Declare your digital interdependence (O…SLAP!)

Going online these days is like walking through a trade show in an office building full of corporate lobbies. While you’re trying to decide where to do your business – Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon – banner ads and pop ups constantly compete for your attention.

You can’t read two paragraphs before something blocks your view and you have to find the tiny icon to close the window but then the phone glitches or the video moves and now you’re on another URL which shifts your search history algorithm…

I’ve heard it said that the internet is basically a series of agreements between individuals and software about how we communicate.

Well, I didn’t agree to this.

Understanding Social Contracts

Once upon a time, you could tell a student: “I know that your teacher is a difficult person to deal with, but if you can just keep your head down, pass, and graduate, your life will be at least as good as your parents’.”

Today that statement is not supported by the facts.

A social contract is created when an individual gives up some personal freedoms in exchange for maintaining the greater good of social order. Apart from preventing anarchy, the benefits of “taking one for the team” can include:

  • economic stability
  • protection from invasion
  • large-scale public works
  • public health

Social contracts aren’t always complicated or controversial. Stopping at a red light may add a couple minutes to your commute, but it’s a small price to pay for not getting t-boned or run over.

But what happens when a social contract is broken? What happens when:

Declaring Independence

Recently I asked a high school Open-Source Learning network what they knew about the Declaration of Independence. (NOTE: I should have been more specific, since there have been quite a few.)

Everyone recognized the phrase. A few rolled their eyes. One said: “We learned about that in American History.”

“Cool. What can you tell me about it?”

Nothing. Silence. No one could explain what it was. Or why it happened, or why it might be important to understand.

The Declaration of Independence matters. Whatever we may think of America, or its colonial history, or the destructive impact of that history, or even the way it functions today, the Declaration of Independence is an articulate, assertive example of speaking truth to power. The document is an artifact of a broken agreement.

The Problem With User Agreements

As Yale computer science professor Edward Tufte has observed, “Only drug dealers and software companies call their customers ‘users.'”

Neither drug dealers nor software companies are transparent about their practices. Both offer products and services on one-sided terms that prospective customers are unable to negotiate.

Many of us have given up on trying. If we want to use the software, we have to scroll down and click “Accept,” so we may as well get on with it.

Most people don’t know what they’re agreeing to, because most people don’t read the agreements. In 2005, PC Pitstop temporarily added a clause to their End User License Agreement that offered $1000 to anyone who read that far and contacted them. It took five months and more than 3000 sales before anyone did.

And what recourse do we have if a company breaks their own agreement, or applies their policies unevenly? How many times have individuals, groups, and even the United States Congress complained to Facebook? (*Lots.) Has Facebook addressed these concerns? (*Nope.) Has Facebook taken steps to protect individual privacy or punish those who threaten our democracy with misinformation and violence? (*Nope.)

Our Declaration of Digital Interdependence

Students and I read the original Declaration of Independence together while we watched the news. More Facebook employees stepped forward and shared documents showing that the company hosted hate speech and illegal activity that hurts individuals and our country.

Facebook knows about our pain and profits by it without regard to what we think or how we feel. That’s not cool.

And that’s not the only example of big tech taking advantage for profit.

Rather than write a cranky blog post and leave it at that, we decided to do something about it.

Our Declaration of Digital Interdependence

The first thing we did was to read and remix the original Declaration of Independence. The text was written by the influencers of the day, and it has shown some staying power, so why recreate the wheel?

We needed to update the document for our purposes, so we used an etherpad on our own server and started editing:









Once we were all satisfied, we e-signed it:




In our conversations, learners pointed out that their school email addresses all start with their ID numbers. Students don’t own those ID numbers. IDs are assigned upon enrollment and surrendered when students graduate, transfer, or get kicked out.

The data that students create doesn’t belong to them either. Someone else owns the servers, and that means someone else controls the fate of the data.

Learning management systems such as Canvas, student information systems such as Aeries, and feature suites such as Google Classroom or Microsoft 365 all profit handsomely off the content and metadata students create. Schools and districts buy this software. Teachers and students are directed to use it.

So, just like the colonists, we are leaving the nest and creating an alternative. We are building the Open-Source Learning Academy Protocol (OSLAP). OSLAP is a protocol, and not a platform, because OSLAP:

  • Reinforces Open-Source Learning Academy principles through its architecture and use.
  • Supports the philosophy and values of Open-Source Learning – starting with giving people the choice to participate.
  • Does not require anyone to pay to enter proprietary digital real estate.

