Yesterday I was interviewed by a researcher from the University of Manchester who is working on a collaborative research project examining the use of social media platforms such as Twitter. The project aims to explore how people use social media in their daily lives and the extent to which people’s use of social media reflects local issues, events and concerns. It is part of the Manchester eResearch Centre which exists to explore how the recent explosion in social media and the interactive web opens up opportunities for understanding societal issues and concerns. So far so interesting…
Having already interviewed a community forum, the police, city council and local MPs, the researcher is in the process of recruiting and interviewing individuals who live in South Manchester and are ‘well-networked users of Twitter.’ She’d got in touch with me via someone she met at a networking event, who had given my name as someone who he thought would fit the bill. I was slightly surprised – I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati‘. Aside from that, I don’t use Twitter all that much to share information about or discuss local issues, so I wasn’t convinced I was quite what she was looking for.
I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati’.
Nevertheless, I agreed to be interviewed, not least because I was keen to hear more about the research project, and mindful of potential connections or overlaps of interest that might emerge through having the conversation. I wasn’t disappointed. Aside from anything else, it was interesting to be on the other side of the voice recorder for once – there’s a lot to learn from being interviewed rather than doing the interviewing.
Answering questions on my use of Twitter, the role it plays in my professional life, my personal life, and the connections between my use of Twitter and the community in which I live made me think about all these things in a particularly reflective way.
I was asked questions relating to how I use Twitter to provide information to other people, to organise debate and discussion, to gather support and interest and to portray sentiment in relation to various local issues, concerns and events. Like I’ve said, I don’t really think of myself as someone who really knows how to use Twitter to great effect, so it was curious for me to discover that I had at least something to say in relation to each of these lines of questioning.
On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised.
In answering the questions, I began to give examples and the discussion turned to the inclusiveness or otherwise of the Twittersphere. On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable some members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised. Aside from those members of society who do not have access to an internet enabled device, there are those for whom Twitter simply doesn’t appeal. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and why should it be?
My interviewer mentioned one member of the community forum she’d interviewed who was deeply negative, resistant, and unable to see any potential benefits of using social media to engage with the local community. We talked about professionals such as teachers, nurses and social workers, whose day jobs are are structured in such a way as to make it very difficult to be tweeting all the time alongside doing the job.
They may also already be part of existing communication networks that they are used to and that work well for them, or they may feel that using Twitter is a quasi-work activity that they’d rather not get involved in after hours. There’s the public bodies for whom it is very difficult to use Twitter in the organic, instantaneous way that it needs to be used because of the need to adhere to policies and have all public communication formally approved and signed off. And there are people for whom Twitter is confusing, off-putting, boring or simply not their medium of choice
I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest that Twitter is a sort of bubble – a group of relatively similar people talking to each other about the things that matter to them. It is easy, when you’re part of that bubble, to imagine that all the important voices are being heard, that anyone who wants to be included in the debate will be. It’s also easy to feel – if you find yourself amidst a storm of retweets – as though you’re really making a difference, that the important people are listening and that you’re at the heart of the action.
But there’s also a world out there that doesn’t live itself out on Twitter. For all the unique opportunities and connections that Twitter may facilitate, there are plenty of people outside the Twitterverse who may be doing really important and valuable things without tweeting about it, or whose voices are easily overlooked. The research I took part in is due to be published this summer and it will be fascinating to find out more about the ways in which Twitter represents, enables or excludes people from participating in community life. In the meantime, I’m very happy to hear any thoughts. Use the comment function below, write me an email, post me a letter (wouldn’t that be novel?) or, if you really want to, you can even send me a tweet.
It’s nice to be able to show others our work, especially my grand parents who live far away. Laura Warick-Student
As part of my role within the RSA I am lucky to be able to constantly see the creativity of students of our Family of Academies. On a recent visit to Arrow Vale and Ipsley I saw some highly original and thought provoking pieces; this is of course true across many of the nation’s schools, youth centres and community spaces. At Whitley Academy the same is true. They are especially passionate about student artwork and creative thinking.
Staff, students and parents are really proud of the original and inspiring student work. It is great to share! Lorraine Allen-Principal
Milliner to the stars, Stephen Jones, visited the school for a day in early November of 2011 to advise pupils doing A-level Art and BTEC Art on how to design a hat. They handed in their finished designs as course work to count towards their final marks. Mr Jones designs hats for celebrities as diverse as Marilyn Manson and Beyoncé Knowles at his studio in London’s Convent Garden.
