Social Media’s Performative, Poisonous Impact on Education

I’m frequently told that I’m using Twitter “wrong.” You see, I mostly use it to post links to stuff I’ve written. Occasionally, as a certified pundit, I’ll post a statement on some political or policy development. I’ve got it wrong, I’m told, because it’s a lousy way to generate retweets or attention.

This is on my mind because, just this week, I published my new book with USC’s Pedro Noguera, A Search for Common Ground. Pedro and I approach education and school improvement from very different perspectives. But, as we spent six months conversing via email to write the book, we took time to articulate our thoughts, slept on each other’s missives, unpacked assumptions, asked tough questions in a respectful manner, and stumbled upon a surprising number of points of agreement.

In my experience, that’s not how conversations unfold. Circa 2021, it can be tough to engage in sustained, respectful, private discussion. Even though we knew that we’d eventually publish our conversation, Pedro and I found a level of comfort and trust that’s missing in the frenzied conversation-as-performance nature of social media and cable news that so dominates our discourse nowadays.

The ways in which Twitter distorts normal conversation have become so familiar that they’re easy to overlook. Social media makes any exchange public and performative. Audience members interject at will, with the angriest voices the ones that capture any conversational thread. Consequently, Twitter exchanges frequently overheat and implode within a matter of hours, if not minutes. The format rewards punching and counterpunching — not contemplation. Given that any post may draw vitriol (if only because a reader is having a bad week), rage becomes weirdly routine.

Nonetheless, education advocates, analysts, and organizations in education invest a lot of energy in social media. There are policy “influencers” who spend a remarkable amount of time firing off tweets calculated to generate buzz; teachers who regard Twitter as their favored outlet for discussing their educational frustrations and district practices; and advocacy groups whose staff spend hundreds of hours a year drafting and tracking tweets. Foundations ask grantees for “Twitter metrics” as evidence of real-world impact. This whole enterprise winds up permeating the culture of education discourse, shaping what gets discussed, how it gets discussed, and how educators, parents, advocates, policymakers, and even researchers engage one another.

I’m reminded of an incident last year, when a guest blogger of mine penned a hard-hitting but thoughtful and constructive piece about remote learning. All good. Unfortunately, the conversation then moved to social media, where the author engaged some angry readers. Instead of allowing the piece to speak for itself, or simply acknowledging that readers might see things differently, the author chose to punch back. And then the readers counterpunched. Things quickly got out of hand, with the result that a potentially useful, textured (if uncomfortable) discussion turned into a not-so-useful, one-dimensional (but familiar) shouting match.

Especially in education, where we’re charged with tackling complex questions of shared values, public purpose, and universal opportunity, this way of encountering others is poison. We’re supposed to model the kind of adults we’d like our children to become, not emulate the dysfunction of a middle school hallway.

We need a Twitter diet. Those of us in and around education should commit to cutting back time spent on social media and increasing the time spent engaging colleagues in private, nonperformative conversation. We should consider whether the tweets we send are saying something of value and if they’re saying it in a constructive fashion. We need to help students clearly see the funhouse-mirror nature of social media and encourage them to cultivate nonperformative outlets for sharing their thoughts. Schools, colleges, and organizations need to devise mechanisms where educators and students engage across divides in a sustained, structured fashion, so that they experience an alternative to the performative quick hits that can seem so disconcertingly normal.

Amidst all the dysfunction and polarization that we’ve witnessed over the past few years, it’s easy to blame those nuts on the other side. But I suspect that much of the problem can be chalked up to social-media habits that have warped our sense of what’s important, undermined our capacity for civil engagement, and squeezed out healthy discourse. My collaboration with Pedro has left me convinced that these pathologies are more solvable than it can sometimes seem, but that a crucial first step is our willingness to confront them. Whether we’re able and willing to take that first step is an open question.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.