Tuesday, 29 January 2008

The temptations of web networks

In his article ‘The rediscovery of discretion’, in the Economist annual magazine, 'The world in 2008', Andreas Kluth predicts that 2008 will see an extension in older people’s social networks online. He addresses many of the issues that have been bothering me in my short presence in Facebook. For one, not many people of my generation seem to have found their way there. Not at least those who I might imagine inviting as ‘friends’ (since I’m not into popularity games which would entail collecting ‘friends’ for the sake of it). In the present form of Facebook, I can’t see how I could become ‘friends’ with my current students either. A mutual feeling, I’m sure, as they would certainly not want their teacher prying into their wild weekends and other free-time pursuits. Secondly, what should I do with my friends there? I don’t really need another forum for sharing photos besides Flickr. I am also seriously concerned if I can spare the time to keep playing all the games of the thousands of applications – fun as they are. And finally, I must be too boring and serious, because I simply fail to get a kick out of finding my vampire alter-ego in search of friends to bite or learning that if I was a dessert, I’d be


All this skepticism has made my Facebook me a rather pathetic, lonely and awkward creature with barely a handful of friends. So far, Facebook for me has been reduced to a directory to track down and meet up again with long-lost friends - if you are lucky.

In his article, Kluth quite aptly describes networks, such as Facebook, as ‘walled gardens’ with their generic templates and pre-determined profiles. As such, maybe Facebook just isn’t what I’m looking for in a network. After all, initially I only joined to be in the know about what my students’ generation are involved in.

Kluth predicts, however, that this year:

In place of today's walled gardens of awkwarness, open toolkits will arise to allow anybody, with a few simple clicks, to create his or her own social network, which will be an extension of existing connections in real life.
As one example he advocates Ning, and for a reason. I, too, find Ning quite versatile for creating different networks, and above all, user-friendly enough for a non-tech language teacher like myself. There are many existing professional Ning networks for educators, among others Classroom 2.0. The opportunities in new forms of networking, as Kluth describes them, sound attractive and endless – mums’ networks, hobby networks, a new network for all your passions! But stop, stop! Time for a reality check! Rather than all of us getting into a frenzy of setting up all these networks of our own, we should bear in mind that there are only 24 hours in any one day to accomplish all the tasks of our busy lives, not to forget to have a non-virtual life, too. Personally, I'm reaching a point where running too many separate online user accounts, with all the filing needed to remember the ever varying log-in procedures, is eating into my time too much. (Possibly I'm not tech-savvy and organised enough to know how to cleverly manage all this...)

As for educational use, whether Ning is too formal, and somehow middle-aged, for our students’ liking remain to be seen, when I try it out for an international school project. Before the launch in only a couple of weeks, I must admit that I am a little bit apprehensive about how the students will take to it. Will it be a nuisance for them to join yet another online network, especially one that they haven’t chosen themselves? Will its undoubted schooliness kill all their interest? I am reminded here by what Clay Burrell wrote about avoiding schooliness in blogging. I agree with Vicky Davis about the need for Facebook to introduce new features where you can neatly separate your family, friends, professional colleagues and so on into their own protected compartments. After all, it would make sense to tap into something, where our students already have an online presence, and extend it into school use. I, for one, would welcome a tool that would allow me to manage all my chosen networks with one single password and a few clicks.

Having said all this, before a new ingenious tool is developed, I seriously need to be selective as to which networks really are worth investing some of my valuable time in. And I am probably really showing my age by asking if everything should be online in the first place! For me, even boring old last-century phone and email still serve a purpose, not to mention the rare delight in hand-written snail mail, even more cherished in its rarity these days.

Photo by josef.stuefer on Flickr
Photo by minor9th on Flickr

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