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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Social Contracts, Media Literacy, and Life Skills

I've been very struck by the story in the news lately about the teens beating up a girl so they could post the video on YouTube. Sadly, it's part of a growing trend of teen violence that is being instigated either because of online feuds or for the purpose of posting online.

A quick synopsis of the story is that the victim allegedly made some insulting comments on MySpace. The other girls decided to retaliate and post the video on YouTube, in an attempt to become Internet famous. The actual act, and documentation of it, are disturbing and I don't want to diminish that aspect of it. So, I'll state that I was disturbed before moving on.

Social Contracts

I've been planning a post about the social contract of social media for a while. This seems like the right time to explore that topic.

I'll touch briefly on it's effects in schools because I'm not a teacher or child psychologist so I can only write my observations without the benefit of data or research behind them. Schools are inherently hierarchal and cliche-ish. People of all ages form groups in which they feel accepted, this is even more true with children and teenagers. Once the groups are established, it's very easy to build up an "us vs. them" mentality. In some cases this promotes clashes and in others it builds barriers against interaction.

The Internet flattens those structures (like most structures it encounters) when these closed-group discussions move online to spaces like YouTube or MySpace. Once it's there, it directly conflicts with the social contract of staying within your own group. And, the generation growing up with these tools as a daily part of their lives are not differentiating between the online and offline spaces. They are too intertwined for that distinction to be meaningful. Combine that flatness with the growing trend of 'going viral' and it's easy to see why teenagers eager for recognition and acceptance from peers could find the idea of publishing something like an attack so compelling.

Moving up from just schools to society, our social contract changes in this context too. While it's never codified officially, the respect for other people's right to privacy is widely accepted. How much depends on your location and the situation. With the Internet involved, privacy gets confusing. The simplicity of creating and distributing content removes the need for production values. Without the hurdle of finding a distribution channel, you can keep creating content and throwing it up until something sticks. People post their content publicly while retaining an expectation that only those they want will access it.

Here we run into the anonymity of the Internet. Anyone can access content that is public (obvious) without the social check that typically keeps us from invading the privacy of strangers (should be obvious). In other words, because the content producer doesn't know who is peeking in, the social barrier against looking at the details of a strangers life crumbles. But beyond just looking, the anonymous aspect of the Internet also gives rise to displays of the worst human behavior against those same strangers. I'm not saying it happens in every situation but enough examples exist to prove that the old social contract is being re-written online.

If the social contract online is different from our real-world interactions, then we, the users, must be cognizant of the mores that guide our digital lives. That's an easy argument to make for a group of adults. Most of us are self-aware enough to think critically about issues we face. The rising generation of the Internet needs to be trained in media literacy the same way we teach them how to interact in our offline societies.

Media Literacy 2.0

One of the prevalent themes when encouraging companies to get involved in the social Internet is that the tools are less important than understanding the people. Children may understand the tools but should not be expected to understand the people without some guidance.

So what does media literacy mean in a Web 2.0 world?

Perhaps an analogy would be appropriate here. My son and I can play catch together. He'll learn to use his glove, how to throw accurately, and we could even get in some batting practice. Once he's mastered the tools, I wouldn't just put him on a baseball team and expect him pick up the rules of the game as he goes. Learning the tools is a relatively minor part of the education he would need to be an effective player, and to have fun.

And, I'll flow from that right into an example from my own life. When I was a freshman in high school I took a class to learn how to type. I learned on a typewriter. This was considered an important part of my training for using a computer, it was part of my media literacy training. The standard has been raised since then. Computer use is an assumed part of childhood, but learning to type is a tool.

Media literacy has always been a 'rules of the game' framework. In Web 1.0 we had to learn that not all content online was true, online vs. offline identities, and how todifferente content from advertising. The focus in Web 2.0 needs to be on concepts like permanency of online content, privacy in social networks, search engines potential to serve your content to anyone, and aggregation services acting as new source of discovery. In Web 1.0 you could control what you visited online, if you were careful most issues could be avoided. In Web 2.0 control of content is not an option, making sure you only put the content you intend online is crucial.

