Discussion Group Shows Geeks are Social

How can fictional stories incorporate technology? What does the future hold for Wikipedia’s sister projects? And is it fair to say that social media sucks?

These are just some of the questions which were under discussion at the latest meeting of Brrism, a group based in Bristol, England, which brings together people from a diverse range of backgrounds who share an interest in social media and how it affects our lives. The format this time involved three guest speakers followed by an icebreaking event and then discussion sessions based on the presentations.

First to speak was author Emma Newman, who specializes in post-apocalyptic fiction. She discussed the genre of speculative fiction and noted that it usually falls into two categories when it comes to technology: utopias, where technology has solved society’s fundamental problems; and dystopias, where technology has worsened our fears, such as the loss of privacy and personal control.

One of the ways Emma connects with her audience is through a short story club, in which readers suggest topics for a monthly story. Brrism featured the first live incarnation of this technique, with the group coming up with ideas which will feature in a forthcoming piece. It appeared the participants were most definitely of a dystopian bent, with some of the themes put forward including:

  • the way aggregation services such as Google Buzz don’t respect your attempts to compartmentalize your online life (for example, keeping comments seen by friends, employers and family separate);
  • how people would have to relearn old ways of communication if the social media giants failed; and
  • whether the 1984 Party motto “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future” could today be rewritten as “He who controls the Google keywords controls the ‘truth'”.

Next up was Steve Virgin, a member of the United Kingdom chapter of the Wikimedia Foundation, the group behind Wikipedia. After sharing some arresting statistics about the site’s impact (347 million people — 35% of the online population –use Wikipedia, while 40,000 English speakers make at least five edits each per month) he talked about the work that is going on with the organization’s nine other projects which cover, among other topics, news, books, quotations and the classification of species.

The biggest growth is in Wikimedia Commons, a project to collect copyright-free media resources such as photographs and videos. The big push this year is to encourage museums to follow the example of the Dresden University Library which donated 250,000 images. One tactic is to promote the potential benefits of such donations, such as releasing part of an archive as a promotional tool to boost sales of other images. There is also work in progress to reduce the technical hassles involved in donating images, which may include a tie-in with Flickr.

The final speaker, Richard Churchill, put forward an intentionally provocative argument against social media. Both the talk and the discussion were based around the idea that intentionally looking for the negatives in social media could help identify problems and their possible solutions. Some of the main themes raised were:

  • Social media doesn’t work when it comes to simplifying our life (as shown in this diagram from ReadWriteWeb which shows how one user’s online information interacts).
  • People who use social media presume incorrectly that everyone else uses and sees a service in the same way they do.
  • In turn, our choice of online contacts creates an “echo chamber” in which we get a false impression of the world because we only see views which support our own ideals. (I can certainly testify to this having watched the leader of the extreme British Nationalist Party having appeared on a prominent television channel, then logged on to Twitter and found everyone I followed shared my view as to the poor impression he created. I was thus extremely surprised the next day to discover that some people took a very different approach to the appearance.)
  • Social media services — and the web as a whole — often simply comes down to the site with the flaws which can be most tolerated by a big enough audience. Richard compared this to his previous life in construction where a building project could not be considered complete and fit for purpose until it was fundamentally sound.

If GeeksAreSexy readers have any thoughts on the issues raised at the event, please do share them in our comments section and we’ll pass them on to the participants.

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