Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Social Net Works

Crossposted from my Tech in Jewish Ed Blog, Yoeitzdrian

The media have given a lot of attention to this past week’s (Dec. 29) report from Hitwise that social network Facebook has surpassed Google as the most visited website (in the U.S.) There are many levels of spin and criticism being built around Hitwises’ measuring yardsticks, which don’t really create a totally fair comparison.  Questioning of Hitwises’ apparent bias favoring Facebook was questioned as early as this blog posting from last March. However, let’s put all that aside.

Even if Hitwises’ pronouncements are a bit premature, or utilize considerable spin, or are even biased for some reason, in Facebook’s favor, there is clearly a trend. Facebook is becoming a rather dominant force on the internet. It may never challenge Google’s full breadth of internet presence, nevertheless it is likely to remain an important and influential piece of contemporary society.

Though many will probably view this through dark lenses as a portent and proof of  society’s inevitable fall into the abyss of becoming like the Matrix, or Tron, and others of the that genre, I see this through rose-colored glasses (which, I’ll admit, has its drawbacks as well.) For many years I have been a strong proponent of technology and the internet. I have been an early adopter, and consider myself a digital naturalized citizen, not a mere digital immigrant. In all this time, though I have my own worries and concerns about “big brother” and the many dangers inherent in the technology, I have believed with all my heart that the aether (and by extension, the internet) carries on it more than mere bits and bytes. Well-done radio dramas made people laugh, cry, be scared, etc. Modern TV and cinema depend upon the ability of the audience to indentify with the characters. A well-crafted e-mail can convey very subtle levels of emotion and understanding-especially if there is already a shared language of this between the correspondents.

While most people I know have viewed the internet, and things like e-mail as impersonal and anti-social, I have never truly believed that electronic communication (and therefore electronic socialization) are inherently so. Yes, as a long time user of email, I’ve been caught many times in the trap of electronic communication’s general lack of body language and other subtle clues that help us understand one another. I have to say, though, that this has definitely been occurring with less and less frequency as the years pass. Chalk some of that up to my own self-awareness, but also credit the slow evolution of how we communicate electronically that is enabling us to find other ways to include the pieces of unspoken subtext, body language, etc. Digital natives seem to have far less trouble making the subtext obvious, and while it may take some effort and learning, digital immigrants can do it too. I know that with people I correspond with on a regular basis electronically-even ones I have never met in person-there is a shared understanding that allows us to have subtext and more in our messages back and forth.

I still believe that electronic socialization can never fully replace in-person socialization and communication. There will always be a need for people to socialize and communicate. (I’m aware that I may eventually have to eat my own words, because there are pundits and futurists who do posit that technologies may advance to the point that “telepresence” may prove just as efficacious as in-person, and become an accepted norm. I sort of hope this doesn’t happen. I’m not keen on something like the “orgasmatron” from Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” although even in that case, there was in-person participation-so perhaps that’s not a great example. In any case, I hope that humans will always have a desire to do things together-in person, and in real-time. I’m not ready to go fully virtual, although future generations may be.)

Cautions aside, I see the prominence and success of Facebook as support for my understanding of how technology is changing the definition of “social.” I think the fact that more people seem to be seeking “the social network” now rather than searching or data mining suggests that the technology is not a roadblock or an impediment to human relations, and, in point of fact, may be enhancing it. If the worst-case scenarios were coming true, then people would be turning more and more to solitary rather than communal and social activities on the internet.  Multi-player games are rapidly overtaking single-player games. SecondLife has demonstrated that entire communities can exist virtually, along with their own social dynamics, commerce, etc.

Facebook (and other services like Linked-In, Twitter, etc.) have made me a better person.  Reconnecting with people I haven’t connected with in ages in refreshing and enlightening. (It also allows me to relieve a certain amount of guilt at not being as good a correspondent as I could have been.) I have discovered all sorts of interesting things about people from other times and places in my life, as well as many interesting things about the people in my life, personal and professional, currently. Maybe some of it is just the joy of nostalgia, and some of it the pure joy of vicarious living, or innocuous voyeurism. At the same time, it exposes me to new things, new ideas. It can serve as a reinforcement for my worldview, or a challenge to it-even from those I believed shared my worldview completely. So, at least for me, it’s not just pabulum.

