Saturday, 8 June 2013

ETC: Being The Outlier

Here's the thing about social media - it's wildly inaccurate.
1) The friendship paradox ensures your friends are more popular than you. They experience the same effect. It's maths.
2) The ingroup bias ensures we overestimate the value of our immediate group at the expense of unknown outsiders. 
3) There is also a natural tendency to FB share and TWTR retweet items only at the extreme good or extreme bad ends of the spectrum.

This all leads to what I'll dub the "sidelines" effect. You're in a group, and the awesomeness of it is happening all around you, and you're contributing... yet somehow you're not quite a part of it.

I posted this up the other day:

At the time, I quantified myself back in a wishy-washy 140 character kind of way, but I think more needs to be said. Because I'm often an outlier not just in the "Math Twitter Blogosphere", but in a more general sense. More to the point, I suspect I'm not alone.

For instance, when someone in the last days of teaching says to me "Solidarity!" my knee jerk response trends to "Liquidarity!" or even "Sewing Machine!". Which means you, as the other party, are perfectly within your rights to nod slowly and go talk to someone else.

After all, it's the sort of thing that probably works better in person, when you can hear the tone of my voice and see the expression on my face. (Assuming it works at all.) That's hard to convey in text, and is impossible for you to picture if you only KNOW me through Twitter or Facebook. So, more often than not, I'll hold my tongue.


I won't.


Not seriously.


See, I like provoking that sort of reaction. When I was young, it kept the bullies off balance. Now that I'm older, I use it more for entertainment purposes (and because I can't always turn it off). It also cushions me from the occasional harsh realities of life. For instance, the bleakness of how alone I so often feel because, oh God, I'm so ignored and people don't GET me!!

Kleenex! Sewing machine.

But yes, in all seriousness, I am changing. So are you. We all do, we all MUST change and adapt, otherwise we're not learning from our mistakes. But it's not always on a conscious level, and it tends to happen because of one of two things:
1) You're changing for yourself, not for other people.
2) You're changing in small bite-size pieces. Otherwise you implode.

My blog is one example of this. Back at the end of March I posted up "Why Do You Blog?", essentially a rebuttal to Michael Pershan's "Do it for others, not yourself". And I got comments, both on that post, and through Twitter, which forced me to re-evaluate, and re-design how I post. I DID want to help others, so change happened.

Naturally, within a week, the world went silent again.


As per my point 3 above, when something is really BAD, you tend to hear about it. (For instance, whatever common core is, it needs to be stopped.) Or when something is really GOOD, you tend to hear about it. (Nguyening.) Everything else is just... out there. Maybe garnering a 'like' or 'favourite'. Until it either finds a megaphone, or gets a following, or receives enough feedback to morph into one of those extremes. Before that, you're participating, but off on the sidelines.

You're me.

And that's another reason why I get random sometimes. I know I'm more than mediocre. I'm more than just one guy in the group!

Yet I AM just one person, and all the good social media things REQUIRE the group. There's feedback, there's collegiality, and you become more than the sum of your parts. But I just said that's NOT me. I am NOT good in groups, and I'm certainly not a leader. Hence, the "sidelines" effect. Hence why I say I'm an outlier.

I also grant that I don't have the feedback knack... randomness aside, I generally only speak up when I have something to say that's particularly (a) profound, or (b) inane. (See, even I only do extremes.)

In conclusion then, this post must fit into one of those two categories.

I'll leave it up to you, the reader, to decide. Have I been able to convey how someone can feel perfectly alone in a crowded room, merely standing by on the sidelines as the group dynamic awesomeness continually happens around them? Or does this post come across more as a pretentious hack whining about how nobody truly "understands" them?

For something more profound: My Choose Your Own Exam
For something more inane: Seeking New Personifications
For something with more violin: Lindsey Stirling Music Video

Because Transcendence. The violin there also works as a pretty good instrumental background while you're reading this post. Damn, that probably should have been my thesis...


  1. Your last two sentences make me feel like less of an outlier. Yay inside jokes :)

    1. Yay, you read to the end! Also, it surprises me that you think of yourself as an outlier even a little bit. Even before we get to your appearance on "Infinite Tangents", you've co-created the Productive Struggle blog, made a repository for DITLife, and run a #matheme page. I feel like you making a comment validates ME more than the other way around.

      Perspective is funny. Also, "Infinite Tangents" is a great educator podcast, people should check that out too:

  2. It's hard to portray character with a 140 character limit. Each tweet is a microcosm. The aggregate of tweets provides a fuller view of what you're portraying yourself as. (Which is yet another factor; the public tweets may not reveal the inner being.)

    That said...

