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.