Five ways to use Social Media to save democracy (kinda)

I stopped writing in my first blog, 7 or 8 years ago, after listening to someone tell me how blogs were going to save democracy. I found the argument so foolish, so self-aggrandizing and so impractical, that it turned me off the whole process. The argument seemed to go like this:

If everyone has the ability to post what they think, and everyone can comment on that, then each individual has a voice that can be heard in our society… making our society democratic.

After spending much of the intervening years working in social spaces i am now willing to confirm that this is utter nonsense. There are a hundred reasons why this doesn’t make sense, but I’ll just drop three on you in a hurry.

  1. Given free time, most people will not blog, it takes alot of time and burns alot of creativity
  2. Given a chance to express themselves, people will normally talk about the things that interest them… this is more likely to be coffee, knitting or sex rather than politics.
  3. People do not generally frequent the ideas of people they don’t agree with, unless they wish to ridicule them

But you said this was about how to use it to help me vote
Yes. blogging, for everyone, is not the answer for improving our democracy. Twitter on the other hand, just might be. And no, i don’t care if its ‘actually’ twitter, but anything that works like twitter. In a twitter like conversation everyone starts on more or less even territory. No one can grab the mic, it’s difficult to interrupt, and there’s no place to hide. If someone isn’t answering your question, you can just ask it again. We’re all in the same basket and if you’re asking a politician a question in the main stream (identified by hashtags) everyone will see and notice the fact that said person will no answer the question. You can passively watch how a canditate (or their rep) interacts, and get a chance to see all the things they think are important, be those links to things like videos or writing they have done themselves, debates they’ve had with other candidates, or what they had for dinner. Each individual in our democracy doesn’t need to write a blog, we just all need access to the same place where we can have a little chat.

I answered our local CBC radio call out for people who would follow our provincial elections only through social media this fall. I’m fairly cynical about the electoral process. I don’t like the fact that debates and townhalls are as controlled as they are, I absolutely HATE hearing people speak from talking points, and the potential conflict of interest between media and politicians (in the sense that both need the other to do their business) combined with the need to condense discussions into sizes that consumers can actually take in, means that i rarely seem to get answers that i want from media interviews. I have, mostly, given up on knowing what is going on… figuring that there is no way to find out.

Enter social media
Politicians, or at least their handlers, have been told that they need some kind of social presence online. With the massive success that Obama had with social media in the 2008 elections combined with the amazing number of dancing cat videos that people watch these days it’s becoming an avenue to connect to voters difficult to ignore. We here in PEI have seen any number of politicians and political activists turn their attention to our twitter streams and start to talk to us. And that’s nice and everything, but so far they are saying the same things they say in the press releases. The trick is… we need to start talking back. We need to get together and start using our social spaces, controlling the discussion in our spaces to make honesty, civility and transparency something of value, rather than talking points, prepped speeches and obfuscation. It might be a little late to get it done for our election here on PEI… but certainly worth a try.

1. Call out everyone who makes claims and does not identify themselves.

This may seem picky… but i’ve seen too much ‘Those guys are liars’ online. If I don’t know who you are… why should i take anything you say seriously? It could be that someone is a voter with an opinion… or even facts about an issue. It could also be a political operative trying to scam you. If people need to maintain anonymity… they can go to the press. Social media is a reputation economy. Tell us who you are.

2. Call out people who are mean, nasty or simply taking potshots at others.

I called out two executive secretaries to party leaders early in the campaign here in PEI for just sniping at each other. I was shocked when they stopped. If we can publicly shame our politicians into being nice to each other that would go a long way towards me taking them more seriously, but i can’t speak for you. I’m not saying they shouldn’t criticize each other, or dig in… just be civil. We can enforce this in our social media spaces. This, of course, needs to apply to other citizens as well… mindless nagging is not going to raise the level of the discourse.

3. Ask politicians questions, and keep asking them until you get an actual answer

This is something i haven’t tried yet. If you look at the twitter stream for our election, anything tagged with one of the three twitter tags tends to be seen by everyone. If you ask a politician a question they are unwilling to answer, ask it again. Ask others in the party to answer. Ask the party’s central account. Ask other parties. In a townhall your question can be skated over or ignored, in social media that’s ALOT harder.

4. Do research and post it.

One of the nice things about having lots and lots of people involved in a discussion is that you can get access to more information. If a question has been asked or a claim has been made… count up the numbers, figure out the figures and post them. The more people do this, the close we get to facts that can help us vote.

5. Reward politicians for being open and honest

If a politician has gone out of their way to answer a question, to make their positions clear or to be available, let people know about it. There needs to be value in being open for our politicians to do it. If they see their cred improved by the fact that they are doing these things, they will do them. We need to set expectations and reward them when they are met.

Politicians, ostensibly, work for us. We need to make it clear what we expect and hold them accountable (and reward them) for the response to our expectations. Discourse in social media can be one of the ways that we can set those expectations. Civility. Honesty. Transparency. Facts. These are not things restricted to one side of the political spectrum… these are the things we need as voters to make decisions about our politicians.

I’ll be honest, I’ve not seen a political government in canada be able to fulfill the promises they make on specific issues… and no wonder. They are suspeptible to world markets, to internal struggles, to challenges unforseen. I see this as normal. What i want to know about the people who represent me is who they are, what they think about the things that are important to me. These are things that social media is really good at letting us know. We could make that happen. Maybe. 🙂

Why teaching isn’t selling

Boring preamble
I’ve been trying to think my way through the reasons why I’ve spent so much time in the last five years tracking down what i’ve called rhizomatic learning/rhizomatic education/rhizomatic thinking… I’ll be presenting in the #change11 mooc before long and am committed to putting together the week in such a way that those that might be interested in finding out what I’ve been doing get the clearest description possible of what i mean. That may or may not contribute to people ‘agreeing’ with me, but i’m not particularly concerned about that. At least not right now. I’m reaching for clarity. Today I want to talk a little bit about why i think it matters.

