I never thought that reading an academic article would be an emotional experience, but reading Funes and Mackness’ article When inclusion excludes: A counter narrative of open online education felt like I was on an emotional rollercoaster.
It started off well. I was totally on board with reading about some of the drawbacks of open education, and even a little bit excited to dive into the topic. They lost me a little bit with the insinuation that proponents of open think it’s all sunshine and rainbows. Reading the anti-social justice diatribe that followed was infuriating. I was excited again when they dove into looking at exclusionary aspects of online communities. And then it quickly became an on-again, off-again relationship as I read things I agreed with, things that made me think, things I disagreed with, and things that made me go: “what even?!”
Open online learning does not equal social media
Before Funes and Mackness were even able to get started with their counter narrative, I already had a problem with it. While they say they’re offering a counter narrative of open online education, they only ever talk about social media, as though that’s the be-all-end-all of open online education. While proponents of open education may encourage social media use as part of an open pedagogy, as they do in my graduate program, I don’t think anyone is trying to put forth social media as an excellent open platform, or an “aspirational narrative.”
Social media will never be a gold standard for open education, because the platforms are owned by corporations. These corporations have their own motives, and those motives are much more aligned with profit then open education. While social media, in many ways, allows us to choose what we see, who we connect with, and what we learn about (through who we follow, groups we join, conversations we choose to engage in, etc.), in many other ways we have no choice as to what we see; we’re victims of the algorithm, of ad campaigns, and of the logic and functionality of the platform. While we can try and adopt these platforms to help us move toward the goals of open education, no one is expecting these platforms to have a “democratizing effect.”
I would argue we’re already pretty well aware of the problems with social media: echo chambers, harassment, metrics such as likes and followers. Articles about these drawbacks appear on my Twitter timeline every day. Funes and Mackness’s time could have been much better spent examining the drawbacks of other forms of open online education, instead of mostly telling us things we already know.
Social media and inclusion/exclusion
Regardless of my feelings about Funes and Mackness offering a counter narrative of open online education that only discussed social media, I was interested in hearing their perspective on how social media might sometimes be exclusive. And they did have a few meaningful things to say- alongside a few things that felt like a bit of a stretch.
Exclusion by choice
One of the arguments made in this article is that “inclusion in open online environments is dependent on expressing belief in the ideology” (p. 121). Essentially, Funes and Mackness are arguing that in order to be included in an online Twitter, Facebook, or Reddit community, you have to believe in the usefulness of the platform for the purpose. If you don’t believe, it’s unlikely that you will participate in the community. While I do believe it’s important to identify and be aware of who isn’t participating in your community due to its online presence (I wrote about social media and equity elsewhere), I think it’s a bit of a stretch to try and argue that social media excludes when someone actively chooses not to participate because they don’t believe in the power of the platform.
In my graduate program, we are encouraged to have a presence on Twitter, and to post using the hashtag #tiegrad (tie = technology in education). The idea is that we begin to develop a learning community on Twitter; it becomes a place where we can share learning and engage in conversation. One of my classmates is not a fan of Twitter; they find it confusing to navigate, and they have already developed a learning community elsewhere, so don’t feel that Twitter is necessary. Are we excluding them from our community if we continue to have conversations on Twitter that they choose not to participate in? I have to think we’re not.
The authors also argue that “retweeting articles and re-running the same arguments and debates over and over can lead to withdrawal from community interaction due to lack of perceived useful new content” (p.128). Again, do we really want to define exclusion by choice as exclusion? If we are not interested in joining a certain community, if we feel that community is not providing us value, that’s a choice we’ve made- not a choice they’ve foisted upon us. I have no interest in joining a Dungeons and Dragons club, but I would never say that such a club is excluding me by not talking about a different topic that would be of interest. If that was how we viewed exclusion, pretty much everything would be exclusive. It just doesn’t make sense.
Acceptable norms of behaviour
Many online communities have community standards, which outline the acceptable norms for behaviour. These standards may include encouraging participants to be nice to each other, share openly, and respect alternative perspectives and diverse opinions. Funes and Mackness argue that these community standards exclude people who do not wish to follow them. But is that really a problem?
The key, I think, is in recognizing that there’s a difference between excluding people, and excluding behaviours. Community standards don’t, as a general rule, exclude people; they exclude behaviours. I just talked about exclusion by choice, and I think this is a distinct example. If you don’t want to abide by the community standards (i.e. if you want to be mean, hurtful, disrespectful, dismissive, etc.), that’s a choice you’re making. That choice is going to result in you being excluded from the community, but you could just as easily make a different choice and remain.
I do think there’s potential for a bit of a grey area here, and that it is possible for community standards to be written in a way that openly excludes. If your community standards say that dissenting opinions aren’t allowed or that you must hold certain beliefs in order to belong, that’s a problem. That’s exclusionary. But that’s also a far cry from the typical, kindergarten-style play nice community standards most communities hold.