To re-phrase, media literacy is now a life skill.

Life Skills

I've had to think about this section for a few days. Life skills are the skills that can't be learned in a book, they are learned by living. These are skills that allow us to function in society. And the definition of living is changing.

As digital interactions become more real-time, the analog skills we learn in life are even more important. The skills we develop and hone through in-person interaction translate to any other medium. Our real world interactions are about more than transmitting content to one another. They teach us how to identify what kind of behavior is appropriate in various situations, how to process our environment as it relates to our situation, and why people act the way they do. These are crucial preparations for our merged lives.

On the other hand, the text-based interactions that we could consider limited because of lack of tone (and other non-verbal cues) do have the advantage of being more accessible. The ability to interact online has allowed many people to communicate more confidently. Will there be a new group of people that learn their life skills online because it provides them a better platform for living? And, a bigger question that I also won't answer here, does learning life skills online trap them in a digital world, or can they also be translated to the offline world?

Though I'm don't have answers to all those questions, I want to bring this back around to the beginning. The video that started this post shows a disturbing lack of life skills by the girls and boys involved. In an update to the story, they are all going to be charged as adults for kidnapping and battery. They could potentially face life in prison, but even if they don't this will have permanent effects on the course of their lives. A conviction in the face of the evidence is very likely. Even if they only get 10, or 5, or 1 year in prison they've effectively ruined their chances to go to college. They'll have to disclose being convicted of a felony on every job application. And, in the short term, I don't expect that too many of their peers will support them -- even though many knew what they were planning and were waiting to see it on YouTube.

This example drives home the need to teach more children how to understand media and use it appropriately in their lives.

Addition: I was pointed to another excellent post on this same topic by Shelly Palmer. He has a great take on it, including a question about the advertising is being shown alongside these videos.


Jim Spencer said...

Thoughtful post indeed.

It boils down to learning right from wrong at an early age and applying that knowledge in all aspects of life. If you have no life skills, you certainly have no media literacy at any age.

Privacy. Wow. People need to be educated to the fact that there is less and less of it? Much info is available free and even more if you want to pay a few dollars.

I gave my son a unique email account to use when signing up for accounts and explained how to be safe online. Let's hope everyone gets that explanation before the end of their middle school years.

Gina said...

I think there is more to this than the girls wanting to be media famous. Teenagers don't see past the moment they are in. They were mad at that girl (for something she posted on facebook), and they posted that video to show everyone who was in charge. That sort of bullying goes on all the time, these girls just had access to a media format that they used to show their complete dominance.

It they had been media literate, the poor girl would still have been beat up, just no one would have known what really happened.

Teenagers don't understand the concept of next week, let alone the concept of forever. Can you imagine what's going to happen when this generation starts running for office? My son is interested in that - good god it's going to be so embarrassing when some of his myspace and facebook archives are published in the paper! (he has been told for years, he doesn't believe me). The only thing that stops him is thinking his grandmother may see it..

jjohansen said...

Jim, thanks for the comments. Right and Wrong is a good lens to have installed early. Things are definitely getting more complicated.

Gina, I probably overstated their desire to be 'famous'. However, I think that the idea of posting the video to YouTube increased the severity of the beating. You are quite right that kids will always want to assert their dominance regardless of who else sees it. But I wonder if they would have gone as far as they did without the added thrill of capturing it on video to distribute to their friends.

And, as you say, the biggest hurdle isn't necessarily teaching kids to understand media but their inability to understand the future consequences of their actions on their lives. It's sad to me that everyone involved is going to have long-term consequences from this one act.

John Johansen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John Johansen said...

Fixing my comment from before.

Read an interesting article today that fits along this theme.

While the American examples given are a bit simplistic, I think the principle Emily pulls out is still valid.

Mia said...

"The ability to interact online has allowed many people to communicate more confidently."

This immediately made me think of my own experience with my personal blog. Simply the act of writing it has helped me better develop my voice. And the feedback from friends and family made me confident that what I have to say is of interest. Because of my blog, I am happier in my "real life". Thanks for making me aware of it.