Writing on the Wall


Social media encompasses a conglomeration of new technologies and complex human behaviours that we are struggling to understanding, fully utilise and in some ways control. Some wonder if human civilisation will cope with all this cutting edge communication at times is seems to be tearing at the fabric of all we know. How will we able to sort fake from real news? Won’t the interconnection with so many people eventually drive us mad? How can humans adapt and cope?

Tom Standage in his engaging and well-researched book ‘Writing on the Wall’ has come to the phenomenon of modern social media from an historic standpoint. His thesis is to describe how have people through time, starting with the Romans, managed to cope with their new communication technologies – and actually some of them look pretty familiar. This is a book to read and savour as Standage carefully and comprehensively outlines a whole range of historic periods, their evolving social and communication technologies and how the ‘locals’ coped and adapted to them. Among the groups and times he unpicks:

  • The Romans – sharing news and political gossip was a key undertaking across the empire. At times news was posted on walls via daily updates from the emperor; these postings were copied and passed on throughout Rome and subsequently to the rest of the Empire. What started as political news was adopted by other groups with a message to share including the early Christians who preferred codices (books) to scrolls – a technology shift.
  • Martin Luther – arguing the need for Reformation coincided with the development of the printing press. This allowed his thinking (and indeed the arguments of his critics) to go viral as ideas were subject to duplication and rapid distribution.
  • Across the channel in the English Elizabethan courtiers would share notes and poems about each other in the form of personal profiles. A little later London Coffee Houses hosted discussion Many people were concerned that these Houses were more popular than work and many traders were felt to be spending their time unwisely on social matters rather than concentrating on trade and commerce.
  • Into the late 19th century, in the United States the emerging telegraph network allowed specialist operators to develop their own private network for gossip and information sharing all ‘hidden’ in self-derived code and shorthand.

It appears that there is little new for humanity to cope with. The key issue remaining is the pace of development and change. We are in a period of rapid and concurrent technological changes and that is unique in human experience. The only question that remains is whether we will be able to cope and thrive with all these changes at one go.



A brief (and most incomplete) history of Internet things


If you are like me I have a poor memory of when various technologies came into play. So here is a brief and very incomplete summary of key Internet dates. What have I missed?

1969 A computer in the University of California, LA was connected to a computer to the Standford Research Institute in Menlo Park, CA four hundred miles away. This led to a total of four academic institutions networking themselves through leased phone lines and utilising ‘packet switching’ technology for the first time.
1971 Ray Tomlinson, a programmer at Bolt, Nernek and Newman developed some rules for the first e-mail. The first message is lost to time, but Tomlinson did adopt the @ symbol and created the “user@host” e-mail addressing system still in use today.
1975 The network had grown to 57 locations making use of ‘Interface Message Processors’ across the United States, and one node in London. The network was known as ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Acing).
1979 Two grad students from Duke University created the technology to allow their computers to communicate over standard telephone lines rather then relying upon very very expensive leased lines.
1981 The ARPANET had grown to 213 computers and was adding a computer every twenty days.
1983 The old packet switching protocol was replaced by TCP/IP to provide a common internetwork protocol. By this time the various networks of computers across academic, government and military institutions were collectively known as the Internet.
1990 Tim Berners-Less wrote a program called WorldWideWeb. To help make it easier for fellow physicists to communicate with one another. It was based around the standard of HTML and HTTP. It was made widely and freely available in 1991.
1993 CERN declared that the WorldWideWeb protocols devised by Berners-Lee would be royalty-free, thereby making the web open.
1994 Mosaic was browser software written by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina for UNIX which was then rewritten to run in PC and Macintosh machines. We were getting close to universal standards for the world wide web.   This was renamed Netscape Navigator as Andreessen took his university creation into the commercial sector.
1995 Netscape had 40 million users
1997 Jorn Barger coined the word ‘weblog’.
1997 SixDegrees.com was launched – a selection of profile pages used to link users together (it was to close in 2000)
1998 70 million web users
1999 Peter Merholz coins the term ‘blog’ – the same year as Evan Williams and Meg Hourihan launched blogger.com a platform made for web loggers/
2000 250 million web users
2002 Friendster was an early dating website – again working around user created profiles which allowed friends to communicate and share ideas with one another. By May 2003 Friendster had 300,00 users
2004 Disgruntled users of Friendster (it had technical issues) decamped to MySpace.     By the end of the year it had grown to be bigger than Friendster.
2004 Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook for his friends at Harvard University. Early on admission to Facebook was limited to a few chosen academic institutions.
2005 MySpace had 25 million users and was sold to News Corps for $850 million.
2006 1 billion internet users and 40 million bloggers
2006 Facebook open to anyone over the age of 13 to use.
2006 Micro-blogging site Twitter launched in July.
2007 Tumblr launched
2010 Google+ launched
2012 Facebook is the most popular social-networking site in 127 out of 137 countries.   Russian and China have their own heavily censored and controlled variations of Facebook.
2013 Twitter has more than 200 million active users.

