So George Siemens has lost interest in social media as “there is no there there” (plagiarising Gertrude Stein). Now I’m not an uncritical zealot when it comes to social media and have spoken out against the hype, but to claim there’s no substance at all to social media is wrong.
First he makes the general statement, “Social media=emotions”. I assume he means that social media only results in the emotional outpourings from the participants. So when I get invites to speak, write, exchange views, follow up links to useful blog pieces/articles/academic papers, read reviews and then go to movies/theatre, share photographs, rediscover old friends and meet up, keep in touch with distant relatives – it’s just a well of emotional mush? What George fails to understand is the fact that the networked world is causally connected to the real world. Real things happen in the real world because we communicate through these networks.
Siemens use of Facebook and Twitter seems to have been limited to, “attending to my emotive needs of being connected to people when I’m traveling and whining”. A bad workman blames his tools and if he sees Facebook and Twitter as ‘posting only’ media, forgetting that there’s groups, messaging and other features that are widely used for practical purposes, that’s his loss.
Connectivism not really there?
I should say from the start that I never bought Connectivism, as it muddles up primitive epistemology, dated social psychology and pedagogy to produce a nexus of thinly connected ideas around an abstract noun. Not for the first time have such vague, unsubstantiated ideas gained currency among educators. For me, the real problem is duplicity. Surely he's thrown out his connectivist baby with the bathwater of abandoned social media. So much for the idea of knowledge existing in the world of real activity by real people. Surely that also means 750 million on Facebook and hundreds of millions of learners on Twitter and other social media. And so much for the whole idea of creating a network for learning – unless, of course, that must mean George’s blog, online courses and speaking engagements. In a stroke Siemens has banished the largest and most potent networks on the planet to the dead zone, and with it connectivism.
So what’s his solution? “The substance needs to exist somewhere else (an academic profile, journal articles, blogs, online courses” says George. He means, of course, ‘the academy’, namely academia and academics. George’s problem is to imagine that the academy is the focus of all intellectual and important activity. The conceit is the idea that if it ain’t about institutional learning it ain’t worth it. It’s an academic conceit that we all want to be lifelong learners taking their courses, attending their lectures, signing up for their online courses and hanging on their every word. Most of us couldn’t wait to get out of school and college, and wouldn’t dream of going back. Not leaving school at all is fine, but it doesn’t give you the right to look down upon others just because they don’t write academic articles and aren’t part of those networks. After nearly 30 years in the learning game, I truly believe that little has emerged from academia in terms of innovation, pedagogy and good practice. Indeed they themselves seem stuck in a primitive pedagogy that depends on lectures (which they will defend to the death). Time to move on.
Social media and politics
He ridicules Jeff Jarvis’s comments on the political power of the hashtag but the University of Athabasca ain’t Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen or Syria. Academics like Siemens can afford to disconnect because, to caricature Kissinger, “the stakes are so small.” “The notion of the Arab Spring being about social media is similarly misguided” says Siemens. Well, one can sit in some University somewhere and make these generalisations but YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have, and continue, to play a serious causal role in these revolutions. It's something I'm convinced of after travelling and speaking to young people in these countries. People are dying for their rights and using these media to achieve real political change and it's an insult for ill-informed academics to reduce this to an off-hand comment about it being 'misguided'.
Let me end with a real story about Facebook. Jan Kaufman, a learning expert, had a stroke last year, and we watched with astonishment as she at first typed garbled posts, then over the following year got better by drawing nourishment from her friends on Facebook. She was inspirational and genuinely thinks that social media contributed to her recovery. We, in turn, learnt loads about what it really means to have a stroke, hospital life, claiming benefits and recovering cognitive skills. If George wants to dismiss this as useless ‘emotion’, he’s making a big mistake. It was a genuine learning experience for me, Jan and many of her friends. Social networks are, for him, “void of substance”. I fear, however, that it is Siemen’s arguments that are void of substance.