Monday, February 28, 2011

Deeply Impersonal: What "The Social Network" says about social networks

The Oscar dust has settled, and "The Social Network" cannot lay claim to being the Best Picture. So before it's covered completely by that settling dust, here's my review of it. Not of the movie, which is clearly pretty good by anyone's standards, but of what the movie says about the role of the online social network within the world of real social networks, and what that in turn suggests about online learning. (Just go with me here.)

Five observations, in random order:

1. You don't need any social skills to have a hundred million friends online. The social Neanderthal named Mark Zuckerberg in this movie makes it crystal clear that Facebook does not actually create, or connect, "friends." It simply creates online connections between people. This is an important distinction when trying to determine how to use social media in learning: Dating sites create dates; social networks create updates; learning platforms create learning interactions. Once again we learn that you get out of it what you program into it. So if you've been worried that your elearning engagements don't have a News Feed or a Friend Request or a Status Update feature, take a deep breath. It's going to be okay.

2. Maybe the natives were right, and photographs really do steal your soul. There's a line that goes by quickly in the mid-to-late part of the movie, in reference to the photo-sharing app within Facebook: "Now it won't be enough [I'm paraphrasing] to go to a party... you'll have to go with your camera so that you can relive the party online with your friends." This is of course what has come to pass. I have been to a party where young people were dead on their feet until someone raised a cell phone camera, at which time everyone in range became happy and cool--until the picture was snapped. Then they returned to their waking slumbers. We've all been in classrooms just like that party. Let's make sure our elearning classrooms, content, and activities connect students to the real world in new and different ways, rather than disconnecting them from it further.

3. Social networks operate on a deeply impersonal level. What caused "" to bring down Harvard's servers? Guys comparing two girls they knew and deciding which one was hotter. Something in that activity struck a deep chord, but it was deeply impersonal. Facebook of course was much more sophisticated, but that underlying chord remains. There are no consequences to actions or thoughts online. The consequences actually play out in the real world. Application to elearning? How about this: Because you can separate your students from the physical reality of the actual world, you can put their heads in places that they just can't go safely otherwise. Think role-playing, simulations, even the tried-and-true threaded discussion... the topics become objectified online. They lose even the subjective connections of tone of voice, the nuances of hesitation or bold assertion, and so to a large extent they lose their social consequences. This is a great thing when exploring theories. A great thing when conducting virtual experiments. It feels real, it feels personal--but it's really not, and in a learning environment what's done can be undone; what's said can be retracted, if you allow it. Use this characteristic responsibly and it can be a very powerful tool.

4. Deeply impersonal connections pave the way for enormous viral movements. Twitter is where you share something with everyone before you share it with anyone. Let's face it, what people generally post on Twitter or Facebook is the stuff they feel comfortable talking about with everyone in general before they share it with anyone in particular. By definition, this isn't going to be highly personal. But, it is going to be highly communicable. From the original mini-boom of Facemash to the huge growth of to the global phenomenon of Facebook, viral growth happens with things that are not deeply personal, but deeply impersonal. "The question is, who are they going to send it to?" Kill-switch controversies aside, the reality seems to be that no one can stop information from spreading anymore--people are going to know what other people have to say. So if you want to take advantage of social networks for education, for learning, keep that in mind. It's not the specifically detailed objective of your training session or coursework that the social network is going to propagate. It's the overall importance--or impotence--of it. Social media is about shaping thought, promoting belief, and getting down to what's really true about the content. Or at least, what is true as that is perceived by your learning population at large. You can't control it, but you can get it out where you can see it, where you can react to it, and where you can use it to move and improve your audience.

5. The Internet is not written in ink, it's written in the fabric of the universe. That may sound like hyperbole, but the Internet is actually all about electrons, which are arguably the fabric of the universe-or close. Erica Albright's point, though, when she says it's written in ink not pencil, is that it doesn't go away. And that's true. This is a two-edged sword, with the leading edge all about the permanent value it can create. Words spoken in a classroom are gone, but you can edit, update, and display forever your wise words in an online classroom. The trailing edge (the one that's closer to you and likely to cut you) is all about the permanent damage it can do, if your social interactions are not well-considered, or not current, or not timely. This is a good thing, all in all--we are responsible for what we do and say regardless, and so the discipline of saying it well and clearly, in a way that you can stand by it forever, is a help to any learning environment.

Enough. Next year, I'll review the true story of Michael Chasen in the Oscar-nominated, runaway hit, "The Learning Platform."

Or, maybe not.

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