It’s not OK not to understand the internet

On 29 April I gave a presentation at Holyrood’s annual Telehealth and Telecare Conference.This year’s theme was engagement – both staff engagement and public engagement –  and the brief was to address the question ‘social media and engagement: challenge or opportunity?’

It did feel a little strange to be asking if social media is a challenge or an opportunity. Social media is here, it’s now. A fact of life. Yes, it presents challenges for some people, either because they aren’t sure what it is or because of its disruptive impact on established organisational and power structures.  But there can be no question that it offers many opportunities for engagement.  Consider this definition:

tools that allow people to create, share or exchange information, ideas, and pictures/videos in virtual communities and networks. – Wikipedia

Sharing, exchanging and networking sound very much like the basic ingredients for engagement.

At the conference we heard from a panel of users of telehealth about how social social media is vital in dealing with depression, Alzheimers and visual impairment. This panel did not see privacy and data protection as serious barriers: not in the way ‘the establishment’ does.

Michael Seres is very well known for his use of social media to openly share personal information about Crohns Disease.  Look up Michael on the web for inspiration on how to meld, blogging, Pintrest, Facebook, Twitter to learn, share and communicate and build networks.

With these examples in mind I began by asking ‘what’s holding us back? ‘

Fear of the new

Fear of the new might be one factor. All technology goes through the ‘new’ phase. That’s when the evangelists or enthusiasts talk up the opportunities.  And the doom mongers talk up the dangers. People have always been wary of new things, fearing negative impact.

It’s OK to be skeptical of hype but we should avoid being paralysed by fear and apprehension. In any case, the technologies underpinning the internet, the Web and social media are not particularly new. It’s 25 years since Tim Berners-Lee – looking for a way  to support and improve scientific communication – invented the World Wide Web. He fused the internet, which had been around for at least the previous 25 years, and hypertext, the origins of which go back even further.

Berners-Lee was always clear the web was for everyone. By giving away the idea (which he could have patented) he allowed others to develop and refine web browsers which, together with affordable computers and home broadband, ushered the internet into the mainstream of everyday life.

Berners-Lee has recently come up with a new WWW: the Web We Want.

The future of the Web depends on ordinary people discussing it, taking responsibility for it and challenging those who seek to control the Web for their own purposes.
It is vitally important to me and our work at the World Wide Web Foundation that we empower people from all walks of life to shape the future of the Web.

So if you’re looking for a challenge, maybe this is it. What kind of web do you want? Which is really, what kind of world do we want? This means getting to grips with the legal, ethical and technical frameworks that underpin the Web and the social media that lives on it.

A couple of weeks ago internet pioneer Martha Lane Fox delivered the annual Richard Dimbleby lecture. With a non-technical background (graduate in ancient history), Lane Fox set up, is now in the Lords, advises on all things digital and has launched a campaign called Dot Everyone.

In her lecture she argued that Britain could become the most digital, most connected, most skilled, most informed country on the planet. She was frustrated by the polarising of views that we often encounter: the internet will solve all the world’s problems versus the internet  is screwing everything up. She put it bluntly:

It doesn’t matter if you’re 80 or 8, if you’re online once a year or once a minute. Understanding where the internet came from and what it can do will help you make more sense of the world.

She went on to argue that we’re still wasting colossal fortunes on bad processes and bad technologies. She envisages a world where the internet is a tool for transforming the relationship between the state and the citizen, not something driven by the need for economic efficiency alone.

She felt were were being let down by our leaders, We need, she said, more politicians and senior civil servants who realise that ‘getting’ digital means more than operating a Twitter account or taking an iPad to meetings.

At IRISS I’ve been banging on for the last few years about blocking access to social media in the workplace.  How are social care staff to understand Facebook, Youtube and Twitter if they aren’t allowed access at work?  How are they to engage with the likes of Michael Seres if they aren’t trusted with unfettered access to the internet?

It can be easy to overstate the impact of digital but Lane Fox recounts the story of a woman who is a disabled full-time carer for her disabled husband. She was sinking fast into depression until a local volunteer taught her how to use the internet. She believed it saved her life. She felt her world expanded and that she could experience things she’d never otherwise have been able to do – she was “going on a holiday” when playing around on Google Earth and getting priceless support from new friends she met in online groups.

This is engagement!  Lead with need.  There is no point in urging people get on the internet unless you demonstrate the benefits or how it meets a need.

Policy background

Cabinet Secretary Shona Robison addressed the conference and talked about Scotland’s Digital Participation strategy. Here are some extracts from the Strategy which I’d suggest you quote to those who deny you access to Facebook, Twitter or Youtube.  Or compel you to use an out of date web browser.

Scotland’s Digital Future. Supporting the Transition to a World-leading Digital Economy:

The starting point… has to be a commitment to develop the digital capabilities of staff across the Scottish public sector. Organisations should … encourage the development of digital literacy across their entire workforce. This should be supported by the development of workplaces and IT policies that enhance access to and familiarity of digital technology.

Digital Participation: A National Framework for Local Action:

everybody who wishes to access the internet should be able to

it is the role of government to ensure that everybody in our society has the opportunity to develop digital skills

A world class digital Scotland will be one in which internet access is considered as a utility on a par with access to electricity and gas

and where digital literacy takes it place alongside conventional literacy and numeracy at the heart of our education system

Access to the internet should not be considered a luxury in a modern country


Yes there are dangers. Phishing, data theft, identity theft  and so on. But the world has always posed dangers and the way to deal with danger is through education and awareness.

Bogus salesmen have long swindled vulnerable people at the front doors. Now they do it by phone and email. We used to have TV campaigns warning about bogus door to door salesmen.  Why not the same kind of public education campaigns about using the web? Maybe for the reason Lane Fox mentioned: politicians and leaders in the public and private sectors who don’t understand the internet.


I’ve used the terms internet, Web and social media rather interchangably. That’s because social media is really just a natural evolution of the internet. Orginally the internet was the preserve of scientists until Berners-Lee showed what could be done by linking things up using hypertext. His Web was completely text-based. Young whiz kids came along and showed how a graphical user interface (the web browser) could open it up to a wider community, making it more engaging and exciting by adding images and then moving images, and then interactive elements. Broadband, cheaper PCs, cheaper photography allowed us all to share in the fun.

It has been suggested that the last 150 years were a bit of a blip during which we became text based at the expense of oral and aural traditions. Social media has given us back these oral and aural dimensions.The challenge, then, is how to exploit the opportunities this has opened up.

  • You don’t really ‘learn’ social media; it’s experiential.
  • You can decide what you like and don’t like, what’s useful to you and what is not …
  • … but make an informed choice.
  • Take up Tim Berners Lee’s challenge to help shape the Web We Want.
  • Sign Martha Lane Fox’s petition at Dot.Everyone.
  • And challenge those in power to open up access to the Web at work.

It’s not OK not to understand the internet.

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