monitoring when the user (person) often does not.

I don’t think that most LMS admins (at least as LMSs are currently configured) at small colleges are incentivised to go digging for nuanced details in that monitoring unprompted. I do think that platform owners who have customers willing to pay large sums for advertising contracts have more of a motivation to analyze such things.

Educational researchers are incentivised to show greater returns on learning outcomes and the drum beat of personalized learning is ever present. But I gotta ask if can we pause for a second and think… is there something to be learned from all this Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, personalization, microtargeting, of advertising story for education? Look at everything that I went through to try to better understand the data trails that I’m leaving behind and I still don’t have the answers. Look at the consequences that we are now seeing from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. The platforms that we use in education for learning are not exempt from this issue.

My mind goes back to all the times I’ve heard utopian dreams about making a learning system that is like a social media platform. All the times I’ve seen students who were told to use Facebook itself as a learning tool. So many times I’ve sat through vendor presentations around learning analytics and then during Q&A asked “where is the student interface – you know, so the student can see all of this for themselves” only to be told that was not a feature. All the times I’ve brainstormed the “next generation digital learning environment” only to hear someone say “can we build something like Facebook?” or “I use this other system because it is so much like Facebook”. I get it. Facebook gives you what you want and it feels good – and oh how powerful learning would be if it felt good. But I’m not sure that is learning is the thing.

In her rebuttal boyd says that one of the outstanding questions that she has after listening to the critics (and thanking them for their input) is how to teach across gaslighting. So, it is here where I will suggest that we have to bring platforms back into the conversation. I’m not sure how we talk about gaslighting in media without looking at how platforms manipulate the frequency and context with which media are presented to us – especially when that frequency and context is “personalized” and based on intimate knowledge of what makes us like, love, wow, sad, grrrr.

Teaching and learning around this is not about validating the truthfulness of a source or considering bias in the story. Teaching and learning around this is about understanding the how and why of the thing, the platform, that brings you the message. The how and why it is bringing it to you right now. The how and why of the message looking the way that it does. The how and why of a different message that might be coming to someone else at the same time. It is about the medium more than the message.

And if we are going to talk about how platforms can manipulate us through media we need to talk about how platforms can manipulate us and how some will call it learning. Because there is a lot of overlap here and personalization is attractive – no really, I mean it is really really pretty and it makes you want more. I have had people tell me that they want personalization because they want to see advertising for the things that they “need”. I tried to make the case that if they really needed it then advertising would not be necessary, but this fell flat.

Personalization in learning and advertising is enabled by platforms. Just as there are deep problems with personalization of advertising, we will find it is multiplied by tens of thousands when we apply it to learning. Utopian views that ignore the problems of platforms and personalization are only going to end up looking like what we are seeing now with Facebook and CA. The thing that I can’t shake is this feeling that the platform itself is the thing that we need more people to understand.

What if instead of building platforms that personalized pathways or personalized content we found a way to teach platform’s themselves so that students really understood what platforms were capable of collecting, producing, and contextualizing? What if we could find a way to build platform literacy within our learning systems so that students understood what platforms are capable of doing? Perhaps then when inside of social platforms people would not so easily give away their data and when they did they would have a better understanding of the scope. What if we were really transparent with the data that learning systems have about students and focused on making the student aware of the existence of their data and emphasised their ownership over their data? What if we taught data literacy to the student with their own data? If decades ago we would have focused on student agency and ownership over platforms and analytics I wonder if Cambridge Analytica would have even had a product to sell to political campaigns let alone ever been a big news story.

I’m not saying this would be a fail safe solution – solutions come with their own set of problems – but I think it could be a start. It would mean a change in the interfaces and structures of these systems but it would mean other things too. Changes in the way we make business decisions when choosing systems and changes in the way we design learning would have to be there too. But we have to start thinking and talking about platforms to even get started – because the way they are currently configured has consequences.

