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 http://www.ushahidi.com/ 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.’http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell?currentPage=all#ixzz14KNGFTX2

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.

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