Recent Entries
This form does not yet contain any fields.

    Entries in Networks (7)


    Social Media (new series)

    A recent blog post by one of my favourite writers, Alexandra Samuel and an article in the New York Times about some research which suggests that teenagers who use the Internet at home are less likely to have good grades at school has motivated me to start a new series on Social Media.

    Samuel quotes Matthew Gallion who bemoans the fact that social media are about seeking approval from friends rather than about communicating ideas and emotions. The latter is only possible within the real context of coffee houses and homes. In the New York times article two studies are quoted both of which use relatively small samples to make enormous claims. The researchers brought computers into households with teenagers and discovered that the teenager's school grades went down because of the computer's presence in the household. The second small study found a similar trend in Virginia among poorer households.
    Aside from the obvious dangers of taking small studies which inevitably trend in the direction that researchers assume from the start, there is the further and much more serious issue of generalizing to teenagers as a whole. The metaphor that underlies this approach is that the Internet and especially social media are by definition, distractions. But, distractions from what? 
    A closer look at the studies mentioned in the Times reveals that little is said about the quality of the educational institutions that the teenagers were attending. The studies abstract the reality of schooling from the home and vice-versa. How about this argument? The schools the teenagers were attending in Romania and Virginia were so bad that they needed the distractions of social media to engage in the interpersonal learning experiences that the schools denied. I am being facetious here, but this constant thematic of social media as destroyers of human capacity and learning, as an interruption to processes that are otherwise not only better, but more substantive belies the fact that social media are a disruptive force and intentionally so.
    Matthew Gallion has the same problem in his analysis of the authenticity of the coffee house as a place of communications and interchange. Come on. There is no way of generalizing here. Most "real" conversations happen to be pretty inauthentic to begin with and there is not a special utopian place where conversations break down the conventional barriers that people put up to exchanging real emotions and feelings with each other. 
    The problem with these articles and analyses is that the Internet and by extension social media come to represent the opposite of some idealized space that we can no longer access. This is bad social science and a terrible use of anecdotal evidence to make broad claims that have little to do with the realities of modern day communications. 
    Communications among people, both interpersonal and social are always fraught with errors, blockages and challenges. There would be little need to communicate if we weren't constantly trying to overcome differences in understanding and perspective. Social media add another potential layer to misunderstanding and understanding — another layer to what we do everyday, which is converse with our family, friends, colleagues and neighbours.
    The issues surrounding learning are equally complex. Schools are not necessarily places of learning and are not the ideal environment versus some baser realities in the communities and households we inhabit. As with everything, some schools and some classes in those schools work and others don't. Some aspects of social media work to increase communications among people and others don't.
    Distractions are real and always have been. Some teenagers prefer to ride their bicycles instead of studying history. Perhaps it is time to seek new metaphors and models to explain what is happening today. Yes, the Internet disrupts. And yes, all new forms of communications historically have disrupted the social order of their time. 
    Ironically, social media might well be the best opportunity we have had in decades to open up learning to many new modalities and to harness the energy of conversation for the public good.  



    Are Social Media, Social? (Part Ten)

    The ties that bind are more often than not based on memories. Memories of events, people, relationships, daily life, and exceptional moments, both personal and historical. Our bodies are like scrapbooks. We write our memories all over our bodies in the course of a lifetime.

    We are in the early days of lives lived at the edges of the virtual and the real. Notwithstanding the power of the computer screens we hold in our hands or the larger screens that now broadcast to us, all screens are flat and in the case of the iPad thin and beautiful. These mediated instances bring us closer to the people we love (through Skype or Facebook) and distance us at the same time from the physical pain and joy of touch and embodied dialogue. So close and yet far away. As more information floods into our minds and bodies and as more and more of the communications process is governed by mediators of greater and greater complexity, we have to start asking some hard questions about the fragile nature of what we are doing.

    For example, much of the electronic information of the 1980’s is lost. More importantly, so much of the material produced during that era cannot be easily transferred from its original form into more contemporary technologies. In fact, how much of the massive exchange of information that we are now producing will still be around and accessible ten years from now? The pace of change means that even if the information is available, will we be able to realize its importance? What interpretive tools will we be able to apply to processes that appear and disappear so quickly? History may provide us with narratives, but personal memories are unstructured and thus for the most part forgotten. Many people now have thousands of photographs stored on computers and hard drives. The challenge is how to manage all of that data. The even greater challenge is to link memories to the images as the pictures proliferate.

    All of this is a round about way of saying that online communities of varying sorts are highly mediated not only by technology but by time. We tend to think of networks in spatial terms. Time is more difficult to picture because in the case of Internet time, it is non-linear.

