As Brisbane enters its second day of a three day lock down, I have been thinking about how much more we have come to rely upon our online tribe since this time last year.
Although here in Queensland we have been fortunate to (so far, touch wood) avoid a long stretch of lockdown, having experienced almost three months of living alone in Singapore in lockdown last year, and with family and friends unable to travel home, I have come to appreciate how fortunate we are if we have a reliable broadband connection and the capacity to connect via chat, video conference or other social networking app.
I have always been quite comfortable engaging professionally and socially via digital media, and having worked remotely on and off for the past 5 years or so, I am fairly confident across a range of digital communication platforms. At any time of day (or night) I will email colleagues, chat with others on Discord, send reminders and funny links to family on our personal Slack server, receive WhatsApp messages from friends overseas, participate in meetings via Zoom or Teams and share links and thoughts via social media networks. I realise that not everyone feels the same way, and creating connections via online is far from being first preference for many, but I am at home online; perhaps more so than in real life!
Aside from the online tribes linked by blood ties, friendship or work, we are also probably members of less formally organised tribes of people who come together using a particular social network (perhaps via a Facebook group, or united by a hashtag across other platforms). When I think about the tribes online that I belong to, they are dominated by people who post about learning, libraries and research (yes, I am a nerd!). I enjoy being a part of these tribes because these are people who share my interests, who post about topics I am interested in, and who alert me to new developments and ideas. However I am aware that even though I am familiar with the concept of the filter bubble, and I try to avoid echo chambers and seek out different perspectives on controversial topics, those who share my interests and are in my tribe are also likely to hold quite similar opinions – I am drawn to them because we ‘think alike‘.
But what about people who prompt me to ‘think about’ things differently? Those people who might challenge my thinking, who might take a different perspective, or provoke the discomfort that is sometimes necessary for growth? Am I likely to discover these people as I engage in my usual reading routines around social networks, and haunt the same old hashtags and online spaces each day? Possibly not.
This is not a surprising phenomena, nor anything new – we have always naturally been drawn toward circles of people who share similar viewpoints or worldviews. The presence of confirmation bias and false consensus created through social media algorithms exacerbates this further.
Ironically, when our opportunity to connect has expanded to include a global community, we are perhaps becoming more polarised and insular than ever before.
It happens so easily, and so naturally that we must make a regular point of reviewing our connections, and ensuring that while we may engage regularly with our ‘think alikes‘, we should also have at least a few people in our networks that stimulate us to think about.
Two people who I enjoy reading the work of are Austin Kleon and Dr Ian O’Byrne. Both of these gentlemen have weekly newsletters that are chock full of interesting links and points of view. Austin Kleon is the author of Steal like an artist and Show your work, which you may be familiar with, and his newsletter includes fascinating observations about pop culture, links to good (and obscure) music and authors, artists and creators. Dr Ian O’Byrne is an academic whose research interests include digital literacy and open pedagogy, and the newsletter he sends weekly provides access to interesting research and publications as well as his own perspective on a variety of topics.
Someone else who regularly challenges my thinking is the incredible Maha Bali. Maha is an open and connected educator, and I learn alot from her whenever I read her work or hear her speak.
As you can see from these three examples, people who make you ‘think about’ stuff can also be ‘think alikes’, but they are often people who either work in a different field, live in a different culture or have significantly different life experiences. They don’t have to have radically different opinions – but they often will approach concepts, events or experiences from a completely new angle, and this is what broadens our own thinking.
I feel like most of this post is saying stuff that you would all already know and most likely do. However, my purpose in writing is to ask some questions…
- How often do we explicitly and actively consider whether our online tribes are challenging and extending our learning or just confirming what we currently think and know?
- Is there a need to explicitly teach students the benefits of engaging with and welcoming into our online tribe people who make us ‘think about’ stuff rather than only those who think alike?
- As we struggle to manage a world of mis-, dis- and mal- information, could we all use some more ‘think abouts’ in our networks, rather than surrounding ourselves with ‘think alikes’?
- Could this be something that we need to discuss with students as we educate them in ways to navigate our online lives?
I’d love to know your thoughts!