Where have all the bloggers gone?

Like I said last week, I’m committed to rebooting the whole blogging thing, both as related to my teaching and just my, well, blogging. So one of my errands was to clean up my RSS feeds to the blogs that I am/was following on Feedly. As far as I know, it’s the only decent-ish RSS feed reading site/tool out there, at least the only one that’s free. After I heard from Alan Levine in the comments here about Pinboard, I’m wondering if there is something else. I haven’t pulled the trigger yet, but even though Pinboard isn’t free, $11 a year seems like a good deal for a pretty robust service.

Anyway, this was the first time I had gone through my Feedly account– who I was following, how I had grouped these feeds– in probably four or five years. It was interesting to see how many blogs were no longer active, some not active since 2013 or earlier. But these ended blogs weren’t analogous to a place trapped in a historic moment by something like a volcano– Pompeii immediately comes to mind— because those people obviously saw what was coming. The plaster casts of their remains show them curled up in fetal positions in the face of falling ash and rock and fire. Rather, most of these blogs were left in place as if nothing odd at all had happened, as if they weren’t really ended at all. Most of these blogs’ most “recent” post was nothing new or dramatic– that is, there weren’t a lot of “farewell” messages.  Most of these blogs were like that apartment in Paris discovered untouched for decades, not so much abandoned in the sense that a sinking ship is abandoned; they were just “left.”

Back in 2009, I gave a presentation at the Computers and Writing Conference about blog “endings” and the research I was trying to conduct back then. One of these days, maybe I’ll go back to that project and at least make it something to put up here. It was difficult to find people who had admitted that they had quit blogging, even with bloggers who hadn’t posted anything in over a year. But I did track down a few people who served as “case studies” for my purposes back then. I basically concluded that my case studies had stopped blogging because of what I described as a “natural decay” of the rhetorical situation (a combination of the purpose coming to an end or a sense that there was almost no audience interested), or the complete opposite problem where the blogger was acutely concerned about audience. Actually, the example I recall was of a female academic blogger who quit because she had pretty good evidence that one of her male colleagues was quasi-stalking her via her blog.

In any event, the fall of some of the old blogs I followed was striking to me, and it makes me think that I need to seek out some new blogs to follow, too.

Trying to reboot the blogging thing, a bit

A new semester is upon us here at EMU, and that (along with new year resolutions) has me rethinking about blogging again.

In terms of teaching, I’m returning to some blogging assignments. I’m teaching an online version of the undergraduate course “Writing, Style, and Technology,” a course I used to teach A LOT– like four or five sections a year sometimes– but now, for a bunch of different reasons, a course I haven’t taught in about three years. I use blogs in this class more or less as a notebook and pretty much the same way I described it here in my article “When Blogging Goes Bad,” which came out in Kairos almost a dozen years ago and it is still my “greatest hit” in terms of an individually written piece of scholarship. This assignment isn’t a “write whatever you want” sort of space; rather, it’s really just using a blog format/tool to collect and share a series of short (and assigned) writing prompts. It’s sort of like the old “keep a notebook” assignment, but without the hassle of paper and also the added feature that students can read (and comment on) each others’ entries.

For my graduate course, Computers and Writing, Theory and Practice, I’m giving a reboot to a blog assignment that is also kind of/sort of what I was describing back in “When Blogging Goes Bad.” I’m trying to get students to use a blog again as a sort of “writer’s notebook” to “reflect on readings and activities, to make connections to other research, and to give you a space to think about the final short writing assignment for the term.” And just to set up some clear criteria up from the get-go, I’m asking students to post at least 12 times during the term (a little less than once a week) and to comment on other blogs from classmates at least six times.

I’m doing this for my grad class mainly because I think blogging has been a practice that has been important to me for whatever limited successes I’ve had as a scholar. Facebook and Twitter and all of that are fine and they make sharing links pretty easy, but neither of these platforms makes it easy to search previous posts for links and references of various sorts– I assume that’s on purpose.  A blog is a much better notebook sort of space for me to keep notes/observations and just keep track of these kinds of links, at least in terms of scholarship. My blog is easily searchable, and I’m using previous entries quite a bit in the ongoing MOOC book project and in other things. Oh, and as an aside: this is why I still use delicious too, though yeah, I’m not that crazy about the way delicious works (or doesn’t work) anymore.

