“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” -Paulo Freire
“This is a great discovery, education is politics!”- Paulo Freire
Q:How do you know you are succeeding as a program?
A: When you are up at 4:00am watching a project your students and faculty built spread around the globe, being discussed in languages you can’t even identify.
By now, most of my followers and readers are no doubt aware that a project built here at our Emerging Media and Communications program has been receiving a great deal of attention. Actually a great deal of attention rather understates the case. This, all more or less started on Monday when The Chronicle of Higher Education published a story written by Jeff Young about this project: EnemyGraph. (The actual story was “published” on Sunday but really did not get noticed until Monday morning.)
More on the project in a moment, but for now a brief explanation of how this story spread. By late Monday morning the story was featured on Slashdot, from where it jumped to numerous other tech blogs and ultimately to more mainstream news organizations. By Monday evening EnemyGraph was spreading internationally. And so it was partly due to insomnia, partly due to a rather full schedule that I found myself awake at 4:00am on Tuesday opening up a web browser to run searches on the story, and opening up a separate tab in Tweetdeck to peek at the Twitter conversation. It’s at this point things got a bit unwieldily, EnemyGraph was spreading to so many places around the globe that I couldn’t follow the conversation. When I first tuned in there was a slew of tweets in Russian, followed by a collection in Hindi, then Thai (for some reason it was moving Eastward). I lost count at 20 different languages. This is how I measure success as an educator. It has been covered on ABC, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Mashable, The Huffington Post, NPR . . . well look for yourself.
I am not writing this to just brag about EnemyGraph, I have a much larger motivation for writing this post. And let me be clear up front, this isn’t even my project. EnemyGraph is a project built by Dean Terry (faculty here in EMAC) and two students Bradley Griffith and Harrison Massey. My role in all of this has been really, really, really, minor; just support, talking with the team about it, sharing my thoughts. But regardless of this the last week has been one of my most enjoyable as an educator, and herein lies one of the big takeaways of EnemyGraph and ultimately the motivation for this post: EnemyGraph is an excellent example of education done right. I’ll take it a step further, EnemyGraph is one of the best examples of education in the age of the digital network I can think of.
EnemyGraph. What? You Want People to Make Enemies?
To understand my claim it’s important to contextualize EnemyGraph a bit here, and explain why I think it is a fabulous project. Again let me stress that this isn’t my work, Dean and the students are the driving force, “the artists” here, I am just playing the roll of cultural critic, analyzing and critiquing the project, albeit from an insider’s perspective. Indeed, I think some of my thoughts on this might even disagree with what the team says about EnemyGraph. (For those who want to read in Dean’s own words what he thinks the project is about, his artist statement of sorts, you can check out his own post about EnemyGraph.)
Let’s face it, there is a serious problem with Facebook, okay actually there are lots of problems with Facebook, but for understanding EnemyGraph there is one serious problem worth focusing on: Facebook has become a private corporate space which dominates our public and civic lives. The privatization of the public sphere, of our civic interactions is a serious concern to me, and other scholars. Let us set aside the issue of data mining or Facebook’s motivations, we don’t have to imagine Facebook as an intentionally nefarious actor to recognize that to many Facebook has become “the internet”, having a monopoly on communications the likes of which has never before existed, to recognize there are serious concerns here. More and more our social lives are being played out in privately owned spaces—the implications of this are still being worked out. We need, I would argue, to be concerned about this, focused on critiquing and understanding the ways in which our public sphere is being radically transformed. To be sure Facebook isn’t the only actor here, it’s just the most prominent, and for now the one which concerns me the most. Privatizing the commons of public discourse strikes me as a serioulsy dangerous civic development.
Understand this is a particularly layered problem, one I am always trying to get my students to “see.” Students today, as Siva Vaidhyanathan first put it to me, are swimming in an ocean of media, our obligation is to get them to step outside the ocean and “see” what they are swimming in. It is in this regard that I have students in my intro to the major class quit Facebook. I want them to see how Facebook is quite literally engineering social relations, and doing so in ways that students are not totally aware. And this will get us to EnemyGraph. Consider how Facebook allows you to “friend” things, companies, and corporations, to “like” things, companies, and corporations but not to dislike them. Facebook doesn’t want a dislike button because it would both undermine the pleasant (sterile) community they want to have, and because it would undermine the business model, businesses don’t want a dislike button. Or consider how Facebook has altered the very meaning of the word “friend,” where “friend” now connotes a different social relation than it did just 5 years ago. Facebook is coding, engineering, setting the rules for what types of relations we can have, with little to no input from us. Yes and the creators of this app are not idiots, the use of the word “enemy” here is intentional. Facebook abuses the word Friend, EnemyGraph just points this out.
