Thinking back 15 years it was nearly impossible to imagine that most people's daily routines would include the production and sharing of pictures, videos and texts. As a researcher who was already observing emerging digital practices in those years, I have to confess that I was blind to the potential trivialisation of digital content creation. It was far easier to anticipate the growth of gaming or messaging than the daily production of newsfeeds by a significant proportion of the world's population.
The difficulty in predicting users’ increasing engagement with content derived from dramatically overestimating the difficulty of acquiring new digital skills and underestimating the speed with which new competencies can become routinised.
Designers undoubtedly managed to remove most hurdles from user interface and simplify complex tasks, but in truth digital literacy turned out to be less problematic than expected. Admittedly, the collective push towards acquiring the necessary skills to become digitally autonomous was phenomenal and is a testament to what happens when societies embark in an action of collective cultural transformation.
Learning all the steps necessary for formatting domain specific knowledge in shareable and accessible components, be it in producing videos, code or text, is yet another major transformation. It has extended the traditional mechanisms of knowledge transmission from the proximal to the global. Through a process of imitation and peer learning, users rapidly created genres and expressive formats that provided the frameworks to present and convey different forms of knowledge. Some of the formats were constrained by the features of the software and data structures, others by the social norms that quickly emerged. Both were instrumental in enabling the rapid diffusion and adoption of the practice.
Realising how quickly competence has spread is important to allow us to predict what the next evolution in skills and activities will bring. To illustrate this point I would like to discuss the findings of a recent ethnographic inquiry we ran in collaboration with Maria Angel from UCL.
The ethnography of a Lupus (a systemic autoimmune condition) Support Group in London, revealed a strong integration of the online and offline realms. All the members of the group, Lupus sufferers themselves, are active on social media and maintain strong links to the other members via Facebook and Whatsapp. Many of them volunteer in different charities or are active supporters of LupusUK the umbrella organisation under which their group operates. Social media are the main channels to co-ordinate their activities as patients and volunteers. Members who cannot attend the monthly meetings in person can participate via Skype. All the sufferers follow and contribute to a range of online patient forums dedicated to their condition some of which are based in the US or other European countries.
Many participants search and read medical research on Lupus that they then share and discuss in the meetings. Of course they all use mobile phones, email and the internet for other activities unrelated to their medical condition. The group interviewed by Maria Angel is composed primarily of women (there is a significantly higher incidence of Lupus among women and some ethnic groups) they are aged between 25 and 75, and have a wide range of educational and professional backgrounds. Lupus is a chronic condition with periods of remission and periods of debilitating flare-ups and therefore some of the interviewees have been ill for decades and have experienced severe limitations in their working, social and family life.
The chronicity, unpredictability, relative rarity and highly complex nature of the condition means that sufferers develop a high level of expertise of the illness in order to cope.
The North London Lupus Support Group is a true hub of knowledge and the meetings are characterised by intense exchanges on treatments, research, nutrition and solutions to daily issues.
These conversations continue online on the social media that are shared. New members and sufferers are given a wealth of advice, the group also allows individuals to examine solutions to cope with their ever evolving condition.
It is not difficult to predict that a group such as this one could in the future, given the right tools, integrate a far greater range of information and data. Their current reliance on social media, forums and journals is not a function of their digital skills, but rather of the available platforms for information exchange. The group has not yet found a format to help structure, store, visualise and analyse the depth of knowledge it is producing. It is just a question of time until access to data, medical records and digital environments to capture experiential knowledge alongside clinical research, will allow them to collectively elaborate yet more complex analysis of their condition and potentially contribute to the scientific debate.