My own experience: learning in a virtual community

Social Communicative Aspects of ICT

I am most impressed by this week’s reading Children Online: Learning in a virtual community of practice, which looks deep into a virtual community called “Gathering of the Elves” and analyzes how children’s role-play as Tolkien’s characters relates to learning and community theories.

One reason I found the article impressive is that I didn’t realize before a hobby BBS created by children can have so many learning merits and actually absorbs children into learning spontaneously, without even realizing it. The author highly praises their main activity: role-playing and story-telling as “shaping a community”:

But it is the act of the storytelling ritual that is revealing. Elianna is creating and shaping a history of the community by retelling the events of the role-playing. She is also encouraging and directing other community members to read certain parts of it, as she celebrates the achievements of the role-players, showing pride in their collaborative narrative, and forging her identity in the community as a leader.

The other reason, perhaps a more important one, is that I found myself engaging in several similar virtual communities when I was in secondary school! One BBS was focused on Zhuge Liang, China’s greatest and most accomplished strategist in the Three Kingdoms Period, where we worshiped and wrote memoirs and novels about him, trying to retell the history, and all of the members were closely bonded “sisters”. In fact, that was the one and only virtual community I felt truly belonged to. Similar to “Gathering of the Elves”, writing was also the main form of communication and we would give huge respect and support to each other. I was always impressed and moved by other’s writing and they in turn inspired me to write better. This is exactly like what the author describes, a learning process. It’s also such a coincidence that we didn’t quite regard it as “learning” either.

Another BBS I always engaged in was about Harry Potter, where we shared news, discussed and guessed the plot, wrote our own novels, and translated foreign novels from a site called FanFiction.net. Since the translation was sometimes lagged behind, I soon went to the site to read the novels myself. It soon became a big hobby for me, and I believe it was during these “English-novel-reading” nights that I accidentally practiced my English. I would look up new words and wrote them down on a notebook. Finally I started to translate a short novel on my own.

In one word, my own experience in virtual communities resonates with the author’s point. But it’s curious that none of the kids nor me regard the learning as serious, or even notice that we are learning. This raises an interesting question: if we want our kids to learn spontaneously from virtual communities like these, how can we guide them?  After all, there are all kinds of virtual communities and not all of them are constructive. Should we use incorporate them into classroom? Would it be different once children know the communities are designed for them to “learn something”?

Abstract/Critque: Introduction: Alone Together of the book Alone Together

Social Communicative Aspects of ICT

Here is my mid-term Abstract/ Critique assignment for the course Social Communicative Aspects of ICT. I post it here for more people to see and reflect on the questions raised by the book.

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Introduction: Alone Together of the book

Alone Together:

Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Linying Wang

Teachers College, Columbia University

Abstract

The author begins by pointing out the negative effects technology has brought to us: we are connected, yet lonely, and fearful of intimacy. Then she explains her intention of writing this book, to “ask how we got to this place and whether we are content to be here” and how her attitude has changed from her last book. The author devotes a lot to her concern about the future relationship between humans and robots by citing many living examples. One of these is through her daughter’s critical reaction to two giant living tortoises on display in Darwin exhibition; the author found unsettlingly that most children didn’t see the value of aliveness. Other two elaborate examples are revolved around the notion of future human-robot love, sex and marriage. The author is “troubled by the idea” and was shocked when a Scientific American reporter accused her of “no better than bigots who deny gays and lesbians the right to marry”. The author continues to cite more examples of people who long for robot companions and she names such time to be “the robotic moment”, and analyzes the reasons behind it: Humans rely on robots to compensate for the disadvantages of human being. As the author puts it, “We are too exhausted to deal with each other in adversity; robots will have energy.”

Since the book consists of two parts: The Robotic Moment and Networked, the author then moves on to present her concerns on people’s over connection in virtual world and lack of real communication, and points out its consequence: even more isolated. Examples are common yet shocking: multitasking when having video calls with family, people doing their own stuff and not talking to those who are present during a conference. The author warns that we are degrading relationships to “mere connections”. Finally she summarizes the two parts of the book.

