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A number of recent changes to the social media technologies I use daily force me again to reflect on the habits design decisions cultivate in us. The decisions made by Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple are, of course, design decisions with a decidedly commercial interest.  Even so, their willingness to make substantive changes to the way we interact with one another through their sites is teaching us all something about the habits we need to cultivate in the digital age.

Facebook, of course, just implemented some fairly radical changes to its user interface, adding a twitter like timeline on the right side of the screen, integrating Spotify, adding a timeline, and curating more content from friends it thinks will be of interest to you. They have followed Google in making it easier to direct a specific post to a group of friends right from the status update text box. And they have implemented, among many other things, a subscribe feature that allows anyone to subscribe to your FB page.

Google, for its part, continues to roll out changes to its new Google Plus platform, recently adding the ability to share circles with others. What seems on the surface to be a simple design decision has wide ranging implications for the number of people following you and for your ability to follow new people.

Apple has just rolled out its iCloud service, rendering its previous Mobile Me service obsolete. In so doing, they announced to anyone with content on Mobile Me, that it would no longer be supported after June 2012.

Make no mistake, these changes are designed to increase the revenue each of these companies is able to generate for itself.  But what interests me about this in particular is the manner in which these changes are forcing us all to be more flexible, open and, hopefully, inquisitive about the technologies with which we are engaged.
We are not used to having the medium through which we communicate with one another change so radically so frequently.
It is disconcerting.
But perhaps there is something important to learn from that sense of vertigo that comes with such changes. We are required to learn anew the things we thought we knew. We are forced to ask ourselves new questions about how we post and to whom; we are made to think again about what is public and how we want ourselves to be seen and heard online.
These changes, whatever the value or lack thereof they have, force us again and again into a mode of play so that we might learn what we can do with these technologies and what they are doing to us.
If we are to engage one another with a modicum of responsibility in and through these technologies, we will need to cultivate in ourselves the habits of playful exploration and curiosity; we will need to be willing, again and again, to reconsider the things we thought we had finished considering, to rethink those habits of interaction that have become thoughtless and rote.
Whatever the value of the changes these companies have foisted upon us, our ability to navigate in a new, more dynamic digital world, will depend on our ability to cultivate in ourselves, our friends, our students, and our children an openness to change, a willingness to reconsider, an ability to playfully explore and the courage to act with integrity in the flux of things.

Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • Chris, this post is important on a whole host of levels. I want to comment on a few as these are ideas that I have wrestled with over the past few years as well.
    The first is the idea of consciously learning what and who to share information with. I agree that the social platforms encourage us to be more thoughtful about this process. I experienced a similar awakening when I taught online for the first few times—I had to think about pedagogical issues that were automatic processes in my face-to-face classes. So when I returned to the physical classroom my teaching was improved. So consciously thinking about some ideas improved learning. That said the human brain is not designed to constantly think about ideas consciously. Automatic processes such as heuristics in decision making are in place for a reason: so we don’t have to expend all our cognitive energy on learning how to learn and decide every time a decision is made. Let me give an example of this. A while back I had a Facebook account. In the short time that I had it, I had to learn how to create and share information three different times in a six month period. This was a huge waste of my time in my opinion as each method held the same basic ability to create and share that information as I had to keep consciously adjusting my control over information when I already knew what and with whom I wanted to share. I ended up closing that account in part because of that burden.
    Now let’s translate this to the classroom. A semester runs for four months. So during that time, students would have had to learn two separate methods of creating and sharing information in my classroom; once shortly after I had taught them the first set of rules at the beginning of class and another right before finals. Now I’m not saying that students shouldn’t be learning to learn, but changing the rules can be extremely unfair in a situation like I just described, and as we learned with the iPad project that it can get in the way of acquiring content knowledge, which I think is incredibly important at the undergraduate level as it gives students the base knowledge to go out and acquire and create cutting edge information upon graduation, whether it be in graduate school or the workplace.
    Now, I also see the major ability of the social web to help us create professional communication skills among our students. By being able to see how they communicate in more depth and encouraging more thoughtful and responsible information creation. My mentor taught that professionalism was a lifestyle, but in today’s world, that means never shutting off that persona even though it may be another cognitive drain as social media is so ubiquitous in our lives now. Facebook and Google for instance get more hits in a day than many other websites combined.
    That brings me to another concern: commercialism of the social web. I know that you didn’t really want to get into this point in your post, but I think that it presents an almost unavoidable ethical problem for instructors across the University system. I’ll use a real-life example to demonstrate. My guess is that every instructor in the system who participates in the retirement programs is invested in Google as part of their portfolio, but perhaps not a smaller company such as LinkedIn. Now, let’s say I’ve determined that adding a social media component to one of my courses is of educational value as I know that I can help students learn about communicating professionally as I mentioned above. I know that Google+ and LinkedIn. LinkedIn is more professionally oriented and may actually help me achieve this goal just by the set-up and nature of the site. But maybe that advantage is over-ridden by my desire to retire a bit earlier so I choose Google+ instead and justify to myself that the advantage of LinkedIn isn’t that great. In that situation I have position power over my students and can take unfair advantage of them for my own personal gain. That is a major reason I don’t use the commercial sites in my classes, but instead choose our in-house solutions such as the Blogs at Penn State or wikispaces when each is not as user friendly as commercially available alternatives. That said, when students have the position power, such as with the World Campus Psychology Club that I advise, they have chosen to use Facebook, Twitter, etc. as communication tools and I have created accounts to meet their needs.
    I guess to sum up, I don’t think that there is an easy solution to these issues, and it is good to see that people are consciously thinking about them. But I do worry that not enough people are thinking about them and that the pace of technology may exceed our thought and decision making processes to even address them appropriately.

