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day 1: on mixing tools, mixing paint, and coming to terms w/the algorithm

February 8, 2016

lisa hammershaimb

Three days ago news broke of a potential change in Twitter, moving from a sequential to an algorithmically curated timeline.

Coincidentally, I heard this news after just listening to a HybridPod episode where Bonnie Stewart and Chris Friend discussed Bonnie’s dissertation research into networks/academic Twitter. In the interview, Bonnie mentioned that whilst engaged in research she witnessed firsthand a watershed moment within academic twitter regarding hashtag activism where prominent voices began to use their influence to weigh in on public issues that often impacted negatively those with less influence.

Watching the speculative algorithm ripples begin to take over my timeline I wonder if we are again at a watershed moments where things are (or soon will be) shifting in big ways?

Though I am not an expert in algorithms, it seems that the proposed changes will be a bit like Facebook, where the information presented is curated for each user. Voices that aren’t as algorithmically engaging will slide away while those most popular will be further amplified. In theory, it sounds like an efficient move but, because I see Twitter more as bookstore browse than Amazon direct buy…the change feels threatening.

In addition, as someone who has a relatively tiny pool of followers and tends to Tweet almost exclusively about somewhat mass-market obscure things, I know I am not very algorithmically sexy. I have a feeling that my voice is one that will begin to slide to the margins and there’s a good chance mine will most likely be the Tweets that go missing.

Though it’s convenient to give into dystopian techno determinism, get bitter, and never share again because clearly I’m not going to be trending anytime soon…I think there’s a better mindset to adopt…and it’s called being a creative human who remembers that these things are tools created by companies. Just tools. Only tools.

Though algorithms may change the volume on this particular tool, the only way I’ll be truly silenced is if I stop sharing and being open…if I stop reaching out through a variety of computer mediated/face to face interactions and if I stop being intentional about authentically engaging with others.

In the same way, the voices all around me will never be silenced (no matter how quiet) if I am intentional about listening and being present to others and letting them know they matter. Though I’ve been guilty of fan-girling people like Jesse Stommel and Bonnie Stewart and George Siemens and Catherine Cronin because I love their ideas, I think what I love even more is that they actively use their highly visible positions not to garner fans but to amplify voices of those who are less known and remind people on the margins they are seen. They remind us how rich and diverse the world is, and this reminding is good work that we can all do.

As I tell my design students…the tools we use as artists are powerful and our skills matter. That said, as humans we may not be smarter than our tools but we are infinitely more creative. Our ability to combine and create something new far surpasses anything a pre-made tool could cobble together.

In painting we never use pre-made black…we mix your own and the work comes alive with personal touch. I think that holds true here too. Though I am not downplaying issues of structure, voice, agency, and power as mediated through tools…I think we must remember that our most valuable asset is that we are creative and if we take steps to be authentic, we have the ability to connect with those around us no matter the circumstances. Tools used are a means of distribution, but we should not confuse a tool with a connection and even more we should not become so reliant on a single tool that we lose the ability to mix our own paint, imprint our own personal touch, and learn from others as they do the same.


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  1. February 8, 2016

    Many thanks for the kind mention, Lisa. This is a beautiful post – making me think! I’m also dismayed by the likely changes at Twitter, for many reasons. Your post is a great reminder that yes, developers shape tools; but users shape tools too. Many of us have shaped Twitter for our own uses: building connections across boundaries, listening to and amplifying others’ voices, collaboration, advocacy, subversion, etc. But we know it wasn’t built for that. The ongoing efforts to monetize Twitter, et al challenge many of our ideals. So, as you say, let’s be intentional and creative (and subversive 🙂 ), and let’s stay aware of what it means to use Twitter & other tools (re: authenticity, transparency, privacy) as they morph and change, and let’s discuss this with students & others, to help build essential digital literacies. Underlying all this, for me, is an aspiration & commitment to learn/use/share/build truly open tools and spaces as much as possible. In the end, Twitter’s just a stop along the way.
    Happy to be learning with you 🙂

    • February 9, 2016

      Thanks Catherine! And yes…I like your philosophy that this is just a stop along the way and it’s always good to keep the larger picture in focus…and be a little creative + subversive 🙂

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