In Experience and Education John Dewey talks about the biographical significance of experience. The emotional reactions we have to our experience drives us forward or leaves us static, including us towards ways of orientating ourselves to the world which contribute to the development of our powers or their wastage. From pg 38:
On the other hand, if an experience arouses curiosity, strengthens initiative, and sets up desires and purposes that are sufficiently intense to carry a person over-dead places in the future, continuity works in a very different way. Every experience is a moving force. Its value can be judged only on the ground of what it moves toward and into. The greater maturity of experience which should belong to the adult as educator puts him in a position to evaluate each experience of the young in a way in which the one having the less mature experience cannot do.
What sorts of experiences do social platforms generate? What “attitudes and habitual tendencies” (pg 38) are being generated? Which “are actually conducive to continued growth and what are detrimental” (pg 39)?
There’s a huge amount of empirical variation here. For example contrast being lost down a fascinating Wikipedia rabbit hole, finding the right words in a blog post or the edifying quality which a Twitter dialogue can have to doom-scrolling a timeline, a Facebook stalking or having a pointless argument where both parties talk past each other.
The framing Dewey offers us is very helpful for making sense of the basic ambivalence of these platforms at the level of experience. There are architectural imperatives which create a tendency towards certain kinds of experiences (for example the reduction of value to quantified popularity) but these do not determine the experiences which people have.
This is why I’m so interested in the user cultures and public pedagogies which surround platforms, as cultural influences which make some categories of experience more likely than others. But the individual’s dispositions, understandings and capacity to reason practically about their use are liable to have an effect as well.
I’m particularly intrigued by Dewey’s observation of how experiences act back upon their conditions. This is how he describes it on pg 39:
Every genuine experience has an active side which changes in some degree the objective conditions under which experiences are had. The difference between civilization and savagery, to take an example on a large scale, is found in the degree in which previous experiences have changed the objective conditions under which subsequent experiences take place. The existence of roads, of means of rapid movement and transportation, tools, implements, furniture, electric light and power, are illustrations. Destroy the external conditions of present civilized experience, and for a time our experience would relapse into that of barbaric peoples.
Perhaps this is something which can be incorporated into the concept of ‘user culture’? It is regenerated or transformed through the activity which takes place within particular community segments on each platform, with the capacity to exercise an influence over future action within that milieu. But it also shapes how the platform operators make decisions about the organisation and regulation of the platform itself. This reflects what Dewey explains on pg 39 is the fundamentally relational character of experience:
In a word, we live from birth to death in a world of persons and things which in large measure is what it is because of what has been done and transmitted from previous human activities. When this fact is ignored, experience is treated as if it were something which goes on exclusively inside an individual’s body and mind. It ought not to be necessary to say that experience does not occur in a vacuum. There are sources outside an individual which give rise to experience. It is constantly fed from these springs.
It falls to educators to recognise “the shaping of actual experience by environing conditions” (pg 40) and to recognise which of these contributes to growth rather than detracts from it. What does this function look like within social platforms? How could it be carried out? It seems clear to me it has to take place from within them in quite a fundamental sense.