We Are Not In the Content Business, We Are In the Community Business

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…

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17 thoughts on “We Are Not In the Content Business, We Are In the Community Business

  1. This is what I’m playing with right now, just from a slightly different angle. Your ‘change the world’ point is where I am focused — both edupreneurs and educators want to ‘change the world,’ and the shared vision there is faulty. Education is not going to change the world, education is not going to save people or emancipate people from the shackles of society. We are all going to die. We are all in various dominant cultures with specific goals and mores and values. And the dominant Western culture has an ethos where salvation is just around the corner and education is the way there and we just need technology x to get us there because we have failed with our prior tries.

    So…and this is my problem with OER and why I am trying to bring more philosophy into the conversation…the dominant paradigm is technological solutionism. For OER, or distributed learning or whatever we want to call our subculture of EdTech, for us to say they are wrong and we are right…we are both wrong, but they are tapped in to the ethos and we are on the fringe. We waste a lot of energy shouting about what the right way is when there is not a right way. Perhaps the venture capital way is the wrong way, but ours is not the Right. It is right for some, perhaps for many, but only when localized and negotiated. This is full-throttle Lyotard, rejecting Habermas’ public sphere and public good.

    If it’s about community (which I agree), it cannot be scaled. And that means we are a subculture negotiating and rejecting the dominant paradigm. We should not be fighting the dominant for our voice — we have our voice, but using it in a battle sequence only results in being disappointed in misrepresentation and inevitable loss. Do our local things (whether geographic or networked), share with others who are resisting or negotiating the dominant paradigm, and see the growth happen there over time, changing the conversation because the localized narratives became more powerful, not because we convinced the dominant paradigm they were wrong.

    • So I quoted you below using your “local things,” Rolin. I have a small interest in OER on my campus–calling it a movement is an overstatement. The dominant paradigm is not interested in what I have to say. I lack power and agency. The funding for my project just got cut. Locally, I’m kind of a failure. Kind of a success. Depends on who you ask. When I connect with people beyond my local network, I see my ideas scaling up. Replicating. Building community. I am “in awe” (as Mike put it) of what’s happening because of the network I’ve tapped into about OER. When I think back to what I learned about Lyotard, it was the first time I was introduced to inter-disciplinarian thinking/teaching. I see OER and the technology which promotes its distribution as inter-disciplinarian for the teachers I support. So here’s my question, how do you strengthen your localized narrative when the audience you wish was local is actually far away?

      • Hi Alyson, interesting question and thoughts. I think what makes the digital world fascinating is that the local is not just a geographic environment but also a digital one or a networked one. So in that way your localized narrative in a digital world can have a great geographic reach but it is still localized. Your recent post Shrink It & Pink It is an excellent example; your PLN read and engaged, and there was a lot of sharing…some of that probably seeped out of your PLN and provided an opportunity for people to engage. So you are seeing change and transformation among those you know, and you are providing impetus for those who are a degree of separation from you to engage your thoughts and negotiate how they work in relationship to a dominant narrative.

        In academia, I find my local power has something to do with how I am perceived in the digital scholarship network. When I publish or speak, I get more cache at my university. I find it archaic and backwards, but I have to engage the dominant structures to promote this scholarship so I can have better voice in changing the geographic environment I work within. I also have to recognize my perspective is not the dominant one, and the dominant view of online learning is concerned with scale and proctoring and management. To say they are wrong does not start a conversation; to do my work and negotiate the dominant and my perspective is the way I survive.

      • Thanks for your thoughts, Rolin, and I’m totally blown away you know about my little blog post. Reviewing what you wrote makes me realize that I am at once confused about the dominant narrative inside and outside academia. And I should have thought through my use of “local.” Great point and reminder for me.

        On the very same day I was informed my OER budget was being cut, I was scheduled to speak at a university about my project. I put on an academy award winning performance about our “success” when I was devastated on the inside. It felt like one step forward and four steps back on the “geographically local” scale but when I think of the people I talked to in that room that day and how we connected digitally since then, my presentation was some good in the world. In my PLN.

        I am on some committees where we schedule speakers in WA state for local conferences. I’d love to help your local cause and hear your thoughts in person. Personally, I think your scholarship has cache before you even walk into the door. So if I see an opportunity for you to speak to our CC system, I’ll extend an invitation. We can call it CV cache for the greater good of educational technology, teaching, and learning;)

      • I think we’ve all been there with local obstacles while presenting in more network-based localized environments. I’m new in my position in Washington state, but I remember the disconnect between earlier troubles locally and excitement in the network. Networks have different politics and traditions than the institutions we work for, and that’s always an interesting negotiation!

