Talking Fulbrighter with laurence w4rner (UK, 2017/18)

Talking “From Social Media Critic to Fulbrighter Fanatic”. Rob Ellis asks the questions, as our host Laurence W4rner takes the guest seat for our first interview of this year’s new series.

RE: For your Fulbright research, you worked on the First Week Flip Phone idea, and you still observe a social media detox every month. Do you feel you miss out during those times?

You still observe a social media detox every month. Do you feel you miss out during those times?

LW: Good question. I don’t feel I miss out but that’s probably because of the fact that I did this challenge. 

So just a little background for those who don’t know: in May 2018 my friend Tushar challenged us to make a podcast about what life was like without a smartphone in 2018. We decided to do it for 12 months consecutively every first week of the month. And twelve months later, we’d had dozens of individuals try this experience to really great impact – and many of them reported a change in their attitude to social media afterwards, where they had taken steps to make themselves less psychologically reliant on the dopamine hit that it’s designed to give you. 

And essentially I’ve been through that now around 20 or so times. So I’m really well trained now to ignore any potential buzz I get from an Instagram post doing well – I’m like “no, no – it’s not real!”. So I don’t feel that I miss out so much. Any content I do gather during that week, I will post out at the end of the week. It’s actually something I advocate for people to get serious about curating and scheduling across platforms.

First week flip phone

RE: You’ve used the term ‘real’ there, and you talked earlier about the concept of ‘friend’ in Facebook not really meaning anything. I’m a very late convert to a smartphone. Eventually, I found I was missing out: discussions were happening in WhatsApp, discussions were happening on Twitter/Facebook, within my friendship circle about events/activities that I couldn’t engage in without having a smartphone. Do you still feel that, and is that why you’re only going for a detox one week a month rather than sustaining it for a lengthy time?

LW: I think it’s true that if it’s sustained much longer than that you will begin to feel like you are absolutely missing out on certain things. 

So, for example, for myself as an aspiring performing artist – both in the theatre and on screen – it’s really important for me to have a presence on what has become an almost industry standard for the arts and digital content – which is Instagram

In terms of that instantaneous piece, I’ve taken steps over the years, catalysed by the flip phone weeks, to essentially come to the quite specific practice among me and my real friends – which is: if it’s an instantaneous conversation that is needed, then instantaneous it shall be – by which I mean there must be an opportunity for back and forth: like on this call!I simply refuse to engage in instant messaging; it’s not really instant anyway! 

RE: The idea that you to have to communicate to the public that  technological interventions are beneficial is more important than ever.

LW: I think that a really, really important goal for anyone who is passionate about social inclusion and progress is: how can we engage as many people as possible to be actively involved in making the most of the opportunities with technology? 

How can we engage as many people as possible to be actively involved in making the most of the opportunities with technology? 

And that’s one of my pursuits over the coming year. Musicals don’t tend to fund themselves, so I have started a small company called agileEducation, where we run code camps for mainly 16-18 year old teenagers, and the aim is to get them excited to be not only consumers of technology – because most 16-18 year olds are voracious consumers (one of our kids in Florida was enjoying his Snapchat and Instagram around 12 hours a day according to his screen tracker)– but also creators. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re expecting them to launch their apps on the app store and do incredibly well, but at least to start to get in the mindset of the designers of the technology. And once you’ve done that, you become a much more empowered consumer and you can think more mindfully about the products that you are using.

RE: It’s interesting you talk about the future and the new generation.  Do you think that, in terms of social media and technology, we’ve reached a somewhat stable point where things are going to settle now, or do you see in the next 5-10 years a massive shift going on? 

LW: Thinking about the future is something I’m trying to do in my artwork; my musical, Snowflakes in SoCal!, imagines a future where teenagers start to realise they’re spending too much time on their virtual reality headsets. So definitely something I’m thinking about a lot, and I hope other people will increasingly as well.

Snowflakes in SoCal

RE: Thinking about the future, that brings us on to Fulbrighter which is a small thing in itself but which is modelling a different way of doing social media. I’ve likened it before to Facebook and LinkedIn; it is very like those, but also different to those as it is a closed community, it is a community of people who share something in common and have a similar global outlook. What particularly excites you about Fulbrighter as a concept?

LW:  It is a closed community which means that every person there is a verified individual who has reputation on the line. So people really tend to raise their game in those circumstances. 

I’d argue that what’s interesting about Fulbright scholars as an arbitrary in-or-out mechanism, is that it actually encourages a very diverse community. Diversity is built into the lifeblood of the Fulbright project by its nature of being an exchange program between many different countries and the US. 

