My older daughter, Jess, left on Monday for her semester abroad in Paris. A few days ago we met in iChat (video!) so she could "show me around her apartment" (i.e., lug her laptop from room to room as she narrated what was on screen) and I could hear about how things are going so far.
In hearing her talk about her first experiences living among strangers in a country where they speak a language in which she is not fluent, I could see so many parallels to learning to use social media.
New Language--Jess has taken French for 7 years, but is by no means fluent. The other day she went to the grocery store, she told me, and was totally flummoxed by which face wash to buy. While she can obviously tell the difference between a box of cereal and a gallon of milk, figuring out the differences between two different kinds of cereal isn't easy.
This is what it's like for people who are new to web 2.0--What's RSS? And even if I know RSS, what's the difference between RSS 1.0, RSS 2.0 and Atom? The language is strange and often confusing. Words mean nothing or what we think they mean is something else all together.
New Behaviors and Customs-While Jess and her roommate were at the store, they witnessed a customer and a store clerk in a screaming match during which the clerk called the customer a name (in French) that I can't even type here. As the customer walked out of the store, the clerk threw a bottle of water at the customer's back and then calmly returned to work. The manager said nothing and the other customers, while interested in the exchange, seemed unperturbed. Jess, on the other hand, was completely appalled.
Jess told me that she's having all kinds of experiences like this where behaviors that she considers "normal," are not and where behaviors like what happened in the grocery store are completely unremarkable. It's making her a little nervous, she told me--she's not sure how she should behave in different situations.
I couldn't help thinking about how many people online experience the same feeling. What do you say in comments? What's considered rude? What's "acceptable"?
A Different Sense of History--As Americans, WWII is a distant memory or something we've seen only in history books. 9/11 is about as far back as we go in thinking about national tragedies. But in a country like France, the War is still a presence. While Paris is very modern, of course, Jess says that there's still a deep sense of history that is giving her a different perspective on things.
Thinking about this in online social media terms, the Web is a different place for people who have been blogging for several years compared to those who are coming later. This means that we each come with different ideas for context and culture that can sometimes be at odds, particularly if we aren't each sensitive to the others' point of view.
You're a Total Beginner--What really struck me in my conversation with Jess was something one of her advisers told them. At home, these kids are used to being smart and articulate, able to more than hold their own in discussions. But in France, they are total beginners. Expressing complex ideas is virtually impossible--they don't have the skills for it--so they are left in a perpetual situation of feeling "stupid," something they've usually not experienced before. This is killing her, my daughter the perfectionist, and it reminded me of how many smart competent people come online, only to find that online, they are back to being beginners, people who don't have all the answers and, therefore, feel "dumb." This is probably one of the greatest barriers for people who don't want to put themselves in situations where they are less than totally competent. It's scary. I understand this.
As I'm watching Jess navigate her way through a new country with a different language and different customs, I'm staying alert to how what she's learning can help me understand how people new to social media must feel during their first forays online. It's all new and all hard to get through. Compassion is in order, as well as support to get through the difficulties.