We need to stop seeing online as ‘not real life’!

I just read an article entitled Social network users have twice as many friends online as in real life on the Guardian website. The terminology used throughout this article expresses a lot about the strange times we’re living in.

I think I might have mentioned before that I feel that we are kind of in an adolescence period with technology – we are just learning how our lives fit around the information age. The times we are in now are not so different from when the printing press was first invented. New technologies are changing the way we do things and we are slap bang in the middle of that change. So we’re gawkily trying to cope with this like teenagers cope with the changes in their body.

Kevin the teenager

Hence what I saw as quite a few odd statements in this article. Firstly:

The average person has in fact double the amount of online friends than physical ones, according to research commissioned by the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, which found users of such sites have 121 online friends compared with 55 physical friends.

This is implying that my online friends aren’t real! They are real people, I just haven’t met them all face to face! It’s not like they’re robots or something!

More and more the internet is blurring with our lives, it is becoming almost invisible to those of us I would call ‘digital residents‘ to use Dave White’s helpful phrase. To me, my friends are my friends whether I have met them in real life or not. I have lots of acquaintances online (just as I do in ‘real life’) and I do have a few people I’ve met online but not yet face to face who I would call my friends.

I had a pen-friend when I was a kid, one that I requested from a place that connected you with penpals from around the world. I never met her but I still saw her as a friend, she wasn’t a ‘virtual’ person, she was a real person. It’s the same with people we connect with around the world online today!

The second odd thing in this article was this quote:

Yet more scrutiny of the alleged impact of social networking websites on society at large was meanwhile provided by a separate study which found that one in five parents think their children’s school results are suffering due to the amount of time they spend on Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and other other non-educational web pages.

There is an assumption that social media sites are inherently non-educational. When I do training to help people understand social media the first thing I always tell them is that the internet and social media are tools – they are not ends in themselves. Saying social media is non- educational is like saying that a flipchart is non-educational.

At the company I work for, Frog, we recognise the educational value of social networking. The Frog Learning Platform takes the best from what Facebook and Twitter has to offer and enables a school to use similar features in an educational context. So we’ve seen examples in schools of children using discussion walls (just like Facebook)  – leading to much deeper learning than would normally take place. Teachers are able to come into class after a night of frenzied discussion on Frog on the part of the children (when they’ve got home from school – they’ve logged onto Frog to chat to their mates) and continue that debate in class. The teacher can also see if the children have retained any key learning points and also sometimes what the quieter children think (who would not normally speak up in a classroom).

Of course, I would argue that Facebook and Twitter can be used in the same way in the classroom but using a software like Frog strips away those security concerns one might have about using a public social network (and of course, under 13s are not supposed to use Facebook).

So there are two things I think we need to recognise:

Online = real life!

Social networking ≠ non-educational!

What do you think?

And if you’re still not sure if Twitter can be educational, check out this year 1 class’ tweets sharing what they’ve been learning (you can see that it’s the children who are doing the tweeting!):

Giraffe Class on Twitter

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