The Digital Stranger: Participation, social networking and creativity


There is a long, controversial and interesting debate in articles, book and literature about what it means to interact on line.  This is supported by a number of contested and contradictory ideas about the skills we need in order to conduct different forms of digital communication.  In my last blog post, I talked about the ability of web 2.0 users to simply absorb or be exposed to knowledge in whatever context they choose to use the web, as opposed to creating and consuming that knowledge.

However, if we treat the web as a passive form of information access then the benefits of user generated content, of collaboration and of interaction may be lost.   In order to participate in something, some authors such as Guy (2007) argue that we need to take part in it, which might imply some aspect of action and commitment (as opposed to passively letting the information pass you by, as you may do skimming a newspaper).  Taking that logic one step further, the nature of social networking tools seem to provide ready instruments to allow people, in whatever form they comfortable, to take part in a variety of collaborative and creative processes.

Clay Shirky argues that there is a place online not just for individual promotion or mindless consumption, but for initiating and sustaining creative action.  Collective action is the ability of groups of people working collaboratively and together to make changes in society or in their community and is a well explored concept in a number of theoretical fields like politics and activism.

In his book ‘Cognitive Surplus – Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Penguin 2010), he makes the case that instead of viewing usage of the net (or consuming media) as a time waster, where we randomly surf our way through web pages, endless youtube videos or as some of us are well aware, waste time on facebook, we can see it in a different light.  He states that our consumption or absorption of this content doesn’t often result in tangible, creative outcomes.  He states some of the data that suggests that the current generation is consuming less television per week than their predecessors and becoming more involved in activity on the net (a practical example of this might be that whilst we are consuming youtube videos, there are easily accessible and simple to use technologies that encourage us to also make our own, respond to other peoples and engage with a community of fans and makers of each video.  We can also aggregate the videos we watch so that we can share them with our friends).

He goes onto say that perhaps we can harness this time we spend creating and sharing, in small or more substantial ways to impact on our world and our community.  He talks about the use of a blog to initiate and co-ordinate crisis responses (the site is called and you can hear the full story in the video linked below) and at the other end of the spectrum he points to the development and distribution of LOLcats (those cute cat pictures with funny slogans).  His argument is starts with the idea that ‘even the stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act!”  And perhaps the way we define action in a digital world is different to that of the non-digital one.

Now, what does this have to the idea of the digital stranger?  Much of the interaction that occurs on the web can happen without us even knowing who the person is or people we are interacting with actually are.  We might see comments they have made, or we might be replying to something they said.  We might be sharing our opinion on a person’s youtube video, or contributing to a discussion on a board.  It may be that we are collaborating on a document, or creative piece through a wiki

The interaction that occurs between these people is sometimes asynchronous (ie: happens not in ‘real time’) and is often text based with little visual stimuli like a camera or sound.  We are communicating without knowing very much about our colleagues in the digital environment.  How many of your fellow learners you have met on the BAPP course?  We may have their photos, or perhaps a little insight into the bio, or at best we have seen their youtube video (or perhaps met at a campus session.  Does this level of knowledge about them impact on our interaction?  In many ways, of course it does?  It might make our communications less targeted or perhaps less personal.  It might increase misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

But in understanding, managing and adjusting to these limitations (if they even that) we are able to continue to collaborate and create in this environment.  Recognising the nature of these relationships is an important step.  Perhaps these people are what we might call digital strangers.

Digital strangers are people we interact with, people we are inspired by, people we understand (even a little) about their views and their position in a specific network, but know very little about.  We may not even know their true identity (just their avatar or nickname).  Yet, we can still learn from and with them.  We can create and share.  We can innovate and solve problems.  We can increase awareness and affect change.  We can engage, entertain and provide comfort or inspiration.  All without knowing the things we might want to know if those interactions occurred off-line.

