Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Facebook is ripping society apart, and other reasons to rethink social media

When Chamath Palihapitiya joined Facebook in 2007, it had 50 million users. By the time he left after four years, it had 800 million. He was its vice-president for user growth.

These days, he feels tremendously guilty.

"I think we all knew in the back of our minds, even though we feigned this whole line that there probably aren't any bad consequences, I think in the deep recesses of our minds we kind of knew something bad could happen," he told the Stanford Business School last month and reported for the first time this week.

"The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we've created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no co-operation, misinformation, mistruth, and it's not an American problem - this is not about Russian ads - this is a global problem.

"We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection, because we get rewarded with these short-term signals - hearts, likes, thumbs-up -and we conflate that with value and we conflate it with truth.

"What it is is fake, brittle popularity. It's short term and leaves you even more vacant and empty than before you did it, because then it forces you into this vicious cycle where you are like: 'What's the next thing I need to do now? Because I need it back.' "

There are now 2 billion Facebook users, one-quarter of the world's population.

Many of us need to use it, for research or to contact lost friends. In some parts of the world, it helps, in a limited way, to spread democracy.

But it stresses us, even while it is temporarily calming us. Like a poker machine, its unpredictability invites us back for hit after hit until we are so full of chemicals we suffer "disconnection anxiety" when we are away from the screen. We all know people who grieve how much time social media sucks up and how angry or upset they feel after sessions on it, but they still go there.

Further, it normalises deception. The late sociologist Ben Agger described social media as an "electronic prosthesis" for identity. It allows, and often requires, us to fabricate identities.

Like its younger cousin Twitter, it encourages polarisation as much as discussion, often functioning as an echo chamber. Twitter's co-founder, Evan Williams, told The New York Times in May that he had thought that once everyone could speak freely and exchange ideas, the world would automatically become "a better place". He added: "I was wrong about that."

At the Canberra launch of her biography in November, former Greens leader Christine Milne said it wasn't that long ago that people talked about the same things. Media consumption was shared. Now, there are fewer conversations, fewer common stories. It's harder to get people in the same room. Politicians use Facebook to create their own separate news channels, shielded from scrutiny.

Facebook and Twitter heighten conflict. Moderate words aren't much liked or retweeted. Research shows your tweet is 20 to 30 per cent more likely to be retweeted if you use strong language. Cyberspace has become a more intense projection of the material world, a world of continuous rivalry.

While users are able to share ideas, feel they are taking part in democratic process, social-media networks are, in fact, driven by celebrity. Historian Niall Ferguson says that, as the networks grow, the people who join them "don't want to be connected to any old person". They want to get close to Donald Trump or Mark Zuckerberg.

And they help make Trump, and Facebook's founder Zuckerberg, who is the world's biggest-ever media baron, even more powerful; in Zuckerberg's case, beyond the reach of governments. "We were promised we would all be netizens, speaking truth to power and sharing cat videos," Ferguson says. "But the reality is the social networks of our time are extraordinarily unequal."

Ultimately, this enormous concentration of power is all about money. Social-media networks profit by capturing our data, our innermost thoughts as expressed by our clicks. It's a goldmine for advertisers and others who want to track us. Along the way, they are draining real news organisations of the money needed to report real news. They sell ads without the need to pay for the content that surrounds them.

The virtual world is painful to leave. I can't say I will ever not be in its clutch. It keeps pulling us back because it embodies our hopes and fantasies. Way before the internet, we longed to be distracted from reality. My down-to-earth friend Tim puts it this way: "My intellect knows social media is not good for building consensus, I know it's impacting democracy. But I go there anyway."

First published in The Canberra Times, December 15, 2017. Picture: Paul Sakuma
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Saturday, December 9, 2017

Let's review the value of school reports

End-of-year school reports are making their way to parents and carers. For many, it's a major contact with the school. Most look forward to the reports, even if their children don't.

But what's their value? Do they actually tell parents anything useful?

Teachers generally hate writing them. They take up a lot of time, and teachers don't believe they are allowed to be as honest as they would like to be. Their reports are censored.

They didn't used to be. Peter Frost (not his real name) teaches in a NSW public high school. "I used to be able to write, for example, that student A had been persistently disruptive, that he didn't follow instructions," he tells me. "Then I was told I couldn't say that. The principal told me not to be negative. But I was trying to be truthful."

Truth wasn't appreciated. His principal told him that if a student was described as disruptive, it reflected badly on the teacher and the school. It was better not to say it. It was better to use neutral words, cleansed of meaning.

"Private schools are worse," he tells me. "Their reports are even more of a public relations exercise."

Another teacher, in the ACT, backs him up. "Reports are not objective documents," she says. "They are 50 per cent subjectivity and 50 per cent propaganda, making the student and the parents feel good."

It'd be a problem if parents relied on a school reports to be informed.

Conscientious schools make sure parents don't. They talk to parents and students throughout the year, made easier by email and mobile phones. If a child isn't learning well, they make sure the parents know about it before report time. Students should also get feedback in the classroom – in real time – critical for continuous improvement.

Yet many parents still seem to want the reports, like it's part of a contractual arrangement that also legitimise everyone's effort.

I find parent-teacher nights and student-led conferences much more valuable. They offer context, detail, an exchange of information.

Good teachers know this and often can't see the point of writing lengthy reports. "We are stressed out by it," one says. "Drafts go through a committee and then come back to us. If there are typos, it reflects badly on the school."

Another says: "It's not just time consuming, it's difficult to tick a box which narrowly defines achievement."

There are no serious studies evaluating Australian school reports. But there is across the Tasman. John Hattie, now director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, published an evaluation of the New Zealand system in 2003 titled School Reports: Praising with Faint Damns. It found that, while school reports are one of the primary vehicles for relaying information about students' progress to parents, they emphasise what students can do, rather than what students cannot do.

"We found the majority of reports indicated that very few students were badly behaved, and most were above-average achievers, most were making an effort in class, most were a pleasure to teach," he says.

The reports used common phrases to describe different children. "I am sure most parents in Australia welcome reports but find them not that helpful. No wonder they demand more tests, accountability, and teacher-proof information."

Hattie wants school reports to describe students' performance in ways that are specific, to offer strategies and be easy to understand.

He wants schools to invite in a cross-section of parents, give them copies of students' reports and ask them to interpret out loud what they are reading. If they can't, he wants them to outline how they want reports presented. "This simple step may dramatically improve the power of school reports to reflect student performance," he says.

Meaningful reports would help parents who didn't like school growing up. They are often afraid of directly approaching the school to ask questions. If they are not told something, they might not find it out.

States and territories are all moving to "streamline" reports. Some teachers worry that a more standardised format will leave even less room for conveying what's happening. Worse still, they are adopting electronic systems that keep reports as a record that follows each student as they move through different schools. Although the language will be bland, they will be tarred forever with marks between A and E (unless parents opt out, which is an option).

Outcomes of schooling matter, but so does the experience of itself. Schools are places for socialisation and collaboration. Perhaps we need a new category of outcomes that support the integration of subjects.

As principals sign off on reports in the days ahead, it helps to remember that teachers, too, get nervous about them. Sometimes, they are trying to say something without actually saying it. Reports can never convey the whole picture. In my experience, it is always better to keep the communication channels open and find time to talk.

First published in The Canberra Times, SMH and The Age on December 1, 2017
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