We started this week’s lecture with a look at an online video shared by Martin Aleksiev in his blog http://prespective.our.dmu.ac.uk/2014/10/21/24/. The short video is an appeal for us rethink the nature of sociality in our constantly connected, online, social-media world, and is a good introduction to some of the ideas that we are going to be considering in future weeks.
This lecture summarises the five digital literacies that are identified by Howard Rheingold in his book Net Smart (2012). And looks at how social media technology has raised questions about what it means to be literate in the networked age, and how we can be successful in new social contexts using these new communication technologies. These are important issues that run through the social media strand of the course because they settle on the question, what does it mean to live a good life in an online and social media world?
We can start by asking a simple question, what are the fundamental things you need to do to thrive online? For some it means that we need to join as many social networks as we possibly can. What we get out of the connections that these networks brings is a sense that we are keeping up to date with other people; and that we are able to play a part in society because we have the right mix of skills and capabilities; and that we are can demonstrate that we have mastered certain types of social fluencies (or literacies) which allow us to use all the available aspect of social media. Indeed, we might reflect on the potential anxiety that is caused when we are unable to plug-in to our networks and we aren’t able to access the sites and apps that we have very quickly come to rely on in our day-to-day routines?
The Mail Online ran an article recently in which they listed the one hundred apps that are essential to modern living. What’s interesting is not necessarily what is included in this list, but rather what is excluded. There is a plethora of consumer apps and lifestyle apps, such as maps, YouTube, BBC iPlayer, cooking, health and fitness, and so on. The Mail Online’s recommendations read like a pretty wide ranging and typical consumer lifestyle magazine. What’s missing, however, is any kind of reflection or ethical intervention in our lives. There are no faith-based apps, no apps that help us to deal with ethical dilemmas, or political issues. History is absent and philosophy, literature and learning are non-existent. What the Mail Online has done, then, is to reduce living to a functional exchange. A consumer exchange in which money management takes priority over questions of ethicacy and morality?
The Guardian, on the other hand, ran a different web project called the Seven Digital Sins, in which contributors where asked to identify the ways that we might consider issues such as bullying or envy online. Are we subject to the same ethical rules in a virtual environment as we are in the real world the project asked? The Guardian’s Seven Deadly Sins gives us a simple choice between admonishment or denial that our actions online have consequences, and is an interesting counterpoint to the consumer-driven functionalism of the Mail Online. http://digital-deadly-sins.theguardian.com/#/Grid
So, this lecture raises some questions about the role of social media in our lives, and offers some discussion points about how we might think, or re-think, the challenges inherent in social interaction. In doing so we’ll look at two principle writers who have outlined some of their ideas about thriving online. Tom Chatfield who’s book How to Thrive in the Digital Age (2012) is published as part of the ‘School of Life’ series; and Howard Rheingold, long-time contributor to debates and discussions about virtual communities and his book Net Smarts – How to Thrive Online (2012). If you want to hear directly from Tom and Howard, there are plenty of YouTube videos available of interviews and talks they have done.
Social life on line is often discussed as if it is a new form of collective life. Chatfield’s book is a contribution to a wider debate about the value of our digitally mediated experiences, and he suggests that “if we are interested in living with technology in the best possible way, we must recognise that what matters above all is not the individual devices we use, but what we use them for.” According to Chatfield “digital media are technologies of the mind and of experience.” So ‘”if we wish to thrive in their company, the first lesson is that we can only hope constructively to comprehend them if we speak not of technology in the abstract, but of the experiences it enables” (Chatfield, 2012, p. 3).
According to Chatfield, “if there is a common thread” in our thinking about the use of social media, “it is the question of how individual experience fits into the new kind of collective life of the twenty-first century: how what ‘I’ am relates to what others know of me, what I share with those others, and what can remain personal and private” (Chatfield, 2012).
Chatfield’s view is that “we are entering a place where human nature remains the same, but the structures shaping it are alien.” According to Chatfield “ today’s digital world is not simply an idea or a set of tools, any more than a digital device is simply something switched on for leisure or pleasure. Rather, for an ever-increasing number of people, it is a gateway to the place where leisure and labour alike are rooted; an arena within which we seamlessly juggle friendships, media, business, shopping, research, politics, play, finance, and much else besides”(Chatfield, 2012).