Image CC0 from Pixabay

ELI Poster Presentation: DigPINS – A participatory faculty development experience

I’m excited to be presenting a poster at ELI2018 with Sundi Richard on DigPINS – a participatory faculty development experience. Sundi designed DigPINS around the same time that I was designing my first year seminar in digital citizenship – of course we co-founded #DigCiz and digciz.org together so there has been a lot of talk between us about all of these projects.

DigPINS looks at Digital Pedagogy, Identity, Networks, and Scholarship as an online faculty development experience in a cohort model over a set time period. It sort of reminds me of a cMOOC except the focus is not on massive numbers and there is a part of the experience that does not happen in the open – the cohort at the school that is running the course has a backchannel and really they are often closer in physical proximity to one another so they can sometimes just talk to each other on campus.

For our poster we have given a description of each of the defining concepts (the PINS: Pedagogy, Identity, Networks, and Scholarship) on one half and then an interactive description of examples of the activities on the other half. The activities are dynamic and complex – they are not easily put into a box – hence making the poster interactive. How do we make a poster interactive? Well each activity will be printed separately so that during explination they can be placed along two intersecting continuums: Private/Public and Synchronous/Asynchronous. The far extremes of each of these are hard to get at and I’m not sure that anything in DigPINS belongs there but we are hopeful that having these as moveable elements that we will be able to better demonstrate their complexity.

A digital version of the poster is embedded below – it is three slides long as Slide 1 is the poster, Slide 2 are the moveable activities, and on Slide 3 we put a description.

DigPINS Poster

Some of you know I just took a position at St. Norbert and one of the big reasons was because I knew they were not just open to but encouraging really exciting approaches to faculty development like DigPINS. I just finished up running my first implementation of DigPINS at St. Norbert. I had a great group of faculty, staff, and librarians who were really thoughtful about their approaches. We had some serious conversations about the good and bad of technology, social media, mobile access and their effects on pedagogy, scholarship, and ourselves.

I’m excited to be able to present with Sundi on DigPINS – our next move is to open the curriculum so that others can take the skeleton of the defining concepts and activities and make it their own at their institution. That is coming soon so stay tuned!!!

 

#DigCiz Reflections and a #DigPed Workshop

We just wrapped up a month long #DigCiz conversation and it was really unlike any of the others.

It was bigger for one thing.

I was informally running Twitter stats in the background and we consistently had between 200-400 people for any given week. Not massive by any means but growing. Though it was bigger than before and though it was online I’m still adamant that it was not a MOOC – it’s a conversation.  A conversation mediated by technology, sure, but a conversation, and not a course, nonetheless.

A #DigPed Workshop

Still, we learned a lot and as part of the continual processing and dissemination of that learning, I’m excited to point out (I’m not really announcing – the site has been up for awhile) that Sundi Richard and I will be collaborating in the flesh with participants for a 75 minute workshop during the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute. The workshop is broad so even if you did not follow along with #DigCiz, but are interested in digital citizenship in higher education and society at large it will be valuable.

If you are attending the Institute consider coming to our workshop! If you are not attending there is still time because registration is still open (as of the time of this posting anyway).

I realize trying to ask people to attend a whole institute for a 75 min workshop is a little crazy but there is so much to be learned at the Institute as a whole! It looks like there is still room in Data, Networks, and Domains tracks! These are led by some of the smartest people in the room (and by room I mean the internet) Kris Shaffer (Data), Maha Bali and Kate Bowles (Networks), and Martha Burtis (Domains).

And! Even though their tracks are full, hanging with the likes of Amy Collier, Sean Michael Morris, Jesse Stommel, and Chris Friend… Well come’on! I mean the prospect of running into these folks in the hallway is super cool in and of itself.

#DigCiz Reflections

Mostly what I really want in hashtag #DigCiz, is to have a broad conversation about “digital citizenship” that takes a critical look at both “digital” and “citizenship” and that moves beyond things like netiquette and cyberbullying. I think those things are important but I want them to be part of the conversation not the whole conversation.