Is being a digital stranger with someone a bad thing?  Malcolm Gladwell in his New Yorker article entitled “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted” stated that whilst web 2.0 has increased peoples participation in collaboration and relationship building, it has not developed the strength, quality or capacity of that relationship to increase motivation or action.

‘Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece…Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.’

I argue that being a digital stranger is not a negative, as Gladwell might argue.  Building on Shirky’s idea that any act of creativity is positive simply because it is creative and that the actions of a digital strangers banding together represent an action that might otherwise have happened,  could we argue that in the case of Darfur as given by Gladwell, that there are now 1.2 million people aware of the horrible events of Darfur? Is it good that there is now over  $115,000 more money being used to support the political campaigns to bring awareness? And that through the facebook page, there are over 25 different aggregated calls to action including youtube videos, notices of rallies, news stories, petitions and photographs.  The formation of this community of digital strangers has arguably resulted in some form of collective action.  Gladwell typifies these actions as a failure, actions of people who couldn’t be bothered to do something in ‘the real world’.  I would argue the opposite.  These are actions of people who are making a commitment to increase awareness and share that with people they don’t even know.

Now, let’s look at this in terms of our interests as professional arts practitioners.  We as a collective network of BAPP people are a group of people, some digital strangers, others acquaintances, maybe some friends and colleagues.  What our social networking participation has done for us is to provide the environment and the commonality to begin to interact, to aggregate content (like videos and photos on flickr) and then to produce and create content.  Is that process harmed by us being digital strangers?  I would argue that it has been supported and perhaps even enhanced in that the social network (and the use of it as part of the course) has provided all of us, both staff and students with the medium in which to engage, interact and construct meaning.  It could be easily imagined that these outcomes, had they relied on more traditional forms of interaction may simply never have happened.

Can you be critically reflective in a web 2.0 environment?

The idea of being a critically reflective practitioner is fundamental to many professions.  In terms of work based learning, we talk about the different theoretical and practical approaches to reflection, whether that is Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, or Schon’s reflection in action.  However, social networking provides us with some interesting curveballs in terms of critical reflection.

How do we use web 2.0 to encourage reflection on our own practice, facilitate it with others or impact on the behaviours of others around us.  Riedinger (2006) suggests that web 2.0 applications, such e-portfolios ‘…open wide the possibilities for reflections of all types: in action, before action, after action, in solitude, in consultation with peers, in consultation with instructors, coaches, and advisers, written, spoken, videotaped, or graphically represented’ (Riedinger 2006: 93)

The ability to undertake reflection using a variety of instruments, whilst suggesting that we might be spoilt for choice, also encourages us to use the tools or mediums we are most comfortable with, whether that be text, audio, video or simply sharing experiences with others using chat or skype.  Tosh and Werdmuller (2004) argue that the combination of these tools as instruments of learning is an extremely powerful form of critical reflection, where we are engaged not just as consumers of information but as evaluators and creators.  They call this multi-platform space a ‘learning landscape’, where ‘…learners engage in the whole process both academically and socially should increase the opportunity to build one’s learning instead of just being the recipients of information’ (Tosh & Werdmuller 2004: 7).

Have we considered the role of engagement in this process of critical reflection?  To this point, we have assumed we are engaged in our practice, keen enough to ask questions and seek to improve it.  However, Jenny Moon (2001) suggests that learning can occur, at a less detailed level, when we simply ‘notice’ things.  A deeper level of learning we need to make sense of the things we notice, construct meaning from them, work with that meaning and finally transform our practices (see Jenny Moon,  These deep layers of learning occur when we engage and become connected to the practices of reflection and the outcomes of that reflection

 In the context of our wider discussion about facilitating reflection using web 2.0 platforms, let’s look at two very unique notions with reflection, feedback and collaboration.  They both bring other people into the reflective circle.  They widen they scope of contemplation past out own navels and into our community, our networks, our peers or our leaders.  Feedback positions our practice within a wider structure of other practices and asks others to critically evaluate it, feeding back to us the output of that evaluation.  Collaboration at its simplest level is informed by the old cliché that ‘two heads are better than one’, but at a complex level accesses the power of the whole, the work of teams, the creative energy that can flow from the collaborative process and innovation and excitement that comes from working with some one.