Beyond that, I have had tangible benefits from blogging in that some of my blogging (particularly about EMU and particularly about MOOCs as of late) have lead to some of the most important scholarly and writerly projects of my career. I don’t get a ton of readers here– I get around 2,000 views a month, which is a fraction of what a “popular” blog gets– but I am fairly confident in saying that in an average month, I get more “views” of content here than I have get of all of my published (and supposedly worthy) scholarship in a year– maybe every 10 years. And it seems to me that if you’re a writer (and scholars are writers), you want to share your writing with others. You want and need an audience. I know a lot of scholars and writers who seem hesitant about sharing their writing too early or in a format like a blog, but sometimes I think that goes too far (and if you’re a writer who doesn’t like the idea of other people reading your writing…), and for me, I’d rather share work in progress that helps me think and that others might find interesting. Thus the blogging.

Of course, if I’m going to give an assignment that asks my graduate students to write and read each others’ blogs about once a week, I probably need to up my blog writing game myself a bit this semester/this year. Thus this post.

2015 Highlights

A quick and largely sequential set of highlights/lowlights around here for me in 2015:

  • Sabbatical! How long ago it seems now, but I was on sabbatical in winter 2015 (and basically during the spring/summer too). I did better than I did the first time I was on a sabbatical, not as well as the next time. Not that I know exactly when I’ll get my next sabbatical (if there is a next sabbatical), but I think a full year and one where I’m completely away from EMU would be interesting. Or maybe not; one of the things I learned about myself on sabbatical was/is I’m not close to ready to retire yet.
  • Yik-Yak hit the EMU fan in some interesting ways. I blogged about it a bit here, but more at the now defunct EMUTalk; here’s a good example of that.
  • I went to the CCCCs in Tampa, which was pretty good. Here’s a link to my talk.
  • I “dodged” the administrative track by applying for the position of Director of the Faculty Development Center. I have no idea if I didn’t get it because they meant to hire the person who was in the job before or because I dropped out of the search, but either way, it doesn’t matter. I’d say I’m about 90% pleased with the way this turned out, which is about as happy as I am with the way anything turns out. Interestingly enough, there’s been a lot of administrative turn-over recently. The person I would have reported to in this position, Kim Schatzel, is leaving EMU to become president of Towson University, which means that EMU currently has an interim president and an interim provost, and the College of Arts and Sciences is soon to have an interim dean too. This level of uncertainty might have been a good time to be a low-level administrator (like this position), or it might have been a terrible time to be an administrator. I guess I’ll never know for sure.
  • I went to HASTAC at MSU, which was interesting and I got to preside over a panel that was going on simultaneously between HASTAC and Computers and Writing. A lot of energy and excitement generated there, though unfortunately, there hasn’t really been anything in the way of a follow-up to the event.
  • This was a pretty popular post back in June— and I’ll want to/need to come back to this again soon for the MOOC book project (which is still moving along far too slowly). Of course, the big event in June was my son graduated from Greenhills!
  • Oh, also in June: I was in Ruston, Louisiana (of all places!) attending/involved with a “cyber-discovery” camp sponsored by the National Integrated Cyber Education Research Center, and I was involved again in a version of the camp we held here at EMU. And I’m still involved in all this by helping out in putting together a new version of the camp and by being a part of the second version of the camp we’re going to be holding here this coming spring. It’s a long story explaining what it is, the strengths and pitfalls, and maybe I’ll explain that another day. Just thought I’d mention it for now.
  • In July, my whole side of the family (with sisters, brothers-in-laws, and kids it’s like a total of 18 people) got together at a house in southeast Wisconsin to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. It was a lovely and fun time and lots of good stories; here’s a video of a particularly stormy afternoon on the lake.
  • EMUTalk wrapped up in August; here’s a link to the last post I had on that site. I have to say I don’t miss it as much as I thought I might. Maybe it’s because there’s still some “talk” on the Facebook page; or maybe I really did quit it at the right time.
  • We had a grand week up in the Traverse City area at a quaint little cottage in the woods. I think the hands-down highlight was a magical night on the beach with our friends John and Karen Mauk, a night where (sometimes all at the same time) we saw a zillion stars, shooting/falling stars, the northern lights, and a lightening storm in the distance.
  • Will moved out/moved in at U of M (and that’s been going well so far, I think).
  • I started to (and continue to) chair a search, I became the associate director of the first year writing program, and now (because Derek is on sabbatical) I’m the interim director. So much for avoiding all responsibility.
  • I went to my first international conference and my first “solo” trip out of the U.S. (and I took about 1,000 pictures, too.
  • And I didn’t blog as much in November and December as I should/would have preferred to do; my hope is to change that in the new year.

