Competing – and overwhelming – demands have made posting here a luxury. But if I can find the time to say something, then I’ll give it a go. There are actually several things I want to say here, but am going to have a ramble, and see where it gets me. Those things are the focus group mentioned above, and two news stories about what I’m calling The Interdisconnectednet, which encompasses the social connections made possible by the internet and the social disconnection it fosters, both exemplified by Moodscope, and the fact that I’m online at all hours, yet hardly see or speak with a person. This is reinforced by stories about the effect of social connections on wellbeing, and that the internet both isolates and connects us.
At the moment it’s 5AM, and I’ve come online after listening to BBC World Service for an hour, during which time I heard about a mood tracker called Moodscope, which can help me understand my moods in relation to some norm, but which might also connect me with people in similar states of mind.
I can get online at the crack of dawn to do these things because I live alone and whilst partially employed, have no schedule to speak of, so my sleeping habits can vary from day to day, and occasionally do. This can have unwelcome consequences, such as being unable to concentrate later in the day when I need to mark essays. But by and large, I live in a bubble of disconnectedness. When I make efforts to do something about it I find that I am really unprepared to lead a life like that of most people around me. There are a few people with somewhat similar situations, though I’m the only one I know here who’s not got family or other long-term ties with people. So an awful lot of my social life is mediated by a small screen, keyboard, and mouse. It’s stupefying.
The social media focus group was a bit of due diligence relating to a project called Timely Information for Citizens, itself something to do with Digital Birmingham. A researcher from The Tavistock Institute asked a series of open ended questions to a group of end-users. I didn’t see a list of the questions, but they were of a routine sort meant to elicit information about tangible and intangible outcomes, assessments of the service, and related thoughts about the value and sustainability of the project. I hadn’t prepared for any of this, having been entirely unaware of the background to the equipment I’ve borrowed, but after catching on, realised that there are a series of points to make about what the scheme means in terms of widening access and participation across the digital divide.
The premise is this: a batch of gear for community use is a fantastic resource, but who is going to use it? The answer can be set out in stereotypical categories such as the technically minded, community activists, and other people whose lives facilitate the use of social media technologies. But what of the people, who are in some sense like me, isolated at home, lacking the material resources and effectively barred from participation? More importantly, what of the people whose barriers are more social or conceptual than financial or technological?
Given that Martha Lane Fox wants to get 10 million of these people online by asking the rest of us to “inspire people to try the net, to encourage and reward people for going online, and to support those groups that might need a helping hand because they lack the skills, financial resource or because of disability“, we should be asking how Digital Birmingham plans to do its bit to this end. Thing is, Fox is probably thinking of getting people to develop their engagement as individuals, and not so much as groups (or as I prefer to think of it, as collectives, or hives). Whereas I’m trying to think of it in terms of developing online communities that effectively parallel the meatspace (offline) communities that people live within. Some of this can be done with social media, and, as Fox says, by encouraging people to think about ‘the benefits of connectivity’.
Fox wants the digital divide to be erased before it further incapacitates those who aren’t included. This means that social media ought to be devoting a distinct portion of its energies to emphasising the first of those two words: the social. So, were I looking at strategies for digital inclusion, I’d be exploring ways of engaging existing groups en masse, in the same ways that a church service or town hall meeting does: not as a cluster of individuals with one common interest, but as an organism whose many interests and activities are already interwoven, and whose joint participation is a further affirmation of that connectedness. Perhaps in a way that’s like what Stefana Broadbent talks about in relation to Skype.
Part of me thinks this can be done through physically shared media activities. Some of the gear provided through the Timely Information scheme has been used to video public meetings about planning issues, and conferences among park user groups, which serves as a record for those who were and weren’t there, but perhaps as something more. I have further plans to use the kit to develop an aural archive of people talking about their neighbourhood and aspirations, which will be stored online as podcasts. Similarly, I’d like to get my own semi-functional portable touchscreen working in a way that allows people to do surveys, consultations and imagineerings about the places they inhabit. These are in some sense steps toward an aggregated community mediated by the internet. The online aspect of real life.
As an aside, I thought the Big Lunch achieved much the same thing with its combination of offline social and online organising. And next year, I want to take my trolley to all of them!
That’s enough of a ramble for now. I didn’t get to some of the other salient points, but this one will do as an indication of where my thoughts were going.