"All I Really Wanted"

(credit: XKCD)
Despite being aware of Google’s plans to make a Not-Facebook alternative, yesterday’s launch of Google Plus snuck up on me. Aside from trying out different ways of referencing the service (Google+, Plus, GPlus, G+, +), I’ve spent a bit of time dinking around this morning.

I find myself happy to explore it, but I can see right off that it really is a Facebook clone. What’s the difference? Where my Facebook account has sat largely dormant for well over a year, I find myself as interested in Plus as I was back when I first joined Facebook in 2007. If the functionality is largely identical, then it must be something harder to define. Naturally, I’ll try to define it.

Facebook, and perhaps now Google Plus, are concepts. Facebook was about connecting with various people in a unified space, sharing what you found interesting, and casually socializing without the premeditated substance of emailing or calling someone. It was a trimmed down, more mature, calmer version of MySpace, someplace I’d deigned to join due to its embrace of the dramatic and spastic. It was simple enough, and perhaps most importantly, it was social. Being social was the concept, removed from clutter and complication.

Now shove the names around. Facebook, despite its better aesthetic, has become MySpace, and GooglePlus offers what Facebook once did – in spirit. It’s no longer about what Facebook is, it’s about what Facebook isn’t. I know some reasons I don’t use Facebook now: it encourages self-agrandizing, self-loathing, and self-pity; it has become almost compulsory to be there, thereby making me push away more; businesses have seized upon it as the thing they must do, vainly hoping that appearing current and connected shows the worth of their product/service.

I think the most significant change in my opinion about Facebook came when I noticed my attitude shift about friend requests. After seeking out the core of friends I actually wanted to see and interact with, the secondary friends began to trickle in. I added them because, after all, the point was to be social, and maybe I’d get to know them better through Facebook. Then the tertiary friends – pretty much the acquaintances – arrived. I made the first concession: I didn’t dislike them, so why begrudge adding them. Then the people who truly complicated things arrived: family with whom you conduct yourself differently; professional contacts who you had to worry would be a risk to oversharing, but who you wanted to have connected for the off chance of a professional benefit. Friend requests became fraught events; do I add this person and possibly add more drama to my wall? Do I do so to be diplomatic, or because I like them? What do I risk by declining?

Then you start seeing the effects of such a mixing of peoples without restraint: a constant tide of drama, with people taking offense at another’s sharing, the shaking of fists across ideological divides, and factioning into groups based on what we are/aren’t and like/dislike. It became a chore to log onto Facebook. All of this had a chilling effect on my willingness to share. I’d waffle back and forth between “I’m a whole person here, and if they don’t like the whole person, they can unfriend me” and “Hmmph. Without context, this could seem odd/stupid/offensive.” I’d always try to move back to the “screw it – take me as I am” side, but thinking of what to share became a process of rationalizing. I’d more often then not end up saying “screw it – it’s not important” instead, and not post/participate. At the same time, I was introduced to and began to increase my use of Twitter, where brief and topical socialization was (and still is, largely) all there was to do. In the end, I’ve come to realize it’s that Facebook made me feel asocial. Not a good thing for a social networking site to inspire.

As I wrote this post, Alan Benson mentioned (on Google Plus) something that lead one of his respondents to what I hope will be the key difference: Circles will be key to avoiding this asocial behavior. Facebook added friend groups, and the ability restrict content sharing by groups, but after a couple of years of letting the melting pot of the “everybody into the (one) pool” approach roil and scorch, the damage had been done for people like me. I’d become disinterested in Facebook and its concomitant drama/angst. So from the outset, I’ll make use of these Circles. As Plus gets moving, I’ll keep this up and make use of sharing settings. I’d like to have Facebook back in the way I once liked it, where socialization was the key component.

Oh, and Google? Keep accounts to individuals only to preserve the social nature. When I see businesses advertise their Facebook profile, I can only think of AOL keywords. You don’t want that.

