Monday, March 23, 2009...6:58 pm

Young people aren't quite the web experts you think they are

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Just finished my first teaching session at Solent University – giving first year journalism students an introduction to web audio.

It all went fine – certainly I had no trouble from the IT, unlike other teaching experiences I’ve had [*cough* UCA], and the students were, in the way of all the journalism students I’ve taught so far, very pleasant young people.

It’s interesting though, that the preconceptions of most old folks [read: over 35] about youth being super web-literate don’t quite match up to reality.

There is an exception, of course, which we’ll get to in a bit. But ask most young students about the web, everything from podcasts to blogging, and they just don’t seem that interested.

My lot today were about 60:40 uninvolved with web audio. A few of them had listened to mainstream podcasts – Ricky Gervais, for example, or Jon Richardson on 6Music, or the Radio 1 podcast. But many hadn’t been exposed to audio content at all – and certainly not from the more eccentric fringes of the web, such as special interest sci-fi fan-podcasts, freewheeling political commentry or techno-geekery. 

In a similar way, my first year UCA blogging students don’t really seem that interested in blogs as a communications tool – the vast majority don’t spend time posting to their blog, seeing it as more a chore they have to do in class than the chance to self-publish and build a portfolio, while learning about building an audience on the way.

It’s a puzzle. Especially given the exception I noted above. The exception is – obviously – Facebook. 

Students spend lots of time on Facebook: building their profile, networking, taking an interest in their peer group. And, yes communicating in a way that doesn’t seem to come so naturally in their actual journalism studies.

Why should this be?

I’m beginning to wonder if the web as it is understood by even the most internet-savvy old-school media professionals is the real future of internet communications.

Old-style publishing hacks like me and my peers think we’re really ahead of the curve by blogging, understanding web analytics and talking about podcasts. But in reality perhaps what we are doing is just mapping old ways about thinking about media on to the new form. Maybe podcasts are nothing more than ham radio updated for the 21st century. And as for blogging – well, as Wired said a few months ago: Twitter, Flickr, Facebook Make Blogs Look So 2004.

Newspapers already have their own Facebook groups, and, yes, the New York Times has all of 362,457 fans.  (The Plymouth Herald went one better and launched a social networking site of its own, though the move seems a little pointless [HT: Martin Stabe/Andy Dickinson]). But I think they are only scratching the surface. 

The big challenge – for journalism generally and people like me trying to teach it – is to understand what journalism will be in the future. It’s not just old media spruced up for interactivity, even on Facebook. It’s a radically new way of communication. Maybe it’s not just the business model of journalism that is broken. Maybe our cultural ideas of journalism are completely outdated too. 

And maybe that’s the reason that my first years seem so disconnected with what we oldies think of as cutting edge media.

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