“The Sleeper Curve”, MySpace provides tangible evidence of an increasingly intelligent generation.

Last week I wrote an email to Steven Johnson, I didn’t get a reply. I don’t blame him for not responding, my email was a rambling list of questions and half-baked theories that, if I’d bothered to read pages 116 to 124 of his book I would have found the answers.

My thoughts had been centred around the use of social network sites and were building on ideas mooted in this blog about the “Noble Savages” of the web, the teens and tweens immersed in the likes of MySpace, Bebo and Faceparty. They were building too on themes discussed in the previous 115 pages of his book which talked of a rising “Sleeper Curve” of complexity in the social and cognitive functioning of recent generations. Johnson points to the scale and complexity of online gaming in virtual worlds, the multiple threading of plot lines, character complexity, reduction in signposting and chronological fracturing seen in modern popular television (Lost, 24, Sopranos) and the Emotional Quotient demands of that most-maligned genre of entertainment, ‘reality’ TV. I wanted to ask him whether he thought the mindless surfing and banal bedroom postings of teenagers in Woking really constituted evidence for an increasingly intelligent generation.

As it happens, I got to the end of the email and had started to answer my own questions anyway. Taking place within these social networks are a myriad of interactions the principle aim of which is to create more links, to find more people who are like you, who like the same music or can introduce you to new ideas, cultures, crafts and stimulation. In effect, people to whom you can relate. The manifestation of this is the buddy list, a publicly viewable incentive and tangible sign of success. Here, at work on the most ‘cutting edge’ popular technology, is that most rudimentary facet of personal development, conditional learning. The user learns with subtle, slow experimentation that adding a given song, mentioning a brand, blogging about a person, citing a celebrity or slating a school friend will encourage someone else to request to be added to their list. Over time these ‘new’ social skills are honed and polished in such a way that the most prolific of MySpace users can demonstrate a who’s-who of buddies, displaying the great and the good of their community.

Perhaps some of these kids (though by no means all of them are under 21) would have demonstrated these skills and abilities offline in a different time, but I contend that these sites have taken away some of the physical limitations of real life (time, distance, health and beauty) to allow a greater number of people to become popular in a world that previously would have excluded them.

[note: the image on this post is a Univ. Claifornia visualisation of a social network on Friendster]

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