Critique

Trained as a psychologist, the author’s clinical writing style provides a great many living examples that illustrate the shocking fact that we are “expecting more from technology and less from each other”. (Turkle, 2011, p.295) I cannot help but feel unsettled by these facts and keep reflecting on myself. Although I consider myself as a technology enthusiast and somewhat “geek”, I regard myself as having good control over technology, not playing with my phone all day or obsessed with virtual worlds. But I cannot deny the fact that when I have dinner with my family, I too sometimes watch TV on my iPad or send messages on IM; when I am on subway, I also sometimes concentrate on my phone like other people do. I don’t like the fact that almost everyone on the subway in Shanghai are playing games or texting on the phone, or even watching TV dramas when they are walking, but in the meantime, I cannot resist the temptation to plug in to the “wonderful” virtual world in order not to be “lonely” on the boring commute trip.

I agree with the author that we are trained by Internet to be “so enmeshed in our connections that we neglect each other”. (Turkle, 2011, p.294) Nowadays people scroll down their social media timeline page to check on their friends instead of making phone calls, let alone visiting. This makes us feel even more lonely despite the seemingly “constant connection”. Especially when we are at our weakest moments like illness and suffering, is it going to help if our friends just say comforting words via IM?

A cited 2010 analysis of data from the book also troubled me a lot, stating “since the year 2000… young people … say it is less valuable to try to put oneself in the place of others or to try to understand their feelings.” (Turkle, 2011, p.293) Such findings are shocking, yet corresponding to what I have experienced personally these days. But why is it happening?

One reason might be the evilness of human nature, as many great philosophers believe. Our fatigue with the difficulties of life with people creates the need for robots, as they don’t demand, disappoint, cheat or take drugs. (Turkle, 2011, p.10) On the other hand, such reliance on technology breeds a vicious circle: when humans have a problem, especially problems created by technology, we turn to technology for help. As the author puts it, “But when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections. And then, easy connection becomes redefined as intimacy. Put otherwise, cyberintimacies slide into cybersolitudes.” (p.16)

A deeper reason, and much more dangerous and shocking one, which is not provided in this book, can be found in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. It claims that “Our brains, the historical and scientific evidence reveals, change in response to our experiences. The technologies we use to find, store, and share information can literally reroute our neural pathways…. We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.” (Carr, 2011) No matter true or not, we cannot deny the fact that our attention span is shorter and shorter and our tolerance for boredom is more and more limited.

Disturbed, I keep thinking of the question what we shall do to change the situation. The book doesn’t provide many solutions, but simply suggests doing things like “talk to colleagues down the hall, no cell phones at dinner”. (Turkle, 2011, p.296) But are these actions powerful enough to save us from the “alone together” dilemma? I would call for more.

References

Carr, N. (2011). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York, NY: Basic books.

Concerns on Connectivism: Is ability to get information more important?

Social Communicative Aspects of ICT

After reading G.Siemens’ article Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age, I have several thoughts and concerns. 

I like the idea of Connectivism in the way that it emphasizes on connecting,  organizational learning and the importance of getting information. The author said,

“The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe. Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today…. When knowledge, however, is needed, but not known, the ability to plug into sources to meet the requirements becomes a vital skill.”

I agree that it is vital to know how to gain information when needed, given the current rapid changing environment of most careers; But I doubt that Connectivism focuses more on information rather than knowledge.

We can get information by connecting with friends, internet, organization, etc, but how can we make the information to knowledge, to apply to our lives, to solve our problems? And often the situation is, when you really need certain knowledge, you don’t know where to start looking or what information you should get. However, if you’ve already possessed the knowledge you need, you are likely to tackle the problem in a way that other people may not possibly think of, and it is much easier for you to identify any information you need further.

A simple instance is when you are dealing with a social problem, a good way is to look back into history and reflect upon the current situation. If you don’t know history and simply rely on looking for information online, you may get some facts and a glimpse, but you are hardly likely to get some real insights. However, a person knowing well on history can immediately link some thoughts to the current situation and knows exactly which period, which country to look into, then some simple searches on details will meet the needs.

Let me take another example on the infamous rapid-changing industry: IT. This is an industry you have to learn for a life-time and keep pace with the emerging new technologies. But even though a person has to be equipped with sufficient programming knowledge on fundamental languages to start career. And after that, he/she will normally find learning a new language rather easily, say, the new Apple’s language Swift, any experienced programmer will not complain of its difficulty to learn.

