You guys remember Daniel, right?
He’s the eighth grader that discovered one day that the post he’d written for our #sugarkills blog was ranked fourth in Google’s Search results, right behind a bit from Harvard and right in front of a bit from Web MD.
Well, Daniel, Ried and Joel — who are the student leaders of our #sugarkills project — learned an interesting lesson about audiences in social spaces yesterday when an anonymous reader calling himself “Fitness Guy” stopped by and blew up our comment section*. He started by pointing out a content error in our post on natural versus added sugars:
I came across this site because I was looking to find what people’s thought were on the difference between “natural sugar” and “added sugar.”
The statement “[n]atural sugars, along with other chemicals found in fruits and vegetables, form complex carbohydrate” is wholly false.
No sugar is a complex carbohydrate. There may be complex carbohydrates in natural foods which contain sugar (and there may very well be complex carbohydrates in foods with added sugar) – but the sugar in either is NOT “complex.”
Two hours later and obviously still a bit riled about our content error, he posted:
I’m going to post this here because I didn’t see any obvious contact info.
The information on this page is very wrong. Please, educate yourself for a few moments via a simple Google search. Remove this false information from the internet – as you can tell from the comments above people do get confused.
I was out of school for a professional development session, so the boys worked together to figure out how to respond on their own. They sent me an email saying something along the lines of “some guy thinks we are stupid and that we should delete our whole blog” and then crafted what I thought was a pretty impressive response for eighth graders:
Our #SugarKills team works very hard to educate ourselves and our readers about sugar. We take the time to research a topic, and produce quality work. These posts aren’t written in a couple minutes, and are accomplishments as a blog should speak to the credibility of our content. We provide link(s) in our posts to show that we are credible and are not posting false information. -Ried D.
Not bad for teenagers, right? That didn’t satisfy Fitness Guy, though — who responded two hours later with:
Allow me to quote from your link to the Mayo Clinic.
“A few facts about sugar
All sugar, whether natural or processed, is a type of simple carbohydrate that your body uses for energy. Fruits, vegetables and dairy foods all naturally contain sugar.”
That’s when I got involved, explaining to Fitness Guy that he was speaking to middle schoolers and that his tone was inappropriate in any productive conversation — but particularly in a conversation with kids who are twelve and thirteen years old. I was pretty direct with him, suggesting that my kids were likely to learn as much from his critical approach as they were from his suggestions about their content.
He apologized, but suggested that there was no arguing the fact that he was right. He questioned my ability to supervise my students, and then made a final suggestion:
We all get things wrong, the adult thing is to own it, fix it, and grow from it. It’s better than misinforming everyone that reads this.
The adult thing. After telling a bunch of middle schoolers to “educate themselves” and then dropping snark in reply to their reasoned response, he wants us to do the adult thing.
Here are three takeaways from the experience:
Takeaway 1: My kids learned a valuable lesson about the responsibility that comes when you are writing for a public audience.
One of the lessons that I try to teach through our #sugarkills project is that when you are writing for a public audience, you HAVE to carefully polish every post. Mistakes aren’t okay because they leave others confused and they spread misinformation.
That’s a lesson that all of my #sugarkills kids take seriously. They really do read and link to source material in every post — and they really do try to accurately summarize the things that they are learning. They take a ton of pride in our blog and see themselves as an important resource for their readers.
The most beautiful moments to me, however, are when they get it wrong. Every time their thinking is challenged by a reader, it forces them to reflect on what they know. Today, there were five or six kids working together to find and correct the mistakes in their original post. They started making revisions already — and I’m sure that work will continue tomorrow.
My guess is that this experience will sit with them for a long while — and that they will take accuracy more seriously than ever before.
Takeaway 2: My kids learned that criticism is pointless when you want to have influence.
Make no mistake about it: My kids were pretty darn offended by Mr. Guy. They took his comments as attacks and were instantly defensive.
And THAT’s an important lesson, too.
What Fitness Guy inadvertently taught them is that people who want to change minds are WAY more likely to ask questions than uncork with criticism. What he also taught them is that being nasty doesn’t get you very far with other people.
I hope that they will remember the reaction that his tone caused and the impact that it had on (1). their willingness to listen and (2). his ability to influence their actions. If they do, I’m sure that they will become more responsible participants in online conversations than they would have been otherwise.
Takeaway 3: I’m wondering whether giving my kids the chance to write for public audiences still makes sense.
Here’s a simple truth: No matter what source I’m exploring online, the complete lack of civility demonstrated by readers who leave comments shocks me.
People denigrate each other. People curse at each other. People try to one-up one another. People shout at each other. And they do it from behind anonymous usernames, giving them a sense of invulnerability. “I can call you an idiot,” they think, “even if I’d never do it in a face-to-face conversation.”
There’s nothing productive happening in those spaces, y’all — no reflective thought, no intellectual give-and-take, no respectful dialogue designed to build knowledge together. Instead, comment sections have become places where people do little more than preen and piss on one another.
So why am I bothering to teach my kids about writing for public audiences when those audiences are just as likely to want to tear them down as they are to build them up? Wouldn’t we be better off if we wrote only for audiences that would model the kinds of responsible behaviors that we want our kids to develop?
John Spencer was helping me to debrief last night and he said something brilliant: “Just because a conversation is open to the world doesn’t mean that it will promote open dialogue, Bill.”
That’s true, isn’t it? And if John’s right, what does that mean for our decisions to encourage kids to write in online spaces?
Looking forward to hearing what all y’all think.
*Blogger’s Note: I unpublished the comments that Fitness Guy left on our blog. They left a sour taste in my mouth and I didn’t want them to discourage my kids from writing. Also, they are planning on writing a reflection about the experience. I’ll share whatever it is that they create.
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