Going to the blogs… | Alex Grech

Academic researcher Alex Grech talks about how social networks are slowly impacting the way people interact with each other… and debunks a few myths about the world wide web.

Alex Grech says trust is placed in organisations such as Google and Facebook knowing that data produced is used for monetisation.
Alex Grech says trust is placed in organisations such as Google and Facebook knowing that data produced is used for monetisation.

"My background is in strategy and change management, but I've always been interested in how technology impacts our lives," Alex Grech begins when asked what first drew him to the topic of his current research: specifically 'how blogging disrupts power systems'. 

Now aged 50, Grech belongs to that generation which was first exposed to personal computers in the 1980s, when they themselves were already past childhood. His encounter with the internet naturally occurred later still... but this didn't stop him from developing a keen interest in the new medium.

"When the first read/write web applications came to market around the turn of the century, I was a curious, early adopter," he recalls. "I realised that we would quickly get to a tipping point where people would rely on social media not just for entertainment, but also for community-building, social transactions, education, customer service and personal branding... and eventually for co-creation that is at the hub of what is now known as the 'networked information economy'..."

Grech quickly recognised that social media would turn out to be (in his own words) "as much of a game-changer as the industrial printing press was in the 19th century.

"And we're still in the early days of the deep changes it will weave in our lives. Think about the way we now share 'information': until recently, if you wanted to raise your voice and say something to anyone outside your immediate circle of family and friends, you would write a letter to a newspaper and hope the editor published it. Or you could go and lobby your MP..."

In other words, people had to rely on the good will of the media and social or political intermediaries to provide them with an opportunity to reach out to others. 

"Nowadays, with a smart phone, a blog or a popular page on a social network, you own the equivalent of a modern printing press. Being able to say whatever you want, on your own platform, online, is a very powerful notion - and very far removed from the world as I knew it, when I was growing up in Malta..."

But it hasn't been all cordless and wifi, either. The digital age may have brought about new prospects and opportunities, but inevitably there are new challenges too.

"The corollary is that this new-found freedom is opening different cans of worms," Grech continues. "The difficulties traditional media channels face in living alongside online sites, with citizen journalists working for no money, are well documented. There are many cities in the US, for instance, where local newspapers have disappeared overnight..."

Meanwhile, the new tools that have arisen to replace more traditional vehicles for information-sharing are not entirely free from glitches of their own.

"We place our trust in organisations like Google and Facebook, knowing that the data that we produce on their platforms is being used for monetisation," he points out. "That is the covenant we are now in - the vast majority of us do not pay a dime for using their services, but we have no clue how they use the content we leave on their platform. Again, while we all can own our media platform, our voice is one of many and risks never being heard - the same power laws of authority and attention work on the online world..."

Then again, Grech argues that one person may become influential online if the right people are listening... particularly in small places like Malta. "Blogs, for instance, are extremely influential on the media - the two are regularly feeding off each other these days..."

Grech raised these and other considerations in a recent TED-x talk. On that occasion, he spoke of the need for a 'new digital literacy' pointing towards a divide between those born before and after 1981 (incidentally, the year of the first Sinclair 'ZX' personal computer: which as I recall had the grand total of 1K memory). But how serious a generational gap does he perceive this to be, in practice?

"There's a theory, first propagated by Marc Prensky, that we now have a disconnect between generations of 'digital natives' and 'digital migrants': i.e., those who were born after 1981 and always had access to technology, and those who were born before and therefore had to learn how to use technology."

Prensky's and similar theories, he explains, are framed within the paradigm that young people intuitively know how to navigate the social web.

"Mark Zuckerberg is 27, after all. Watch a four year-old work out how to use an iPad without the use of any manual... my nine year-old has no interest in TV, as he has access to the content of his choice via YouTube, whenever he wants it."

And yet, he continues, the digital natives' theory is being gradually debunked as academics start developing a body of research on internet culture.  

"I have been studying with Howard Rheingold, a scholar and internet visionary, and his next book (Net Smart) will document how we have assumed that just because kids know how to use the technology they can automatically actually put that skill to 'good, profitable, life-enhancing' use."

Like all preconceived notions, this one is easily assailed. "We are assuming that just because kids know how to USE technology, they must also understand it as a cultural, political and economic life tool. But they don't. The potential for empowerment does not mean that we are automatically empowered..." 

However, this does not mean that the natural affinity of the young to these social networking tools is any less impressive. "I love the ability of young people to just jump in the cyberpond and immediately start swimming. I admire how social and collaborative they are, and appreciate that they see the world differently. They are revolutionaries without knowing it. But they may not have the critical skills to see the wood from the trees; they take much of what they find online at face value; they are increasingly distracted by appearance over substance."

These and other pitfalls could however be addressed through education.

"Digital literacy is, in my view, the most important thing we can teach them; that is, how we are deploying our attention online, and how we are all going to be life-long, co-learners. The digital literacies I mentioned in my talk are a mix of critical and technical skills: attention, participation, collaboration, network awareness and critical consumption of information (or 'crap detection'). They are not skills that we are taught at school; or that indeed educators have formal training in, to be able to then teach to younger generations. Meanwhile many young people still have no notion of the power and responsibility that go with using the tools. These are old media notions, after all.  There are many myths that need to be debunked..."

On the subject of myths, I point out that Malta is often being projected as at the forefront of the so-called digital revolution: witness the strategic importance of the internet and associated technologies in such projects as Smart City, etc. But how do we really compare on an international level with other countries when it comes to issues such as computer usage, connectivity, lifestyle choices and so on?