I’m really excited about the range of people I will get a chance to interface with and interview in our series going in to 2020. Because it may be the case that we don’t have a single individual from the same country twice. And that’s fantastic!

So I think there’s that, and obviously the fact there’s no ads is just a better experience, and that less bad practices are happening in the back-end, we hope!

RE: One of the things that’s been quite interesting about the launch of Fulbrighter is that both administrators in Commissions, and end users are more aware than ever before about their data and how it’s used. And if I’m not clear about that I’m getting pushback from people of all ages.  Hopefully we’ve turned a corner and people start thinking more critically about these issues.

LW: It’s great to hear you say that. 

I think it’s been a real pleasure to interface with you during the series in 2019. I really admire the fact that the series was supported and facilitated by the Fulbrighter Network, but with a very light touch, in that you were very open to my editorial independence and, frankly, critical perspective. 

And I guess that again speaks to great core values about the Fulbright community. And it’s as you say, it’s one small piece in a larger diet of every Fulbrighter’s social media, and I think we will increasingly see that. As you say, Fulbright is leading the way about more mindfully curated digital spaces. So not just the WhatsApp group from  “Fulbright Orientation 2017” that’s just happened to persist. It’s a more mindful approach to curating smaller social groupings online which – see Robin Dunbar’s work – is a more humane way of going about social networking online.

RE:  So you’ve mentioned there a couple of times the work you’ve been doing with Fulbrighter over the last 5 months. You’ve been blogging regularly for us in the “Fulbrighter: Net Working?” series. Could you say a little about what you hope to achieve with that series and what topics you’ve covered?

LW: Fulbright are getting this social network, and it occurred to me that Fulbright is already a social network. If anything, I describe it in the subtitle as the O.G. – by which I mean the original – social network. In many ways it’s remarkable that 60 years before Facebook, it was truly creating a global network, by which I mean clusters of people bonded by shared values and curated interactions. And I was just so excited about the idea of applying this word ‘social network’ now being used in the modern sense of a website you go to to post pics and at your friends. And because, as we’ve discussed, my scepticism of the efficacy of those modern social networks, which are often so wildly optimistic in their aims, that I was curious to bring a critical lens to the progress of the app to allow people to reflect on: ‘Hey, how’s it going? How can we improve it?’

I will say that, arguably, this aspect of it hasn’t been as necessary due to the diligent efforts of yourself and the rest of the team to have that open stance and to encourage feedback, etc. But I will say, it’s always tough to engage people with real feedback. And there’s something really special about people publicly declaring their opinions and feedback in order to generate more discussion, as opposed to a private survey. It definitely brings a different flavour. 

I’m also excited about the fact that it’s one of the few pieces of content on the platform that exists publicly to the whole internet. Because while it’s in the region of 10,000 registered members, a large fraction of those (and an even larger group of Fulbrighters) are not engaged on the platform. And I would love to try and inspire– not only folks already on the platform to be commenting more – but also to encourage those other folks to try coming over to the platform and join the conversation. 

When I ‘ve had, or provoked, or been blessed with, those more meaningful interactions, it’s been really really rewarding.

net:work? logo

RE: We’ve just done a survey of users, and the response has been a real enthusiasm to engage more strongly with the platform, but sometimes a frustration with the interface, but also a wariness about what they should be saying, how they should be engaging.

LW: I know that we have really great engagement from readers, so when people got on to the articles they were spending an average of 4 minutes on it and reading through to the end 90% of the time. 

I think templatising is a really important concept. You can think of the ‘Net Working’ series as a templatised piece of content. It’s long-form - most people won’t be shooting for that - but I think that’s allowed me to be consistently out there. 

I was at a rate of two a month during the last year. We’ve decided this year to go for one a month and be more ambitious about bringing in another voice into each of those conversations. So I guess it’s up to each person to think: how high do I want to be aiming in terms of audience?, do I want to be posting on the global feed?, or do I want to find my private community whether that is country or industry?, can I be creative at finding a routine, or some form of template for myself, or engaging with other folks that are doing that? And I know that you and me are talking about a couple of ideas for some templates for content. for example a ‘Humans of Fulbright’ photo series (“Snapshots”) will be something we experiment with on the interviewees in this series.

RE: From listening to you it also strikes me that comment might not be the best term, because comment suggests a one-way response to something that someone’s read. Actually, it is more about conversing. I know that you, as someone who writes articles, are very interested in not just being given a like – because that doesn’t really set value - but having some intellectual input. And I know that the concept of a conversation is something you want to pick up this year.