  • Brian, I really appreciate these thoughtful comments. You bring up a lot of points worth thinking more fully about. In particular, I need to think more about automatic processes and the importance of them. Your research in psychology has important insight to shed on this issue. Do you have some texts that might help me and others think about the proper balance between constant reflection on process and the need for stable operating procedures?
    As for commercialization, mentioned it because it is an issue about which I am very concerned, so I am happy you brought it up. I would be interested in hearing more about how those in Teaching and Learning in Technology at Penn State are thinking about this question concerning the commercial products available out there.

  • I’m happy to engage in the dialog Chris. I’m also happy to provide some references on the subject as well. Social Psychologist Robert Cialdini has written a wonderful series on the topic called Influence. The edition that I have is called Influence: Science and Practice ISBN: 032101147 Basically Cialdini is a world class social researcher (although not necessarily social media) who also writes non-jargon books that are particularly popular in the business world because they make psychology quick and practical. I keep meaning to pick up a newer edition to see what he is saying about new media.

    Another relatively quick read that I would recommend. It is more of a biological perspective, but also highly readable and non-technical as well as applied:
    Mean Genes
    by Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan. This book basically is filled with tips to overcome our evolutionary past which sometimes work counter to modern society’s demands on us.

    I would also recommend E.O. Wilson’s
    On Human Nature
    as it too is relatively short without being too technical. Wilson believes in connecting science and the humanities, so this may be of great interest to you. In another of his books (
    The Future of Life
    ) he weaves Thoreau throughout his exposition. He has a fabulous ability to connect micro level phenomena to macro level ones. He may be the greatest scientist of our time.

    Returning to psychology I also recommend most of Steven Pinker’s
    as well, but he tends to be long-winded (most of his books are twice as long as the ones I mentioned above) and his writing tone seems arrogant to me. That said his
    The Blank Slate
    addresses how some certain modern myths have permeated modern culture, academia in particular and lead to many bad policy choices in government, etc.

    I too would love to see what the TLT gurus have to say as well. As they are definitely more knowledgeable than I concerning the actual technology.

  • Sorry for the crazy double posting. I'm not sure what happened there.

