How Commercial Social Networks Hinder Connective Learning

The advertising, tracking and analysis functions of commercial social media present, as Raymond Williams says, “a formula of communication, an intrinsic setting of priorities” [14]. The difference separating these priorities from those of education is clear in terms of the form of social networks, if not also in some aspects of its culture and content. It only remains to be seen whether this dynamic renders commercial social networking services as fully unsupportive of educational ends as commercial television has long been.

An analysis of protocollary power within social networks, and how this affects their educational, ‘connectivist’ potential:

* Article: Education and the social Web: Connective learning and the commercial imperative. Norm Friesen. First Monday, Volume 15, Number 12 – 6 December 2010


“In recent years, new socially-oriented Web technologies have been portrayed as placing the learner at the centre of networks of knowledge and expertise, potentially leading to new forms of learning and education. In this paper, I argue that commercial social networks are much less about circulating knowledge than they are about connecting users (“eyeballs”) with advertisers; it is not the autonomous individual learner, but collective corporate interests that occupy the centre of these networks. Looking first at Facebook, Twitter, Digg and similar services, I argue their business model restricts their information design in ways that detract from learner control and educational use. I also argue more generally that the predominant “culture” and corresponding types of content on services like those provided Google similarly privileges advertising interests at the expense of users. Just as commercialism has rendered television beyond the reach of education, commercial pressures threaten to seriously limit the potential of the social Web for education and learning.”

Excerpt on Algorithmically–Defined Audiences:

Norm Friesen:

“This is perhaps easiest to illustrate with the example of Facebook, but it applies also to a wide range of services — and generally the more “social” their emphasis, the clearer the influence. Users of Facebook are sure to have been struck by the numerous and varied ways in which it cultivates gregarity and interaction, the way in which it relentlessly structures and supports sociality and connection. Looking at my Facebook page, I am not only asked “what’s on my mind,” I am also asked whether I might know users who are currently not friends, I am requested to help a friend find other friends, I am told which friends have become friends of others, and I am recommended to visit pages that my friends have liked or recommended. It is common to observe that the term “friend” itself is emptied of meaning by this incessant use and quantification; but the point here is to see how Facebook is very carefully and consistently structured to support certain kinds of interaction and attention, and to exclude others.

Facebook exemplifies a way of generating and circulating information that encourages the expansion of interconnections between users (rather than discretion and selectivity), that fosters the disclosure of concerns of favourable interest to those already in relation (rather than the articulation of internal dissent and difference), that facilitates the expression of likes and invitations (but not dislikes and disinclinations), and that foregrounds every new friendship and connection (while suppressing news of severance and deletion). Facebook is in this sense above all convivial. This is a term whose meaning and etymology both suggest a celebration of togetherness, as would happen at a social event like a feast. Expressions of reservation, nuance and qualification are made difficult if not impossible; and negativity, in both its everyday and dialectical senses is avoided. There are few if any invitations to express dislike or disinclination to the items appearing on one’s homepage and there are even fewer ways to note that which is “not” — to register an absence, to observe an omission or to be faced with exclusion in general. This is all the result of myriad and careful design decisions: algorithms for selecting likely candidate friends, for identifying friends in need of further connections, and for featuring appropriate items “liked” by others. Of course, at the same time, any of these calculated processes of selection, identification and foregrounding also necessarily involves exclusion, suppression and elimination of other possibilities. However, these “negative” processes are relegated to the software behind the system, and are not readily accessible to users; all one sees is more and more potential friends, and ongoing opportunities for conviviality.

Many Facebook controversies, such as ones over the precise kinds of information provided by the newsfeed (in 2006), and the difficulty of controlling detailed privacy settings (in May 2010), show how this design approach serves a business model rather than placing users in control. One very recent controversy is connected with Facebook’s “Like” button, which has a similar function to “Digg” buttons in the blogging world. This function can be applied not only to Facebook, but to any page on the Web — and the number of uses on the Web has doubled every month since the feature was introduced. The controversy arises from the possible addition of a corresponding “Dislike” button. One Facebook page advocating the “Dislike” feature has over three million fans, and Facebook creator, Mark Zuckerberg has mused that this capability may be added in the future.

