Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Power of Myspace and the 'Myspace Generation'

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 09, 2006

Jacinta Gascoigne wrote (in a private forum):

> How many of you in the community, have a myspace, facebook or Xanga?

I do, have had for a couple of years now. I have accounts on LiveJournal, Friendster, LinkedIn, MySpace, Bebo, Orkut, Tribe and a bunch of others. The technology isn't that complex, and they all work more or less the same, only the marketing is different.

Most of these sites are blocked in school divisions and even at the TAFE level. This of course in no way prevents students from accessing them, even during school hours (as contact may be maintained by mobile) but it does prevent them from being used to support learning.

I would not invest heavily in any of these spaces, as they are a transition phenomenon. A transition to what is less clear - YouTube overtook MySpace as the most popular website a few months ago, but growth flattened after the Google acquisition, as you can see on Alexa.

I would also not bother taking the time to block them - such action is in my view merely a pandering to fearmongers, and not an effective tactic - but that is another story.

My own view is that we are moving toward permanent personal presences on the net. That is, a person's online presence would not be site-based, as it is with any of these social networking services, but would be access based. It would either be a part of their web cliewnt (ie., a part of their browser, the way Flock does it) or a shell or webtop through which they access other resources.

The reson for this is that it produces a single identity that can be used across a number of different sites. This means that, once the access point is created, users no longer need to log on (contrast this to 'single signon' systems that are being developed for the education sector, that work only at schools or universities).

It also means that a person's network of connections can extend across the internet, not mattering at all on which service they use. Hence, if a person uses service A as a webtop, they can still include their friend in their network, even if that friend uses service B.

It also allows identities to be (semantically) attached to content. It may be surprising, but there is no widespread usage of an 'author' field in metadata today; although RSS and Atom support this, most content editors don't fill it in, because there's no point - either the author information is not available, or it can't be used by the aggregator (there is not enough use of formats other than RSS or Atom to make their use of the author field relevant). Moreover, there is no 'place' to link to, nothing that constitutes an authors presence online (even where author fields are used, as in Dublin Core, only base strings are used (foolishly) and not web addresses).

It is taking longer than it should to develop such a system - and meanwhile, the number of site-specific Web 2.0 applications begins to proliferate - because there is no good business model. These sites thrive by locking in traffic into their own services, and hence, are not interested in infrastructure that allows travel between sites (this is also what motivates the education sector systems, such as Shibboleth, but nobody will admit it).

Preliminary work is being done toward this sort of infratructure in the development of the Person al Learning Environment (PLE) although it still continues to be a bit application (and education) focused. In the wider world, there is some hope OpenID will take hold, although its functionality is severly constrained. Yadis represents a nascent attempt to create a common standard. PeopleAggregator is attempting to develop the network, but is again too site-heavy.

What these trends mean for the education sector is that in a few years we can expect students to arrive in our classes with an already established web identity. What this means is not only that they will have their own email, instant messaging, voip and other addresses (which they will much prefer to use over any school system) they will also have their own tools for creating content (significantly - they will have these tools, they won't need to have them provided). They will use a variety of services - for video, for example, some may use Premiere to create video while others may use Bender, and some may post to Google Video and others to YouTube.

It will be increasingly difficult for education systems to continue blocking these sites - I read on a discussion board yesterday the recommendation to "take your students out of class" in order to allow them to upload their video creations. Some schools may consider creating their own versions of all the services (and will pay Blackboard (who will claim to have invented it) a fortune for the software). But this approach will be seen as barren and sterile - you cannot create an internet out of a classroom population; even with today's mega-classes, the population is just too small (reserach the 'one percent phenomenon' of people commenting to listservs, posts and websites).

On the other hand, opening learning to the students' web environment opens up numerous possibilities for the educational system. Because their work is now being performed in public, rather than in the hothouse of the classroom, students are much more motivated (this is a most commonly documented result of the use of blogs in the classroom). (Though it should be noted that this increases stress, and that some students may not want their work displayed - this is why they need to have personal control over their environment).

It also opens up many more networking possibilities. The obvious is that conversations with students around the world may be encouraged. But more importantly, students in a given field will begin to interact with practitioners in the same field. We already see this happening on discussion lists (such as this one (or would, if it were more open)). This allows practitioners to take on the role of (informal) teachers through the process of performing their work.

In the long run, what we will find is that this capacity leads to much more continuity of community than today. With students and workers increasingly mobile, following an increasingly fickle employment market, it has been difficult to maintain family and community ties. Permanent web presences and communities offers an obvious counter to this trend. Sites like Flickr, especially, allow people to maintain family connections, instantly sharing photos. Skype and other communications tools allow them to converse in real time, bridging time and distance.

A lot of people focus on the 'MySpace generation', as though use of this technology were an age-related phenomenon. Empirically, it is - the bulk of users tend to be from a certain age group. But age is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for use. A major secondary group of users is the elderly, who have seized on the internet as a means of breaking through isolation and boredom, and to restore tenuous family connections. Nothing in principle prevents adults from becoming as adept as the younger generation.

It requires, though, adapting to what might be called net values. It requires being able to adapt to the coexistence of multiple points of view, with no real mechanism for detgermining 'the truth'. It requires giving up the capacity for management and control, giving up the idea that you can enforce compliance (how could you, when they can simply log off?) and make people do things, even if it's good for them. It requires that you become less inclined to create walls and borders around your life, that you do things (like take notes and conduct meetings) online and in public, rather than privately, as used to be the case.

This is what makes the new online environment such a challenge to teachers and administrators. What the internet brings to the new generation is a set of affordances not previously available, and with these afrordances comes a new attitude and behaviour, one which embraces autonomy, diversity, openness and interaction.

ChrisA wrote,

> and welcome to the world of SPAM

Spam is uniquely possible in push domains, that is, environments where other people push content into a space you look at.

Hence we see spams in the daily mail, telephone calls, emails, discussion lists, discussion boards, weblog comment forms, trackbacks, and the like.

Spam is effectively impossible in pull domains, that is, environments where you pull content from selected sources into a space you look at.

Hence, we do not see spam in newspapers, television and radio, newspapers, websites, RSS feeds, library books, and the like (the ads we see, we see by choice; we can always watch non-commercial television if we choose).

The reason we have spam is that the desires of those who send messages have predominated over the desires over those who want to receive messages.

Consider how hard it was to get administrators to switch from sending out all-staff emails (spam) to putting important information on websites (non-spam). "But then they might not read it," goes the complaint. Exactly! In a pull environment, you give control to the reader. That's the only way to eliminate spam - the problem is, it includes your spam.

In the world of MySpace, the way to prevent spam is to elect to receive messages only from people you trust - your friends. The presence of spam in MySpace demonstrates either that (a) this system is broken, or (b) you were not sufficiently selective in choosing your friends.

For a better example of how such a system works in practice, see LiveJournal, an environment where people coulds control who reads their stuff and writes to their pages. LiveJournal has maintained a consistent (though quiet) popularity despite the more heavily promoted and faddish services.

This discussion forum is a clumsy attempt to do the same thing. I say clumsy because instead of giving read/write permissions to individuals, the control is managed by a site administrator. What this means is that readers, such as myself, get messages they don't want. It also means that people who write here, such as myself, cannot make this writing accessible to the wider world (I have to cut and paste posts to my blog at ).

Again, the possibility of spam is always created by the existence of a person who feels (and is able to put into action) the belief that they know more than you do about what you should be able to read and write (a trait prevalent among educators). It comes with the territory.

Give up the desire to control others, and you get rid of spam. The equation is that simple.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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