This is a post that I drafted to collect some thoughts about diversity, learning networks, social media and youth development for future use in posts by me and my colleagues elsewhere. Many of the ideas presented in this post are formative or deserve a more sophisticated treatment than is achieved here, but the underlying thread is complete. The role of digital media and social networks in our modern discourse and learning is pervasive, but those networks require a cognitive diversity amongst their members in order to be effective. Unfortunately, the modern tools we use to cultivate these networks are not without bias and they require intentional and informed use to overcome those limitations. Moreover, we bring the limitations of our offline networks to bear on them as well, requiring us to understand how this can further limit the potential of these digital tools. In our work with young people, this is an issue that is of critical importance to their future success in an increasingly connected society. So we must work to first cultivate our own diverse networks and secondly, by example, focus on doing the same with our youth.
Recently, I made an offhand remark to an old and respected friend that contorted his face into a confused and skeptical look; I absentmindedly confessed that I now received all of my news from Facebook. I didn’t even give the sentiment a second thought before I said it, though I nervously followed with: “Well, most if it anyway. I guess I catch a little NPR in the morning too.” This gave me pause. Had I really just said that Facebook was my primary source of news? Some version of myself, from a time seemingly long past, would have been dismayed and disappointed.
And yet, I was neither of those things, dismayed or disappointed. Rather, the more I thought about it, the more I felt a mixture of pride and fortune. I came to realize that this was in fact exactly how news should work. It was my diverse network of family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances that made it possible. The depth and diversity of my personal network was essential to my understanding of the world.
In his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki makes a compelling case that “Large groups are smarter than an elite few”. I say compelling because not only do his case-studies and statistical references ring true, but as a former Adler Planetarium employee and an early witness to the birth and development of the Zooniverse.org project, I know this to be quite accurate, first hand.
For most of his book, Mr. Surowiecki concerns himself and the reader with the specific application of this crowd-wisdom to problem solving, and one of the most stunning elements of this argument concerns the role of diversity. It turns out that:
Diversity and independence are important because the best decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus and compromise. — James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds
This is a sentiment that somehow feels wrong at first, but one that isn’t far from our actual experience. Diversity isn’t easy, it requires cultivation and intentionality, it can be contentious and uncomfortable, but it is essential for success because it expands our experience and understanding. Diversity challenges us.
Diversity Is Not Easy, Even Online
Sure, diversity can be a challenge to manage, and it’s the challenge that gives it value. But in some cases, the challenge of achieving diversity can seem unattainable in the face of deep-rooted social inequalities; those that face the youth we work with in the Hive every day. Yet, we hope that maybe technology can overcome this divide.
In her book, It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens danah boyd dedicates an entire chapter to how inequality is translated into the digital space; one that struck me deeply. She details how despite the promise of networked information technology to break down our boundaries, diversity online can still be undermined by the same forces at play offline.
Ms. boyd points out that throughout modern history, even with the advent of trans-atlantic telephone communications, people have continuously projected their dreams for a more integrated world onto new technologies. Yet, whether by the intention of their designers, or the broader social constraints they are designed within, this is rarely the case. Technology itself will not break down what divides us and a blind devotion to this faith can have dire consequences.
Because prominent figures in society – including journalists, educators, politicians – consider social media to be a source of information and opportunity, our cultural naïveté regarding the ways social and cultural divisions are sewn into our mediated social fabric may have more damaging costs in the future. — dana boyd, It’s Complicated
When the designers of our social media experiences fail to include diverse experiences and perspectives into their designed online platforms, or create systems that propagate, reinforce, or exaggerate social mechanisms that lead to segregation and homogenization in real life, then they can make it impossible for users to explore and network with each other unfettered by offline limitations. As educators and mentors, this means that our choice of platform can have serious limiting factors for our youth, or can create new opportunities otherwise inaccessible to them.
Moreover, the very same power that can re-enforce our divisions can also be used to make them visible in ways that we have never seen before. We are mapping and visualizing our human networks in spectacular fashion. There is much to be learned and Ms. boyd reveals some fascinating insights in her book.
Over the last few weeks, there have been a spate of articles that have pointed out the obvious: Facebook is designed to serve you more of what you like to see. This, we have learned, is of course so that Facebook can in turn better serve its advertisers. These articles have explored the question, “What happens when I like everything or nothing on Facebook?” The lesson is simple, but the implications are of great consequence. If you are provided the luxury to see what you like alone, then your world becomes very small indeed.
But how small? Does it really matter who’s Facebook posts I see or not? Yes, it does.
When we “like” something on Facebook, we cast a vote to see more of it and give up the opportunity to see something we don’t like. When we unfriend, unfollow, or even just ignore someone who we don’t agree with, we lose their perspective on the world. We narrow our worldview and we constrain our thinking in exchange for reinforcing our own existing beliefs; we give up challenge for comfort, democracy for security.
