Notes from Jerusalem

  

I’m sitting in a coffee shop on the border of East and West Jerusalem. Behind me a Dutch Christian tour guide is animatedly explaining the stations of the cross, opposite me are two women in Hijabs speaking Arabic and reading a Hebrew newspaper. A group of Russian soldiers are queing inside to collect their coffees before heading back to their bases after the weekend and the British teenagers who I’m waiting for are slowly emerging from their beds after a night out in an Argentinian dance bar that springs up each night in the city’s food market.

This city is one giant indentity crisis. The old city is split into four- Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian- the new one that has grown up around it is split uneasily in two. Everyone’s identity is hypenated- Palestinian-Christian, Russian-Jewish, Israeli-Arab, Moroccon, Iraqi, Persian, Georgian, Yemenite, Russian, Jordanian, German, and so the list goes on. Each of these groups has their own little neighbourhood, their own foods and their own language. Accents, slang, names annd neighbourhoods become glue for mini diasporas within this strange melting pot of a city. To be a Jerusalemite in the west of the city invariably means having come from somewhere else but feeling at home. To be a Jerusalemite in the east of the city means the opposite, having come from here but without the voting rights or anything more than an ID card to prove it.

If there’s a place on earth that is a microcosm of identity play, reconstruction and shifting then to me this is it. When I’m out in the East of the city I sometimes catch myself hiding behind my Britishness, it’s a more comfortable way of being than to be there as a Jew when that part of my identity is symonymous with the oppression of others. Other times, maybe more in the towns and villages of the West Bank than here, I make a point of being there as a Jew. It’s a tiny gesture that tries to say “I see how hard things are here, we’re not all against you”.

Then I slip back into the privileged bubble of West Jerusalem and sit in an air conditioned bookstore cafe with a friendly security guard whilst the people who live in that village who left at the same time as me are still stuck at the checkpoint because the teenage soldier with an oversized gun, grumpy from a fight with his girlfriend, is being extra slow with permits today. 

Back in the coffee shop I order in Hebrew and wonder what my German refugee great-grandparents, for whom this was the vocabulary of scripture and no more, would make of the crude jokes I can hear a group of young boys making in the resurrected language. I wonder what they would make of this state that bears their name, ‘Israel’, but lives and acts with few of their values. Then I sip my Sprite whilst a French family, newly arrived in Israel after the shootings at a kosher supermarket in Paris a few months ago, sit with their kippot (skullcaps) confidently  on show for the first time in their lives. 

My, this is a complicated place!

Too much information

I’m reading things on the internet all wrong, apparently.

Why?

Well, I store articles. Actually, I do more than just store them, I re-read articles and sometimes even download the ones I really love and archive them in my ‘library’ folder in my iCloud drive so that if they ever disappear off the web or more somewhere else (as they are often want to do when a website gets upgraded and decides to change the URL of ALL of its posts rendering links invalid and annoying me no end…) I can still find them.

The friend who expressed outrage at my re-reading of web-based gems proclaimed, “there’s always so much new to read, why bother reading something you’ve read before? You already know what it says. The conversation will move on”. 

Fair point.

There is rather a lot to read, and I read A LOT. I’ve always read the paper in the morning, and now between news sites, twitter and the growing number of blogs that populate my feedly, my morning dose of catching up with the world’s conversation can take over an hour. But it’s important. Working in a community means being abreast of the conversations that are shaping people’s understanding of the world and the issues that are impacting them is invaluable. It also means its a good idea to have a vague idea about (or binge watch entire series of) the latest teenage netflix sensations.

So, why re-read?

Last year I read Nicholas Carr’s book ‘The Shallows‘. It’s one of those “this is your brain on the internet” books and was nominated for a Pulitzer a few years back. The book basically makes the argument, supported by various studies, that the internet is making us stupid (but in a few thousand more words than that). Carr is particularly worried about skim reading and our ever-decreasing attention spans and blames, amongst other things, the nature and pace of production of online content for this. Whilst people who know things are debating the truth in his claims of digitally enabled cognitive decline (like this LRB piece which notes the opposite might be true) I recognise some of my own fears in his argument.