So yeah, 2015 turned out pretty decent overall. Let’s see what’s what next year.

Recapping the Federica Web Learning International MOOC Conference & Some Italy Sidetrips

Last week, I was in Naples and Capri, Italy to attend the Federica Web Learning International MOOC Conference. My brief talk/presentation/position statement (everyone just gave small talks) was more or less called “A Small View of MOOCs: A Limited Look at the Recent Past and Likely Future of MOOCs at the Edges of Higher Education in the United States,” and that link takes you to a Google Doc version of my talk– the slides and the script I more or less followed. Here are links to my tourism pictures of Naples, Anacapri, and Pompeii on Flickr.

After the break, I go into way more detail than necessary about the conference and the trip. Read on if you’re interested, though a lot of it is really me writing/thinking out loud for myself, which is often the case on my blog, right?

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When it comes to Education and Technology, “Efficiency” is not the point

One of my goals (one of many, far too many, goals) during the sabbatical is to post more here– probably still mostly about higher ed and MOOCs, but hopefully other stuff too. I think it would be a good idea to shift back away from Facebook and Twitter. Don’t ask me why I think that’s a good idea right now; it just seems like it is.

This seems a good place to start: from U.S. News and World Report (which I think is just a web site nowadays) comes “Professors Grow Weary of Idea That Technology Can Save Higher Ed,” with the subheadline “Some say bringing high technology to higher ed makes it less, not more, efficient.”  As a slight tangent: the author of this article is something called “The Hechinger Report,” which “is an independent nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based at Teachers CollegeColumbia University” that apparently generates a lot of articles about education that get poured right into a lot of mainstream publications.

Anyway, a quote:

Universities and colleges are marketing themselves to tech-savvy teenagers while promising higher productivity and financial savings. They will pour $10.4 billion into education technology this year, according to the Center for Digital Education, from computers to in-class gadgets such as digital projectors and wireless “clickers” that let students answer questions electronically.

But professors say they don’t have enough help to use this technology effectively, haven’t seen results from it, and fear that the cost savings administrators keep insisting that technology will bring could mean their own careers are on the line.

The assumed purpose of technology (e.g., computer stuff, basically) in this article is efficiency, and some version of that word/theme appears at least a dozen times in this 1,000 or word so piece. And– surprise, surprise!– it turns out that computer stuff doesn’t make education more efficient.

First off, duh.

Second, (to expand a bit on that first point), one of the main problems I always have with these kinds of articles is the assumed definition of technology. Instead of defining technology as any sort of tool like pens or paper or chalkboards or even literacy itself (Ong), technology is “anything that doesn’t seem normal to us, particularly computers stuff:” that is, “clickers,” “gadgets,” “digital projectors,” etc. Things that were recently “technology” often become quickly naturalized so they no longer qualify as “gadget” or “new-fangled”– email and cell phones, for example. Maybe it’s unfair of me to expect any definition of technology to be any more nuanced than that, but it’s still frustrating.

Third, (also expanding on my “duh”), efficiency is not the point. Modern computer technologies allow teachers and students to do things differently now than they did things five or ten or twenty or however many years ago, but that doesn’t necessarily (or even usually) make things more efficient. Take online courses in the broadest sense. Anyone who has taught or taken an online class knows that the advantage of the technology is it alters the time and space of a traditional “classroom:” you can be in class from wherever you can get a decent internet connection and you can engage in the class on your own schedule (more or less, and assuming the class is asynchronous). But online courses are a fairly inefficient way to convey information and to interact with each other. In a face to face class, we can all discuss a reading or an assignment in one time and place; in an online class, not so much. Often, this inefficiency shifts to the instructor– that is, it takes a lot more time to teach an online class than it does to teach a face to face one– and that’s one of the reasons why a lot of faculty have no interest in teaching online.

