Saturday, June 04, 2011

Don't Blame the Medium (Living Facebook Reflection)

by John T. Spencer - A Reflection on the Living Facebook Experiment

"We need to do something about cyber bullying," a teacher laments. Note to self: if someone is still using the word "cyber," then he or she probably has a skewed view of social media.

"I know. It's a real problem. But you know what's worse? Oral and pencil bullying. I've found two notes on the ground where someone was bullied and you wouldn't believe what I heard out in the playground," I point out.

"Yeah, but Facebook is so public."

"And a rumor isn't?"

"But Facebook is a place where bullying is more prominent. I just don't think kids should be on it."

"You know what site has the worst bullying? The cafeteria. That place is rife with bullying. Maybe the kids won't eat. Or maybe they can eat in silence. That would stop the bullying. I mean, you could argue that it's a condition of the heart, but I think we're better off blocking a site instead," I point out.

I get it. I wasn't nice. I could have been more diplomatic in the conversation. However, I'm tired of blanket statements about how Facebook is "making us" into something, as if we've become unblinking, unthinking cyborgs who can't figure out a respectful way of using a medium.

Throughout this week, I've been surprised by the depth of social interaction on Facebook. Whether it was a meaningful dialogue with former students, an encouraging message from Brad the Philosopher or the often witty and thought-provoking discussions based upon status updates, Facebook felt intimate and meaningful. Social media aren't making us shallow. Instead, each tool provides the potential for depth that is often missing in our urbanized face-to-face interaction.

* * *

"I bet you're finding that it's deeper in person. You know Facebook makes us shallow," someone tells me.

Tell that to the Arab Spring and the pro-democracy protestors who harnessed social media to create a revolution. Or tell that to the people on my social network who are writing some of the most beautiful impromptu eulogies for a curriculum specialist who died two days ago.

If Facebook seems shallow, it's because humans can be shallow. If it seems boring, it's because we can be boring, often when we are hiding out of fear. If it's a place of bullying or sarcastic remarks, it's because humanity can be dark. But Facebook is also a place where students thank former teachers for the difference they made and it's a place where we remember a life well lived and it's a place where we rekindle old friendships. If Facebook feels beautiful and broken, it's because humanity is beautiful and broken.

True, technology shapes us. No doubt the long attention span of the nineteenth century or the image-obsession of our current age are both formed by the most dominant contemporary media. However, it's more complicated. It's always a reciprocal relationship, where technology shapes our culture and the culture shapes the medium.

It is deeply human to use technology in positive ways. It is also deeply human to use technology for destruction (think the nuclear bomb or Jamestown Intervention software). But it is also deeply human to believe the lie that we are either deterministically programmed by the medium or that we can create a techno-dystopia where the medium never has any harmful effects. The bottom line is that our relationship with technology will always be paradoxical in nature.

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink.  He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero. You can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer


  1. That was very well said, John. I've only recently (last couple of years) joined with Facebook and you are completely right, humanity can be mean but there are truly beautiful exchanges going on as well! Of course, someone who is not online wouldn't know that, they would only see the negative news in the paper and develop false assumptions.

  2. I couldn't agree more with this John. If Facebook was to stop tomorrow bullying wouldn't. We must look to the very effective use that some schools have made in the use of Facebook for intra-school and extra-school communication. It is, as you say, a reflection of our wider humanity, but we must not block it because of its negative aspects but seek to remind students (as if they didn't know) of the potential problems but at the same time we must remember the positive things that can come from it.
    I recently wrote a blog post about Facebook as a significant part of my own life and in particular a constant aid to my learning.It can be found at:

  3. You are right I do love this post. I have been saying this for years. The Social Web, Facebook, the Internet in general is just just a mirror to who we are. We get what we put in. More thoughts here:

    A transcription from a Facebook feed with my best friend of 20 years!


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