OSLAP began with the culture of Open-Source Learning. We have curated on the public internet for more than ten years – always on someone else’s servers. Even though we can use online software such Blogger and other platforms without paying in currency, there is always a price, starting with our lack of informed agency. We know that somewhere out there, someone may be extracting value from our work in ways we can’t see.

Action Speaks Loudest

Last week we took an important step. After we signed our declaration, we had a meeting, and we agreed to move our data to our own servers. All of this is documented – in our data, in the recording of our conversation about our data, and ultimately in the actions we took to preserve and move our data.

Action is the ultimate authenticity. It was up to each of us to backup our blogs into .xml files that we downloaded to our machines and then uploaded to OSLAP.

Stay Tuned

I will share more about this in coming weeks. Contact Me to learn more or test-drive OSLAP with your learning community.



A language lesson from the dead

Headline-Induced Whiplash

Last week this headline hijacked my attention:

“Southlake school leader tells teachers to balance Holocaust books with ‘opposing’ views.”


Apart from the stunning ignorance, and the moral and ethical problems with the statement, the fact that this mandate came from a school district director of curriculum – who was not immediately fired for saying it – reveals a critical feature/bug in the hierarchical power structure of education.

Open-Source Learning shifts the balance and brings learning relationships out into the sunlight.

In Open-Source Learning, the learner is at the top of the org chart. Teachers (lead learners) and parents support their efforts. Site and district administrators (stewards) maintain learning resources and environments.

In Open-Source Learning, life is our interdisciplinary curriculum. We remix our interests into learner-centered, interdisciplinary exploration designed for value, interdependence, and hope. Our vision is eternal, our mission changes when we reach a benchmark, and our KPIs flex to meet needs.

When I saw this story, I felt a need to respond. That’s Part I, below.

Part II is an illustration of how teachers can meaningfully integrate current events – including politics – into their state/institution-approved curriculum, in the form of a blog post I published for an Open-Source Learning high school English course in 2017. The post was noted on a few popular websites, including BoingBoing (thanks, Cory Doctorow!), and the class followed up by meeting with Senator Lynch online.

In the words of Thomas Mann, “Everything is politics.” It is disingenuous to suggest that teachers should avoid politics or stay silent about events and issues that are wildly inappropriate and affect us all.

The important thing is to resist imposing a world view on learners, so that they can develop their own capacities for gathering, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information. (In that spirit, you’re welcome to Contact Me and let me know what you think of what I write, this week and every week.)


Good Trouble

Generations of teachers have been told: Be neutral. Stay objective. Stick to the approved curriculum script and keep your politics to yourself.

However, as Paolo Friere put it, “There is no such thing as a neutral education process.”

Curriculum is not neutral. The “approved” content you see is someone’s idea of what’s worth teaching. Only a select few people get to weigh in on these decisions, and they hardly ever support teaching content with which they personally disagree. Therefore, school curriculum is a map of hierarchical, political, and financial power in our culture.

That administrator who told teachers to teach opposing views of the Holocaust – as if there were such a thing – was not being neutral or fair. She was apparently interpreting a recently passed Texas Senate bill that states, “A teacher who chooses to discuss a topic (described in the previous section of the bill as ‘a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs’) shall, to the best of the teachers ability, strive to explore that topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.”

The Texas Senate bill was an amended form of a Texas house bill. The House bill included requirements to teach the achievements of “marginalized populations,” and it also stated that public school educators must teach “the history of white supremacy” including slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, and ways in which the white supremacist hate group was “morally wrong.”

But in the Senate bill, those agenda items were removed.

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous.

More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” -Primo Levi

History says we’ve been down this road before, and it is disastrous. Whatever else they discover, graduates of K-12 schools should have a basic, shared understanding of verifiable scientific and historical facts, and a basic, shared understanding of reasoning and logical fallacies. This is a key component of Civic Fitness.

Thinking Is Not Just About You

Too many value propositions in schools focus on the benefit to the individual student. Wrong. We learn whether we’re in school or not. You’re not in school for you – you’re there for the rest of us.

Whether you’re a teacher or any other sentient, carbon-based life form, you are part of multiple interdependent systems. You matter. You make a difference in your family, your community, and your natural habitat.

