Frances Bell

home at last – for all the mes


Binaries, Polarisation and Privacy

White Noise by Scott Joseph CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

White Noise by Scott Joseph CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In my writing, reading and thinking during the last year or so, some of the recurring themes are ethics, learning, diversity, popularity and polarisation in Internet culture.  Encouraged by my experience at the smallest federated wiki, I am trying different ways of writing, experimenting with partially-formed ideas, linking with and building on what others have written.  I have always blogged in this way but the experience of federated wiki has encouraged me to work in smallish chunks of writing that I can link to others’ smallish chunks without any overarching plan of where I am going.

This post is a bit different from my fedwiki writing. I want to set down some different ideas that seem connected to me because I suspect that I can come back to them later and make different connections, with your help.  I did this in an earlier post that is still ripe for connections for me.  If this post generates anything like the richness of the earlier post’s comment stream, it will be productive labour.

In some ways, we are moving away from limiting old binaries and dualisms like real/virtual, global/local in our exploration of (digital) communication and culture.

Polarisation in public discourse online is a theme that has preoccupied me, and some cogs in my thinking shifted a little when I read this excellent article by David A. Banks, Very Serious Populists.

Just like its government equivalent, voting on social networks is also a nice way to give the illusion that anything and anyone can succeed on merit while actually maintaining the status quo through sociotechnical structures. Tech entrepreneurs deploy voting to show allegiance to their fantasy of a color-blind and genderless meritocracy, predicated on what PJ Rey has shown to be an outdated and debunked notion that the Internet allows us to transcend race, class, and gender by entering a space of pure information. Popular posts are good, the logic goes, because only the best makes it to the front page.

David’s critique of voting on social networks argues powerfully that the ‘binaries’ of up-voting and down-voting are inadequate for dealing with ambiguity and divisive topics. They are a tool for polarisation not a means of going beyond it, and as David suggests the status quo of domination of spaces by white males is maintained, and even reinforced by sociotechnical aspects such as ‘voting’. The idea that someone’s popularity lends additional weight to what they have to say is interesting and deserves to be unpicked.

Another ‘binary’ that has attracted much attention is public/ private – which probably never was and certainly is no longer a binary – and deeply embedded in power relations.   danah boyd’s work has revealed that young people can regard online privacy as a strategy, more to do with who’s there rather than the features of the space itself.

We are all finding our way in the complex private/public spaces we increasingly inhabit and so it’s important to reflect, acknowledge our successes and mistakes and think of how we might do things differently.

In a powerful post, based on recent events and her own frightening experiences, Audrey Watters drew our attention to the nasty practice of doxxing, posting online someone’s personal information (such as social security number or home address). Audrey highlighted the network aspects of doxxing.

After all, doxxing relies on these sorts of large networks. Doxxing relies on amplification.

So even if we are reposting something already ‘made public’, we can be increasing the risks of the doxxed person being subjected to threats and nuisances by others. We can become part of that network of harm.  In the example that Audrey gives, both the original poster and the re-poster may well have seen themselves as on the side of the angels in their wish to defend student privacy.

And for me that links back to polarisation, it may be that we are at most danger of being drawn into networks of harm when we are hell bent on supporting a good cause.

The other thing that is puzzling me is whether or not the binary nature of much of our online participation like/not like, friend/not friend, follow/ not follow, click/not click, upvote/downvote, block/ not block might be seeping into our culture,as well as the platforms on which we enact it.  These are hard clickable binaries trying to capture a world where dualisms can get in the way of understanding complex contexts. I am not suggesting an essentialist view that our use of ‘likes’, etc. will cause polarisation of views but wondering what the impacts of ‘binary participation’ may be in different communication contexts. It’s not just about our choice to click/like but also about how that is used by the algorithms that serve up our feeds, shaping our view of what others say and do.

I would love to hear your thoughts or your links to other writers.

#fedwikiAudrey WattersbinaryDavid A. Banksethicspolarisationpopularityprivatepublicsocial networksvoting

francesbell • March 24, 2015

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  1. francesbell March 25, 2015 - 9:11 am Reply

    Stephen Downes linked to this post in OLDaily – here’s what he said My holding response was “Thanks for these comments Stephen. I agree that choice is an important issue and realise that one of things that has been bothering me about polarisation is the impact it has on our ability to make choices. I will link back to you post at my blog to make the connection that will provided food for further thought. I still want to question the impact of binary in online participation though. Private/public, local/global, etc have had a good examination and debunked as binaries – time to look a bit more at how we do online participation when we aren’t exchanging words (like now). You linked to my post and David Banks’ article and I will now link to your post but there’s more than that going on.”

  2. mikecaulfield July 23, 2015 - 9:06 pm Reply

    So I missed this first time around (I’ve been sloppy with blog reading since Google Reader died).

    I do think these binaries are fascinating.

    A related idea for me is adversarialism and persuasion as a discourse context. I’ve been toying with the work of Dan Sperber on motivated reasoning and coming to the conclusion that maybe the sorts of forms of conversation and dialogue that work in small groups of known individuals are just doomed to fail in larger venues.

    On the form of blogging here, I’m really interested in ways in which federated wiki changes writing style in other forms so keep letting me know about your experiments.

  3. francesbell July 27, 2015 - 11:23 am Reply

    Thanks for telling me about Dan Sperber (another rabbit hole:) I am quite troubled by moving between the local ‘neighbourhoods’ and ‘publics’ – and wondering so much about what’s happening between these scales. A fedwiki neighbourhood could be relatively off the beaten track but what about when a neighbourhood perform itself in a self-consciously public way, say using social media? I have seen some weird effects of the public utterance ‘silencing’ the observers – it’s very amibiguous

  4. Processing our grief and looking to the future – Frances Bell

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