    In other words, as we glance about picking this and that from the Twitter stream, or quickly reading a short piece on a web site and then just as quickly clicking through a series of links, we are creating a non-linear time line. The results are more like a montage, abstract and real at the same time. I find it amusing that the Twitter stream is timed according to date and time of entry. Add hash marks and we are speedily scrolling through a web of links, comments and further comments. Even if the streams were preserved, the context would be lost. Even if our memories were perfect, the cumulative effect cannot be contained.

    Non-linear processes are wonderful because they defy easy explanation. They cannot be packaged into neat or modular statements. So, the irony is that social media are drunk with the use of language and constrained by the fact that most of the discourse they produce is so specific to the moment, that it cannot last. I am not one to argue for the end of history, but our memories are normally fragmentary and even as we build narratives around those fragments, we lose far more than we retain. So, this raises the further point around the necessity of conversation through social media. Clearly, as an extension of existing friendships or as the base for building new ones, social media work. Conversations in this ever expanding universe are complex and of great utility to interlocutors. But, the intensity of fragmentation has also been accelerated and with it comes the dangers of even greater loss.

    Time is a strange creature. Virtual spaces make it seem as if time can be manipulated. (This is after all the central theme of William Gibson’s early work on cyberspace.) The interface of the real and the virtual makes it seem as if the preservation of memories can be achieved by archiving them. But no one anticipated the human obsession with data. How many of you would knowingly explore a three year-old website? It just doesn’t feel relevant.

    Social media are redefining this complex communications landscape. But what if that landscape has no solid geography? What if the history of its formation cannot be traced other than through a series of fragments that don’t connect? We are seeing the formation of a new kind of oral culture and as historians know, oral cultures retain the stories they want to hear and quickly dispense with everything else.

    This is the last entry of this series. Follow me on Twitter @ronburnett

    *Take a look at the video below*. The first cinematic encounter with wireless technologies from 1922!!

    " Two women walk towards the camera on a city street. They stop beside a fire hydrant (this is presumably the United States of America). C/U of the women winding a wire around the top of the fire hydrant. One of the women holds a small box."

    "It's Eve's portable wireless 'phone - in 1922." (from the Pathé archives)





    Reblog this post [with Zemanta]



    Are Social Media, Social? (Part Eight)

    The Ties that Bind……the appearance of portable video in the late 1960's and early 1970's led to a variety of claims about the potential for community media. The most important claim was that video in the hands of community members would allow people in various disenfranchised communities to have a voice. This claim was always stated in contrast to mainstream media which were viewed as one-way and intent on removing the rights of citizens to speak and be heard.

    Keep in mind that communities are variously defined by the ties that bind people together. Cities are really agglomerations of villages, impersonal and personal at the same time. Urban environments are as much about the circulation of information as they are about the institutions that individuals share, work in and create. Cities are also very fragile environments largely dependent upon the good will of citizens at all levels of activity. So, communities change all of the time as do the means of communications that they use. There is a constant and ever widening and profoundly interactive exchange of information going on in any urban centre. The buzz is at many levels, from the most personal and familial to the public context of debate about local, national and international issues.

    In the post 9/11 world, the two way flow of information and communication has become even more central to urban life. It is not just the appearance and then massive increase in the use of mobile technologies that has altered what communities do and how they see themselves, it is the non-stop and incessant commentaries by many different people on their own lives and the lives of others and on every aspect of the news that has altered both the mental and physical landscape that we inhabit. All of this however, is very fragile. In a world increasingly defined by the extended virtual spaces that we all use, social media platforms define the ties that bind.

    In my last entry, I ended with the statement that only eleven percent of internet users actively engage with Twitter on a daily basis. Take a look at [this visualization ]( and you will notice that there are 140 people or organizations that dominate Twitter usage. This doesn't mean that everyone else is not twittering, it just suggests that the community of relationships developed through twitter is not as broad as one might imagine, nor is it as local as the notion of community would suggest. This idea of an extended space lengthens and widens the reach of a small number of people while everyone else essentially maintains the village approach to their usage. The key difference to earlier historical periods is that we imagine a far greater effect to our own words than is actually possible.

    From time to time, such as during the Haiti crisis, the best elements of this new and extended social world comes to the fore. However, if you take a hard look at some of the research on news blogs you will discover that the vast majority link to legacy media and get most of their information from traditional sources. Even the categories used by bloggers retain the frameworks and terminology of the mainstream media.

    Part of the irony here is that in order for blogs to move beyond these constraints, they would actually have to construct organizations capable of doing research and distinguishing between what is true and what is false. At the same time, the controlled anarchy of the Web allows information to seep through that might otherwise have been hidden or restrained. The total picture however is not as diverse as social media advocates would have us believe.