The challenge offered to individuals in these circumstances is often put forward, not as a collective or environmental challenge, but often as a purely personal one. What takes priority is the idea of self-control and personal integrity in the face of the overwhelming changes and reconfigurations that are taking place in our social worlds. Chatfield believes, therefore, that we must “look to the nature of our experiences rather than the tools creating them if we hope to understand the present. We must cherish the best of these experiences – but also carve out a space apart from technology in our lives, and take control of our attention, apportioning our time knowingly rather than allowing always-on devices to dictate the texture of every moment” (Chatfield, 2012, p. 133).
As Chatfield continues, “we must too, understand something of the histories of the digital tools and services that we use, and critique them as we do other creations, rather than inhabiting them like a landscape. We must learn not simply to share, but to share well – and to participate in the digital commons with the kind of integrity that breeds integrity in others” (Chatfield, 2012, p. 133). According to Chatfield, therefore, “we need to make more time to be ‘unplugged’ from the network, to be on our own and with others away from the ‘default state’ of digital media” (p.30), since… “In an age of constant live connections, the central question of self-examination is drifting from ‘Who are you?’ towards ‘What are you doing?’ Much as we may hunger for connection, if we are to thrive, we need to keep some sense of ourselves separate from this constant capacity to broadcast. We need tenses other than the present – other qualities of time – in our lives’ (Chatfield, 2012, p. 32).
So, some immediate questions can be summarised. We can thrive online, but have to work out how? How do we face the challenges about managing who we are online? What do we understand about the tools we use and how they are different and do different things? What happens if we spend time unplugged from the network? Is it a good thing to be outside of the network of digital connections? How can we maintain a sense of self-examination in this environment and what does self-reflection bring? To what extent, therefore, is a life lived through social media a good thing?
Howard Rheingold is a long-time participant in the debates and discussion about virtual communities since their development in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Rheingold outlines five fundamental digital literacies and online skills that he believes, given his extensive experience, will help us use social media intelligently, humanely, and, above all, mindfully. According to Rheingold it’s a question of ‘know-how’ as much as anything else. Rheingold puts forward five fundamental skills that we would be well to attend to: Attention; Critical consumption (‘crap detection’); Participation; Collaboration; Network smarts.
Perhaps the most difficult part of living in any community is the extent to which we are able to make sense of those communities over time. For some our community life is consistent and predictable, but for others our experience of community life is unpredictable and precarious. One of the issues that is discussed within community studies, therefore, is the extent to which we are able to cope with change. The extent to which we can call on common stocks of social capital to bolster our resilience when it comes to coping with disruption? The online social media world is a place of persistent and constant disruption, so to what extent are we investing in building our resilience and skills to cope with the high levels of disruption that are evident?
Howard Rheingold points out that ‘humans pay a lot of attention to other humans – hence the success and seductive distractions of social media such as Facebook and Twitter’ (Rheingold, 2012, p.40). The question that Rheingold wants to develop an answer to is related to our experience in these online interactions. How do we cope with the disruption of always-on and everywhere media? As Rheingold suggests, ‘when it comes to interacting with the world of always-on info, the fundamental skill, on which other essential skills depend, is the ability to deal with distraction without filtering out opportunity’ (Rheingold, 2012, p. 41).
According to Rheingold, and supported by Jones & Hafner (2012), attention management is emerging as one of the great driving forces or regulating principles in our thinking about online social life. You need to CONTROL ATTENTION by INTENTION is the suggestion. Having a goal, i.e. something you intend to achieve, can only be reached with an intense focus and by eliminating unwanted distractions. Take for example the recent Guardian article about finding the time to read books. According to the article “a survey last year found that almost 4 million British adults never read books for pleasure,… a lack of time was the dominant factor” http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/29/love-reading-dont-have-time-stop-excuses.
This level of disruption to our attentiveness is wide-ranging and pervasive, and has been a feature of social life for a long time. Few people have the time and available resources to devote to literary attentiveness. People work, have families and social networks. People find pleasure in other pastimes, doing things, going to places. Sitting around and studiously reading is not an easy thing to do, especially when our working environments have been taken over by noise and disruptive technologies that continually create more noise and distraction. Compare different libraries for example. Some you can hear a pin drop, while in others there is a constant hubbub and chatter.
Howard Rheingold therefore suggests that we should aim to create ‘mindfulness’ (‘mindful awareness’), as this can potentially be ‘the most important practice for anyone who is trying to swim through the infostream instead of being swept away by it’ (Rheingold, 2012, p. 64) . This is a form of ‘metacognition’ (i.e. ‘thinking about thinking’) in which we apply what you know to control attention. Rheingold goes on to offer some tips for mindfulness meditation and strategic goal-achieving tips.