The Principal Lorraine Allen has been considering her students exceptional artwork and felt that students work should not be kept behind Whitley Academies four walls. She has been working with staff to create a belief that students should be working to “be the best they can be”. From then on it became a case of how student art work was shown to a wider audience and not when. The school worked in partnership with students and agreed that Whitley Arts would be developed as an online portal to promote and inspire current and budding artists from Whitley Academy. There are separate pages to promote work created by students in Key Stages 3, 4 and 5 along with an e-commerce page which allows anybody to purchase works of art that students have created in a range of different medium from postcards to A2 canvas prints.
Whitley Arts will underpin learning and interest in the Creative Arts at Whitley Academy by using student artwork as a focal point, and by encouraging a culture of innovation, inspiration, and personal development. The RSA/RBS report Disrupt Inc. highlights the need to allow young entrepreneurs to develop in their own way. Hopefully Whitley Arts will help open students eyes to the possibility of creating work that is admired and coveted by the public in the future. Through negotiations with artists and the Academy it was agreed that artists would receive 25% of the sale price of each piece sold with the remainder used to support the arts, the students, and their learning at Whitley Academy. Please visit the site to see some of the creative work developed by students.
I am sure our students are as proud as I am, especially as it is now no longer just our community who gets to see our students talent, but also an international audience. Miss Riach-Creative Arts Teacher
The RSA’s Family of Academies are continually looking at ways to improve student learning and enhance their experiences. If you have any ways of supporting the Academies in the arts or any other field then please feel free to contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter where I’m @pickfordrich
Next month on the 18th of April we will be hosting our second Fellowship Roadshow. RSA Academy in Tipton will be opening its doors to Fellows who feel they can support the work of staff and students. Please contact me for more details.
When did you last send a tweet? What did your Facebook friends have to say about how they’re feeling this morning? How important are online networks to your sense of who you are? Chances are you’ll have something to say about at least one of these questions. For a majority of Britons, online persona and virtual networks are becoming increasingly definitional.
Monday saw the publication of a new report that looks at the impact of technology on identity, by the Government’s chief scientific advisor, Professor Sir John Beddington. The report, The Future of Identity, identifies ‘hyper-connectivity’ – near-continuous access to the Internet – as a very significant development. Beddington argues that hyper-connectivity is likely to have a profound effect on how people regard their place in the world and define themselves.
The report suggests that the ubiquity of smartphones is changing the way we relate to others, and may lead to place-based communities becoming less cohesive. In tandem, hyper-connectivity enables greater connectivity between otherwise disparate groups, making it very easy for groups to organise themselves quickly.
The Telegraph, reporting the publication of Beddington’s report, emphasises the risk that the rise of social networking may “fuel social unrest”. The role of smartphone technology in the riots of 2011 was well documented, and it’s clear that these communication platforms offer the means to facilitate phenomena like rioting, protesting and social disturbance.
But is it really accurate to say that hyper-connectivity can in itself be a cause of social unrest? I’m not convinced that these developments in technology are responsible for bringing about the motivation or impetus for groups of young people to loot and riot across the UK’s cities. Sure, they provide the communication platform to make it easy for large groups to organise themselves, but why should the existence of such technology be a trigger?
the perpetual presence of the smartphone impacts on our patterns of attention – we’re always on ‘standby’, ready to be interrupted
Having said that, it occurs to me that there are other ways in which in hyper-connectivity is likely to impact on us, as individuals and as a society. I’m sure the perpetual presence of the smartphone impacts on our patterns of attention – we’re always on ‘standby’, ready to be interrupted. As Jonathan Rowson noted in this blog, connectivity comes at a cost, undermining deeper connections that are all too easy to take for granted. Whether or not we’re aware of it, the reality is that many of us are addicted to receiving new information – the kick we get out of receiving new emails, SMS, and reading the latest Twitter feed is unrivalled by face to face interactions. Comparing ourselves to others is an inevitable side effect of online social networking, and this can have hugely negative consequences for self-esteem and assumptions about what is ‘normal’.
All of this must be affecting our brains somehow, whether the impact is on our patterns of concentration, expectations for instant information, or ability to focus our attention deeply. What we pay attention to can have a profound effect on our overall outlook, as Nathalie Spencer discusses here. Hyper-connectivity must also impact on our inner life – how comfortable would you be to spend half an hour doing nothing, without a Smartphone to engage with? What would it mean for your sense of self if all your online presence were to be erased?
