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    Entries in Social Media (4)


    Virtual/Real/Virtual (1)

    (This is a written version of a speech given in Toronto in October at DIGIFEST)


    The age of virtualization is changing. When the digital adventure began in the early 1980’s, the future of computers and hence the digital age was unclear, even fuzzy. Today, after 30 years of experimentation it is pretty clear that there have been some tremendous successes and also some clear failures.

    I want to approach the issue of virtualization with great care. And, my approach will be framed by a deep concern for what is happening to our learning environments.

    So, let me start by talking about space, that is, architectural and public space. The recent and continuing protests that began in New York and have spread worldwide are important indicators of what is happening to the generation that has been most influenced by the technologies we now take for granted.

    Keep in mind, that technologies that virtualize break down as many barriers as they build up. So, when protestors get together in a park and create a variety of methodologies to develop consensus, to manage their affairs, to provide services, they are engaging in the type of face to face contact that completely transforms not only their perceptions of each other, but also their perceptions of the world. Virtual encounters inside and through screen based technologies permit exchanges of a similar sort, but these are qualitatively different from what is happening in Zucotti Park or Vancouver or Toronto.

    The need to explore embodied relationships suggests that the increasingly complex mix of the virtual and the real will be measured against our experiences of each other in the real world and not vice versa.

    The protestors in New York and elsewhere are using what to them is a novel approach to the discussions that they are having with each other. In a version of broken telephone, they are communicating their ideas to each other through individual repetition. People are transmitting the core ideas behind the protests using an oral tradition of storytelling. This is being done to strengthen their resolve and to personalize the relationships that they have with each other, but also to transform each conversation into a memorable one. In a period of history when conversations are fleeting and efforts to hold onto our memories are dictated by reminders, phones and computers, orality is both central and ephemeral to these protests. 

    So it is ironic that in the Facebook age when short form communications dominate, that the protestors have turned to oral traditions that are thousands of years old, a mixture of the Greek polis and the Roman square.

    Virtual communications have always seemed an efficient way of promoting interactions across numerous boundaries and this has challenged conventional forms of communications. The irony is that the virtual cannot exist without the real. The mistake we have been making has been to celebrate the virtual as an end in itself. For example, we talk about video games without talking enough about video gamers. We discuss Facebook through the interface and restrictions it provides and not about the potential shifts in human relations generated by  virtual interactions.

    And, this mistake will not be very easy to overturn. Virtual spaces are just too attractive and the ease of use, the genuine feel and form of interactions, the potential to be a broadcaster with an audience, however small is a very powerful attraction. 

    Part Two can be found here.


    The Anti-Gladwell: Small Change Indeed

    I have always wondered why Malcolm Gladwell was such a successful writer. He has a knack for taking simple, obvious phenomena and turning them into stories. “Outliers” is an interesting book about the many elements that have to come together for someone to be successful or for someone to fail. It is well written, but left me as all of Gladwell’s books do, with the sense that he skims the surface of events and has the rather uncomplicated aim of informing not probing. He is the quintessential postmodern writer. Factoids are personalized into stories, claims are made and dropped, personal narratives are unveiled and in all of this, significance is drawn from the trivial in the blink of an eye. He is very good at pastiche and as a bricoleur he knows how to bring different experiences and events together that often don’t seem like they should be linked. His books are soothing, neither brilliant nor banal. 

    Use a QR scanner app on your iPhone or Blackberry to retrieve more information about Gladwell.

    It should therefore not be surprising that he would write an article in the New Yorker about a genuinely new cultural phenomenon like social media. After all, social media pose a challenge to writers like Gladwell. Social media as a term probably describes too much because all forms of communications are social. Twitter and Facebook are hardly the essence of social media and that is all that Gladwell focuses on. But, I am getting ahead of myself.

    Gladwell is a good polemicist. So, in the New Yorker article he sets up a simple opposition, the civil rights movement of the 1960’s as an agent of massive change and Twitter and Facebook as weak networks, amorphous by design and therefore unlikely to be agents of genuine social transformation — not that either Twitter or Facebook were ever built to be change agents, but a polemicist does not care too much about these distinctions.

