Saturday, September 13, 2008

On the Internet Everybody Knows You're a Dog

I've been playing with Twitter these past few weeks and experiencing (though I didn't know it at the time) 'ambient awareness'. That's how American social scientists describe the experience of using Facebook, Bebo, Twitter etc and the emergence of a sense of presence and 'intimacy' that previously only resided offline (aka 'the real world').

There is now a generation of Bebo users and of other social networks growing up with an entirely different grasp of what privacy means - let alone intimacy. A report by my company earlier this year showed that 87% of Irish 18-24 year olds use sites like Bebo on an almost daily basis. I remember the good old days when the joke went 'on the internet nobody knows you're a dog'. It's quite the reverse now - in an age of Google and 'bebo stalking' (as my daughter and her friends call it) everybody knows you're a 'dog' and there's no point in pretending otherwise. Or as I like to put it: on the internet everybody can hear you scream ...

Clearly there is a generation gap: I'm a digital immigrant, just like Rupert Murdoch. But as this fascinating article by Clive Thompson in the New York Times explains, the digital natives are on to something quite profound - a redefinition of our evolved, human sense of belonging:
You could also regard the growing popularity of online awareness as a reaction to social isolation, the modern American disconnectedness that Robert Putnam explored in his book “Bowling Alone.” The mobile workforce requires people to travel more frequently for work, leaving friends and family behind, and members of the growing army of the self-employed often spend their days in solitude. Ambient intimacy becomes a way to “feel less alone,” as more than one Facebook and Twitter user told me.
Thompson refers to the work of anthropologist Robin Dunbar who hypothesised back in the 1990s that humans had evolved to live in communities of about 150 people. He suggests that 'digital prosthetics', such as Twitter, may enable us to extend the Dunbar number to many hundreds more if not thousands (as in the case of some of the people he interviews for his article).

I do think something really profound is going on here in terms of our experience of being human. If class consciousness is going to be replaced by ambient awareness - and three degrees of separation from everybody else online - then what are the implications for politics, for nation states, and, indeed, for social class? I expect it will be a mix of good and bad consequences.

On the bad side, more and more studies in the United States of the first generation of digital natives points to some worrying conclusions - here's one college professor of English's description of his students:
  • Primarily focused on their own emotions — on the primacy of their "feelings" — rather than on analysis supported by evidence.

  • Uncertain what constitutes reliable evidence, thus tending to use the most easily found sources uncritically.

  • Convinced that no opinion is worth more than another: All views are equal.

  • Uncertain about academic honesty and what constitutes plagiarism. (I recently had a student defend herself by claiming that her paper was more than 50 percent original, so she should receive that much credit, at least.)

  • Unable to follow or make a sustained argument.

  • Uncertain about spelling and punctuation (and skeptical that such skills matter).

  • Hostile to anything that is not directly relevant to their career goals, which are vaguely understood.

  • Increasingly interested in the social and athletic above the academic, while "needing" to receive very high grades.

  • Not really embarrassed at their lack of knowledge and skills.

  • Certain that any academic failure is the fault of the professor rather than the student.

I've no idea if this is the case in Ireland: but I have a strong suspicion it is happening here too. Still, it is too early to tell: Clay Shirky is right to suggest it will take 50 years or more for us to really understand the full impact of the changes now underway. I'm looking forward to being along for at least some of the journey.

1 comment:

  1. In his book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky wrote: “when we change the way we communicate, we change society.”

    I’ve just written a profile about John Abele, retired founder of Boston Scientific and leader of the Grunion expedition - a global pursuit to find Abele’s father’s World War II submarine, lost at sea in the summer of 1942. Abele’s quest for the Grunion is about the power of social networking and, to use Shirky’s terminology, “organizing without organizations.” It’s about what happens when serendipity intersects with technology and human intent.

    I think you’ll enjoy the story - it’s both inspiring and demonstrative of the power of these new online communication tools.

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