        Thanks for thinking of me regarding speaking; I’m not only happy to share my thoughts at conferences and other locales, but being new in WA I’m excited to meet more people in the area. I have yet to really get out of Seattle, so this could be good!

    • (Qualifying update: I have new glasses, I still haven’t quite mastered reading in them. It’s like a fisheye effect and its killing the fluidity of reading for me at the moment. So I may be misreading.)

      (Qualifying update #2: I’ve read more carefully, and I think I’ve completely misread Rolin. But this would be a great response to another comment).

      I appreciate the comments a lot, but I think I disagree with at least one part of it. Because everything changes the world, not in a permanent way — not in the singularity that some hope for, but we create different worlds with different priorities and different outcomes and different cultures which either reflect our values or don’t. What change the world means, really, is create a world more in line with what we value and that happens every day. A prosecutor in Baltimore changed the world last week, just as a half dozen Baltimore officers changed it three weeks ago.

      My take is this: given a desired community, there *are* right ways and wrong ways to go about tech. A community that values the voice of women, for example, might take measures to make sure they are not harassed. That would change the world for women on that platform. It would change the world for people who hear women who would otherwise be silenced. It might also change the world for people wrongly banned by the algorithm. But it’s not zero-sum, a sort of hedonic calculus that always comes to zero. There are ways that (again, given a certain value set) the net situation of people can be improved.

      I’m well aware that tech solutionism is a problem (and have written about it before)– but the problem of tech solutionism is applying technical solutions to non-technical issues. To say that the application of technical solutions to technical problems is meaningless (or incapable of supporting a value framework) seems to me to be a sort of technical nihilism — though I think on this point I must be misreading you.

      A community online has to be something, and that something can be good or bad, software decisions have a scary amount to do with that. I’d postulate that software decisions that consider the community they want to enable rather than the traditional UX client-server viewpoint tend to allow communities to shape in ways we’d consider healthy, just as traditionally built neighborhoods tended to promote more social cohesion than our current 500 house development + arterial road system.

      Now, “save the world” — there I think we might find agreement, maybe. That posits a sort of distinction between us and the world we are creating.

      But for the ideas of right and wrong to be useful, in any pragmatic sense, we have to be able to say things like “more factory farming is good” or “more factory farming is bad”, at least in a rhetorically-focussed conversation.

      Now, if you want to argue against the idea of rhetoric as a tactic — there again, I think I’m with you. It’s overused, ad if people would just understand the joy of Conversation through Editing we waste less time having debates in comments that probably don’t convince either of us. I honestly think that’s the biggest issue, but, here again it’s the technology that propels us to do this — I assert, you have a comment and counter-assert, I reply to your assertion. People click through expecting something like this, and the ideas that are the most oppositional go furthest and also polarize us the most, largely because by tying profiles tightly to content viewed out of context we’ve created an environment that has huge incentives for us to use it for social signalling rather than discussion, exposition, or exploration.

      If someone could build a technology where we stopped arguing over who was Right and who was Wrong, we’d change the world, don’t you think? 😉

      • Dash it all, Mike, you and your well-reasoned points and considerations!

        I do not believe you are misreading, I believe this is a pretty dense topic and I am still struggling to Elevator Pitch what I am saying. My response to you was my first shot at it — Education will not Save the World or Change the World or Emancipate the World. In singular instances it may do that, but it is not a pipeline or tributary and that is because the structure of education is not designed to do that — our system is designed to perpetuate the status quo. Perhaps that is why a lot of the work our subculture of education does is to work outside of the existing structure, or build extensive augments or supplements to it.

        I am wrong when I say we do not change the world, because everything we do changes the world. I needed to present it as Change the World, put the capital letters on it as if we are progressing toward Valhalla or some universal Truth or space of Enlightenment. Yes, the situation in Baltimore has changed some things. But it did not Change the World, just like Watts 1965/France 1968/Los Angeles 1992 did not Change the World in a manner that emancipated the marginalized groups and subcultures resisting the dominant structure. Electing Barack Obama was sold as Hope and Change, and there have been some changes, but in an ethos mindset I believe Won’t Get Fooled Again was prescient.