I’m interested in how we can hold onto the kernels of wisdom we find in the things that we read, and by that I don’t mean letting words wash over us and stopping just long enough to package them into a 140 character bundle and send on to others for them to do the same. When the conveyor belt of the internet’s journalism engine delivers endless missives on its  eternal high speed setting, where is there room to sit with and truly explore ideas?

This afternoon I was teaching a text that I know well, really well. It’s my piece of text, my Bat Mitzvah portion. My student, a week from his Bar Mitzvah, confessed that he’s getting bored of the story. He has a portion that I love, its the story of twelve spies sent on a mission to see ‘the land’ and who return in disagreement. Ten think the land is impossible to inhabit and two think that its manageable. The ten manage to win over the community that sent them and as a result the community is punished and forced to wander in the wilderness. 40 years later, the people are allowed to go into the land. Nothing changes in those 40 years except for the people, the land remains the same but they return with a new generation who sees challenges in a different way.

Its the message of this story that cuts to the heart of why I re-read things. Whilst texts don’t change, our context does, and encountering ideas with a fresh pair of eyes can offer new insights, reflections and reactions. I want to hold onto writing that makes me think, and whilst the constant flow of newness online can create an exhausting pressure to consume, I’m holding onto my bookmarks and downloads as anchors in a sea of information!

Oh, and this is one of my favourite re-reads and the piece that sparked my interest in privacy and the world of information.

Civic engagement and technology

Internet feminism is enjoying a bit of a moment (as is internet misogyny, but more on that later…) with bloggers, twitter personalities, facebook groups and online campaigns shaping what is becoming known as feminism’s fourth wave. The growth of this new feminism, which is often strongly intersectional, and therefore part of a broader sub-section of the internet that is rapidly defining identity politics online, is fascinating. On one hand, it has energised and inspired a new generation in non-party political activism and created a strong sense of community and momentum that many young people can struggle to find within their school communities. On the other, the type of discourse that has emerged is often lacking in the nuance that face to face engagement sees and suffers from the soundbite and mob mentality that seems to pervade any mass public online conversation.

This week I read a 6 year old paper about young women and the ‘participatory possibilities of online cultures‘. Written on the cusp of this wave, it observes that “the New technologies facilitate young women’s capacity to play with gender and to resist feminine stereotypes” and I think this is definitely something that has proved to be the case. There is no doubt that the online debate around gendered toys  has impacted on the behaviour of brands and shops and this mass movement is a good example of how online conversations have promoted civic engagement. Other examples might be the campaign to get Jane Austen’s picture on bank notes or more recent projects to challenge school dress codes. As the fly on the wall (and in the phone) Channel 4 documentary ‘teens’ showed recently, engagement in these kinds of online campaigns is not necessarily met with support in the offline spaces teens inhabit but encouragement and mentoring from an online community enables young people to continue to develop a voice and opinions.

Where I think the paper really missed the mark was in its comment that “For young women especially, these activities may provide less intimidating, more familiar modes for doing politics and for acting as citizens.” Whilst its true that it is easier to find like minded individuals online, and that people do definitely develop political voices and find spaces to express them, those spaces are often felt to be in some way unsafe. The last few years have seen prominent feminists hounded off twitter by death and bomb threats, and young women at universities experiencing a surge in ‘lad culture’ on and offline. Much of these negative behaviours are facilitated by the anonymity and often impersonal nature of online interaction.

It’s not just the behaviour of ‘trolls’ that is responsible for this ‘unsafe’ feeling, but rather something that runs deeper and reflects the challenge of 2D interaction with people.The largest student feminist online community (and offshoot of the oxford university ‘zine’ of the same name) has come under constant scrutiny for its development into what is perceived to be a heavily policed and self-censoring space where expression of ideas is often quite aggressively censored, prompting a number of students to publicly remove themselves from it. This criticism is probably true of a number of the fast moving conversations about identity politics online which have quickly developed their own vocabulary. It’s exactly this kind of policing of ideas or that has been blamed in part for the ‘closet tory’ phenomenon at the recent election.

