A quick-and-dirty history lesson with apologies to all history teachers.
In the build up to the English Civil War, the rise of cheap printing led to the widespread dissemination of personal opinion masquerading as something more significant. A dramatic shift took place in the way ordinary folk understood their relationship with those in power, through the publication of cheap, easily shared pamphlets.
Before that war, the Puritans were the most enthusiastic supporters and producers of these pamphlets. The moment they had power, they introduced the most repressive censorship laws this country has ever seen. Printing was licensed and limited to London where there were only 20 printing presses for most of the rest of the century.
Social media is nothing new. All of us who have an online life will be acutely aware of the deluge of opinion masquerading as something else that confronts us every day. But are we handling it any better than our unfortunate ancestors?
Teachers have a special role in this difficult situation because they are employed to guide the young. I published an educational blog in 2006, so in social media terms, I think that entitles me to describe myself as a veteran.
So here are my tips for teachers who’d like to feel they are genuinely able to provide that guidance; tips for a better, healthier use of social media by schools, teachers and ultimately those they teach.
Share nothing, ever; not even that excruciatingly cute little Husky puppy pretending it can ride a bike unless you have checked its provenance for yourself; trust the source impeccably and believe that by sharing it you are helping the situation.
Report everything that annoys, irks or even mildly upsets you. Ignore the guidelines platforms offer. It doesn’t have to be an act of appalling violence, racism or one of an expanding list of other “isms” social media continues to nurture. If you don’t like the headline or just the way that hamster is looking at you: report it. Make them sit up and pay attention.
That way you may slowly begin to force the platforms publishing material to accept they are entirely responsible for what they release into the world and should be asking themselves some serious questions, before it ever reaches you, me or the children you teach.
Before you publish any comment, stop, habitually, and reread it. Then ask yourself how you would react if a child you teach wrote that? If you don’t mind, go ahead and push that button. If there is even the slightest, nagging doubt. Delete and start again.
Separate your personal from your professional life online. Never post political information from a personal site. People like me who know how to use these tools simply hide your material, report it and have no interest whatsoever in anything else you publish in future. So create and use a distinct professional identity for all information to do with your work and if you must, your politics.
Never allow yourself to be provoked by someone lacking all sense of propriety. However crass, childish, ill-informed or just plain barking their opinion, or carking their prose… “Calm it Kermit!” as my daughter would say, and move on.
If you find there is a debate you really do want to engage in, turn the page on all those tasty, tempting strategies social media slaps on the menu: drop the rhetoric, forget the personal attacks, ignore that tempting insult, abandon any lunatic fantasy you may be nursing of changing the global political landscape at the stroke of a keyboard.
Instead, write as if you were participating in a discussion with Nelson Mandela or Mother Theresa (other saintly role models are available.) Keep it clear, rational and well informed. Who knows, maybe you’ll actually shift someone’s view or make a new and even real friend?
Some platforms have designed their tools deliberately to ensure any text entered, even utter gibberish, has an authoritative gloss. Don’t fall for it. That utterly convincing article about how getting six-year-olds to massage each other’s scalps before lessons does wonders for their concentration was probably written by the marketing manager at “Nit Nuke.”
Treat all information with extreme caution. I once read an interesting piece about Macbeth that had a few strange comments but otherwise seemed worth sharing with students until I made that crucial decision to look a little harder and discovered the site was paid for and produced by the US National Rifle Association. Suddenly, those few odd views clanged resoundingly into place.
Which takes me neatly back to the Civil War.
Historians argue over the precise death toll, as well as about how to estimate it, but they do agree it decimated the adult male population of these islands and – astonishing as it may sound – it killed a much higher percentage of the population than the Great War.
When you recall the sea of poppies at the Tower of London that more recent citizens of these islands found so moving, I’d call that a warning from history.
Finally, remember the only people who can express something worth reading in less than 140 characters are likely to be poets, and a tiny, childish picture of a pile of poo is just a tiny, childish picture of a pile of poo.
Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author
To read more columns by Joe, view his back catalogue