Random encounters – some thoughts from #engagemooc

“It’s not that there’s anything particularly healthy about cyberspace in itself, but the way in which cyberspace breaks down barriers. Cyberspace makes person-to-person interaction much more likely in an already fragmented society. The thing that people need desperately is random encounter. That’s what community has.”

– John Perry Barlow, 1995, from http://www.lionsroar.com/bell-hooks-talks-to-john-perry-barlow/

Maybe Barlow was wrong? Discuss.

How does Barlow’s idea of random encounter – in a positive, world-opening sense, online or offline – operate today? 24/7 news feeds and social media mean we’re constantly bombarded with messages reducing the Other – and often ourselves – to political positions. Can we approach the Other with an open mind? Should we? What are YOUR stories of random encounters, on or offline? When and how have they broken down barriers for you? When and how have they not?

This is  topic for the discussion forum on the Engagement in a Time of Polarization MOOC (#engagemooc) just now.

Here are a few random,  and maybe not so random thoughts from me.

Random 1

This happened a few years ago now, but it always makes me smile thinking about it. I live Glasgow, a city with a reptutation for friendliness, it can all be a bit random but chances are if you are on a bus, or really anywhere, someone will start chatting to you.  Random people just wanting to pass the time of day – usually.  As I get older, I find myself doing the same, become the random, taking to people as we share an experience – generally queuing/ waiting for something.

I was once trying on shoes in a well know high street shop. As I was taking them off to put back on my own shoes, a couple of what I colloquially call “wee ladies”, shouted, in a very nice way, “ hey, hen, gonae put they shoes back on, you like about the same size as our niece and we thing we’re gonnae get them for her”.  So I spent the next few minutes modelling the shoes. I laughed, they laughed, they bought the shoes, I didn’t.  We all left the shop happy.  A random, instant connection, that may have made their decisions and shopping  that day easier, and gave me a laugh, that “only in Glasgow” way.

Random 2

Two days ago I accepted a random ( despite claims of him being specially selected by the system) challenge in Words with Friends, the on-line scrabble game. I’m a bit wary of doing this as, well you know – random! Anyway, said random sent me a message saying hello after his first move, I said hello back, then he sent me another one, and of course because I forgot my user name is connected with with my facebook account, he used my name.  Slightly discomforting. He then asked “where in the world are you.”  Innocent enough in f2f situation, online, random, slightly more creepy. Yesterday morning, another message “ how are you my dear, this fine morning.  I hope you slept well.”  I resigned from the game.

Random Reflection

I my non working life, I am far more comfortable with randomness in f2f situations. Reflecting  on my mostly online work connections, community, engagement as part of #engagemooc, I am, once again being reminded that the serendipity I enjoy in online communities, is largely down not so random networks.

Randomly spotting a relevant, funny, inspiring tweet in my stream, is far more mediated that I probably appreciated. My network bubble is comfortable and generally  bounces me to other soft spaces. I am lucky, I have not been trolled, and I do not seek out more dangerous participation through networks. I censor my online behaviour because of the consequences, and experiences of others. Should I challenge myself more, accept more randomness? I wonder . . .

Positive randomness is great, negative not so much and not so appealing. Yet my natural inclination with random online encounters is couched in fear.  Fear  the unknown, random online person, fear the random anonymous person even more. I actually thought about using a different personna for this course to try and challenge myself, to see how easy it would be to network, to make and sustain connections. To see how others would react to my randomness.  However time, and probably  more accurately laziness, and the realisation that I would probably give the game away at some point ensured that it didn’t happen.

I’m now thinking about connections between randomness and open education. I believe that I am a pretty open person, an open educator with an open mind.  Maybe that has provided another bias in terms of my perception of my own randomness. I can be an open educator, which may have elements of randomness – joining a twitter scavenger hunt last Friday morning with a class in Cairo.  Again, my network connections took me there.

I am not a random educator. My engagement and (continued) participation in related online spaces isn’t random; it is planned; it is self censored.  In context, I probably explore more seemingly random places, have more seemingly random encounters than some of my colleagues. Compared to others I probably don’t do anything random online, have any random online connections. I’ve never been to the dark web . . .

Anyway lots to think about.



  1. Interesting post Sheila 🙂 I haven’t engaged with #engagemooc but on the periphery of my vision I saw the reference to the bell hooks/ John Barlow encounter and it piqued my interest. Reading the quote from John Barlow, it occurs to me that 1995 was a different era of the Internet from the one we now inhabit. The excitement of the ease of encountering people who differed from us was enticing though it didn’t take long to notice that much was business as usual -structural inequality was reproduced on the Internet, whether gender, race, class or whatever. Experiments with anonymous identities showed they fell apart – interesting given your idea on anonymity.
    The Internet seemed to promise random encounters but it turned out that not only do we struggle to escape the structures we inhabit but the apparently freeing platforms that *enable* encounter in reality algorithmically control who we see and who sees what we say and share. We found this in research we did in a cMOOC but the secretive nature of platforms and their algorithms makes it difficult to unpick this in detail.

    • Thanks Frances. Yes agree the interview does reflect a very different time. I spend more and more time trying to rationalise my relationship with platform algorithms -sometimes feels a bit negotiating quicksand to get to the bit of the beach I want to get to

  2. I agree that “random” connections online aren’t really random, usually, given that we often have fairly carefully curated networks, even without consciously trying to do so. Sometimes these are fairly filter-bubble-y unless we consciously try to break out of that (I haven’t done much such breaking!).

    Interesting that Glasgow is a place where people will often strike up conversations with strangers. I just today found myself at a bus stop fervently trying to avoid the guy walking around there involving strangers in conversations. I’ve been trained to be super safety-conscious, plus I just really am uncomfortable talking to strangers with no clear reason because I wonder if it’s something I should be worried about from a safety angle (though your shoe story wouldn’t have worried me!). Different historical and cultural contexts!

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