My new fave on the edublog uberscene is Dina Strasser’s The Line. Beautifully written, sharply observed, and smart as a whip. Dina, you had me with Annie Dillard; everything after that is cake.
Dina’s recent post, For Whom the Bill Tolls, is a pushback response to Bill Ferriter’s thoughts on Twitter, itself a pushback to her previous comments. Is that called a pushback-to-back? Questioning Twitter’s marquee status of late as a gateway to authentic connection, Dina proposes an alternate analogy:
I wonder if Twitter may be better seen as a tollbooth. It only lets you
onto the road if you already have the fare. In this case, the fare
would be having the capacity for authentic connection in the first place.
Dina’s idea of a developmental threshold for meaningful network engagement dovetails nicely with
Will Richardson’s notion of “network literacy.” Struggling to define a role for
social networking in students’ lives, Will writes:
I’ve come around to the idea that much of what we need to know to flourish
with these tools is nothing more than solid reading and writing literacy. But there
still seems to me to be a network literacy as well, something that stands apart
from simply reading and writing, something that deals with our ability to
create and find and connect dots.
So yeah, I agree. Social networks as they are currently defined and
delivered aren’t for schools. But using social tools to teach our students to
build their own networks, networks that go beyond simply socializing with the
people they already know has to be.
So if capacity for meaningful relationships is part of the network literacy dot-connecting
toolkit, how do kids develop that capacity? Are kids’ connective foundations best
built offline, before they’re awash in Web 2.0? Might immersion in the mores of
social networking short-circuit that crucial developmental stage?
Over at apophenia, danah boyd starts from the same premise—building capacity
for connection as a developmental imperative—and takes it in almost exactly the
opposite direction. She argues that
social network sites don’t belong in schools—not because they’re inherently without
value, but because they don’t have pedagogical value. Network literacy may be a
laudable education goal, she says, but social network sites won’t get you
Social network sites do not help most youth see
beyond their social walls. Because most youth do not engage in
"networking," they do not meet new people or see the world from a
different perspective. Social network sites reinforce everyday networks,
providing a gathering space when none previously existed.
The value of social network sites, danah says, lies precisely in fostering
the kind of developmental socialization missing in kids’ overscheduled lives.
I’m not saying that social network sites have no
value. Quite the contrary. But their value is about the kinds of informal
social learning that is required for maturation – understanding your community,
learning the communicate with others, working through status games, building
and maintaining friendships, working through personal values, etc. All too
often we underestimate these processes because, traditionally, they have
happened so naturally. Yet, what’s odd about today’s youth culture is that
we’ve systematically taken away the opportunities for socialization. And yet we
wonder why our kids are so immature compared to kids from other cultures.
Social network sites are popular because youth are trying to take back the
right to be social, even if it has to happen in interstitial ways.
Fascinating stuff, and it gets better. Dina also raises the question of
false privacy, of online presence versus aloneness. Aren’t we really alone on
the web? And if isolation is the fundamental nature of the online experience,
and connectedness an artifice, how do we reconcile this with students’
developmental need to build the internal wiring for real human connection? She asks it better:
So can we really teach kids to authentically connect through a medium which
causes us to conceive of ourselves fundamentally as alone? Isn’t this an
inescapable contradiction in terms?
Ah, the yawning existential void. Peering through a generational lens may
shine some light into the solitary darkness. For those of us who are “cross-century adults” (a Strasser-coinage
worth its weight in gold, people), this business of having an online life will always
feel strange. It’s an awkward fit, a suit of clothing that hangs
not-quite-right on our frames, a lingering sense of otherness. My own mental
presets are hardwired to find Life 2.0 an endless gee-whiz affair. The novelty
wears down with experience, but it never wears completely off. Even the
nomenclature I chose a moment ago—Life 2.0—reminds me that I persist in thinking
in terms of alternate universes, equal-but-separate, rather than an integrated
whole. My networked life is cantilevered out into virtual space, the whole shuddering
contraption counterbalanced by and anchored to my Life 1.0 foundations,
and everywhere bolted together with makeshift analogies and patched with vocational
Bondo. For us, online life means experiencing an unavoidable self-consciousness,
an immigrant accent that will never disappear from our speech, and which is
often unintelligible to fluent younger generations.
None of this is to suggest that older people
aren’t online, of course; they are, in huge numbers. It’s just that it doesn’t
come naturally to them. “It is a constant surprise to those of us over a
certain age, let’s say 30, that large parts of our life can end up online,”
says Shirky. “But that’s not a behavior anyone under 30 has had to unlearn.”
Despite his expertise, Shirky himself can feel the gulf growing between himself
and his students, even in the past five years. “It used to be that we were all
in this together. But now my job is not to demystify, but to get the students
to see that it’s strange or unusual at all. Because they’re soaking in it.”
It’s like the vestigial nuclear fear carried deep in the bones of those who
grew up during the Cold War, who remember crouching under desks or in hallways
during school drills, who envisioned short, dark unfutures of fallout,
brutality, and canned food, whose sense of possibility was tenuous and fragile.
Born after the Berlin Wall came down? You won’t understand. But you’re born
into a different, equally-complicated world that we can’t understand. You carry
your own set of bone-deep realities. Your experience is transparent to you, and
maddeningly opaque to us. For you, there’s no separation anxiety because there
is no separation.
Rather than striving to show students the strangeness of it all, shouldn’t we just soak it in?