The other day I found myself responding to a gem of a blog post which captures the significance of online networks and community extremely well. Lee Skallerup Bessette describes her concerns and questions regarding the rumored changes Twitter may be making to its timeline delivery: towards an algorithmic solution and away from the trademark reverse chronological order. The post is titled “What If I Never See You Again.”
There are some helpful points she makes, including defining how she understands and distinguishes between community and network:
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.
This is such a valuable distinction which helps me categorize my own tweet behavior. Yet it’s a few sentences on where she gets to the heart of the matter. After asking to what degree an algorithm can assist and/or distort the process of engaging networks and building community, she says this:
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.
“What if my presence is erased from the community?” And what if I belong to a group for whom erasure is par for the course? This is where I recognized in my response that Twitter and its corporate shenanigans are simply more expressions of the same biases so deeply embedded in our society’s economic and political structures.
I promptly began to consider what forms of resistance are available to me. What steps can and will I take to protect my access and connection to community? It dawned on me that it would be naive to believe that this episode is just about Twitter. There are and will be other platforms where battles for voice, presence and democratic networks will play out again and again and again. I find it hard to believe but I actually wrote: “Fighting the power becomes our ongoing imperative.”
I finished my comment with these thoughts:
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 — 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.
I now know much more clearly what makes me angry.
The surprise is that until very recently I didn’t see myself in the struggle. I hardly recall being “angry.” My comfortable little existence was largely private, politically sterile and unassuming by design. The suggestion of me fighting anything or anyone during that phase of my life strikes me as odd and highly improbable, particularly in a public context. I can think of no single event that ushered in the change. I suppose it was a gradual pattern of engagement. A few years of reading and writing dangerously, of venturing into new intellectual territories, taking up conversation with unfamiliar partners and developing relationships of substance. And much of that took place online.
Looking to the future as we inevitably must, I am wondering how to call forth a radical imagination which will enable me to develop both my resistance and resilience in continuing to make my dent. While “radical imagination” can sound so daunting, I’ve decided for myself that I can pay out in small bills. And over time small bills add up. Pooled with other folks’ resources, the radical can grow, the imagination nurtured, a collective power set free. Precisely when I am feeling small, deflated or unheard, when I am asking myself that critical question: “Who am I to do this work?”, this is when I have to see that I do not and need not walk alone.
This work, this dent, this meaning is the product of both community and network. I am not willing to sacrifice this work to business imperatives which have no interest or stake in my dent or my meaning. I will not allow this work to be held hostage by a company’s need to enhance its “investor storytime.”
Twitter has been a great tool of opportunity and I may have to work pretty hard to adapt to a different platform if necessary. Because let’s be clear: the necessity is community and connection, not the technological edifice. There will be many more platform upsets along our paths of cooperation. We need to be prepared and develop our capacities to adapt and keep moving. It means becoming tech and market savvy. It means raising uncomfortable, and at times, naive questions. It means seeking more than one answer to those questions. All of this adds up to becoming political. And we become political because something matters and is the matter.
Twitter is not the thing that matters. Sustainable communities are the matter. And this is the resistance training we cannot afford to skip.