Grappling with the reality of always-on

With every issue for which the previous generation is ill-equipped to deal, the hand wringing begins anew. I recall only a few years ago, prior to the advent of the social media which now dominates the web, internet addiction was a serious issue in the late 90’s according to some. You’d think the sky was going to fall, and that addiction was to a web without a sticky, social component. Before that, TV was going to ruin young minds (OK, so maybe that has merit). Citing primarily internet addiction, The Toronto Star recently published a piece indicating students are putting Facebook before exams. Let me get this straight – college kids enjoying social distractions instead of school? I can’t believe it.

Surprisingly, Perret doesn’t suggest they actually swear off Facebook during exams, “because then they’d start worrying about what they’re missing and that would be even more distracting. I tell them to use it as a treat after, say, each hour of studying. It’s like any addiction; you have to learn to manage it.”

A distraction to be managed? Probably. If it’s actually an addiction, it probably can’t be managed, so categorizing it as such might be a tad alarmist. It’s certainly true that the online options available for distraction are significant. When you consider how services like Twitter or can work with social platforms like Facebook or niche social networks like, people (and I’m not only referring to post-secondary students) can lose their perspective and assume they have to spend a lot of time polishing their social presence.

Before Facebook and YouTube, there were always things standing in the way of focusing on school. It doesn’t matter much whether you’re talking about a kegger, a weekend at Whistler, or a pub crawl, college kids have always put socializing before studies. The fact that they’re doing it online, too, doesn’t matter. It’s not the tools that are important – they simply facilitate what we do in other contexts already.

Perret’s comments above strike me as naive, and fuel the notion that schools and parents don’t really get how the digital realm is now integrated into the lives of youth (and middle-aged web geeks like me) to such a degree that there’s no separation – Facebooking (yes, it’s becoming a verb) can’t be viewed as a ‘treat’ during breaks. Whether connecting via campus WiFi on their laptops or using a mobile app on their cellphone, constant access to the tools of digital living is a given, and it’s simply an extension of their world – context doesn’t much matter.

This generation uses and communicates with digital media constantly. Whether it’s online discussion, status updates, social networking, listening to music, sharing photos, watching video or gaming – it can’t be stopped. I’m not sure I completely buy the notion of the net generation/digital native, but one thing is for certain – embrace the technology and understand it, or die trying.

What’s really the issue with new media, then?

If you ask me, it’s more about magnifying the human condition. Some people have obsessive personalities and have to learn control and some don’t. Some people will say and do stupid things and some won’t. The only difference with living openly online now, is that employers and others upon whom your future life can partly depend, can easily search for you and find those lapses in judgment and poor choices. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve stopped following on Twitter because I get tired of seeing 20 updates an hour, covering every inconsequential thought which crosses their mind.

Frankly, it magnifies idiocy. Should we really be concerned when others unfriend us on Facebook? Maybe if we’re 15. It’s pretty much like any other parting of ways in my mind. If you have a reason to stop communicating with someone, you might well stop taking their phone calls and ignore their emails. While changing your status to single or unfriending someone on Facebook is a little more of a public demonstration of feelings, it shouldn’t matter all that much. It’s really the same thing as breaking up with someone and then talking with everyone you know about it. Is it worth a lot of analysis?

So, should you ask? It depends. If the worry is consuming you, then just asking might be the best response. But a better first response might just be to interpret positively, and give the other person the benefit of the doubt.

Not bad advice really. If you wonder why someone is displaying poor behaviour, ask them. Groundbreaking concept, don’t you think? Would anyone actually worry if their friends had a little spat or broke up if it weren’t publicly displayed on their Facebook status or in a blog post? Why should we in the online context?

Really though, any kind of social experience on the web is simply that – social experience. It’s a different context where slightly different etiquette or nuances of behaviour might apply, but don’t courtesy, manners and social skills count for something? Being obsessed with your tweets or Facebook updates, or worrying about how frequently you blog is no more or less of an addiction than having to look at yourself in every mirror you see. Instead of treating the internet or social networking like an addiction, if we focus on being healthy, balanced people, it won’t likely be a concern in the first place. It may be that the environment breeds some of this behaviour, but not all of it.

What, if anything, to do?

While the rules of engagement in a digital world seem to be changing, what does that mean for schools, employers, parents and others? Just how much constant access to digital social technology is changing how people learn is the subject of much debate, as some profs bristle at customizing everything heavily for today’s learner. What you are willing to do about it, accept or change in response to it, will be framed in part by how important you think it is. I don’t think there’s a solid answer to that when we can’t even tell how people learn in any given context in the first place.

Connectivism, for example is an emerging learning theory that I think has some merit.

Principles of connectivism:
* Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
* Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
* Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
* Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known
* Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
* Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
* Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
* Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.

However, I’m not sure I confine the notion to that of learning. Since learning theory shares some commonality with other social sciences like communications theory, perhaps it’s more a concept for the broader notion of being, as opposed to only an activity like learning.

If we accept the premise that people do socialize and communicate, and that the digital social tools for these activities aren’t going away any time soon, we must factor them into experiences moving forward. Their immediacy and ubiquity is not to be feared or avoided, nor do they necessarily have to become the be-all and end-all. We do, however, have to meet expectations by accepting the ways in which the present generation interacts, and that includes learning.