I think that we have been pretty successful in creating conversation that does that but it also seems that a bit of a community is growing.

This last round of #DigCiz spurred a bit of a branching out…. meaning that there are all of these little side things that keep popping up even though our planned burst ended weeks ago.

For instance the other day Dr. Naomi Barnes decided to live tweet a reading of an article called Towards a Radical Digital Citizenship in Digital Education by Akwugo Emejulu and Callum McGregor using the #DigCiz tag.

This spurred a bunch of us to read it, and wow!! This is exactly the kind of thing that I’m talking about when I say that I want to think about digital citizenship in deeper and more critically.

Besides Naomi’s spontaneous contribution we also had this cool idea inspired by Bill Fitzgerald’s and Kristen Eshleman’s week to do a hypothesis annotation of a privacy policy. We chose to annotate the Slack privacy policy and it was really enlightening. So many of us are entering into these legal agreements when we use these services without even questioning what we are agreeing to. Using social annotation we can really dig in there and pull out the nuance of these documents for questioning, contextualizing, and clarifying.

Ever since Audrey Watters blocked annotation from her site I’ve been rethinking my use of hypothesis. I don’t think that Audrey is wrong (it is her site people) but I also see great benefit from annotating the web. Annotating privacy policies and TOS as a way to better understand them does not feel like I am impinging on anyone’s creative work. We are still doing some work to refine how we do this but I think it has promise.

Then, the other day on Twitter George Station was talking about Zeynep Tufekci’s new book Twitter and Tear Gas. Turned out Sundi and Daniel were about to read it as well as some others. I noodled George on Twitter about doing a #DigCiz book discussion and he took me up on it! I started into the book right away and wow!!! Again, this is more of what I’m looking for when I talk about a deeper look at Digital Citizenship.

In Short

A big part of why I can’t call DigCiz a MOOC is because I don’t feel like a teacher in DigCiz – I feel more like a learner.

However, I do turn around what I learn in DigCiz and teach it. I am planning a first year seminar in Digital Identities, Environments, and Citizenship to be taught in the fall and now I have this exciting opportunity to do the workshop at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute with Sundi.

If you are going to be at DPLI consider coming to our workshop. Sundi and I will be presenting together and we will be talking about many of the things that we have learned through these DigCiz conversations. We plan to present different scenarios that encompass facets of digital citizenship and ask participants to think about how we can present these to students for a deeper consideration of digital citizenship.

Also keep an eye on digciz.org  cause you never know when a DigCiz blast could pop up.

What is DigCiz and Why I am Not Marina Abramovic: thoughts on theory and practice

Theory

Alec Couros and Katia Hildebrandt just finished a round of facilitation in the #DigCiz conversation where they challenged us to think about moving away from a personal responsibility model of digital citizenship. In a joint blog post they spend time distinguishing digital citizenship from cybersaftey and present Jole Westheimer’s work identifying three different types of citizens to ultimately ask “What kind of (digital) citizen” are we talking about.

Additionally, this week, outside of our #DigCiz hashtag, Josie Fraser blogged about some views around digital citizenship. Here we see Josie, reminiscent of Katia and Alec, making a distinction between digital citizenship and what she identifies as e-safety but also setting it apart from digital literacy. Josie presents a venn diagram where digital citizenship is one part of a larger interaction overlapping with e-safety and digital literacy.

In other DigCiz news, this week a group of us (Sundi and I included) who presented at the annual ELI conference in Houston on digital citizenship in the liberal arts published an EDUCAUSE Review article highlighting four different digital citizenship initiatives inside of our institutions.

All of this is on the tails of our first week of #DigCiz where Mia Zamora and Bonnie Stewart troubled the idea of digital citizenship. In a post about this Bonnie artfully lays out the conflict of utopian narratives of the web as a tool for democracy with the realities of what I’m more and more just lumping under Shoshana Zubhoff’s concept of Surveillance Capitalism though you could just say it is the general Silicon Valley ethos.