When I think about digital technology and civic engagement I therefore have mixed feelings. On one hand I do think it promotes a stronger sense of participation and momentum around political issues, making the debate accessible and keeping people engaged. On the other I worry about the tone of conversation and the lack of respect that comes along with it, I’m concerned that ‘clicktivism’ can become a substitute for real action, and I think that the nature of politics and civil issues fighting youtube and netflix for screen time potentially creates a paediatric and ‘tweetable’ conversation lacking in necessary nuance.

Social networks and education

A few years ago I was approached to get involved in an immersive education project using Facebook to do what was essentially educational role-play within an existing online community. Characters in the story ‘friended’ members of the community and played out and developed their identities by interacting with each other and encouraging people to interact and share. The end product was a rich and engaging online experience and a great offline event within the community (if you want to know more about it, you can click here). This piqued my interest in using social networks in education, something which grew as I saw projects like tweet the exodus playing with social networking tools in informal education.

When talking about approaches to the use of Social Networks in education settings, Guy Marchant offers three kinds of activity- learning about, learning from and learning with.

I buy into the value of social media in education, particularly because in the world that I work it often functions as a kind of third place which sustains community in-between times groups are together, enables play and levels hierarchy.  Despite this, colleagues and I often get frustrated when a lay-leader or member of a committee suggests using social media in a project because social networking sites are often characterised as  neutral tools to be employed without an appreciation of character or context.

When I think about why this might be I think its because of a fixation on the learning with aspect, perhaps because in its zeitgeisty construction it represents something that is an appealing concept but much harder to execute (for many of the reasons that Henry Jenkins identifies here). Reading Marchant and Jenkins this week has suggested to me that learning about and learning from social networks are probably integral to developing the faculties to create strong educational experiences with (and within) social networking sites.

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On a separate but related note, I went to Facebook HQ this evening for a reception that reminded me of how much online interactions sustain community in an increasingly busy world. I’m struck by how long it had been since I saw many of the people there, but how because I ‘see’ so many of them on Facebook and Twitter especially it didn’t feel like that at all. This isn’t a consciously curated network, but rather one which has grown organically through the overlapping spaces many of us find ourselves in, but it serves to create a sense of communal dialogue and momentum which I think is quite cool. Also, they had coding problems to solve on the back of their toilet doors. Nuff said.

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reflections

Despite writing regularly in other fora its taken me ages to get posts up here, so here are some reflections on what that might be about:

  • Finding my voice- I came to this with quite a strong sense of my online ‘voice’. I write, tweet, post, comment etc regularly and take an active role in a number of online communities but they’re all very much in a particular world. The process of starting this writing exercise involved quite a lot of thought on my part of how I bring or translate that vocabulary into this new online space, or whether I might enjoy the exercise of not feeling like I’m tied to a particular world view or notion of myself. When I wrote the ‘about me’ page for this blog I couldn’t decide what to write. Would categorising myself- ‘educator’, ‘future Rabbi*’, ‘female’, ‘Londoner’, alter the way I presented myself here, or is understanding where I’m coming at the world from important for readers?
  • Self-curation– This is tied up with the questions I ask above. I had questions for myself about whether I wanted this to be a public or private project. A part of me liked the idea of being able to share this with my usual audience via social media etc and another part of me was attracted by the idea of anonymity. If this is unconnected to my online identity, then I feel less pressure about quality, stage of ideas etc but if it is connected then its a great chance to showcase thoughts and experiences I might not otherwise share. I’ve decided for now to do this and not share it, knowing that later I might wish to develop these ideas further and more formally, but for now enjoying having a secluded space to think aloud.
  • Information overload- There’s always so much to say and always more to read! Blogging is a very different process to essay writing but I bring to it some of the challenges of my need to master information that can stop me putting pen to paper. I find adding questions to my blogs helps me to write in a way that can present half-formed ideas, but sometimes (especially in cases like this when I’m excited by the subject matter) it is hard to stop reading and start writing!

*This point in particular looms large for me. What does becoming an accountable, quite public figure mean for the way I speak and engage online?

