I spent a good chunk of the day in a development environment cutting and pasting one line of .php at a time wondering, “Why, oh why!” I could not get post content to move into the pretty containers I’d created in a new WordPress page template. “It’s time to learn to read and write .php,” I thought.
Just as I was about to leave the office, Maha’s post Subverting or Flipping #DoOO For an Egyptian Context landed in my inbox. I started reflecting on my own circuitous path to looking at the backside of a WordPress site.
My first blog post was written on July 1, 2010 in Athabasca University’s The Landing elgg. I barely remember the post but what I do remember is stopping to think about who I wanted to have access to it. When I wrote it, it had seemed like a good idea to have an online journal. I’d never really intended to share my writing with anyone. However, the default setting was “logged in users only.” If the default had been “private” I would have used it, and if the default had been “public” I would have set it to “private.” I stared at it for a while and then thought, “What harm could come with sharing with others on a (somewhat obscure) institutional site?” I posted it. To my knowledge no one else ever read that post and that suited me just fine.
When I wrote my second post, I was already thinking about the need to think beyond technology and the role of closed systems.
“… after three days of talking about technology and the need for digital, cultural and media literacy, I’ve decided that it is really more about social literacy, understanding the real needs we all have and designing environments that encourage us to do something new. And I’m also starting to wonder if closed systems aren’t an important part of that.”
By September, 2010 something strange had happened. Other people had started reading and commenting on my posts.
At first, I found it off-putting. It became harder to write for a while, always thinking about who might read it and whether it was a valuable enough idea to share, but I did not quit. Based on The Landing experience, I posted on my work blog at my new job. (For the record, it was built inside Sharepoint.) I later wrote about posts on both The Landing and my work blog.
“And to my surprise… they both resulted in some (small but positive) action. My ideas might make a difference? Now there’s a crazy notion. And the comments and actions of others encouraged me to have more confidence in my ideas, say more of them ‘out loud’ and maybe take some steps towards affecting change myself.”
Finding a voice
Reading that post now, brings tears to my eyes. What I have never shared is that I was in an abusive marriage until October, 2009. When I returned to school online I’d been told I was being “ridiculous.” I was “too stupid” and “wasting my time.” I believed those things to be true. I believed that my voice did not matter. By the end, I had lost the ability to even form the words I needed to say.
By 2010 I was a working single mom with five kids between the ages of two and ten. Those blog posts were tentative steps towards finding my voice. It is why I was at first terrified when I realized that other people had read my writing. Nothing good had come from my expressing my opinion in a long time. The positive written comments gave me the confidence to write more and to find an audible voice at school and at work.
It wasn’t the “open” web that empowered me. It was the “closed” one: The places where I felt a level of control, he places where my voice quite accidentally at first led to positive changes.
I had other practical reasons to not want to share openly. I was afraid no one would hire a single mom with five young kids (would you?). My favorite post of all time is about the crazy that was my life and probably an accurate reflection of the lives of many adult, online students. I’ve since made it public.
In January 2011, I was invited to co-facilitate a MOOC on learning analytics. I started turning my posts public. I’d become comfortable sharing my professional thoughts in the open.I also learned the limitations of the elgg site at the time with not all posts displaying properly, or at all , to non-logged in users. If someone had offered me a better alternative at the point, I would have used it. In total, I wrote 24 blog posts on The Landing site, meaning it was “barely used” by some standards. But writing those posts changed my life.
It’s worth noting that seven years later, I still have access to my posts and The Landing space. I am glad it is all still there and will come back to this point later. So I need to ask the question: If we believe that institutionally-provided online writing spaces are of value to our students, then maybe they are worth keeping alive long after our students leave?
Web Darkness and my life in boxes
After leaving AU, I went into a period of web darkness. I found myself in what would become five years navigating courts and social services. It became clear that my ex-husband was searching for any trace of me online, a line in my LinkedIn resume was brought up in court. Every word I said or wrote could potentially be used against me. Not only the words online. Personal journals, counselling notes, financial records all wound up in court. I lived in fear, under constant surveillance and with almost no digital presence.
The only reason that I didn’t completely lose my voice again was because I could speak openly at work about work in spaces well protected. My life during that period exists in bankers boxes. Under no circumstances would I have shared anything online during that time. The risk was too great.
