Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Feel Free to Disagree

I may have found a flaw in my use of social media as a professional learning tool.

I recently asked a colleague who has signed up for Twitter why he is not a more active user. His response intrigued me:

“It seems to me that Twitter is a mutual admiration society.”
Let me declare up front that I am now in my 7th month using Twitter and the Blogosphere. The journey has been nothing short of invigorating and eye opening. I have learned more, shared more and reflected more because of my immersion in social media.

Nonetheless, my colleague’s comment has left me unsettled.

I must make the following confession:

1. There are some Twitter users that I interact with more than others.

2. I do tend to “agree” more than “disagree” with those I follow using social media.

3. I tend to following like minded professionals on Twitter

4. It feels good to receive affirming comments on my blog posts

Should this be a big surprise?

Surely not! Like in face to face interactions, we tend to associate and interact with those that we have the most in common with and with those that affirm us. Conversely, we tend to shy away from those that challenge us or are different from us. 

Does social media exacerbate this dynamic?

Wanting to test the “mutual admiration” theory about Twitter even further, I sent out a one question (very unscientific) survey using Google Forms (via Twitter) and asked the following question:

When interacting using social media (Twitter, Blogs, etc.) do you tend to agree or disagree with the author's ideas or reflections?

  • 94% of respondents indicated that they generally agree with the author (44 out of 47 respondents)

Again, given the nature of social media, the results come as no real surprise. The pitfall, however, is that social media (e.g. Twitter), as learning tool, runs the risk of becoming an exercise in Groupthink.

Groupthink is a type of thought within a deeply cohesive in-group whose members try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas....

Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in choice and thought that might normally be obtained by making decisions as a group. During groupthink, members of the group avoid promoting viewpoints outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking. A variety of motives for this may exist such as a desire to avoid being seen as foolish, or a desire to avoid embarrassing or angering other members of the group. (Wikipedia)

This definition resonates with me. As a learner and leader, I want my ideas and thoughts to be challenged. I do not want to fall victim to Groupthink.

An excellent example of the benefits of being “critically tested” is seen in Swissair’s “Muser” policy of “encouraging a healthy dose of disagreement in the cockpit” to ensure the highest level of safety (Hugo Muser, as cited in Kouzes & Pozner, Leadership Challenge).

It has been determined that by talking back and questioning the captain’s decisions in the cockpit provides the highest of safety levels.

As learner I want my learning space to be like a Swissair cockpit. Twitter, as a learning space, needs to be a place of respectful candour.

Therefore as I move forward with Twitter as a learning space I pledge to:

  • Follow professionals on Twitter from diverse backgrounds and experiences 
  • Read (& reply to) tweets and posts from a variety of people 
  • Use my blog to stretch my thinking and the thinking of those that read it 
  • Be respectfully candid when I “disagree” with someone 
And finally....

I give you (my fellow social media confreres) permission to disagree with me!


  1. Hi Johnny, I was wondering about that poll yesterday :-). I agree (sorry) that we tend to engage with people with similar ideologies when using Social Media. That said, I often see things that I disagree with (about a 70/30 split), but struggle to reply. Too often things can be misconstrued in 140 characters. I think your colleague raises some valid points and we need to be careful of the groupthink. I too, will endeavour to respectively disagree more often. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I appreciate your comments Darcy! I feel like I am the "agree" police now :-) I do think it is important to be mindful of the groupthink potential of social media. Keep well

  3. Thanks for letting us know the results of the poll. Interesting result. I was one of the 44 but I found I was looking for a middle ground button which said ... agree but with some conditions to what people say using social media. I find that there are many times that I do agree with what people say but it is somewhat conditional. You have given me something to think about however. Thanks.

  4. I tend to respond to things I disagree with more than things I agree with actually, although it is probably close. I'd prefer to challenge thinking than go along with what everyone else is doing.

