I read a book: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Until recently, Clay Shirky was best known as the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. The book  was widely praised (seriously, Boing Boing calls it a “masterpiece”) and is still referenced  by social media strategist/expert/guru types as a must-read for anyone looking to explore the social dynamics that drive the use of technology, which at the time (and even now, to a certain extent) is not what drives most conversation about the internet and social media in particular.

Rather than focusing the catalyst of online social behavior on specific technologies  (i.e. what makes Facebook so popular?) Shirky argued that social tools facilitates common group behavior, conversation and social interaction. At the time, the beginning of Facebook’s online dominance and in the midst of growing fascination and panic about social media from the mainstream press. Shirky presented a reasoned, articulate and well-researched argument that the idea of “crowdsourcing” was not a new idea, but actually rooted in common, even traditional social interaction. The Internet just made that interaction happen more widely and more rapidly.

If you talk to any social media/internet  “expert” or “enthusiast” these days, this perspective is seen as common knowledge, but without Shirky’s well-presented theory and research to bolster this theory it wouldn’t have taken root.

In 2010, you’d think that this argument wouldn’t need repeating or clarification, but as traditional media continues to evolve and digital use continues to grow and become more ubiquitous, the panic of social theorists and mainstream media commentators continues unabated. The continuing debate of whether the Internet makes you smarter or more stupid seems to have a new chapter each day, but in Cognitive Surplus, Shirky’s latest book, he does add fuel to that fire, but also offers a modified version of his Here Comes Everybody thesis: The Internet has given us the tools to create, publish and share media  faster, cheaper and with more people than ever before

Shirky’s revised thesis is the reason that I think Cognitive Surplus is a must-read (there’s that term again) for media professionals in every field.

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The Learned Fangirl @ SXSW: Part 3: Bridging Divides

I appreciate that you started your first Learned Fangirl post about SXSW writing about increased inclusiveness.

In addition to the panels you discussed, including How to Be Black Online, I was glad that there were varied discussions by and about people of difference, including about how disabled people use technology, women in technology and the glass ceiling, the GLBTQ community and technology, and about Jewish people and technology — including frum (very religious Jewish) participation. Of course, I started SXSW with my first session, a lively discussion about Asian-Americans belying the discussion title of Asians: The Silent Minority! (see also: Redefining Asians and the Internet: I Am Not Your Fetish).

I appreciated that those in the audience for the “people of difference” sessions I attended were genuinely interested in the discussion — both members of the community and those that are not members of the specific community being discussed. And that unfortunately is surprising, so I appreciate the tech community’s openness, especially in response to past criticism of lack of diversity at SXSW.

Three of the most interesting panels I attended during SXSW concerned bridging divides between different people — understanding how creative products are used differently internationally (Design, Collaboration, Pokemon: How Not to Offend People Globally), governments helping disseminate accurate health-based information — especially during a bcrisis, and informing a highly educated, tech-savvy/making audience about how and why a digital divide exists in the U.S.

Watching the panelists on When Swine Flew: Embracing Innovation in H1N1 Response reminded me of my long-ago love for public health. Panelists Andrew Wilson of the Department of Health & Human Services, Ann Aikin of the CDC, and David Hale from the National Library of Medicine discussed how they help their government agencies effectively spread accurate information — including via twitter. I appreciated hearing about how the taxonomy of terms being used is based on library abstracts for SemanticTwitter, “which focuses on semantic and natural language processing of H1N1-related Twitter posts for biosurveillance, determination of public sentiment, and targeted information dissemination.” And for the analytics lovers out there, there was also discussion of measuring effective media strategies.

This isn't the Digital Divide at issue!

But of course, I found How The Other Half Lives – Touring The Digital Divide, as presented by Jessamyn West and Jenny Engstrom, two superawesome librarians, to be the perfect capstone to explaining the ways that some are involved in the tech debates — and some aren’t. (And to get all Reading Rainbow, “you don’t have to take my word for it” — read the slides and hear the presentation). They presented on the digital divide between those with access to technology (and knowledge about the use of technology) and those without. Jessamyn’s focus is on the rural communities (specifically in Vermont) and Jenny’s focus is on the urban communities, including immigrants (specifically in New York).

I was impressed not only with the presentation — and that SXSW had such a presentation — but also that the members of the audience , the technological elite, were so interested in the on-the-ground digital divide. I expect that many came away with a greater understanding of not only their role in bridging that divide, but the importance of libraries and librarians in the difficult hand-holding information literacy that takes place in libraries daily.

And if you want to read the excellent twitter backchannel that as of this post is still continuing, the hashtag is #digitaldivide .

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Learned Fangirl at SXSW – Part 1: Black People on Twitter and other Non-Surprising Surprises

So, it’s been awhile, we know, but Learned Fangirl is back from hibernation. TLF was at SXSW Interactive this year and in between all of the panels, parties, networking, meeting old friends and new and trying to run away from drunken street harassers, we’ll be dropping some insights here in the next few days, probably weeks.

Before I get to into discussing the panels and the conference as a whole (and I’ve a lot to say about that), I wanted to use this first post to examine a theme I’ve noticed through the panels I’ve attended thus far.