        We sell education as this opportunity to get past the final hurdle and arrive at the nirvana of society; we are almost there, and TECHNOLOGY will do it! MOOCs will globalize and democratize education! OER will globalize and democratize education! Competency based learning will globalize and democratize education! This is just not true. Some will benefit. Others will do worse. And many will just continue on. The pain is in the unkept promise, and our societal problem is we wait for the next technological solution to promise salvation.

        I’m not promoting nihilism (though I see the slippery slope). I am saying that we continue to promote technology in non-technological solutions…that is part of our dominant paradigm which views technology as more than a pragmatic solution. These technologies are not neutral or ahistorical, yet they present themselves in that way while also engaging the pragmatic. OER does the opposite; they focus on their pragmatism yet want to link to a resistance history of technology/education/learning. The end result is a mess. The real landscape is multi historical and multi political, and pragmatics are based on a theoretical lens.

        This is as much me exploring my thoughts as it is responding to you, so I apologize for the blather. In short, I believe if we shift our lens from The World to our world, we reject the idea of technological opportunities for globalization and instead see the digital as another opportunity for localized networks where high-touch community has potential. Sure, some things can go viral, but that can more easily be swallowed by a dominant paradigm (see MOOC).

      • Thinking more on Rolin, Mike and Alyson’s vibrant comments here: I’m finding it more useful to think of structures and practices like education and technology not as entirely dominant or revolutionary, good or evil, but as machines that may well be largely shaped by/to produce dominant culture, but also afford other releases, branches and, yes, cul de saqs. Work like Mike’s on fedwiki or Alyson’s on college OER may well travel in dominant flows (the Internet, EDU), but also afford/engender “local” currents that do not entirely “go with the flow” of dominant culture, even if they don’t always necessarily therefore entirely go against the flow of dominant culture either (a new form of conversation, a life changed by open pedagogy). Revolution, in this view, is not the noble myth, but a localized whirlpool that may spin off good and evil. Jump from Lyotard to Deleuze.

      • As a reply to Nate and follow-up to Rolin, I think you are both correct. Part of the problem here is that we see dominant culture as a monolithic thing and opposition to it as this monolithic thing. It’s a Hegelian view of the universe. In such a system we never really Change the World in Rolin’s capitalized sense of the term, because Fukuyama aside history does not end.

        There really is less an open education movement and more an open education hypothesis which people in a variety of different endeavors embrace. And sometimes it’s rhetorically useful to think of it in resistance terms, but the truth is probably closer to Nate’s eddys than Hegel.

        I don’t think that hypothesis is really that open education will change the world, but that changing certain practices will amplify our efforts at changing other things for the better, and hence it makes sense to spend at least some energy on intermediate goals around “openness”.

  2. Holycats, Mike. I was flashed the nerd fighter symbol and I didn’t know what the hell it meant. Crossing your arms over your chest is the sign for love. The split fingers? Trekkie love, I thought. I was wearing a dress that I’ve been told looks awfully Picard era-like. I flashed it back because I thought it was a fashion compliment. #OldLadyPerspectiveChange

    Thank you for sharing this–I’m going to use this in my next two presos that I’ve developed in the fedwiki–the Book Nerd, Tech Geek OER angle I’ve been trying to revise for different contexts. You captured his best quote about not being in the distraction business and I’d like to add one more. He says, “I’m not kidding, but I’m glad you laughed.” What a great rhetorical move to emphasize a painful point.

    I was introduced to his work by my female students. They all loved his book, and that’s exciting to me so I read it. I wish more people read YA fiction than watch CSI Miami, but I’ll take your advice and do my “local thing.” There’s power in that and you write about it so well. I wish I had told you that years ago. That’s my way of flashing you the nerd fighter symbol, btw.

  3. I think 80% of edtech fixes education as much as AlGore fixes government: same thing, but more efficiently!

    (Of course, a big reason for this is that that’s where the money is. A dead business doesn’t Change the World.)

  4. Mike:

    Your post really resonates with me because @LumenLearning we try to focus on developing relationships and offering connections (to ideas, people, useful practices and things), rather then on “product”—or as I’m now thinking about it thanks to you, community is Lumen’s product.

    That said, I still prefer geek to nerd, based on the geek/nerd/dork/dweeb Venn diagram http://laughingsquid.com/wp-content/uploads/nerd-venn-diagram-20110626-192132.jpg

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