by Dr. Sarah Lohnes Watulak, Director of Digital Pedagogy and Media

In these yearly digital detoxes, we have often turned our attention to opening up the black box of our ubiquitous, and taken for granted, digital tools – exploring, for example, the environmental impacts of data centers, or the ways in many tech companies harvest our data for profit, at the expense of our personal data privacy and security. One of my favorite pathways into the black box is to question the assumptions, the logics, upon which they are built. In a previous job, I would ask the education graduate students in my instructional technology courses to identify the pedagogical assumptions underlying some of the technologies they typically used in their teaching. We did so by critically analyzing the affordances and disaffordances of the technology – what the feature set of the technology made possible for teachers to do, pedagogically speaking, and what potential barriers those features posed. (If you’re interested in how this lens for analysis can be applied to a Learning Management System like Canvas or Blackboard, check out If bell hooks Made an LMS.) Naming the pedagogical assumptions underlying these technologies allowed the students in my courses to identify whether a particular technology was aligned with their pedagogical values and goals for student learning, and then to make decisions about its use in their teaching.

Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, and the ensuing conversations among Twitter users about whether to stay or go, has highlighted and reinforced the ways in which social media platforms feel like an inevitable part of many of our lives. Social media, like other software platforms, are designed by people, for certain purposes, and guided by certain logics. Dr. Ramesh Srinivasan, in his book Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Shapes Our World, calls these technical codes the “invisible discourses and values that shape the design and deployment of the technological artifact and if analyzed, may reveal the ways in which the tools and systems are socially, culturally, economically, and politically constructed… technical codes are only visible when in flux” (p. 23). It would be an understatement to say that Musk’s purchase of Twitter, and the ensuing fallout, has created a moment of flux that has exposed our assumptions regarding the logic underlying Twitter as a social media platform. Specifically, Twitter is not a people-powered space for public good: “So I think the bigger story here is that we outsourced the public square to the private sector, right? Twitter becomes or feels like the public square. But it has never operated in practice as a public square. It cannot. It is not owned by the state or the people” (Dr. Tressie McMillan Cotton, speaking on The Daily Show). Rather, Twitter’s logic is built on surveillance capitalism, in which privately-owned companies use (often biased) algorithms to push ads (to make money) and to harvest personal information (to make money).

As Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci and Ethan Zuckerman point out in their Illustrated Field Guide to Social Media,

“Because Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are so prominent and are so widely amplified by mainstream media, we tend to assume that all social media operate in the same way and suffer from the same problems. This narrow view of social media not only limits our discussions about social media and its effects, it constrains our imagination about what social media could do or be” (2021, p. 6).

Indeed, as Dr. Casey Fiesler suggests, “The idea of a social media network not being one platform and not being owned by someone is very outside of all other experiences that we’ve had.” But what if there are other ways to design social networks, other logics that can be imagined and applied? In fact, there are a plethora of alternative models for social networks that already exist; here are a few, pulled from the excellent Illustrated Guide to Social Media:

  • Civic logic: platforms with “a specific social purpose behind them, and often a community that is a full participant in its own governance” (p. 11); for example, Mideast Tunes
  • Gift logic: platforms which support a non-commodified creation and sharing among a community; for example, Archive of Our Own
  • Discovery logic: platforms which enable performance of identity through curation, review, recommendation, and discussion; for example, Goodreads
  • Decentralized logic: platforms that allow anyone to create their own instances of the platform – with its own users, norms, governance, etc.; for example, Mastodon

If you are a Twitter user who follows folks in academia, you have likely heard of Mastodon, which has emerged among academics as one of the more popular alternatives to Twitter. Given that each instance of Mastodon is its own social network or community, the appeal of decentralized platforms lies in the ability for those communities to build their own norms and governance structures, and – in the best-case scenario – for users to participate in shared governance of the communities in which they are members. It is much more closely aligned with Dr. McMillan Cottom’s vision of the public square: owned by the users, accountable to the users. On a practical level, participating in a decentralized platform can be trickier to manage, as a new user must find an instance that aligns with their interests, is available to join, and has a critical mass of users to make it attractive to potential users. (Some tools aimed at Twitter users have recently emerged, including services to find out what Mastodon instances your Twitter follows have joined.)

In the end, no matter which logic is employed, it’s worth noting that the technology can constrain but not fully determine the ways in which users take it up, make sense of it, and build worlds with it. In the case of Mastodon, “what matters above all is how we use that tool, and how we co-govern it. If everyone just all joins the same server, we will probably end up with something worse than Twitter. Lots of servers, also, are run by admins who do not necessarily have accountability to their users. For the move to the fediverse to truly be a step toward better social media, we need to be intentional about how we organize ourselves with it” ( wiki). Opening up the black boxes of our social media platforms to examine the underlying logic is important because – like the teachers in my instructional technology courses – once exposed, we can make decisions about whether our personal values align with those logics, or whether we might want to choose to spend our time and attention on a different platform more aligned with our values. In other words the act of opening up the black box and naming the status quo allows us to imagine alternative futures, and knowing there are alternatives, to make choices – to write our futures.

Take Action

  • Explore alternate social media platform logics by checking out some of the example platforms listed above (you’ll find more examples of platforms in the Illustrated Guide to Social Media)
  • Create a new decentralized community using Mastodon or another decentralized platform

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