"I think we have to distinguish between technology access and innovation - let alone revolutions," he begins. "In this country, technology has been perceived as a driver of positive social change since the 1990s. For instance, Malta always scores highly in e-government rankings. We have made progress in terms of 'technology access': both in terms of infrastructure and services. For many years, the University has been rolling out some wonderful computer scientists and programmers..."

Even as consumers of technology, Grech acknowledges that we are net-savvy, sophisticated users on a national level.

"But for sustained innovation and digital revolutions, you need a critical mass of researchers, access to venture capital, size, space, an entrepreneurial culture where failure is embraced, even celebrated," he adds. "We do have access to technology, yes. But we simply cannot aspire to being a hub of innovation à la Silicon Valley because of our size and the inevitable economies of scale. Our higher education lacks interdisciplinary programmes... and on top of that, you have to add another pervasive layer of culture, misplaced pride and resistance to change..." 

Turning back to his specific area of research - i.e., the disruptive effects of blogging on power systems - and given the undeniable relevance of this phenomenon to the local political scene (which, as someone immersed in the older school of media, I find myself having to deal with on a more or less constant level) I can't help asking what he means by 'disruption' in this specific instance.

"I am interested in the potential for disruption through the use of social technologies in a closed, polarised society like ours: how technologies can be used for strategic purposes, to disrupt the way we live, work and play. I'm specifically interested in how traditional gate-keepers of information and intermediaries in systems of power adapt and adjust to these new threats to the way they used to get things done..." 

Some of their efforts are arguably already visible. I point out various predictions to the effect that the next election (scheduled for 2013, possibly earlier) may well be the first one fought more on the Internet than on the more traditional battleground of TV. Does he share this view himself? And if so, what difference are we likely to expect in terms of actual campaigning?

"I anticipate that the next election will be fought over a range of media. TV is still the cultural mass media of choice for many Maltese. Yet I would assume that the political parties and their strategists are going to try and use whatever online channels are at their disposal -blogs, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, for starters - to reach out and get their message across..."

Grech reminds me that we have already had an indication of what might be to come during the divorce referendum.

"To my surprise, it was only the 'Yes' campaign that made any concerted effort to discuss the issues online. I assume those lessons have been learnt, judging by the raft of political blogs that have been started after May. Also, the internet is the natural habitat of the couple of thousand people who try and stay out of entrenched polarised views, and these are the ones who often swing the balance of power at election time. The challenge for the political parties is to re-think their discourse online: they can preach to the converted via their own proprietary media channels, but they need to have more compelling reasons to interrupt people on social media..."

Another indication is the fact that online activism is now rampant in other countries: from the attempts at open government by various jurisdictions to the use of Twitter and Facebook in the Arab Spring and the smart mobs that dominate the Occupy Wall Street movements worldwide.

"Political parties have been formed online - and mainstream ones have used the internet to crowd-source their manifestos," he continues. "But it's probably too early to see this type of 'open engagement' happening on this island, for a variety of socio-cultural reasons..."

And yet there have been isolated attempts to harness the power of social media for various political and not-so political reasons. I ask Alex how he himself rates the use of these networks by three different though arguably related categories: political parties; commercial enterprises; and voluntary organizations and/or NGOs.

"I think it's early days for any rating games, for different reasons," he begins. "Up until now, the political parties have shown a tendency to treat social media as another broadcasting channel: YouTube clips are often outright political propaganda, with comments disabled so there is no 'right of reply' by the viewer. It's simply TV on demand. Social networks, on the other hand, are all about two-way engagement: asynchronous comments, a level-playing field where a 17-year-old has as much of a voice as a traditional power-broker in society."

But it can also be a difficult environment in which to arrest attention.

"Just because half the nation is on Facebook, it doesn't mean that people want to be 'disturbed' by political speak... unless it can entertain, educate or be remarkable. That's not an easy landscape for politicians to navigate, unless they're prepared to communicate clearly, succinctly, with a modicum of humanity and accountability. Of course, I'm generalising... but we thrive on polarisation in this country and we have yet to acquire some notion of civilised online debate, at least if the online comments on many newspapers are anything to go by. Again, it may also be in the interest of power-brokers that this status quo is retained."

Grech reasons that Maltese corporates are cautious about social media; but he acknowledges that they are interested in learning more. "At worst, they think it's about setting up a pretty Facebook page and a new (cheap/free) way of marketing and search optimisation... which it certainly isn't, since social media marketing relies on producing and sharing valuable content in the hope of future rewards."

Overall, he adds that local business still believes in the power of the brand, relies on traditional advertising channels and remains fearful of real-time customer engagement: particularly since the latter is now empowered not just to complain online, but also to research and shop elsewhere. 

"Again, I'm generalising - I know some people in the hotel industry, for instance, who are actively monitoring what people say online about their brand and respond quickly and effectively. Good for them for doing that..."

As for the voluntary sector, Grech is altogether more optimistic.

"I hold much hope for NGOs - simply because they tend to be small, driven by volunteers, and without the baggage of corporate politics to try things out, change approach and navigate the social web. There is nothing like being starved of cash as a stimulant to finding international projects with which to partner for fund-raising and know-how..."

So much so, he points out, that the most interesting online initiatives in Malta are being taken by individuals.  

"There are those who are running interesting start-ups overseas. We have a raft of web-savvy Maltese individuals - many of whom are free thinkers, free spirits and curious about the world around them, irrespective of how old they are. It just happens that their 'tribes' (i.e., the wider online community of people who share common interests, lifestyles, etc) are now larger than what lies outside their door. And that has to be a good thing..."