But I want to get back to Katia and Alec’s call to move the conversation beyond personal responsibility. Often, digital citizenship is lumped in with things like digital/information literacy, nettiquette, online safety, and a whole host of other concepts. Often these are just variations of issues that existed way before the “digital” but are complicated by the digital.

I’m considering Katia and Alec’s call, reflecting on all of these posts and articles as well as the last year and several months of thinking and conversing about this topic on #DigCiz and I can’t help but feel like we are in the weeds on this concept.

So here it is – my foundational, basic, details ripped away, 10,000 foot view at digital citizenship where things like safety and literacy are part of the model but not the whole thing.

I’ve thought about digital citizenship like this for some time and Josie’s post reminded me the idea of representing it as a venn diagram and though some of the overlaps are messy I think that is normal.

I really want to focus and drill down on digital citizenship so I put it in the middle and zoom out from there. The factors that I see at play around digital citizenship are environments and people. In terms of people there is the individual and then others. Since this is “digital” citizenship they are digital environments and identities. The items in the overlaps are messy part. This is draft one.

Draft 1 – Autumm’s Digital Citizenship model CC-BY-ND

This is a really broad model but I think that digital citizenship is a really broad concept and that a narrow model would not do. I think part of the problem that we get into with confusing digital citizenship with digital literacy, cybersafety, netiquette or any other number of similar ideas has to do with narrowly defined models that do not allow for liminality or overlap.

In theory that is… but that brings me to the second half of this post.

Practice

I hope that the web still can exist as a place for community building, artistic expression, and civic discourse but I fear that use for it is shrinking under the pressures of its uses as an advertising and surveillance tool. 

I worry that as we are used and targeted by systems that we have been normalized to the experience of being used and targeted. Resulting in us feeling that using and targeting others does not seem like such a big deal.

 

***

In 1974 performance artist Marina Abramovic produced and performed Rhythm 0.  

I rather like the idea of performance art. Making an artistic statement not through polished practice but rather through the practice of a lived moment.

In Rhythm 0, Abramovic wanted to experiment with giving the public pure access to engage with her actual in-the-flesh self.

She stood for six hours in front of a table with all manner of objects for pleasure and pain with a statement that told the public that they could engage with her however they saw fit.

She was a type of living doll.

Quickly the public forgot that she was a person. She had told them that she was an object after all. So fast they moved from tickling her with the feathers or kissing her on the cheek to cutting her with the razors. She said she was ready to die for this experiment. She said she took full responsibility. One of the objects was a loaded gun. Someone went as far as to put it in her own hand and hold it to her head and see if they could make her pull the trigger.

But why? Why when given the chance to engage with her would people choose to harm her of all the choices of things that they could do to her?

What happens when we interact with people? Is it about us or is it about them? Are we seeing people with lives and needs and wants and fears and all the messy that is human? Or are we seeing an object that we want to interaction with… for our sense of good or bad or pain or pleasure?

I’m not sure much has changed since 1974 when Marina Abramovic first performed this piece. I’m not sure if given the choice between tools of violence and tools of peace that the public will choose peace even today.

I’m not Marina Abramovic

#DigCiz is not Rythem 0

***

 

I think we need to look at ourselves and our communities and ask why we are engaging with each other. Is it out of a selfish need for engagement? Is there a hope for beneficial reciprocation? Is there a concept of consent being considered? 

I think we need to look at our tools and wonder why we are engaging with them and the companies behind them. As they say if you are not paying you are  probably the product.

Environment shapes identity. Identity shapes other’s identities. I fear that we are shaping each other mindlessly. I fear that we are not just shaping each other but that the predatory environments we use are additionally shaping us.

I think we start to change by knowing ourselves first and then engaging where we think we will find recripciotaton, and by recripciotation I don’t mean comments and I don’t mean reply. I mean really trying to listen to one another and getting to know one another. Caring about how we think the other may want to engage and not just satisfying some hunger for engagement.

