Why it’s so hard for online math communities to do stuff in 2018

I.

Have you heard of Nix the Tricks? It’s a great example of the way you used to be able to get things done on the internet.

In 2013 Tina Cardone was part of a Twitter conversation about bad mathematical shortcuts. (I personally dislike the “two negatives make a positive” shortcut because kids use it for adding/subtracting and you can just say “multiplying/dividing by a negative changes the sign.” I digress.)

Tina had the insight to take that twitter conversation and turn it into a collaborative google document. Tons of teachers on twitter contributed, and soon they had what was (after Tina organized it) a book full of tricks, examples of when those tricks go badly, and suggestions for replacements. (They weren’t considered tricks at that point; a good trick is not a trick.)

If you were trying to explain to someone what “crowdsourcing” meant, you couldn’t point to a clearer example.

Should we consider it a coincidence that a famous TED talk that popularized the concept of crowdsourcing was filmed in March 2012?

The key to understanding online math edu communities (I’m thinking of one in particular, MTBoS) is that they are totally subject to every trend that the rest of the internet is subject to. Crowdsourcing was big in 2012-2013, partly because internet culture was totally ready for that.

Online math teacher communities are part of internet culture.

So if you want to understand how to change the way that community operates, you have to understand why the old methods for getting stuff done online no longer really work.

II.

Here is a history of the internet over the past 20 years based only on my recollections. I’m basically not looking anything up here — just going based on memory.

  • 2001 – 2005: Forums are a big thing. Blogs are increasingly a thing, but they’re mostly something you do with a fake name. I had a high school friend who was in love with another friend and blogged about it. Online was a place to anonymously post your secrets. Blogs are a joke.
  • 2005 – 2010: Blogs are totally ascendant. Blogs break significant news. Blogs become a way to start a famous career. It’s totally respectable (but odd) to blog, and increasing numbers of people do it. I used to slavishly read the bloggers on The Atlantic back when I was in college. Nate Silver, Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Andrew Sullivan, this is that time.
  • 2008- 2012: Video: YouTube, Vlogging, these all become popular and merge into the mainstream — more precisely, become a path towards internet stardom. John and Hank Green crossed my experience in this era. This is the era of the ascendance of TED talks. This is also the time when crowdsourcing became a big, hot thing. I’m worried about getting the timing wrong about this one, but I remember reading this New Yorker article about TED talks and it was published around 2012 so let’s go with that.
  • 2012 – 2015: The rise of social media, the decline of blogs, the death of Google Reader. I remember the death of Google Reader was around this time, because it was life-sustaining for me when I got right out of college. All of the sudden, though, it was gone, and everyone was on Twitter. Everyone.
  • 2015ish: Everyone talks about the death of blogs.
  • 2016ish: Everyone talks about how blogs are making a comeback.
  • 2017-Now: Blogs are definitely mostly dead in a certain sense, but like every other internet trend of the past 18 years it is thriving if you look in the right places: mainstream content producers. Blogs are alive in the sense that it’s where established people share shorter pieces that didn’t make it into a longer piece, or it’s a place for product announcements. Likewise nearly every ever other web trend is also alive in the sense that it has merged with the mainstream. Twitter is no longer a Wild West where anyone can rise to prominence — it’s a place where prominent people create content, and the vast majority of people’s activity is in response to that content. You follow a journalist or a celebrity, and then your fundamental activity is resharing and liking.
  • 2016-2018: People talk about all the problems with Twitter.

And here is a completely parallel history of the MTBoS, a particular online math edu community:

  • 2006-2010: The rise of bloggers like Dan Meyer, Kate Nowak, Sam Shah show that you can do this thing with your name and people will love it. I started teaching in 2010 and these blogs were my main outside influence. These are bloggers that gained a kind of mainstream prominence in the math edu world via their blogging.
  • 2010-2012: Video! Dan’s popularity really kicks into gear when he gives a fabulously popular TED talk and he shared high-resolution media resources (WCYDWT?) For a few years the MTBoS reflects this trend — Andrew Stadel, Timon, others, oh god I’m forgetting everybody.
  • 2012 – 2015: The decline of blogs, rise of Twitter. People start posting less frequently, starting posts with phrases like “Is this thing still on?” 
  • 2015 – Now: All of the previous internet activities are alive, but in the same limited sense that the rest of the internet displays. There are a lot of people who create content but they are mostly people in the mainstream. Blogging is something that people mostly do if (a) have leftover stuff from their larger projects (b) have announcements or updates (c) feel nostalgic or (d) are dorks who love writing.  And twitter activity is mostly reacting and responding to more prominent people. (Though, like the rest of twitter, sometimes individual tweets go viral. In general this doesn’t lead to new people becoming prominent any longer.)
  • 2016 – 2018: People start talking about all the problems with MTBoS Twitter.

So the thing is that MTBoS or any other community is not a thing apart from the rest of the culture. If you want to understand the changes that MTBoS has made over the years, the clearest information comes from the rest of the internet’s evolution.

III.

