Web Literacy: what happens beyond peak centralisation and software with shareholders?

A recording of something I’ve been working on over the last couple of days.

 

On living in the future

“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” (William Gibson)

There’s a known problem that (web) designers have, something that they have to consciously go out of their way to correct. The majority of them have large, colour-calibrated monitors displaying more pixels than you can stick a shake at. They use the latest tools and software. They’re aware of colour theory. They follow fashions within their community. This means, unless they’re careful, what they design on their super-high definition displays may look amazing for them but look really crappy on a three year-old beat-up laptop running an outdated operating system and browser.

Almost everyone I interact with on a daily basis lives in the future. They (we) have first world problems related to what are, in essence, luxury goods. They use alpha and beta versions of cutting-edge software and services. They’re looking for the next big thing. And by ‘they’ I include ‘me’ as well.

Let’s use the diffusion of innovation curve as a convenient hypocrisy. We all know it’s not a perfect model, but it serves a purpose here. The blue line represents successive groups of consumers adopting the product, service, etc. and the yellow line represents market share.

Technology adoption curve

Along with most people I know, I’m definitely to the left of that bell curve. But, interestingly, I’ve found myself moving steadily to the right as I get older. Part of this might be a natural drift* but I think there’s more than that. What I’m realising increasingly is that there are perils to shiny shiny educational technology and that sometimes it’s a good idea to be consciously (and perhaps, conspicuously) less shiny.

This year so far I’ve made two small steps in meeting people where they are: I’ve replaced my phone with an older one(!) and have resurrected my Facebook account. This means that, on the one hand, I’m using slightly ‘out of date’ technology and, on the other, I’m spending some of my time seeing the (online) world in the way that ‘most people’ do. It’s all very well having conversations with people who like technology, but often that’s preaching to the choir. To really change things and co-construct a positive future we need to convert people who haven’t yet ‘received the gospel’ (as it were).

So, over the next few months, I’ll be paying attention to my usual information sources – but also trying to participate in conversations and in places that tend towards the middle of the innovation curve. If you’ve got some ideas of (non-technical) places and (non-geeky) people I should be paying attention to, please let me know!

Image CC BY-SA Thomas Duchnicki

* I don’t necessarily agree, but Winston Churchill famously said, “If you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain.”

 

 

Open Badges, Clay Shirky, and the tipping point.

The great thing about thinkers such as Clay Shirky is that they can put into pithy, concise quotations things that remain latent in our collective thinking. You know, things like:

We’ve reached an age where this stuff is technologically boring enough to be socially interesting.

I first used that quote in a post four years ago when I called for technology to be so commonplace and ubiquitous that it’s not considered a thing distinct from human interaction. Technology should be woven into the fabric of our identities not something set apart, alien and ‘other’.

Four years ago social networks weren’t woven into society the way they are now. Nowadays, of course, hashtags accompany the opening credits to television shows so that they can be discussed in a ‘channel’ on Twitter, it’s entirely normal to whip your mobile device when standing in a queue (instead of talking about the weather to a stranger), and you’d be shocked if brands didn’t encourage you to follow them on Facebook.

One way to explain this is through Clay Shirky’s lens: these things are now socially boring enough to be socially interesting. You can assume that almost the man or woman on the street knows what Facebook, Twitter and mobile devices are for without having to explain them first. That means we can talk about the next layer up- i.e. what we do with those tools.

Open Badges are still quite technologically interesting. There’s several aspects of them that the average person wouldn’t understand without having it explained. For example:

  • What metadata is
  • How an Open Badges consists of ‘baking’ metadata into an image
  • That anyone can host a badge backpack because it’s Open Source software
  • What is means that the various badge backpacks will be ‘federated’

Now, we could go about a mass education program and (relatively speaking) spend a lot of money helping people to learn about these things. But that’s not how things reach a tipping point. The way people become proficient with tools like social networks or Open Badges is because they scratch an itch (solve a problem) or because there’s a ‘hook’ interesting enough for them to be dragged, Alice in Wonderland-like into a deep rabbit-hole where they can find out more.

