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Michael Wesch

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Michael Wesch

By Annette Hinkle

Professor and cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch of Kansas State University who will be at the Hayground School in Bridgehampton tonight to discuss “Social Media Will Change The … Whatever.”

You spent two years studying the implications of writing on a remote indigenous culture in Papua New Guinea. Did you come up with the idea to study the effect of new technology on society as a direct outgrowth of that research?

In New Guinea, I was in an isolated place where just a handful of people could read and write – maybe 10 out of 2,000. I was there during this pretty major moment, when government services were coming in. They were doing a census and creating laws based in writing and that transformed life in those villages. People started bringing in books and there were the changes that were expected — but there were also those you could not see coming. So many of the changes were those no one could’ve predicted. With digital media, there are changes we can’t see coming. That’s why I studied it.

As a cultural anthropologist, much of your research focuses on digital ethnography — or the effect of new media on human interaction. When you first set out to pursue a career in anthropology, how consciously did you consider the role online media might one day play in your work?

It was in the back of my mind. One of the most influential books I’ve read is ‘Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me!’ by Edmund ‘Ted’ Carpenter. He was the author who worked with Marshall McLuan. A lot of people don’t know that. He and McLuan were both rebellious and didn’t follow the rules of academia. They would write letters back and forth and would put these things in books and not say who wrote what. Ted had been in New Guinea, where I was going, and he explored how media might shape the way you live. So I had been thinking of that.

In 1997, I learned to code in html. In those days if you wanted a page on the world wide web you couldn’t just start a blog – so I learned it and created my web page. I thought, imagine writing a dissertation like this with links, video and multi-linear documentation. I thought of those in terms of anthropology.

In your online video Web 2.0 you show how user generated content is changing the way people receive and share information. This, of course, is of great concern for those of us in the newspaper business. What might the future of our “dead trees” industry be? Are newspapers going the way of the telegraph, or do we have reason for hope?

That’s a good question. I think there are good reasons to think little newspaper offices will do just fine — though not everybody has an iPad right now – so there still is that opening. I have an interesting take being from a very small town and now living in [Manhattan, Kansas] a fairly small town with 50,000 people. There’s really something about the physicality of distribution — which is to say if everything is digital, it’s more difficult to have a stack of papers as you walk into the coffee shop. The things that get read in this town of 50,000 are those things people read when they have the free moment. You reach more people where I live by putting it out in print. Digital is great for the world. But paper makes sense locally.

Let’s talk about the future of social media as it relates to the classroom, which you’ll talk about at Hayground School. What do you envision FaceBook and other interactive online sites can do that isn’t being done for students now?

I have a lot of issues with saying let’s use FaceBook in the classroom. But with wikis [web pages edited collaboratively] and blogs, you’re looking at the potential of the web. Thirty years ago If I were to go to any school superintendent and say I have a device and with it I can access a pretty good selection of the world’s knowledge and also write things so others can see it and respond, imagine what they would’ve paid for it. Classrooms would’ve been arguing over who gets to use the device. Now every student has at least one, and they’re banned from the classroom.

I imagine that’s because there is good information and bad information online, and schools aren’t yet equipped to filter it for the students.

My real concern for today’s students is this will be the primary source of information their entire lives and we’re failing to help them find the trusted source. We’re not allowing them to be literate in the main communication device of their time. The studies show in general that older people are much more literate online than young people. While young people are fluent in using the technology to entertain, they’re not very good at finding information. The studies show when teachers or professors sit down at the computer and are asked to find something, they come up with high quality information. The students end up finding terrible information. They will click first on the sponsored links. All these research skills that translate to the print world are needed to understand online sources as well.

What do you feel is the great untapped potential of social media that none of us has yet envisioned?

I think the amazing things are global collaborations. Wikipedia is a good example and having students contribute to a page is a good exercise. It’s building a knowledge base with peer review that is almost instantaneous. The thing students have, as long as we don’t kill it, is creativity. If we empower students and make them feel like the creativity will come out, that’s where we’ll see all kinds of interesting possibilities. A good example is the guy who dropped out of Notre Dame and leveraged social media tools to create a different kind of charity. People donate money directly to those who need it. He’s engaged and super successful because he knows the tools and how to use them. People can work together online to build video games or play music. What excites me is these collaborations.

I think we live at this critical moment where you can see that the web could be really useful for creative participation and engagement. I could even envision a better democracy – where people are more informed. The other side is that others will use these tools to distract themselves. It has great potential for engagement, but also disengagement. That’s why in the classroom we need to inspire our students to lean toward participation and engagement. My fear is the media is using the students. I talk to students in our research who feel overwhelmed because they’re no longer in charge. It has more to do with social networks – they’re always on and not finding the quiet space to just be. They take my class and stop carrying their phones for a while — not because I require it — but to start to feel more connected to their surroundings.

As part of the Hayground Forum, Michael Wesch will present “Social Media Will Change The … Whatever” at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 28 at Hayground School (151 Mitchell Lane, Bridgehampton). Both students and adults are welcome.