There clearly are problems facing MTBoS. Two recent ones that came across my radar:

  • Kent Haines wishing that more practical, nuts-and-bolts teaching advice got shared and discussed.
  • Tina Cardone, Marian Dingle and Anne Schwartz correctly pointing out that the MTBoS in all its manifestations is an overwhelmingly white online space. Black people especially feel this.

My contribution to this discussion is to say: don’t think that the old way of doing things will be able to change the culture.

Don’t rely on crowdsourcing.

Don’t even rely on attempting to change the culture through exhorting individuals to change what they do. I’m not saying this is bad, I’m saying I don’t think this works in 2018. The internet is too big, and the MTBoS is also too big. I’m not saying this isn’t valuable, I’m saying I don’t think ultimately this will make a community either less-overwhelmingly white or more politically engaged.

(By the way, I think those are two separate goals — inclusion and political activity — that often get conflated in this discussion. You can have a white space that is engaged in anti-racist, progressive work. You can have a racially inclusive space that only talks about math. I’m not convinced that if you get one, you get the other.)

But I’m not pessimistic. Here’s what I wrote over at Sam Shah’s most recent “State of the MTBoS” post:

I think it’s generally true that a lot of conversations are happening on Slacks or within teams instead of in public right now, and that this is because some of the most interesting online presences from the first/second generation of MTBoS-ers are working for Desmos, IM, writing for Stenhouse, etc.

I am as guilty as anyone for making a big stink about this, but I think what I’m realizing now is that this just is. People change, careers change.

I think we’re past the the time when we could hope that the conversations that we need to have just emerge from the froth and slosh of online activity. This is what happened in 2008 – 2013 or so, but then a lot of things happened: blogs changed, RSS got abandoned, Twitter got huge, teachers moved on, etc.

The first stage of MTBoS was about the excitement of this new thing we all had. Then came a kind of order emerging from the chaos. Very recently, it feels like the benefits of that order are being consolidated and harvested for mainstream consumption.

I think we’re maybe entering a new era of MTBoS and online activity now, and it’s a time of ACTIVE ORGANIZATION of the new. The stage that we’re beginning to see is a time when spaces can’t just be taken for granted — we need to cultivate the sorts of spaces we want to have. This is a change, but it’s a necessary one if we’re going to keep moving.

So if we’re feeling that there’s not enough energy around curricular discussions, Kevin, I think we need to bust out our rolodexes and start organizing. Who else do we know who’s interested in Algebra 1? What sort of a project might they be interested in? Can we put together an online gathering? An in-person gathering? Who can we connect with, and how?

I think we’re going to be asking ourselves those questions more and more in the years to come.

This is a lot to ask from your average community member, and that’s not what I mean to suggest. But I think we need to start thinking about online communities in the internet that we have, not the internet a community was born in.

IV. 

So there are some tough, hard problems to work on. In 2018, Twitter clearly has problems. It generates a mono-culture that doesn’t satisfy everybody. It’s not a hidden corner of the internet, and everything you post is visible to your employers. It’s not a forum where everyone can safely talk about important but sensitive topics.

This might require some people to do the hard, interpersonal work of building a discussion forum outside of Twitter that can focus on sensitive but important topics. Topics of discussion like classroom management, coaching, racist colleagues, etc.

The internet has left behind the resource-sharing days of the past. But there are still people who want to write curriculum with challenging extensions, practice ideas. There is surely a way to help people who are interested in this find each other. Someone will need to do that.

And if MTBoS is an overwhelmingly white space, that inertia will probably need to have a solution outside of Twitter, where things have already ossified into a real hierarchy — just as non-teacher Twitter has. Any real solution will involve hard work outside of Twitter — finding people who don’t fit the white (progressive, coastal) norm and partnering with them in significant ways. You can’t get there, I don’t think, by making it easier to enter the online space. You need to find non-Twitter ways of connecting with people, and then inviting them in.

And you’ll probably need to make it safe for people to enter this overwhelming white space by helping them meaningful connect and form community first, as I wrote about in this post.

***

Every community makes the mistake of thinking that their history isn’t subject to larger forces. (The Talmud says about Jews, “there is no constellation for the Jewish people.”) But you can’t crowdsource the changes that online communities need in 2018 — you can’t just share an idea, and hope that people jump on it, and one thing leads to another and suddenly BAM that thing exists. The internet hasn’t worked like that for a while.

It is hard work, and it’s people work, but change can happen in 2018. If you think something ought to be different online and you think you have energy for it, here are the steps I think we should all take:

  1. Email or call friends, until you have 3-5 people signed up for the project.
  2. Start the project, and once you’ve figured things out, try to invite more people to get involved.
  3. Figure out a way to share it with the rest of the online community.

This is not to discredit anything else that anyone else is doing, but it’s this sort of change that I think the times call for.

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6 thoughts on “Why it’s so hard for online math communities to do stuff in 2018

  1. I have a different skew on this: (summary: human networks are limited in size)

    Hashtags don’t scale.