This ongoing quest for efficiency and cost savings (generally by employing fewer teachers and/or by having bigger classes) drives MOOCs and other online experiments, just as it was the motivation behind correspondence schools in the late 19th/early 20th centuries and the first wave of online courses a decade or so ago. For students (and parents of students), seeking efficiency makes sense. Over Christmas at my parents in Iowa, the conversation with the brothers-in-laws turned to the cost of higher education (one of them is preparing to send a kid to college next year), and this desire for efficiency came up. It wasn’t the right place or time to explain what I see as the actual reasons for the costs of higher ed (administrative costs, assessment, athletics, student amenities, and a sharp decline in state subsidies), but I did try to point out that education is an inherently inefficient enterprise, sort of like a string quartet (e.g., Baumol’s cost disease).  Education generally– teaching in particular– doesn’t scale the same way that content does. Efficiency is not the point.

I’m not sure I was very persuasive, and as a parent who is also looking down the barrel of paying tuition for our son next year, I share a lot of my brother-my-law’s feelings on this.

My iPad and “killer apps” for academics, almost four years later

I was checking out some of the statistics on hits and such to this site a week or so ago, and one thing that surprised me is that the most popular “all time” post I have on the site (at least since the WordPress plugin Jetpack started keeping track of things) is not about MOOCs, academic life, teaching, cooking, etc. Rather, the most popular single post on this site is “iPad “killer apps” for Academics (maybe),” which I posted on April 10, 2010.

Of course, it’s also important to point out out that no post on this site is really all that popular. I average about 50 or so views a day, sometimes up to 100 when I post something that people find interesting. The most views this site ever received in a single day was 737, and even this most popular of posts on iPads has only received (as of this writing) “all time” 4,794 views. Sure, that’s more people than have ever attended all of the conference presentations I’ve ever given and it’s probably more “views” than any print piece of scholarship I’ve published. But these are still not exactly the kind of traffic numbers that are going to allow me to quit the day job and just blog full-time.

(Oh, and as another thought/tangent: the archives for this site goes back eleven years now. I’ve slowed down quite a bit, but damn, that’s a lot of blogging. Another sabbatical project might involve going back to read through all that and/or “mine” it a bit for text/writing I can repurpose.)

Anyway, a few years later and after I bought my first iPad, what do I think now of what I said then?

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A blog post that will substitute for now for working on various MOOC projects

I am in the midst of what I have dubbed “sabbatical lite.” I finished up my quasi-administrative duties as program coordinator this summer and passed that baton on to Steve Benninghoff. This semester, I’m only teaching two classes because I’m getting a course release (more like payback) for MA projects I’ve directed over the last few years. Both of these are undergraduate courses and one of them is online. This is all setting the stage for my sabbatical proper, which will begin in January and go until next August.

It all makes me very nervous. I have had this song going through my head for weeks now:

 

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Academic Freedom/Speech and Its Consequences

Lately, I’ve been reading/skimming some interesting higher ed news stories about academic freedom/academic free speech. A lot of my reading has been about the crazy stuff going on in Kansas and that state’s Board of Regents’ rules that try to rein in the use of social media by faculty and everyone else. The go-to place for news on this, IMO, is Philip “Nine Kinds of Pie” Nel.  For example:

But it’s not just Kansas, of course. Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman has a piece in Slate Free to Be a Jerk” where she applauds the court victory of Mike Adams, a UNC-Wilmington professor who argued successfully that he was denied promotion to full professor based on his views. A quote:

[…]Adams’ application for promotion to full professor in 2006 was allegedly denied on the basis of his public engagement. Despite my distaste for Adams’ dumb ideas about feminism, diversity, and homosexuality, I’m glad that Adams sued the university, and am delighted that last month he won, in an important ruling that (for now) preserves a vestige of academic freedom in this country.

For although I find his views as repugnant as many found the anti-NRA tweet of University of Kansas professor Don Guth (whose kerfuffle resulted in one of the most restrictive social-media policies in all of academia), Adams’ spirited public engagement should have helped, rather than hindered, his bid. There’s precious little academic freedom left (what with fewer than 10 percent of American professors currently enjoying tenure)—but it sure as hell should include the freedom to be a schmuck.