Kroop, Nussbaumer and  Fruhmann (2010) expand on these two notions in the context of learning by breaking down the reflective processes that a web 2.0 environment can enable, which support the practices of feedback and collaboration.  They include ‘…discussing, arguing, disputing, revising, reviewing, assessing, writing, reworking and producing articles’. (see  These active processes are enabled by the tools we use in social networking and social media.  In general, they also require an engaged approach to reflection, not simply absorbing information or noticing it, but becoming involved in its production and sharing.

I found this youtube video by accident.  It is a well evidenced argument that the modern student engages in a different way of thinking, consumes more information digitally and reflects in a different way on their experiences and practices.  Have a look.

a question of identity

one of the key themes in the blog discussions on web 2.0 has been the issue of identity.  Whether it be in the guise of protecting it, promoting it, stealing it or making it over, identity is at the core of how we as professionals (and social creatures) behave in an interactive online environment.

One of my main areas of research is the about the production and distribution of hand made printed magazines called zines (pronounced zeens).  The makers of zines often use a very unique style of writing and frequently portray themselves in their own zine in ways that represent their identity, but don’t identify who they are.  In the zine ‘epitaph for my heart: a survival guide to being social’, the writer is only identified as ‘amandapandajapanese’ and the photo of her is heavily photocopied and has part of her face obscured.  This is her public face or identity.


Now, what does all of this have to do with web 2.o and our professional identity I hear you ask?  Good question, I answer.  The front page we offer to the increasingly archived online world represents our primary public image.  We spend a large amount of time adding data to websites, social networking pages and professional social media like linked in or spotlight.  Let me ask you a question…how long did you take to choose the image for your facebook account? Or for your blog?  How many alternatives did you cycle through before you got there? Do you think the pic represents you? the best of you? an angle that makes you look different or more or less of something? (professional, attractive, employable, old, young whatever!) 


Tosun and  Lajunen (2010) identified that whilst internet usage can have negative effects on a users personality, these are negated or minimised when you can be your ‘true self’ on the internet  (Does Internet use reflect your personality? Relationship between Eysenck’s personality dimensions and Internet use Computers in Human BehaviorVolume 26, Issue 2, March 2010, Pages 162-167)


Fogel and Nehmad (2009) went further by identifying if there were any differences in how much of our identity we reveal (maybe our true self) in the use of facebook versus myspace or in terms of our gender or personal level of risk we generally take (see


These two studies both look at the notion of issues such as trust, privacy, risk, behaviours and confidence that occur in an online environment.  Are these different than in a work environment or a social group? There are differences in terms of availability (try fitting 500 million facebook users in a bar!) and in terms of access (the internet allows relatively easy, searchable access to information, and privacy is more at the discretion of user as opposed to something that is automatically assumed – think of it as if your bank gave out the details of your bank account, just not the pin to access it – if you could select the option to not display that information, I am sure most of us would.  Its just that banks would never make you make that decision, its automatically assumed)\


However, back the zines example.  There is something to be said for the creation and usage of an online persona.  Adesola in her blog made note of the use of an avatar (my facebook has a look-a-like avatar, but my blog has a pic of me).  Is your identity simply portrayed by a photo or name?  I’d argue that your identity is better portrayed and constructed through the content you generate online, the way you interact, the messages you transmit and the way you engage with others both inside or outside your networks.  ‘Epitaph for my heart’ is not about the way it looks, or that I don’t know her name, or can’t see her face its about the content, which is funny, engaging, disarming and very honest.  Yes, we need a way to identify her and in this case, a way to contact her (  but in this case, her words do the talking.


Some food for thought I hope!