The Economist Debate on Social 'Networking'

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by: danah boyd

The Economist is doing an "Oxford-style debate" on the following proposition:

"Social networking technologies will bring large [positive] changes to
educational methods, in and out of the classroom"

Given that MySpace and Facebook are ubiquitous, can social networking be defined as the "collective power of community to help inform perspectives that would not be unilaterally formed" or is it simply a distraction for students? Can these tools could be used in the classroom?

While I think that the Economist’s question is quite intriguing
(albeit a bit problematically defined), I was sorely disappointed with
the two responses.

On the Pro side
is Ewan McIntosh. He argues that SNSs are about “helping learners
become more world-aware, more communicative, learning from each other,
understanding first hand what makes the world go around.” He talks
about the use of mini-social networks for media sharing, but his
description sounds more like blogs than SNSs to me. He (rightly)
critiques the archaic educational styles, talking vaguely about web and
SNSs without really explaining how the latter can help reform the

On the Con side
is Michael Bugeja. He talks about interfaces, how students might misuse
technology, and about how Facebook and MySpace are all simply about
revenue generation for their respective companies. He then makes an odd
techno-determinist claim and then talks about how pedagogy changes to
fit interfaces. He then asks a bunch of (problematic) questions.

Sadly, I think that both completely missed the point. I’m frustrated
with Ewan for collapsing all social technologies into “social
networking” and I’m frustrated with Michael for being so afraid of
technology that he lets technology dictate his reality. Given my
irritation with both of them, I figured I should try to make a stab at
what my response to this question would be.

danah’s response to said proposition

In their current incarnation, social network sites (SNSs) like
Facebook and MySpace should not be integrated directly into the
classroom. That said, they provide youth with a valuable networked
public space to gather with their peers. Depending on the role of
school in their lives, youth leverage these structures for educational
purposes – asking questions about homework, sharing links and
resources, and even in some cases asking their teachers for information
outside of the classroom. SNSs do not make youth engage educationally;
they allow educationally-motivated youth with a structure to engage

Social network sites do not help most youth see beyond their social
walls. Because most youth do not engage in “networking,” they do not
meet new people or see the world from a different perspective. Social
network sites reinforce everyday networks, providing a gathering space
when none previously existed.

Educational pedagogy has swung over the years between focusing on
individual-centered learning, group learning, and peer-to-peer
learning. If you take a peer-to-peer learning approach, you are
inherently valuing the social networks that youth have and maintain, or
else you are encouraging them to build one. These networks are mediated
and reinforced through SNSs. If there is pedagogical value to
encouraging peers to have strong social networks, then there is
pedagogical value in supporting their sociable practices on SNSs.

When it comes to socializing with friends, youth prefer in-person
(unregulated) encounters. They turn to SNSs when they can’t get
together with their friends en masse or when they can’t get together
without surveilling adults. By and large, there are few free spaces
where youth can gather with their friends en masse and, even then,
inevitably a chunk of parents refuse to let them, thereby destroying
cluster effects. So, of course, they turn to SNSs. School is one of the
few times when they can get together with their friends and they use
every unscheduled moment to socialize – passing time, when the
teacher’s back is turned, lunch, bathroom breaks, etc. They are
desperately craving an opportunity to connect with their friends; not
surprisingly, their use of anything that enables socialization while at
school is deeply desired. This is why they text during classes. They go
onto SNSs during the day to write to friends who have different
schedules or to write to the whole group if a portion of them are on a
different lunch. Given how regulated youth are, any open space where
socializing is possible will be taken up by socializing; it’s often the
only place they can see their friends. This isn’t something that the
schools can fix, but they also shouldn’t be surprised when group time
turns into gossip time.

I have yet to hear a compelling argument for why social network
sites (or networking ones) should be used in the classroom. Those tools
are primarily about socializing, with media and information sharing
there to prop up the socialization process (much status is gained from
knowing about the cool new thing). I haven’t even heard of a good
reason why social network site features should be used in the
classroom. What is the value of knowing who is friends with who or
creating a profile when you already know all of your classmates?

This not to say that technology doesn’t belong in the classroom.
Information access tools like Wikipedia and Google are tremendously
valuable for getting access to content and should be strongly
encouraged and taught through the lens of media literacy. Email, IM, or
other communication tools can be super useful for distributing content
to the group or between individuals or even providing a channel for
group discussion (in-class or out). Blogging tools and group sharing
tools are also quite valuable. Having to produce for the group instead
of the teacher can work as a powerful incentive; most youth don’t want
to be embarrassed in front of their peers and pressure to perform can
be leveraged to the teacher’s advantage. But why social network sites?
To the degree that they support blogging and group sharing, sure… but
that’s not the key point of them at all. They key features that make
them unique are: profiles plus visible, articulated and surfable
friends’ lists. I simply don’t get why these are of value in the

I’m not saying that social network sites have no value. Quite the
contrary. But their value is about the kinds of informal social
learning that is required for maturation – understanding your
community, learning the communicate with others, working through status
games, building and maintaining friendships, working through personal
values, etc. All too often we underestimate these processes because,
traditionally, they have happened so naturally. Yet, what’s odd about
today’s youth culture is that we’ve systematically taken away the
opportunities for socialization. And yet we wonder why our kids are so
immature compared to kids from other cultures. Social network sites are
popular because youth are trying to take back the right to be social,
even if it has to happen in interstitial ways. We need to recognize
that not all learning is about book learning – brains mature through
experience, including social experiences.

Yes, there are problems with technology and with technology in the
classroom. Anyone critical of capitalism has a right to be critical of
commercial social network sites and the economic processes that got us
here. But don’t blame the SNSs – they didn’t create the obscenities of
the market, but they are bound by them. Also, don’t forget that the
current educational system was structured to meet the needs of the
market, to create good consumers and good laborers. It ain’t pretty,
and the privatization of education and educational testing is downright
scary, but it’s a systems problem, not a technology problems.

There are innumerable inequalities in terms of educational
technology access, just as there are huge inequalities in nearly every
aspect of education. How many schools lack pencils, textbooks,
teachers? Again, it’s terrible, but it’s not the technology’s fault. We
all have a responsibility to rethink education and figure out how to
equip all classrooms with the tools needed for giving students the best
education possible, including teachers and technology. Don’t devalue
technology simply because there are currently inequalities; no one
would go around devaluing teachers using the same logic.

Finally, please adult world, I beg you… stop fearing and/or
fetishizing technology. Neither approach does us any good. Technology
is not the devil, nor is it the panacea you’ve been waiting for. It’s a
tool. Just like a pencil. Figure out what it’s good for and leverage
that to your advantage. Realize that there are interface problems and
figure out how to work around them to meet your goals. Tools do not
define pedagogy, but pedagogy can leverage tools. The first step is
understanding what the technology is about, when and where it is
useful, and how it can and will be manipulated by users for their own

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