  • Sam Loewner says:

    I want to weigh in briefly, although, in substance, Chris and Brian have already stated many feelings I have on the subject and likely did so with more evidence and eloquence than I could have mustered. Thank you both for putting thoughts into text. I really enjoyed reading it.
    What this discussion does for me is illustrate something that I think we need more of: the beginning of an academic background into the causes and effects of new media. It was great to read this post in the same day as I read Nathan Jurgenson’s “”” target=”_blank”>(http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/10/17/the-rise-of-the-internet-anti-intellectual/),“” target=”_blank”> ” target=”_blank”>(http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/10/17/the-rise-of-the-internet-anti-intellectual/),“ target=”_blank”> “” target=”_blank”>(http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/10/17/the-rise-of-the-internet-anti-intellectual/),“ target=”_blank”> ” target=”_blank”>(http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/10/17/the-rise-of-the-internet-anti-intellectual/), where he says that there is too little study of social media. There are business folk (some of whom, like Jeff Jarvis, the subject of the post, are also in the academe) who have pounced on social media and its applications as a marketing tool. They are right to do so, of course, as social media affords us (I am in the corporate world and the public sector, so I use the first person) an opportunity to be better providers of services. So businesses are starting to understand some of what social media is and isn’t from an investment and revenue-based point of view.
    But what about non-businesses? Where are (as Jurgenson says) the Marshall McLuhans of new media? Who is theorizing what new media means for us as a society and individuals? As I write that, I think to myself that the analogy might be fundamentally flawed. Perhaps there are thousands of McLuhans out there now (as there could not be before). I do not know if that is good or bad, but I pay closer attention than most (I think) to what big names in the world are saying about new media, and the discussion is dominated by generally meaningless statistics (“there are X-million Facebook users this week!”) or marketing/technical analyses of these online environments. Few of them pay serious attention to the effects that new media is having on our sociology, biology, and philosophy. I look forward to reading some of Brian’s suggestions above, as I think they all sound fascinating, so I thank him for his recommendations — perhaps if I make a concerted effort to find academics talking about new media, I will be able to find enough evidence that I’m forced to revise my statements here.
    Ultimately, my point is the same as it was a few months ago when I saw a tweet from Chris that said it would be a shame if all the attention social media got in academia was focused on its business applications. I said it would be a complete disaster. I still think that’s true, and every time I see these thoughtful, academic interpretations of how new media is impacting us and our abilities as teachers, students, trainers, doers, and thinkers, I am happy. It is the social scientist in me, I think, who wants to see these notions studied, tested, and analyzed, and I look forward to that happening sooner, rather than later (perhaps new media, combined with great leadership from people like Associate Dean Long, can do the unthinkable: speed up the pace of the academy!).

  • I will try to fix that on the back end.

  • Sam, in general I do agree with you that the current level of research is not necessarily causal with regards to social media. It does tend to be primarily descriptive. That said a lot of information can be useful from that research. For instance, while 8 million clicks may be useless data in that we can’t necessarily tell if that is 8 million users or one person just clicking non-stop, when websites post information like Facebook’s statistics page we can see that the number of users has grown to over 800 million people; that is roughly 500 million more than the total population of the United States, or looked at another way, that is more than 10% of the population of the entire world. Which indicates why corporations like Facebook have so much power, which is great sociological information. It goes back to something predicted over a decade ago the rise of the corporate nation . In general, descriptive data is needed prior to getting into cause and effect research so that the right questions can be asked to solve the basic problem of “why is it that things are that way?”

    There however has been some causal work in sociology, psychology and anthropology (that is the domains that I am familiar with, there could be others) with regards to social media. Sociologists for instance have teamed up with the CDC and the city of Chicago. Using social network information from the web, they mapped out disease spread and then figured out where to target interventions before breakouts occurred. They have then been able to measure the amount of reduction in the spread of the disease. In psychology, the effect of social networks on identity development has been studied. So I don’t think that the problem is that social networks aren’t being studied, it’s that the (non-business) academics are either not making their knowledge digestible for public consumption or the public doesn’t care what non-business related thinkers have to say. Or most likely a combination of both. In all those cases, the onus is on us as professionals to step up and make our knowledge useful, timely and available.