Beddington’s report suggests that in the future, it is very likely that someone with no online persona will be regarded as unusual or even suspicious. This seems to indicate that the blurring of the boundary between online and offline identity is set to intensify. All of this makes me think that we may need to force ourselves to disconnect, unplug, and make space to notice and appreciate our offline selves.
But, do we have the willpower? Are we prepared or able to face up to the possibility that hyper-connectivity might be damaging, and whose responsibility is it to put preventative or protective measures in place? Which public or private bodies would fund research to find out whether and how smartphone usage is harmful to our wellbeing? Are we already in some sort of collective denial about the damaging impact of hyper-connectivity and might this mean sleep walking, in a hyper-connected way, into future problems?
When my boss told me that I needed to raise my profile on social media, I was somewhat lost. After all, life as a part of the Fellowship Services team rarely seems to throw up the need to use Facebook, Twitter or what have you. We’re the stagehands of the RSA Fellowship; we keep the production going, pulling ropes, adjusting lights, making sure the scene is as it should be. And who, I thought, wants to hear about how the mise en scène is arranged?
But last week, I embraced Facebook. Five years after joining the site and four years and 362 days since I last looked at it, last week I finally had reason to sign in again. I’d only signed up in the first place to see my friends’ photos of my engagement party, and quickly became tired of the in-depth intellectual discussions that seemed to me to be the core of the Facebook experience – “I can’t decide whether to have a Rich Tea or a Hobnob!”, one friend would declare in frustration. “Have you considered the Bourbon?”, someone would reply. I couldn’t understand how anyone has the time or the patience to read all of this, let alone what the point of writing it in the first place was. Just pick a biscuit! Have one of each! Don’t tell the world!
I embraced Facebook, for I was imbued with purpose. I’m off to the Singapore Grand Prix this month, the trip of a lifetime, and there was a competition where I could win upgrades on my tickets and enjoy the “Ultimate Fan Experience”. All I had to do was dress up as the ‘Ultimate F1 Fan’ and submit the picture to the Singapore GP website. If I’d read the terms and conditions, I’d have realised that my picture would then be put on Facebook, where other F1 fans could vote on it. I didn’t read the terms and conditions.
Quickly acclimatising myself with Facebook after so long away – it’s amazing how much you can learn quickly when there’s a need and you have fire in your belly…
I’m not sure my boss had this Ferrari nightmare in mind!
Due to excessive consumption of internet, video gaming and pornography boys are increasingly developing arousal addictions, according to research. They are becoming so used to constant stimulation provided by IT that their attention spans are withering away. Analog teachers in classrooms pose no serious competition to digital Facebook in the marketplace for children’s attention. This is particularly relevant to boys who tend to be keener on video games and pornography (which I have never watched myself).
In this short and entertaining speech acclaimed psychologist Philip Zimbardo shares that:
- An average boy watches 50 porn clips a week
- By the time a man is 21, he has spent 10,000 hours playing video games
- Boys are 5 times more likely to have ADHD than girls
- Boys’ brains are being rewired for change, novelty, excitement and constant arousal. They are totally out of sync with traditional classes at school and in romantic relationships
This time I will spare you from discussing my own romantic relationships but I can share that I can totally relate to the addictions bit. When I surf the web for my own pleasure, I notice that I don’t have much patience for anything. Almost always there is this nagging feeling that there is something more interesting out there. Something more interesting than what I am reading now. More interesting than this clumsy blog, perhaps. And I click, and I click, and I click… This never ending craving for novelty… In fact, internet, and especially checking my email, can be so addictive to me, that I had to set rules for myself. I have rules for when I allow myself to check my mail and when I can surf the web. Otherwise, before I know it, I get sucked into this black hole with ever intensifying gravitational pull. And even when I know I am being sucked in there I keep telling myself “one more article” or “well, this will be the last one”. And it rarely is the last one. In the same way I have also struggled with quite serious video gaming addictions when I was in my teens.
I consider myself to be a recovered IT addict. I am clean now. Hopefully I will stay that way a bit longer. As much as I love the freedom provided by IT, I am convinced that any pleasurable freedom can turn into a prison if not handled carefully. Thanks for checking this blog and by all means please enjoy your next Twitter read.
Google Analytics reveals that one of our most popular blogs over the last few weeks was Top ten surprising psychological ideas which was basically a link to another site, prompted by somebody else’s tweet, with just a tiny bit of commentary from me.
Our Head of Media, Luke Robinson, was quick to explain the reason for this blog’s particular success:
2) The internet loves a list.
1) Lists generate suspense.
