Friday, May 18, 2012

We’re all Digital Migrants now

‘Social media for sceptics’ could have been a subtitle for the coaching programme we have been running with Diplo staff and teaching faculty. Distinguished and deeply experienced diplomats and educators were presented over the four weeks with an introduction to personal dashboards like iGoogle or Netvibes, tools to help select from and manage the racing ‘web of flows’; they engaged with enthusiastic bloggers; and we shared experiences of using LinkedIn and Twitter.

If there was an icon for many of the exchanges it would be a pair of folded arms, below a head leaning back, with a raised eyebrow, perhaps saying, “Really?” Entirely understandably and properly, those experienced in the subtlety, complexity and richness of diplomatic communication wanted evidence not hype, to interrogate the real and potential contribution of social media. These tools are increasingly part of the mainstream in Public Diplomacy, illustrated in the slowly growing activity on #eDiplomacy and #DigitalDiplomacy on Twitter and the professional social media operations of many larger MFAs, like the social-media rich US State Department  site or the open promotion of UK FCO Digital Diplomacy. In their public engagement on the platforms diplomatic communicators have to adapt their language and engage with the predominant culture, much as people do on postings outside their own country. Will this in turn impact the language and practice of Diplomacy? There is plenty of case-lore about the overflow from social media into more private spaces of negotiation, as Governments and individuals use public social media to promote their causes, test opinion, leak to embarrass or wrong-foot. Will open media, digitally literate populations and universal access to the Internet transform Diplomacy? We might also need an icon for a sceptical snort.

None of the participants on our coaching programme had grown up with social media, or any of the web2.0 toolsets, indeed some of us were around before electronic computers. But our current usage of the tools bore no relationship to our age. The experience cemented for me my changed position on the concept of Digital migrants. This is based on the notion that Digital natives, people like my 27 year old son, who grew up with computers and digital tools as an integral part of their environment, have an affinity with the technology and its use which is denied those of us who have migrated into the culture. David Hockney, the modern British artist, provides a compelling illustration of how adoption of technology and its functions is far more to do with experience and engagement than upbringing.  For those who don’t know his work, he is extraordinarily prolific, and popular –'worth a staggering £80 million'. Hockney integrated video into his work as soon as it became a consumer commodity and has used the iPad as a sketch pad since it appeared. He has always sketched quickly, and often produces several paintings in a day. But the iPad has extended his range. As a consummate artist he does more than sketch: he draws on the iPad to scale, with the size of the final blown-up product in his mind, as it might appear on a gallery wall, as illustrated opposite. In the jargon, he has appropriated the technology – not only learnt how to use it but innovated with it and developed a new form. Hockney is 74. 

There are still digital divides: recent Pew research showed 20% of US adults don’t use the Internet at all. But their findings confirm those of the earliest Oxford Internet Institute UK Internet survey which demonstrated that the strongest indicators of Internet activity were the same forces that have always influenced social exclusion, namely education level and wealth. And soon to be published research from the UK Institute of Development studies, into the ‘information ecosystem’ of ‘policy actors’ in six Southern countries confirmed what many of us have been arguing for years, from our own experience: that the ‘elites’ in economically poorer countries, once they have access to affordable technologies like the Ideos smartphone, retailing for  $80 in Kenya, access information and engage with friends and colleagues using digital tools - and their profile of tablet use is ahead of many wealthier countries.

Pew illustrates that not being aware of the benefits available on the Internet is also a factor in not being connected. But people who engage with digital culture later in their lives do have to overcome barriers to do with confidence in a particular way. People who grow up using technology are obviously more comfortable using it and, importantly, often find migrating to newer technologies – software, devices – relatively easy. They have expectations about how these things will work: they assume, for example, that there will be menus and a logic to functions; above all they know it will work, you only have to learn how. They are unafraid.

Then again, the impact of openness and the giving away of data to the new behemoths of the Internet age, Facebook and Google, is something that had to be learned by eager 20 somethings, while many older people were instinctively suspicious and more cautious. (even though the former might have taught the latter where to find the security settings). But on the day that eight year old Facebook has been valued at an unimaginable $104 billion why not sit back and listen to the master talking about his instant iPad art.

(cross posted from Diplo Foundation site)