NLab Seminar: Blogs, Communities and Social Software

I’m up at De Montfort University in Leicester at the Narrative Laboratory for the Creative Industries (NLab) seminar, Blogs, Communities and Social Software. I’m speaking later, but managed to get up here in time to catch the first panel discussion.

The Institute of Creative Technologies, who runs the NLab, has got a new building, and this is the first event to be held here. It’s half-finished, but already has a small kennel of Aibos and is apparently also going to be getting some flying insect robots too. Cool! I’ll have to come back when they’ve got them installed.

As to my own talk, that’s about blogging and writing, blogging writers, and Creative Commons. Thinking about the things that authors are doing with blogging in preparation for this talk got me really quite excited and, if I can find the time, I’ll write more about it.

The audience here is mixed, with some people knowing about blogs already, and some people being complete novices. That makes it a hard audience in some ways, because you either bore or baffle, so I’m very much focusing on showing what other people are doing, and am not really going to talk about concepts.

Right… to the first panel.


Josie Fraser, Educational Technologist

Sue Thomas, Professor of New Media, De Montfort

Chair: Gavin Stewart

Sue Thomas – Why RSS is important, and why you should have it

What is RSS? The easiest way to find out what RSS is is to go to the BBC site and look at their explanation, via the ‘What is RSS?’ link.

[Goes on to provide very basic explanation of RSS.]

[Demos Bloglines, as aggregator, the clippings function, publishing your blogroll, seeing other people’s blogrolls via subscription to the same feed.]

Josie Fraser – Weblogs and Web 2.0 in eduation

Used to write for Engadget – gadget based movie reviews.

Interested in getting teachers up to speed on what’s happening in the rest of the world. Edublogs: blogs in or about education by learners, practitioners, researchers, policy makers etc. Blogs are individual, groups e.g. schools, universities, etc.

Misconception that schools in the UK are lagging behind in tech, but they’re not. there is a lot of exciting stuff going on. Warwick Uni, for example, offer blogs for all universities, and people are using Amazon-type models in their blogs, so looking at book reviews, film reviews, CDs, etc.

Walsall Schools have a large blog community, with subscribers across the UK. Marketed as easy way for teachers and learners to have a web presence. Traditional websites never get updated, and for schools that’s not useful, so with a blog they can put info up straight away. They can have headmasters posting info for parents, for example.


Barbara Ganley

Gateshead Central Library

James Farmer’s, also learnerblogs and uniblogs, all hosted online. Problems that he has had are with firewalls in schools.

Edublog Frappr map.

Edublog Awards in third year.

Use of emerging tech reflects state of learning tech in all institutions in the UK – it’s patchy, it’s not embedded, and it’s not joined up. But bloggers are all about community, so there is a different agenda. Web 2.0 techs are sociable and community building, so fundamental shift now in how tech is being delivered in schools and university.

Many constructivist arguments for using blogs, not just in education, but generally. It’s an ideal platform for citizenship, participation, collaboration. Develop e-literacy which is fundamentally important. Formative value: Develop voice and provide ability to explore online, v. empowering.

Positivist concerns: retention, achievement, progression; evidence and supporting the curriculum. Very specific aims, don’t always sit well with blogging.

Issues that need addressing re: staff skills and current practice

– e-literacy and legitimacy of new tech (still in question, lots of suspicion)

– small pieces loosely joined vs. one size fits all

– training and support (some teachers are still struggling with email, so how do they go from that to engaging with blogging and social software?)

Duty of care, re: child protection

– literacy and resilience vs. moral panic (over sites about anorexia, etc.)

– online identity. what happens if you’re blogging through university, become completely googleable, and what you did ten years ago affecting how you are perceived now; lots of employers Google

Systems, re: network management:

– privacy, spam, filtering. these systems are often imposed on schools, and they have no control over them.

– hosting, ownership, data protection


Q: What makes certain software social?

Josie: The difference is, people talk about Web 2.0 in terms of social software, but the truth is that socialability has being going on on the web for years, chat, user groups, discussion boards, these are all sociable. The difference is that social software is more geared up to making friends online, although that’s been possible online for a long time. More online dating sites, which is a huge market and is becoming acceptable in a way that it wasn’t two years ago. But you can interact with it easily, use it easily, and interact with the writer.

Sue: I’d add to that the fact that social software society is a different kind of society and it has its own rules and behaviours, so the other side is the society that is produced by the software. It affects the way we regard each other, what we know about each other, what we make public. The idea of social software enabling your data to be added to the mix. E.g. MySpace, the engagement that people make involves a trade-off – their clicks, prefs, data is being logged. Same as your loyalty card logs your shopping data. That’s the hidden trade-off.