Once you know the number of things on the list, there is a ‘gap’ in your mind to find out what is on them.
2) Lists are relatively easy to read.
More precisely, they are easy to skim- you get your ‘meaning fix’ without effort.
3) Lists give you a sense of control.
You know where you are with a list- you are not getting to get lost in dense prose and end up in a different subject. There are rarely nasty surprises.
4) Lists give a nice sense of completion.
They make you feel like you have learned a certain number of things.
5) Lists are tidy
We prefer things that look organised, especially when somebody else has done the organising for us.
6) Lists are shareable
Because everybody loves a list…
This time I thought for myself before surfing for content to link to, but for those who are hungry for more please read: 10 reasons why list-based posts work so well online! Just don’t get get carried away, or before you know it we’ll all have pinaciphobia, and I’m sure there are at least seven reasons why you would want to avoid that.
The internet sometimes feels like one big cavern of promiscuous information where intellectual swingers throw around their ideas in search of fertile ground. It has been called an ’echo chamber‘ and is fuelled by the urge to link, forward, quote, repeat, retweet and so forth with a gradually vanishing care for provenance or accuracy. What ‘works’ online is mostly a function of ‘forwardability’. The chamber thus abounds with misinformation laundered through a thousand servers, while the good, the true and the beautiful gradually lose their bearings.
That wasn’t meant to sound so negative…and of course I live with, through and sometimes even for the internet. I just wanted to give some context for an echo of my own, in which I repost something I have already written, simply because I like it, and because it might otherwise be forever overlooked.
“I have already used a Lord of the Rings reference on the Big Society, describing the emphasis on community at a time of austerity as an attempt to build the Shire in Mordor. At the moment it feels more like Downing Street are carefully planning a resurrection that has to be the same thing, but different. In this case the next iteration of the Big Society looks more like Gandalf the Grey reeling from his battle with the Balorog of Morgoth, when he “strayed out of thought and time”, “but it was not the end…” and Gandalf the White was “sent back, until my task is done”.
(sourced via Wikipedia)
The character is part of popular culture, but the analogy might be somewhat obscure for those unfamiliar with the Gandalf’s character, and his role in the epic. I read very little growing up(too busy playing chess) so my first encounter with the works of JRR Tolkien was Peter Jackson’s triopic, which I have in extended DVD versions, and have watched far too many times. These films led me to chase down the Tolkien Canon, and I had to promise my wife Siva that I would never attend a conference on Tolkien’s work. I now feel a healthy distance from middle earth, but I still find that most issues in life have some parallel in the character and stories there.
I don’t want this to become a Lord of the Rings love fest, but I am curious to know what readers think of such parallels, and whether they have any value. I promise not to take this as a license to generate more of them!
Facts are so last century. In the Internet-dominated world, networked facts have pretty much taken over. The old-fashioned view of the fact is that it is an irreducible atom of knowledge. The way information is organised on the Web means that everything is connected and it is only as a result of the links between elements of information that facts come into being.
The way information is organised on the Web means that everything is connected and it is only as a result of the links between elements of information that facts come into being.
This is one of the points that David Weinberger puts across in his new book, Too Big to Know, launched yesterday in the US (not out in the UK til 19th January). Weinberger calls these configurations of linked data, in which two ideas are connected by a relationship, ‘triples’. In an interview given to Thomas Rogers for Salon, Weinberger elaborates:
OK, so, if the triple is “Edmonton is in Canada,” ideally each of those should link to some other spot on the Web that explains exactly which Edmonton, because there’s probably more than one, along with which Canada (though there’s probably only one). And “is in” is a very ambiguous statement, so you would point to some vocabulary that defines it for geography. Each of these little facts is designed not only to be linked up by computers, but in itself consists of links. It’s a very different idea than that facts are bricks that lay a firm foundation. The old metaphor for knowledge was architectural and archaeological: foundations, bricks. Now we have clouds.
Now, I think I get this, and when we think about the ubiquity of the hyperlink, it’s pretty clear that Weinberger is absolutely right. But, even before the Internet, information was still linked, and it was still necessary to reference one idea in order to construct a basis for another. Aristotle, Darwin and Newton all did it. It was just a slower process. You had to have located and read the relevant source, be it a book, paper or article and access to these things was far more restricted than it is now. But, the basic principle was the same. I think it’s reasonable to say that Weinberger’s point about metaphors rings true not because of a fundamental shift in what facts are, but rather that the Internet age has speeded everything up and made access to data (almost) universally accessible.
