For the last few days, I’ve been reading about and tinkering with White and Le Cornu’s ideas of VR mapping. This is the idea that Internet users can be differentiated along continuum between those who are essentially quick-hit, one-and-done task-based users of the Internet and those who are actively socially engaged. As a contrast to Prensky’s dubious theory of digital natives vs. digital immigrants, VR mapping is a good start toward a more accurate picture of technological engagement, though I honestly find the focus on social interaction a bit limiting.
White has a good post explaining VR mapping basics, along with a video and a much longer, detail-dense paper. For my money, you’d do well to approach them in that order. Here’s the nut of the discussion:
When in Visitor mode, individuals decide on the task they wish to undertake. For example, discovering a particular piece of information online, completing the task and then going offline or moving on to another task. In Visitor mode individuals do not leave any social trace online.
In other words, Visitors use the Internet the way men stereotypically use Home Depot. In. Get what you want. Out. Residents are the proverbial horse of another color.
When in Resident mode the individual is going online to connect to, or to be with, other people. This mode is about social presence…for example, posting to the wall in Facebook, tweeting, blogging, or posting comments on blogs. This type of online behaviour leaves a persistent social trace…
So Residents are engaged with the biomass (to borrow Stephenson’s term) behind the Web. The core contrast here is “no social trace” vs. “persistent social trace”.
Finally, White proposes that most of us don’t live completely at either extreme, but rather engage along a continuum between the two, and differentiated by personal vs. professional mode (which is again a continuum). So what White proposes is essentially a graph with Visitor and Resident along the X axis, and Personal and Professional along the Y. For measuring what it does, I think this model is fine. That said, it has some shortcomings.
I sat down to graph my own continuum, and after a lot of fiddling, wound up with this (which I still regard as evolving).
At first, I piled more icons to the right side. Then I reread White’s definitions, and moved them to the left. And it was about this time I started to realize where this model falls short, which I think it does in a few ways.
My primary argument with Prensky is that the “natives” vs. “immigrants” narrative implies some sort of inborn facility with technology that I can tell you as a higher-ed technologist with nearly two decades under my belt simply does not exist. My own daughter got a dose of this objection recently when, approaching her 13th birthday, she asserted that her “generation just knows how to use technology, because we’ve had iPads and cellphones”. I replied that my generation and her grandfather’s built the hardware and the software that she has such facility with, and wondered aloud whether she could write her own cool new app if she wanted to.
Prensky’s model treats the ability to use technology as the superior of the ability to understand it, create it, and maintain it. As anyone who can drive a car but has to pay the mechanic every time the dashboard lights up, that ain’t necessarily so.
White abstracts this one level further…the VR continuum is exclusively a measure of social interaction via the Web (and to be fair, it never directly claims to be more). This is fine as a model of social engagement, but falls down when you start talking about technological engagement in a broader sense. Sure Johnny posts a ton to Facebook, and is on Snapchat with his friends every night. But he can’t tell you how to the iPad he’s using actually works, and he has no notion of how it’s built. Susie can use every new app with tremendous facility, and actually makes money from her Instagram and YouTube feeds, but couldn’t begin to explain the human cost of our technological society.
That’s not to say White model is valueless…it’s not. But it is one-dimensional, and does nothing to encourage any deeper understanding of what it means not just to engage with technology, but to grapple with its implications. To return to the car analogy, for decades we’ve reconfigured our cities and living patterns to accommodate cars, without thinking about the longer-term social and economic impact (local, national, and global) of that shift, and now that chicken is coming home to roost. The progressive ubiquitization of technology, absent a thoughtful evaluation of the impacts of that process and a generalized willingness to engage with its consequences in meaningful ways, is going to produce a similar day of reckoning.
All of which probably seems like an unnecessarily dark train of thought to emerge from a fairly simple attempt to chart and categorize social interaction via the web, but it’s really more of a generalized objection to our ongoing failure to engage technology at a deep and thoughtful level. White’s chart is interesting, but it’s a gloss. Leaving aside for a moment concerns about social interaction vs. coding and hardware, I still think the model is a debatable metric as a basis for understanding digital identity.
The chart looks only at engagement vs. use, and personal vs. professional. Again, it’s interesting, but it doesn’t attempt to address important aspects of digital identity. My own digital ID isn’t just my years-long Twitter stream or Facebook feed (and it’s worth noting here that although those are viewed as interactive services, the bulk of my tweets and posts generate minimal interactivity…just being billed as “social” doesn’t magically make a service interactive, or its users social butterflies). My ID is deeper than that: banking record, Amazon purchases and wish lists, Dropbox storage, Flickr albums, Reddit “recent links” lists, and so on. As big data becomes more of a factor in our daily lives, understanding the true depth, breadth and composition of our digital identities is crucial.
I’ll also point out that this model is valid only insofar as users are willing to be truthful. Frequenters of online hate sites, consumers of digital pornography, participants in conspiracy theory boards, users of online substance abuse or depression support groups, and similar individuals with habits they’d rather keep quiet are going to present a picture of their digital identities that’s incomplete, at best.
So if we want to use White’s model as a starting point for evaluation, discussion, and understanding, I think it’s fine. I just question how far it really takes us. (I also wish it offered a way to track longitudinal changes in profile, but that’s really outside its scope, and not a fair criticism.)