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Social networking research – are we missing the point?

July 14th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

I agree with Charlie Beckett, director of journalism thinktank POLIS at the London School of Economics, as quoted in today’s Guardian newspaper, who challenges the whole idea of the digital native:

“As Matthew Robson describes, most teenagers use a variety of digital devices, but when you talk to people who work with teenagers they describe a much more complex picture of what they actually do.

The same teenagers who have literacy problems have media literacy problems. Many of the teenagers apparently comfortable with new media are in fact only using a very limited range of applications and in a very limited way.

Other researchers indicate that teenagers are getting just as frustrated as the rest of us with the complexity and cost of many online and mobile applications.”

But I can’t help thinking many of these researchers are missing the point, possibly because of who is sponsoring their work. The research seems often to focus on the degree of interest, engagement, activity or time spent on particular social networking sites or applications. In other words, it is looking at the degree of  participation in an approved manner in what is being provided for them. And often the studies seem to disconnect engagement with social networking sites from the rest of the person’s life. What I suspect is really happening is that people are appropriating technologies and applications to integrate them in their studies or work or in their social life. In so doing they are using the technologies in ways which suit them, not necessarily in the way that the applications were designed to be used. And in the process the technology ceases to be a focus in itself, it is just part of everyday living. From a research point of view it would be more interesting to look at how our work and social activities are changing as technology becomes increasingly embedded in our lives, rather than focusing on the use of particular applications or services.

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