Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Sakai and Social Networking

I'm attending the 2007 Sakai Conference in California this week. The Sakai Foundation, a consortium of colleges and universities, oversees the creation of a new “open source” course management system (CMS).

For those of you not connected to an academic institution (Anyone? Anyone?), a CMS such as Blackboard, WebCT, ANGEL, Desire2Learn and now, Sakai, provides university faculty with computer network resources to design and manage their classes.

Within the confines of their particular university's network professors can post their syllabi online, conduct discussions or chats, run quizzes and other evaluation tools, disseminate copies of their course materials and maintain their grade books electronically.

What Sakai brings to the equation is control. True to the “open source” movement, the Sakai code is completely completely free. This means that not only can any individual or institution take the code and do anything they want with it (use it, sell it, change it) but any corporation could do the same. Meanwhile, Sakai members provide staff and resources to develop the product, approve enhancements and correct bugs.

The open source movement, as compared to corporate software development, benefits from many, many eyes surveying the product and providing suggestions. The process provides for speedier product updates and better, more error-free code. Those of us whom Microsoft still sees as guinea pigs for their latest software (Vista anyone? Anyone?) can appreciate this.

Twice a year those institutions involved in the Sakai initiative gather at some appropriate location to share their knowledge and experiences.

But Sakai and open source software isn't what I want to talk about in this post. I want to draw your attention to an article that appeared this past Sunday in the New York Times Week in Review, available here and to the letter to the editor I submitted which is available here.

The article by Alex Wright, Friending, Ancient or Otherwise, discusses the new ways of social networking enabled by such online sites as MySpace and Facebook. Wright writes:

The growth of social networks — and the Internet as a whole — stems largely from an outpouring of expression that often feels more like “talking” than writing: blog posts, comments, homemade videos and, lately, an outpouring of epigrammatic one-liners broadcast using services like Twitter and Facebook status updates (usually proving Gertrude Stein’s maxim that “literature is not remarks”).

In the course of his examination of social networking, Wright quotes my friend Lance Strate who has taking to social networking in a big way (1,335 MySpace friends!) and intends to teach a course on the subject at Fordham University this fall:

“Orality is the base of all human experience,” says Lance Strate, a communications professor at Fordham University and devoted MySpace user. He says he is convinced that the popularity of social networks stems from their appeal to deep-seated, prehistoric patterns of human communication. “We evolved with speech,” he says. “We didn’t evolve with writing.”

Lance's own blog, that, for reasons I can't fathom, he has titled "Lance Strate's Blog Time Passing" can be accessed here. His MySpace site is here. When Lance first posted notice of his contribution to social networking I offered this comment, which I later modified for submission to the New York Times:

My take on the social networking phenomena is that it represents a retrieval, though sped up to electric speeds, of the culture of correspondence of the 18th and 19th centuries.

I don't quite see how a system of communication based on messages like this, typed into the internet, can reflect the biases of oral cultures, but maybe that's what happens when letter writing is pushed to the extreme and flips into its opposite.

To which Lance replied:

I understand your point, Bob, but part of the distinctive quality of correspondence is the length of time that it takes the message to be delivered. Speeding up the interaction restores some of the immediacy of face-to-face interaction, which is why people tend to fall into conversational modes online, rather than draw on formal letter-writing. And letter-writing was a very pure kind of literary activity, where handwriting was the closest thing to a sense of presence, whereas in social networking we have profile pictures, we also have picture albums that others can check out, and potentially there are sound recordings available as MP3s, and video uploads. It is a multimedia environment that represents something much closer to physical presence than letter writing.

As a model media ecologist, Bob, you know that retrieval is one of McLuhan's four laws of media, but it's probably the most problematic one of all. and yes, you could say that e-mail obsolesces (another law) telephone conversations and retrieves letter writing, but I don't think that begins to cover the enormity of the social networking phenomenon. web 2.0, as it is sometimes referred to, is about adding more flexibility and interactivity to the original world-wide web, which was about making the internet more like a mass medium such as publishing, the internet having been a way to make electronic communications more flexible and interactive. it's been a real information war, as our friend Doug Rushkoff has argued. now, what would Levi-Strauss have to say about that?

And to which I responded:

I can't presume to speak for Levi-Strauss, especially concerning the new media social networks, about which, I believe, he has not stated an opinion.

However, if I did presume to put words into Levi-Strauss's mouth, I might suggest that social networking as it is manifested in places like MySpace and Facebook is neither social nor networking in the classic anthropological sense. It may represent the illusion of social networking, just like Second Life presents the illusion of life. It may be next to (ie "meta") social networking, the way metaphysics is "next to" physics.

Native oral cultures exist within three general systems: kinship, mythological and taboo. Kinship systems, as defined by structural anthropologists, are systems of the mutual exchange of goods and women that define social hierarchies and social obligations. Mythological systems operate to overcome or deny the inherent contradictions that exists in a culture's explanation of the world, thereby reinforcing and maintaining the assumptions, interpretations and belief systems of that culture. Taboo systems define what is touchable and what in untouchable in the environment. All these systems allow their participants to create and maintain categories into which they can divide the concrete elements of their particular environment.

The New York Times article mentions that you have 1,335 MySpace friends. That makes me think of the old joke about Chicago's Mayor Daly who would throw parties and invite 10,000 of his closest friends. Surely our definition of "friends" must change as the number approaches the thousands.

So Levi-Strauss might argue that the internet based "social networks" do not meet the requirements of the traditional social networks of oral societies, and so must be something else. We call them social networks the way we first called the automobile the "horseless carriage" or the radio the "wireless."

My own impression is that social networks have more to do with "I" than "Thou" and so represent, not social networks, but rather personal expression. We think we are communicating with other people, but we are really carrying on an elaborate conversation with ourselves.

Which brings us back to Sakai and the open source conference. There is some heresy spreading at the conference that the goal of Sakai, that is, to emulate the functionality of existing CMS's, is "rear view mirror" thinking. Many university faculty are moving beyond the limitations of course management software in the design and conduct of their courses, taking advantage of the vast array of social networking tools available on the internet. Many require their students to start a blog about the class. Some actively incorporate use of Facebook or MySpace into their syllabi. Some predict that to survive and compete against commercial competitors Sakai's course management software must evolve to take advantage of the capabilities of Web 2.0, the fully realized internet.

Sakai open source software development and MySpace-type social networking. Neither could exist without the internet. Both take advantage of the self-reflexive, self correcting characteristics of "many to many" communications. Both represent a new metaphor of social interaction that is still in its infancy.

We may yet witness the formation of elaborate kinship systems, based not on tribal relations but network connections. We may participate in the creation of a new mythologic system, one whose narrative explains the social networks that have come into being and hides whatever internal contradictions arise. And we may or may not become aware of a new set of taboos that appear as if by magic to help us maintain our new categories.

In short, we see the beginnings of what Marshall McLuhan called the elaborate social infrastructure brought about and sustained by any new medium of communication, in this case, the internet.

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