When I attended last year, some of the attendees (including myself) were very critical of the demographic breakdown of the SXSW panels and panel topics, which like the tech industry as a whole, is pretty heavy on white males between the ages of 25-40.  There was a very public call to improve the diversity of these panels when the call for presenters went up for SXSW last year.

To the organizers’ credit, the SXSW Panel Picker went a long way in attempting to create more a more diverse experience in terms of panel speakers and topics, which was good to see; topics of race/gender difference seem to spring up even on panels that weren’t focused on those issues.

danah boyd‘s keynote talk on online privacy vs. publicity sparked a lot of discussion and thought for me. Some of you may remember boyd’s research on race/class and social networks. and her implication that MySpace is not a dead social network as much as it was perceived to be by the social media thought leaders who no longer spend time there.

This year, boyd brought attention to the black online subculture that exists on Twitter. Later, during his session “How to be Black Online,” comic Baratunde Thurston elaborated on the online user behavior of African-Americans, addressing the differences in technology use and social media conversation from general (i.e. white) online users. It’s great insight that unfortunately still doesn’t seem to stick with some social media experts who still cling to the old “digital native/digital immigrant” argument.

Talk of social media user and age is overstated at this point (yes, the median age of a Facebook user is 44, we know) while race and class stratification of the online world is still the elephant in the room at conferences like SXSW and elsewhere. I’ve noticed many of the “people of difference”  are engaging in digital grassroots activism and DIY/entrepreneurial efforts but not necessarily represented widely as industry leaders.

While the digital divide is arguably not as wide as it used to be (and I am not completely convinced of that) race and even more importantly, class, is mostly an afterthought in conversations about social media and the web. For all the data available on online user behavior, and all the talk about social media audience segmentation, online audiences are still primarily viewed as monolithic; the subject of race and class differences still seem to be a revelation for digital industry experts.  That’s a real shame when you consider the opportunities being missed by the industry as a whole.

The encouraging thing about SXSW 2010, however is that there was at least the beginning of some kind of dialogue started about these issues and that there was room for it. Still we’re outliers; there’s not enough race/gender/class diversity at the table, either at conferences like SXSW or the industry as a whole for the conversation to take place outside of just a off-shoot panel or two. The conversation needs to  become practice in order to lead to any structural change in the way digital experts view user behavior in the online space.

Ah well, maybe next year.

Book Review: Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives


Child observes internet tubes (image:boingboing)

In their new book, Born Digital, John Palfrey and Urs Gassler discuss the generation of digital natives, described as those born after 1980, and how they interact with online knowledge, compared with the online experiences of digital immigrants.

The thesis of the book is that those in the youngest generation are more adept, more at home on the Internet. As someone who works with the small percentage of college grads in the millennial generation (only 29% of American adults have a bachelors’ degree), age doesn’t always reflect degree of online knowledge.

Siva Vaidhyanathan has taken issue with viewing those of a certain age as a generation, and specifically with “digital natives“, arguing in a Chronicle article

Talk of a “digital generation” or people who are “born digital” willfully ignores the vast range of skills, knowledge, and experience of many segments of society. It ignores the needs and perspectives of those young people who are not socially or financially privileged. It presumes a level playing field and equal access to time, knowledge, skills, and technologies. The ethnic, national, gender, and class biases of any sort of generation talk are troubling. And they could not be more obvious than when discussing assumptions about digital media.

Henry Jenkins also has issues with the digital native terminology:

Talk of digital natives may make it harder for us to pay attention to the digital divide in terms of who has access to different technical platforms and the participation gap in terms of who has access to certain skills and competencies or for that matter, certain cultural experiences and social identities. Talking about youth as digital natives implies that there is a world which these young people all share and a body of knowledge they have all mastered, rather than seeing the online world as unfamiliar and uncertain for all of us.

Despite my own reservations about calling a generation “digital natives”, this book has a wealth of information about what I would prefer to view as two separate, but occasionally overlapping groups, those comfortable and familiar with online and similar technologies, and those who are not yet adults — with their still growing and developing brains.

The authors do discuss participatory culture and the intersection between creativity and copyright. There is a mention of fanworks like fanfiction in a section about mashups and creativity. But neither in the creativity or activism sections is there mention of fair use interspersed with the frequent mentions of copyright and ownership.

One of the sections that I found the most interesting was about libraries and librarians:

There’s never been a greater need for reference librarians. . . . In addition to maintaining access to traditional pools of knowledge [books and journals], librarians should help Digital Natives figure out how to manage the rivers of digital information that they encounter every day [like RSS].

The role of libraries is increasing … as Digital Natives up saturated in the information environment of the digital age.

One final note: While the text of the book is interesting, one of the most impressive aspects is the organization. Except for oddly leaving libraries out of the index, the supplemental backbone of the book (the index, selected bibliography, glossary, and notes/citation) help the reader to find useful information. I expect equally good information from the upcoming wiki.

Born Digital‘s ISBNs are 0465005152 9780465005154 & it can be found in many libraries.