Activities in the Age of Social Media

My mother lived from 1912 to 1990 and one of the things we had in common was our wonder at the changes that technology brought over each of our lifetimes. She remembers a time when the lamplighter would go around Sydney at dust lighting the gas street lamps. I must bore my students with stories of what we did before we had television: racing home from school or a weekend outing to sit around a crackling radio and listen to the latest episode of our favourite serials. Our imagination would provide the video.

Now my children are grown up I have time to develop my own career as a researcher and am fascinated by the rapidly changing landscape of how we live and work with digital tools via the Web. As a social scientist I rely on the lens of Activity Theory to provide rich insights on how the tools we have available to us mediate what we do.

Next week we are having a day workshop on the topic of “Activities in the Age of Social Media”. Over the past few month a good deal of my time and effort has gone into organising not just the workshop but some also some online activities with participants leading up to it. While there has not been as much activity as I had hoped, the experience has made me reflect on how and why I use various social media and other online applications.

The tool I enjoy most is Twitter (handle @bottlingfog) Whenever I am online it provides me with a stream of interesting, often witty, snippets from people I choose to follow with links to more detail if available. It is low maintenance and optional.

Email is the opposite; high maintenance and compulsory. Some group activities generate so many emails that I often miss the ones that I need to act on. I suspect that email is the source of much of the chaos of contemporary life and much more of a problem than social media.

I greatly appreciate wikis and blogs as ways to dynamically co-create and co-evolve content with anyone anywhere. The dialogues that sometimes flow spontaneously as comments on a blog post, often between strangers, can sometimes be quite intriguing.

Although I have had accounts on Facebook and LinkedIn for many years, I rarely logged until recently when I thought I should get involved with the groups set up for this workshop. Contrary to my expectations I have found that keeping up with “friends” on Facebook was more interesting and useful than knowing what was happening to my “connections” on LinkedIn. Through Facebook I keep up with my daughters and their families; see what has become of the 20 or so international PhD students I have supervised; and keep in contact with the large families of my husband’s brothers and sisters in Jordan.

Overall these tools enable us to communicate and collaborate with anyone anywhere more easily, quickly and cheaply. The opportunity this provides to get involved in more and more interesting activities can be quite seductive so that we are, or at least I am, drawn into engaging in a many more projects than we would otherwise have done. I’m not sure this is all going to lead in the next 5 or 10 years but will almost certainly be something that few have predicted.

My first blog

In thinking about writing my first blog I tried to imagine the equivalent of a blog in the 1950s when I was at school.  I guess the closest thing would be a letter to a newspaper or radio station. It was not conceivable that private citizens could create, edit, store and publish whatever they chose without pen and paper, and without someone else judging whether the words should be made public or not. So now that I can blog, I cannot resist doing so even though it has taken me a while to get around to it.

My professional worker as a researcher in the field of Information Systems (IS) has studied the evolution of digital technologies and the World Wide Web.  Right now is an exciting time as social media are invading public and private enterprises. I can now ‘follow’ journalists, the police, revolutionaries, most companies and goodness knows whom else on Twitter. I get alerted to all sorts of things, some earth shattering and some trivial, as they happen. My role as an IS researcher is to try to make sense of what is happening and where this will lead us.

When I was a physics undergrad in the early 1960s the electronic switches which made up the 0 and 1 bits of computers were valves (very large and unreliable). Transistors were just coming into the curriculum and integrated circuits barely mentioned. My research grounding as a postgrad in physics, or more accurately bio-physics, involved recording signals from electrodes stuck into nerve and muscles cells.  This was made possible by the advances in field effect transistors with high input impedances. (This meant that the very small electronic signals we were measuring were not shorted out by the measuring device). In any case I learnt to carefully observe and analyse what was really going on, at that time in the natural world but later on it would be in the world of people and organisations.

So when, after stints of backpacking around the world and raising a family, I returned to my academia career and brought the same curiosity about what was really happening to the field of IS.  This is not synonymous with IT. IS involve the creation, operation and impact of whole socio-technical systems where digital tools (i.e. computers and communications networks) basically do the following: collect data to process transactions and produce information that people use as knowledge to make sense of their world, then decide to act (or not as the case may be).

The changes in what we do (and how we do it) from the 1960s to the present day have been phenomenal and fascinating. We now live in a global space where digital technology is everywhere, mobile and often ubiquitous. Time and space no longer restrict what we can do and with whom we do it. However this seems to make our lives much more frenetic, complicated and complex. This gives me plenty to research and I see myself in a professional ecosystem where I revel in complexity, welcome change, take risks and value diversity. Knowing this may help you make sense of what I publish both here and elsewhere.