How selling is like selling
There was a fantastic series of interviews on the CBC’s as it happens tonight. The first was a debate on a giant oil pipeline from northern Alberta to the southern United States. In it two separate sides, each with its own self-contained narrative, disagreed on whether they should build a giant oil pipe. Good for the economy(Shawn Howard). Bad for the environment(Maud Barlow). Good long term planning. Bad long term planning. I found the pro-oil side sounded jingoistic, repetitive and bullying. The anti-oil-line person was thoughtful, accepting of both sides and still holding a position. I much prefer the presentation of the latter (obviously) but it’s still a pretty big issue here. (Part 1 – 2:00-16:00)

The second interview was a breathtaking piece replayed on CBC from an interview on the BBC with Alessio Rastani (Part 1 – 17:00-20:00) an independent stock trader. They asked him what he thought of the new plans for the Eurozone and whether he thought it might help save Europe from a catastrophe. His response? He didn’t care. He was a trader. He was in the business of making money. He likes a giant recession. It’s easier to make money. He then explained to each individual listening how they could make it through the recession… by making money.

To listen and understand the first piece is difficult. It’s long. There are issues to be balanced. There is a huge financial impact. Lots of lives will be affected either way. Should we be exporting all that oil? Is a pipeline the best way to do it? Should we be investing in oil infrastructure, because its a safer investment, or new energy, because its safer for the planet? Many different issues, and, objectively, not really a right answer. It requires some ethical decisions, some practical thinking… lots of different things. No matter what happens, one side will see it as a partial success and the other mostly a failure. There is no unit of environmental measurement we can put against $ of tax dollars. Both sides are trying to convince us that there position is the correct one, and, in a sense, spur us to some action. But it’s hard.
These are the kinds of societal questions i would like to think our education system could prepare us for.

In the second example, a much shorter interview, and a much simpler position. Our friend Alessio has a way of measuring success. His success is measured by whether or not he is making money. His measurement of our success is whether or not we make money through the recession. He then goes on to give us tips and tricks to make money. Thereby, in his words, trying to help us. That’s easy.
This seems to be the kind of question our education system actually prepares us for

Dealing with clutter
Rhizomatic learning is my thinking about how to deal with the clutter. The complex. How do i teach teachers the ‘best’ or ‘right’ way of using social media? How do you teach ‘good marketing strategies’? Most of the issues that i deal with in my own work, that i discuss with my friends, or that i worry about are hard. Should my client spend all this money on this new project… and what are the chances it wont work. Should we build an oil pipeline? Should i send my kids to french school? There aren’t right answers to any of these questions. There may be answers that are better than others for me, I may learn something this time that will avoid a given problem the next time… but there’s no real measurement in it. It’s hard to know even after things have gone through whether these are good decisions.

Would you let a doctor operate on your if…
Turns out, lots of things are like that. I have heard (way too many times) people argue with my work by saying “you wouldn’t want a doctor to learn that way”. My response, now that i’ve talked to a bunch of doctors about it, is that they do learn that way. They learn a bunch of what they practice as interns. They learn lots on the job. Turns out that brain surgery in Canada is ‘watch one, do one, teach one’. Yeah. Doctor told me that. They learn as they go. They learn from their buddies. And they learn from journals (which, i might add, are mostly just their buddies, writing in a more focused format)

That doesn’t mean that memorizing things is bad. You need to know what a (insert fancy word for part of my brain) is before you can cut it open. There are places where you need to simply familiarize yourself with a subject before you can participate. Those things might be like money. You can check and see if someone’s had success with remembering fancy brain words. Actual brain surgery is something else. As is deciding what school to send my kids to. I need to know what schools there are, i can read research… talk to people.

Why learning isn’t selling
People seem to know that most of the important things in our lives aren’t easy to decide, aren’t easily measured, and yet we try to shove this measurement all over education. We see this in funding calls around education. We see it in research studies. We see it in districts looking to be accountable. And i really mean that… I think they are trying to measure education in an effort to be accountable. In order to do that, however, I think they end up having to think like our friend Alessio. They need a measurement system they can count. Do kids ‘know things’. How much does he know? Are they succeeding? I don’t doubt these kinds of measurements make sense in the business world, heck, I use them when i’m doing that kind of work. I just don’t think learning is like that.

We can sell knowledge to our students, trading their time for our approval. This will allow us to measure their ‘learning’. This in a world where we know all the answers. Or we can challenge them to measure themselves. It’s messy. Hard to track. Ugly to teach. But i think it’s the most important thing in the world. Because that’s the world we actually have.

But you need to measure learning?

It doesn’t matter if you NEED to measure how much people are learning, some things just aren’t possible. Learning just isn’t selling.

Ebook team for Change11 – the record of an event

people used to make records
as in a record of an event
the event of people playing music in a room
Fuel. Ani DiFranco

I’ve recorded a little video tour of the ebook project planning page. It should give you a sense of what the project is about, and what you can do to participate if such a thing strikes your fancy.

I’m hoping to find a way that a group of interested people can make a record of the event of a MOOC. Seeing music live is better, if you can, if you have the time, the emotion and the locatedness to enjoy it. But we listen to records… again and again. In bits and pieces. We sample from them. Taste them. I want to try to make that record. and I want you to help me.

see you at

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