Was asked, Don’t young people worry about privacy? What is going to happen when they realise there’s so much data being held? Young people know they are making their trade-off.

Josie: But it’s not being talked about in those terms. General practice for blogs is that you are being very honest, very earnest. In a way that’s sad because it’s played off against going online and creating a fake life, and playing with identity.

I am on a crusade against the word virtual, because it’s not virtual. there is no distinction anymore. It is real. The number of people who have fallen in love online… there is no separation. It is as real. And if we pretend there is a distinction we are kidding ourselves.

Q: People develop new coping mechanisms for making sense of what is happening online, because it is different from everyday life. That’s a difficult aspect of social software, because the making sense mechanisms that we have are different from the ones that we need to develop.

Sue: You have to use it to be able to critique it, because often looking from the outside it really doesn’t make sense. It’s the difference between being a passenger in a car, and driving a car.

Josie: This comes back to digital literacy. How do we talk about this stuff to people who don’t even like using email. There are techs emerging at the moment that are characterised by the fact they are very user friendly. So a blog is where you go online and fill in some forms. It’s easy. So the way that I get people into it is to get them to go into eBay, and they manage that ok when they see something they want to buy.

There is reticence amongst a lot of teachers to engage in this, but Web 2.0 makes it easier for them. I’ve tried to teach teachers how to use Dreamweaver and it’s a nightmare, and it’s not what they need to know. But show them Blogger and you can get them up and running in half an hour.

Q: Quite often people know how to do the digital side, how to create the blog, but they are becoming aware now that they are creating an identity. People don’t always want their world online. They have something against the social side of it, rather than the technical side of it.

Sue: The problem is that blogs have got a name for being boring and petty. So when you say ‘you should start a blog’ people think that you are saying ‘you should write about what you had for breakfast’. I even thought that myself. I thought I’d be in a constant state of panic about what I’d written.

I got into it when my book Hello World came out, and I needed a website, and a blog was easiest. I just used it as a content management system.

But I think people do, because they don’t know what else they want

Gavin: I got interested in people using blogs, playing with cultural identity, e.g. hamster blogs, dog blogs, etc., and this is a sort of creative writing class blog. These blogs have minute readership.

Q: People think they have to write for an audience. My blog is writing for myself, and it was portable – could access it from anywhere. So part of the problem is that you’re immediately faced by this audience issues. Took me a long time to send a link out to people about my blog.

Sue: You’re interested in vlogging. Do you want to tell us about it?

??: It’s video blogging, but with hypertext. A true blog can’t be a book because you can’t print the links that make sense of it. So a vlog has hyperlinks, and links in the footage itself that bring other content in, people are working on video commenting etc. People are basing it around traditional, old media, in terms of it being news content. It lends itself to that, but it’s more than that. In the way that people are doing blogging as creative writing, vlogging is creative film work.

Kate Pullinger: There’s a ticking bomb, which is the business of privacy, and what it means for everyone to be publicising their lives, such as the undergraduate. For example, Heather Armstrong (Dooce). It’s a huge issue.

Me: No one got fired for blogging, they got fired for doing or saying something stupid. And with privacy, maybe we will have to learn to be more forgiving in future.

Josie: Digital literacy in terms of children and learners understanding the implications of what they are doing is important, but we need teachers and parents to understand this.

And we can bury stuff. We can blog solidly for three years and bury the older stuff. Employers don’t spend hours on this. Stalkers do, but employers don’t.

Sue: We are growing up on the web, we are learning how to do all this stuff. When you learn to write, you gradually learn that there are certain things you don’t write, or don’t show people. Now we need to become literate with the web. Someone I knew a couple of years ago, who is very literate and started teaching, and started blogging about his class as you would tell your friend. And you think ‘Don’t you realise that the students who made your life difficult today will read your comments tonight?’. And people don’t grasp it, it’s naivety.

Q: It’s part of the growth process. And the important thing is often not the host blog (e.g. Slugger O’Toole), but the conversations that they are hosting.

Josie: The use of blogging in the US elections was something that highlighted the fact that blogs weren’t all about personal diaries, and that it could be a professional tool that’s very powerful.

Some of the meetings I go to, if you say a blog is a diary they will shout at you and throw things at your head, because it’s not. It’s a website. The difference is that it’s easy to use. You don’t need to know HTML.

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