Similarly, I was a graphic designer before, and although Adobe keeps on releasing new versions of Photoshop, Illustrator every year, the basics remain the same. I would not have much trouble in learning the new version; in fact, the real trouble came with the installation!

In conclusion, I think the real problem is how to innate information to knowledge, and I believe we need to have profound and sound knowledge base before we move on to learn how to acquire information for the future.

Solitude: so hard in Digital Age?

Social Communicative Aspects of ICT

What impressed me most in this week’s reading is Sherry Turkle’s TED talk “Connected, but alone?” The talk criticized our heavy reliance on technology, discussed the harm of not having the capacity for solitude and appealed to us to focus on real F2F conversation and more time on reflection.

Turkle said,”constant connection is changing the way people think of themselves. It’s shaping a new way of being. The best way to describe it is, I share therefore I am. …So before it was: I have a feeling, I want to make a call. Now it’s: I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text….So what do we do? We connect more and more. But in the process, we set ourselves up to be isolated. How do you get from connection to isolation? You end up isolated if you don’t cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate, to gather yourself….When we don’t have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel alive. When this happens, we’re not able to appreciate who they are. It’s as though we’re using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self. We slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone.”

I totally agree with her. Solitude is something we normally tend to avoid, but  a look back at the history of literature reminds me that most authors, scholars and poets have the ability to appreciate the beauty of solitude and enjoy solitude. Through solitude they reflect themselves, have a deep look at their true selves and think about the ultimate philosophical questions. Through solitude they are greeted by their true selves in the dark, which most people, cannot stand for a minute, and immediately take out their phones.

A famous quote in Confucian Analects goes as:

The philosopher Tsang said, “I daily examine myself on three points:– whether, in transacting business for others, I may have been not faithful;– whether, in intercourse with friends, I may have been not sincere;– whether I may have not mastered and practiced the instructions of my teacher.”

The French writer Montaigne also wrote in his famous essay On Solitude:

We must take the soul back and withdraw it into itself; that is the real solitude, which may be enjoyed in the midst of cities and the courts of kings;but it is best enjoyed alone.

In the Digital Age, people are constantly connected, sometimes because we are afraid of boredom and loneliness, sometimes because we have to keep pace. We are expected to reply to an instant message instantly, to frequently check emails and reply them ASAP… Otherwise we are considered not abiding by the social norms. All the rapid pace of communication leaves us less time for solitude.

However, as the speech pointed out, people are deliberately getting used to constantly being connected to get “control” of their lives. We are growing less patient and less willing to meet our true selves in the dark. But this is dangerous, as Turkle said, “we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.” The companionship we have for now is an illusion. Although friendship and love may hurt us, even badly, we still have to experience it and live our lives. After all, this is life.

Finally, I would like to end the article with a new TV drama called “Selfie” (Watch it here). One scene left me thinking: When the heroine, the “Instafamous” Eliza who has 263,000 followers, had throwed up badly and wanted her virtual friends to send her a ginger tea, no one really empathized and cared.

Our New Virtual Reality Social Life

Social Communicative Aspects of ICT

Admit it or not, our social life has become more and more virtual, however, seemingly real at the same time. 

Now we invite friends to a party on Facebook, not by phone, let alone sending invitations; we create avatars on Second Life and simulate the real life, good or bad, even getting married and giving birth; we socialize heavily on social media, chat on WhatsApp/ WeChat, while still playing our phones at a real F2F gathering.

Here is a documentary film on Second Life, depicting how the virtual life has affected people’s life and its dark sides. Tell me what you think after watching it!

It is not uncommon for people to spend tons of money on virtual in-game goods. I myself have spent $10 or so on a game called Tribez where I built my own villages. I have a friend who can spend $150 on a single dress for her avatar in a dancing online game. Appalled as you may be at first, you may soon understand the psychology behind this, say, the need of “esteem” and “self-actualization”, and how companies take advantage of it to make money. But often the question is, why do people feel “stupid” after they purchase the virtual goods?

From my point of view, people flock to SNS sites and SecondLife to fulfill the need of socialization and self-actualization. Some people might think their virtual husbands/wives who they never meet in real life actually are more important than their real life friends/partners. I believe it might happen, especially for those who are undergoing an unhappy marriage, but not for the majority. I believe the most of us rely on real relationships to fulfill our social needs.

