Open Networks: Friend or Foe

After reading and watching several articles, talks, and discussions this week, I keep coming back to the question of what it means to “publish” something today. In a discussion of gaming in the classroom, Antero Garcia talks about the “endless potential platforms to publish [students’] important work”. This got me thinking about the “Publish” button that I will hit after writing this post, the way that Gail Desler talks about publishing student work on VoiceThread, and tools like Scratch or Twine. In the openly networked digital landscape of 2019, what does it mean to publish something? What has been gained by removing gatekeepers and moving straight to self-publishing on gaming forums like Mod The Sims (I know that’s a throwback, but I used it A LOT as a teen), Twitter, Instagram, YouTube channels like TMillyTV, Facebook, and other social media or gaming sites? What has been lost by allowing everyone to self-publish on these open networks?

When I think about what has been gained by removing gates and breaking down barriers, I think of Instagram influencers like LaLa Milan, Amanda LaCount, Bretman Rock, Nikita Dragun, Fisbanga and many others who have used their platform to be a voice for queer people, people of color, and immigrants. These influencers spend a great deal of time creating dance, comedy, and beauty content that is meant to be empowering to everyone. In many ways, these influencers are masters of Universal Design. They connect with followers in all different demographics. Another prime example of this is Baddie Winkle, who gives representation to a seriously underrepresented demographic.

I know that my students are constantly scrolling through Instagram, and it is incredible for them to see themselves represented in a positive way. The open network of Instagram has given face time to individuals who would have never been given the opportunity for success in a world that has discarded their stories and experiences. The open platform of social media allowed these individuals to share themselves with the world. At the same time that I praise these individuals, I know that there are also negative aspects to self-publishing on Instagram and other social media sites. I won’t link to specific examples (because I don’t want to give them any more traffic), but there have been many influencers who use their platform to sell hair products, quick-fix diets, vitamins, and other products that are in fact harmful and in some cases quite dangerous.

Recently, I saw an exceptional dance video that I think represented this dual nature of open networks like Instagram. The piece is set to the John Bellion song “The Internet“, which speaks about how “life became dangerous the day we all became famous” and the ways in which we represent ourselves on social media.

Thinking about this question of what it means to “publish” something today made me realize the importance of not only providing appropriate tools and networks to our students, but also instructing them in compassionate and equitable ways of using these tools. By creating communities of practice in our classroom, we can embody Connected Learning by giving our students a shared purpose that will encourage them to work collaboratively and equitably. Providing students with open networks for sharing and publishing work does not mean only letting them speak their mind, but also getting feedback about their work from their peers. If we work together with our students to make each other better, we are promoting not only equity and understanding but also self-love and self-care. Students will want to increase their digital literacy skills not only to be “better” than someone else, but rather to become a better version of themselves.

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