It is possible to get too wrapped up in Facebook, too involved in the minutiae and quotidian things of the lives of others. Each user of Facebook needs to seek and find their own balance, their own equilibrium. There’s no single hard and fast formula for how much is enough and how much is too much. In this way, Facebook is modeling good education for the 21st century, in which the learner gets to set a lot of the agenda. Yes, Facebook has its flaws, and one has to spend a lot of time to really learn how to tweak things. (And Facebook’s constant changing of the rules and interface doesn’t help in that regard. Somehow, though, we all seem to manage to adapt in time.) Also, to some degree, we can potentially be the slaves to the technology of Facebook rather than the master of the tool that is Facebook. That is a danger inherent in all technology. Remember “R.U.R” and similar cautionary tales. I struggle each and every day with finding software and technology that gives me as much control as possible, so that I am not adapting my work methodologies to the technology, rather the technology is working for me as a tool to enhance my abilities. If there is one thing that we are all having to learn to give up in this new age, it is the simple dependence on technology as underlying magic. We can longer be a world in which we don’t understand any more than that flipping the light switch turns the light on. We must be a world in which RTFM (read the effing manual) becomes an archaic term because we all recognize the value of doing so.

Yes, Microsoft, Apple, and others have sought for the longest time to do just the opposite-create operating systems that enable us to simply be end-users with little understanding of the underlying technology. Sometimes they’ve gone too far, preventing users from doing any serious tweaking. Yet, all along, MS, Apple, and others have, for the most part, created operating system interfaces that make it easy for end-users, yet still allow power users to open the hood and fiddle around.  It’s still not their strong suit, which is why, for example, Vladimir Putin has ordered the Russian government to shift completely to open-source operating systems and software (think Linux) over the next few years. Let’s hope we never get to the point where the user is totally locked out from the underlying code and technology.

I’m lucky. Having been in on the personal computing revolution from the very beginning, I’ve never been afraid to look under the hood and make adjustments. I won’t pretend to any deep understanding of how the operating systems and microprocessors work, but I do know enough to twiddle and tweak, and I think that all of us need this level of skill. It’s something I think our schools should be teaching our students-not to just be end-users, but masters of the technologies. Fortunately, many students I know are unafraid to dig into the technologies they use. However, not every student has an equal opportunity to gain that knowledge, at least, not yet.

Digital natives have certainly mastered some skills that give them power over the technologies. While it’s a somewhat trite example, just watch any teen texting. Watch the ease with which they snap a photo on their phone and instantly share it, post it, blog it, etc. Watch how creating a Powerpoint for school is second nature. Notice how many teens know and use standard keyboard shortcuts on popular programs that most digital immigrants never quite get-figuring that the switch to a Graphic User Interface (GUI) sort of requires them to use the mouse instead of their fingers. Watch a teen deftly set their Facebook security settings.

Facebook is being used somewhat different by older adults, younger adults, and teens. The common thread between them is that the use is, primarily, social in nature-it’s just that they have different needs for and ideas of what socialization is. And that’s the point. The technology is being used for a purpose that fulfills personal and social needs. That need is universal and strong, and Facebook’s rapid growth simply reinforces the point.

So the success and popularity of Facebook serves to restore and maintain my faith in humankind in the face of rapidly advancing technologies. The desire for connection to others remains strong, strong even, it seems, than the thirst for knowledge and information. (Just to be the gadfly, there may be a down side to that as well.  We already have a woefully under-educated, or rather not-well-informed society, and if we do not take advantage of the gift of the information age-even with its inherent dangers of unfiltered information-we risk own very existence. If we wind up frittering most of our time away on Facebook, and less on Google and Wikipedia and all that, we will pay the price in the end, and it won’t be a pretty one. Facebook could just become one permanently addicting “orb,” another “Sleeper” reference. We’ll spend all our time obliviously socializing while the universe goes on wreaking havoc all around us.

However, one of the strengths of Facebook is its interconnectedness. Through its ability to allow people to connect and log-in to other sites and services, and its ability to allow those services (like Twitter, YouTube, etc.) to share information through people’s Facebook accounts, the service has a good start at overcoming my previously-stated concern about it stealing our time and attention away from all the rest of the things in life.

Who knows but in a a decade (or even less) Facebook may become a thing of the past. It may be replaced or supplanted by something better (or possibly surreptitious.) However, the internet and social media are not going away.  I hope and pray that Facebook’s continuing success and growth portend a good future for us, as our society adapts to new paradigms, new concepts of being social, while never losing the desire to be the social animals we are.

I’ve already spoken about one way in which I think education fits into this picture-the need to teach students to be masters of and not slaves to the technology. Jewish education also needs to reinforce this. There are other roles Jewish education can and should play in this evolution and revolution. It can and should serve a cautionary  role, but that should not be its exclusive and sole role. As socialization changes, Judaism must adapt to those changes, or be left behind. Jewish education can be at the forefront of enabling Judaism to adapt to the changes in socialization and society. It’s way past time to start examining how we can do that.

Your thoughts?

Adrian A. Durlester (aka Yoeitzdrian, aka Migdalor Guy)

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