The scarcely relevant practice of chat rooms and social networking sites

Manuel Castells is a scientific I admire. There are things I share — most of them — and things I don’t. Right now I’m working hard with two works of him:

Castells, M. (2000). “Materials for an exploratory theory of the network society”. In British Journal of Sociology, Jan-Mar 2000, 51(1), 5-24. London: Routledge.
Castells, M. (2004). “Informationalism, Networks, And The Network Society: A Theoretical Blueprint”. In Castells, M. (Ed.), The Network Society: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

which I find really interesting and a recommended reading for everyone.

This is why I find so disappointing when an author of his stature can so unexpectedly slip out of the road by writing:

the Internet is quickly becoming a medium of interactive communication beyond the cute, but scarcely relevant practice of chat rooms (increasingly made obsolete by SMSs and other wireless, instant communication systems)

[bold letters are mine]

Of course, I’m not questioning him for not foreseeing that SMS would not replace instant messaging — which is what he’s actually meaning by the general concept of chat rooms —, two technologies that now live together in perfect harmony, especially in teen environments. It’s about the scarcely relevant practice of chat rooms.

This is 0% evidence, 100% value judgment.

Evidence about the relevance of such practice is way easy to be checked. First of all, we should remember the origins of both e-mail and instant messaging: high-tech scientific laboratories — there’s plenty of literature about this issue. But once it went out of the scientific environment and got popular, there’s more and more evidence about the relevance of such tools: the Pew Internet & American Life Project issued in that same year, 2004, the report How Americans Use Instant Messaging about 53 million American adults using instant messaging programs. Well, this is quite a lot of people doing scarcely relevant practices. But just at the end of last year, 2007, Garrett and Danziger analyzed how instant messaging was used at work for work purposes in their article IM=Interruption Management? Instant Messaging and Disruption in the Workplace, finding positive uses — yes, you read right: positive. So, evidence absolutely shows that there are good, interesting, useful practices around instant messaging.

What about value judgment? Well, I’d personally agree on assessing as useful, effective, efficient, etc. the use instant messaging for criminal purposes: phishing and pharming, organizing terrorist attacks, seducing minors for sexual purposes, etc. Actually, the main security concerns nowadays about the Internet are precisely in this line: how to avoid the effectiveness of tools like instant messaging, social networking sites and e-mail for criminal purposes. Hence, what is to blame is the criminal who uses these tools, but the tools are working great — even if in bad hands, because tools know no ethics, no law (well, Lessig would complain about this last point).

Summing up: a tool is useful, efficient, effective or relevant besides the fact that we like or dislike the way it is used, but based on its performance.

Same with social networking sites. In a work I’ve already talked about by David Beer and Roger Burrows, they write about Facebook. Even if they are quite open minded, there’s a full chapter about the bad uses of Facebook concerning teachers’ privacy issues which, from my point of view, is almost a digression that really does not deal with the sense of ‘democratization’, as stated in the title of that chapter.

While the authors complain — more than criticize — about the fact of having some colleagues exposed to public dishonor, they lose focus on the subject of analysis: Facebook, social networking sites, shifting towards the (bad) education and practices of such students, which was (supposedly) not the matter of debate in the article.

Day after day I am surprised by the recurrent exercise to blame on the Internet things that belong to “real” life: Law, Education, Business Management… And, even worse, to state about Internet applications and uses things that are absolutely false, taking as evidence what, all in all, was just lack of deeper knowledge and prejudice. Even in the most brilliant scientists. We all have bad days everywhen.

Universities and Telecenters: perfect partners

Royal D. Colle wrote in 2005 an article that I now recovered: Building ICT4D capacity in and by African universities and that reminds me of my last experience with telecenters.

Colle’s thesis is quite simple, which does not mean that it is hence less true: reflection and practice, practice and reflection, must go hand in hand. Colle states that telecenters can function in at least three ways for universities:

  • A means for reaching beyond their “ivory tower” to extend their knowledge and learning resources
  • A laboratory for faculty and researchers
  • A learning environment for students

The first point is interestingly ambiguous: on one hand, it means that universities should open their output, content, knowledge outside of their academic environments and revert or bring back the investment that society makes in universities. On the other hand, it also means that faculty should open their minds and realize there’s a real world outside and not just statistics and survey reports.

Reversely, telecenters could benefit from universities in many ways:

  • Research about ICTs and information needs
  • Local and relevant content, especially tailored for telecenters’ users
  • Training and Learning resources — obvious
  • ICT skilled human resources

Again, the corollary for the University is that it should (once more) get out of the ivory tower, disclose its practices and, over all, open its outputs, in the line of what open access, open science, open content initiatives promote.

My own conclusion is twofold: engage in the conversation, in the projects and in reality and, to do so, open and disclose your procedures, your findings, your networks to the limit.

Straightforward? Not really. In a world of web 2.0 philosophy and applications, it took 13 pages to David Beer and Roger Burrows to state (demostrate?) that you have to run your own blog, or have 100 friends in Facebook, to be able to write — with grounded arguments and evidence — about blogging or social networks. And I wonder if they succeeded in convincing anyone but the already convinced.