I have to admit that this class and this book have opened my eyes to the dramatic shifts that online social networks are already making in our society. At the same time, it has made me realize how little of that shift has impacted my own life. In talking to my wife and kids at dinner last night, we were discussing the idea that while we still primarily use the Internet for information, we do not invest heavily in spending time with online groups or sharing our own views or information through digital media. My wife doesn’t even have Facebook. She was of the opinion that we (meaning her and I) simply don’t need those kinds of digital relationships – that we are perfectly fulfilled without them and therefore haven’t sought them out. I’m not sure if that’s it or not. Obviously if you haven’t experienced those kinds of relationships it’s hard to say that your life would not be enhanced by them. To answer Dr. Zamora’s questions first, what I want to learn (and what I am already learning) is the potential that exists in digital media and online relationships to connect people and provide added value to our lives. I am also learning how to access and build those relationships. Much of what I have already discovered through our readings and discussions punches holes in my previous mindset that much of social media was more of a distraction than a central part of people’s lives – the equivalent of junk food as opposed to real meals. I am trying to reshape my own thinking about it, even as I try to maintain my skepticism about our online lives as some sort of a cultural panacea (something that Howard Rheingold warned about in our discussion). I guess at the end of the day I would say simply that much of this is new to me. As far as skills are concerned, I am already learning practical skills about Twitter (although I’m still not convinced I’m doing it right – some of my tweets never show up in the conversation stream and I’ve forgotten at least twice to put the class hashtag on responses to fellow students’ work). I also want to have a better understanding of the role digital media will play in my kids’ lives so that I understand their use of it (and don’t simply try to ban it or shut it off when it may be a necessary outlet for them) but also have my eyes open as far as the potential pitfalls for them. As far as integrated learning, I believe that I can take much of what I’ve discovered, particularly the use of networks as learning hubs and sources of information, as resources for my own work as a journalist and also for my thesis going forward, in which I hope to define (or redefine) journalism in the modern age by incorporating digital media. This is a tall task for someone like me – I feel like I’m trying to drink from a firehouse if you know what I mean – but I believe that if I can understand the potential that exists to teach me about particular subjects, draw me closer to experts that can help me and dip my toe into the same digital media stream that my students are already in, it will make me a more effective teacher and communicator.
As for the chapters, I found several things fascinating. In particular, I was surprised to discover that studies show that the happiness of friends and neighbors (and particularly friends of =theirs= that I’ve never even met) have a direct impact on my own happiness and well-being. That underscores how closely connected we all are and not only stresses the importance of networks, but stresses the importance of understanding who you surround yourself with. I think this has roots in the pre-Internet era as well. My dad told me once (or a million times) that you can’t fly with the eagles if you’re hanging our with turkeys. In the same way, when my family moved from Garwood to Point Pleasant last year, it was, in part, because of the people around us. Many were good people – but there was also a lot of negativity and a lot of people that seemed to have become resigned with life, beaten down and simply unhappy. On return visits, I invariably hear from people when I ask how things are going that “nothing’s changed – everything’s the same”. I don’t know that we defined it quite this way to ourselves or our kids, but I believe that that mindset was a definite factor in our decision to move. It was interesting that Castells argues that the power is no longer in old institutions but in newly-emerging networks. If these new social networks really do become powerful to directly contend with the old ones (and Im talking about something in the form of full-on political revolution), it will be interesting to see how it is controlled or who takes control (if anyone at all). Can networks that are inherently built on equal access have a leader? Do they need one? This chapter also investigated what I believe to be the core question: whether or not online life is eroding or enhancing our embodied lives. Wellman found that people aren’t being alienated and Pew found that social relationships are transforming, rather than fading, and allowing a wider range of individuals to find companionship and support than ever before. I think the jury may still be out on this. I believe that we will not know the true measure of how online life changes our embodied lives until some point in the future. It is difficult to assess the change while the change is still happening. I will say this, however. Part of what fascinated me about this and marks what I believe to be a fundamental change in human interaction is the fact that online connections are now facilitating real world relationships as opposed to the other way around. (The examples of someone meeting people in an online cancer support group and later having those people drive them to chemo sessions for instance.) I have not experienced this as far as I can recall, but I suppose I will in time.
I should mention as well that in a previous blog I railed against the idea that lessons we were being offered to thrive in online space were identical to lessons we’d learned as kids and weren’t really new at all (finding common interests, being kind, helping others, etc). This point is made rather clearly in this chapter when the author points out that “most people learned on the playground much of what they need to know to be good Wikipedians.” But it goes to remind us that some of the finer points of relationships are also transferrable – particularly being sensitive to people’s needs or acting as a functionary to bring different people or different groups of people together to their shared benefit. While this is helpful in real life, it can have massive advantages online by potentially linking scores of people who otherwise would not have been connected.
The portion on Facebook perfectly underscores some of the concerns that still linger regarding my digital lives. My wife still refuses to let me put pictures of our kids online and has gotten furious with friends who took pictures of them and posted them without her knowledge. I tend to side with caution on these matters, but it is becoming harder and harder to separate our online and digital lives. My son argued with me last night that he needs a phone and reminded us that we promised to buy him one when he turned 13 (which is this fall). He will soon be posting his own pictures and who am I to stop him? The book’s warning to use crap detection and be aware of what you’re doing (context collisions and public and private convergence) and the idea that invisible audiences may eventually see what you’re posting is something I’ve already passed on to him and his sister and will continue to try and enforce as they get older.
I’ll take a moment also to mention something that was in Chapter 6 – the idea that digital media is distracting us in the same way that the Romans hid the real nature of their society from the people through bread and circuses. As I pointed out earlier, I still harbor this sneaking concern about the downside of digital distractions and while I am open to the possibilities and potential of online experiences, I have not discounted that fear. It is described very well here – as something we need to be aware of, lest we simply hand over the reins to the people controlling these hugely influential tools on the internet. I am reminded of the New Republic article I recently blogged out about Tumblr in which the teens that helped popularize were eventually kicked off for trying to make a couple bucks off ads. In addition, the article talks about how Google tended to kick clients off their accounts just before a big payday – proof that there is always someone in control – even online. However, Rheingold also points out that it is up to us to take advantage of opportunities to improve the situation and as someone who is still learning about this subject, I recognize that my level of education is still not where it needs to be. But it’s improving all the time.