Then there’s the whole series of craziness at the University of Saskatchewan that (as I understand it– I haven’t been following this one that closely) came about when the Provost fired Professor and adminstrator-type Robert Buckingham and had security escort him off of campus because Buckingham spoke out against a reform/reorganization plan. That apparently backfired. Badly. As recapped in The StarPhoenix article “University of Saskatchewan president Ilene Busch-Vishniac fired,” Buckingham was rehired, the Provost “resigned” (it seems to be a classic “did he fall or was he pushed” scenario), and then, as the headline suggests, the president was sacked.

Of course I am all about academic freedom and academic free speech. Of course of course of course. Nel is completely right in all of his criticism of the Kansas Board of Regents and the ridiculousness of their policy. I don’t know enough of the details about the Adams case or the mess up in Canada, but of course I’m in support of the wronged and fired here, and by the way, I’m encouraged by the developments in North Carolina and Canada because it is evidence that academic freedom is winning out in the end. Hopefully that will be the result in Kansas as well.

That said, it seems to me there are a few things we need to remember about the reality of such thought police policies and the limits of free speech, even for academics.

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Three things that could (maybe) change the academic job market in small, medium, and large ways

I’m still procrastinating on getting ready for the start of the winter term (we call it winter and not spring here– and for good reason– and it starts next week), and for whatever reason, I can’t quite let go of trying to respond to the kind of rage about the terrible academic job market I talked about a couple posts ago. I’m not sure why; maybe because it’s just rage and complaining without any suggestion for a solution. Ask these folks who are complaining about the unfairness of the job market/tenure “what do you want?” and the main answer seems to be “a job that leads to tenure;” in other words, they want to become part of the problem as they see it. That doesn’t make sense to me.

Anyway, in thinking this all over while I continue to be (quasi) snowed-in and before I get started actually working on things for next week, I thought I’d write about three things that aren’t solutions but what might be tangible things academia really could do that could help make the academic job market a little more humane in the short, medium, and longer term. You will note that none of these ideas are “increase government funding of higher education so we can hire more faculty;” I think that’s a pretty futile project, though the folks at the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education do have some interesting ideas. And you will also note that I am not suggesting something abstract like “make ‘the Humanities’ matter to students and others” either.

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Four (and a half?) thoughts on “social media” and academics– about Kansas and generally

Happy New Year! And I’m going to start off blogging in 2014 with something I meant to blog about a few weeks ago, a little bit about the “social media” and the Kansas Board of Regents’ policy against it.

I’m assuming most people who are reading this are familiar with what I’m talking about, but just in case: as reported here in the Lawrence (Kansas) World Journal, the state’s Board of Regents passed a policy where employees of the state’s universities can be fired for inappropriate use of social media. This apparently is the result of some tweets a journalism professor named David Guth had back in September about the shootings at the Navy Yard facility in DC.  The tweet that sent the Kansas board over the edge (apparently) was “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”

I’ve got four (or so) thoughts/points I thought I’d share, but before I do, it seems to me like I ought to bracket all of this with a simple rhetorical question: What the hell is wrong with Kansas?  I mean, it isn’t just the board of regents that is a bunch of right-wingers, as this Rolling Stone piece from last June points out.

Anyway, more or less in this order:

First, for more and ongoing information on this, go read Phillip Nel’s blog, “Nine Kinds of Pie.” Specifically, you might want to check out this collection of links, which he says he’s going to keep updating. Nel is a professor at Kansas State who has been blogging about lots of stuff for a long time.  Good stuff.  And because he’s a Children’s Lit professor/scholar, Annette knows him.  Small world.

Second, this policy is so stupid it’s irrelevant. Probably. What I’m getting at is this is just so ridiculous and ill-conceived by a board who obviously doesn’t know how these things work that I just have a hard time believing that anyone working at a university in Kansas is actually going to get fired for a tweet. How exactly does this get enforced? Who’s going to be screening the tweets and facebook updates and blog posts of thousands of different employees? It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would hold up in court, and it also seems to me like it would be pretty easy to circumvent in a variety of different ways– posting to social media anonymously, for example.

