Social Media Science: Some Oxford Musings
I got back last night from a conference on social media sponsored by the Oxford Internet Institute. Why would anyone pay to hear me talk about blogging, Twitter and Facebook? They wouldn't. The conference was free. I certainly tried to give people their money's worth.
Conferences like this are hard to pull off. You can't really be sure of your audience. Are they people who don't know Twitter from Flickr from Flicka? Or are they hardcore power-users who Tweet constantly? The answer was probably, "Yes," which means you're likely to disappoint people on both sides, occasionally by being too obvious, occasionally by being too obtuse.
Highlights of the conference will eventually be online (available on iTunes, I believe), but until then here are some bits that stuck with me:
Tech people show their bona fides by competing to see who's been online the longest. One speaker would say he first got e-mail in 1990, then another would say he was on Usenet in 1984, then someone would say he was on Arpanet in the 1970s. I kept expecting someone to say he'd run a neighborhood BBS in the 1920s.
I think my favorite observation came from Bill Thompson, a BBC tech columnist and all-around digital gadfly. When speaking about his work with computers (as a student at Cambridge in the 1980s), he said that computers weren't all that interesting or exciting to him. They were just what he did. "Social media is not there yet," he said. "Which is why we can fill a room with 350 people. There are no conferences for fax machines."
His comment underscored the relative newness of things such as Twitter and Facebook and how we're still trying to work out how to integrate them into our lives. I don't think there's anything wrong with that--with pausing to reflect--despite the insistence of some new media prophets who think anyone without an iPhone in each hand and a touch screen on each wall is some lesser form of life.
An artificial intelligence expert with the wonderfully English name of Nigel Shadbolt lamented that we haven't gotten very good at anticipating new phenomena. We seem to be continually blindsided by the emergence of technology that may change our lives--and us.
Twitter is certainly the technology of the moment and this was the first conference I'd been to that featured a live Twitterfall: A screen behind the speakers in the main room displayed the real-time comments of attendees Tweeting about that session. (If you're on Twitter you can see all the comments by searching #ocsmc09.) It was a bit vertigo-inducing. I think attention spans must be affected by some forms of social media. How can you listen properly while you're composing a 140-character comment, riposte or insult to be displayed over the speaker's shoulder? How can you listen properly if you're reading said comment, riposte or insult? And how does it affect the speaker, who turns occasionally to see whether she's being ripped by the peanut gallery?
I say how can you listen "properly" but maybe that's not right. Certainly you listen differently. And it has benefits. A few speakers altered the direction of their presentations based on Tweets. Some answered specific questions. It was hard for some people to resist being show-offs or being a bit snarky. Little tea-party conversations took place on the screen. I myself couldn't resist. I Tweet (JohnKelly is my ID) but I'd never live-Tweeted in front of an audience. It was interesting. I found myself regretting some of my Tweets--they seemed so public, like graffiti on a billboard--and I found myself deleting some before I sent them, thinking better of it. It is possible to use social media and self-edit.
So is social media changing the world? Not necessarily, said Matthew Hindman, one of the day's most interestingly counterintuitive speakers. Hindman is a political science professor at Arizona State University and the title of his book should give you some idea of his thesis: "The Myth of Digital Democracy." His reading of the data suggests that the "American influential sphere" is more exclusionary now than ever. "Liberating" technologies like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook haven't "improved" democracy or ushered in the participation of formerly-ignored communities.
He even took aim at that biggest shibboleth of all: the notion that the Obama campaign was a grassroots effort, with hundreds of thousands of cyber citizens spontaneously organizing online to push their candidate over the top. Hindman thinks the opposite is true: It was the most top-down campaign effort ever, with the campaign controlling the discourse.
I thought that Evgeny Morozov, the current Yahoo! Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University (who knew there was a Yahoo! Fellow? Is there a Go Daddy Fellow, too?), put things in perspective: "We may overestimate the effect of social media on society but we shouldn't overestimate its effect on individuals."
Well, this particular individual got a free trip to England out of social media, so I like that effect.
You can find the paper I wrote after my year at Oxford here. It's the one called "Red Kayaks and Hidden Gold."
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