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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Generation MySpace and the impact of social software

Rod Barker
Metadata and website standards officer, Curriculum Corporation

Social software refers to a range of Web-enabled programs that allow users to interact online, sharing material and meeting other users. The new technology raises important issues for educators due to its potential educational value, concerns at potential dangers for young people and the sheer extent to which this technology is permeating modern social life.

A seminar has examined the impact of some of these technologies. Generation MySpace - Social networking and its impact on students and education was the second in education.au’s national seminars series, Transforming Learning through ICT. The seminar was held in Brisbane 6 August and repeated in Melbourne 8 August this year.

The keynote speaker, danah boyd (who uses lower case letters for her name) is an internationally recognised authority on the way people use networked social media. She was supported by presentations from Mark Pesce, a lecturer in Interactive Media at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney, and Jennifer Wilson, a recognised authority on mobile phones recently appointed Head of Innovation at ninemsn.

This article provides background to social software technologies and describes some of the discussion around them at the Generation MySpace seminar in Melbourne.

The nature of social networking software

Social software allows people to change Web pages rather than simply download their contents. Based on ‘Web 2.0’ technologies, social software systems can create links between users, which may be persistent over time, and are controlled by the users themselves. The web pages on which these links are placed are usually accessible to the public. MySpace and Facebook are sites that allow individuals to set up public profiles of themselves online. Other forms of social software discussed at the conference included Instant Messaging (or ‘chat’ that allows real-time, private communication), online forums (where users discuss topics through message boards), blogs (online diaries or journals maintained by a particular person or group) and wikis (websites, such as Wikipedia, whose content can be edited by visitors).

Further common Web 2.0 technologies include social bookmarking services such as del.icio.us, multimedia sharing sites such as FlickR and YouTube, podcasting and RSS, the technology commonly used for quickly updating news information on web pages. Further forms include Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) such as World of Warcraft and ‘virtual world’ software such as Second Life, where the user relates to other users via an ‘avatar’, a moving image on-screen that represents them.

Allied to Web 2.0 is the widespread use of increasingly web-enabled mobile phones and other messaging services. According to Jennifer Wilson, the mobile phone is perhaps the single most pervasive and important form of social networking technology today. The SMS system that allows text messaging is the largest data application in the world, and there are currently 2.6 billion mobile phones globally.

Social implications

The power of these applications for social networking has been clearly demonstrated. In the USA, 50,000 young people rallied in support of ‘illegal immigrants’ in a demonstration organised over a few days via mobile phones, and in Australia the Cronulla riots were also organised this way. For individual young people the mobile phone is a critical item, too personal to be lent. Typical teenagers may send 70-100 texts in a day, and not having a mobile phone increasingly means social isolation.

According to danah boyd, online social networks have to some extent simply transferred old social patterns onto new media. For the teenager of today, an online profile is an electronic version of the earlier locker decoration, saying ‘this is me’. Once a best friend was the first invited to a birthday party, now a best friend is on the mobile phone speed dial list, or the ‘top8 contacts’ on MySpace.

She added, however, that online networking has four major differences to traditional social spaces:

  • persistence: what you say or upload on the Internet may still be there 10 years later, along with what others have said or uploaded about you
  • searchability: items on the Web are potentially findable by anyone
  • replicability: items can be copied and pasted – and modified
  • invisibility: users communicate with a largely anonymous community.

Considerable concern has been expressed at the potential use of interactive web technology to undermine personal privacy and safety. A particular concern raised in the mass media is that the online activity of minors may expose them to sexual predation by adult strangers. In September this year, the Australian Government set up a Consultative Working Group ‘to address the potential serious abuse of social networking sites by paedophiles and sex offenders’. The working group, part of the Government's NetAlert program, will examine sites such as MySpace and Facebook and evaluate the risks posed to young people.

While noting these issues, the conference speakers’ focus was on other concerns. danah boyd suggested that the main problem for young people was not potential sex offenders but spammers and marketers, and in this context she expressed more concern at the influence of TV than of the Internet.

Speakers also suggested that the greatest single threat to individual privacy comes from close personal associates and family members. A colleague, for instance, may capture the image of an embarrassing personal incident and upload it to the World Wide Web. danah boyd described a tension between young people’s wish to maintain a space separate from parents, and parents’ concern to know about their children’s activities. She argued that young people may in fact be using MySpace as a substitute for the social interaction denied them by their over-protective parents.

Implications for teachers and educators

Speakers observed that the call for teachers to have a personal web presence has caused some debate since such a presence can be seen to blur boundaries between teacher and student. They noted that educators must be careful about their role boundaries and should not, for example, trawl the web looking to contact their students. Nevertheless, they suggested that it is increasingly useful for today’s teacher to have a web presence such as a blog, or a profile on a social networking site such as Facebook that is oriented to their professional role. As danah boyd emphasised, it is only when educators explore social networking software through their own personal use that they truly acquaint themselves with it, and understand the experiences it offers young people.

Educators can harness these technologies in their curricula and classrooms. Subject-related blogs, for example, have been used with considerable success in engaging students with their studies. As Jennifer Wilson noted, there is a huge amount of user-generated content of potential value to teachers. FictionAlley is an online community based around Harry Potter, containing entire essays prepared by students for their own fun. Wikipedia is an especially powerful teaching tool. It demonstrates how information is created and used. Young people access and understand it. It allows investigation of the nature of truth: true to whom and why? It also allows an examination of the nature and reliability of sources, as well as an examination of the entry’s history. Teachers could encourage their class to add to pages of Wikipedia.

The expanded horizons offered by web publishing are truly exciting. Students can communicate globally and perhaps connect in modest ways to other cultures and languages. Schools have a responsibility to help students unpack the issues surrounding media and information literacies. Once the camera never lied, but not any more! YouTube, for instance, supplies resources for these studies.

Demanding though the task may be, educators need to find time to become acquainted with Web 2.0 technologies, even as they continue to evolve and cross-link.

Podcasts of the seminar are available at: http://www.educationau.edu.au/jahia/Jahia/pid/479

The seminar forum is available at: http://www.groups.edna.edu.au/danahboyd. Access to the forum involves creating a free online account with edna groups.



Subject Headings

Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
Computers in society
Social life and customs
Parent and child
Electronic publishing