Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Farewell Twitter - breaking up is hard to do

Photo by Alexander Shatov on Unsplash

It looks like it is time to leave the sinking ship of the app formerly known as Twitter after almost 15 years of tweeting. Elon Musk, looking and behaving more and more like a classic James Bond villain, has succeeded in destroying a major social media channel in one year of chaotic ownership. His strategy seems to be to scare off all serious users and create a new platform, X, for right wing extremism, conspiracy theories and disinformation. In that case he has succeeded. 

However, I'm sad to leave because over the years I have made so many valuable connections on Twitter that have lead to collaboration and new friendships, as well as countless useful links, inspirational chats and moral support. I've met people on Twitter who I have then met at conferences, written articles with and formed projects with. It took me a few years of work to build up a network on Twitter. Many colleagues gave up with it because they had so few connections and didn't work out how to attract more. There was little or no interest in the platform here in Sweden back then so I reached out internationally, following educators I knew and admired and then checking who they followed. That way I built up a network of trusted sources. Then I had to find ways of getting people to follow me otherwise I'd be simply tweeting into a vacuum. I focused on sharing useful content (articles, news, threads) and using hashtags to reach as many as possible. Slowly people started following me and connections began to happen. I followed people and channels who offered useful content for my work and assumed that some of themwould find me a useful contact. I also started using Twitter to generate traffic to my blogs and that certainly helped them thrive. I remember the day one of my educational gurus retweeted one of my blog posts and I saw the sudden peak in page views - I really felt I'd made the big time! That has happened quite often since then but I still get a great feeling when a major name in my field notices what I've done. No names mentioned but I thank you all. 

I have made many exciting contacts and one in particular still makes me smile. I saw a tweet one day from a school teacher in Canada  who had seen a nice Swedish brochure about using Creative Commons licenses in school. She wondered if anyone could translate it to English. I happened to know the person who wrote the original and we very quickly created a new English version and sent it to the Canadian teacher. This then spread and was used in many schools. I then got an invitation from the teacher to meet her class on Skype one afternoon and talk about Creative Commons as well as answering the pupils' questions about life in Sweden. All that because I answered a tweet.

Then there have been all the tweetchats. I have taken part in many of these and organised many too. If you have never tried one before it goes like this. You announce a chat session in advance and a suitable hashtag. At the proposed time you send a tweet with the hashtag welcoming everyone to the tweetchat. Participants "tune in" by searching for the hashtag on Twitter or whatever app you use for it. The participants can then introduce themselves and you can make a few welcoming remarks and repeat the chat rules. The key is that the hashtag must appear on every post. Then you ask a question and wait for responses. As the answers come in you can comment on them and encourage participants to comment on each others' posts. You keep feeding the discussion until the time is up, usually after one hour. It's rather chaotic - some people find it stressful and confusing whilst others thrive. I love hosting but you end up typing almost non-stop for an hour. If you have experienced users the chat just flies along and participants share links, ideas and new perspectives. I will miss this and even if the same thing can be done on other platforms I don't really have the energy to start all over again.

As Twitter implodes into a platform called X it is time for the world's media, institutions, companies and leaders to leave and stop using it as a channel for serious dissemination and discussion. I hope that world politics will no longer be conducted on X. I'm not sure where they should move to though. Do we really trust Meta's new Threads? Is Mastodon able to become a default news source? Or is the new social media landscape too fragmented? Twitter has been an extremely powerful medium for 15 years and it is hard to understand how it could be destroyed so quickly.

Curiously, I have never really seen the dark side of Twitter. Maybe it's due to a combination of being careful who I follow and the algorithms being very effective at feeding me content that I want to see. Anyway, my feed has always been full of education content as well as increasing amounts of climate research and humanitarian posts with almost no trace of the toxic garbage that have made the platform so infamous, especially since Musk turned off all the safety controls. I'm still reluctant to completely switch off because I still get good useful content from both contacts and trusted news media. I've deleted Twitter from my mobile but haven't quite pressed the button to completely exit. Breaking up is hard to do.

PS. I have now deleted my account.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Into the vortex of the post-truth era

Photo by Manuel M. Almeida on Unsplash

I can't help it but here's another post about my concerns with artificial intelligence. AI is already being used to churn out fake news stories, entire sites of it, as well as fake reviews of hotels, restaurants, movies and much much more. It can be used to write plausible project plans, essays and academic articles (often without substance or any originality complete with references both genuine and invented), fake videos of people saying and doing things they never did in reality (whatever that is!), scripts for TV shows, novels - the list goes on and on. Since AI can produce an infinite amount of content in a few blinks of an eye, I wonder what happens when most of the content on the web is AI-generated. And since AI trawls the web for content it will be trawling other AI content and producing new content based on its own content. This sounds like a wormhole into a Wonderland where nothing is real and fact and fiction have become completely blurred into each other. 