Since you don’t choose all the systems in which you participate, and we don’t choose you either, we all owe it to each other to be well-informed and thoughtful in our reasoning. These ideas are the basis for our society and our system of government. Plato was clear about the responsibilities of the individual to The Republic nearly 2400 years ago.

To the people who don’t like logic, republics, or Plato: I’m just the messenger. Reality doesn’t compromise or care what we think of it.

In reality, many issues and events do not feature “very fine people on both sides.” Much of the time, reality presents us with one-sided, incontrovertible truths that we ignore at our own peril. For example, gravity is neither questionable nor controversial; if you want to make a very brief spectacle of yourself, find a tall building and prove everyone wrong. You get exactly one chance to be a legend. (The saddest thing about those last two sentences is that if you do pull a Kyrie Irving, it’s still not just about you. Some poor witness will be traumatized for life by your foolishness. Someone will have to clean up your mess.)

Our interdependent world simply isn’t big enough for every selfish, stubborn person to go off and play in their own sandbox. The conspiracy theorists, the flat-earthers, the anti-vaxxers, the racists and sexists, they inflict costs on everyone. We spend irrevocable time and energy paying attention, we endure pointless conflict and fractured relationships, and we pay higher group health insurance premiums. In the worst cases, we get sick, we can’t find a vacant hospital bed, and we die.

Each of us has an obligation to seek out information, even (especially!) when it challenges our understanding. My son just wrote an essay comparing the Covid-19 pandemic with the Spanish Flu. He began with the famous George Santayana line: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I first read that sentence when I was about his age; it was the epigraph to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. When I looked up and saw that intimidating black book on my grandmother’s bookshelf, I was shocked: Why would she have anything in her apartment with a swastika on it?

Never forget.

A Lesson From the Dead

My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. I grew up listening to her stories about my mom’s side of the family from that era – about getting out just in time, about converting to Catholicism, about being denied entry to America and going to live in England or Africa. About the camps. About the ones who died.

We tell stories of the dead to keep them alive. Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel put it this way: “To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

It’s mid-October. In the natural world of the northern hemisphere, this is the season when things die. It is said that this is the time when the veil between the spiritual world and the physical world is thin. Dia de los Muertos is fast approaching.

We just brought the box in from the garage to start setting up our ofrenda. Here’s what it looked like last year:


Thinning the Veil

Open-Source Learning also thins the veil between worlds – the world of school and the real world. Learners seek out information and connect with the experts they respect. The curriculum becomes a lens through which we examine our world and apply what we learn to help us understand and thrive.

Being open also means that our learning is open to the world— people and events matter to us and influence our even shift our thinking. Today’s students have to deal with an internet-enabled politics that drives people apart and pits them against each other.

The presidential election of 2016 directly and adversely affected my students. Their parents were fired from their jobs and deported. Their cousins were caged at the border.

Teaching and learning in a state of denial for the sake of “neutral” was not an option.


Not My Shitgibbon

(Or, “When the grown-ups go batshit crazy, K-12 students learn about language and democracy.”)

[Originally published 14Feb2017 on Dr. Preston’s English Language & Composition 2016-2017]

[credit: many thanks to Edel Rodriguez for the inspired Der Spiegel cover art.]

It’s a great time for the English language.

Sometimes we just don’t have the right tool for the job for expressing ourselves. I’m a big fan of building vocabulary, but there are moments when no existing word accurately conveys our idea.  Maybe it’s because we’re trying to describe something new in the world. Or we need cathartic release and a laugh at the same time. Sometimes the available choices just don’t grab or persuade our audience.

That’s when we innovate.* (*make stuff up.) Scholars estimate that Shakespeare used less than 18,000 words — and that he originated approximately one out of every ten. We add words to our language all the time. Today the Oxford English Dictionary contains more than 600,000 words.

Some new words are necessary because they describe something that didn’t previously exist (think Internet, which derived from inter-networking, according to TCP/IP architect Bob Kahn at 59:35 in this video). Other words that we adopt have a ring to them or capture our feeling in a familiar way. Why else would Homer Simpson’s “Doh!” make it into the Oxford English Dictionary?

However, in spite of what some of your teachers have told you, you can’t just “use your own words” — no one else would understand what you’re saying. The words we create and use are currency. Just like money, words represent symbolic agreements about value depending on what they give to our readers and listeners.

