[iDC] How does social media educate?

trebor at thing.net trebor at thing.net
Thu Feb 8 11:45:49 EST 2007

Ulises Mejias, in a willfully provocative way, asked about the importance of
sociable web media for education. How does social media educate? With deadlines
breathing down my neck, here is what does not amount to more than a few
fragmentary comments mainly written with the hope to propel the discussion.

It's no surprise that there is a participatory turn in network culture: the
numbers speak for themselves and even if you are skeptical about the survival
of the sixty million blogs in existence or this or that site (yes, today's
YouSpace is tomorrow MyTube), the phenomenon of networked sociality will only
gain in importance. Without specific examples we slide into abstractions that
tend to air on the side of either utopian projections or dystopian skepticism.
Feenberg made a step in the direction of working with examples in response to
Ellul's and Heidegger's philosophical reflections on technology, which he
deemed to be too abstract.

The increase in networked sociality holds also true for Africa where the
participation gap is by no means bridged via the Internet (0.2% access) but
where the density of cellphones exceeds that of the United States. The digital
divide is not what it used to be. Wireless/mobile sociality, facilitated via
SMS, changes the face of Africa.

Given that this spike in networked sociality is the context that we are talking
about- it'd be odd not to ask what all this can do for education. Kids are
engaged with participatory cultures anyway, already, many hours a day, every
day. The university needs to catch up with informal peer education that in many
ways became more formative for youth than the institutionalized exercises that
lead to a diploma. I'm not so interested in discussing how wikis or blogs or
SecondLife can be useful teaching environments. These tools can surely be
useful if introduced wisely.

I'm more tuned in to the question of ethics of participatory cultures. That
matters to education. How can students navigate the seas of the sociable web in
an ethically sound way? How ethical are the giants, the rock star sites like
Del.icio.us ? Ok, YouTube found a way of introducing advertisements (coming to
a video created by you soon). What sounds like a generous gesture is of course
merely concealing the exploitation of the online content producer by paying
them a little bit. Sure, Google needs its 1.6 billion boleros back. But yes,
this profiting from participation is unethical. Why? Well, let's have a look at
what ethical behavior can mean.

One guide defines the standards for ethical action through the lens of 5
different approaches (thanks to Terry Perlin for the link).

1) "The utilitarian approach: follow the action that does the least harm and
provides the most good."

YouTube's payment will in many cases not be equivalent to the value of the
uploaded content given its viewership of some 10 million people in cases like
the infamous treadmill video. Harm, here, is the loss of time, donation of free
creative labor, and a harassment of our attention.

2) "The rights approach: humans have dignity and have thus the right to be
treated as ends and not as means to other ends. This includes the right to be
told the truth, the right to make life choices freely, the right to privacy."

It'd be interesting to get a clear sense of YouTube's or Amazon's profits,
directly gained from the free immaterial labor of the likes of Amazon.com
top-ranked reviewer Harriet Klausner who wrote 13050 reviews. Unpaid. That, to
me, makes the underpaid McDonald's worker look privileged. But, yes, I know:
the common good; I'll comment on that in a moment.

3) "The fairness approach: equals should be treated as equals."

That's a tricky one. Who measures equality?

4) The common good approach: sees life as being conducted as part of a group and
asks us to contribute to that group.

Amazon reviewers and all the 65.000 contributors to YouTube every day arguably
contribute to the common good. Also Hanah Arendt describes the common good as a
key motivation for participation. Sure. The problem in this case, however, is
that the common good is helped while at the same time a corporate entity gets
rich, rich, and richer: and that is... making a fortune of YOU.

5) "Virtues approach- the idea that ethical action has to be consistent with
certain virtues such as honesty, courage, compassion, tolerance, love,
integrity, fidelity, fairness, self-control. The question that should be asked
is: 'Is this action consistent with my acting at my best?'"

Are Amazon, YouTube, or MySpace, or.....(fill in other less often targeted
companies) on their best behavior?

To most content creators who are socialized into capitalism, this exploitation
of labor may appear to be natural. We receive a service -- think "free" (?)...
"gift" (?) -- and in return our attention gets harassed.

The most perverted version of this naturalized exploitation is Yaadz
(http://www.yaadz.com/). This site offers video ads created and uploaded by the
people who watch them. Somebody who loves Nike shoes can now create their own
video ad and upload it too. And it's free. They don't even have to pay for
giving their immaterial labor away for free. In East Germany where people gave
socialism a shot for some forty years, many things stank. But surely people
would have rolled on the floor laughing if you'd have suggested to them to
create advertisement aimed at themselves for free.

But this dynamic is not more unethical than mostly everything else in
capitalism. In stores, more and more services are moved to the 'guest' (oh, no-
it's not a "customer" anymore). We dutifully empty our tray in the trash can-
full of compassion for the poor service person who'd have to clean up after us
otherwise. We forget that this is a deliberate setup with the people who shape
these situations being out of our reach. We fill our own cups with coffee, etc.
While Bertram Gross' term "friendly fascism" is too strong, what happens here is

But why complain, like Nicholas Carr, about this exploitative nature of the
sociable web? It should not surprise us that behind the hip mask (of music on
MySpace or Chinese karaoke on YouTube) hides the grim face of big capital (i.e.
Rupert Murdoch). First, it's your time that is targeted, and second, it's about
harnessing our distributed creativity. The all-out goal is not immediately our
money. Our attention is what pays the bills.

The capitalist mother milk makes people look at society through the rosy glasses
of corporate interest (instead of their own). Who cares if we 'outsource' our
life memories to Flickr, which requires all its members to sign on to Yahoo
spam now? Well, we should care. And sure, there is always enough room for the
exploited to navigate within certain parameters affording them the impression
of freedom.

Amazon.com is a curious example. Here, the common good is the sales pitch. Yeah,
yeah, in the community bookstore you do not find twelve people offering you
advise on a book. Amazon.com is hard to beat as a research tool (and who does
go through the pain of researching there but then buying elsewhere). The
perverted logic of some people in their early twenties is articulated in the
question: Why would not I help Amazon.com? They offer such an awesome service.
And because you paid for the book you are now grateful and leave a review? ...
What did I miss here?

In the end, what alternatives are there, really? Corporate platforms for
socializing are of course also spaces where activism and much interesting
artistic practice are situated today. Politicians realize that Youtube and
Myspace and also SecondLife are spaces where they have large audiences that may
even listen. Will they go out and vote after sitting in a Secondlife lecture by
a politician-- the verdict is out on that one. And for those among you who
think this is all frying small potatoes, and that the issues are much larger
and that the world revolution will start in 20 years-- well, I certainly don't
see that happening in the US, Europe or Switzerland any time soon. It behooves
us to look at the specifics of the current changes and the claims for
democratization of society, through “massification” of voice in the sociable
web, for example.

We should just give up looking to the web for autonomous spaces, perhaps. The
best you can get today is hybrid capitalism. This hybridity of the sociable web
is about the interests that are represented. Today's little web service that
represents the true interests of those who populate it, in a Habermasian way,
is bought up by Yahoo tomorrow. The hunt for our attention begins.


The author makes a living through his contract at a State Research University
and through public lectures, which in some way may influence his views. He is
not on any corporate advisory board and would reject such offers.

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