Anyone for socio-political networking?

The other night I went to Education Unbound 2008, a debate on ‘how social technologies are blurring formal and informal learning‘. The panel comprised Dan Sutch (Futurelab), David Noble (Hillside School, Fife), Andy Gibson (School of Everything) and Catherine Howell (Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies). It was chaired by Matt Locke, Commissioning Editor at Channel 4.

As a 50.0 year-old I’m not particularly attuned to the finer points of web 2, so this took a while to assimilate, but some points stuck out that were particularly significant for citizenship.

Firstly, the conversation was rooted in the normal educational assumptions that those of us successful enough to have been invited might not question: firstly, there is something that we should learn, there are ways that we should prove we know it, and the reward is the career ladders for those whose confidence was built by having done so. What I expected from the evening was that the ‘informal education’ component would relate to people choosing what they wanted to learn and then learning it and then doing it. (Something like the way I learned the guitar when I was 14. I passed exams in playing the flute and piano, but with the guitar, who cares?… I formed a band! How pathetic would it have been if some educationalist had come along and said ‘well done in playing so well in that band – here’s a grade five equivalent certificate. Mmmm, I think not thanks.)

Informal education, I thought, would be user driven, enquirer based. And, well it usually is I suppose, if the internet is the world’s largest library what have we learnt about learning? Well if it has taught us one thing, it’s that when you put the population behind screens and leave them to find out what they want to know, the largest majority want to know what a lot of women look like naked.

But back to education… The most striking point for me in the conversation, and one that I had never considered, is how social networking has presumed to flatten any hierarchy – or any taxonomy, and has created a world where we are all ‘friends’. That’s not normal is it? It’s a fake world. I don’t mean that the world is full of friends and enemies, but it is that some are bosses, teachers, lawyers, shop assistants. The relationships are not ones of friends. But, I thought, that’s not right. We’re not all ‘friends’ in social networking sites… I have a facebook page – I didn’t make it my manager did – and people can only be my ‘fans’ (you may snigger). The taxonomy has been established… and it’s based on entertainment. The deal is that you actually came to the web to be entertained, not to learn.

But I’m not upset about that. It does make sense. But what doesn’t is that some of the other potential that is ‘citizenship based’ isn’t in there. What?

Let me start here: a while ago I switched relationship with a man I knew pretty well. He was a therapist and I was needing someone to help unscramble my head. So we changed the relationship for good. I started paying for him to know my every inner secret (he mostly stayed awake) in turn for his empathic reading of my make-up. He was no longer my ‘friend’ as such. He’d become more, and less than that.

In a citizenship setting – well, imagine someone was a ‘spokesperson’. Their job was to speak with the voice of all the people that had sent them messages agreeing with their perspective. I kind of think of someone like Jonathan Porritt – a spokesperson but maybe not a political party leader. (The analogy then becomes more like a trade union leader but around a particular issue of shared concern.) So when that person speaks they speak with the force of a million ‘sponsors’ (or whatever word suits) who could have written in and confirmed their support for Jonathan online. Jonathan Porritt is now a million people. And ‘friends’ is too feeble a word for those who ally to reinforce his persuasiveness. They might never actually want to meet him or have a two-way talk, that’s not the relationship.

Now the argument has moved a long way. As you all will be aware, there is such a thing as ‘citizenship education’, and 10 years ago a pile of political scientists got together to work out what people should know in order for them to become prepared as citizens. So if education is about pre-defined banks of knowledge and understanding, then citizenship education might have an official curriculum, if democracy is the repository of the educationalist. But democracy isn’t something you learn and then do, it’s something we all make up as we go along by sheer force of the collective will. So in theory the web could be used for much greater purposes, and indeed it might… as a tool for mobilizing citizens, except, well the rules weren’t made that way: they were made to sell mp3s or get people closer to sponsors.

So now I’ve differentiated between citizenship as a formal educational curriculum and as the way we choose to learn how to associate and how to fashion society, does Web 2.0 really have anything to offer – particularly for those who want to learn by doing rather than learn for learning?

Firstly, could you imagine a mobilization version of Facebook, with different taxonomies: of spokesperson, teacher, polemicist, arbitrator etc.? Would people want to network socially in order to sift through possible new alliances, discover new options for representation replacing those that have collapsed in society over the last 50 years? Or did it collapse precisely through the same process of attrition that resulted in Facebook and its compatriots surfacing as entertainment sites: sufficient mass affluence to atomise the entertainment industry to such a personal level that we now choose to make friends through the intermediaries of the net?

What currently happens is that specialist sites serve the network of social needs, while social networking makes the connections betweens friends, but they are friends on the lowest common denominator level. Scratch beneath the surface and I’d disagree with so many of my 2,000 myspace ‘friends’ that the term is utter nonsense.

If I want my friends to have any level of political allegiance my social networking sites need new categories, or I need to go out and meet them.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

One thought on “Anyone for socio-political networking?

  1. Some interesting questions raised here. Especially with respect to how we define our relationships with one another.

    I think we can also see emergent behaviour in the desire of people to congregate around a particular idea.

    To take the Facebook example – facebook groups are often just a statement, which people agree with, however as a tool for then giving the opportunity for action it is floored (for one the “champion” is automatically the group leader who may not have the inclination to take it forward).

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