An opportunity for some of that #560wr collaboration we’ve all been after.

Below you can find some extremely rough drafting of what I’ve written so far for mine and Scott’s chapter, tentatively titled “Breaking down barriers: defining ourselves as social instructors.” I invite anybody from 560 (or anyone else, really) to comment or offer feedback. I don’t know what use this will be without being positioned in the whole piece, but there it is. As I add larger chunks, I’ll include it here.


            To define ourselves as social instructors, we must do what we can to encourage our composition students to become more social themselves. Part of that is going where the students are social, where they are comfortable. After all, they have to step into what they see as your turf when they enter the classroom; why shouldn’t you be willing to step into what is arguably their turf?
            Students are increasingly social online, through popular social media outlets, and the happy accident of this is that they are therefore writing socially. So far, as several high profile venues entered and exited the “it” zone in the past decade, almost all have had a crucial commonality: networked, socially connected writing. Jeff Rice, responding to a College English prompt to what College English should be, warned that early college composition classes still rely heavily on isolated, unidirectional writing modes: one writer engages singularly with one text or set of texts, creating a single new text about their individual experience or opinion. The space somewhere else,” Rice offers in contrast, “… is the open space constructed out of connections where multiple writers engaging within multiple ideas in multiple media at multiple moments function. That space somewhere else is the network” (130). This space is enabled by student use of social media. More than functioning as a mere “You already write more than you think; look at your Facebook activity” ward against the “I don’t like to write” students, this networked student writing is a great model for class writing. By encouraging (or requiring?) students to write regular, varied entries to course blogs, message boards, social media feeds, and whatever other public writing you can conceive of, and by encouraging (or requiring?) discussion with each other about their writing, you can build an understanding that any writing can be more networked, more social.
            Before we can attempt guiding others through this sort of border crossing between closed and open networks, perhaps we should demonstrate our own ability to make the crossing. At the time of this writing (and, as much as this sort of disclaimer may be awkward, the fickleness of the online socialscape supports it), Facebook remains the most populated place such social, open network writing can be done. Further, it also lends the instructor the ability to craft their social image outside of the classroom. A 2009 study gauged student reaction to varying levels of their instructor’s activity on a social network, in this case Facebook, drawing a cautious conclusion that instructors who are open and accessible on Facebook may reap classroom benefits: “The findings suggest that teachers who exhibit high levels of self-disclosure on a Facebook website may appear more credible than teachers low in computer-mediated self-disclosure” (Mazer, Murphy, and Simonds, 179-180). “High-levels of self disclosure” is explained as corresponding with friends and family, posting many pictures, and expressing opinions. More simply: the instructors are free to be themselves. By carrying on with the same social persona online as in class, especially if it is not restricted just to class topics, strong impressions of both the instructor’s social verity and social writing are delivered to students. In fact, doing the opposite online has the corresponding opposite effect:
Although our findings reveal a positive association between teacher self-disclosure and perceptions of teacher credibility, instructors should be consistent with their self-disclosure on Facebook and their teaching style in the classroom. Teachers who exhibit a relaxed personality on Facebook with informal photographs and entertaining messages, but operate their classrooms strictly, may create violated expectations resulting in negative effects on students (180).
(? Sociably doing the more common duties of instructorship.)
            Being a sociable while performing in an instructor’s capacity extends beyond face-to-face office hours and after class discussion. Even when doing the duties of maintaining online contact, there’s justification to do so in a less minimalist, more engaged way. Whether used as an out-of-class continuation of in-class discussions or as a stand-alone discussion space for online learning, course message board systems offer obvious benefit. There is room for a more considered role for instructors moderating online discussion boards; several studies in recent years offer insight into how an instructor’s digital presence can shape class, both in-person and online.
            A study of email interaction with students at risk of poor performance, while lasting only a brief 4 weeks, showed that the way an email is constructed is important. Students were split into groups: those who received motivational, but nonspecific email contact about course details, and those who received personalized, individually-detailed correspondence motivating them to improve their progress. The results show that those who received non-personalized contact fared worse in measures of confidence, motivation, and achievement than those who were emailed with individualized messages (Kim and Keller 45-48). (*** Rework)
            Instructor conduct on message boards, however, seems a trickier path to walk. A 2007 survey by Margaret Mazzolini and Sarah Maddison of a significant number of message board postings and their corresponding student feedback surveys teased out two observations: when instructors post, the student conversation tends to die in that thread and; despite a widespread instructor opinion that their own posts are designed to open up conversation and encourage follow-up, the vast majority of their posts are actually closed-ended, direct answers (210-211). Instead of being discouraged from contributing, instructors might be able to take heart: Mazzolini and Maddison disclaim that “forums with fewer student postings and shorter discussion threads than most are not necessarily deficient. It may be that frequent instructor intervention makes discussions more efficient, with less time spent by students pursuing false trails and conducting inconclusive debates” (211). Instructors can also reasonably draw an opposing conclusion from the study details. If student contribution drops off after an instructor jumps in and the instructor contributions are primarily closed to follow-up, then a truly Socratic form of open-ended questions, as the study authors mention, might in fact encourage a more engaged discussion board.  (*** Drifting? How is this “social?”)