    Part Nine 

    Reblog this post [with Zemanta]



    Are social media, social? (Part Four)

    Heidi May has produced some important comments on the previous entries of Are Social Media, Social? May suggested a link to Network, A Networked Book about Network Art which is a fascinating example of the extensions that are possible when communities of interest establish a context to work together and collaborate. Heidi May also asks about the Diaspora project. Diaspora will attempt to build an open source version of Facebook. I wish them luck. This is an essential move to broaden the scope and expectations that we have about the role and usage of social networks, about privacy and most importantly about controlling the very code that governs how we relate within virtual spaces.

    A good example of some of the challenges that we face within networked environments is what happened to the famous German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas. “In January, one of the world’s leading intellectuals fell prey to an internet hoax. An anonymous prankster set up a fake Twitter feed purporting to be by ­Jürgen Habermas, professor emeritus of philosophy at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt. “It irritated me because the sender’s identity was a fake,” ­Habermas told me recently. Like Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, ­Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and former US ­secretary of state Condoleezza Rice before him, ­Habermas had been “twitterjacked”.” Stuart Jeffries Financial Times, April 30, 2010.

    As it turns out the hoax was removed but not before the individual was found and apologized. Subsequently, Habermas was interviewed and made this comment:

    “The internet generates a centrifugal force,” Habemas says. “It releases an ­anarchic wave of highly fragmented circuits of communication that ­infrequently overlap. Of course, the spontaneous and egalitarian nature of unlimited communication can have subversive effects under authoritarian regimes. But the web itself does not produce any public spheres. Its structure is not suited to focusing the attention of a dispersed public of citizens who form opinions simultaneously on the same topics and contributions which have been scrutinised and filtered by experts.”

    Habermas suggests that power resides with the State even when social networks bring people together to protest and demonstrate. The results of these engagements are contingent and don’t necessarily lead to change or to the enlargement of the public sphere.

    The question is how does the public become enlightened? What conditions will allow for and encourage rich interchanges that will drive new perceptions of power and new ideas about power relations?

    The general assumption is that social networks facilitate the growth of constructive public debate. Yet, if that were true how can one explain the nature of the debates in the US around health care which were characterized by some of the most vitriolic exchanges in a generation? How do we explain the restrictive and generally anti-immigrant laws introduced by the state of Arizona? The utopian view of social networks tends to gloss over these contradictions. Yes, it is true that Twitter was banned in Iran during the popular uprising last year to prevent protestors from communicating with each other. Yes, social media can be used for good and bad. There is nothing inherent in social networks, nothing latent within their structure that prevents them being used for enhanced exchange and debate. For debates to be public however, there has to be a sense that the debates are visible to a variety of different constituencies. The challenge is that the networks are not visible to each other — mapping them produces interesting lattice-related structures but these say very little about the contents of the interactions.

    The overall effect could be described as mythic since we cannot connect to ten thousand people or know what they are saying to each other. At a minimum, the public sphere takes on a visible face through traditional forms of broadcast that can be experienced simultaneously by many different people. Twitter on the other hand, allows us to see trends but that may often not be enough to make a judgment about currency and our capacity to intervene. Is the headline structure of Twitter enough? Should it be?

    The computer screen remains the main interface and mediator between the movement of ideas from discourse to action. And, as I have discussed in previous posts, networks are abstracted instances of complex, quantitatively driven relationships. We need more research and perhaps establishing a social network to do this would help, more research on whether social media are actually driving towards increasingly fragmented forms of interaction. A question. How many of your followers have you met? How many people leave comments on your blog and what is the relationship between hits and comments? Beyond the ten or so web sites that everyone visits, how many have settled into a regular routine not unlike bulletin boards of old?

    The recent election campaign won by President Obama in which social media played a formidable role suggests that my questions may have no pertinence to his success. Consumer campaigns and boycotts made all the more practical and possible by social networks suggests the opposite of what I am saying. The potential intimacy of dialogues among strangers working together to figure out problems and meet challenges may contradict my intuition that these are variations on existing networks albeit with some dramatic enhancements.

    A final thought. We often talk about the speed with which these phenomena develop without referencing their predecessors. For example, if the Web is just an extension of bulletin boards and hypercard systems then we need to understand how that continuity has been built and upon what premises. If Twitter is an extension of daily conversation and is helping to build the public sphere then we need more research on what is being said and actually examine whether Twitters translate into action.

    Part Five 


    Networks of Knowledge/Networks of Learning

    These are difficult and challenging days for education. We are in the midst of a sea change which will affect many of the assumptions which we have about how students learn and how teachers, teach.

    Read on in the following PDF.

    Networks of Knowledge: Networks of Learning.pdf