Democratization of access vs. democratization of attention

Just a quick post before the long weekend. If you who haven’t read this article from Danah Boyd in Educause Review, I suggest you do. As I indicated in a previous message, there’s a lot of food for thought in there. I found her stand about the democratization of Internet through social networking very thought-provoking. “We may be democratizing certain types of access, but we’re not democratizing attention.” We all like to think that we’re working for a better world, one that is more democratic and more caring. I never really reflected on the aspect of the democratization of attention. It seems like an important concept in education. Could harnessing it prove powerful?

What people give their attention to depends on a whole set of factors that have nothing to do with what’s best. At the most basic level, consider the role of language. People will pay attention to content that is in their own language, even if they can get access to content in any language.

Now, as a francophone, I can’t relate to that last part. Sadly (for me!), English is the language of research. Publishing in French is the equivalent of being non-existent. Of course if you’re merely seeking some information on a given topic, you are likely to read it in your own language. But when it gets to serious business, you have to use the universal language that English is. That’s why I’m imposing my second language wording on you :-)

In a networked world, people connect to other people like themselves. What flows across the network flows through edges of similarity. The ability to connect to others like ourselves allows us to flow information across space and time in impressively new ways. But there’s also a downside.

Prejudice, intolerance, bigotry, and power are all baked into our networks. In a world of networked media, it’s easy to avoid perspectives from people who think differently than we do. Information can and does flow in ways that create and reinforce social divides. Democratic philosophy depends on shared informational structures, but the combination of self-segmentation and networked information flow means that we lose the common rhetorical ground through which we can converse.

Throughout my studies of social media, I have been astonished by the people who think that any given website is designed for people like them. I interviewed gay men who thought Friendster was a gay dating site because all they saw were other gay men. I interviewed teens who believed that everyone on MySpace was Christian because all of the profiles they saw contained biblical quotes. We all live in our own worlds with people who share our values; with networked media, it can be hard to see beyond that if we’re not looking.

As an educator fighting endlessly for a better access to quality higher education, I must admit that this paragraph stroke a chord. But the plain and simple truth is yes, I tend to network with “kindred spirits” and will readily ignore those not falling into this category. Not that I won’t read their opinions – I want to get all sides of the arguments. But I will likely not interact with them nor are they part of my networks. So how does this contribute to a better world? Is working toward the democratization of access enough or are we missing an important distinction?

If you’re in Canada, have a great Thanksgiving weekend.

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