As both a constructivist educator and as an art teacher I highly value endeavors that involve making, doing, and creating. Coming from that perspective as a technology integrationist I have done a lot to promote the use of technology tools both in schools and in people's personal lives that allow them to participate, make, interact, and produce. Through my Digital Backpack collection of free online tools I have introduced many teachers and students to wonderful tools that allow them to engage this way online. I have also been an strong advocate for engaging students as producers of content, not mere consumers (see: Transforming Students into Citizen Journalists, Has Social Media Become a Realm of the Haves Versus the Have-Nots?, and Engagement as Information Prosumers). However, lately something has begun to bother me about all of these free online tools.
In my post yesterday I mentioned how if you search through the ISTE 2012 Conference sessions there were only 4 on teaching students to program but a ton of sessions that mention the word "create." I also mentioned that if you closely examine these session descriptions most of these "create" activities involve the kind of publication of information using tools like Facebook, WYSIWYG editors, Fickr, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Essentially, when you use these tools to create content you are "feeding the beast" because no matter what your content is, you are producing data. And, there is no shortage of free online tools that will help you visualize this data.
Essentially, we are back to McLuhan: "The medium is the message." It doesn't matter as much what we say on Twitter as it matters that we Tweet. Because, by Tweeting we are consuming. It doesn't matter as much what we say in a podcast as it matters that we podcast. It doesn't matter as much what we blog as it matters that we blog. And especially, it doesn't matter as much what we post on Facebook as that we post on Facebook.
Now there are a couple of issues here and I am not trying to argue that any of these tools are necessarily bad but I do think that a healthy awareness of these issues can help hold off some of the negative consequences. Other negative consequences are unavoidable, they are the bargain we make when we engage in this medium to "create." First is what happens to and who owns the data we produce? We know, or at least we think we know, how Facebook has been using the data all of our engagement with it's platform is producing. They have been pretty open and honest about it. They use it to target us for marketing. Same with Google. Nothing new or groundbreaking there except that it promotes a certain kind of aggregated tribal lifestyle where we only come in contact with news, information, and products related to the content we post ourselves and that produced by our online connections.
Second is not as obvious and is an issue with tools both online and off which is the issue of artificial parameters. In The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint Edward R. Tufte (2003) makes a case for how the format of the slideware program PowerPoint is a problem for the sharing and presentation of information. It is through PowerPoint's templates and limited set of tools that all information begins to take on the same format and essentially say the same thing. This "cognitive style" in PowerPoint, coupled with the culture many corporations, organizations, and government agencies have developed of always using PowerPoint to share or disseminate critical information, eventually leads to a breakdown of information. All content contained within a PowerPoint takes a back seat to the format of PowerPoint. This is a major problem for probably 80% of the presentations that utilize the tool because,
"the metaphor behind the PowerPoint cognitive style is the software corporation itself. That is, a big bureaucracy engaged in computer programming (deeply hierarchical, nested, highly structured, relentlessly sequential, one-short-line-at-a-time) and in marketing (fast pace, misdirection, advocacy not analysis, slogan thinking, branding, exaggerated claims, marketplace ethics). To describe a software house is to describe the PowerPoint cognitive style."With PowerPoint, all information in a presentation becomes infomercial.
The problem Tufte observes with PowerPoint holds true for every other medium but especially Web 2.0 tools. Web 2.0 is often described as the time when form and content became separate. Before Web 2.0 one had to know how to design a web site, how to utilize an FTP program, and how to make folders on a server accessible to the World Wide Web if they were to put anything online. One had to know how to manage the form in order to publish the content. But with Web 2.0 you no longer need to know how to craft the form, you just take someone else's template and use it to publish your content. You allow Facebook, Blogger, Twitter, Flickr, Photobucket, Tumblr, Ning, etc. to define the parameters and you fit your content to these parameters thus restricting the range of what your content can express. By leasing control of form to these internet companies to some degree you hand over an aspect of the content as well. And, in this lease we become consumers, consumers of participatory media.