(This post originally appeared on the Independent Curriculum Group Blog as “My Twitter Problem.” It has been edited slightly to serve the transition to my personal blog.)
We’ve been hearing it for years: Don’t blame electronic media for the bad things kids do using electronic media! Kids will be kids, use questionable judgment, act without thinking, and express hurtful thoughts whether they are face to face, using an old-fashioned dial telephone, sending postcards, texting, or uploading GIFs to the latest, hottest social media site. Address the behavior, not the medium.
And all this is true enough, at least when we’re talking about kids. But these days I open my Twitter client or log into Facebook more or less holding my nose. Adults have discovered that the anonymity and pace of social media provide a perfect avenue for delivering very deliberate words of hatred and anger, and whether or not we might examine and address each utterance as a behavior as we might with an adolescent or tween, these words are definitely written with intent—to insult, to intimidate, to silence.
We started strong, and perhaps too uncritically. The Onion’s parody TED Talk that opens with the magical incantation, “Social media,” to the enraptured applause of a nodding audience, was all too accurate. We dove in, we extolled, we incorporated and integrated and put ourselves out there as if nothing serious could go wrong. But arguably, it has.
My Twitter problem is this: In Twitter we have a medium that has been extremely effective as a way for educators to share ideas, to direct readers to interesting news and resources, and to update ourselves on the latest trends and debates. I have happily averred to skeptics that Twitter is my number one source of professional information and my principal medium of general professional communication. And yet in recent months, especially, there has arisen a “Dark Twitter,” fulminating with rage and outright lies, that has begun to bleed into my feed through retweets and even the righteous efforts of friends and followers to engage with the haters or to share outrageous tweets to which they have responded. Somehow it seems wrong to be doing my professional communication through a medium that is the darling of Neo-Nazis and that has been manipulated not just by scammers after my money and attention but by faceless forces bent on distorting and unsettling the social contract and political structure of my country. Do I want to be there anymore?
And to be honest, I do spend less time looking at my Twitter feed these days. The minutes I spend I muting and blocking have eaten deeply into the time I might have spent learning. The value of Twitter has decreased considerably for me—and I see that more of my new followers appear to be some kind of spam merchants, hoping for me to engage with them, rather than peers and colleagues from afar.
Facebook is just as bad, if not worse, but it has been easier for me to excise from my feed those relatively few among my acquaintance who have pushed a vituperative agenda. But still, I don’t spend as much time there anymore, and I no longer read many comments on other people’s posts lest I encounter a Sandy Hook denier or the like among a friend’s friends. I’ve never bothered with news there, but I have been suckered by clickbait and now try not to be, either.
I feel as though I am experiencing the bursting of the social media bubble. The hatespeak, lies, and “fake news” that have grafted themselves onto our national discourse through social media have poisoned us, some a little and some, I fear, fatally. The reader may be thinking, Oh, yeah, but in the 1960s the John Birch Society used the U. S. Mail, which is true, but Twitter especially and Facebook have essentially become broadcast media where virtually anyone’s screeds can wind up on my desktop whether I want them or not—dozens of times a day.
For now I am continuing to use Twitter, and I’ll keep loving my son’s beautiful Instagram photos of his island home. Family and close friends will continue to be my Facebook community for a while longer, but between hatespeak, “fake news,” and scammers and spammers I have cooled considerably on “the promise of social media.” I am guessing that I am not alone.
Which brings me around to What’s next? My workplace, the Independent Curriculum Group, has retired its old Ning and its dedicated online community. We have a new member community forum that is relatively little used, and to be honest I mostly miss the days of the professional listservs that activated and inspired so many of us doing the work of advancing school programs. Maybe we’ll retrogress, and some day you will be reading something like this in a tidy little paper newsletter delivered by the U. S. Postal Service. Or maybe social media will find ways to segment efficiently so that my community of educators on something like Twitter will be insulated from the bigots and fraudulent news stories on something like Facebook. But for now social media in general are just one more discouraging thing to contemplate as 2017 unfolds.