I have been interested in online conversational dynamics for a long time now. I am interested in understanding what are the patterns that can create so many misunderstandings and how we navigate the unique nature of this space where the public and the private do not map to physical spaces. I often joke that if I diss you in the pub to a friend nobody but my friend needs to know. Our lives online are much more transparent than that and this context collapse can be both a gift and a curse.


The video above was produced for an altogether a lighter purpose – but I include it here because it makes the point, all be it a little more dramatically than I might want.

I think plausible deniability can help us talk about what happens when our conversational dynamics do not work well. This post explores my understanding so far and whilst it can be used as descriptive of something, it cannot infer intent in any one individual. In a sense this is the curse of text mediated dialogue even when skilled.

Plausible deniability refers to circumstances where a denial of responsibilty or knowledge of wrongdoing can not be proved as true or untrue due to a lack of evidence proving the allegation. US Legal definitions

Open cultures online or offline can be said to require dialogical engagement. We struggle to find the balance between ‘me’ and ‘us’. Many communities have facilitators and norms that are implemented to help groups work together deciding on where the balance lies. On the open web there are no such rules. Speaking ‘ to the centre’ rather than to the self or from the self requires great wisdom and skill and is not rewarded in a system based on broadcasting ourselves to death. I spend months teaching my students how to do this well in text mediated dialogue and face to face. We do this in a closed community not on the open web, although they then can apply what they learn to interact with others online.

“Dialogue … is a conversation with a center, not sides. It is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channelling it toward something that has never been created before.” Bill Isaacs

We cannot channel difference if difference is suppressed and silenced. The pattern I see in my interactions online is not dialogical, it is often confrontational and ‘wrongdoing can not be proved as true or untrue due to a lack of evidence’. We never have the full context, there is always something unknown.

And then there is ‘the spiral of silence’.

The theory holds that when one view dominates, others disappear from public awareness as its adherents become silent. The theory proposes that ‘the people’s fear of separation or isolation from those around them’ makes them  keep their views to themselves when they think they are in the minority. Or put more simply and clearly,

Isn’t this easy to explain, though? Go to any elementary or Jr High playgroud and you see cliques and groups and kids afraid to speak up. The world is new to them, they don’t think they know any better, and are willing to follow the confident person’s lead. Ditto this new world of online spaces. Glenn Cochrane

I have used the spiral of silence often to help me understand how so called educational online spaces are controlled by the few and a majority of members remain silent as those in control label them ‘lurkers’ and often accuse them of not contributing. It is tough to speak up when you see the world differently from the ruling elite.

Yet something has been missing in this explanation for me which the idea of plausible deniability adds.

It is not all about personal adaptation

The spiral of silence situates the ‘problem’ with the individual who does not want to be excluded and hence keeps quiet. This feels wrong. In many of the examples told to me, or that I have witnessed, individuals do try to say something but they quickly learn ‘to their cost’ that compliance or exit are the only choice.

There are those that situate the issue with ‘mindset’ or ‘resilience’ – squarely putting the responsibility on the individual once again to change that mindset or develop that special kind of resilience that is needed to live online. Read Viv Rolfe and Frances Bell on this topic, who do some sensible critique of the pipe dream of ‘developing individual resilience’.

I have experienced this idea taken to extremes in the context of organisational consulting. The stressful nature of the setting or the impact of organisational structure  need not be inquired into; we have professional development to get our staff performing according to our standard of excellence. If they do not conform, they just need more training. So they conform or they leave. Read Joanna Ciulia for more on the ‘promise and betrayal of modern work‘. Critiques about performance management as a construct, are many. I will let you google that. Or try Richard Sennett on the corrosion of character where he explores the way in which our new capitalism is ‘eroding the sense of sustained purpose, integrity of self, and trust in others that an earlier generation understood as essential to personal character.’

Yet it seems we are borrowing this model to help us ‘develop’ online learners to the ‘right’ level. I recognise the language, I recognise the dynamics from over 20 years work at a business school.

What is wrong with this picture?

This is not about blaming individuals for their beliefs, their personality or their mindsets (anyone ever seen a mindset? Asked Alan Levine on Twitter a while back), it is about looking at a system from outside and asking: Could it be that kneeling at altar of the self is simply creating a system that forces either compliance or exit? A system that in its very structure stops a critique of its basic precepts? A group of people who are going around in circles in a cozy echo chamber covertly fighting to get to central node status whilst telling each other that ‘love is all that matters’? Could this apply to us at all?

I keep coming back to the idea of plausible deniability.

As I am theorising it right now, the spiral of silence is less about the individual wanting inclusion and more about the individual being put in a position where silence is the only option. Speaking up leads to denial. Denial is then supported by the collective because it does not want to look at the dark side of the heroic narrative of ‘open’.

There are some people starting to ask questions about the fallacy of open, about the hidden economies of open educational practices in 2016, but there were people asking these questions way back (!) in 2011. Jenny Mackness wrote a post on the ‘tyranny of sharing’ where she talks about the, often implicit, norm in open education that we have an obligation to share and some of the ramifications of this.

