Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Power of MySpace and the "MySpace" Generation

One of the EdNA network groups has been discussing the power of
MySpace and the MySpace Generation.

At one stage, this question was asked:
How many of you in the community, have a myspace, facebook or
Xanga [site]?

Stephen Downes' response to this question throws some light
on the possible future online environment and the challenges
it presents for educators. Stephen is happy for this information
to be shared in the PfP blog:

"I do, have had for a couple of years now. I have accounts on
LiveJournal, Friendster, LinkedIn, MySpace, Bebo, Orkut,
Tribe and a bunch of others. The technology isn't that complex,
and they all work more or less the same, only the marketing is

Most of these sites are blocked in school divisions and even at
the TAFE level. This of course in no way prevents students
from accessing them, even during school hours (as contact
may be maintained by mobile) but it does prevent them
from being used to support learning.

I would not invest heavily in any of these spaces, as they are
a transition phenomenon. A transition to what is less clear
- YouTube overtook MySpace as the most popular website a
few months ago, but growth flattened after the Google
acquisition, as you can see on Alexa:

I would also not bother taking the time to block them - such
action is in my view merely a pandering to fearmongers, and
not an effective tactic - but that is another story.

My own view is that we are moving toward permanent
personal presences on the net. That is, a person's online
presence would not be site-based, as it is with any of these social
networking services, but would be access based. It would either
be a part of their web client (ie., a part of their browser, the way
Flock does it) or a shell or webtop through which they access
other resources.

The reason for this is that it produces a single identity that
can be used across a number of different sites. This means that,
once the access point is created, users no longer need to log
on (contrast this to 'single signon' systems that are being
developed for the education sector, that work only at schools
or universities).

It also means that a person's network of connections can
extend across the internet, not mattering at all on which
service they use. Hence, if a person uses service A as a webtop,
they can still include their friend in their network, even if that
friend uses service B.

It also allows identities to be (semantically) attached to content.
It may be surprising, but there is no widespread usage of an
'author' field in metadata today; although RSS and Atom support
this, most content editors don't fill it in, because there's no point
- either the author information is not available, or it can't be
used by the aggregator (there is not enough use of formats other
than RSS or Atom to make their use of the author field relevant).

Moreover, there is no 'place' to link to, nothing that constitutes
an authors presence online (even where author fields are used,
as in Dublin Core, only base strings are used (foolishly) and not
web addresses).

It is taking longer than it should to develop such a system -
and meanwhile, the number of site-specific Web 2.0 applications
begins to proliferate - because there is no good business model.
These sites thrive by locking in traffic into their own services,
and hence, are not interested in infrastructure that allows travel
between sites (this is also what motivates the education sector
systems, such as Shibboleth, but nobody will admit it).

Preliminary work is being done toward this sort of infratructure
in the development of the Person al Learning Environment (PLE):

... although it still continues to be a bit application (and education
focused). In the wider world, there is some hope OpenID, will take hold, although its functionality is
severly constrained.

Yadis, , represents a nascent attempt to create
a common standard. PeopleAggregator, , is attempting to develop the
network, but is again too site-heavy.

What these trends mean for the education sector is
that in a few years we can expect students to arrive in our
classes with an already established web identity.

What this means is not only that they will have their own email,
instant messaging, voip and other addresses (which they will
much prefer to use over any school system) they will also
have their own tools for creating content (significantly -
they will have these tools, they won't need to have them

They will use a variety of services - for video, for example,
some may use Premiere to create video while others may use
Bender, and some may post to Google Video and others to

It will be increasingly difficult for education systems
to continue blocking these sites - I read on a discussion
board yesterday the recommendation to "take your students
out of class" in order to allow them to upload their video

Some schools may consider creating their own versions of all
the services (and will pay Blackboard (who will claim to have
invented it) a fortune for the software). But this approach will be
seen as barren and sterile - you cannot create an internet out of
a classroom population; even with today's mega-classes, the
population is just too small (reseach the 'one percent
phenomenon' of people commenting to listservs, posts and

On the other hand, opening learning to the students' web
environment opens up numerous possibilities for the
educational system. Because their work is now being
performed in public, rather than in the hothouse of the
classroom, students are much more motivated (this is
a most commonly documented result of the use of
blogs in the classroom). (Though it should be noted that
this increases stress, and that some students may not
want their work displayed - this is why they need to have
personal control over their environment).

It also opens up many more networking possibilities.
The obvious is that conversations with students around the
world may be encouraged. But more importantly, students in a
given field will begin to interact with practitioners in the same

We already see this happening on discussion lists (such as this
one (or would, if it were more open)). This allows practitioners
to take on the role of (informal) teachers through the process
of performing their work.

In the long run, what we will find is that this capacity leads
to much more continuity of community than today.

With students and workers increasingly mobile, following an
increasingly fickle employment market, it has been difficult to
maintain family and community ties. Permanent web presences
and communities offers an obvious counter to this trend.

Sites like Flickr, especially, allow people to maintain family
connections, instantly sharing photos. Skype and other
communications tools allow them to converse in real time,
bridging time and distance.

A lot of people focus on the 'MySpace generation', as though use
of this technology were an age-related phenomenon. Empirically,
it is - the bulk of users tend to be from a certain age group. But
age is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for use. A major
secondary group of users is the elderly, who have seized on the
internet as a means of breaking through isolation and boredom,
and to restore tenuous family connections.

Nothing in principle prevents adults from becoming as adept as the
younger generation. It requires, though, adapting to what might
be called net values. It requires being able to adapt to the
coexistence of multiple points of view, with no real mechanism for
determining 'the truth'. It requires giving up the capacity for
management and control, giving up the idea that you can enforce
compliance (how could you, when they can simply log off?)
and make people do things, even if it's good for them.

It requires that you become less inclined to create walls and borders
around your life, that you do things (like take notes and conduct
meetings) online and in public, rather than privately, as used to
be the case.

This is what makes the new online environment such a
challenge to teachers and administrators. What the
internet brings to the new generation is a set of affordances not
previously available, and with these affordances comes a new
attitude and behaviour, one which embraces autonomy,
diversity, openness and interaction."

(Emphasis added and paragraph structure changed to increase
readability on the blog.)

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