BREATHING ‘could be a tool to help moderate our unthinking, ultimately unhealthy reactions to many online stimuli’ (Rheingold, 2012, p. 45).
MEDITATION: ‘pay attention to your breathing and return your attention to it when you find your mind wandering’ (p.60) and repeat if necessary.
• Don’t just control your attention, manage it.
• Manage your attention with ‘goal-setting rituals’.
• Daily short lists of intentions and related ‘to dos’ for that day.
• Write a goal, set your intention.
• Set the goal, create a ritual of goal-setting.
• Re-groove your attentional habits – short bursts of attention (25 minutes) with 5 minute breaks.
Overall then, thriving online should focus on ‘know-how’ based on an enhanced smartness about our participation in digital media so that we can cope more effectively with the disruptions that we encounter. Therefore it is up to us to manage our attention, and that we shouldn’t contract it out, instead we can the necessary learn attention management techniques that will help us to manage our resilience to these disruptions.
Next on the list of Net Smarts is critical consumption, or the ability to determine the difference between those things that are authentic and inauthentic. According to Rheingold, ‘if the rule of thumb for attention literacy is to pay attention to your intention, then the heuristic for crap detection is to make scepticism your default. Don’t refuse to believe; refuse to start out believing’ (Rheingold, 2012, p. 77). As Rheingold goes on, ‘the first thing we all need to know about information online is how to detect crap, by which I mean information tainted by ignorance, inept communication, or deliberate deception’ (Rheingold, 2012, p. 16).
For example, the Independent reported this week on an Internet hoax suggesting that Nasa had confirmed that “the Earth is headed for ‘Six Days of Total Darkness’” http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/nasa-confirms-six-days-of-darkness-in-december-no-they-really-dont–its-a-hoax-9822744.html
Now, while this kind of hoax might seem innocuous and enjoyable in its absurdity, other forms of misrepresentation online have wider and more immediate consequences. In 2013, for example, the well publicised libelling of Lord McAlpine created a huge media storm when Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the Commons, and George Monbiot, a columnist for the Guardian, were among other people who claimed that McAlpine was the subject of a BBC Newsnight story about child abuse. The unfounded story, and the subsequent Tweeting of messages by Bercow and Monbiot, had associated Lord McAlpines with a set of false claims. Lord McAlpine’s solicitor, Andrew Reid, said the “nasty” tweets would “cost people a lot of money”, warning the guilty parties: “We know who you are.” Adding, “Twitter is not just a closed coffee shop among friends. It goes out to hundreds of thousands of people and you must take responsibility for it.” “It is not a place where you can gossip and say things with impunity, and we are about to demonstrate that” (Swinford and Rayner, 2012).
We can see a wider emerging trend online about fake and real, or authentic and inauthentic media when we look at ‘Astroturfing’ and ‘Spoofvertising.’ Astroturfing is fake grassroots media that deploys covert strategies to make ‘viral’ commercial or campaign videos that appear to be authentic user-generated content. On the Internet user generated content is given a high degree of trust and credibility as it is considered to be more authentic and therefore more genuine. An example is Ford’s 2007 ‘balloon’ ad campaign, in which various cars are cleared from the streets by attaching balloons to them. Quite literally they just float away and out of mind. Seeing this ad in New Zealand a group of people get together to test if it is possible to do this in real life, and decide to attach helium filled balloons to a car. The accompanying hand-held video has all of the traits of user-generated video. It’s casual and spontaneous; it has shaky camera movements and sudden edits, and it ‘s shot from a single persons perspective.
A number of websites then picked-up on the video and asked if this was real or not? Though I’m not sure that really matters, what is more important is that the YouTube video has been seen by 1,756,471 people. Probably far more than have seen or acknowledged the original advert in the first place.
The art of hoaxing, faking and spoofing demonstrates, therefore, a playfulness in the use and deployment of digital media culture that blurs the forms and experiences of traditional media, and creates instead a form of advertainment. The fact that supposed DIY videos subvert the form of professional adverts is further challenged because this form of subversion itself has become a deliberate attempt to deceive or playful ‘teasing’ of the audience? When we look at the overall content of YouTube we can see that it is a mixture of the corporate and the user-generated, creating an ideal social media space to plant videos that imitate the DIY aesthetic (low resolution, hand-held, webcam, camcorder-produced home videos). As O’Neil points out is this a case of a “great gimmick” or are these astroturf videos a “counterproductive, unethical ‘dirty schemes’” (O’Neill 2010).