I am reminded of James Hillman‘s book on psychotherapy: ‘We have had 100 years of psychotherapy and the world is getting worse’. Some speak of openness in education going back to the late middle ages, so we could say more than 100 years in our case. Today, I am still told in private: Yes, there seems to be a pattern there, but how to break the spiral of silence? Intelligent people who value the web and who are active participants in this new-old open education movement, feel unable to speak. Or rather we can all speak, we just have to follow certain rules. Indirect speech rules the web.

The places for critique of the system as a whole are in the hypothetical realm, we can ask (and we often do) others to tell us what they see as the ‘potential’ downsides of open practices.

We can critique the individual: ‘if you are vulnerable or feel excluded online it is your own blood fault, get thee to a resilience training course!’ We do this under many guises, essentially positioning those who make it work on the side of ‘good’ and those who leave as somehow ‘not ready’.

We can critique the system that is set in opposition to the ‘open education movement’ – those bastards who commoditise everything or those institutions who are not adapting to change and are foolish enough to hold privacy and a code of ethics as an important part of education. I exaggerate to make a point, but if I had a penny for each time I hear an open educator moan about the backwards nature of their institution or higher education in general…

This is all allowed critique.

Yet, critique of the very system we are part of is out of bounds. Mejias predicts this will happen: what is not of the network, does not exist. Suggesting that we are part of a system that itself needs changing, does not seem part of the deal in many spaces. After all, the system only works because marginal nodes work for free for central nodes in exchange for badges that may one day make the marginals central. There. I named a hidden economy.

We need to veil critique of the disallowed kind in indirect speech because the turkey will never vote for christmas as my friend Frances is fond of saying.

Plausible deniability is a kind of indirect speech and I see it as one of the main reasons ( if not *the* reason) why we have had so many years of open education and things are just getting worse.

Somebody asked me to explain what I mean by this idea and I said in conversation:

“People using their smarts to do shitty stuff but always having a way out to make the victim look bad in the end, hence if you are also smart you walk away or stay silent and join the game”.

Turns out the term started to be used in the 1970’s to describe a situation where an important politician could be ‘truthful’ and say ‘I knew nothing about that’ when in fact the context was such that he or she could easily infer the ‘that’ he or she was denying. Political games played to avoid accountability. It is so very understandable that we do this. We broadcast into a vacuum and we do not know who might read our blog or how they may interpret what we say. There is something about the nature of the system that encourages indirect speech, and it may be the very real fact we have a anonymity built into the system. There can be  some pretty dire consequences for those who speak directly and make a stand online.

Let me break down the idea of plausible deniability. I found an interesting article that spoke to the different strategies that politicians use to avoid accountability.

In what follows I have adapted the examples to our milieu.

I hope you enjoy the light relief and may be get a hint of recognition of the times you used some or all of these strategies. We have all been there.

Comic by @mdvfunes CCBY
Comic by @mdvfunes CCBY
Comic by @mdvfunes CCBY
Comic by @mdvfunes CCBY
Comic by @mdvfunes CCBY
Comic by @mdvfunes CCBY

Plausible deniability is a problem for all us and I see it everywhere I turn.

It is a big problem “because it leaves open the door to abuse of authority and resources, shifting blame and deflecting accountability.” (From article I mentioned above)

And it is the very thing we teach new people to do well if they want to survive online, or at least what I was taught when I decided to learn online.

“You have to make it seem like you are complimenting them, and then critique in a way does not explicitly make them look bad”. It is like learning a new language, a double-speak: “I really enjoyed their article, the enjoyment came from making notes using the annotation software.” We thrive on indirect speech. Always have a way out. I win, you lose.

The worst effect of plausible deniability is that it creates an environment lacking in trust. I saw it daily in organisational consulting. How do we engage with contradictory messages? When I hear one thing via DM and  I hear another another on the public stream? I find it hard to know who to trust. I do my best to assume positive intent but I have been hurt more than once. I read  Pinker et al saying: “People often don’t blurt out what they mean in so many words but veil their intentions in innuendo, euphemism, or doublespeak.’ and I recognise it all; myself spending hours on this blog thinking about how to say things without saying them directly, noticing I am not saying something directly because I do not want to look bad when plausible deniability is claimed. Of course, that is probably just me not being resilient enough…

At times it feels to me that in life online, we can fool all of the people all of the time. The only way to survive seems to be by getting good at indirect speech.

As we praise doublespeak as a political skill that enables us to thrive online (we praise it in every organisation I have worked or consulted in), we lose the trust of those we need the most. A system set up to reward smooth operators does not engender trust or a sense of safety for learners or educators. False harmony may not help get to understanding, but it sure feels nice.

“We need to emphasise  the complexity of our persons, and that false harmony does not help get to understanding. Disagreement can be hurtful, but is what pushes towards a door of understanding.” Alan Levine

If trust is lost or never gained, open educational practices are also lost.

The advice is clear and in our gut we know that genuine dialogue, as defined at the start of this post and by Alan Levine in the quote above, needs to form part of how we engage if we want to create ethical open educational environments. Yet, the advice is old and rarely implemented on public spaces – I think we use private online spaces for this much more.

I see this incongruity of incidents online as problematic for open education. How we tackle it is something that may be starts with naming the dynamics and understanding that the very same thing that is a blessing of the open web is its curse – the open ended cross-cultural networks we create maybe leading to the creation of a “flat dull global standard for speech” that enables us to navigate Facebook community guidelines but kills true dialogue.