Online is not a separate place

by eskokilpi

With the emergence of writing, physical presence was no longer necessary for sharing information. In other words, a person’s being there was not necessary for their influence to be felt. As typing replaced handwriting or when movable type replaced the hand copying of words, it became even easier to communicate with words that replicated ideas and simulated human interaction without face-to-face contact.

Cultures without writing used human contact as a means for interpreting shared reality. Information within these cultures was community-based and people tended to construct their identities in relation to the community. People were dependent on contact with others for information. Print cultures in contrast encouraged more individuality and less connectivity with the community. Literacy led to people looking for information through the relatively isolated practice of reading rather than through face-to-face interaction.

When encountering anything for which we don’t already have a term, we turn to metaphor in order to make a comparison between the new phenomenon and a familiar thing. For example we display applications on our desktops, we place documents in folders, and we check our mailboxes for messages or we speak about virtual communities when we refer to groups of people communicating online.

Online communication has challenged our ideas of what a community can be. Social media allow people to relate to groups of people who live beyond the borders of location and time in the very same way that print once allowed information to be free from the constraints of location. Social media thus redefine what local interaction is and remove the constraints we earlier had on community building. The view of online as a separate space, a “virtual” space or “cyberspace” is an unfortunate example of a misleading metaphor that makes it hard to understand what is going on today. Our social media tools are no more alternatives to real life than books; they are very much part of it – making life more meaningful. People who are concerned about the increasing use of online communication and digital media often express their worries about the decay of face-to-face contact, but in effect social media are reducing the transaction costs of group activities and are increasingly the new coordination tools for real-world action. It is all about a richer life!

Communities are about bonding and belonging. The public access that the Internet now allows people to have is mistakenly believed to mean trying to get the broadest possible audience. But in effect people are trying to reach people like themselves, like-minded people, in order to belong to a community. There has been a tremendous increase in the amount of material that is available to the public, not really intended for the public, but instead for the emerging communities.

Many of our behaviours are held in place not by rational decisions or desires but by present or bygone constraints. Our cultures are shaped as much by these constraints as they are by capabilities and aspirations. Changes often take place very fast when the constraints are removed. The challenge is that misleading metaphors are often the biggest obstacles to moving forward after the technological constraints are gone.

Change occurs not so much as a result of new information leading to individual learning but when the patterns of connectedness between individuals change. Learning as a result of the print revolution was seen as an individual process. Learning as a result of the social media revolution is an active process of communication between people. Knowledge was earlier seen as being stored in content. Today knowledge is understood to be perpetually constructed in communication. Books could be transmitted from one person to another. Today knowledge is the process of relating. The technological constraints are gone; now is the time to get rid of the wrong, constraining metaphors.

We are living a communication revolution that equals the changes brought about by print.

Thank you Andrew Wood, Euan Semple, Matthew Smith, Clay Shirky and Ralph Stacey


Reading revolutions Thomas vander Wal’s blog