“Social Networks and the Good Society” presented at Northwestern University by Cass Sunstein, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and Eszter Hargittai

I attended a very interesting lecture “Social Networks and the Good Society” presented at Northwestern University by Cass Sunstein, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and Eszter Hargittai. While I planned on liveblogging, I brought only a notepad. (grr!) Since my notes don’t include many direct quotes, but instead I summarize, all errors in my lecture notes are my own, and the bracketed materials are my comments. If you want an actual news report, here is an article from the Daily Northwestern.

My notes:

In her introductions, Eszter Hargittai asks how well known does someone need to be before you don’t have give their bio or be linked? [This issue is also mentioned in her post about this event on Crooked Timber]

Cass Sunstein [for a published version of these ideas in Cass Sunstein’s own words, read this Chronicle of Higher Education article]:

He is concerned about extremism on social networks. MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte created the term “daily me,” a utopian vision of receiving communications based on one’s own interests. More recently, in the Long Tail, Chris Anderson writes about a new niche society. This is also what social networks do.

Are these social networks dangerous or based around serendipity? Empirical studies [detailed in the Chronicle story] show how social networks help people switch their opinions to greater extremes, whether they are discussing political viewpoints, potential jurors, or judges on U.S. Court of Appeals in three judge panels. These three empirical studies show groups polarization due to the impact of a social network. Groups that have a starting viewpoint will move more towards that viewpoint.

People want to be different, but to the right degree — in the right direction. This causes group polarization. Also, some arguments have a built-in rhetorical advantage (regardless of actual facts, it is much easier to imagine reasons to give a large jury verdict than it is to imagine reasons to give low jury verdicts).

Whether in person or online, social networks can promote problems of errors and mutual incomprehension. Alternatively, the value of enclave deliberation benefits individuals and the group, allowing for diversity of viewpoints. He fears that social networks don’t allow for bubbling up of information — once the group has a set viewpoint, it is difficult to challenge.

Siva Vaidhyanathan:

During the Napster era, repeated often was the phrase, “kids today don’t care about copyright.” However, there wasn’t really a change in how people behaved; instead there was an amplification.

Now he is interested in privacy and personal information, like the information held by Amazon, MySpace, Facebook, Ebay, and his new project on Google. And now what is being said is that “kids today don’t care about privacy.”

People use social networking online as management tools; privacy is not really what the focus is for users. Instead, people are trying to hit the marketing of “self” for the right market, for the right audience at the right time. Different people or networks know different things about different people.

Kids may not manage their information as well as they will when they are older. He hates how kids are called “born digital.” Terminology based on generation is imprecise , when we envoke generations be are being sloppy — similar to astrology. Focusing on generations puts increased emphasis on those with weath, means, and access, focusing on those who are consumers of stuff. However, it excludes those not in the U.S., and even for those in the U.S., immigrants and those who cannot buy all the stuff.

He mentions Eszter Hargittai’s study on the digital divide [study here: Digital Inequality: From Unequal Access to Differentiated Use], that the digital experience of kids varies greatly. Most students tell him that they use social networks for their usefullness. Students enter college with a variety of life experiences and not everyone likes using the latest thing (or can). Kids are still interested in reading books when there is a payoff; students just don’t like the cost of books.

He then cites to Henry Jenkins’ thoughts about “digital natives” [quoting the quotes from the blog post]:

talk of “digital natives” may also mask the different degrees access to and comfort with emerging technologies experienced by different youth. Talk of digital natives may make it harder for us to pay attention to the digital divide in terms of who has access to different technical platforms and the participation gap in terms of who has access to certain skills and competencies or for that matter, certain cultural experiences and social identities. Talking about youth as digital natives implies that there is a world which these young people all share and a body of knowledge they have all mastered, rather than seeing the online world as unfamiliar and uncertain for all of us.

…Talking about digital natives and digital immigrants tends to exagerate the gaps between adults, seen as fumbling and hopelessly out of touch, and youth, seen as masterful. It invites us to see contemporary youth as feral, cut off from all adult influences, inhabiting a world where adults sound like the parents in the old Peanuts cartoons — whah, whah, whah, whah — rather than having anything meaningful to say to their offspring. In the process, it disempowers adults, encouraging them to feel helpless, and thus justifying their decision not to know and not to care what happens to young people as they move into the on-line world.

He then says that the conversation continued with comments from Leslie Johnson:

I often take part in discussions about services for faculty and students, and sometimes hear ageist comments about how older faculty are completely non-digital and all students are automatically all digital. Hah! Just like some folks have an interest or skill in languages or math or art and some folks don’t, it’s the same with whatever “digital” is.

[Then there was more about the back and forth conversation on blogs about “digital natives”, including input from Print is Dead author, Jeff Gomez, but it seems ridiculous to include my notes when you can just read the conversation of the quoted blog posts yourself here. I would have linked to Gomez’s blog directly but the archives are down — I guess at this point I could make an overarching statement about generation blog archive.]

Thinking about digital natives has serious policy implications, such as for universities. This term limits us to design systems that might not fit the needs of all, by requiring one-size-fits-all ways of thinking. Google Books is not focused on the need for quality and stability; instead the project is interested in putting things out there. He quotes John Wilkin of University of Michigan libraries, as saying that kids today are only interested in looking at digital books — and we should move in that direction. [I didn’t find a quote saying exactly that but Wilkin is a strong booster of Google Books.]

Educators are guides to learning and research, and should not pander to what is easiest. Only the needs of privileged are being considered, similar to pop culture, the focus is on those that are white and rich.

He says that Danah Boyd says what really matters is that digital platforms meet some needs and desires but not all. [I must have written down the quote incorrectly, but you can read what she thinks here.]. Social networking only amplifies what was already present in the real word (such as stalking). These are human problems, while they can be amplified online, they aren’t new.

The first fish that was on land wasn’t called part of “generation land,” but there was a great deal of change over time, gradually moving. Our everyday ways of engaging in social interaction haven’t changed.

Fandom mentions: Cass Sunstein loves Lost and Lostpedia, Siva Vaidhyanathan is a Yankees fan.

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Comments (2)

“He quotes John Wilkin of University of Michigan libraries, as saying that kids today are only interested in looking at digital books….” Naw, I don’t think I’ve ever made such a statement. I’m not even sure how I’d come to a conclusion like that. I don’t do much in the realm of digital natives or even “kids today” despite having a couple 😉 Thanks, though.

To John Wilkin: Thanks for the comment. I was trying to summarize a quoted quote in a lecture, like an academic game of telephone. Considering the number of steps away from your own words I apologize for *all* of my inaccuracies!

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