As you may remember from your days on the elementary school playground and last semester’s analysis of the ad hominem fallacy, calling people names is neither personally appealing or especially effective in persuasion and argumentation. They are often a last resort for people who have run out of ideas and are desperate to say something.

These days, desperate times are calling for increasingly desperate rhetorical measures.

Which brings us to “The Surprising Rise of the Shitgibbon.”

Shortly after he was elected, President Donald Trump offered to destroy the career of a Texas legislator who opposed civil asset forfeiture. (Civil asset forfeiture is when law enforcement officials can take your money and your property without even charging you with a crime, much less getting a guilty verdict in a court of law.)

Enter Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach.

Now, normally, citizens of the republic — including me — would expect more decorum from an elected official, even if that official was standing up to a bully. But these days you have to crane your neck and look in America’s rear view mirror to catch a glimpse of normal, lying there in the middle of the road next to truth and integrity, bleeding out on the asphalt.  There is nothing normal about having a president talk about destroying a legislator’s career, or banning Muslims from entering the country, or grabbing women.  There is nothing normal about that president appointing a Secretary of Education who knows NOTHING about public education and thinks we should have guns in school to protect us from grizzly bears. Uh huh. Grizzly bears.

For those of us who study how we communicate and use language, shitgibbon is a silver lining. It turns out that this word has a history, which you can read more about here. We can learn a lot from a word’s etymology – the study of the origin and development of linguistic forms and words. Etymology provides insight into how culture shapes language and vice versa over time. Check out the Online Etymology Dictionary and look up your favorites.

Shitgibbon also gives us a creative outlet and a path forward. If you’re not able to vote, or participate in a public demonstration, or call your elected officials, or tie up a Trump property phone line, or take any other immediate civic action, you can still find ways to express yourself in words using what you learn from shitgibbon. Taylor Jones, a Ph.D. candidate in Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, builds on Ben Zimmer’s concluding note that, “Metrically speaking, these words are compounds consisting of one element with a single stressed syllable and a second disyllabic element with a trochaic pattern, i.e., stressed-unstressed. As a metrical foot in poetry, the whole stressed-stressed-unstressed pattern is known as antibacchius.” Jones goes on to provide a recipe for making a shitgibbon in two easy steps.

Do it. Remix the concept and post a shitgibbon poem, story, song, nonfiction essay or [?] to your course blog and explain your creative process. And then do more. Your reading audience and your republic await.

Turn into the skid

On a rainy winter night in 1987, when I was a senior in high school, I drove my parents’ Oldsmobile sedan “over the hill” from the San Fernando Valley to visit my girlfriend at her UCLA dorm room. On my way home I totaled the family car.

More on that in a few paragraphs.

There Is No Back to Normal

I cringe when I hear people talk about “getting back to normal” after the pandemic.

There is no undoing change. You can change again, but you can’t change back.

Associating yesterday’s familiarity with safety and security is understandable – it’s also irrational. The devil we know is not necessarily better than the devil we don’t. Sometimes it makes more sense to fear the known rather than the unknown.

Emotional longing, not judgement, fuels the desire for a “return.” Nostalgia is (see 1:27 of this –>) “the pain from an old wound… it’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.”

Tell the Truth

The idea of returning home from the coronavirus pandemic to a simpler time in school is a cozy fantasy, a comforting bedtime story for a small child. The truth is darker. School was never normal. Campuses have always been oppressive minefields of physical and psychological violence. Apart from the live shooter drills and the ritualistic bargaining for the bathroom pass, or the passing period shoulder bump that might escalate into a fight at any moment, classrooms have always been dangerous places for honesty, trust, and emotional vulnerability.

The fact is in the fiction. If school really were a safe place, administrators wouldn’t post all those aspirational vision statements: “Smith Elementary is a SAFE PLACE where…”

Let’s get real. Instead of romanticizing the past, or passively wishing things were different, we need to work with what we have in order to create the thing we need.

What we have is a dysfunctional culture in an education institution that (a) isn’t built for the circumstances, and (b) had no plan or process for addressing campus closures.

We also have a technological revolution in communication, and we have millions of people who are hungry for learning the concepts and skills that will help them thrive.

We need a learner-centered, interdisciplinary, transcendent movement that stokes passionate curiosity, craft, and growth.

It’s time to turn into the skid.