A couple of other examples:
What this leads to, then, is a re-evaluation of the way that media is circulated in a network. Rather than thinking of social media audiences as passive dupes of the centralised and corporate media cultures of the broadcast age, consumers in the social media age play a more active role in “spreading” (Jenkins, Ford, & Green, 2013) content rather than being the passive carriers of viral media. What is circulated online amounts to the aggregation of choices that are made by different members of the audience in which we can potentially trace their investments, the actions that determine what gets valued in the new mediascape. This is a different model that we will come back to and explore in more detail. It argues that Content is spread based not on an individual evaluation of worth, but on a perceived social value within community or group, and that we have to look at the social factors that motivate the sharing of information and content with others. The shared values and experiences, the way that users and audiences make sense of things and understand things, how they to establish boundaries, cope with the disruptions and to express their feelings as part of the routines of interaction.
To thrive online, then, according to Rheingold and Chatfield, we need to be aware of our own sense of awareness as we encounter different forms of media and different situation in which we use media. We should be attuned to detecting the ‘crap’ in different instances of media – to the point that they might cost us a lot of money. We should be aware that commercials and marketing strategies are designed to pull us in to the circle of commercial mediation by faking it, but that it is ultimately now up to audiences to decide what they want to spread what they find meaningful.
According to Howard Rheingold, networks have structures that influence the way individuals and groups behave. To thrive within these networks we have to gain a sense of the routines and the boundaries of the interactions within these networks. Understanding what networks are and how they work is essential in being able to be a successful participant in online social networks. As Jones and Hafner suggest, ‘because social media platforms allow individuals to easily create and share content through the internet, they provide us with opportunities to get and give attention’ (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 92). A primary factor in the social media landscape then, is what is called the ‘attention economy’. The extent to which we are able to offer our attentiveness for short or significant periods of our days, and what this experience feels like. Howard Rheingold contrasts the way that emails work and the way that Twitter functions to keep hold of our attention. According to Rheingold, ‘Twitter is a flow, not a queue like your email in-box, to be sampled judiciously’ (Rheingold, 2012, p. 145). But that ‘to oversimplify, the successful use of Twitter depends on knowing how to tune the network of people you follow, and how to feed the network of people who follow you’ (Rheingold, 2012, p. 144).
Howard Rheingold is an interesting example of a social media user, in the way that he regulates his interactions. For example, he tends to only follow people he knows offline. He interacts with people who he finds interesting in terms of where they live and what they do. Rheingold values people who are knowledgeable about something that interests him, and who provide useful links to issues that he cares about. He follows a few that he considers to be wise or funny, and who put out the right mixture of personal tweets, informational tidbits (such as useful links), self-promotion (about his work as an educator). Rheingold is happy to socializes and answers questions, and is willing to respond to people who send @hrheingold messages as much as he can. And, every once in a while Howard tries to be entertaining.
According to Rheingold, ‘if it isn’t fun, it won’t be useful. If you don’t put out, you don’t get back. But again, you have to spend some time tuning and feeding if Twitter is going to be more than an idle amusement to you and your followers (and idle amusement is a perfectly legit use)’ (Rheingold, 2012, p. 144)
To conclude, there are several points that we can hold on to as we think about our own social media interactions. Firstly, the network is a place – we have to learn what the rules are. Secondly, each form of social media has its own rules and ways of doing things so we have to learn to be ‘in-tune’ with the other people in a network and look for good examples of social media users and model what they do. And remember, if it’s not fun, why are we doing it?
Finally, Dan Gillmor’s offers a similar set of five ‘Principles of Media Consumption’
• Be Sceptical – start out not believing.
• Exercise Judgment – don’t be cynical, exercise caution.
• Open Your Mind – find things that disagree with your own beliefs.
• Keep Asking Questions – investigative mind-set.
• Learn Media Techniques – learn by doing, participate in social media production to.
A useful way of looking at this process is if we familiarize with the attitudes of cultural producers, and ask how do we know if we are being fooled or not? What are the skills that we need to learn to help us to focus online? If someone wants our attention how do we ration it and change them for it? How do we spread the stuff that we find meaningful and disregard the rest?
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Swinford, S. and Rayner, G. (2012) Peer to sue tweeters who linked him to sex abuse as BBC pays £185,000 damages [WWW]. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/bbc/9681881/Lord-McAlpine-to-sue-tweeters-who-linked-him-to-sex-abuse-as-BBC-pays-185000-damages.html [Accessed 26/11/12].
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Jones, R. H., & Hafner, C. A. (2012). Understanding Digital Literacies. London: Routledge.
Rheingold, H. (2012). Net Smart – How to Thrive Online. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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