What if I Never See You Again?

Last week, I was at the Educause ELI conference. I have more thoughts about the conference, particularly as it relates to my new role at DTLT and UMW, but for now I want to reflect on the experience of the conference itself.

Going to ELI meant that I was able to more fully connect with a new network and community of people, particularly people who are at liberal arts institutions. I am at the intersection of two new realms: Not only is this my first job at a liberal arts institution, it is my first job in what can be loosely considered instructional technology. While the focus of ELI isn’t exclusively the liberal arts, there is a group now for SLACs.

But, I already knew a lot of the people through my social networks, and a lot of people knew me because of my blog and Twitter presence. I had earned a certain degree of (for lack of a better word) legitimacy even though I was also a newbie. I might have felt out of place (largely a result of my own impostor syndrome) at the beginning of the conference, but by the end, I knew that I belonged within the community and network.

And then, the rumor hit that Twitter was scrapping their current format and moving to an algorithmic format. What does that mean? Currently Twitter shows tweets from your followers chronologically. They want to change the format to allow an algorithm to decide which tweets you see.

This news sent shockwaves through my network, and across Twitter at large. And as we began discussing the implications of such a change, it became very clear to me what one of my biggest fears is with a change like that: what if I never seen those people and parts of my network again?

There are two pieces to my social media presence: my network and my community. Can an algorithm tell the difference? I don’t always reply or like a tweet from my community, while I RT resources from my larger network to the benefit of, largely, my community.

That’s probably a simplistic example, but I learn the rhythms of my community within the network. I know I’ll see the latest news from, say, the NYT (shudder) form various sources, RT, and scheduled tweets throughout the day. But I have to learn when and where members of my community are active, reading, tweeting, listening, responding.

My community is important to me. It’s big and loud and messy and generally wonderful and supportive and I learn a tremendous amount from them. There is value in that. There is value in my larger network, too, but what happens to community when an algorithm takes over?

The flip side of this fear, of course, is what if no one ever sees me again? What if my presence is erased from the community. Of course it took writing this post to realize that, ultimately, that fear is real in me. For someone who has built her reputation and credibility through public platforms, what happens when they are taken away. I’ve already let go of one, but what if the other is also taken away?

I’m working hard in my digital students class to get students to try and see what is often overlooked or erased, to hear what is often lost in the noise. Somehow, in a moment, I was able to find a space so I could be heard and seen. I have worked hard to see and hear. But what happens when we are silenced, erased, forgotten?

It’s a selfish position, and one that has been explored more generally (and we’re going to explore in the course), but for someone who went from being geographically isolated to involved in some of the most important conversations around the future of higher education, I know what the stakes can be.

That, and I’d really miss everyone.

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  1. You know, Lee, I might well have missed this piece if I had not clicked on a link to it in an Audrey Watters post, “Identity, Power and Education’s Algorithms.” Now I feel deeply grateful that I found my way here. What you describe captures much of the frustration, fear and general unsettling I have experienced in response to Twitter’s rumored plan to arrange the TL by algorithm, rather than by reverse chronology. Both questions: What if I lose large parts of my network and community? and What if I am lost to them and disappear? concern my deeply and like you, I recognize my very personal stake in both of these questions. So I am wondering about my forms of resistance. What can and will I do to protect my access and connection to community? What forms will that take? Which tools will facilitate that process best? And it would be naive to believe that this is just about Twitter. There will be other platforms and tools and I am quite sure that these battles for voice, presence, democratic networks, will play themselves out again, and again. So it seems that one of our tasks would be to investigate and prepare our strongest forms of resistance and resilience. Fighting the power becomes our ongoing imperative.
    I know I didn’t always think this way but I’ve reached a new point. On the one hand I feel like I’ve gotten somewhere and made a tiny dent in my little piece of the universe and on the other hand, I realize that the forces poised to erase and discount my little dent are ever active and fully in place. I’m working hard to make my dent and I’m going to keep pursuing it: making it deeper, making it matter. But to do that I am increasingly aware of the need to be broadly vigilant and aware – which means shuttling my attention between multiple foci: education at all levels, global political and economic trends, societal marginalization, tech narratives of all stripes, pop culture and its varied messages. To “Stay woke” means much more to me now as I embed myself and my work in the networks and communities we have created together. I’ve taken the risk by showing up and I need to also claim responsibility for acting in ways which support open networks, critical dialogue and resistance to corporate power structures which threaten to take those away.
    Your post did a lot for me, just like that. I now know much more clearly what makes me angry. Thank you for that.

  2. Every word resonated, from how meeting ur PLN f2f means to feeling fortunate to have found a space digitally when physically you couldn’t connect…to fears of what algorithms might hide/erase/distort