"Digital Natives" are not the solution

I just wrote my longest German blog post so far. Here it is again in English. None of this will be news, but I still want to share it.

The Spring Conference “Digital Competences” took place last week. With the motivation to find a way to make my experiences from the London digital scene relevant locally I watched the 4 hour event video.

What an opportunity, to hear the relevant local players speak about digital and maybe even find out why the very fruitful online networking I am used to just does not happen here.

I still don’t understand it.

Of course I understand that the aim of many of the organisations behind this conference is data protection, the safekeeping of children and fighting crime, so there is much less emphasis on the positive, personal, proactive and productive use of the internet. Several speakers mentioned Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. The State Representative for Data Protection said he didn’t know what everyone was so worked up about, he knew about the problems a year ago.

I wrote in my book three years ago that Facebook deserves less trust than Twitter, because Twitter encourages us to be conscious with our sharing. All our sharing on Twitter happens actively, as opposed to the streams of data about us that flow through Facebook without our knowledge. Of course Facebook is also entirely useless for adding huge benefits, new connection, more substance to real life events and growing a strong professional network, but that again is in the realm of positive, productive use.

Still: A Conference with the aim to increase digital competences should embrace and foster a strong presence on Twitter. Shouldn’t it?

I am aware that organisations in this state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania often outright forbid the use of Twitter. That still doesn’t explain why at an event about digital skills there is not a single mention of it. Even if the organisers for some reason made the choice not to set a hashtag and thereby missed the chance to offer the participants the opportunity to build a sustainable network.

I also know that Twitter is not the panacea. It does not provide a solution for all problems. But how can we just ignore the existence of the second biggest social network?

One answer to this question I may have identified is the reliance on “Digital Natives”, a term used uncritically several times at the conference, to sort everything out. The concept of “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” has already been dismissed in large parts of the networks I used to be a part of or is at least dealt with much more critically. Young people don’t do everything better, and if they use technology more, it doesn’t mean that their use of technology is relevant to what adults need it to do.

Social networks that are reduced to Selfies and Influencers quickly lose their relevance for grown-ups. That a blog could be much more than a platform for selling stuff, as it has become since “Influencer” has become the default aim of online professionals, is quickly forgotten. We don’t know this if we don’t listen to grown-ups because the kids know everything much better.

I know many people between 40 and 70 who would be irrelevant in this “Digital Native” culture, but who have the most well crafted online lives and who are an absolute inspiration for a good, productive use of technology to connect people.

I don’t want to let this post go on forever. So here is a list of ways an event can be more relevant and useful to its participants if the organisers set a hashtag and promote its use.

  • The organisers are conscious that not every participant is an active Twitter user or knows how Twitter works. Since an event is the best way to see its usefulness straight away, the organisers use the opportunity to educate. The hashtag is not just displayed prominently on marketing materials and in the venue, but a quick intro is given before the keynote, so participants know how and why to use it.
  • During the event there is a Twitter wall. Tweets with the hashtag are displayed in the venue.
  • The subjects of the talks can be examined with more depth than in a 10 minute talk and a few questions. Participants feel more involved so are more active mentally, and everyone gets more out of it.
  • Participants also get to introduce themselves, their organisation and their reason for being there in more depth and to more other people than in a 30 second pitch.
  • After the event, longer posts can be posted on blogs, thereby increasing the impact and improving learning opportunities.
  • Then one can stay in touch. These are contacts one has already met and is aware of a shared interest, so there is initial trust and rapport. Credibility and belief in expertise and competences grow through sustained light contact. These relationships are based on substance, not external factors and are ideal for working together.
  • If after the event it is advised to build private networks, this is also made easier by being connected already.
  • Because participants mention the event and the themes online, the reach is amplified. Competences from outside can get in. If for example a speaker who is Chief Digital Officer for Rostock University and hence the highest authority on digitalisation in this state states in her speech that right now, apps are everything, that can at least be subject to a healthy debate.
  • Another advantage of the greater reach is the possibility of networking with professionals who are trying to solve the same problem in other states or countries.
  • And finally, if Twitter really must not be used for data security reasons, then it is still possible to use a hashtag, connect there and immediately move to a private network. I didn’t see any evidence of any online connections. No mentions of Slack, Discord, a Bulletin Board Service, Telegram, Mastodon or anything one could think of as an alternative. Maybe I missed something.

And yes, there was an organisation and maybe more, who tweeted from the event. But because there was no central hashtag, all these hashtags go nowhere. None of them point to other content from the event, there was no interaction with other participants.

I would wish for organisations in this state to understand that what makes a few young people become influencers has nothing to do with what professional grown-ups need to network and work better.

Because a strong network is decentralised. We want to hear many voices, not just that of the minister who was there to learn, by his own admission. Many have useful contributions to make, especially when a subject is as important as this one. Many should be heard or read and many should also be able to lead the conversation. This is a completely different culture than that of startups, pitches, Instagram Influencers, traditional media and hierarchies. And that is what is so interesting and useful about digital competences.

It is difficult to stress the importance of a decentralised network of people and organisations – but then organisations are people too – enough. Sadly, this exact desire and expertise is also very hard to monetise, so there are no startups in this area and financing one would be hard. But what happens when a decentralised network doesn’t exist is clearly visible in this town. Everything is centralised, citizen projects are rare to non-existent. This year we have huge festivals which in other cities boasted the participation of the locals. Here, I tried to take an active part and wasn’t exactly welcomed. Another example is the art project Ship of Tolerance which last year in Rome was crowdfunded. Here it is run by central authority. Who I am sure has all the best intentions in mind, but if regular citizens without ‘high standing’ in the hierarchy are reduced to mere consumers and don’t get to have a say, they become apathetic and angry. And that is very obvious here.

Creating a good, useful and strong network depends on people with the experience of their existence and usefulness being heard. It’s hard, harder than what many startups are trying to to do. It requires every member to consciously work on developing their own voice, use it, listen to others and be a good human being. But connecting people who do this important work is crucial right now, because these questions are hard for everyone. It requires a little bit of mutual patience and humility to realise that we all are only trying to find solutions to the problems put to us by the digital world right now, and the time we spend listening to a long speech about the foundations of what digital means (fingers? flowers?) could be put to much better use if we realise that the right connections are everything.

Not every teacher, minister or police officer can become an instant expert in all things digital. But if we focus on the network and build it well, we can know that there is support

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