The Hero Answers the Call

Sometimes, we find ourselves in a skid. We have choices about how to respond. We don’t have to tell ourselves a panic story; we can focus our attention. After all, now we have a problem to solve, an obstacle to overcome, maybe even a crisis to survive. The skid is our opportunity to innovate – maybe, even, to become a hero.

In story form, it’s easy to romanticize Joseph Campbell‘s construct of the monomyth – the “hero’s journey.” What’s not to love about a protagonist being called to adventure, seeking out wisdom and mentorship, overcoming adversity, and returning home enlightened? Very Luke Skywalker.

When I started teaching high school courses, I wrote a memo to students that I handed out (I was still using ancient Egyptian comms – paper – back then) on the first day of class. The title of the memo was, “Your Opportunity to Be a Hero.” I absolutely meant what I wrote. The choices we make every day that lead us to take charge of our own lives are nothing short of heroic.

But most of the time in real life, the call to adventure isn’t so obvious. As Campbell points out, the call to adventure can be easy to miss, or even downright unpleasant and traumatic. We may not want to hear it.

The pandemic sucks. We’d all rather not be bothered. But make no mistake, this is our call to adventure.

When my girlfriend called that night and invited me to come visit her at UCLA, I was a little nervous. It was pouring. She was way out of my league. I wasn’t supposed to take the car on the freeway without my parents’ permission.

Campbell wrote, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”

I grabbed my car keys, pulled up my collar, and headed out into the rain.

We Seek Pleasure and Avoid Pain

I took the risk and got behind the wheel that night because of the dopamine rush I received from my girlfriend’s invitation. My brain said, “Gimme more of THAT.”

Where is our motivation to transform school? What are we looking for? What makes us feel good enough to take the risks, have the hard conversations, and sacrifice some sacred cows?

Answering these questions provides the impetus for action, the force we need to change the state of school. The opportunity to create desirable experiences has to outweigh the undesirable experience of the present, and the growing pains that will inevitably come with change.

One of the most widely accepted theories of learning is Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect, which basically says that we human beings seek pleasure and avoid pain. The Law of Effect is the foundation for operant conditioning, which frames the way we interact with our world and the meaning we interpret from how those interactions make us feel.

Remember that our default is inertia. Q: Why do we have these faculty meetings? A: Because we’ve always had these faculty meetings.

We not only need a desirable force to catalyze change, we also need the resolve to double down when we fear change.

Otherwise, we lean back from the danger we perceive, thinking that we will save ourselves from being hurt. This is how we get hurt. Experienced mountain bikers and skiers know: don’t lean back. If you want to regain control of your speed and direction as you’re flying downhill, lean forward.

Analysis Is a Stall Tactic

We have all the information we need to analyze and act on school’s response to the pandemic and school’s role in our lives moving forward. The earth didn’t open and swallow anyone when the University of California did away with the SAT and the ACT. What else can we explore to help students, families, educators, and communities?

There has never been a more opportune moment for transformation.

To those who would say, “Yeah, but this isn’t a good time…” or, “We need more data…” OK Lumbergh. We get that you like things the way they are. Maybe your legitimacy in the organization depends on creating more studies, or you want a scapegoat instead of leading change.

The problem is that people need help right now. Collecting more survey data and generating more TPS reports will make life harder on everyone in the meantime. These strategies also send a message: Your lived experience is statistically in/valid.

At best, thinking too much muddies the water. Generations of critics and teachers have maligned Hamlet as a moody teenager with a decision-making disorder. In fact, he’s a devoted son who knows from the beginning of the play that he must kill his uncle. But mulling it over takes seven major soliloquies over five acts. Management consultants call this sort of thing “analysis paralysis.”

At least Hamlet is self-aware enough to get mad at his own inability to act more quickly. It’s been almost two years since campuses first closed because of the coronavirus, and schools are still dithering about masks and vaccines, and championing the same old textbook-based curriculum and learning management systems that got us all here in the first place.

You Are What You (Don’t) Do

Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi put it this way: “Watch your actions; they become your habits. Watch your habits; they become your character.”

How do our responses to adversity and trauma train us for future situations and give us a sense of who we are? Will we recover from our wounds? Will we emerge stronger?

Hamlet was either going to be the guy who avenged his father, or the guy who thought about avenging his father but didn’t.

You’re going to be the person who does something innovative with your learning community, or you’re going to be the person who thought about doing something innovative with your learning community, but didn’t. That latter option would be a shame, considering you read this far.

