[iDC] How does social media educate?

Ulises arsalaan1-idc at yahoo.com
Fri Feb 9 16:55:07 EST 2007

Reading the insightful interventions from Trebor, Michael, Ryan and danah jumped-started my brain today.

Trebor considers the ethics of participation in social media by focusing on the revenue sharing practices of some Web 2.0 companies. According to him, the framework of capitalism makes it difficult for networked participation to amount to an authentic challenge to the status quo. Michael, on the other hand, suggests that this challenge is possible if we focus on the ethics of the choice between participation in authentically open peer-to-peer networks versus participation in market-driven, corporate-sponsored 'faux open' networks. 

I know I run the risk of misinterpreting their positions by reducing them to such an extent, but in any event, the exchange reminded me of a recent piece by Jonathan Lethem in Harper's:

The Ecstasy of Influence

It's about the dynamics of plagiarism or 'quotation' in the construction of art. After reading Trebor and Michael, I realized that social media objects (say a YouTube video or a del.icio.us tag), like works of art, exist simultaneously in two economies: a market economy and a gift economy.

According to Lethem, "The cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange is that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, whereas the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection." Like works of art, social media objects establish both kinds of connections simultaneously (I think this is what danah is also hinting at, in her lady-like way ;-)  when she talks about the need for new 'social scripts' to deal with the tensions in these new social architectures). A social media object is at once a gift from which peers in a network can derive value, pleasure, etc., and a commodity from which companies can derive revenue.

This tension is inherent in social media, and we gain little by looking at social media exclusively from the perspective of a gift or a commodity. However, most of us do live in advanced capitalist societies, so it is not surprising that when push comes to shove, the commodity will trump the gift. MySpace will end up in the hands of Murdoch; YouTube and del.icio.us in the hands of Yahoo! Sure, authentic alternatives can emerge, but most of them tend to be co-opted sooner or later, and those that don't still have to operate within a capitalist framework.

Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that what allows the commodity to trump the gift is a built-in affordance in social media. This was succinctly and hilariously summed up in a recent Colbert Report segment about the practice of corporations such as Microsoft taking advantage of the 'openness' of open content initiatives such as Wikipedia to create favorable buzz about their products. Colbert says: "Open source software is like free trade, and the invisible hand of the market has the mouse now!"


(Microsoft was paying Wikipedia contributors to portray Vista in a good light). Ironically, the cards are stacked so that 'openness' can be best exploited by the 'free' market. At least for the moment.

Lee Bollinger put it in more academic (but less funny) terms than Colbert. In a recent conference about media reform, he was talking about the barrier to public discourse that new media such as YouTube represent for those without broadband: "We are certainly left with a fundamental problem: commitment to robust, open, and free speech, but with an overlay of economic effects which create disparities of access and therefore not a full rich marketplace of ideas."


So Web 2.0 is a platform that supposedly guarantees all these wonderful opportunities for participation and change, but we can only apply it if we buy into a whole set of assumptions about who should have access to it, how profit should be derived from its use, how it should be distributed, etc. It is a gift and a commodity. As Trebor points out: "Corporate platforms for socializing are of course also spaces where activism and much interesting artistic practice are situated today." But given the propensity for the commodity to trump the gift, he concludes: "We should just give up looking to the web for autonomous spaces, perhaps. The best you can get today is hybrid capitalism." The emergence of social movements that offer 'radical' alternatives while perpetuating the status quo isn't anything new, as Ryan points out in his analysis of the politics of waste.

So should we give up and let the market leads us where it may? Not at all! And this is where I want to go back to issue of education. I believe it's possible to formulate a 'literacy' of networked participation. People need to develop the critical skills necessary to differentiate between open and proprietary platforms, and be aware of the repercussions of what happens when the former mutates into the latter. People need to be able to articulate the benefits of contributing to a gift economy, and develop the technological skills to be able to do so. People need to be able to determine when it's appropriate to use corporate platforms to disseminate a message, and how to maximize its effect. People need to question how networked participation is changing the relationship with their immediate surroundings, delivering a 'hyperlocal' version of their environment where things that are not nodes in the network are simply invisible. And so on.

Can education help people recognize the advantages of contributing to an alternative gift economy instead of buying into the limited/short-term openness of corporate Web 2.0? Sure it can! Can the educational applications of social media contribute to this revolution? Of course! But let's maintain a healthy skepticism about the limits of the technology and the scale of the change. Radical educators (think Freire) have had success in the past, but always at a small scale. I think the greatest disservice we can do to our cause is to fantasize that social media will explode the scale this time. The problem with using the master's tools to bring down the master's house is that the house they erect in its place will probably look a lot like the old one. That's something Freire had to realize before he could formulate an alternative pedagogy of the oppressed. If Freire was alive today, what do you think he'd say of the educational affordances of MySpace? Would he be posting video manifestos on YouTube? Or would he be arguing that the digital divide is nothing more than a reincarnation of the White Man's Burden?

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