On #560wr, TextDash, collaboration, and beanie babies.

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I’ve always wondered how much I border on anti-social, especially where classwork is concerned. Throughout much of my education, the words “partner,” “collaboration,” or “group work” used to be instant anxiety cues. It seemed like I almost always ended up as the one who cared most, and therefore the one who fretted through bottles of antacids until turn-in. So maybe not so much anti-social; perhaps mistrusting? Misanthropic? Fortunately, this changed as I joined a community of students/others who seem to share this kind of active care about what they’re working on/writing together.
We’re at the midpoint of ENG 560, a course originally modeled mostly after a now guarded word that someone here might have to pay for if mentioned publicly. Let’s call it TextDash. When I first learned about TextDash several months ago, prior to the creation of the course, this was the nutshell of how it worked: 
  • Professionals/academics from around the region/country who presumably know each other relatively well decide they’d all like to write a book* together, because they believe that the 7-12 of them all really know their way around a topic – let’s say, beanie babies. 
  • Rather than trying to chip away at such a large project like a book* for months/years, in which some contributers are bound to:

    • lose interest in bringing forward a collected work about beanie babies
    • change their opinion of their particular subinterest of beanie babies
    • be delayed by other scholarly work on their specific beanie baby interests
    • have their in-progress research devalued/augmented by other beanie baby scholarship published in the meantime…
  • The writers decide to convene for one short, focused burst of collaborative beanie baby scholarship, hoping to power through all other distractions and emerge – within very short order – with a cohesive, timely, authoritative, collection of their work. Maybe even a book*.
  • The writers agree to set aside a whole block of time (days, maybe even a week) to converge at one place and communally live, eat, sleep, research, and write beanie babies. 
  • Upon meeting, they divide up the time into chunks: topic selection, research, writing, editing, and polishing. Each takes a specific beanie baby subtopic they know (varieties, values, depreciation, the social stigma of renting a two bedroom apartment for you and your beanie babies, the indignity of Ty’s manufactured rarity, throwing out your collection once you realize they really aren’t collectibles, how to integrate that Ty tattoo … down there… into a more respectable coverup, etc..).
  • A crucial dynamic emerges: togetherness. The subtopics are sluiced from dreck and emerge in the same room. The research happens in the same room. Prewriting probably happens in the same room. Then, when it comes time to write, writing largely happens in the same room. Once everyone’s finished drafting, they workshop and revise several times with other writers in the same room. Finally, the collection is polished and sent on its way to meet whatever incarnation it will take, securing its role of influence over other beanie baby scholars for decades – maybe even as a book*.