Going Forward

#DigCiz continues next week and I’m hopeful that we will start to explore these nuances of engagement even deeper as Maha Bali and Kate Bowles take the wheel. Keep an eye on #DigCiz on key social media outlets and digciz.org

Image credit CC0 Dimitris Doukas free on Pixabay

I’d also like to thank Sundi Richard, Maha Bali, and Mia Zamora for looking at a very early draft of this piece and giving much needed feedback. You each help me be better every day – thank you.

My Virtual Life: becoming a real buddy with a nod to the Velveteen Rabbit

‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’

What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be virtual?

Over the last year I spent a lot of time expanding my virtual self. Now, I had a virtual self before last year but there is no denying that, for me, during #rhizo15, and then after, as I started getting more involved with Virtually Connecting, that I really started to do more and more and just Be online. I’ve been thinking about it a lot and this post is just me doing a little reflecting.

A common thread that I have sensed in the undercurrent of it all is this sense of being “Real” as in “In Real Life”. When we talk about meeting in-person vs meeting virtually we often refer to the face to face experience as “Real”, and I’m not sure I agree with that. This is not the first time I’ve thought about this. I worked through this a few months ago with some folks online and started to prefer the term “in the flesh” rather than “in real life” for my own interactions that happen face to face. One of the things that I like about life in general is the ability to work through my ideas in conjunction with others. Online allows me to extend the reach. Does it allow me more diverse voices to interact with? Jury is still out on that one. I’m thankful for the voices that are counter to my own and for the challenges that they bring. I encounter challenging voices online but I encounter them face to face too. I’m thankful for them all. Online transverses space and time better – I’ll give it that.

Over this past year I learned about and how to use a bunch of new technologies. I connected with and learned from people all over the globe. I fell in love and got my heart broken. I made a ton of new friends. I got (and continue to get) called out on some stuff that I was getting wrong… and that stung (stings) but I’m better for it. I traveled and I got to meet some of those people that I was connecting with online at #dLRN15 and #AACUgened16 and some other conferences. I have to say that it has been a pretty rich experience overall.

Did it hurt? Sometimes.

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become.

I started my journey in edtech as a non-traditional student, tech assistant in an office of academic technology at a community college. I did a lot of grunt work and I really wasn’t really sure to what end (It is not that it was not being pointed out to me just that I was greener than most). I just knew that I liked people and I liked technology and that edtech was paying attention to the mixture of the two where many other fields were just being pushed or pulled by them.

I was kind of lost for a long time and not sure what I was going to do with myself. I got another degree. I put myself out there. I landed a gig. It was in an IT department. It was at a university.

And then there is this idea of ontological design. This idea that our environment shapes us. Which seems pretty common sense and I’m not sure that we really need a fancy name like “ontological design” to describe it. But I’ve come to find affinity with fancy names and long titles just as I once had an affinity for disclaimers – I may still I’ve just decided for some reason not to use one here. But in the meantime I got another degree.

And after all of that – after all of that! I now feel kind of like a baby and that my eyes are just now starting to open. It is almost enough to give up, and I would… if it were not that I’m just beginning.

It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’

~ All quotes from: The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams

What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be real? What does it mean to be virtual? What does it mean to create something of beauty – something that might inspire others?

I’m not sure about the answers to these big questions. I’m pretty sure that no matter if we are living online or if we are living face to face that they are still important big questions that are not going anywhere anytime soon.

I started reading this book the other day that is all about how our virtual lives are stealing away our face to face lives. I’m considering exploring this in community because seems, to me, more of a problem of environment in general than a matter of “face to face vs online” or “Real vs. virtual”. But still, I think this book makes some good points about presence and focus – it just blames technology instead.

But who knows if I’ll have time. After all #rhizo16 starts on May 10th… that’s the rumor I heard anyway… you never know with those rhizomes.

and

I still owe Maha Bali that death post from last year… but I just can’t bring myself to write it.

😉


Photo in the public domain in the United States taken from Wikimedia Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams