A couple of years ago, I was heavily involved in the e-learning world, and spent a lot of time advocating the use of Elgg (naturally) and similar social media tools to that community. Two worrying trends became apparent: the use of mass-media hosted networks like Facebook and Flickr to host class-related information – something I still think is a terrible idea, for a whole set of reasons that would be resolved if people started reading EULAs – and the use of online technologies as a replacement for face-to-face interaction.
I said it then, and I’ll say it again: if I thought people were going to use it as a replacement for real-world interaction, I’d stop developing it tomorrow. (Well, okay, it’s a much larger company now, and things have changed accordingly: I’d bring it to the board.)
When Facebook launched, they were the first social tool to make this explicit: it’s a utility for connecting you to the people you already know. In that sense, it works very well – if the people you already know are already there. The Facebook Platform was a kind of diversion from this core purpose, so it’s been very interesting seeing them downplay those widgets and distill it back into a river of activity. Even then, I’ve noticed a lot of my less techie friends revert to text messages and phone calls. The Facebook honeymoon is definitely over.
I spent the last couple of days in Brighton, and it similarly interesting to see the smart, tech-orientated community there use Twitter as a kind of social glue. It’s a very different to my use case as a kind of mini-blog; there, because of the density and proximity of the community, it becomes an incredibly efficient way to keep in contact and organise ways to meet up face-to-face.
On top of which, there’s a huge amount of ambiguity inherent to online communication, particularly via email. Emoticons don’t cut it; we’ve evolved, both socially and biologically, to read tiny cues that really only occur when you’re in the same room with someone. It’s very difficult to incorporate that into a website. Which, to be clear, doesn’t mean that the web isn’t useful, and I’m of course passionate about the benefits that social media can provide to society. It’s just that these tools must be considered as part of a balanced diet of different kind of interaction.
Speaking of face-to-face, there’s going to be an Elgg Meet this Saturday, October 18, at the Peartree in Edinburgh, from 3-5pm. Come and say hello! I’ll be branded up with an Elgg T-shirt, so you can’t miss me.