UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Fragmentation, Ghettoisation and Polarisation or Diversification?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 10 Jul 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, 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).

2 Responses to “Fragmentation, Ghettoisation and Polarisation or Diversification?”

  1. Brian, I particularly liked your description of your use of Twitter, possibly the best I’ve seen. That will be definitely one to get into the Times to help mainstream understanding.


  2. Hi I’m glad for the chance to come back and discuss this in more depth. Firstly a couple of clarifications.

    1) Ghettoisation or diversification? Well in the absence of the long-term studies (and I mean really long term at least of multiple of 10s in terms of years) we’ll have to indulge in a little educated but speculative comment. Most of the technologies we are discussing are informal freely or cheaply available and from the informal evidence I’ve seen it’s uptake is leading to little communities. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily and as you say, Brian, this has always happened. If I remember rightly the zoologist and social observer Desmond Morris suggested that humans can maintain an effective network of about 20 people. So it’s only natural that we see these enclaves and perhaps ghettoisation is too an emotive word. However I don’t think ghettoisation and diversification are mutually exclusive events. In particular I am concerned about those who are left out or do not want to be included in these new technologies. I don’t think anyone really wants to see a digital underclass in education but if we are not mindful of our approach with the new technologies it is a real risk.

    2) Polarisation – It is happening. The first reaction to new technology in an organisation is usually negative after a while as it proves its worth it becomes accepted and ultimately embedded. But with the new Web technologies I am observing that the changes are happening too quickly for the acceptance and embedding process to take place. The result is that I frequently meet colleagues who cannot keep-up and are no longer in the loop. Part of the problem is a reluctance of institutions to really get to grips with this new technology and also their fear of loosing control. There is a lot of money being spent on centralised monolithic systems in education at the moment just as the web itself is becoming open. It’s a trend we need to keep a close eye on. Many of these systems offer access to the new technology in the brochure but their closed nature means that they don’t the spirit of it! Of course there are exceptions and the open nature of a system like Moodle is very encouraging.

    But the most important issue at the moment for me is the sense of ‘being left out’. I absolutely agree that diversity of services is important, no it is essential for successful accessibility especially in large systems and this is reflected in my contribution to the paper we both recently collaborated on with others. I work increasingly with the mobile web and diversity of access is a corner stone of successful development in that emerging medium.

    The Newport example reflects my own approach in the development of learning materials I manage at Mimas. I’ve taken an existing service and repurposed it so it can be accessed on mobile devices in Facebook (still being tested at the moment). So I’ve multiple modes of access to learning but now I have to maintain them and that is an increase in cost of service delivery and it is a fact I don’t think we can escape. My argument is though that the beneficial impact far outweighs these extra costs. For example as a result of the work the learning materials are now supplying several Molenet Projects across the UK.

    So I think we end up in the same place recognising the exciting potential of these new technologies but reaching for the management and support to make sure we can use them well in education and research. There is also the issue of how we include those who don’t want to be included that cannot all be answered by money and management. Instead we need to find out why these new technologies fail to engage them and see how systems, work and learning flows can be adapted to accommodate and not exclude.

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