In online spaces, silence speaks as loudly as words

Last week, as I taught my final #ECMP355 class for the semester, the topic of discussion came back to social justice (as it often seems to in my class, a tendency for which I am not at all apologetic). Because I work with pre-service teachers, we often discuss concerns around online identity; many of my students are worried about maintaining a “neutral” online persona because they fear that being controversial will make them unhireable in the future or could come back on them negatively in some other way.


Here’s my take on this, and what I said to my students: Silence speaks just as loudly as words. If we are online, as educators, and we remain silent about issues of social justice, if we tweet only about educational resources and not about the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in Canada, or about the burning of Black churches in the southern United States, we are sending a clear message: These issues are not important.  

Edtech, at its very core, is about privilege.

When I said this to my class, one of my generally quieter students commented in the chat, “This conversation makes me happy. Because I contemplate this EVERY DAY.” Such a simple comment, but one that I have been thinking about ever since. Technology in education is about so much more than gadgets and tools or about the latest backchannel app. Edtech, at its very core, is about privilege. We preach the virtues of universal access to knowledge, but who really gets to be involved in edtech? Those with access to technology and good quality Internet, those who have the educational background to comprehend the material, those with the time to devote to studying. That I am able to sit down and write this post, that I have the time to tweet, that I have access to the tools that make these things possible: these are markers of privilege.

So here’s my argument: I have a responsibility to use my privilege to speak out and use my network for more than just my own benefit or self-promotion; not doing so is a selfish act. Being a good digital citizen is about so much more than being safe and responsible online. It’s about participating in meaningful ways to promote equity in networked spaces. This is especially true for those with significant online audiences: we cannot let silence speak for us, and we can no longer cling to cliches or educational buzzwords as safe topics of conversation.

As I was finishing up this post, I saw this tweet from Alec Couros:

For me, the answer is simple:

We have a responsibility to risk our privilege to give voice to social inequities and injustices. We have a responsibility to risk our privilege to give voice to those who have no privilege to risk.

57 thoughts on “In online spaces, silence speaks as loudly as words

  1. i have a few concerns with this sentiment. Maybe they resonate or maybe or not.

    1. People use digital spaces in very different ways. Not everyone chooses to use them as a vehicle fir change or even as a professional space. For example, I find Twitter a poor space for meaningful conversation around serious issues. It’s more like a pub to me. I’m happy to talk sports and trivia and use it largely as a social space. Everyone decides how they use a space and its presumptuous to tell folks how they should use it.

    2. They are an infinite amount of travesties in this world. I fear people conscious or unconsciously prioritize these and cast judgement on those who don’t advocate the ones they see as most important. Tweeting or Facebook status updates on any topic is easy. That’s not to say it’s not potentially useful but it often represents a low level attempt at social change. Most real change happens outside of scope social media. Again, that’s not to suggest it’s not important but I’d be careful how much weight we give it.

    So I’m not convinced silence says much of anything other than it may not be the way someone chooses to speak up and support those who need it.

    • Dean,
      I agree with your point of view. People feel compelled to use social media in different ways. I find I use Twitter quite a bit professionally but FB for socializing. But I share with you the feeling that you can’t really get into real conversations or go very far with Twitter but maybe that’s ok? Maybe having to be brief and concise distills the thinking?
      However, I personally do think it is my responsibility to present as clear and well-crafted points of view on issues I care about through social media, doing so is an art I am yet to fully master!

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I definitely get that people use social media in many different ways. I guess what I have an issue with is when people use the fear of loss of reputation as an excuse not to discuss “controversial” topics. To me, this is just a way of protecting one’s own privilege. Who gets to NOT think about issues like racism or gender discrimination? Those who are privileged enough not to feel the negative effects of these things.
      Obviously talking about social justice issues on social media isn’t going to change the world. But I’m a strong believer in the idea that the more issues are talked about, the less stigma there is around the issue and the more the issue is brought into mainstream consciousness. To me, that’s enough justification for using our voices to speak up for these causes. Certainly, that will look different for everyone, but for educators I do think there’s a responsibility to be engaged in these discussions.

    • Even in a pub, we have challenging conversations sometimes. It seems odd to me that we have the option, via our privileged status, to have pockets of online presence that is only sunshine and lightness, golf and fluff. We have the privilege of crafting a persona online. Dean, to argue that it is presumptuous to engage and challenge people into thinking otherwise is a bit frustrating. Traditional media continues to shape what stories are told, how often we are fed them, and what stories are given privilege. Social media has the potential to give privilege to stories that matter. So do conversations in pubs, and staff rooms, dinner parties, rallies, and community groups. Where do we have social justice conversations? Everywhere. Anytime.

      • There’s a time and place for everything. Because I choose not to use a space the same way you do should be my right and prvilege. Just because I don’t engage in the way others do doesn’t mean I don’t care. I’ve chosen to have more meaningful discussions here because I think it’s more appropriate and useful. When I go for dinner with friends we might decide we want to avoid certain topics. I don’t see why that’s bad. If I meet someone on the beach I likely wouldn’t dive into a conversation about race. Social media is a place where I choose to build social capital and use that to foster other conversations later, often in other forums. That’s not the right way, it’s just my way. I hope you’re not saying I’m doing it wrong. My point here was to suggest that silence shouldn’t be seen as any kind of political statement.

        • Hmm. Food for thought. Though disagreeing is not implying that you are wrong, or I am right. A difference of opinion simply opens that conversation to a deeper reflection of why we make the choices that we do. In class, this conversation certainly impacted a student, illuminating an issue that she has been wrestling with. In the same class, another might perceive this conversation differently. That is the beauty of having challenging conversations. While you may not use twitter or Facebook for social justice issues, you are using your network (as Katia suggested), such as this post, to engage in deeper conversations. You do not shy away from expressing opinion in a public forum. You are not silent. I see this as not being about one or two social media platforms. It is about encouraging young educators to critically examine options for when, where and with whom to engage in social justice issues.

          • Agreed. I suppose the bottom line is to not be silent. Find to place and space to seek and provoke change. Social media can be used in this way. Exploring the affordances of these spaces is something I feel educators need to do.

  2. Similar to Dean I find the format of Twitter insufficient to properly express the depth of my concerns albeit, as Julie states it does cause me to think carefully about my word choice as many an editor has also encoraged. In my own role in educational leadership I do espouse that if you say nothing you are giving at least tacit approval for the behaviour and should expect it to continue so in that way I agree with Katia’s premise as well.

    Where I am challenged is that rather than reputation (or perhaps footprint is the more current term), it is often something more basic that is put at risk when one chooses to speak out in a critical way. Employment. Public education is not a safe and secure environment from which to take a principled stand when your livelihood and ability to support your family can be adversely affected. Yes, there are some checks and balances to ensure that policies and procedures are followed by organizations, however; those checks and balances do not exist from the public, from outside organizations or from the various stakeholders who drive the public agenda. There are many ways to make people’s occupational stress unbearable so that they choose to end it themselves.

    I am not advocating saying nothing on issues of moral and ethical concern. I am cautioning that words are incredibly powerful for reasons of social justice and for those who, as Katia reminds us, do not have privileged access. Choose words wisely as some us are putting much more than our reputation at risk when we speak them.

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  4. I agree with you Katia.

    Simply having the ability to choose how we use this space or any space for that matter is of immense privilege. For many every space is a dangerous space with no choice in how it may be used to deploy his/her/they identity.

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