Digital Serendipities in Southeastern Europe
By Zoe Brogden
As an Open Society Foundations Chevening scholar at the University of Oxford in 2009, and now as a PhD student at the Oxford Internet Institute, Danica Radovanovic focuses on the use of social new communication technologies in Southeastern Europe. Following her presentation on the “digital divide” in higher education at a recent Open Society Scholarship Programs conference for alumni from the Balkans, I spoke to Danica about the impact of online social interactions, especially in the Balkan region.
Why is it valuable to research online social trends, and how do you see your research contributing in that area?
It is important to understand and evaluate how people, markets, the economy and politics are moving from offline to online worlds and vice versa. I believe that research in social media and new communication technologies plays a crucial role in analyzing our society and in how these technologies could be deployed globally for other purposes, from education to crisis resolution.
We are witnessing a new stage in the Facebook and Twitter era, not only in official news reporting, but in global, real-world events. From revolutions in Egypt and Libya, recent livestream from the White House, natural disasters in Haiti and Japan, to more mundane news like about the music industry, are likely to be published first on micro-blogging sites and social networks. Therefore, researching current trends, and as well as attempting to predict, is crucial for world developments.
For your PhD, you are currently researching young people in Southeast Europe. Are modes of conversation changing, and does this differ between countries, regions, or populations?
As my preliminary research data indicates, young adults in the Southeastern Europe and the Balkans do not differ in their communication practices from their peers elsewhere in the world. They are interested in the same things as the previous generations: they spend their time online and on social networks for very clear, understandable, social reasons. They want to interact with their peers, friends from pre-existing networks, in everyday life and make new connections.
I’m exploring communication practices in the social web, with a particular focus on media and conversation practices. Networked culture is in permanent flux, and I’m interested in how digital media is embedded in a broader sociocultural and educational framework in countries in transition, where political, economic, and social turbulence has influenced culture and values, as well as the creation of the online public sphere.
Undoubtedly, higher education and social media are converging at considerable speeds, albeit with arguably differing results. What is your take on the current successes and failures from your research perspective?
From my research, I find all parties in higher education, that is, students, teachers, institutions, ministries, and governments, divided in two groups: techno optimists and techno pessimists. Teachers and students need to communicate and collaborate more. For example, students complained that professors don’t reply to their emails promptly, or they would like to see them more using blogs, wikis, social networks, and even Skype.
On the other side, traditional teachers and professors tend to stick to basic Internet services such as email or listservs, while younger professors and teaching assistants are more liberal and encouraging young adults to use such outlets as social bookmarking, web-based file sharing services, academic social networks, online databases, and e-learning software, which is promising. Of course, this varies from university to university, but in general, collaborative and participatory practices and the fostering of critical thinking skills are important for higher education in the Balkans, as in any region. I’m working on data analysis and planning qualitative research which will support the data from my current project. Hopefully I shall have more a detailed answer at that point!
However, for me, higher education institutions should create a local strategic development plan where the implementation of social media, 21st-century literacies, and the culture of communication and collaboration should be fostered and improved. It is very important that policy makers, educators, and the media realize that the Internet is yet another channel for communication and not an evil tool, but also not some magic wand that will solve all their problems.
Have you found any negative trends in embracing the virtual world?
Similar communication and behavioral practices could be spotted in Southeastern Europe with regard to the misuse of digital technologies. They are mostly connected with spending too much time online when one should be at work, a lack of critical thinking skills, differentiating true from false information on the Internet, a low attention span, privacy breaches, and so on. Being “digital natives,” children nowadays first learn how to play computer games, but are often unable to question the credibility of information found online. Promoting and practicing information and digital literacy should be among the requirements for collaboration between schools and educational program developers.
All communication practices found in everyday life are mirrored online and magnified. It is worth mentioning that the culture of collaboration is not developed yet in Southeastern Europe, and it is important to design practices which would engage everyone.
What are your current plans and projects? You have a blog—what is your aim with it on a personal level? What audience are you attempting to reach?
Blogging at Digital Serendipities is something I have done since 2003. I write about technological adventures and moving between the offline to online world. It's about people and connections in both worlds. My audience is wide: from Internet scholars and developers, social media people, marketing, media professionals, students, and anyone interested in technology, communications, and media.
In the future, teaching could be an interesting and challenging opportunity since I have been a lecturer and instructor at the School of Web Journalism teaching Introduction to Web 2.0 and Online Social Networks. I’m glad when my former students send an email with their recent successes thanking me for motivation and teaching them some specific skill.
As a global citizen I'm interested in the next generation of web technologies, implemented not only in education but other areas as well, from collaborative web projects and platforms to emerging information and communication technologies markets.
Zoe Brogden is a program manager for the Open Society Scholarship Programs.