A curation conundrum

The recent UK general election result came as a particular surprise to Labour’s twitter supporters. It was the most talked about party on the social network, reflecting the site’s demographic but also showing up something that commentators have long pointed out. Rather than being a marketplace of ideas where people are exposed to the huge variety of views that are expressed on the site, twitter is the ultimate echo-chamber. The two images below display the extent to which this is true in the case of American and Middle-Eastern politics respectively:

american politics isrpla

In each case, the communities of individuals speaking from a particular political perspective barely overlapped, a reflection of the fact that the social feeds that people curate reflect the news and views they want to hear and/or agree with. Digital curation, the selection, preservation, maintenance, collection and archiving of digital assets (according to wikipedia) is a form of identity presentation. The assembly of posts, pictures, connections and opinions online enable the construction, exploration and negotiation of an online identity.

What fascinates me about this is the impact that it has on broader social discourse. On its own, the idea of the online self as a curated entity brought about by the assembly of different modes of online content doesn’t produce much of an issue for me. If anything it reflects the ability of users to play with and continually form and re-form their identity online and build a much more comprehensive picture of themselves than some of the more linear offline interactions they have might allow them to do so (interesting examples of this are people who tweet about hobbies alongside their industry voices e.g. keen runners or musicians working in business or creative industries).

Much of what I have read about digital curation discusses the author or producer of content as curator (because authoring or assimilating content is an act of curation), but in the case of certain social media platforms this isn’t the case. Not all platforms place the user as the sole curator, but rather they are also guided by the actions of others in that community. Examples of this are the ‘trending’ pages on sites like instagram or youtube. More insidious perhaps is the Facebook news feed, which rewards your engagement with certain posts by showing you more of the same (which creates fascinating political bubbles, meaning labour supporters report seeing virtually no posts from friends voting for other political parties and vice versa) or more of posts that others in your network like.

The way that people curate their identities through their online behaviour enables users to explore and establish an image of themselves in community. The creation of texts that help build a sense of self which engagement with others in certain spheres can affirm and develop that. The challenge it presents is to the nature and quality of wider social discourse, which has the potential to suffer as a result of the silo-like communities that are created online, and where these online communities become increasingly dissonant from offline discourse.

Identity in the age of digital media

The 12 year old who showed me this picture gave me a lot to think about. As part of her Bat Mitzvah (coming of age celebration) preparation she had to write a speech to give to the community. I asked her to make a collage about herself  and she was given the following prompt questions:

  • Who is important to you?
  • What do you care about most?
  • How would your friends describe you?
  • How would you describe yourself?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What do you like to do do in your spare time?

Her reason for including the picture was that she felt like the answer to “how would your friends describe you” came increasingly from the self she projected online and less so from who she felt she ‘really’ was.

There’s nothing particularly unusual about that statement, the internet is awash with writing about what it means to be ‘real’ online and what the things we say (and don’t say) do to the way people around us understand us. I don’t think this, at least on the surface, a youthful anxiety. What I do think might be different is the simultaneous performance and formation of identity.

Goffman’s theory of audience and backstage (quick guide here) holds up well against the test of time, finding relevance in a time quite far removed from the one in which it was written. Where I think it runs into problems with the question of identity online is with regards to where the ‘essential’ self lies. The suggestion in Goffman’s work is that the backstage is where some greater degree of reality or trueness of self exists. Thinking about whether this is true in the context of online identity provokes the following reactions for me:

  • If the ‘self’ that you experience of others is that which is performed (for instance if a large volume of social interaction takes place online in semi-public spheres), what might that do to someone’s notion of their backstage? Could this mean that the modern self is a performed self?
  • One of the oft-touted values of online community is that anonymity and the variety of spaces available enable people to be someone online in a way that they feel they cannot be offline. In this case the internet becomes a venue for their backstage, and their offline lives are perhaps more of a performance.
  • Young people are increasingly discerning about what they see online and its reality (see recent online storm around Kylie Jenner’s lips…) yet simultaneously participate in creating this modified culture. Filters, photo editing apps, untagging photos etc are all examples of acts of performance in online social spaces that people simultaneously do and complain about.  What is it about the nature of the medium and the interactions it facilitates that might be behind this?