Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Online Ambassadors

Today's story in the Los Angeles Times, "Presidential Candidate May Click with the Lebanese," looked at the relationship between online social networking sites and electioneering in the Middle East. According to the article, "one of the main contenders for the Lebanese presidency, Nassib Lahoud, has brought his candidacy to Facebook. His online group, 'Nassib Lahoud for President,' has drawn 2,500 members."

The story argues that the "outgoing and chatty Lebanese" have been much more eager to embrace Facebook than other computer applications. Naturally, I automatically question the equation that the article makes between national character and the affordances of a particular technology, given both the idiosyncracies of the digital practices of individuals and the diversity and multiculturalism of the country at issue, Lebanon.

It made me think of a talk that I recently heard at AoIR on a similarly diverse population about which generalizations about their sociality in relationship to new technologies was also made. That isn't to say, however, that I thought that the paper of Jeremiah Spence wasn't making a valuable public policy argument, by looking at how the Brazilian government might be wrong in forbidding the use of the popular low-bandwidth social networking site Orkut at its rural satellite-enabled telecenters, even though he kept saying that "Brazilians are a very social people."

Although the Brazilian government is apparently not as influenced by predator panic as our own government, which keeps pushing variations of DOPA to forbid access to online social networks in schools and libraries, they still seem to be equally dogmatic about enforcing a moral value system on would-be virtual community members that discounts the "purely social" in favor of more obviously "productive" uses of time. Others in the audience said that they had lost contracts with the Brazilian government for refusing to demonize this computer application that those across all socioeconomic strata use in ways that according to Spence's research encourage them to be more engaged with technology more generally. Although he was reluctant to draw too strong a causal relationship with Orkut and computer knowledge more generally, he did find that the longer one's experience with Orkut, the greater one's knowledge about the Internet was likely to be.

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