A recent popular-press article on the subject begins by explaining the significant advantages for advertisers presented by Facebook’s “Like” button:

– “… one obvious benefit is that it lowers the psychological barrier to connecting with commercial entities on [a] site … [users] imply [that they] ‘Like’ that brand’s page, resulting in higher engagement. Another is that it increases clicks for Web publishers [generally].”

Gregarious behaviour is rewarded on Facebook, so seeing others’ approval of a resource will draw ever more attention to it.

However, the article explains that a Dislike button has none of these advantages; it argues that such a feature would only lead to

– “significant tension between Facebook, brands, and Web publishers. Imagine if Facebook users could not only choose to ‘Like’ Coca–Cola, but were also provided the option to ‘Dislike’ the brand. Would Facebook become a more appealing place for brands to spend their marketing budgets and ad dollars … or a less appealing one? Now imagine that Web sites could add ‘Dislike’ buttons to their pages. Would Web publishers rush to add this option, desperate for the negative feedback from their visitors?.”

To provide the option of expressing dislike for a brand like Coca–Cola or to disapprove of a newspaper report or an article like this one is contrary to Facebook’s business interests. As a result, users are deprived of even the most rudimentary affordance for expressing disapproval or dissent. So what then are possibilities offered to education by these services? Who is in control of this rudimentary but important design decision? And what does it mean to be deprived of a “Dislike” option? The dynamics here are rather reminiscent of what television of a bygone era had to offer: In both cases, you can either watch (i.e., “Like”) the products and lifestyles being showcased, or simply walk away. We know that users and viewers generally choose the former, allowing their “control” or interests to be reconciled to the preponderant priorities of advertisers — in return for convenience and an entertaining conviviality.

It is not necessary to focus exclusively on Facebook to appreciate the consequences of the repression of dissent, difference and disconnection that is intrinsic to these networks. Digg uses a similar “thumbs up” icon to tally the popularity of Web sites and blog posts, and also generally omits the option of indicating a negative response. A similar dynamic is at play with the social networking enabled by Twitter, in which you are only actively informed of new subscribers to your communications, never being explicitly notified about those who have unsubscribed, and where you can forward a comment (“retweet”) but not reply to or rebut it. The conclusion to the report on “Like” and “Dislike” buttons in Facebook cited above can be adapted to apply to the Twitter and many other social media: “Like buttons” similar to many other connective features of social networks, “are about connection; Dislike buttons are about division.” Just as other services systematically avoid division and relentlessly push for connection, it is safe to conclude with the article that “Facebook will never add a Dislike button” (Cashmore, 2010). Similarly, other services will also systematically exclude possibilities for the expression of dissent and difference. User or learner control will always be marginalized when it comes to structures and features that are of interest to advertisers.”

The Conclusion from Norm Friesen:

“Despite the current prominence of social–psychological and connectivist theories, it is easy to make the case that learning is just as much about division as it is about connection. In fact, the consistent pattern of suppressing division, negativity and interpersonal dissent that is central to the business model of social networking services runs counter to some of the most common models and recommendations for online student interaction and engagement. These include constructivist models of collaborative knowledge building (e.g., Scardamalia and Bereiter, 2006), communitarian models of collaborative inquiry (e.g., Garrison, 2005), and commonplace advice asking students to critically compare and contrast differing views and experiences. Opportunities for social selectivity, discretion, privacy and detachment are an important precondition for the acts of disclosure and mutual critique, falsification and validation central to these models. Interaction in these models (and in the technologies used to support them) unfolds in ways that support much more nuanced expressions of agreement, consent or difference than what is possible using designations such as “like,” “digg” or even “dislike” or “unfriend.” And such selectivity and discretion — the “safe spaces” hoped for by Lamb and Groom — are rendered structurally impossible in convivial, commercially–contoured environments like Facebook or Twitter. These services, by design, clearly serve interests and priorities other than (and in many cases opposed to) those of learning. If anything, they represent a new way of selling viewers to advertisers, rather than a “2.0” version of social or connective learning or education. Knowledge is not exclusively embodied in ever growing networks of connection and affiliation, and it does not just occur through building and traversing these proliferating nodes and links. Education is clearly a social process, but it is probably much closer to an ongoing discussion or debate than an extended feast or celebration with an ever-expanding network of friends.”

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