thinking small does matter

“So the help I need here is how to communicate meaning behind what we do without that broad-scale scientific evidence. Because what we do HAS meaning. Thinking small DOES matter. The communication of what matters is what’s hard, for me.”

~ Chuck Pearson


I had planned to write a different paper. I had wanted to write a different paper, the one that will likely feed right into my dissertation. I even started writing it, but then I suddenly felt like a fraud, observing my co-researchers, imposing my judgement on them. By the second page I was writing a paper that I would be ashamed to share with them, one imagining that I alone had the answers to charting our path forward in the lenses of curriculum theory that I chose for them, imposed on them.  So I stopped writing that paper.  Trying to clear my head, I returned to a collaborative document that I’d opened with another group of people in the hopes of proposing a book chapter. What I found surprised me. Over six pages of thoughts from five different contributors across two different examples of “open spaces” in terms of time, space, and the people involved.

The first example was the use of a new social media platform called Mastodon. Although the best well-known analogous tool would be Twitter, Mastodon has a number of attributes that also set it apart: The software is open source, non-commercial, it uses a federated rather than single instance model, many early contributions to develop were made by the transgender community, its strong and clear policies are moderated and enforced by humans, it offers a range of post-level privacy settings, it allows posts of up to 500 characters, and it is relatively small having grown from 10,000 users in November 2016 to about one million users by July 2017.

The second example was the Young Writers project, which started 11 years ago. “Its’ primary community is made up of teens who feel isolated (what teen doesn’t?)” (Geoff). In the first eight years, it only published work in a series of Vermont newspapers, radio broadcasts and websites. They then developed the site, a digital monthly publication that, for example, in April 2016 featured the work of a 16-year-old girl living in Sri Lanka. They have had nearly 40,000 users on the site who have responded to writing prompts and participated in special projects and online workshops.

Despite their differences, the themes shared were remarkably similar: the importance of building relationships and developing a sense of responsibility for the space, the need to take steps to protect users, the desire for a space to take creative and empathetic risks, the benefits of increased inclusion while acknowledging diverse groups “who are missing,” the empowerment that comes from thinking at a small or human scale, and the value of recognizing that something of value is happening without necessarily being able to name it.

That brings us to an interesting starting point, the point where we know (or think we know) something of value is happening and that the communication of what exactly “it” is is hard. There is a part of me that wants to walk away simply knowing good work is going on and that lives are changing, that part of me that fears that shining too bright a light can change the things that are quietly working just fine on their own. Yet another part of me is increasingly seeing the importance of noticing and curating and sharing the tiny glimpses of hope and goodness; not bringing these practices into the light and exploring them thoroughly and thoughtfully is an act of silence that ensures further entrenchment of the status quo.

To be continued…

3 thoughts to “thinking small does matter”

  1. Tanya, I only now noticed that those are my words up top. And not just any words, but words I said while trying to wrestle with writing this thing we were conspiring on. They felt like throwaway words, if I’m honest about it.

    I’m so grateful for people who listen even when I’m not sure I’m worth being listened to. I’m so grateful for you.

    1. The gratefulness flows both ways my friend. I walked to work today and on the way there I was smiling, appreciative of your “question-bombs” that continue to challenge me to question my own assumptions.I’ve recently realized that I’m far more comfortable surrounded by uncertainty and questions than those who are sure they have it all figured out.

  2. Tanya, thanks for including our tiny corner of the InterWeb — — into your discussion. We call it an “Island of Awesomeness” because, well, the kids are amazing.

    I appreciate your concern about shining a light and bringing change (my credo, interestingly, as a journalist before I started YWP). We are not so worried about more people coming — we curate all the applications for accounts — as much as we are worried about the diminishing time youths are spending with us and the diminishing depth of engagement with each other in the community. In addressing this shift, we have done a major rebuild of the site to make it function better (that has helped significantly) but we recognize some larger issues: Youths are now spending enormous amounts of time ‘managing’ their apps and online presences to both maintain friendships and establish a whole new identity — a digital identity. (Isn’t it challenging enough for a teen just to establish their real-life identity?) This has spawned a behavior that is very different than when we started 11 years ago; the kids are darting in and out of all sorts of things — SnapChat, Facebook (less and less mainly for Messenger), Instagram, WhatsApp, Telegram, Tumblr (yes, still) and others — and are, in the process, feeling they have no time as they keep up with notifications and, more importantly, expectations by friends that they’ll react to their posts on social media. Youths, too, have ramped-up workloads and requirements of school. This all gives them a feeling that they don’t have time, that they are always busy (how can one be done with Instagram?) and thus don’t tend to give themselves breathing time, time to simply just create, to see what comes out AND to appreciate the ideas, work of others. I don’t say they are not doing it (like the double-negative?); in fact, our most engaged youths — about 1,000 — spend upwards of 12 minutes on the site per visit. We just notice that there’s a bit more of a rushed quality to their work and they seem less apt to dive into deep back-and-forths with peers. I suspect that the same thing is happening with adults (what did we do with all that time that we spend on email?).

    So this is something we worry about. (And of course raising money which is the plight of any nonprofit.) But we are so appreciative of what the kids do and have done and will do with us. We marvel that in 11 years we’ve seen well over 400,000 posts and comments and all of them (save a handful) have been civil and respectful which proves, time and again, that youths anyway relish, appreciate, value and thrive in civil and respectful spaces or spaces they call safe. And. yes, so many of these youths over the years have. Simply. Blown. Us. Away. With their imagination, perception, humor and risk-taking.

    As an aside in all this, we also operate something we call the Schools Project. This year’s iteration can be seen at We provide curriculum, support and a private digital classroom platform to teachers and this year’s program is focused on community storytelling — ways to get the kids engaged with what’s around them and to have some fun writing about what interests them. In these spaces we see the same small-network phenomenon of openness and civility. We have documented cases where class bullies have STOPPED bullying and, instead, became leaders. And our surveys and several independent studies showed that within these spaces, youths try harder, perform better and gain appreciation for each other. And, to me, that’s the essence of what you are talking about — that small networks, in fact, bring a personable quality to communication, that they replicate, as best remote interaction can replicate, personal conversation and free exchange of ideas without arguing or taking sides or judging.

    A final point. (Finally!) I so appreciate your inclination to want to curate some of these spaces. I think the other discouraging phenomenon on the InterWeb (and I have been deeply involved in it since 1994) is that — along with the dissolution of centralized media entities (thus promoting the reach and power of mis-information) — the Web has become a place of niches, FB notwithstanding, where Internet users can satisfy their desire to hang with their tribe, other people with similar interests and beliefs. The nagging question, I think, is to what extent Internet users will break the chain of algorithms and monetization and control brought on by the dominate Web media companies (and all the others trying to replicate those successes) and rebel, become independent and search out and find those small networks that take them to new ideas, opinions, concepts and knowledge, much like SumbleUpon did at its very nascent stage.

    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts and observations and thanks again for acknowledging our work at Young Writers Project. As we are in the business of affirmation, we love it when someone returns the favor. And as I sit here in our little office, sun streaming in from the windows, including the corner floor to ceiling window, and look at the two college students and other staffer hunkered down working with kids, your affirmation gives us encouragement to keep at it.


    geoff gevalt

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