It was obvious to me when I first learned of TextDash that this could be an awesome basis for a course, but that some things would have to change, especially when it became a summer course. The biggest and most obvious, is that this could not have the same level of immersion a true TextDash could. Assume, very conservatively, that enthusiasts of any topic, beanie babies or other, restrict themselves to 14 hour work days when surrounded with like-minded peers. Even if they meet and collaborate for only 5 days, they’ll spend 70 face-face hours in each other’s presence. Unlike those people who probably at least professionally knew each other and their work, we’re relative novices who, with some exceptions, didn’t know each other prior to entering this course. At the end of 560, we’ll have met in-person for only 20 hours. By necessity, two of those sessions have been very much NOT collaborative, but instead designed to disseminate mutually useful information in the most condensed way possible. I do believe the collaboration that 560 can look forward to will happen in the next few weeks as we write with our chapter partners and edit/revise the results as a class. The other two classes we’ve already experienced also ran up against a difference from our beanie baby counterparts – we don’t all agree on the topic we’ve selected. The first sessions were characterized by disagreement and frustration because we, being relative newcomers to the field, do not have the in-built history our established peers do. Inherently, we were going to feel like any topic we picked was being plucked out of the air. Throw in the complication that we’re not even all from the same field or headed toward the same field, and of course the quality of content brainstorming was going to be reduced. We’re not yet scholars of instruction, being that most of us have not yet taught a class. 
What this class is is an exercise in the basest components of research with an eye toward contributing to a larger discussion. We are originating, researching, and synthesizing new discussion for outside consumption. *: The word “book” has attracted far too much angst in the past 4 weeks. I don’t care if this is a book, a wiki, a novella, an ebook, or if these topics end up lacking the cohesion to justify a collection and we all take our pieces and look elsewhere for contribution (although I sincerely doubt the last scenario will happen). What we are trying to do here is to fit our research and writing into a larger assemblage which is itself joining a larger discussion. I knew from the beginning that the most attractive elements of a true TextDash would have difficulty integrating: in-person back-and-forth brainstorming, immersion with many like-minded writers, and developing a well-honed topic/subtopic relationship were all bound to diminish where the participants meet 2.5 hours per week over 8 weeks and necessarily had to do their work away from each other amidst the rest of regular life. This was never going to be a true TextDash.
Finally, there has been a great deal of – I’ll say it – negativity regarding how we’ve utilized alternatives to face-face time in this class. Speaking primarily of Twitter, but to a lesser extent Google Docs, there have been entirely unproductive snarks about how the #560wr tag has not been active enough. Still, I have yet to hear how there was going to be a robust twitter backchannel to this course when all of the above issues are considered. I love what Twitter can do for subdiscussion in some venues, like during the Computers and Writing Conference sessions, where interesting counterpoints and questions emerged alongside the presentations we were viewing. However, I was irritated by some of the useless, nonconstructive, sometimes openly negative blather some contributers seemed to flood the #cwcon tag with, seemingly being content to be heard rather than to actually say something. (for further reading on my thoughts of CWcon… just wait. I might get around to writing a horribly late post-con entry soon) Up until this week, all #560wr writers were either doing research (very much a read-only kind of mode), or otherwise not sure they had anything worth saying yet. The only thing I dislike more than no class discussion is uninspired, regurgitative class discussion. If you aren’t adding something, squawking like a parrot isn’t better. This also applies to Twitter.
So am I a misanthrope for taking umbrage with how twitchy things have gotten about this class? I hope not. I understand that, like me, participants want to get something out of this besides the class grade – I did not need to take this class for requirements at all, but instead chose to take it because it seemed damned interesting. What I’d like to believe I am is a realist with standards. In this case, my standards are fairly low: take what you can from ENG 560, even if it isn’t your personal ideal. Don’t ignore what’s good because you’ve yet to see exactly what you’d hoped to at the outset. You may yet be surprised at what you gain when everything wraps up in July, especially if you don’t set preconditions.
Kiss that frog beanie baby and see what happens, people.