Thursday, September 24, 2009

asking redundant questions, repetitively, about social media practices

I just sat in on a fantastic elluminate teleconference hosted by Classroom 2.0's Steve Hargadon and starring social media expert danah boyd.

In the conversation, boyd reiterated points that she has made hundreds of times in hundreds of venues: That the scare tactics adults use to try to protect kids (don't trust anyone you meet online because they may be sexual predators) are not only inaccurate and unhelpful, but they're actually limiting kids' opportunities to learn from and interact with adults in formative ways; that while there are certainly dangers to engaging in online communities, those dangers are blown way out of proportion (boyd gave the example of Lori Drew, the woman whom the media blamed--mistakenly, boyd argued--for teenager Megan Meier's suicide); and that kids who are growing up online aren't really any less civically engaged than were kids from previous generations.

It must be exHAUSTing for boyd to have to continuously repeat herself on these points. I saw the same thing happen to Henry Jenkins over the dozen or so times I heard him speak over the last few years; I recently saw Edward Castronova speak, and I imagine the questions he had to answer about the dangers of games and social media technologies were questions he's fielded hundreds or thousands of times before.

We just can't get past the kneejerk instinct to worry about how people are engaging with social media. In part, I imagine, this is a result of evolution: We're hardwired to protect our species, and when members of the species start acting in ways that oppose the practices and activities that got us this far, sirens and whistles go off in our brains. There's a reason that cultural lessons are so hard to unlearn, and on top of the evolutionary psychology perspective, there's also the fact that human practices are deeply inscribed into the social structures that are now playing host to the social revolution. Libraries were made to house bound, printed texts and card catalogues; we made room for computers and slowly the ethernet crowded out the texts and the referencing system formerly required to manage the texts. The operations have changed while the structure has remained the same.

This is true of schools; it's true of movie theaters; it's true of houses and bookshelves and electrical outlets and bicycle racks and automobiles and couches and schools and the church and the workplace and conversations and cubicles and ice cube trays.

Nobody believes we should give up asking the kinds of questions boyd, Jenkins, Castronova and others field every time they speak; indeed, those questions are so commonly asked because they feel culturally important to us. But imagine what could happen if conversations could start three steps ahead of where they typically begin today, if instead of having to explain, again and again, how media outlets misrepresent the dangers of MySpace, boyd could just start from the assumption that everybody agrees that MySpace users are at less risk of sexual predation than the media would have us believe? Just think how much farther the conversation could move.

I do wonder if these guys have seen a shift in the kinds of questions they routinely get asked by general audiences in the last decade or so. Perhaps I'll do some poking around and see if I can find out.

1 comment:

Edward Castronova said...

Generally speaking, the questions I get have not changed in the seven years I've been giving presentations. The answers I give are no more satisfactory either.

Have you ever heard Planck's dictum that science progresses funeral by funeral? No one changes their mind in response to a presentation. Rather, opinions become hardwired in the emotional centers of the brain when a person is young and they never change. The rational faculties are deployed merely to support conclusions already reached by the heart.

When someone asks me a critical question, I know they do not "get it" and nothing I say will make them "get it." The purpose of the performance is not to persuade that person to change her mind, but rather to offer support to the younger person in the audience, the one who already "gets it" based on her own experience. She awaits only my funeral and those of my older colleagues to rise to a position of influence. But that can be a tough road and my job, as I understand it, is to try to clear as much rubble as I can.

I will also say that while danah, Henry and I often encounter skeptics and fearmongers, I have never - ever - met one who has actually had significant experience within social media. It seems that almost anyone "gets it" once they allow themselves to become immersed. It appears to be a phenomenon driven by the interocular impact test - it has to hit you right between the eyes.


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