For large swathes of the global population, the notion of whether a person is considered ‘Online’ is somewhat of a redundant question.
The relatively rapid migration from dial-up Internet connection, to perpetually connected broadband and mobile wireless high speed data access has had a radical impact on what it means to be ‘online’.
In the not too distant past, the phrase “Are you online?” was a euphemistic enquiry as to whether or not one had entered in to some kind of contract with an Internet Service Provider.
More recently the same phrase could be a question asking whether a person was actually logged in or connected to any given service at that point in time.
Recently I have seen a trend which has confused things further. It seems that the term ‘Online’ is being used to refer to something that happens through a Web browser as if somehow other platforms interacting with remote services over the Internet are in some way not ‘online’.
For instance, it is now quite common for a TV advert to end with a phrase such as “Order online, or use our smartphone app”. This is quite meaningless. Strictly speaking it is the phone itself that is online i.e. the point of connection, but regardless of this arguably pedantic point, neither the advertiser’s Web site or their App can be used for ordering without being ‘online’.
Does the lack of precision on the use of the term ‘online’ here confuse? Do people think that they are not ‘online’ if they are using an app? Does it matter? Possibly not and maybe the less technical term of being ‘connected’ will suffice.
However, there is a very interesting question about perception exposed here. For instance, although a Web page open within a browser may refresh with updated information from time to time or even in real time while it is open (most in fact do not), closing the browser or navigating away from that site severs the communication.
This is not true of an App. Although not all apps will need to exploit the mechanism, a modern smart phone app once opened is often still 'running' and processing in the background even when you switch your attention to another app. Further, modern smart phones tend to have features within the operating system which allow the phone itself to interact with some parts of the app’s online data source even if the app is not currently running. This is the mechanism which for instance provides alert notifications from Facebook or ebay.
This is all further complicated by the fact that many people, whether they realise it or not still have an online presence even if they were in the middle of a forest, out of range of any cell connectivity with all their devices switched off, batteries removed and placed in a lead lined box and buried in a field.
This is because many of the utilities and services with which we engage on a daily basis, are still working on our behalf even when we are not connected to them. For instance, our Facebook profiles are still available for people to read and to post to, your online photo albums are still accessible, your blog posts can still attract comments. ‘You’ can be invited to events, and listed with others on an ‘attendees’ list. Depending on your profile setting you may instantly friend or follow back anyone that requests to connect with you. Recommendation engines from online shops, music on demand services or movie streaming services are churning data preparing lists of content they think you’ll be interested in - they may even automatically send you an email about their findings.
In short, the online ghost of your data and meta-data still reflects your presence and represents your likes, activities and habitual interactions for people and software alike to engage with. When you post a reply to someone’s comment on Facebook, the feeling is more akin to a direct contact with them than for instance sending an email, even if your ‘friend’ isn’t currently logged in to Facebook. This is because the context of the interface personifies your ‘friend’ through their trail of activities. Of course you have a great deal of control over these things if you take a bit of care over your service settings.
Additionally, so much of what happens in the physical world is driven by online data and decisions made online, that the notion of being in a position where you are unaffected by things ‘online’ is fallacy.
From an E-safety perspective it is important that people understand the nature of perpetual connectivity and the fact that direct engagement with a service is no longer the only driver of activity.
Putting up an umbrella may shelter you from the rain but it does not stop it raining, nor does it protect you from the effects of the river about to burst it’s banks a mile away. Likewise, switching off a device does not terminate your online activity, or your involvement in the activity of others.
A recent naive post I saw on twitter suggested that the poster had no “sympathy for those moaning about cyber bullying” because they should “just turn off their computer.” Logging off of a social network does not curtail cyber bullying or neutralise the waves that it causes in the physical world. Like many aspects of E-safety, problems are best tackled by action and education in the real world.
These are tough concepts, but digital communications technology is such a useful tool and has such positive potential that it is worth the effort to understand and to ensure that the first principles are taught to our children so that they can apply the understanding as technology continues to evolve.
Media studies was once derided by many as a ‘Mickey Mouse subject’. However, in a society where mass media has such a profound influence on our perceptions, understanding and opinions, can any rational person really argue against the value of educating people to critically evaluate the messages, meaning, contextualisation and veracity of the information we receive and the motivations of those presenting it?
Likewise, in a world where so much of our interaction and engagement is mediated by communications technology, how can we not recognise the importance of teaching the fundamental underpinnings and the modes and models of the interaction?
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