Earlier I Tweeted that this post by danah boyd might be the most important blog post I’ve read of 2008 thus far and now, after reading it through for the fourth time, I’m thinking it might stay that way for a while. It’s important to me because it clarifies a lot of my thinking about social networks in schools yet leaves me with a number of other important questions that I struggle to answer.

I read both sides of the debate over the potentials of social networking in schools at the Economist, and while I obviously agree more with Ewan‘s view that “It’s more about helping learners become more world-aware, more communicative, learning from each other, understanding first hand what makes the world go around,” I have to admit to feeling a bit of “starry-eyedness” about the description of how this will all play out. I’m not so sure I agree that “exponential adoption of the ‘new web’ is only round the corner,” or that this new generation of “Bebo-boomers” (ugh) will suddenly impart effective pedagogy in classrooms simply because they will be “marrying their inbuilt capacity with social networks to the theory of sound educational practice.” (It would be nice if I saw more evidence of teacher prep courses actually teaching them to do that.)

But all of that is pretty much besides the point.

danah adds a much needed focus: there is a difference between social tools and social networking, and she argues quite compellingly that social networks have no place in the classroom.

“Social network sites do not help most youth see beyond their social walls. Because most youth do not engage in “networking,” they do not meet new people or see the world from a different perspective. Social network sites reinforce everyday networks, providing a gathering space when none previously existed.”

Reading through the rest of the post makes clear that for most kids, what they do online is simply an extension of what they do in physical space. They interact with primarily the same groups, and, as danah has argued in the past, they use SNS as a way to make up for the dearth of opportunities to socialize that our kids have today. She writes:

I have yet to hear a compelling argument for why social network sites (or networking ones) should be used in the classroom. Those tools are primarily about socializing, with media and information sharing there to prop up the socialization process (much status is gained from knowing about the cool new thing). I haven’t even heard of a good reason why social network site features should be used in the classroom. What is the value of knowing who is friends with who or creating a profile when you already know all of your classmates?

And this:

I’m not saying that social network sites have no value. Quite the contrary. But their value is about the kinds of informal social learning that is required for maturation – understanding your community, learning the communicate with others, working through status games, building and maintaining friendships, working through personal values, etc. All too often we underestimate these processes because, traditionally, they have happened so naturally. Yet, what’s odd about today’s youth culture is that we’ve systematically taken away the opportunities for socialization. And yet we wonder why our kids are so immature compared to kids from other cultures. Social network sites are popular because youth are trying to take back the right to be social, even if it has to happen in interstitial ways.

Often in my presentations I ask how many folks are teaching MySpace or Facebook in their schools. Not teaching with MySpace, but teaching the literacies of networking through the lens of a SNS. Rarely do more than a few hands go up. I wonder what would happen if we contextualized our approach not in the fears that our kids will get themselves in trouble by using these sites but, instead, in the spirit of encouraging them to experience the socialization that danah speaks of. Not that we invade their spaces or friend them, but that we acknowledge the importance of Facebook in their lives, stop pretending like it doesn’t exist, and include it in the discussion of what’s important in life.

The key thinking for me, however, is about the difference between social tools and social networks. To be honest, I find Facebook and even Ning hard to like in my own personal learning practice. They seem redundant to me in some sense, I guess, replicating in large measure what I already find so powerful in this “small pieces” suite of tools that I already use for social and learning purposes. And, in a lot of ways, and this may be ignorance, hubris, snobiness (or something much more disturbing), I feel like it’s almost cheating, like the hardest and best work is building that network node by node through blogging and reading and creating and developing those relationships with all the messiness that the Web allows for. I know, I know…there is a lot of that going on too in SNSs. But it feels too easy sometimes, like it’s moving into an apartment instead of building a house. You don’t learn too much about the way the thing works or how all the pieces fit. And you don’t learn all those building skills either. Yes, I’ve come around to the idea that much of what we need to know to flourish with these tools is nothing more than solid reading and writing literacy. But there still seems to me to be a network literacy as well, something that stands apart from simply reading and writing, something that deals with our ability to create and find and connect dots.

So yeah, I agree. Social networks as they are currently defined and delivered aren’t for schools. But using social tools to teach our students to build their own networks, networks that go beyond simply socializing with the people they already know has to be.

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