So in a UK context, Stephen Fry’s 2009 video interview where he explained his love of Twitter in layman’s terms meant that many people were provided a hook. In fact, this is how advertising and celebrity endorsement works: “I like Person X, and Person X likes Thing Y, so therefore I should find out more about Thing Y.” With Facebook, it was an itch to be scratched: when you’re excluded from a conversation because you’re not using a particular social network, then there’s a powerful incentive to join the tribe. Especially as the nominal cost of entry is ‘free’ and the difficulty level is ‘super easy’.

What we need with Open Badges, and which we’ll certainly have by early 2013, are compelling examples of how they can be used in education and other contexts. At the same time we’re working on ways to make ‘onboarding’ easier for issuers, displayers and endorsers. We’re also working on the UX and UI for badge earners. In other words, we’re ready for badges to be huge next year.

Watch this space. 🙂

Image CC BY Joi

 

Why we need open, distributed social networks.

Private land

An article by Michael Erard has been doing the rounds recently. Entitled What I Didn’t Write About When I Wrote About Quitting Facebook, it simultaneously pokes fun at the growing genre of ‘social media exile essay’ whilst raising an interesting issue about the ways in which social networks mediate relationships. Erard concludes (my emphasis):

In the standard Social Media Exile essay, one doesn’t mention or announce when one returns to blogging or Twitter. For each platform or network one leaves, there’s another one to return to. Sometimes they’re the same. So I’m going to close this piece by breaking that convention and mentioning how easy it turns out to be to reactivate Facebook. When you sign back in, all your stuff is there, as if you’d never left. It’s like coming back to your country after a month in a foreign land, and it makes one feel that the whole reason for leaving is to make the place seem strange again. Being away from Facebook was certainly that. But I had to come back. That’s where all the people are. I’ve got a book coming out, and I need to let my friends know. Anyway, you know where to find me and what to talk about when you do. I’ll have some cookies baked.

Let’s cut to the chase: for better or worse, online, we currently act like brands. We can (and do) consider things like using a standardised avatar to increase recognition; we’re careful about what we say in certain kinds of company; we align ourselves with other brands (people, organizations, objects) to gain social capital. The trouble is that, in a similar way to a mall, we’re setting up shop on private property. We can be (and sometimes are) kicked out of spaces for violating lengthy, arcane user agreements written in legalese that few of us take the time to read. On various levels we control our digital identity, sometimes by self-censoring. This is problematic.

Some of us can play the game; Twitter and my online networks and reputation certainly helped me gain my last two jobs. But playing this game can be tiring. Each medium has its own vocabulary and syntax that one has to learn, as Erard demonstrates:

Instead of writing about any of this, once I was not on Facebook anymore, I found myself sending emails with some witty insights or photos of my baby, but it just wasn’t the same; a request for housing help for a friend via email got no responses.

Despite my impending Black Ops period, I’m actually not of the opinion that everything would just be alright if we all just got offline and talked to one another face-to-face. I remember reading recently that talking about the superficiality of social media is more than slightly disingenuous given the type of weather-related chat and insincere ‘how are you?’ questions that make up much of our offline interaction. There was no golden period of offline communication. Updating your Facebook status probably not  time you would have otherwise spent in deep philosophical face-to-face conversation with your next-door neighbour.

But, nevertheless, there is a problem with online communication. Superficial conversations are (usually) neither recorded nor commodified in the ways they can be online. Erard again:

I hadn’t written about feeling like Facebook was a job. Like I was running on a digital hamster wheel. But a wheel that someone else has rigged up. And a wheel that’s actually a turbine that’s generating electricity for somebody else. That’s how I felt, which is what I should have written.

What we’re doing, in effect, is akin to renting houses when we should be buying them. The tools that commercial operations such Facebook, Twitter and Google+ give us are ‘free’ so we often don’t think through the issues clearly. Like a low-income people forced into dealing with a disreputable car dealers, we’re forced into hire-purchase with no real prospect of ownership.

