In the late 19th century, the telephone came to London, then, as now, a bustling and sprawling metropolis. But no one knew quite what to make of it. I’ve seen photos of a telephone receiver in a bourgeois drawing room, with very upright Victorian ladies and gents sitting on overstuffed armchairs listening to a simulcast of a sermon from a nearby church. Or later at night, a little bit of music hall entertainment. Another creative application was to short circuit the process of hand delivering messages from one end of town to the other - aided and abetted by that great craze of the 1890s, the bicycle.
The motto of the tale is twofold.
The assumption we often make that where technology is concerned function will follow form is at best too simple. And sometimes you need a certain scale for inventions to be put to the use that they were intended for - the eccentric London telephony resulted in part because too few subscribers could afford a phone, and thus chatting directly to another individual didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Similarly, whether texting or talking is the predominant practice on mobiles has a lot to do with the history of charging and markets in particular countries.
When we consider social media and everyday life, then, we need first to understand that technologies are primarily social. Sometimes, successful ones will be pictured in the mind’s eye long before the tool is trialled. It’s been remarked somewhere that the Victorians spent about 50 years trying to invent the cinema - there’s an incredible visuality to a lot of popular English fiction of the day; think Tarzan. Hyperlinking was conceived by the American science impresario Vannevar Bush in 1945. Bush foresaw the day when a “Memex” would be made - basing his insight on the way in which people retrieve information in a non-linear way. The idea of the internet was conceived long before its series of tubes were connected up!
In a round about way, the story I am telling here is a set of parables about social media and everyday life. Many of the erroneous assumptions that underpin the polarised claims about social networking - that is, it will either be the cyber-utopian saviour of the world or it will bring about the ruin of all good things - stem from an inability to see how socially and culturally embedded this domain is.
So, we need to do a bit of myth busting.
The first thing to underline is that there is no such thing as the “Digital Native”. That’s not to say that lots of teenagers and young adults don’t take instant messaging and Facebook for granted (though lots aren’t into them, either). Indeed, the intriguing transformation of Facebook from a proprietorial site name into a verb (“I’ll Facebook you”; overheard recently on the bus) is the proof of the pudding. But research - and the experience of teaching university students to use social media applications - show that the idea that everyone these days under 30 intuits blogging, YouTube-ing and the wonders of “digital content creation” is very far from being true.
There’s a category error at work in this most disseminated of networked assumptions. And it has to do with the massification of the web itself.
If everyone (well, everyone at any rate with the skills and the money - whatever did happen to the whole “digital divide” debate?) is on the web, then the culture of the web will shift. While there are well known parallels between the culture and folk norms of the usenet days of the 1980s and 1990s and blogospheric communities (the much vaunted “traditions of the internet”), Facebook has killed the blogging star.
Earlier incarnations of social media - LiveJournal, MySpace, for instance - assumed that blogging was one of the core functions of social media networking. Leaving aside the whole Twitter craze (and I venture to predict that it will never gain as much reach as its proponents and boosters believe) and its description as a micro-blogging application, Facebook makes no such assumption, and that’s one of the reasons for its success. On Facebook, people do social life - sharing photos, links, chatting, friending, planning events and parties, joining causes. It’s just a thing that we do, and because it is, the controversies (well-grounded) about terms of service and privacy concerns failed to excite much interest among the majority of actually existing social media users.
It cannot be assumed, and should not be assumed, that the entry of more folks into online spaces who have been socialised at an early age to regard the internet as a natural part of activity will necessarily lead to a world where all such users actively create content in the strong sense of that phrase. The very naturalisation of online space causes its distinctiveness to fade into the background; it becomes more of a tool and less of a discrete activity sundered from other forms of communication and sociability. Hence, Facebook the verb. Most of what goes on, in these heady days, in the land of social media is just an accentuation, an acceleration, and a making transparent of offline social practices which have been around for a very long long time.
While some leaders in the study of online creativity such as my QUT Creative Industries Faculty colleagues Stuart Cunningham and John Hartley, have rightly emphasised the need to actively and overtly incorporate the teaching of capacities for digital literacies in school and university curricula - precisely because it cannot be assumed that such capacities are innate - many who work in digital media, and organisations which seek to enter the digital media space, and the plethora of commentators on the wonders of the web continue to take their lead from what is at best “pop sociology”.
The truth of the matter is that just as usenet and other pre-web communities like The Well were the province of a small minority of net users, so too are most of the practices cyber-prophets had presumed would spread as web use spread. Blogging, and communities which develop around a strong basis of affinity, will persist, but the social web is now pervasive enough that we should begin to sort the wheat from the chaff in sifting the claims made about the effects of universalising usage. Issues about privacy, the way we treat privately owned sites as if they were public digital commons, and many others are very important indeed. But if we persist in framing them with a whole heap of assumptions that have well passed their used by date, the content of the discussion might signify only as much as scratchy transmissions of ranted sermons did over a century ago.