    Yeah, unless something is really bad or extremely good (where extremely > really), no one comments. It's something seen in fanfic reviews, in online reviews of movies and books; the merely good or the oh-so-close bad doesn't get a response. Bad reviews are faster than good ones, too; it's easy to say, "It stinks!" but harder to say, "This is amazing; I never expected that twist to slip in like that." For people who are merely good, the lack of response is deafening. The only feedback, and everyone wants feedback, is the number of people reading. Even there, you don't find out why until someone comments.

    Another issue relates to the Bystander Effect. "Oh, someone else will comment." Except, no one does. But, once someone does comment, more can follow, because the metaphorical ice is metaphorically broken. Even an inane comment can get others going.

    Something you don't mention is the lack of face-to-face contact in online social media. I think this plays a part. Face-to-face, even in a group, one can fade back and participate at one's leisure. I'm guilty of fading back like that and just piping up time to time with either a question or a silly pun. Online, the extroverts leave to find real people, leaving the introverts, the people who prefer to fade back, to carry on the conversation.

    Maybe it's not you that needs to change. Maybe it's social media's expectation of what social media is that needs the attitude adjustment. It's a tool, one of many that we have to reach out to others, but it's not the only tool.

    1. Going to call you out there... what other tool? Because I hate telephones, and I'm bad with email. You also make another good point about PUBLIC profile... there's some stuff you just can't say, because the internet has no 'delete' key. So since you perhaps CAN'T go for the extreme, it's really easy to get completely lost in the shuffle.

      Definitely harder to be ignored face-to-face. I'm not only the guy in the group who tends to only speak up when I have something profound/inane to say... I'm also the guy who monitors everyone else, and who will purposefully ask another quiet guy "so what do YOU think about this?"

      Can't do that online. It's like trying to see who's being silent in a room of over 1000 people - then granting that maybe they're only being silent because they're preoccupied with something a lot better than what your single remark has to offer.

    2. Good point; it's a tool, but for what is hard to determine. Social media, for me at least, is for keeping in touch with people that I don't see regularly. I, too, hate the telephone, with possible PTSD attached to the ring. Email is good; there's a lack of urgency to it, unlike the ringing of a phone or the beep of a text message. Email can happen outside real time. And, yes, the Internet never forgets, so one has to be careful with what one posts. I seldom connect my personal social media with work, beyond a basic explanation of what I do. (IT wizard, 9th level. :)

      We need more people to prod others. It's a good role, probably helps you with classes, too. It gives people a chance to speak without necessarily trying to talk over others. Side conversations are still conversations.

      Online, no, but it's hard to tell how many lurkers exist in a conversation, just reading and soaking in what's happening. (Though a quick email to someone who you know is following a forum thread or something could work...)

      One thing that did come to mind - the idea of being an outlier (or sideliner) with an active blog or with a Twitter account. I'd want to say that being active is the unusual; you are a math teacher who tweets, a subset of math teachers who have a Twitter account, a subset of math teachers. Just by tweeting, you've placed yourself in a smaller set. :)

  3. Hi Gregory!

    Thanks for your post. It helps to clarify for me what you meant on Twitter. It also brings up some further issues.

    To me, the notions of sideliner and outlier are different from each other. The former seems more social and the latter more about ideas and opinions. I understand how it's easy to feel on the sidelines in social media. I get how social media can push people to aim for the extremes in ideas and opinions (at least in their articulation). But neither of these seems especially problematic to me.

    It makes me happy that there are amazing things swirling around and happening in the mathedtwitterblogosphere entirely without me. It's frankly comforting to know that there are so many people passionately striving after their own projects and goals. And inspiring. Also, it's nice when something I write catches the attention of more than a handful, but having a handful and being a part of others' handfuls is (for me) plenty to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.

    I'm looking forward to poking around your blog more. And meeting you at TMC!


    1. Hey there! Actually, the distinction is a really good point. I suppose to a degree I feel like I'm both - or maybe I feel like a sideliner, when what I WANT is to be an outlier? Hmm. I'm very much a 'devil's advocate', and may challenge the norm, even if I know the norm is the right goal (perhaps not the right course - or I'm having a day).

      I also think it's great and inspiring that many people are doing their own things out there!! Particularly things beyond my capabilities. I suppose where the - alright, I'll admit it, the jealousy - creeps in, is when I feel I did something just as good, and yet everyone is RTing them and saying how that was great or how to improve on it... and so I'll be over here then. Like, I could accept someone telling me that my execution is lousy, but I don't even have that, and the silence of mediocracy is somehow worse.

      Meh. It's like I said to M. Fenton, you have to take lack of feedback as doing it right.

      At any rate, enjoy the poking around - in my head, my star attraction is actually over at because no one's told me I'm doing that wrong either - and see you next month!