To be continued…

The potential decline of the mind and memory

BrainYou know the arguments. We need to be concerned about what new technologies are doing to our minds. The idea that we have so much information available to us in a written form is creating “forgetfulness in learners’ because they are fundamentally forgoing the use of the memory”. We will trust external sources and do not seek to remember ideas, facts and so forth. We also need to have a level of scepticism about what is written down. What we read may be inaccurate, biased or blatantly untrue and therefore the written word has an inbuilt set of problems that we have to counter.

It may be surprising to learn that these cautionary thoughts belong to Plato who was expressing his concerns in the fourth century B.C. He was talking up oratory and didn’t want his students to become overly dependant upon the practise of writing, for the reasons outlined above.

It is funny to think that in 2017 we maintain the same concerns about what is the ability to access the answer to everything by ‘Googling it’ doing to our minds and memories? We also have to be discerning about on-line texts – and treat them with healthy scepticism. How little things have changed.

Just sign on the dotted line….

When did anyone last read the Terms and Conditions when signing up to use a website, app. or piece of software? I confess to having the occasional skim but generally I ‘Accept’ and move on. The reason for not properly reading T&Cs is it is most likely that I wouldn’t understand them and anyway they are usually inordinately long – I simply don’t have the time. But perhaps we should have the inclination.

While reading the Children’s Commissioner for England’s report on ‘Growing up Digital’ which looks at the challenges of being a young person in our digital age I came across some research about T&Cs. Instagram’s Terms and Conditions run to 5000 words and is 17 pages long should anyone chose to print it out. Well it was printed and shown to some teenagers (the most likely users of Instagram) and they were asked to read it. It didn’t take them long to down tools complaining among other things that “you have to take 10 minutes on each sentence”. These were not young people who couldn’t decode the written word, this was simply a huge document packed with legalese. Passing the document through the Flesch-Kincaid readability test (which you can find within MS Word), where a ‘Plain English’ document should score 7 matching the reading ability of an average 12-13 year old, this document scored 31 and is therefore ‘best understood by university graduates’! So Instagram are insisting on us signing up to terms which none of us are likely to comprehend. Why might that be?

The Instagram terms were passed by the Children’s Commissioner to the law firm Schillings and they were asked to produce a simplified version. I have posted them below.

This 900 word document was given to the young people who could read it with ease. Some of them were shocked to understand what they were signing up to. It felt a bit like signing their souls away. There is an argument for making all T&Cs in Plain English so that everyone can all consider whether they want to give away so much personal data in return for using software.

INSTAGRAM TERMS: Our Rules if you want to use Instagram

  1. You have to be 13 or over.
  2. Don’t post anything showing violence, or that might make other people feel scared, or 
any images that contain nudity.
  3. Don’t use anybody else’s account without their permission or try to find out their login 
  4. Don’t let anyone else use your account.
  5. Keep your password secret.
  6. Don’t bully anyone or post anything horrible about people.
  7. Don’t post other peoples’ private or personal information.
  8. Don’t use Instagram to do anything illegal or that we tell you not to.
  9. If you want to add a website to your username, make sure you get permission from 
Instagram first.
  10. Don’t change anything about our website or applications, upload any type of virus or do 
anything that might interfere with the way Instagram works. Don’t send us ideas on how 
to improve Instagram.
  11. Don’t use any type of software or robot to create accounts or access Instagram, and 
don’t send spam or unwanted emails.
  12. Read our Community Guidelines and obey them when using Instagram.
  13. Don’t do anything that might affect how other people use and enjoy Instagram.
  14. Don’t encourage anyone to break these rules.



