My daughter, who is amazing by the way, introduced me to John Green a couple years ago. Her face was always in her phone, and I thought geez, Katie, get off Facebook. And I think I actually said that. To which she replied “Why would I be on Facebook? I’m watching John and Hank Green videos.”
And I decided maybe I should check this out. And the further I got into it, the more amazed I was. There was a community around the videos called “nerdfighters” who stuck up for what they saw as nerdy values of thinking about things, caring about people, getting excited about ideas, and trying to be generally nice. Here’s John Green on what it is to be a nerd in one of his many YouTube videos:
“…because nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff… Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. Hank, when people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, ‘you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness’.”
The community made reaction videos, discussed deep ideas online, blogged, organized fundraisers that raised millions of dollars for third world (mostly female) entrepreneurs. If you’ve seen the film of Green’s book The Fault in Our Stars it was inspired by a real girl nerdfighter who died at sixteen of cancer, and knew she’d likely die, but spent her short life engaged with this community, trying to make the world better.
Hank Green got up on stage at a Google event recently, and in the most amazing speech I’ve heard about education this year proceeded to tear the potential YouTube advertisers in the audience to shreds at an event meant to woo them. Advertising, he says, is built on distraction. CSI Miami is a great way to distract yourself from the intense and bittersweet pain that this world you know today will disappear, you will someday die, and everything you have done may amount to nothing. And advertising is a great model for that, because CSI Miami wants a show that distracts you just enough which is what advertisers want too. And in that world, how many eyeballs you got, or downloads, or seats or whatever is probably a good measure of impact.
But here’s the thing, says Green. “We’re not in the distraction business. We’re in the community business.”
And I think — that’s it in a nutshell.
This is the big misunderstanding we have with vendors, with Silicon Valley, with brogrammers trying to sell the next killer educational gadget. We want them to be John Green — to connect us together as educators and empower us to change the world — with or without them. We want to be amazing. Not by having a better app, but by being part of a technical and personal network that allows us to far exceed what we can do personally.
We want them to be John Green. They want to be Mark Zuckerberg. We want them to be in the community business. They want to be in the social software business.
We need empowerment. But they can’t do that. They talk about community, but to them community is data that exists on a server somewhere. It’s “1 million registered” or “2 million sign-ups”. No time is spent trying to empower us outside their own narrow interest. We’re never viewed as partners.
You’ll never see the founder of Knewton tear up on stage about how much his community members inspired him and taught him. Sure, you’ll get the stories of of how the software or the “community” cured autism, or saved someone from suicide or a dead-end job. But watch the video above. Honestly, WATCH THE VIDEO. John Green understands that he’s the match, not the fire. And once you see that, it’s hard to unsee how fake so much else is.
If you want to really change education, you can make software, content, social apps — and you should. You should be awesome at all of that. But every development decision has to have the community you are trying to create at its core. You have to be excited about the potential of that community, and work to unleash it. You have to be in awe of it.
I’m sure that’s what many edupreneurs think they are doing. But I don’t see it. I see vendor lock-in and head-patting condescension. An unspoken assumption that the existing community of teachers and students are something to be routed around like damage. The idea that the community is bounded and defined by the product. The idea that the product must be locked-down, black-boxed, and triple-copyrighted to “protect” it from the community.
Maybe I’m wrong. If you’re the eduprenuer exception, then go ahead — WATCH THE VIDEO. If at the end of it you think that you are more John Green than Uber, then let’s talk. Otherwise…