October 14, 2008

danah boyd on handheld social networking


"New technology is the devil incarnate. We should go back to the good old days"
"New technology is the panacea we've been looking for."

The reality is much more nuanced than that. It's not about the good or the bad (it's not about pedagogy vs technology, the unfortunately entitled panel session I'll be on later).

danah boyd is talking about teaching young people to think, by taking a look through the viewfinder of social networks and the mobile devices we are already and will increasingly use to access, connect and share on.

It's about teaching young people to think. The reason we taught literature, film, mathematics in the past was to provide a reason for people to think. The introduction of technology alone will not necessarily help young people think. Worse still, technology is seen as a means of unleashing new cash, in a cynical way ("we have all Macs")

We don't just teach algebra to teach algebra. We teach it to help understand the world around us. When we think about teaching (with) technology we have to think about how it fits into this world around us.

That's hard.

Technology is fundamentally taking apart the world around us. Technology opens up the potential to access much stuff around the world, with the teacher and their rear view mirror allowing the context and meaning of that to be brought to light.

The contexts of social networks
Social networking sites have three core structures that make them work:
1. Profile
When we enter a room we tend to take some thought about decorating ourselves: what we wear, do we put on that tie...? Online we are an IP address, a rather undecoratable unappealing code. Therefore, where we create a SNS profile we're taking some care to create a presentation of ourselves within a space. Bedroom culture is the same, but on social networks it's amplified.

2. Friending
There are three clusters of behaviour: 30-40 friends, worried about their nearest and dearest. 300 friends are all the people they met at school, at church at the youth group. Very few teenagers collect Friends (politicians, music), reaching into the hundreds of thousands of friends. Mostly they're boys, collecting "hot girls". They're creating that list that, apparently, lots of boys used to make on paper.

But whether someone is your friend or just your Friend becomes socially awkward. In girl culture girls grew out of the habit of exchanging friendship bracelets to work the equivalent online.

3. The Wall
Comments, testimonials, the wall... in the early days of SNSes, people spoke in the third person about their friends (and still do on LinkedIn, inhabited by older professionals). Later, it began to be used as a space for conversation that complimented other places where conversation was going on (IM, chat).

Looking at it as a stream of text one could be mistaken as meaningless "how are you", "fine", "you?", "OK"...
What's going on is "public social grooming": it's a way to upkeep your social status as friend which, after all, is only a check box at the beginning of the online Friendship.

Why are young people spending so much time on MySpace?
We used to have permission from our parents to roam really far. Nowadays, the circle of navigation has been greatly reduced to the garden, out of public view. We've also tended to programme the lives of our young people more than we ever did, meaning we leave less time than ever for them to socialise.

Other characteristics of online interaction

  • Persistence
  • Replicability
  • Unexpected scalability and visibility
  • Invisible audiences
  • Searchability. collapsed contexts (type of audience, rules of engagement, social scripts)
  • Convergence of public and private

danah reckons than social network structures will go mobile soon, within two years. I would bank on them coming a lot sooner than that, given that many of those with the better phones can already and do already interact on their various SNSes through mobile. In the UK, 3G is cheaper and more ubiquitous than most places on the planet, so we can expect it sooner here.

Location-awareness is increasing, making the network part of social networking even stronger.

Knowledge is online, and when we don't know it first time around we access just in time when we're mobile.

Notes of her talk, as usual, riddled with errors and unreliability.


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The reason we taught literature, film, mathematics in the past was to provide a reason for people to think.
D'you think? Not to enlarge their experience, not to share beauty (well, maybe not the maths...), not to give them joy?

Have to agree with Chris on this one Ewan. I became a teacher because I believed there was a lot I’d learned about the rich and varied culture I’d been lucky enough to inherit, that was worth passing on to a younger generation. One of the least understood, and most successful of all pedagogical strategies is the successful transference of knowledge, not information but knowledge, by individuals who have distinguished themselves as highly successful learners. We conventionally call them teachers.

This actually ties in rather neatly with the fascinating discussion about literacy which I kick-started on John’s blog recently. In the curriculum for excellence review of language and literacy compiled by Vivienne Smith and Sue Ellis from the University of Strathclyde, you’ll find this statement in section 4 on new literacies, “we are challenged to consider whose literacy practices we are promoting in school, and why some types of text have more status than others,” Some of us aren’t challenged by this at all because we know we are promoting a priceless cultural inheritance, built up over centuries through the painstaking efforts of writers, artists, musicians and their critics. And we know, literally not metaphorically (see my point about knowledge above) because we have learned to make the very sophisticated judgments necessary, which texts have more status than others. Put in practical terms that means I not only know why I would choose to teach Shakespeare in preference to Webster; Milton in preference to Blake; Anthony Powell above Evelyn Waugh or Margaret Attwood instead of Jeanette Winterson, I could if necessary, argue very articulately the critical reasoning behind those choices. And in my experience, that learned ability commands respect, even in the most barbaric classroom.

On the different issue of the Demos video and teenage online behaviour. I enjoyed the paper by Danah Boyd although couldn’t find much that was new in it, and agree completely with her concluding remarks: “As a society, we need to figure out how to educate teens to navigate social structures that are quite unfamiliar to us because they will be faced with these publics as adults, even if we try to limit their access now…Perhaps instead of trying to stop them or regulate usage, we should learn from what teens are experiencing? They are learning to navigate networked publics; it is in our better interest to figure out how to help them.” I don’t believe Demos was helping them one bit by suggesting “I am whatever I say I am” is a safe, honest or reasonable way to go about creating the online persona, that will probably stay with them for life.

The views in this post are danah's and not mine, reported best I could. I think I agree with you both that there's more to learning that she stated, and joy is a big part of that with the role of teacher as informed guide.

"I not only know why I would choose to teach Shakespeare in preference to Webster; Milton in preference to Blake; Anthony Powell above Evelyn Waugh or Margaret Attwood instead of Jeanette Winterson, I could if necessary, argue very articulately the critical reasoning behind those choices."

Is it better to teach Shakespeare in preference to Webster or instead to teach both in order to convince why Shakespeare is a better writer than Webster?

Which, of course, is precisely what Joe is arguing.......I hit POST just a little too quickly there.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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