The virtual social life can have two different results depending on the different natures. For sites like Facebook which are based on real life relationships, people usually strengthen or weaken their existing social ties. And the common phenomenon is that people who are already popular remains popular, and vice versa, thus leaving those unpopular people feeling less secure and achieved.

The second type of social life is anonymous and probably the main reason for people to be addicted to. It often creates an illusion that you are so popular and you can achieve things you cannot even imagine in real life. For example, a bad-looking girl in reality can create a sexy, beautiful avatar in a game, dress up using real money and attract many suitors and finally find her “true love”.

However, in my opinion, it doesn’t always look so good. The more you socialize in the virtual world, the more obsessed you are with your perfect avatar, the more upset you will feel when you are back in the real world, thus creating a vicious cycle which draws you deeper into the virtual world.

So, in conclusion, do we want to submerge into a virtual world and feel good about ourselves or do we want to face the brutal reality?

(Week 3) Should social media have status restrictions?

Social Communicative Aspects of ICT

In the article The reader-to-leader framework: motivating technology-mediated social participation, the author attributed one of the motivations people participate in social media actively, even collaboratively, to the potential status rise and fame. The author then continues, “In offline situations,…, a commonly used ploy is to restrict access to allow only those with higher status to participate.” While I agree with that,  it quite bothers me that “some researchers are exploring these concepts online”.

There is no doubt that for businesses,it does no harm to create such a privileged feeling for their most active and thus “loyal” customers. What’s more, it can even serve as an incentive for other customers to participate more, or simply buy the privilege with money.

In fact, if we look closer, we can find many examples already existing. Many websites and BBS have points systems which allow users to exchange points for real commodities. You can gain points by writing threads and participate in activities, but the fastest way is simply spending money.  Sounds like the mechanics of an i-App free game.

However, when I think about it, many ethic questions do raise. Is it really good to restrict the online community for just those “privileged and high status” opinion leaders? Is it fair for other users who, although do not create much content online, participate offline? Does being an active user online, creating more content online equals to an opinion leader who can exert positive impact on the society? Or, are those “opinion leaders” real leaders?

Even if they are, here raises the controversial question often discussed in communication studies: how about those majority readers who are silent and seldom participate in online discussion? In real life, “the Spiral of Silence” has already been revolving for a long time; if the so-called “status” interfere with the online world, which used to be equal and anonymous, will it inherit the inequality and unfairness of the real world?

Reflections: Thinking of the relations between this question with last week’s reading, I think it emphasizes one point: the technology and the society both have impact and determinism on each other. We invent technology to make it do things we want it to do, so in this case, if some people want the Internet to have status, then it could easily happen.

Week 2 Reading: Do machines make history?/ Does technology drive history?

Social Communicative Aspects of ICT

Questions

1. (from Do Machines Make History?) Click here to view the Prezi presentation I made for the article.

Why didn’t most of the advanced technologies in ancient China get wide application in society? For example, the gun powder was primarily used to make firecrackers, not weapons; the compass was not used to explore the seas, even when they did, China didn’t sail the ocean on an adventurous attitude, let alone colonize any countries.

Reflections: This question is important to me personally as I am interested in Chinese history. I can think of some reasons after reading the article, such as the low cost of labor force and a low need for improving productivity; the lack of capitalism and the control of government. Although some technologies such as printing did get wide application and had a great impact on the society, they were not able to change socioeconomic order in a bit.

2. (from the introduction of Does Technology drive history?)

The author states that “society as whole becomes increasingly dependent on large, intricately interrelated technical systems.” The statement reminds me of an idea on which a game called “Watchdog” is based. It sets the background in the future Chicago where all the communication, security, electricity and servaillance is intrigued into one megasystem and the protagonist can hack into the system and see everyone’s file, what they are talking on the phone and watch every surveillance video. It’s really creepy. I cannot help but wonder if our society is moving towards this trend. Actually, as far as I know, some systems do connect, such as electricity grid, and they are all based on computers. Nowadays, our heavy reliance on web server to save our files/photos/data also prompts certain danger. So will the society pose some restrictions? What will happen if someone hacks into these systems?

Reflections: This question is important both personally and academically. It helps identify the social and equity issues of technology and through this question, I try to find a path to which future leads.