LW: Absolutely. I was really delighted with a couple of Fulbrighters – Jon Bannon and Khadija Ouajjani. These are two individuals I haven’t met in person, yet I feel like I do have a better sense of them, than people I usually do who I haven’t met IRL. And I think that’s because there was a back and forth. 

This is partly an artefact of my quite ambitious commitment to responding to every single public comment that someone makes. Because in the past, I was so afraid of commenting as it’s such a terrible feeling to be left hanging, I’ve just decided in my life I’m always going to be that person – I’ll never leave someone else hanging.

It became clear to me that that conversational aspect needs to be brought up from that comment section into the pieces themselves. And I think this hit home most clearly when I saw repeated posts from a Moroccan Fulbrighter, Itto Outini, who has a really inspiring story of being someone with lack of vision, and being a non-traditional student whose education came a little later than a lot of other Fulbrighters. 

She was talking about accessibility on the web, and in particular on the platform, and me reflecting: “yeah I studied accessibility in our UI/UX design class, but here we have a Fulbright scholar in web accessibility. Why would we want to hear my thoughts on that, we’d much rather hear Itto Outini!”. That’s an example of someone I’d love to engage with, with one of these interviews in the following year (Ed: delighted to confirm will be March!). 

Please do be in touch if you think you have some expertise in a specific aspect related to the Fulbrighter Network as a project. That could be the technical aspect of building a social media product, or on the social aspect – how we can incentivise engagement, etc. – or on the bigger picture, philosophical aspects. 

Please do be in touch if you think you have some expertise in a specific aspect related to the Fulbrighter Network as a project. That could be the technical aspect of building a social media product, or on the social aspect – how we can incentivise engagement, etc. – or on the bigger picture, philosophical aspects. I really encourage any Fulbrighters out there who are interested in reaching out: we have the DM feature – so why not make use of it to either myself or Rob!

RE: I would just echo that point. I know it can sometimes be daunting when you’re faced with the News and reflections page, you don’t know what to write. Actually having a conversation with you is a more relaxed way to explore the ideas. And they don’t have to be the finished ideas, they don’t have to be polished research. Part of the value of Fulbrighter is it is a space where people can have those work-in-progress conversations to help shape their own ideas.

LW: Absolutely, Rob. And I think that’s definitely being brought out in this series so far. this idea of pivoting to this interview style came about in December, and before that it was just me tapping down stuff on my profile, until Rob inviting it to be showcased on the News and Reflections page. 

Because of the possibilities for interaction we can iterate on our thoughts. So yes, definitely, would encourage folks to come and have a chat to talk through these really interesting topics.

I’m not an expert on all of these topics, so definitely that kind of work-in-progress feeling is really important. And that’s actually one of the most promising things about social media: because of the possibilities for interaction we can iterate on our thoughts. So yes, definitely, would encourage folks to come and have a chat to talk through these really interesting topics.

w4rner presenting his research

RE: So we began this conversation talking about your background. To return to the concept of you: what’s next for Laurence, what have you got planned for the next couple of years?

LW: I like “the next couple of years”, because it was just over two years on my Fulbright, and that was a lot of experimentation. I really just tried a lot – both taking away and adding things in my life. So obviously we’ve talked about Facebook and the flip phone one week a month, but in terms of a period of creative energy there was a lot – the podcast, I did my video diary series Tales from a Windy City, and really just threw a lot of stuff at the wall. 

I am a creative individual, so I am always going to want to be innovating and trying to reach audiences with that work, and I’m also someone with some expertise and reputation in technology. 

So I think it’s going to be the case that, if I’m on stage as Cerulean which is my stage name for my music where I’m reaching a wider audience, I’m going to be trying to provoke some thoughts around technology and social media, and when I’m writing code for my apps or on the Fulbrighter Network talking about social media with a more niche audience, I’m going to be trying to bring some creative energy and trying to inspire people to be a bit more performative. 

It’s hard to tell exactly, but I guess that’s the next couple of years – trying to innovate on the intersections of technology and art.

RE: And that comes back to our earlier point about how you’ve melded all of the various disciplines together – some things have worked, some things haven’t, but it’s a constant process of development and improvement.

LW: That’s it Rob. That’s all we can hope for!

RE: Well great. Thank you for the conversation today – it’s been really interesting. I’m sure we’ll put somewhere in the article links to your social media feeds (but not Facebook, obviously) (Ed: Twit, Link, Gram, MeWe), so people can follow you and engage more with your work. And, of course, as you’ve said you’d encourage anyone to get in touch with you or me with any ideas about Fulbrighter, digital technology, social media more generally – it’d be great to hear from people.

Watch the full interview

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