Gilad Lotan makes this quite hard to dismiss in a brilliant Medium article, Israel, Gaza, War & Data: social networks and the art of personalizing propaganda. It’s a fairly unbiased look at how online social networks trace an underlying segregation of beliefs and opinions, and how that segregation may be reinforced by these networks.
As compelling as Mr. Lotan’s global perspective might be, Ms. boyd brings is all back home for us:
When teens go online, they bring their friends, identities, and network with them. They also bring their attitudes towards others, their values, and their desire to position themselves in relation to others. — dana boyd, It’s Complicated
This means that teens are bringing their real-life experiences, biases, and constraints with them to their online networks and by doing so, are re-creating the same divides that they face offline. And this isn’t just a failure of imagination or intentional neglect on their part. There are many forces at play that re-enforce these networks on and offline. Fear of social stigma, a feeling of resignation to social pressures, and sometimes a threat of real violence can constrain the extent of a teen’s online network. In other cases though, it’s just the benign human desire to seek comfort amongst like-minded, homogeneous social groups, known as homophily.
Despite our best intentions and the intrinsic power of technology, diversity can be repressed when we are not intentional about cultivating it.
The Intentionality of Diversity
We have all heard it before, and the truth is, we may have said it once too: “everyone was invited”; “I wasn’t being exclusive about it”; “the opportunity was open to anyone”; etc. Yet, while deep inside we know that it’s complicated, and that it takes more than an open door to invite a guest, somehow, we have fallen in love with the idea that the internet makes all that simple. We have decided that just “posting something online” will make it visible and understandable to all. By “sharing it on social media” we have released our information into some collective intelligence we all share. That, assuming you can access it, the internet is inherently equitable.
In her final words on inequality, Ms. boyd reminds us that “Networks Matter” (in a way that is eerily reinforced by a recent University of Phoenix TV ad campaign).
… just because people have access to the internet does not mean that they have equal access to information. Information literacy is not simply about the structural means of access but also about the experience to know where to look, the skills to interpret what’s available and the knowledge to put new pieces of information into context. In a world where information is easily available, strong personal networks and access to helpful people often matter more than access to the information itself. — dana boyd, It’s Complicated
In a modern, connected, online society it becomes more important than ever to cultivate diverse social networks of people, to help us not only access information but also to receive information that contests our existing perspective and puts new information into a greater, richer context. To tap the wisdom of crowds.
Diversity does not come easy. It requires intentionality. It requires us to ask hard questions about who’s not there, to understand the complex barriers that can divide us, and take the difficult step to cross them and reach out to someone different than us.
What We Can Do
Young people live in a culture of pervasive social inequality, but that does not mean that they are equipped to deal with it. Likewise, although they have spent their entire lives immersed in a glut of information technology, it does not mean that they are equipped to interpret and manipulate it to their needs. We must lead the way.
First, change always begins within ourselves. We start by cultivating our own diverse networks. By looking around at our network: in our meetups, in our projects and proposals, or in our social media spaces to ask the hard questions: are we represented by a thoroughly diverse set of people, ideas, experiences, backgrounds and passions? Who is not at the table? How can we welcome them?
Together as the Hive Chicago Learning Network, we must create an environment that welcomes members of our community who are underrepresented in our work. We must invite diverse perspectives into our work, whether that includes race, geographic location, or subject matter. No, not only invite, we must reach out and make welcome. Again, an invitation is only just that and nothing more.
Individually, online or off, this might mean thinking twice before deciding to un-friend or un-follow someone who challenges us, or to proactively seek out a dissenting opinion, to go out and visit a place we have never been to before, a place that challenges us, to follow the comments of someone who is different than us, to give voice and space to ideas that conflict with our own.
Second, we must take responsibility to acknowledge that technology is not a panacea and only we can access it’s untapped potential to empower young people through intentional intervention. Diverse social networks do not build themselves. Build a Community of Participation with Mozilla’s Webmaker Web Literacy materials. Through mentoring and modeling, we can help the next generation cultivate a diverse social network, online and offline. This is not a self-emergent phenomenon, even online.
In some cases, we need to identify safe spaces online where young people can thrive without threat of offline social repercussions. Introduce your youth to safe, intellectual social networks that offer a greater degree of privacy or anonymity without sacrificing social norms. Or build your own, like the Chicago Youth Voices Network’s Nuf Said platform or the Chicago City of Learning initiative. Online, open communities of practice, like GitHub, offer both a greater degree of anonymity as well as a professional experience that will distinguish youth in their career trajectory.
Helping young people to cultivate a truly diverse network of peers, mentors, and educators may be one of the most important elements of the work we do. It is the very heart of connected learning.
After years of intentional cultivation, I am very appreciative and fortunate to have a personal network that supports my lifetime of learning.