Back into the open
It was only when I starting working at Thompson Rivers University in 2014 that I was introduced to the world of WordPress and I started this blog that lives on the institutional site. It gave me more options than in the elgg, it is open, and yes it is prettier. And it is open.
Ken Bauer has recently pointed out that the level of trust students have with their institutions varies depending where you are in the world, an important reminder that context always matters. Christian Frederich however best explained my current context, “There is one thing I like about the [country] system and sensitivity with regards to data protection and privacy: I am not allowed to “force” our students on any kind of service that is hosted outside of the [country].”
I have no desire to move this blog off the institutional site. It is mostly a professional blog related to my work at the university. I trust the institution with the information I share here as much or more than anyone else. It works for what I want to do. It’s free and someone else fixes it when it breaks. What could be better? Why would I ever move it?
Opening up the boxes
By 2015, I wanted a place to write and explore topics that I was not comfortable putting on the institution’s site or under my own name. Enter Reclaim. With a credit card, cell phone and internet connection (and wine for courage) I set up my own site under a pseudonym.
At first I was careful not to talk about it or to tell anyone it existed. As in the past a small group of dedicated and caring folks found it and offer support. It is not having my own domain that is empowering, but what that space enables. Taking back my story. On my own terms. Without apology. On the open web but under a cloak of safety.
Could I have achieved the same thing on WordPress.com? Possibly. Again, I agree with Christian. “Hosting on wordpress.com for free feels … like an acknowledgement of a lost battle, somehow.” At this point in my life, I have the privilege of being able to opt out of a corporate option. Opting out is a software choice, but also a choice to exert the (very) tiny amount of control to align with my beliefs. Another reason I prefer Reclaim and institutional options is that to date I have not received an inappropriate or abusive comment. Less people read my blogs because they are harder to find, but to me they’ve always been the “right” people.
Some folks know that I’ve been #thinkingsmall for a while. I think I saw that Jim Groom said at one point, “Small is beautiful.” I agree. I also think small is powerful. I choose small.
It may be worth noting that I do not confuse a pseudonym with anonymity. I understand that one day I could be defending every word written there in court. Choosing not to be governed by that fear it one more small, but deliberate act that matters to me if not to anyone else.
Down the rabbit hole
It was when another woman left a comment with a story terrifyingly similar to my own that I felt the need to go further. I started thinking about how to help others tell their stories. WhenIneededhelp.com is a Reclaim hosted SPLOT. But… it didn’t quite meet my needs out of the box. And… I wanted to add additional bits and pieces over time. With those needs in mind I’ve started down a rabbit hole containing git forks, ftp, css, php and developer tools.
I now know these software tools are not magic, but I series of deliberate (often not smart) written decisions. They are a reflection of how someone else felt I should express myself. I can now choose to change those decisions. I can create something that meets my needs (and maybe will be pretty one day?) I can even break it! And I’m accountable for the breakage to no one but me.
How easily I forget
That brings me back to where I started this post, staring at the backside of a site.
I get excited and I want everyone to have that same opportunity to be empowered. I think about students writing in the open, changing their sites, building things that I would never dream of, learning that breaking things might be more important than fixing them. I have plans to build more because there are different kinds of stories that need to be heard.
But that is where I am today. Today the money and time and risks are worth it for me. I have the time to invest. My kids are older and less at risk. I choose to invest me time in them because I see their value. I am not today choosing between a site and groceries.
How quickly I’ve forgotten what it was like not to have these privileges. If the ownership of those old elgg posts had been transferred to me, I would have lost them either because I couldn’t pay or because there were far bigger issues that needed my attention. I lost so much during that period of darkness that the few shreds that have survived are precious. I feel gratitude to Athabasca University for curating those bits for me when I was otherwise engaged.
How quickly I forgot the terror that accompanied the first comment I received on a post, the period of time after it that I was unable to write.
How quickly I forgot the panic I felt last month when sharing at a conference led to unexpected intersections and in an instant realized that open can be dangerous and not easily undone.
How quickly I forget that the goal is to empower myself and others to retake what little bits of control when and where we can. And that it will need to look different for everyone.