That being said, I also believe this: Sometimes exclusion is okay. Sometimes the exclusion of one person or group allows for other people, or other groups of people, to be included. In their paper, Funes and Mackness use the offline example of a cancelled keynote speaker at the 2017 OpenEd conference to try and argue that social justice can constrain diversity and discourage engagement with people who disagree. The invited speaker was from the Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS), a group that discriminates against LGBTQ people, resulting in protests on Twitter, and the retracting of the invitation. For me, this isn’t an example of “social justice constraining diversity”; instead, it’s a great example of a time when exclusion is okay. There are certain beliefs and behaviours that don’t deserve to be engaged with, don’t deserve to be debated. Beliefs about the humanity of other people fit that category. Excluding one person so as to ensure those types of beliefs and behaviours aren’t a part of your community, and so as to ensure that an entire group of people feel as though they are included, seems like a pretty good trade-off to me.
Power and hierarchy in social media
Social media has not resulted in the breakdown of social or power hierarchies, and in some ways has had the opposite effect, effectively propping them up. Inherent properties of most platforms, such as displaying the number of followers or friends someone has, and the number of likes, retweets, and engagements a post gets, have created what Funes and Mackness call a pattern of “fawning adoration.” People may participate in a community with the intention of growing their following, and therefore their power, or with the intention of getting attention from a powerful community member. Those without power in the online community become somewhat sidelined.
This is something I see all the time online. I continually see thank you posts, follow Friday posts, or posts that encourage you to “list 10 women who inspire you” from members of my community, and every time they come back around (it’s like the new form of chain mail!), the same people keep showing up on these lists. In all the ways Funes and Mackness try to argue that social media can be exclusive, this is probably the one that resonates the most with me- because while these posts come from people I consider members of my community, I’m rarely on their lists. Most of these posts are meant to be positive contributions to the community, but since these celebrations and acknowledgements are so public, they can feel alienating to others, either because they can’t find a way to participate, or because they never find themselves on the receiving end.
The same trend can be seen when it comes to sharing and commenting on content. Funes and Mackness pointed out that “the emotional intensity of comments is not always aligned to the actual event being commented on” (p. 128). I see this with blog posts all the time. There are certain people, no matter what they write, whose posts seem to receive positive comments and are continuously shared. Meanwhile, when others (hi!) share their thoughts, there are crickets in response. Is it because their content is worse? No. It’s because they don’t hold the same power within the network. Even when I think about a blog post I wrote years ago that garnered over 5000 views, it wasn’t because the post itself was something super special… it was because it was shared by Drew Dudley, a well-known keynote speaker– someone who has power in his network.
Power and hierarchy matter online, the same way they matter offline.
Digital literacy required
Digital literacy can be a huge barrier to participating in an online community. The article brought this up in relation to trolling, but I think it goes beyond that. Online communities can have a barrier to entry that offline communities don’t have. I can’t participate in an online community on Twitter if I don’t understand how the platform works. What’s a hashtag? What does quote tweeting mean? How do I reply to a… do we call them tweets? Being able to properly navigate the platform is a prerequisite to participating in any communities that a platform hosts. I don’t participate in online communities on Reddit because I don’t understand how the platform works. This doesn’t bother me, and if it ever did, I could invest the time to figure it out, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it’s a reality of the platform and can be exclusionary.
At work, we have several Facebook groups for the various groups of students we work with. The groups are within the UVic community on Facebook, which means that you need to have your UVic email address attached to your Facebook profile in order to join. Sometimes, students struggle to gain access to the group, and no matter how many explanations we give or different avenues we try, they aren’t able to figure it out. Every year, there are probably a few students who just give up, and never join the group, despite their desire to do so. The platform’s features, our use of those features, and the students’ ability to use the platform (i.e. their digital literacy) sometimes result in their exclusion from the online community. And that’s not something we’ve found a way to fix yet.
Further, as brought up in the article, we need the skills to deal with harmful behaviours, such as trolling. How do we know it’s a troll vs. someone who honestly has a different opinion? How do we respond to harassers? What are the functions of the platform that can help us (blocking, reporting, etc.)? Being able to use these features is a requirement of participating in an online community (at least, it’s required if you want to have a positive experience), but not a skill everyone may have.
Does social media break down the exclusionary aspects of society and community as a whole? No, not really. What it does is expand what we are allowed to define as community, and allow us to include people who aren’t in the same geographic location or social circle. For me, that has allowed me to create a community of student affairs practitioners that I otherwise wouldn’t have; a community where I can talk about my work, learn from others, be questioned, and improve. It’s not a perfect community, but I don’t think anyone is arguing it is. We recognize many of the problems on a regular basis, so was an entire counter-attack (I mean, narrative) really necessary?
Funes, M., & Mackness, J. (2018). When inclusion excludes: A counter narrative of open online education. Learning, Media and Technology, 43(2), 119–138. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2018.1444638