Now as an academic I could write about this, try to get people to pay attention to this problem, as I have, and as others have. Of course there is another option which is to stage a project, a piece of art, to perform the critique. There is a long history of this, and I would argue it is one of the most important roles of art (and humanities in general), to produce objects which perform a cultural critique, and more importantly get the larger culture to engage in a conversation about the issues at hand. Indeed many of the projects I admire most adopt this tactic. One could point here to graffiti art (Banksy is one of my favorite artists), street performances (such as “Operation First Casualty”), or groups such as the Yes Men and Critical Art Ensemble, or even specific projects such as Cow Clicker. It is true that I have a particular affinity for the “stir shit up” approach, one that Dean shares, and this is not to discount other approaches, but I find this tactical one particularly effective. This is how I interpret Dean’s quote about social media needing a shot of Johnny Rotten. This isn’t simply a matter of poking a finger at Facebook, the stakes are much, much larger.
It is against this background that I find the reactions of some academics at times puzzling, and at other times downright disturbing. The idea that this was built just to foster negativity or bullying is a shallow reading, one born out of a total lack of engagement with EnemyGraph. But more importantly the idea that academics shouldn’t be working on projects which actively engage in the world around us, that produce and foster conversations about the roll of technology in our lives comes from an academic community I have no interest in being a part of. And lest you think I am being to critical of academia here, it has been interesting to note how the conversations in “non-academic” communities in my opinion have been far more nuanced and in depth, engaging both the object and what it is after.
Not to get too detailed here about EnemyGraph, but this is a project long in the making, not something whimsically produced over night to encourage bullying or trolling online (it has been at least a year in development). This is a carefully thought out, well planned critical performance, an engagement with the cultural of the privatized public space of Facebook. Part art project, part performance, part critique, part technical object, part critique of technology, part network exploit, part strategic operation, EnemyGraph is teh awesome.
I couldn’t be happier for their success, they have 20,000 users, have overwhelmed their servers, and produced so much press coverage I can’t keep track of it all. But that’s not what is the most exciting. The thing that makes me most proud here is what this project says about what type of learning environment we are building here in EMAC at UTDallas.
Conversing About EnemyGraph. The Educational Model.
I won’t go into detail here about what I think EMAC is, or the design of the major, you can read my longer reflection on that if you are interested. But I will short cut and say that the program has two components, critical and creative. That is, we want students to be critically engaged with the networked digital media environment and to be creators of media content, to repurpose social media for their own aims. I think of Howard Rheingold’s insistence that we need to teach students to be “Net Smart.” And that’s where this story gets really important to me.
As EnemyGraph took off, started to gain traction as a media event, you could see the story reflected in a general energy of our students. Other EMAC students were excited about the media coverage the project was receiving, excited about the attention EMAC was generating, but here is the important part, they were also talking about the project online across all the various networked platforms. Numerous times I would scan a news story, skip to the comments, to discover that our students were commenting on the story, explaining EnemyGraph, critiquing Facebook, even critiquing EnemyGraph. The students in our program were demonstrating a network literacy, this wasn’t just a classroom education, it was engaging the world through the digital network. Just one brief example. One of our students is from Brazil, and she was explaining to me the conversation she has been having (in Portuguese with the networked spaces in Brazil) about EnemyGraph, how it is received there, and how placing it in a different cultural context changes the dialogue. This is education at its best. And it is not just the conversation online that I see students participating in, in the hall ways, in classes, our students are engaging in a very thoughtful dialogue about this project and more importantly the problem of Facebook. I can only assume that our students are having this conversation all over, both on and off campus now.
And so this strikes me as one of the serious lessons to take away from EnemyGraph: the digital network changes the landscape of educational possibilities. This is something Bradley Griffith pointed out both in his interview with Jeff and in the comment section of The Chronicle Article.
Certainly in the past education has not been merely confined to the classroom, but the network changes the scale and pace of what is possible. The more we can encourage students to collaborate, to see the world as their audience I think the more successful we can be. Gone are the days when we must restrict students to small audiences and performing for us as instructors, now the network makes possible projects and learning environments with massively expanded audiences. Forget the classroom, the local community, or even the nation, EnemyGraph has turned into an international lesson. Sure we can keep asking our students to write papers for us interpreting some 18th century text, analyze some obscure symbolism, and give them an audience of one, or at most an audience of 20 at some conference. But give me one EnemyGraph as a learning project over 1,000 antiquated research papers any day. Or put another way who needs another boring marketing or business plan, go have the students make something.
This isn’t to say that professors ought to adopt the “stir shit up” model that Dean and I both prefer, or even that it is appropriate for every class, but certainly there is a pedagogical advantage to having students actively critique and create media objects that exist beyond the classroom. I am not interested in developing passive consumers, or students who are interested in figuring out “how to make people click ads.” I want to help students critique this world, imagine a different one, and help to produce a better one. It is in this vein that I so value and appreciate what the EnemyGraph team accomplished here. But I also teach a class where students are working on civic media projects, one group is attempting to collect coming out stories to help LGBT youth, another working to help animal adoption, and another is boldly trying to raise enough money to send a kid to college. And, these are the things that inspire me as an instructor, that make me feel good about our program, and keep me up late at night thinking, “what’s the next thing we could do?”
So many people who commented on this project claimed this was somehow irresponsible asking “how could a program support this?” or “what kind of professor does this, builds EnemyGraph?” But I have a better question to ask of educators: “Why aren’t you trying to build the next EnemyGraph?”