Our burgeoning taste for punchy, sound-bitten data is obvious – if you can’t express an important idea in 140 characters, you’ll struggle to be listened to in some circles.
The title of the book, Too Big To Know, implies that the volume of information we now have access to could be leading to a kind of overload, and there is a genuinely important (and unanswered) question about the impact of this on our brains. Are we getting cleverer or stupider as a result? Our burgeoning taste for punchy, sound-bitten data is obvious – if you can’t express an important idea in 140 characters, you’ll struggle to be listened to in some circles. Indeed, this review of Weinberger’s book on Inc.com is designed to give you the top line messages in about the time it takes to write a tweet. And, this very blog post indicates that I’m clearly as much as sucker for this as anyone.
Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure that Weinberger expresses some important ideas, not least that it isn’t individual cleverness that really matters, but the collective cleverness of the networks in which we operate. In his interview for Salon he says:
With the new medium of knowledge — the Internet — knowledge not only takes on properties of that medium but also lives at the level of the network. So rather than simply trying to cultivate smart people, we also need to be looking above the level of the individual to the network in which he or she is embedded to see where knowledge lives.
If there was ever a field in need of a little resourcefulness, it’s public sector IT. In the past the UK’s government has had the dubious honour of awarding some of the largest IT contracts in the world. Some of these have been simply too big to manage, and have failed at significant cost to the public.
On Monday, the Cabinet Office launched alpha.gov.uk. In response to digital champion Martha Lane Fox’s recommendation, this is a prototype of a single domain for all government information and interactions with the public. The parallel is with the BBC’s single domain website (ie bbc.co.uk), on which you can find everything from the latest table tennis results to instructions on how to roast a chicken. The result looks something like a Google for government.
But what’s more notable than the idea of a one-stop-shop for digital delivery of public services (having had Directgov, and Gordon Brown’s MyGov idea etc.) is the process behind its creation. An alpha site is usually a pre-release version (ie. bits of it might break), but the team behind this one have taken the unusual step of releasing it to the public to gather feedback. This is particularly unusual for the public sector, which has often been described as a bit ‘1.0’ when it comes to the internet.
The team have written about the ethos behind the project that have guided the site’s development. The ‘agile’ approach they have taken emphasises a much faster and iterative approach (as well as being people-centred), in stark contrast to large IT programmes which become too big to fail, soaking up ever more money.
There are similarities between their approach, and a paper we recently published on ‘ingenuity’, which defined ingenuity as a sort of creativity on a budget. In this paper we defined ingenuity as the ability to solve problems by combining few resources in a surprising way.
So is alpha.gov.uk ingenious?
Well, it’s been developed in three months on the fairly minimal resources of 261k (not at all a fair comparison, but Directgov’s design and build costs came in at over 6 million). It may (time and the results of their feedback will tell) solve the problem of how to help people interact with government more successfully and cost-effectively. I’m less sure whether it uses its resources in unexpected ways, but seems to have at least used off-the-shelf rather than expensive custom technology.
Verdict? Too early to tell, but promising…
It’s never been easier to contact our elected representatives but is this a good thing?
Recently we have heard about MPs who complain that they are bombarded by emails from lobby groups. If you’ve ever returned from holiday to 1,089 new emails, I am sure you will have a bit of (grudging) sympathy for them.
More significantly, perhaps, it strikes me that being able to quickly and cheaply send an email to an MPs or sign a petition throws up a couple of problems.
Firstly, there is the principle of “willingness to pay”, which, in essence, asks us to consider how much money we are willing to put where our mouths are. This principle has been applied to “public value” for example at the BBC.
It is fine to ask people to draw up huge wish lists of how they would like the world to be improved but if they are not willing to pay (in the broadest sense of the word), then how much weight should be given to these preferences?
This approach means that many MPs and policy makers discount emails. They think that because it is so easy to send an email, that the people who send them do not necessarily really want change. Perhaps there is some truth in this assumption?
Secondly, there is the problem of “cultural capital”.
We might have expected free entry to museums to increase dramatically the number of people going to museums. But in fact, this did not happen, partly because lots of people feel like museums are “not for them”. Implicit in this assumption is the idea that museums are for wealthy and educated people.
Similarly, we know from the Hansard audits of political engagement, that people from certain backgrounds (e.g. BME groups or lower income) are less likely to take part in various forms of civic activism (e.g. petition signing).
Those who think that lobbying your MP is not for “people like us” are not going to change their mind simply because it’s easier and cheaper to do so. Instead, people who would already consider lobbying their MP will do more of it.
So what is the answer?