Social Media is not anti-social

Today’s phone-in on BBC Radio 4’s “You and Yours” programme was entitled “Is social media making us more anti-social”. You can listen to it here. It was all a bit predictable really, a succession of luddites rang in to complain about how society was being ruined by people’s addiction to screens and devices, interspersed by a few common sense voices. At the same time, twitter was alive with people decrying the points of view being put forward (see the #youandyours hashtag on twitter).

As I say, all a bit predictable. People who prefer to listen to the radio and use the telephone (perhaps the original social media tool, ironically) mainly being in the anti-social media camp; and twitter users being pro. Who would have guessed?

But I feel strongly that people who say that using social media makes us anti-social have been allowed to get away with that accusation for too long. They are wrong. They are the anti-social ones, choosing only to be sociable with a small group of people who happen to be in the same room as them. Those of us who use social media have a whole world of contacts to chose from when we want to communicate. Why cut yourself off from a wide network like that?

This true anti-social attitude is putting some people off from using social media and blocking some possible uses. There are lots of lonely people who would benefit from its networking opportunities. If only they didn’t listen to the luddites.

What happens when the post office loses its internet connection?

I think this is a poignant story. Bellingham Post Office in Northumberland had its broadband connection cut off for 10 days over the Christmas period; you can read about it here. As Wendy Telfer, the post mistress, recounted to BBC Radio 4 in the clip below, this resulted in her having to help people who couldn’t access their pensions out of her own pocket.

There are lots of issues surrounding this incident, but a key point which this has highlighted for me is how difficulties like this one, which could have been helped by outside intervention, can still go unnoticed by the wider world, even in the age of social media. A temporary solution, like a WiBE ( could probably have got the post office back online in an instant, but the proprietors obviously didn’t know this, and no one with the kind of knowledge that could have helped was aware of the issue until it was too late.

I think this is a salutary example for those still unconvinced about the benefits of social media. One distressed tweet from the post office could have set a process in motion that would have solved the problem. But who is helping the people who don’t know about these possibilities? Should the local authorities not have a role in keeping their ear to the ground for issues like this and sourcing assistance? And what about the Post Office? Does it not have contingency plans for such difficulties?

And this also highlights the how many people, particular in rural areas, still think the only potential solution to their broadband problems is to turn to the provider that caused them in the first place.

There is so much more work to be done in opening people’s eyes to the possibilities offered by social media in accessing sources of advice and assistance, and in getting properly independent advice about technology and broadband issues. With so many vulnerable people, particularly in rural communities, dependent on services offered by post offices we cannot afford for them to be at the mercy of an ancient copper line.

Keeping tech simple

I love this idea for Live-streaming the City from CityCamp Coventry, brought to my attention on Twitter this morning by Sasha Taylor and others.

I’m an advocate of keeping technology simple, and as cheap as possible. If you want to do something like live-streaming the city, by all means make use of big screens in public spaces and any other expensive technology you may have at your disposal, but, if resources are tight, and focussing on expensive tech threatens to prevent you from achieving your objectives, then keep it simple and cheap.

Get some old, redundant, computers, put them in shop windows, connect them to the internet, and turn the screen to face the public. I reckon that could work for something like this, as I advocated for something similar here.

National Smartphone Recycling Scheme

More evidence from Leeds Social Media Surgery last night of the need for a National Smartphone Recycling Scheme.

My “patient” was someone who had been charged by her employer with communicating with young people, but was struggling to do so effectively. All the different methods I explored with her would have involved using a mobile phone of some kind, preferably a smartphone. The barrier we kept coming across was that her “work” phone was an ancient non-smart phone, which even struggles to send text messages, and she had been unable to persuade her employer that she needed a decent tool to do her job. She has a personal smartphone, but is understandably reluctant to use that for work purposes. Even using the Whatsapp application to send free messages was ruled out because it would have meant revealing her private phone number.

Organisations of this kind that fail to see the benefits of deploying smartphones are sending people like my “patient” out to do their jobs with both hands tied behind their backs. A low-cost source of recycled phones might start to chip away at this reluctance.

The future is mobile, and that means digital inclusion too

You know that image of the 7 ages of man, which starts with a chimpanzee, gradually moving into a human standing erect, and then moves on to someone at a desk, hunched over a computer? I won’t reproduce it here, I reckon most people have seen it, and I’d probably get sued if I did, in any case.

I think what that says about society’s attitude to the internet is a big problem. All the time I come across people who say they prefer to be out and about rather than sat in front of a screen, and that is why they rarely use the internet. Others complain about not having the time to sit in front of a computer, and there are those who say they are too busy being out and about to get online. And a particular bugbear of mine is those who say internet use makes people anti-social, when my experience, and that of millions of others, is the exact opposite. The internet opens up new ways of communicating with people we may never have hoped to meet in the flesh. And, it helps us to meet new people in the flesh too. I have met hundreds of new people, many I now count as friends, via social media.

That’s why I think we need to get away from the idea that using the internet is about sitting in front of a static computer. For me, the internet is an amazing communication mechanism. And it is one that I can stay connected to wherever I am. Increasing numbers of people are accessing the web via smartphones, tablets, netbooks, and connected laptops. There is no need to sit at a computer to access the internet. I am connected to my networks all the time, whether this be while I am sat working at my laptop, on a tablet, or standing in a queue at the post office using my smartphone. I’m actually writing part of this blogpost in a pub.