Let’s run a quick thought experiment. Imagine Facebook started charging and, instead of a mass exodus, people (for whatever reason) kept using it. What would change? I think, for one, we’d question where our data was going and we’d want to get rid of the advertising. It’s been repeated so many times that it’s almost become a cliché, but if we’re not paying for something then we’re not customers. And if we’re not customers, we bring something to the marketplace that’s being sold on our behalf. We’re being tracked, packaged-up and sold to the highest bidder.

All this sounds alarmist, and it is, but all I’m trying to do is lift the veil a little. Discontent leads to a search for alternatives, so I suppose I’m trying to stoke the fires of discontent. We’re all in the same position: we need open, distributed social networks to avoid the above. But we’re in a Catch-22: no-one wants to make the first move to Identi.ca or Diaspora because it’s not social until all your friends are there, right?

Image CC-BY-NC-SA [ jon ]

 

One week to go until we launch #purposed!

I’m already excited. 😀

On 1st February 2011 we’ll be launching Purpos/ed as the first step of a 3-year road to instigate and facilitate a debate about the purpose of education. If you haven’t already, follow @purposeducation on Twitter and sign up for the newsletter.

On a related note, the Department for Education has called for comments on a National Curriculum Review. There are three questions that form the basis of the call for comments; if you’ve got a Facebook account, add your voice on the DfE Facebook page.

Even better than adding a lone voice, however, is launching into action. That’s what we’re aiming longer-term with Purpos/ed, but in the shorter-term why not get involved in some local activism with #ncr11, co-ordinated by Graham Brown-Martin (Learning Without Frontiers)? More about these at http://ncr11.wikispaces.com

Really curious about Purpos/ed? Want to get involved straight away? Contact me!

 

How I’m organising my digital outputs in 2011

I had a fascinating Skype conversation with Amber Thomas, a JISC Programme Director. She mentioned the concept of liminality in reference to the ‘trajectory of ambiguities’ idea I’ve been writing about in my journal article. It struck me afterward that I need to firm things up a bit given that I seem to exist in somewhat of a liminal digital world.

So here’s what you’ll find me doing where in 2011:

Synechism

I’ll be writing, as usual, at dougbelshaw.com/blog about user outcomes (including: education, technology, productivity, leadership, design). I’ll be posting around 1-2 times per week and won’t be writing the ‘Things I Learned This Week’ series. It’s a shame, but it’s too much of a time-suck to justify.

Doug’s clippings

I’m going to be using dajbelshaw.amplify.com to clip things of interest I come across online, adding my thoughts as I go. These will be auto-tweeted and saved to delicious.com/dajbelshaw.

Twitter

I’ve cut back drastically on the number of people I’m following on Twitter (@dajbelshaw). It might be just me, but the signal/noise ratio seemed to decline sharply in 2010. I’ll be autoposting things from here and Amplify and using it for mainly work purposes.

Facebook

I thought I deleted my Facebook (http://facebook.com/dajbelshaw) account in mid-2008, but it turned out I simply deactivated it. It’s now re-activated and I’ve gone about removing almost all of my ‘friends’, cutting back sharply to just my immediate family and close contacts. If you’re not one of those, I’m afraid I’ll be ignoring your connection request. Sorry.

As Facebook is the most popular social network and because pretty much all my close contacts are on it, I need to know how to use it effectively. Facebook’s also a great way to organise events and get groups started (without necessarily having a direct connection to people). More on that later, although you can (and should) ‘Like’ this blog there already.

LinkedIn

My policy with LinkedIn (http://uk.linkedin.com/in/dajbelshaw) is simple: I need to know who you are, have dealt with you in a professional sense, and met you in person to connect with you. I’ll only waive the latter condition if you’re somebody I know really well online. It’s a professional, not a social, network.