  1. You have the right to feel safe using Instagram.
  2. Officially you own any original pictures and videos you post, but we are allowed to use them, and we can let others use them as well, anywhere around the world. Other people might pay us to use them and we will not pay you for that.
  3. You are responsible for anything you do using Instagram and anything you post, including things you might not expect such as usernames, data and other peoples’ music.
  4. It will be assumed that you own what you post, and what you post does not break the law. If it does, and you are fined, you will have to pay that fine.
  5. Although you are responsible for the information you put on Instagram, we may keep, use and share your personal information with companies connected with Instagram. This information includes your name, email address, school, where you live, pictures, phone number, your likes and dislikes, where you go, who your friends are, how often you use Instagram, and any other personal information we find such as your birthday or who you are chatting with, including in private messages (DMs).
  6. We are not responsible for what other companies might do with this information. We will not rent or sell your personal information to anyone else without your permission. When you delete your account, we keep this personal information about you, and your photos, for as long as is reasonable for our business purposes. You can read more about this in our “Privacy Policy”. This is available at: http://instagram.com/legal/privacy/.
  7. Instagram is also not responsible for:
- Links on Instagram from companies or people we do not control, even if we send those links to you ourselves.
- What happens if you connect your Instagram account to another app or website, for instance by sharing a picture, and the other app does something with it or takes your personal details.
- The cost of any data you use while using Instagram.
- If your photos are lost or stolen from Instagram.
  8. Although Instagram is not responsible for what happens to you or your data while you use Instagram, we do have many powers: 
- We might send you adverts connected to your interests which we are monitoring. You cannot stop us doing this and it will not always be obvious that it is an advert. 
- We can change or end Instagram, or stop you accessing Instagram at any time, for any reason and without letting you know in advance. We can also delete posts and other content randomly, without telling you, for any reason. If we do this, we will not be responsible for paying out any money and you won’t have any right to complain. 
- We can force you to give up your username for any reason. 
- We can, but do not have to, remove, edit, block and/or monitor anything posted or any accounts that we think breaks any of these rules. We are not responsible if somebody breaks the law or breaks these rules; but if you break them, you are responsible. You should use common sense and your best judgment when using Instagram.
  9. Although you do not own your data, we do own ours. You may not copy and paste Instagram logos or other stuff we create, or remove it or try to change it.
  10. You can close your Instagram account by logging into Instagram and completing this form: https://instagram.com/accounts/remove/request/. If you do, your photos, posts and profile will disappear from your account but if anyone has shared your photos or personal details, or if we have used them ourselves for any reason, they might still appear on Instagram. We will also keep all the data we already have from you and can use it as explained in paragraph 5 above.
  11. We can change these rules whenever we like by posting an update on Instagram, whether you notice it or not.


Worth a read: Growing up Digital – a report of the Growing up Digital Task Force, Children’s Commissioner for England. Find it on the website.


What impact does a school’s AUP have on their philosophy towards social media and Internet technologies?

In the United Kingdom we work in a school system where safeguarding young people has the highest priority. Following the tragic deaths of ‘Baby B’ and Damilola Taylor where too many people in authority who should have prevented the murders of these children at the hands of parents or carers failed to, we now have an education system that is very ‘safeguarding’ aware.

In a secondary school setting we have been told that ‘the safety of the child’ is paramount. It is more important than outcomes. You can have a school where children report they are happy; where many come out with good academic results; where children from disadvantaged backgrounds fare well: yet if the school doesn’t have robust systems, processes and an ethos which shows that the safety of the child is the core concern, then the school can be heading for trouble. A school local to me was heading for a ‘good’ OFSTED judgement, and yet it went into ‘special measures’ (the lowest rating) simply because it’s safeguarding procedures were deemed to be lacking. We are working in a culture where safeguarding reigns supreme.

I am not saying that the safety of the child isn’t important. However what is clear is that our focus on ‘safeguarding first’ may be having an impact on the way schools promote the use new technologies. Clearly new technologies come with risks. The Internet and social media have all sorts of content that can corrupt, upset and disturb young people (not to say adults!). These are also tools popular with the bully who may attack their peers via Twitter, Facebook or whatever. Clearly if we are to protect young people from all that is out there, and in some ways from themselves, we need to have sensible appropriate policies in place.

In a fascinating study of (Acceptable Use Policies) AUPs in United States school districts, June Ahn and her team have seen two broadly different approaches to how schools view technology. I am explaining these in an exaggerated broad-brush form in order to help identify the extremes. In one camp we have schools where technology (internet, social media platforms and so forth) are viewed as potentially dangerous and unhealthy for young people unless it is properly managed and access to the technology is strictly controlled. Therefore teachers should use the technology with care. Students have access only after they have signed a form agreeing to use it sensibly and this is supported by their parents. Further, should there be misuse then the right for a student to use technology will be removed as part of the school’s sanctions process. At the other end there are schools that expect all students to make use of new technology in support of their learning. There is no consideration that parents should ‘give permission’. No permission is sought access is automatic. The policies though do indicate that young people need to be supported in their discerning and critical use of the new technologies and that its use must be encouraged by teachers. There is therefore far less emphasis on filtering or preventing access to certain sites and more on training youngsters to be appropriate users of the technology. Should a student behave inappropriately then the behaviour will be dealt with but there is no indication that access to the technology will be removed. You wouldn’t prevent a young person from using books in all classes simply because they threw a book at another student? It is unthinkable. In this circumstance you would deal with the behaviour.

So where does your school stand? Is the AUP all about preventing harm to young people or is it about supporting and leading learning? Is it about preventing access to unsuitable materials or is it about training young people to be discerning users?


Worth a read:
Ahn J, Bivona L, DiScala J (2011), Social Media Access in K-12 Schools: Intractable Policy Controversies in an Evolving World. ASIST 2011, October 9-13, 2011 New Orleans, LA, USA



This is the post excerpt.

This site contains thoughts and reflections of a university researcher who is thinking about how schools should go about guiding and helping young people make the most of social media.

I write about areas I am thinking about, reading or currently studying.  It is all pretty random.