  • dirkusa says:

    the problem is that our old/inherited/evolutionary cognitive-biases don't lend themselves easily to new social habits so where/how do we learn them? http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/39338

  • rrsundstrom says:

    The above comments get at many of the relevant, and even poignant, issues with social media habits. What stands out for me are (1) the changing nature of habits and virtues, (2) commercialization as written into the fabric-code of social media, and (3) cognitive and behavioral science about how humans make choices. On the third point, did you see the NYTimes article on FB, Google+, and the minimum age of users? http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/16/magazine/why-fa
    The reductions of restrictions and the spread of "personalization," "tracking," and "profiling" of minors is certainly of great concern. The social media industry (Big Social Media) is interested in nudging the young away from privacy and toward more sharing. They are re-writing and helping us re-write the meaning of old values, such as privacy and humility. Certainly I hope that experts in behavioral economics and cognitive science participate in building consensus to force Big Social Media to nudge all of us, especially the youth, in the other direction. For what it's worth, I think Google+ is superior on this account than FB. However, the role of cognitive science and behavioral economics experts will be limited, and mediated by the bottom line and the rampant adoption of new media by users, including underage minors. So, I don't have much hope that scientific experts will have much effect on the social media engineers and corporate executives.
    This brings me to point (2). Social media are economic ventures. They are selling a product. Yes, we use them to express ourselves (which is crafted and shaped by personalization technology: Rousseau would call this force "distortion"), but the products they are selling are "identity" services. I recommend Eli Pariser's "Filter Bubble: What the Internet is hiding from you," because his discussion of these issues is engaging and accessible, and he makes the point that social media hasn't just been commercialized, it is first and foremost a commercial venture. Until the infrastructure of the web is completely public, and its platforms–like FB and twitter–transformed into truly public forums, forums in the hands of the people and their representatives, they are primarily commercial ventures. So the issue isn't the commercialization of social media, but transforming social media from private ventures to public goods. Morovoz's "The Net Delusion," is helpful on this front because he points out that much of the web is open to the manipulation of governments (in contrast to res publica or res populi).
    This leads me to (1). The one clear path is to engender the people, and especially the youth with diligent, self-protective virtues. What these virtues look like is yet to be determined. E.g., what does "privacy" or "humility" mean now when we share and are expected to share so much online? These virtues won't be merely rejectionist, luddite-like virtues: turn it off! Rather, they should be clever and not open to abuse. E.g., FB expects us to be "honest" about our profiles and to not keep our identities and interests hidden, but it is using the moral force of the OLD idea of honesty, without being "honest" about their commodification of our private lives. We need to figure out what the meaning of honesty and truthfulness, consent, modesty in the digital age. Until then, I urge my students to beware and take control, and to certainly be skeptical about Big Social Media's demand on its users.

  • Brad K says:

    We are still in a beginning time when there will be rapid changes. I don't know if things will ever stabilize, and perhaps they won't. Instead of thinking specifically about social media the bigger question is what does constant change mean for us, and the question is framed very well by your post, Chris. I do not find the rapid changes disconcerting. I generally view them as a net positive, because so far the stuff keeps getting better – at least in their usefulness. The wider ramifications for these things actually being more useful could be debated. Is there security in systems being less useful? Yes, in the same way that less changes can be more secure and comforting.
    Facebook is a virtual place for people to gather, talk, and be seen. There are many commerical and non-commerical places like this in the physical world. There are commericial and non-commerical places in the virtual world. I am not too worried. Yet.
    Is it really an issue of privacy as much of one of trust? We have conversations over telephone, send letters via post, make purchases with credit cards. All this data is out there already. We might have some level of trust with the companies that are stewarding all this data. Legistation is applicable, but the web world is still moving too fast to keep up. And yes, none of us knows where it will go in the end.

  • Lyndsay says:

    I agree, I wish Facebook would leave it alone. If you think all these updates are for our benefit, think again. Many changes erode our privacy and allow them to collect more data on us. Make no mistake, free online services are gathering data on us and selling it. If you wonder how sites make money, understand that we are the product.

  • More and more the public has to realize that we, and information about us, is the more valuable product. If you ever find a site that you see no obvious way they are making money off it, you can be pretty sure they are selling your information to others. A great book about this is called "The Filter Bubble".

  • Plamen says:

    Yeah. I don't like the new Facebook design. They always change it however they want. If only there was another popular site just like facebook, I would quit it. I heard something about Google+, but most of my friends don't use it, so it is useless right now. Maybe in the near future. Btw, good post and very informative and well-designed blog. Keep posting interesting stuff 🙂

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