Quora

I’m still experimenting with Quora (http://quora.com/Doug-Belshaw). Coming back to the notion of liminality, it’s a great example of what happens when boundaries are broken down as a result of new ways to connect to people. I really like the way it’s structured and it marries Yahoo! Answers with Digg and wiki-like functionality. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll connect with anyone on there. :-p

I’ve got more to discuss in terms of how I’m organizing things – especially related to academic stuff. This post covers just what others will see.

 

Some thoughts about online privacy.

CC BY-NC-SA Chris KWM

You may have missed it, but there’s a privacy debate going on as we enter a new decade.* I wanted to share my thoughts, as I think there’s some confused thinking going on.

Usually, when people think of ‘privacy’ they’re actually conflating three notions:

  1. Privacy – not being seen by others
  2. Anonymity – not being identified by others
  3. Ownership – the ability to control things

These are different and should be considered separately.

A lot of digital ink has been spilled recently over changes made by Facebook, the world’s most popular social networking site. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, claimed privacy is ‘no longer a social norm’ which prompted some nods of agreement, but also some vehement criticism. The ever-eloquent danah boyd pretty much sums up the backlash:

There isn’t some radical shift in norms taking place. What’s changing is the opportunity to be public and the potential gain from doing so. Reality TV anyone? People are willing to put themselves out there when they can gain from it. But this doesn’t mean that everyone suddenly wants to be always in public. And it doesn’t mean that folks who live their lives in public don’t value privacy. The best way to maintain privacy as a public figure is to give folks the impression that everything about you is in public.

It’s this control over the public/private debate that is often conflated with anonymity and ownership. And it’s not just media hacks that get this wrong, it’s people with letters after their name. Dr Kieron O’Hara, for example, believes that online life distorts privacy rights for all:

As more private lives are exported online, reasonable expectations are diminishing… When our reasonable expectations diminish, as they have, by necessity our legal protection diminishes.

This effectively takes an argument reserved for celebrities (‘you live by the sword, you die by the sword’) and applies it to everyone else. Not so.

Most of what people object to in the name of ‘privacy’ online is merely technology making something that’s always been done easier or faster.

  • Object to being ‘tagged’ in a photo on Facebook? Did you likewise object when people passed around printed photos of you at a gathering back-in-the-day?
  • Don’t like your phone number being posted online? Is it ex-directory?
  • Not a fan of Google Street View? Do you stop people walking by your house and taking pictures of the local area?

I would argue that no-one has a ‘right’ to anonymity in anything apart from legal proceedings. To attempt to do so – even in an analogue world – is unrealistic.

Recently, I received a suggestion via Skribit that I blog about how I deal with ‘having such a public web presence’ coupled with the tendency of students to ‘google their teachers’. The question seems to be about privacy: do you really want students to know everything about you?

The answer to that can be summed up in one word: control. I am my own media outlet. It doesn’t cost me anything but time to do so. Of course I have secrets, my dark side, things that I don’t want people to find out. But I can control what is said about me. Google Alerts emails me when my name is mentioned somewhere on the internet. If it’s defamatory or negative, I give my side of the story, try and work things out. It’s no different than going to the village gossip to set things straight.

I moderate comments on my YouTube videos, I keep most photos of my family away from public viewing areas on Flickr, and not all of my Delicious links are available for viewing by everyone. That’s why I like Aza Raskin’s idea of a Creative Commons for Privacy. Just as Creative Commons licenses have made it absolutely clear under what conditions you can re-use someone’s artistic work or media (see the top of this post), so a similar system for privacy would give unambiguous recourse for privacy violations. People will tend towards openness, of course they will.

But then I’m not so sure that people being open, controlling their digital identity and learning how to respect the wishes of others is such a bad thing. It’s all about being clear and unamibugous.

Further reading:

*Technically, the decade doesn’t start until 2011, but everyone’s acting like it’s already started. Who am I to spoil the party? 😉

 

Telling a new story.

David Warlick’s been saying for years that we need to ‘tell a new story’ about education in the 21st century. I didn’t really get what he meant until some recent events within the UK education system and the UK media came together to underline his point…

 
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