  5. Thanks for providing us the results. I find the results interesting because I have wondered whether this was the case. I think it is important to keep in mind but I don't think it is anything to be concerned about. As you mentioned, even in face-to-face interactions we prefer to group ourselves with like-minded individuals. Sharing ideas with like-minded individuals is where momentum is generated. This is very important.
    It's also important to keep in mind that some people read our blog posts and rather than disagree by posting a comment, they choose to speak to us in person. All that said, I agree that I appreciate hearing a balance of perspectives.
    Having now seen the results of your survey I'm going to remind myself to post comments when I disagree with others' ideas, rather than be silent.


  6. Very nicely put, and I'm not just saying that to be agreeable! The only thing I would say in defense of the supportive nature of Twitter is that we do not all work in schools that are equally supportive. My Twitter colleagues have given me the courage to put my ideas forward at my school.


  7. Thks for the comments Eileen and I appreciate your perspective. I see that you in Suzhou, China - I was there in November of last year - loved the experience!

  8. Do you think that people agree more than disagree because "this" is a public space?

    Disagreeing in public (very public if you have a very large "stranger" following) is daunting and, depending on your employment status, willingness to take risks, or thick skin, a person may feel better about agreeing than disagreeing. Along the lines of what darcymullin stated, I wonder how many remain silent in their disagreement, "unfollow" on Twitter or unsubscribe to a blog if the comments get to be too much.

    I tend to read more than anything. I learn from people who are more apt to put themselves out there than I am and then pass on my learning through conversations I have and e mails I send.

    Although the on line conversation could be richer with more disagreement, I also think there is danger without the real time conversation to permit the hearing of tone, the visual cues and the extra clarification that cannot be construed in a 140 character tweet.

    Finally, I am thankful for the discovery of many educators on line who are passionate about what they do and are committed to communicating on line. Their work has created a professional learning opportunity that I would never have imagined to exist for me 5 years ago.

  9. Angela, I do think that you raise some extremely valid limitations of on-line conversations. Depending on time, person and topic face to face is the best option. I really appreciate the thoughtful comments.

  10. You're not asking a question that hasn't been asked before... and it's STILL a great question!

    I've been on Twitter for about 4 years, but only about 3 years on what I consider my professional account (other account was a personal account that I don't use anymore), and I was in the same position as you for a long time.

    Karl Fisch wrote a great blog post here- http://thefischbowl.blogspot.com/2010/07/myth-of-echo-chamber.html - about a similar topic.

    In my opinion, the key to stepping away from the echo chamber or mutual admiration society is in your four bullet points at the end of your post, and I think diversity is the key point.

    The other key point that you didn't include is time. While 7 months might seem like a lot of time, I think you'll be surprised after you pass the 1 year mark, 2 year mark, etc. how much your network of people grows and changes. I follow a lot of people with whom I don't agree very often, but they help stretch my thinking and help me grow professionally. I only "un-follow" if they debate through insults or personal attacks.

  11. As I have built my Twitter network I find myselft looking for people (like Gary Stager) who are critical of the easy promises of emerging technology.

  12. I think there is a logical progression at work here: educators on Twitter are generally more open-minded and forward-thinking; they are, for the most part, using Twitter and PLN's to better themselves and to be better educators...and when so I think that most of us are heading in the same direction: how can we change and adapt our practice to improve students learning? The fact that we are all linked by this common question inevitably leads to a mutual respect and a mutual agreement. Even If I disagree with some of what some people may say, I certainly almost always agree with their purpose in saying it.....if that makes sense!

  13. I think you make a valid point Robin and for the most part I agree. My experience thus far has been very positive and I have been able to collaborate with some wonderful educators. I am still intrigued with the social dynamic of blogging and tweeting. Every once in a while I have to ask myself "what is my purpose here"?
    Your insights are always appreciated!

  14. Thanks, Johnny. I've asked that question myself on a few occasions, but the one "negative" i have with Twitter is just the sheer volume of information - ideas, links, blogs, articles, videos etc. I know there must be so much I am missing. I just don't have time for it all...but I wish I did!

  15. Like Robin, I feel overwhelmed with the influx of information that I receive via social media and e-mail each day. There is so much to learn, so much to know, but just not enough time. I bought several books this summer on educational topics that I felt would improve my ability to reach students, as of yet I have only been able to briefly review the material. So much to learn!