UK Web Focus

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Archive for July 10th, 2008

Fragmentation, Ghettoisation and Polarisation or Diversification?

Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 10 July 2008

In response to my recent post on “The Open University’s Portfolio Of Web 2.0 Services” Stuart Smith described howIt’s really interesting how polarising the lowcost, easy development web 2.0 stuff is becoming“.

Stuart went on to comment that “Another problem I can forsee is ghettoisation. I am thinking about those who don’t have access to the technology, or don’t want to communicate this way, or can’t e.g. because of disability.” in response to a more recent post on “Experiments With Seesmic”.

Is this really the case? Are the Web 2.0 services I’ve been posting about responsible for fragmenting discussions within small ghettoised communities, resulting in polarised opinions across the community?

Is the answer to this ‘yes’? And, if so, is this answer to be welcomed?

Rather than regarding the developments as ghettoising communities, I would argue that we are seeing a diversification which allows communities to make use of technologies at their own rate. And this is to be welcomed over the McDonaldisation of the digital environment in which we all use the same software, either at an institutional, regional or international level.

But we shouldn’t gloss over the issues which Stuart rightly raises.

Fragmentation of discussions and content is happening. But this is nothing new – fragmentation happened back in the early 1990s, when there were tensions between those who were continuing to provide, use and promote their in-house Campus Wide Information Systems (remember CWISs?), Gopher services and Web services. It was only over time that the market leader was identified and became accepted. And even then the institutional Web service was regarded initially as a tool for the marketing department – it took another couple of years before the Web became accepted as a legitimate mechanism for the support of teaching and learning.

The thing that is new within the Web 2.0 context is that the fragmentation of discussions and content across the diverse range of Web 2.0 services can be aggregated. In part this is happening by the marketplace responding to the need for aggregation services, with tools such as Friendfeed allowing content to be aggregated from RSS feeds of blog posts, del.icio.us bookmarks, Flickr photo, Twitter tweets, etc.

And as well as the technical developments social services, such as Twitter, are allowing communities to share expertise, knowledge and links. For me Twitter is becoming my personalised agent, by which useful information can be quickly gathered by a group of context-aware agents (my Twitter followers) respond to my requests – and I respond by doing likewise.

In his response to my blog post Stuart went on to point out that “I can think of a number of people who don’t want to be on Facebook, for example, but are feeling increasingly left out“. Here, I feel, is where we need to ensure that when use of made of social networking tools for work or formal study purposes, the social networks are used as one of several ways of accessing the resources. A blog post I wrote back in July 2007 on MyNewport – MyLearning Essentials for Facebook provided an example of this approach. As described by Mchael Webb:

MyLearning Essentials is the VLE/portal used by our staff and student, including course material, news, blogs, forums, library access etc. MyNewport is a Facebook application that allows students to access to MyLearning Essentials resources from Facebook.

In this example staff and student can choose whether to use the managed in-house MyLearning Essentials or the MyNewport Facebook application to access the same resources. What is needed are institutional policies which ensure that students aren’t required to use social networking services such as Facebook in order to access required resources, coupled with new media literacy strategies which will ensure that users of such services are aware of the potential downsides (the privacy issues, for example) and are aware of how such issues can be managed (i.e. knowledge of how to change privacy settings).

I also feel that supporting a diversity of services which the end user may prefer to use can also address the accessibility challenges. If a user is uncomfortable with a text-based interface to communication tools, perhaps a video interface might provide a alternative which the user will prefer. So rather than forcing everyone to use the same interface (“we will only deal with email”) the organisation may wish to provide a range of channels. This approach can also enhance accessibility by regarding the user not as a disabled user but as a user with a particular set of preferences. The challenge, then, is to ensure that an appropriate level of response is provided to the various channels. Let’s say yes to the diversification – but let’s also ensure that we address the management and support challenges, as well, of course, the sustainability of the services (which has been discussed in a number of other posts on this blog).

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