Following from my earlier post, in which I grappled with the ethics around blogging about freebies, I wanted to start a broader discussion about the way our social and professional networks are being harnessed by marketers.
When I first entered the world of Teach Meets, and education Twitter discussions, I found them refreshing, fascinating and empowering. They seemed to me almost revolutionary in the way that they were giving practitioners voice. Instead of teachers being talked TO by ‘experts’, consultants and so on, here was a platform which elevated the voice of the practicing classroom teacher and brought their expertise to the fore.
We were hearing from each other and it seemed to me to fill a much needed void, while also bringing respect back to the profession. Collegial networks formed as teachers became aware of others working towards similar goals, whom they could learn from or team with. It was inspiring, it created support networks, it helped teachers build confidence in their own practice, and respect for the practice of others. No longer were we just recipients of other people’s wisdom. Our practice, our innovations, our stories were being shared and were of value.
Twitter chats were a fast paced, short form version of the same. Led by a moderator around a topic, teachers would share their insights, practices and resources. As with TeachMeets, we were sharing genuine experiences of what was working in our classrooms, gathering ideas, sharing resources and forming communities of practice.
But then the marketers arrived. The last 4 TeachMeets I organised had more product reps than teachers signing up to present. They jumped on the sign up forms as soon as they became available. I was thrown by this at first, not sure how to respond, but eventually settled on a policy that any TeachMeet I organised would be marketing free. Listening to commercials is not what TeachMeets are about, at least not to me. At a TeachMeet, I want to hear the stories of teachers not the pitches from sales reps, no matter how good their product.
Sponsership of an event is less black and white to me. Museums, tech companies and other organisations will sometimes provide free space for TeachMeets as part of their community outreach. On those occasions, it seems fair that the venue host give a brief overview of the services they make available for educators. An interesting venue, sometimes with catering included, provided in exchange for a five minute overview of their education services seems a pretty good deal. But how far should one go down that path, I wonder? My favourite venue for a TeachMeet will always be a pub. It’s relaxed and there’s beer. Many pubs provide space for free if its mid week and they know a group of teachers will be eating and drinking there.
Twitter chats also started to attract the marketers a year or so ago. Some with products to flog would join, they’d seem friendly at first, but then I’d notice they contributed little other than links to their product or websites. I felt very uneasy with this. It seemed our networks, formed by teachers for teachers, were being infiltrated by people who wanted to use the guise of professsional discussion to market their product. It was insincere.
A more honest approach to marketing seems to be the hashtag chats that have grown up around some books and tech products. The marketing agenda is clear from the tag used in every tweet. However, I choose not to participate in them. Back in the mid 80s coca-cola branded t-shirts were inexplicably popular for a short while. I wanted one and remember my father spluttering with disbelief that people would actually pay money for the privilege of advertising a product on their shirt. Perhaps that influenced the view I have now. I refuse to tweet in chats using a tag that provides free advertising for a profit making venture. That seems like exploitation to me, and I don’t wish to be a part of it.
Interestingly, when I’ve expressed these views on Twitter I’ve been fairly heavily censured. One commercial hashtag chat convenor spotted my conversation with a friend on the topic and accused me of having an ‘attitude problem’. I’ve been accused by others of being too negative, and that expressing these views is not a constructive or positive use of Twitter.
I found it strange that speaking out against the marketers provoked such a strong response. I speak for and against all sorts of things, but it’s only my tweets on marketing that seem to anger people. (Aside from one time when I happened to mention phonics while a lot of UK teachers were online) It’s odd, because my intention is actually one that is positive. I love TeachMeets and I love education Twitter networks. I speak up about this sort of thing because I hope, in my small way, to preserve what is great about both: that they elevate the voices and expertise of teachers and provide a space where they can be heard. That’s a rare thing, and I don’t want to see it disappear.