Uninformed Action –> Suboptimal Outcomes

The date with my girlfriend had gone so well. We talked, laughed, ate pizza, and shared the kind of long goodnight kiss that makes no sense if you’ve never had one.

It was still raining as I walked through the parking lot to my car.

I remember smiling to myself and listening to the car radio as I rounded a curve on Sunset Boulevard, when the car’s tires disconnected from the road. Such a weird feeling, floating sideways, effortlessly, fast, in a direction that normal coefficients of friction would never allow. In that moment the car was completely out of my control.

My fear created a rush of adrenaline that triggered an instinct to take control of the situation. I was a man of action! I did exactly the wrong thing. I yanked the steering wheel back in the other direction, toward where I wanted to go, away from the skid. The car whipped around 180 degrees and slammed into a guardrail. Two other cars crashed into me before someone set up cones ahead of the curve and traffic slowed into one lane as it passed.


Turn Into the Skid

What is hanging you up about change? What is the skid that you are resisting? Is it ditching a standardized curriculum that is based on textbooks and tests? Is it the risk of making someone angry or losing your job? What is stopping you from launching an Open-Source Learning Academy or weighing in on how your learning community selects and uses software?

The night was cold. The rain fell harder, pelting me, the drops illuminated by headlights and the flashing red and blue of the police car. The tow trucks finally arrived. So did my father. It was a long night.

Back then, I thought the lesson was that I shouldn’t have driven in the rain to see my girlfriend.

That’s just what our culture wants us to think. Don’t bite the apple. Don’t fly too close to the sun. Curiosity killed the cat.* (*That one is just gross.) Santa knows if you’ve been naughty or nice. And just in case: God is always watching you.

Now I know better. I was absolutely right to drive in the rain to go see my girlfriend. I loved every minute of that night, right up to the moment when I lost control of the car. Even that gave me a valuable life lesson – without it I couldn’t write this post. I have no regrets and I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.

But I should’ve turned into the skid.


We eat social media for breakfast

How we engage with social media continues to increase influence our economy, our social and political culture, and our personal lives.


Open-Source Learning invites us to consider and reconsider how we engage with our devices, platforms, and software. Self-awareness has become more important than ever. An entire generation is growing up on the screen. Where is the parental guidance or any authoritative expertise that might mitigate the effects of addiction or gullibility.  Whatever else you think is responsible for the Presidential election of 2016, the impact of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter on our democracy is undeniable.  Schools and organizations in the public and private sector have a responsibility to build awareness so that we can all make more informed decisions.

I originally wrote this post in 2016 for teachers who were learning about digital culture. More recently I shared it with high school juniors in an American Literature course. But if we’re going to restore and heal what has been damaged in our culture, you know who’s going to have to make different choices about technoculture?

All of us.



Over the years it has become popular for executives, management gurus, and pundits to quote the imaginary Peter Drucker line: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” (Or lunch, depending on the source.) The general idea is that our decisions and behavior are influenced by forces so subtle that we aren’t even aware of their existence.

For example, millions of us open our phones every few minutes and become absorbed in a technoculture that we don’t understand. This weekend I did something I swore I would never do.

I texted a picture of my breakfast.

Oh no, I thought. I’ve become one of those narcissistic sharers I used to make fun of. I’m a wannabe Millennial!

But there’s more to this than meets the eye. For starters, you need the right tool for the job.

Picking the smartest tool in the shed

Selecting tools requires critical thinking: What IS the job? What do we want to accomplish by sharing information? And what tool to use? How does a tablet compare with a composition book? Is it best to use an online format that supports text? Photos? Video? Music? Interaction/ conversation?

What are we trying to say, and what impact do we want to make on the person or people to whom we say it?

We no longer tell the stories of our pictures. Our pictures tell the stories of us.

It’s not a tool, it’s a way of life

I didn’t really understand the Internet until I learned about its history and its culture from some of the people who were there when it was invented and who chronicled its influence. In particular, I am extremely grateful to Howard Rheingold for taking me under his wing and sharing so much insight with me over the years.

I have come to understand that the Internet, the World Wide Web, and the devices through which we connect are not toys, or even tools. This is not just the next evolutionary step in communication from papyrus or the printing press —this is a liminal shift that represents a new belief system and a new set of agreements, norms, attitudes, values, and rituals about how we interact and communicate.

