Steve Vosloo
Steve Vosloo

Interview with danah boyd, social networking expert

danah boyd (she insists on the lower case) is one of the world’s leading experts on social networking sites (SNSs) such as MySpace and Facebook. She is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Fellow at the Harvard Berkman Centre for Internet and Society. I interviewed her to try to understand the implication that social networking has on our world and particularly on school education.

danah’s paper Social Network Sites: Public, Private, or What? gives context to the interview. She begins by saying that in the US, SNSs are largely ubiquitous and today’s youth are spending a great deal of time using these sites to access public life. (According to Pew Internet, 55% of all online American youths ages 12 to 17 use SNSs.)

When talking about SNSs, an important concept to understand is that they represent “mediated publics” — environments where people can gather publicly through mediating technology. In traditional (unmediated) public spaces, such as a park, people know who they are communicating with and whether their activities are being recorded.

Mediated publics are different with four unique properties: persistence (what you say sticks around), searchability, replicability (it’s easy to copy a conversation from one place and paste it into another) and invisible audiences (because of persistence, searchability, and replicability, people whom one didn’t intend to reach can later see one’s conversations or actions).

A changing world
SV: We live in a changing world, with new technologies and social media that allow people to easily connect, communicate, create and share content. What does this mean for society? What does it mean for school education?

db: Yes, we live in a world of complex technologies. What these technologies are really doing is reshifting and reshaping public life as we know it. So people have to deal with being in a much more persistent, searchable, replicable and visible public space. Our navigation and negotiations through this space are, in many ways, very complex.

In terms of schooling, we have always socialised young people into public lives that are static and, in many ways, no longer represent the world we operate in. But we don’t help to socialise young people into these new mediated public spaces.

Then there is the question of what we’re trying to teach. One might answer with maths and science and reading and certain functional tasks … often things that have right and wrong answers. But there’s another side of how to live in this world of complex technologies. It may not be about teaching about the technology or even with the technology itself, but teaching how to deal with constantly evolving and emerging technologies.

The funny thing is that we [adults, educators] bring learners into these spaces that are highly un-networked, but more and more we realise that they’re living in networked worlds, which don’t necessarily have to include “the internet”. How do people get jobs? They don’t get them by getting a high enough test score in class; they typically get jobs through networks. I have to imagine that’s just as true in South Africa as it is here. Networks can operate on different levels and in different ways. And so how do we live in a networked era where technology is just one of the players in that networking process?

These are big questions. We have a tendency to say that this is a challenger issue just for youth, but I would argue that this is an issue for everybody. Youth are just in the eye of the hurricane right now. Conversations about how to grapple with this technology in the workplace are just as common as they are in schools. How do we deal with a world where you are no longer going to the office and staying disconnected from the world for eight hours and then going out again? That doesn’t exist any more. Many of the roles of white-collar jobs these days are all about networking.

The need for reflexivity
SV: How do we make sense of these changes? What skills are needed to live in this changing world?

db: People get access to technologies and they don’t question the different politics around that technology. Again this is not just youth, it’s adults as well. Firstly, we need to consider what the economic factors are. People have discussions about how everything online is free nowadays. But it’s not free; it’s ad supported. So what does it mean to live in a highly consumerist culture? What are we giving up to live in it?

While I’m not anti-capitalist, I believe reflexivity is an essential process here. Typically what happens with new technology is that it’s either fetishised or demonised. It’s either God’s gift to everything, or it’s the devil’s vices. The truth of the matter is that how technology gets deployed and used is highly complex, and by putting up these extreme dichotomies we don’t actually think about the nuances of it; we don’t become reflexive about the technology as an actor in a social environment. So my theory about it, especially within education, is that we should do everything to actually acknowledge that and to have a conversation about what those affordances of technology are, what the decision-making processes around technology are.

One of my problems with children getting access to technology is that there’s no doubt that they pick it up and they figure out how to use it, but they’re not critical learners automatically, not critical thinkers. And that’s true with everything, right? You hand a kid a book, they have to be taught how to be a critical thinker about that book. It’s true of all technologies of communication and information.