In a way, this all reminds me a bit of a rule/policy that was (supposedly) in place in Oregon when I was teaching at Southern Oregon University. As I understood it, faculty were not allowed to express a political viewpoint, meaning (basically?) it was against the rules for a faculty person to campaign for one political candidate or another. But the details about what this really meant were never clear to me. I suppose it would be against the rules to spend time in my classes explaining to students why they had to vote for so-and-so (which I wouldn’t do anyway), but it wasn’t clear to me if I was going to be violating this policy if I hung a campaign poster in my office or if I wore a campaign button while teaching or if I parked my car with a campaign bumper sticker on it in the faculty lot. When I asked people about this policy, they inevitably just rolled their eyes. And while I was only there for a couple of years, it seemed like a largely ignored policy to me.

Probably though. I think this “policy” will go away and this article from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education implies that the board is rethinking things a bit. But like I said, Kansas is a pretty nutty state, and I for one wouldn’t want to be the professor in the Kansas system who is the “test case” for this rule.

Third, social media can be a good thing for universities, too. EMUTalk.org is a good example of that. This is more or less my “hobby” blog about EMU, though I always make it clear that this has nothing to do with my day job and it has no official connection with EMU.  I’ve been running the site for about seven years now, and while the number of hits varies quite a bit and it isn’t as high as it once was, I’m still getting on average about 10,000 hits there a month. A lot of it is critical/negative about EMU of course, but a lot of it is also positive and I think the site serves as a good source for unofficial news and campus gossip.

I also know that official folks at EMU feel the same way. I’ve met lots of them and I even get fairly regular “press release” kinds of information to post on the site from the PR folks.  And interestingly enough, no administrator-type at EMU has ever a) said anything negative to me about the site and/or b) suggested I ought to shut the site down/not publish something “or else.” I mean, I was never worried about my job because I’m a tenured full professor at a place with a strong faculty union that is not in Kansas, but I have to say that I am surprised that I haven’t received any blowback from the site.  Which brings me to my next point:

Fourth, there are consequences to all kinds of speech, and everyone– perhaps especially academics– ought to think before they tweet/post/otherwise share online.  I’m specifically not going to refer to a certain writer/blogger I reference in different ways in my two previous posts, though that’s an example of what I’m getting at. No speech is ever completely “free” and in normal face-to-face settings or in scholarship, and I think everyone understands that. If I say the wrong thing in a meeting with my department head or my colleagues, there are going to be some bad feelings and other repercussions. If I present/publish something in an academic setting that lots of other academics think is wrong, then these people will think less of me and my ideas.

But while we understand this in face to face/conventional settings, it seems like a lot of academics forget that these same rules apply online as well. There’s a false sense of intimacy created by social media: we feel like we are only posting on Facebook to our friends or to our Twitter followers, and it can feel like no one is really reading what we write. In many cases, that’s true– a lot of social media/the blogosphere goes unread or unnoticed– but anything posted online can also turn out to be awfully difficult to take back. Many years ago, educators worried about students posting things on social media that would come back to haunt them later. Now it seems like the educators are forgetting that the same is true with them.

So I’m not saying that a certain not to be named in this post rage-filled blogger/tweeter doesn’t have the right to write/post whatever she wants, and I’m not saying that David Guth didn’t have the right to post that tweet. I’m just saying that every speech act has consequences both wanted and unwanted, intended and not.

Oh, and I’m not saying I’m in favor of all of these consequences. Guth probably went too far in wishing ill upon the children of the NRA and “damning” them, but I understand his emotion and anger and his academic right to speech. I certainly don’t think this means he should get fired and I don’t think it justifies the Kansas policy.

The other example of Twitter and its consequences in the news right now is the Justine Sacco incident and this tweet:

And this post by someone who “was a communications executive for IAC, the parent company of a range of tech products such as Vimeo, CollegeHumor, and Dictionary.com.” You’d figure she wouldn’t forget the reach of social media!

Sacco was fired before her flight to Africa landed, and given who she worked for and what she did, that’s not that surprising. Though the online mob that wanted to kill and/or rape her was obviously out of line, that too is an example of unintended consequences. As I wrote about in my dissertation what seems like a million years ago now, the “immediacy” of rhetoric mediated in electronic environments can simultaneously be intimate and explosive.