    The civil rights movement was the product of many events and many people working and dying for change. The history of that movement is very complicated so for a moment, let me concentrate on Galdwell’s use of the Greensboro sit-in in 1960 which is often described as one of the key events in the growth and development of the civil rights movement. No less an authority than Taylor Branch whose history of that period (Parting the Waters and At Canaan’s Edge) runs to two volumes and over two thousand pages comments on the rather weak way in which the protest began. “No one has time to wonder why the Greensboro sit-in was so different. In the previous three years, similar demonstrations had occurred in at least sixteen other cities. Few had made the news, all faded quickly from public notice…” (Page 272 of Parting the Waters)

    Branch goes on to talk about the fact that the small group of protestors had no tactical plan or goals and they were not prepared. The spontaneity of their protest and the fact that they decided to sit in the wrong place (reserved for whites) in a café in Woolworth’s was the result of deeply felt emotions about the racist way in which black people were being treated and about the built-in racism of the US.

    Their protest was open-ended and the networks of activists working in the South became aware of what they were doing through the radio and telephone and as Branch describes it, ‘parallel lines of communication’. In other words, the message traveled without needing to be framed and shaped into a particular form. There was no centralized control or authority. People found out by whatever means they could.

    Gladwell doesn’t mention this because it would show how similar the networks of the sixties were to social media today. I assume that had he done the research, Gladwell would have discovered that newspapers both traditional and informal were also key arbiters in the development of the movement and that the growth of television as a mass medium closely parallels the increasing breadth and depth of people’s commitment to getting involved. Notice that I refer to this period, as does Gladwell as a movement. Unpack that word for a moment and you will discover that “movement” is at the core of what Martin Luther King pursued. He wanted people to spontaneously rise up against injustice. He knew that if he over-organized both the protest events and the speeches, people would not move as quickly or spontaneously to join together. Movements are fluid. They are not political parties.

    Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Social media are very fluid because that is how large communities of shared interest form and grow. For Gladwell, organized groups drive change with carefully built hierarchies. That is precisely what we have with traditional political parties but Gladwell doesn’t seem to care about the obviousness of the connection between the political stasis we are in at the moment and the hierarchies he celebrates in his essay. Worse, in a period when a new generation is discovering how powerful they can be if they cluster together on certain issues (he makes no reference to the environmental movement), he says, “we seem to have forgotten what activism is.”

    Clearly, Gladwell doesn’t understand nor has he examined the heterogeneous nature of social media, their diversity and also the multitude of different ways in which social media are being used not only to promote change, but also to act on and respond to social issues. One can only imagine how wonderful it would have been for social activists working with King and others, if they had been able to utilize media they controlled as opposed to having to fight for a place on traditional news broadcasts.

    Gladwell doesn’t discuss the grassroots nature of social media instead he conflates Facebook and Twitter with something far larger than what these two companies represent. Polemicists like Gladwell are fond of using simple binaries to explain complex phenomena. He says the strong ties of the people in the Civil Rights Movement held them together. He compares this to the weak ties of social media. But, the binary is wrong to begin with. Social media are neither strong nor weak. The ties that bring people together are thankfully more often than not, unpredictable. Sure, there is superficiality in all of this and of course Twitter restricts what can be said to a few sentences. But, this is no different from the restrictions of any mass medium with the crucial difference being that Twitter is produced by its users and not Rupert Murdoch.

    Taylor Branch tells the interesting story of the historic day (July 10, 1962) when television images ‘leaped’ across the Atlantic ocean for the first time using the Telstar satellite. As it happens, Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy were in jail in Albany, Georgia and one has to wonder what would have happened if a million people had twittered about the imprisonment.

    Social media are not a panacea. In fact, social media are hard to define because an increasingly complex communications environment frames so much of what we now do. However, networks are not going to go away (Gladwell completely misunderstands the history of networks, but that will have to be the topic of another essay), rather we need to understand how they work by actively participating in their construction and use. The challenge is to work with social media networks to deepen the manner in which users connect to each other. We are at the very early stages of the formation of new types of communities driven by common interests, conflicts and often utopian desires. Polemicists like Gladwell have nothing to add to this debate.  




    False Creek

    Notwithstanding the many challenges of designing urban environments, there is no doubt that False Creek is a magnificent achievement for the city of Vancouver. Walking along the water is an experience in itself. But what is truly amazing is how False Creek has become an area for the people. At first glance, this inland fjord seems to be surrounded by high rises and parks. Look a bit closer and you will see endless walking paths, many places in which to sit and most importantly, public art which scales the environment to the level needed to make it comfortable. Aside from the coffee houses and restaurants, there are also informal eating areas. 

    If the 21st Century city is about the hustle and bustle of ideas, conversations and networks, about the integration of social networks into everyday life, then Vancouver's False Creek is about the physical manifestation of what social media offer through our computer screens. It further fudges the boundaries between online and offline life.

    This was posted from my iPhone!!


    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.