Yesterday I attended an excellent event, Academedia, sponsored by the Gnovis Journal and the Communication, Culture and Technology program at Georgetown. I plan to post a fuller summary of the event soon, but I wanted to jump right in with some commentary about an exchange at the event that really weighed heavy on me.
One of the attendees was lamenting his child’s lack of engagement with traditional media sources (particularly news magazines) and worrying about the deeper societal implications of all of the fluff that garners more attention (and spreads faster) than larger scale news events do online. I would characterize this concern as what my professor Mima Dedaic calls “technopanic,” and I believe that his concerns demonstrate a lack of understanding of the nature of social media.
I have mentioned Pew’s report on the Kony 2012 viral video phenomena. One of the main findings of that report was that younger people tend to engage differently with media than older people tend to. Whereas older people were more likely to find out about the video from traditional news sources, younger people were more likely to have heard about it, and heard about it sooner, from social media sources. They were also less likely to have heard about it through traditional media sources, and more likely to have actually seen the video.
In the past media model, the news was composed of a distinct set of entities that could be avoided. I know of quite a few people who prefer not to watch the news or read the newspapers. This orientation has always existed. But in the age of social media, it is much harder to achieve.
When it snows, I know when the flakes begin to fall and the general swath of the storm, even if it’s not local, from my friends who complain about the storm and post pictures of its aftermath. I heard about Michael Jackson’s tragic passing before it was announced in the news. When Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square, I knew about it from my friend in Egypt. I kept updated on the conflict and on her safety in a community of concerned friends and relatives on her facebook page. I hear about American political ads from people who see them and comment about them. I know what aspects of politicians my friends with different political orientations orient to. For me, social media can provide a faster news source, and often a more balanced news source, than traditional media (although I am an avid consumer of all kinds of media).
News is no longer a distinct entity that must be sought out. It is personalized. It is discussed from many angles from a variety of perspectives with a great deal of frequency from people who have various degrees of knowledge and and a variety of attitudes toward it. The man in the audience’s daughter may spend most of her time giggling over memes or making fan pages, but she is surely also orienting toward the larger world around her in a collaborative and alocative (location independent) way.
As a survey researcher, I like to participate in surveys. Some of these surveys ask about where I heard about something. I’m often very frustrated by the response options, because they are incongrent with the ways that I, and many people I know, learn about things on the internet. Googling is sometimes represented as a process of typing a search term into the box and choosing the first option that pulls up. But how often is that the way we use search engines?
There are two distinct ways that I can think of offhand that I google. One is for a direct, known piece of information, like an address, phone number or a picture of something I am already familiar with. The other is more exploratory. An exploratory search takes some term adjustment, and it requires reading through matches until a contextual understanding can be developed. I have noticed that some people can search far more efficiently than others. There are many tools available on the internet, and a working knowledge of the usefulness and potential of these tools can lead to a much different outcome than a passing use can.
There was a representative from the FCC on the panel who shared some great insights, much of which I will cover later. He spoke about kids being taught in schools that technology is bad (disruptive, disobedient, minimally insightful, …), instead of being taught how to use the technological tools available to them.
He said, it’s not WHETHER they use Wikipedia, but how they ENGAGE with Wikipedia.
This is a crucial point. The more we embrace the usefulness of these tools, the better our capabilities will be.
The other side of technopanic is a fear that engaging online means NOT engaging offline. Data on this topic show quite the opposite. People who engage online are also MORE likely to engage offline. Technology need not replace anything. But it can be an excellent tool when approached without unhelpful prejudices.