|Picking through the social media garbage*|
Social-media-savvy readers will have realised, no doubt, that I am no social-media guru. Anyone claiming to have real social media credit has thousands of Twitter followers... at last count I had fewer than one hundred, and, according to the Twitter stats, I send 0.95 tweets a day. I fear even the (soon to be ex-) pope tweeted more frequently. Despite this, I have found social media, especially Twitter, really useful. I use Tweetdeck to organise my Twitter stream, and tend to dip in once or twice a day, skimming through the feeds looking for articles of interest. (I suppose that means that I am really using Twitter as a content curation tool.) And I usually find at least two or three articles or links that are interesting and offer new ideas on things related to my work in education. In the last few months, however, this strategy of looking for gems whilst sifting through the screeds of inane comments on topics ranging from new clothes to the quality of coffee from someone's local coffee bar has made me feel like the garbage picker in the picture, sorting through the waste of society and yet wearing an Armani cap. There are treasures to be found, but the air stinks.
Two recent events in particular have forced me to take a step back from Twitter in particular. The first was the Sandy Hook massacre. A few days after it took place, someone had the bright idea of using Twitter to encourage people around the world to wear green in memory of the children and teachers who were killed. Whilst this idea may have originated from the best of intentions, it rapidly devolved to people tweeting photographs of themselves in their Sandy Hook massacre memorial outfits posing flirtatiously for a 'selfie'... surely the pinnacle of narcissistic opportunism and bad taste. More recently, Oscar Pistorius' killing of Reeva Steenkamp has swamped the social media channels. It seems that anyone with access to social media is now an expert on everything from law and domestic violence to human behaviour and ballistics. Again, an appalling tragedy is reduced to an opportunity for intellectual masturbation, with little regard for the people killed in, or living through, the tragedy.
On a less outraged note, there is something about Twitter that seems to bring out the worst in people. Perhaps, by its very nature, it attracts the solipsist. I can't help but wonder who in the world would be interested in me posting a 'selfie' every day for a year. I'm just not that interesting to look at. And of the small group of people who follow my Twitter feed, perhaps two would be mildly interested to note that I have had a new haircut, or that the girl at the coffee shop short-changed me yesterday and then seemed surprised when I asked for the difference. Do I really need to inflict the minutiae of my existence on the other 96 followers who are unlikely to give a damn? Unless you are a member of my immediate family, I'm afraid I'm just not interested in the music you are listening to at the moment, how often you have 'checked-in' to a particular restaurant, the state of your latest diet or fitness regime, or the retweet of a compliment given to you by a colleague (retweeting stuff like that is just boastful.). The recent downfall of popular icons such as Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and now possibly Pistorius, should be sufficient warning to all of us of the dangers of cults of personality and yet social media allows us to create these cults for ourselves, easily and with little or no real foundation. This article from The Guardian sums up perfectly this strange brave new world.
And yet, despite all this, I can't disconnect from social media, or dismiss it completely. It has given me access to ideas, articles and research that I would never otherwise have known about. I've seen the value of Facebook as a tool for peer-to-peer learning, and have used Twitter to get answers to work-related questions from around the world. I curate and share resources daily using Scoopit, and many of these resources I find via Twitter. There is clear evidence pointing to the benefits of using social media in higher education, and statistics certainly point to the vast numbers of people for whom social media (especially Facebook, with 1 billion accounts and rising) is an integral part of daily life.
So what is the answer? It seems unlikely that social media use will decline significantly, although of course the tools may change. It is imperative then, that social rules and ethics catch up with these new tools. Teachers and lecturers play a critical part in this. In as much as at school we teach children to read and write, we need to teach them to be ethical and social-media savvy. In higher education, we need to be going further: social media use should be an academic skill, and students need to be taught to think critically about the use of social media in the same way as they are taught to think critically about their core subjects. If we don't, I fear we are no better than the ancient Romans at the Colosseum, giving, on a whim, the thumbs up or down to the victims of the day.
*Image CC-By-NC-ND Grant Eaton