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Stop bashing social networks

First it was privacy concerns (not that they've gone away, but they aren't front page on Google News anymore). Now, apparently, social networks, like every other bit of technology young people embrace, rot our minds.

First it was privacy concerns (not that they've gone away, but they aren't front page on Google News anymore). Now, apparently, social networks, like every other bit of technology young people embrace, rot our minds. ZDNet's Andrew Nusca summarized the report out of the UK well, finally asking, "Will Facebook infantilize the human mind?"

The key statement from the article (quoted lots of places, but worth requoting here) goes like this:

Social network sites risk infantilising the mid-21st century mind, leaving it characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity, according to a leading neuroscientist...She told the House of Lords that children's experiences on social networking sites "are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance.

OK, hang on there. Isn't this the whole point of what we're teaching (or at least trying to teach) our students in a Web-driven world? We want them to sort the wheat from the chaff and find deeper meaning in the many streams of data widely available to them.

More importantly, we have to recognize that the way people (young, old, and in between) are communicating is evolving rapidly. Ten years ago, Twitter didn't exist, cell phones weren't ubiquitous, and email was recently crowned king of business communications. Yet as Sarah Lacy over at TechCrunch (via the Washington Post) points out,

We no longer "go to the Internet" to interact with some shadowy user name where we pretend to be someone we're not. Ok, maybe people on Second Life do. But sites like Facebook and Twitter are more about extending your real identity and relationships online.

For kids, MySpace, Facebook, and even just IM are certainly about creating an online identity, but are much more simply about talking to each other. Remember when 3-way calling and call waiting were a big deal? Screw call waiting. Now kids can have synchronous or asynchronous, private or shared, in-depth conversations with all of their friends at once. Remarkably, they manage the data quite well.

I take serious exception with "Lady Greenfield," the professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, who delivered the report. Will the way we communicate and even think about communication be radically different in 20 years? Probably. Most of my generation thought IRC was pretty cool in college, so you bet communication is going to evolve.

We're going to evolve with it, though. Social networks (and social media in general) enable communication that can be as deep, shallow, broad, or specific as we might want. Businesses are using social media to reach new audiences, build knowledge bases, train users, and enable cross-team collaboration like never before. Schools can do the same, while kids will continue to be kids and talk to each other, even if it isn't "tying up the phone line" like we used to do.

I wrote a post yesterday on my personal blog about Twitter and its communication role in my life ("Why don't you just read Dad's Twitter feed?"). Twitter is just one tool out of many that have or will emerge in a Web 2.0 world. Want to do some useful research, Lady Greenfield? How about developing curricula around social media that teaches students to derive the maximum utility (as well as maximum socialization, since they seem to have mastered that already) out of these remarkably rich tools? How about building educational models that exploit social media for content delivery and student collaboration? Enough with the sky-is-falling-social-media-rots-your-brain nonsense.