Need to teach critical thinking skills
SV: Are the skills of critical thinking — for example, of discernment between “good” and “bad” information, between reliable and unreliable sources — the essential skills young people need to have in the 21st century?

db: Yes, I strongly believe so.

SV: Educators all around the world are struggling with how to incorporate social media, such as SNSs, into education. Perhaps the teaching of these critical thinking skills is the hook through which all of this can be brought into the classroom?

db: Yes, I think so. One of the problems in our world is that we, the adults, parents and educators, think we can be the gatekeepers of information, that as long as we are such we don’t need to teach critical thinking. My feeling and my frustration is that we should not be operating as gatekeepers but rather as people teaching critical lenses. This concerns all of our thoughts about the safety of children. We think we can protect them from the dangers of the world, and magically when they’re 18 and they leave the house, they’re fine. Like, guys, this hasn’t worked so well! There is a socialisation process in the physical world and there’s a socialisation process with information as well.

A classic example is conversations that are happening around Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not evil. It has its strengths and its weaknesses. But rather than advising kids that they shouldn’t use Wikipedia, what if we taught kids the critical thinking skills needed to use Wikipedia? To understand how information is produced, how to interpret information, how to validate whether a particular point is well understood within the broader field, how well it’s cited.

And so typically in the classroom we treat textbooks and their authors as gatekeepers. But of course they also have biases, agendas, points of view etc. There are two versions of the historical account of the American Civil War, depending on whether you read a US or a UK textbook. Wikipedia has the potential to sit in the middle. Wikipedia is a technology artefact of the current age and provides us with a brilliant opportunity for dialoguing around critical thinking skills. I am currently working on a teachers’ guide to Wikipedia (out next summer, June/July 2008) that can be used to teach critical thinking skills using Wikipedia.

Bringing it into education
SV: We know that change within education happens very slowly. We know that teachers are scared that their learners know more than they do. They are overworked and underpaid (especially in South Africa). They’re already stressed out and struggling to cope. Now we come along and say, look, critical thinking is a really important skill for your learners to have. It forms part of a rounded education in the 21st century. So, what’s it going to take to get teachers to change? Do we need to educate teachers?

db: Yes, I think it takes some training of teachers, especially because many of them think that knowledge is static and it’s the same as it was when they got their teaching degrees. That’s not altogether the case any more. My feeling in general is that teachers need to be part of the society that they’re teaching in. They need to be valued a lot more than what they currently are. There are big problems within education that are so difficult to deal with because it’s so messed up on so many different levels. That’s why I’m working on this Wikipedia project, because it’s a very simple little intervention that plays into what teachers are already teaching. So when I look at it structurally, my goal (from a US education sphere) is to produce things that make their lives easier.

Right now operations around Wikipedia are essentially law enforcement. They’re just telling kids not to copy from it. So teachers know enough about it to be dangerous, but not for it to be useful. That’s something that can be slightly changed without huge costs at the teacher level, and which can make big gains in the educational sphere. But when it comes to the actual SNSs, I don’t think there’s any point in teaching that in schools right now. The technology changes too quickly.

Teaching bigger issues around privacy is good. Across the board there needs to be a media literacy component. Media literacy touches on many levels; it’s not just about how to use the latest and greatest technology, but also exploring what information you’re getting from ads. What does it mean to live in a hypermediated society? And how do we learn to become a literate participant of it, even a critical literate participant of it? So on a bigger scale, there are questions around when and where to introduce new modules into the curriculum. But then there are always the little interventions that can happen now. There needs to be a balance of the two moving forward.

The future of social networking
SV: What do you see for the future of social networking?

db: Right now we’re seeing SNSs in these sort of contained versions, like Facebook. But in the future social network features are going to be part of everyday technologies, just as search is part of them. We first created search engines, and then we put search into every website on the planet. The same thing’s going to happen here. Your kids are gonna see it with their mobile phones; their mobile phones are primed for being a social network site.

In terms of teaching, we can talk about SNSs and about search without talking about MySpace or Google. Nobody needs to know the exact function that Google’s working on this week to understand the search concept. So in that way you can teach social networking stuff now, you just don’t have to teach MySpace. Teach the mechanisms and the social behaviour aspect. Let the kids do what they need to do, but teach them how to be critical.