If that sounds like a mouthful, it’s because the popular, loud, splashy, algorithmically advertised story we see in the media focuses on developing and celebrating tools. We have a great opportunity – a responsibility, really – to be more mindful about what we’re doing with these tools and how we can use them more effectively.

(Quick aside from my inner English teacher: the word technology comes from the Greek techne, which denoted, “systematic treatment of an art, craft, or technique.” [Source: Online Etymology Dictionary]. It is important to remember that technology is our artful USE of tools — not the tools themselves.)

The ‘social’ in social media

I gave all of this some* (*like part of a second’s worth) thought before I whipped out my iPhone and started snapping pics of my breakfast.

My reason was important to me. I missed someone and I wanted to share the meal with her.

I didn’t care if anyone else on Earth knew what I had for breakfast. (I’m a very private person, but since I’ve told you this much, it was a chicken and bruschetta omelette with melted cheddar cheese on top — and it was UH-mazing.)

The only reason I was moved to curate anything at all was because I wanted to share the experience with the person I cared about most. I didn’t want to post on Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram, or any other potentially “public broadcast” space online. I just wanted to send a personal breakfast message to one person.

Even before the pandemic began, we have more reason now than ever to communicate online. Children who live in two homes reach out and share with their parents. Relatives who move stay in touch long distance. Young people find ways to connect since they don’t have the same opportunities that today’s adults once did to meet, play, collaborate, and resolve conflict in unsupervised physical space.

Change the channel

We also have more reason than ever to carefully consider the online channels we use to communicate. In Marshall McCluhan classic words, “The medium is the message.” It’s fascinating to see how even familiar media create different understandings when we use them in different contexts.

It’s easy to see that turning in an essay on paper is different than using an electronic format, but it’s also important to recognize that the same electronic artifact is seen differently when it’s presented on Facebook, or a blog, or a 1.0-style website, or Pinterest, or… (pick your favorite sharing media platform).

Get the picture?

Consider a familiar artifact: the photograph. Pictures aren’t the same now as when I was a kid, any more than a song on Pandora or Spotify is “the same” as “the same song” on a vinyl album.

When I was a kid, a 24-exposure roll of film was a scarce, expensive, valuable commodity. You took one picture at each event and you hoped your mom didn’t catch you when you burned the last couple exposures because you just couldn’t wait anymore (maybe that was just me). Then, you broke your piggy bank and went to Thrifty’s photo counter to pay $7 or so to get the film developed.

Once you got the magic envelope back with the pictures and the negatives, you’d begin the storytelling ritual.  of Friends and relatives would gather round to try and recall what you were looking at. “Was that Thanksgiving?” “No, New Year’s… remember? Look: it was at Grandma’s. I didn’t have that sweater yet at Thanksgiving.”

The act of telling the stories of our pictures was a way to re/connect with the people we cared about and strengthen our memories of shared experiences.

Every time my elderly nextdoor neighbors returned from a trip, my family would be treated to dinner at their house and a slide show over dessert. Sharing images wasn’t about flashy new tools; it was the stuff of relationships and nostalgia.

Pictures are still pictures, but today our orientation to pictures and the way we experience and use them is different. Film is obsolete. Images are no longer a scarce resource. We snap 100 shots in a burst and post bunches to a variety of social media platforms.

Whether someone knows us well or only just met us, they can see what we do, what we like, where we go, and yes, what we eat. Our pictures create impressions; others who view our lives online come to “know” our identities through our photo streams.

We no longer tell the stories of our pictures. Our pictures tell the stories of us.

Process over results

So, back to my breakfast.

She didn’t get my pictures. Her iPad battery ran down again. Sometimes she forgets to charge it.

That’s OK. When it comes to building relationships, in-person communication beats all of this stuff any day of the week. Online and electronic tools can help us amplify and accelerate our thinking, but you can’t 3D print a hug. The next day my daughter came home. It was Sunday. Pancake day. She was fired up.

As we think about how to co-create and and share more dynamic learning stories, we should consider:

  • Our goals
  • Our audience
  • The best tools for the job.

We should also have a secret ingredient. As my daughter will tell you, the secret ingredient to making good pancakes (and everything else) is Love.

Approaching our work with passion — and each other with compassion — is a great place to start.  One way we can do this is by making intentional choices about how we communicate with each other.

Ars longa, vita brevis.

Thanks for reading.


(Published previously on Medium)

UPDATE: Check out this response from a high school student: