Bruce Reeves, ITSS Learning Technology Consultant
Human behavior has not changed much over time because people have always needed to connect and socialize. From the earliest cavemen and women crouching around a fire exchanging mammoth tales to “millennials” crowding together over pizza and beer swapping escapades, the need to connect is at our core. Then and now, we are social creatures who want to know what others are doing; to be where our friends are. We hang out in bars, coffee shops, nightclubs, civic groups – anywhere that is not out of the way, but is convenient and cohesive. The places that are successful are those that fill a void while meeting the need to connect us with each other. Social networking tools have made these connections possible in electronic ways while amplifying our behaviors at the same time.
What are these social networking tools? Facebook, Delicious, Flickr, MySpace, LinkedIn and Wikipedia are just a few of the examples (1) where you can share things and associate with people. These social sites allow their users to connect just like a group of people meeting for a book club, but the electronic nature of the connection over the Internet provides an “amplification” of the behavior.
Let me give you an example of what I mean by amplification. Think back to your late teens or early twenties. Think of something that brings back fond memories, but of things you never wanted your parents to know. Can you think of more than one event which may or may not have been the best representation of self? Now, what if one of those memorable occasions could have been instantly broadcast to the world? What if those events could live on, and on, and on in the e-sphere? The self we put out on the Web can literally have no expiration date. (2) Many of my youthful memories are locked away in forgotten shoeboxes full of pictures, but what if those pictures went straight from a mobile phone to Facebook? My behavior did not change, but it was amplified by the access to and the permanence of the Internet. I wonder if I would have the job I have today?
Amplification of behavior results from the ever increasing access to technology: mobile phones, digital cameras and camcorders with output that ends up on social networks, Web sites and blogs. Before public access to the Internet, mail – from the Pony Express to Federal Express – allowed people around the world to communicate with each other in ways that transcended proximity. The telephone added an immediacy that mail did not possess. Both technologies connect people more or less one-to-one. Now we have public access to the Internet which combines the world-wide communication of mail, the immediacy of the telephone, yet adds the ability to broadcast to many and any. If this were not enough, the Internet adds permanence to all of our online behaviors far exceeding any previous technology.
So what does this mean to us? How can our electronic capabilities be used, especially when students consider this to be their domain? First and foremost is to respect an age-old behavior: stay out of “my” space. Remember that “old” people do not belong in the social network of the younger crowd unless invited in. If I wanted to use Facebook to connect with my students, I would have to be asked by each individual student to be a friend because I do not want to intrude – crash the party, so to speak. Some may think this to be a hopeless situation, since getting students to “friend” us may take several lifetimes. Instead, what if we looked at the behavior the tools amplify and utilize that?
Mark Harvey, a Theatre professor, had a stage manager who needed to coordinate with all the stage hands. The stage manager asked Mark if she could use Facebook to organize the stage hands. Because the need to coordinate and communicate were the essential behaviors, Mark agreed. Facebook is just a tool – the tool students currently use in nearly every other aspect of their social lives. It worked quite well. The amplification of the connections was nothing more than creating a new group in Facebook for the stage hands to join. They were already at the “club.” They just needed a new “table” for conversation.
Another example comes from a workshop in our newly formatted Welcome Week for freshmen. We wondered how we could get these students to talk with outside experts about the relationship of college majors. In this case, because every student in three different sections had one, mobile phones were the answer. Using their mobile phones, freshmen could talk directly to experienced people in the workforce (i.e., someone over the age of 30). They could ask them if they completed college, how many different careers they have had and whether those careers were directly related to their major. Within two minutes we had results from every student in the workshop. We made use of the social connections already in place and the amplification that the technology has created.
Behavior amplification often leaves a negative impression in the minds of some. While the negative aspects do exist, and we should continue to help our students understand the consequences of these negative aspects, we should not lose site of the positive power behavior amplification provides. The ability to capitalize on behaviors that have been in existence since people first appeared on the earth and at a scale unimaginable before public access to the Internet allows our students to be more central in the learning process. We can do this if as educators we remember our youth in order to suspend judgment on their youth, and we understand we are developing students – an age-old behavior attributed to education.
(1) More social networking examples may be found at Wikipedia, itself a social networking site (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_social_networking_websites)
(2) For some fun, see what the Web looked like in previous iterations at The Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org/index.php)