In Digital First Diana Kimball at Harvard University recently discussed the extent of tech-savvyness which teenagers born in the digital era actually possess. It related straight to the conversation I have had with jayprich on adult internet sceptics.
Diana argued that “most Digital Natives don’t treat cruising the Internet as an activity in itself. It’s a tool you use when you want to do something else. What sets Digital Natives apart is their willingness to go to the Internet first—when they have a question, when they want to do something cool, when they want to find someone to hang out with”. As much as I can agree with that in the specific North-American context, I see a different picture elsewhere: for instance by looking at African countries. In September 2008 the number of internet users in Ghana was still below 3 percent of the nation’s population which counts more than 20 million individuals.
Digital Natives are first of all a generation marked by their parents’ economic [as well as social and cultural] capital which has translated into a number of smart choices, resulting in what Max Weber coined life chances. Access to knowledge, being involved in knowledge production and being able to identify relevant information in order to make informed choices is what produces and reproduces better life chances.
A great illustration of cultural capital is Brian Donovan’s excerpt of Woody Allen’s Manhattan:
Acquiring an iPhone, for instance, requires economic capital which translates into symbolic capital as it currently holds a certain status, that in turn may well pay off in social capital as it could help to connect with people online as well as offline (Pierre Bourdieu’s famous work ‘Distinctions’ spring to mind, though). Now having an iPhone does not necessarily mean you know how to smartly harness and exploit the online worlds: you may browse the internet, filter, and come up with hundreds of thousands of results on Google. Even middle-aged professionals manage to do that these days – it’s all so user-friendly and intuitive, isn’t it… Yet, I argue it is the critical thinking, the questioning mind which is actually what sets people apart.
Personally, I am intrigued by the widespread lack of critical questioning when it comes to authorship, production of knowledge and distribution of allegedly authoritative knowledge. There is quite a number of people whom I call Wikipedia-fetishists who are a) unaware of the cultural contexts which inform Wikipedia sites (one of the most striking examples is the material available around November 11 in German Wikipedia versus the English sites) b) take for granted what has been published there because it sounds all pretty convincing – and is in line with other sources of authoritative knowledge c) use search engines mainly in their native language and don’t know that there is google.it, google.fi, google.de, google.co.uk to name only a few.
Now, going first to the internet may also be a step done out of convenience. As the internet is a universe on a massive scale providing information by ‘official’ experts as well as various shades of self-declared experts researching any topic in depth is getting ever more difficult. Which is probably a good thing: it’s challenging and it requires skills. These research skills combined with a critically questioning mind is exactly what will set apart the Generation Digital User from the Generation Born Digital. It may also may make us think about the chronology-based and hierarchy-informed meaning of the word ‘generation’.
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The voices which claim that new tools equal new perceptions, change would be everywhere – dramatic, revolutionary – are getting ever louder, it seems. Creating technology and the use of new tools are undoubtedly offering enormous potential. We may create new and multiple selves, we can connect ourselves with a myriad of others in unprecendented ways and we can harness our imagination in more efficient ways than ever before.
Yet, these dynamics are multiplied and amplified by the flows of information which are subject to our social, economic and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986). While in these days of massive economic downturn the calls for expanding the digital infrastructure and reducing the digital divide within industrialised nations remain audible, the number of those who critically debate the use of such celebrated tools by users other than teenagers, educational institions and coporations are still fairly small. Is there an assumption that the ways of using new social media are inherent in the techne (Boellstorff, 2008 ) itself?
Are we assuming that there is a universal approach towards connecting and sharing online as we are all driven by the desire to share and connect? Are we all driven by the desire to share and connect, we need to ask first. I find that, similar to television and radio for instance, the way individuals use new social media and the perspective they choose – consciously? – to make sense of it varies considerably. National background, social class, gender – but to a lesser extent also age and perhaps even marital status – make the difference.
Feeling powerless, lacking clear guidance and being highly sceptic of the usefullness lead to questions such as: What am I supposed to do there? How much time am I supposed to spent ‘in there’? How many more social networking sites and social bookmarking systems am I supposed to use? Passive resistance and a sense of being pressured into virtual being seem to dominate among those who choose to rather not participate in ‘the hype’. The many resisting half-hearted users seem to be widely neglected in those enthusiastic debates and deserve more attention if we aim at an increased understanding of virtual worlds and well-being in the online and offline contexts. Aren’t those who actually feel very uncomfortable with new social media at risk to make the least of the chances and choices available due to their low level of explorative engagement but yet shape actively and perhaps significantly the discourses offline?
With the British Pound being at a pitiful low rate against the Euro – it’s near parity – I think it’s a good moment to bridge finance and blogging. Comments count as currency in the blogosphere. Given the comments are useful and the reader has taken the time to read through the post, beyond the first two sentences.
In a world where time is a very scarce good, it seems commenting on someone else’s blogpost is not exactly the most rewarding thing to do. So why bother? Why engage in the tiresome – and often also emotional – labour of producing content?
Chrysten Dybenko argued in June this year that only 1% of the active population would ever produce content, no matter if blog, wiki or comments on a site. Now, in January 2008 there were 59 million Facebook users which have more than doubled within the year: according to Facebook there are currently 140 million active users. All these people (individual or collective agents) produce content and demand attention. In my online sphere I see more than 1 in 100 Facebook users commenting on each others’ activities with status updates being the easiest to spot. On Twitter the rate is certainly even higher – but on blogs? That’s indeed a different story. Because the content and comment production is also more time consuming and less spontaneous?
Comments are the one core ingredient that make blogging a lot more of a dialogical activity. There is no point in telling the invisible or imagined audiences what wonderful things you think without getting any feedback. Yet, it’s exactly what many corporations still do on their top-down style websites but if you are not one of the anxious producers you are keen on hearing what readers think.
Or what your readers ‘out there’ produce on their sites. That’s what trackbacks and pingbacks are good for. That’s what produces social capital. But the one thing I am truly keen on is cultural capital. It’s the critical question that indicates someone has thought through and beyond the stuff you offered. And spotted the weaknesses. Or the strengths. And gave you food for thought. Something to come back to and make it better. That’s the material that you take with you from your online world into the offline world. That makes you post something like an answer. Online. Or talk back, offline – and to someone who does not even know you are a blogger. Bring the thoughts and comments back into different contexts. Generate new ideas.
The hybrid places where online and offline merge and we notice that what we give and get online may have an impact on our identities much bigger than many are willing to admit. And it seems, our identities are rather merged phenomenon than fragmentations…
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