what is public?: or, public discussions about tool use

Inside Higher Ed recently published an article on Saida Grundy’s Twitter comments questioning masculinity that landed both Grundy and BU in hot water. IHE raises the question what should academics and scholars keep in mind when discussing their research topics more broadly or more publicly. My question in relation to this, what is publicly?

I have – clearly – a Twitter account, where I follow a few mom bloggers as part of one of my research paths and personal interest. Predominantly I follow education technology bloggers/twitter writers, gamification writers/discussions, and higher education general information. I have a handful of news sources there too. So for me, the majority of my Twitter public seems very academically focused.

I tweet notes for my courses – just as I’m asking my students to do – assuming the hashtag minimizes the public reading that tweet. When those outside my courses read the tweets, I’m assuming they see the tweet as academically inclined and use that lens to make sense of the ed tech/maker movement/digital message. I understand I’m making a lot of assumptions about the sense making of my readership, but I feel most academics fall victim to this. If I follow other academics on Twitter, they become my audience. When I ask students to use Twitter, they also become my audience. I continue to write from my disciplinary perspective as that represents my followers and who I follow. It also shapes my usage, which will influence how I compose my message. I will write academically, with all the bias and lingo, because that’s who I assume is reading.

So when IHE raises the question, what happens when our academic discussions reach a wider public, I’d like to problematize that with what is public? what happens when our intended usage of a space is understood by followers, but is misunderstood by outsiders. We saw all the *fun* gamergate caused with Twitter trolls levying death threats and asking why anyone took them seriously, and a small group of women both academic and not who continue to feel unsafe due to these *uses* of Twitter. Previously a professor lost his job for twitter comments, now Grundy similarly experiences issues with her use. What all these examples have in common is usage – authors expect understanding and sense making to happen in a specific way, instead outsiders coopt message and interpret them differently.

So what happens when the public doesn’t understand variety in usage because the academic discussion about rhetorical uses and functions of internet spaces sounds too academic (it is, but it’s one of my favorite in my field), so no one considers variety in usage and the possible negative ramifications? Importantly, how do we (and who is we?) start and sustain public discussions about uses of digital tools? How can these discussions overcome the erroneous assumption that *everyone* uses the tools the exact same way as me, because it’s the right way?


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