    1. Imagine if you will a reasonable percentage of all math teachers started using #mtbos all at once. There would hundreds of thousands of messages being generated within a day and no one could keep up with the fire hose of information. Worse: it would be impossible to become familiar with anyone new because they would a single voice in a cacophony. By the time another 100000 tweets occurred you would probably have forgotten them already.

    2. We really can’t manage that many relationships anyway on any medium.

    3. Most new people don’t want to really create relationships. The vast majority of new folks tweet “Who should I follow?” or “Specific Question X” and then disappear.

    4. Anything that becomes popular eventually loses its utility as self promoters and bots leverage it see: #mathchat.

    #Mtbos has probably passed beyond the point of a cozy relationship generating size.

    Witness: most of the folks worrying about its diversity don’t post their own thoughts using the tag anymore. The same irony goes for those promoting it at various conferences and sites while again posting mostly tagless in the manageable circle of followers that they have.

    So I think the answer is less catch the next fad than start a new social circle.

    Also: twitter is optimized for self selecting the messages one sees so I think its actually an exercise in futility to think you can dominate it with any message for good or bad. The folks in the conversation are the ones that want to be there, the ones who are not don’t and twitter is not the place to change many opinions one way or the other.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Don’t even rely on attempting to change the culture through exhorting individuals to change what they do.

    I feel like you’re disagreeing with an earlier version of yourself on this point. Or at least an earlier version of me.

    Also, your last steps at the end seem dead-on, but also not far from how these projects have always been completed in the past. However with so many more people online now it’s easier to find 3-5 specialists than it used to be. That’s great. That process at the end also maps pretty nicely onto the creation of IM and the teaching department at Desmos FWIW.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel like you’re disagreeing with an earlier version of yourself on this point.

      I don’t think my position has changed much in that regard. Two summers ago during the mtbos/iteachmath conversation what I said was that there was value in talking aloud about what you’re going to do. I don’t think that’s exhorting — I think that’s about bouncing ideas off of other people and trying to test things out with friends and colleagues. I still think there’s value in that, and the difference is a matter of intent.

      More recently, though, I’ve turned to email for that sort of rough draft talk. I’m lucky to have people that I trust to turn to for those conversations. When people don’t have those relationships, that’s when I understand the turn to public “exhortation.” It’s a way of reaching out, but you have to take the next step.

      That process at the end also maps pretty nicely onto the creation of IM and the teaching department at Desmos FWIW..

      Yeah — I think it’s time to bring that sort of team-building public. We need to increase our ability to overcome all the collective action problems we face, together.

      Like

  3. As always, I am appreciative and slightly in awe that you can put so much down and have a life outside of writing. Some of what you write makes me sad. I am d) the dork who likes to write. And, I hesitate in the online space to just put my work out there or add to some else’s work when so many “colleagues” have been gobbled up (yup) by “industry.” Granted, a lot of that industry comes back to us at no cost like IM and Desmos (thank you!). If anyone asks me directly for anything, it theirs for sure.

    I have rock star anxiety.

    I just want to feel useful and not obsolete. Ya know?

    Cheers, Amy

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I thought that looking at the internet as a whole is a great one, but one that has two things I thought about.

    Somewhere in 2015 is this sort of rise of social media as a tool for what some call your personal brand. So twitter, blogs, and the like went from being a place that you go to consume stuff you like and converse freely with like-minded people who you may never actually meet to a place where you go to present your full professional self, and engage with people that you would love to meet, and perhaps work with if the opportunity arose. Some people who choose to dive in to twitter now do so knowing full well that their boss, and their future employer will look at their twitter account, perhaps assuming that is the case. It makes it a less vulnerable space, and means that people probably want to go else where to consume the stuff they like and converse freely with like-minded people.

    I think this correlates with the #MTBoS as it is becoming more of a hashtag that is for posting announcements, and a hashtag that has become targeted by a number of online brands. It’s less of the sort of “math teacher hotline” that it used to be because it’s harder to expect everyone to filter through the noise.

    It’s like it used to be a dusty road that a few people set up blogs alongside, that now has blossomed into a bustling city street like Times Square where the noise and the flashing lights can get overwhelming, but there are dozens of little side streets and corner alleys you can easily duck in to.

    This is just the literal hashtag I’m talking about, but the Times Square analogy might apply to all the people and all the blogs (and slacks, and whatever) that comprise the Math Twitter Blogosphere. Like Times Square, it could use some of the active organization that you talked about above, making it easier for new comers to walk around like those pedestrian thoroughfares, or getting rid of those vulturous characters that want to profit off the people walking by. Maybe creating a #MTBoS alliance, akin to the Times Square Alliance, is a step past what you’re proposing here, but I think it might make sense for something like that to exist in the future.

    Secondly, RSS isn’t dead! It’s the engine behind podcasts, which are also missing from the list. There aren’t too many math ed podcasts, but perhaps there should be (I’ve been trying to muster up energy to do this for a while now, but there’s too much on my plate).

    Liked by 1 person

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