Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Why Facebook is like a Fork...

At this year's Edugeek EDIT conference in Preston, I gave a presentation on why Facebook is like a dinner fork - so here's the idea, blogified.

Way back when, in the mists of time, somewhere between "dinosaurs roam the earth" and "electric light", people of various cultures invented the fork as an eating implement. Prior to this, food had been eaten with the hands, and often with a knife - which was the must-have multi-purpose tool. Perfectly acceptable,  we believe, to go out and slay a dragon in the morning, and then eat your lunch with the same bit of pointy metal.

Anyway - some chap invented the fork. Maybe the last civilised thing to come out of Sheffield? Suddenly, a whole host of new rules sprang up around the dining table. Which hand was it suitable to hold a fork in? Americans still use the right hand - some folk thought it unsuitable to hold an eating implement in your left. The fork was used to signify you'd finished eating (again, different cultures arrange their knife and fork in different patterns for this one). Soon, the fork bred - there were different forks, and associated knives, and more etiquette blossomed around which to use first. Today, if we went to a restaurant (for those who consider McDonalds a restaurant, you can quit reading here, you won't get this!) and found any of our culture's "rules" broken, we'd find it quite odd.

So, Facebook.. and other social networks like Twitter. They're like an early fork. Most people can easily grasp the idea, and see what the tool is for, and how to use it, at least in a rudimentary way. However, Social Media has yet to socialise - there's no etiquette, no canon of rules, no cultural influences to tell us how to behave.

Things happen on-line  which we wouldn't tolerate in person, there are incredibly loud and boring people, who won't STFU about their farm. There are bullies. There are gossips, and scuttlebutt is traded as fact. Why is this accepted more easily online? It isn't because of lack of oversight - this happens in front of the most important people to all of us - our peers. The reason is because there's no culture. No rules have grown. And there are no rules because rules take time, and they need to evolve fairly naturally.

What should we do about this? Well, one thing the social media sites can do for us is give a bit of power to the network. Right now, there is very little you can do to express your displeasure at someone's actions. Things you'd do in the "meat world" if someone transgressed our culture, our manners, just aren't there - the subtleties don't exist. In some ways, a "dislike" button  on Facebook might actually help the situation. Right now, the only "sanction" we can take against an offender is to unfriend or unfollow them. They may not even notice, and it's a big step - and you can't do it twice. This could do with a fix - Facebook, Twitter - over to you - empower our peers.

What we should do as a society is bring online etiquette and behaviour into our everyday lives, and into the schooling of children. Sure, things move fast enough that Facebook is likely to be irrelevant by the time today's 6 year old is a moody 16, but some of the lessons learned will hold. This means "decriminalising"social networks in Schools, and encouraging parents to engage with the technology their children have to grow up with.

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