Kenny Shelton, one of the keynote speakers at this year TIES Conference in Minnesota, talked about student voices, and how technology and social media gives every student a voice to have their story heard. He gave a lot of examples about how social media transformed people’s lives for the better. While I agree with his general idea, I also started to wonder about the reality. I wondered whether the Internet has moved past this, to a place where yes, everyone has a voice, but it’s so drowned out by the all the noise that rarely does anyone hear it.
My thinking comes from the idea that the volume of communication on the Internet has exploded. There are currently 500 million tweets per day. 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. 300 million photos are uploaded daily on Facebook. Most of this content passes by the world all but unnoticed. Sure, we have amazing stories of a sick child who the world rallies to help, but for every one of these stories there are thousands that slip by unnoticed. Yes, we all have a voice, but in a world where everyone has a voice, who is listening?
I was talking to a co-worker, Jon Fila, after the speech, and he made the point that in every one of Shelton’s examples, the initial tweeter or poster only reached success when someone of much greater voice and social media influence picked up their story to allow it to be heard. This reminded me of the old, pre-Internet media days, when in order to have your story heard, you needed to connect with a newspaper, tv station, or radio and have them pick up your story. I wondered, “Have we’ve come full circle, back to a place where you only get heard if someone with a much louder voice picks up your story?”
Last night I asked my daughter, a 9th grader embedded in the youth social media world if she thinks she has a voice in the world. She said, “No. It’s like being in a crowded party where everyone is talking at the same time and no one is listening.” My first thought, was wow, that’s bleak coming from our daughter, who is one of the most positive and happy people I know. As we talked more, she brought up the point that “voice” on the Internet is a question of magnitude. While some people have a voice because they have thousands of followers, most people don’t. Twisting on the popular zen Koan, we came up with this: “If you have a voice but nobody hears it, did you really say anything?”
I posted her thought on Twitter during the second day of the conference and was pretty much finished with the idea for now, but then Katie Ness asked this on Twitter: “How does she think we can change that?”
Ah, the hard question.
That led to a longer discussion with my daughter tonight. She wondered if it’s possible to move away from the numbers game of social media and make a social network like the photo-sharing network VSCO, where follower numbers aren’t posted, and only you can see who is following you. “I like that because it’s all about the content, not how powerful you are.”
She also wondered if there might be potential in collective voice, and compared it to the current movement where women are joining together to speak up against sexual violence. “Maybe we could create a network that collects voices together to make something more powerful than the individual voice?”
For me, I thought about my own social media usage and wondered if if it isn’t also an educational emphasis issue. It’s great that we are asking people to tell their stories and share, but maybe we need to equally emphasize the importance of empathy, and listening to the stories of others. The theme of this conference was “What’s Your Story?” Maybe next year it could be “What’s Your Neighbor’s Story?”