Please can we help people get over the notion that using the internet entails being tethered to a machine that is fixed to the wall. It is something that can enhance our lives wherever we are, whatever we’re doing.

And before you shout that many people cannot afford laptops, tablets and smartphones, I know. And that needs tackling too. That’s why I have advocated a national smartphone recycling scheme (see here) and I think we need more computer recycling schemes, with a greater focus on laptops, rather than desktop machines, than most existing schemes currently have.

The future is mobile, and, I think that is also the key to demonstrating the relevance of the internet to the lives of many people who have not yet considered it.

Forget the new and shiny, how do we carry on our interests and passions in later life?

Screen Shot 2012-12-04 at 11.16.40This morning I caught a little bit of an interview with Vladimir Ashkenazy on BBC Radio 4.  Something he said struck a chord (maybe even literally) with me. He said that people in their sixties and seventies can still enjoy playing musical instruments even though they might not be as good at playing them as they once were.

I wonder whether one of the things that is holding back the digital inclusion of older people is the tendency to enthuse over the shiny and new gagets and marvel at the new opportunities they offer. I know I am as guilty of this as many people. Perhaps what really matters to older people is the ability to carry on what they have always done and enjoyed,  and which they might be losing the ability to do.

During the Our Digital Planet project, I have come across a number of people whose eyes have been opened as to how the internet could help them pursue old interests. I am thinking of Ron in Bristol (pictured above), who found a new way of approaching his own photography and art, and I am thinking of visitors in Liverpool who were enchanted to find how Youtube offered an archive of material they had not been able to see for years. In one case this was of Tommy Steele singing his hit records from the 1950s, in another this was seeing Ian St. John in his pomp, playing football for Liverpool in the 1960s. And, also in Liverpool, there was the visitor from Malta, who was able to find archive video of his own wife being visited as a tiny baby in hospital by the then Princess Elizabeth.

Could we use new technologies to help people carry on playing musical instruments as their dexterity declines? I am sure there is work going on in this field. One of the other applications that immediately occurs to me is the use of tablet devices to enable people easily to increase the font size on newspaper articles and books which they might not be able to read in their paper versions due to failing eyesight. This could be used for reading music too.  And I know there is lots of other work going on to enable new technologies to be used to help people adapt to the frailties of old age, but I am not aware that any of this is explicitly linked to digital inclusion. If it is not, it should be.

In Our Digital Planet, and in lots of other work I have done, I have been a strong believer in starting from people’s interests. I think we need to think a lot more about how we use the internet and new technologies to help people find alternative ways of doing things they have always done, and not alway be seeking for the new.

It’s about people, not technology

This is another post spanning the two projects, Our Digital Planet and the Exploration of the Role of Digital Technologies for People in Later Life.


The latter project is due to report very shortly. As it has progressed it has become increasingly apparent to me, backed up by my Our Digital Planet experience, that what is missing from the digital inclusion landscape, on a widescale  basis, is patient, longterm, support, guidance and advice. There have been numerous initiatives over the years, and, slowly and gradually, the numbers of the digitally excluded have reduced, but there remains a substantial number of people who have not been reached. But, as well as these, I am convinced there are many people who have been touched by some kind of digital inclusion intervention which has failed to have any significant impact because it has not been followed up with the support needed to make it stick.


One of the factors I have tried hard to promote over recent years has been the notion of “digital fluency”. I believe there are many people who know the technicalities of how to use ICT and the internet, but they have not practiced them enough for them to become second nature. It’s like when you start learning to drive and you initially think that you’ll never get the hang of co-ordinating all the different physical actions you need to deploy to drive smoothly. If you don’t keep practicing at it, you won’t. Similarly, if your only experience of computing is in an IT Centre or on a course, you’ll never really become fluent in it. At best it will seem like a difficult chore; at worst it will continue to seem like something that has no relevance to the rest of your life. Either you don’t have a computer at home at all, or, if you do, it may be totally different to the one you’ve been taught on, and it won’t magically automatically connect itself to the internet, unlike the one in the centre.


Our Digital Planet has confirmed for me that digital inclusion is about people before it is about technology. It starts with listening to people’s concerns, fears and interests, and working out how new technologies might fit in with their lives. As I have written before, we are heading for a crisis point, where, for instance, people will be expected to manage their own benefits online. If the digitally excluded are going to be enabled to do this effectively, they need to find out what the rest of us already know, that new technologies can be fun, useful, and life-enhancing, in lots of different ways. Managing benefits should be one of the things they use a computing device for, not the only thing.


Considering how long computers and the internet have been a factor in our lives, it should not be surprising that short-term interventions are not enough to make a difference to people who remain digitally excluded. Even after something like 20 years when the world has been taking advantage of the power of computers, nothing has yet happened to convince them to let them into their lives. Overcoming this resistance is likely to be a gradual, patient process. People need that longterm support, and this is most acceptable when it comes from those they know and trust. This is why I think we need a much wider, and sustainable, network of digital champions, and, for older people, these need to be their peers, as well as care home and day centre staff, librarians, and shop and supermarket staff. These networks exist in places, but they are nowhere near extensive enough. The Making IT Personal: Joining the DOTs, project in South Yorkshire is one model that is worthy of consideration for wider application.