Reviews have been a problem for a long time with people being paid to write fake reviews to make or break a hotel, restaurant, destination, book or film. But why pay people to write nonsense when AI does it instantly and for free. This is highlighted in a n article in the GuardianFake reviews: can we trust what we read online as use of AI explodes? The review sites like Trip Advisor, Amazon etc are aware of the problem and try to filter out the obvious fakes but very soon we will not be able to tell the difference, making the whole process meaningless. In the end you stop reading the reviews. The companies behind the AI tools simply ignore the issue - they lit the fuse and then watch the fireworks.

Guardian Money asked OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, why it does not prevent its AI tool from producing fake reviews of hotels, restaurants and products that the “reviewer” has never visited or used. We made multiple attempts to contact the company and submitted a number of questions but it did not respond by the time this article was published.
AI music is also thriving with streaming services offering playlists of AI-generated formula music in various genres. Since this music is generated by scanning thousands of human compositions the music industry is concerned about copyright and royalties as described in an article on CNN, Universal Music Group calls AI music a ‘fraud,’ wants it banned from streaming platforms. Experts say it’s not that easy. We could theoretically stop it but it's hard to prove breach of copyright when the AI tool has sampled thousands of pieces. 
“You can flag your site not to be searched. But that’s a request — you can’t prevent it. You can just request that someone not do it,” said Shelly Palmer, Professor of Advanced Media at Syracuse University.
Pandora's box is wide open and it looks very unlikely that we will be able to impose regulations. Once again the companies benefitting from the AI-generated content are predictably silent:
Music streamers Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora did not return request for comment.
I have read many articles about how we can harness AI to open up new opportunities in education, health care and other fields and there will be some excellent examples of good practice. But in terms of the wider impact I simply can't imagine human beings acting so rationally. We are truly entering the post-truth era.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Wave goodbye to the edtech cruisers and focus on real community building

Photo by Peter Hansen on Unsplash

One year after retirement and it's a strange feeling standing on the quay watching the edtech ship sail away from me and onwards towards the horizon. I've tried to maintain contact with the issues I used to find so important but if you're not onboard and involved it all feels more remote every day until the ship disappears over the horizon. There are new technologies and platforms on board now and my personal learning environment has become almost obsolete.I thrived on the social media boom of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Diigo and so on and the opportunities these fascinating channels offered for networking, collaboration, sharing and creativity. It was a great ride for about 12 years but it has all turned sour as the platforms have become polluted with algorithm-driven ads, propaganda and toxicity. Having spent so long urging teachers to use social media to widen their horizons, increase their impact and foster collaboration I realised that I might now be leading them into a trap. So now the edtech cruiser is sailing away loaded with new technologies and platforms that I simply can't relate to anymore. But maybe we have to reset our ambitions about networking and settle for less flashy but more sustainable solutions.

A post by Inger Mewburn in her excellent blog The thesis whispererThe enshittification of academic social media, really rang a lot of bells for me. She has also been a strong advocate of academics using social media to promote their work and build networks. But now she advises caution with using social media on the grounds that no matter how good the content you share may be you will not get exposure thanks to algorithms that prioritise content that will generate income. It's also hard to make contact with others when the algorithms continually push other stuff in front of you.

Maybe Threads is the next big platform and indeed the initial uptake is spectacular, though here in the EU it is blocked since it is full of major privacy issues that violate the GDPR regulations (well played EU!). But even if you can use Threads it's probably not a good idea. It looks good but it feeds off your privacy and is fully integrated with the rest of Meta's platforms.

Inger proposes a revised set of recommendations to academics wanting to use social media in their work. Think very carefully before you use mainstream social media in your teaching. Think especially about the privacy issues to which you may be exposing students and colleagues. Use these channels for social contacts if you want but don't share content there; own your content by having your own space for it. For building a network she suggests the good old-fashioned mailing lists. I certainly found e-mail newsletters a good way to reach out though there are issues with that, especially the problem that many organisations ' firewalls automatically block newsletters as suspected spam. But certainly you can reach out to known subscribers and build your community through that.

Email is still the best distribution medium of them all: cost free and free from algorithms. I just started a mailing list for people interested in my neurodiversity in the PhD research – I already have 160 or so people signed up, which is so incredible (thank you!). I plan to use this list to test out research ideas and get feedback on research in progress. Much more effective than shouting into the wind on Threads or something.

She also mentions a possible revival of blogging, something I would of course welcome. Use your blog as a space to share your ideas and offer advice. The best way to blog is to host the blog yourself and be in complete control. I made the mistake of opting for the convenience of Google's Blogger platform back in the days when I believed they were working for the common good and so all my writing is in their domain. 

Of course Mastodon and its family of open source social media in the Fediverse is the sustainable and uncommercial option to create communities, though it's always a good idea to check each platform first to see if it's right for you (don't assume that all are automatically trustworthy). If I was still active that's where I'd go. The Fediverse will not go mainstream and will remain a refuge for those who see through the glitter and flashy facade of the Big Five, but maybe we have to accept that meaningful collaboration is limited in scale. Leave the big platforms and connect with people rather than bots and trolls. It may not be as flashy and may not have all the bells and whistles but it works.