Skip to 0 minutes and 2 secondsCome with me in my time machine. It’s October 1978. The first episode of the Doctor Who serial “The Stones of Blood” has just aired, and 15 year old John Smith is keen to discuss what he just saw with someone else. There’s eight-and-a-half-million other people he could potentially discuss it with in the UK alone -- that’s how many watched it -- and a surprising number of them are in John’s school. He has friends he can talk to. Some of those friends talk about older stories too. The show’s as old as John is, so there’s a lot of stories to go at, and while they never get repeated, there’s novelisations John can buy, so that’s something. It’s October 1988.

Skip to 0 minutes and 45 secondsThe Doctor Who serial “Remembrance of the Daleks” has just finished, and 15 year old John Smith is keen to discuss what he just saw with someone else. Five million other people watched it in the UK, but Doctor Who is not hip at John’s school. There’s just a couple of others who watch it, and frankly they’re a bit weird. But John buys The Doctor Who Magazine, so at least he can find out a lot more about the history of the show. There’s even talk that there might be videos of some past stories coming out soon! So that’s something! It’s October 1998, and 15 year old John Smith has finally finished the Doctor Who novel “Alien Bodies”.

Skip to 1 minute and 23 secondsJohn doesn’t know anybody else who’s into Doctor Who, but there’s an internet-enabled computer at the library, and he’s found a website that discusses all things Doctor Who. So that’s something. It’s October 2008, and 15 year old John Smith has spent the day watching Doctor Who episodes on the internet. He’s part of a massive online community of fans with whom he regularly discusses various aspects of the programme. There’s loads of people around the world he can talk to about Doctor Who -- who are like, really into it! Now THAT’s something. And that’s just Doctor Who. Now imagine that John was wanting to talk about something REALLY important. Maybe he’s not sure about his sexuality. Maybe she’s not sure about her gender.

Skip to 2 minutes and 2 secondsIn 1988 it was difficult to find information about such things, even on television, let alone in school. 30 years later and there’s a worldwide community of support in the palm of your hand. This tiny box is bigger on the inside. Now isn’t THAT something?

A world of opportunity

Our horizons have been broadened. Whereas once the limits of our social world were largely set by how far we could realistically travel in a day – to the nearest city and home in time for tea – we now carry access to a whole planet full of people in our pocket.

Take the very page you’re on now. You’re reading this alongside hundreds of other MOOC students from across the globe, and below the line there’s the chance to discuss what you’ve read with them, share a breadth of perspectives, and learn from that engagement.

This newfound breadth of community inevitably has implications for our wider world. File-sharing communities like Napster gave us instant access to so many records that they, and their legal successors such as Spotify, have pretty much destroyed record collecting as we once knew it, undoubtedly taking some of the fun with it. Having access to so much stuff is what we always dreamed of, but it’s not as rewarding as spending years trying to find something and eventually tracking a copy down. Perhaps all this stuff is too much of a good thing? Or perhaps we just need to find new outlets for old passions. Later this week, we’ll explore how engagement with culture has changed due to digital technologies.

As a librarian at heart, I’m bound to consider it a good thing that our access to information and opportunity has increased: information has all-too-often been a commodity insufficiently shared in the past (knowledge is power and all that); opportunity has been the preserve of the rich. You now no-longer have to be the only person you know who feels the way you do, or is interested in the things you are. Somewhere out there someone else feels the same way.

But just as I might find fellow Doctor Who fans online, so it is that someone with less innocent interests might also find validation: communities of crime, of violence, or of hate. There’s strength in numbers but that strength can be abused.

There’s also the echo chamber to consider: a supportive community is hugely valuable, but it’s all too easy to exist within a social media monoculture: a distorting bubble, un-pricked by other perspectives. If all that you see online is Doctor Who, then it’s easy to assume that everyone loves (or hates, or at least has a strong opinion about) Doctor Who. Extended to political terms, this can be a recipe for disaster: “nobody would vote for x”; “everybody can see that y is wrong”.

Just as we can be liberated by our reflective communities, we can also be besieged by echoing paranoia. Indeed, each can feed the other. One of our greatest challenges in this world, virtual or physical, is differentiating the real from the imagined. The opportunities of our virtual world for exploring the limits of our identity have done nothing to ease this distinction – they may even have exacerbated the problem – but that doesn’t mean we should deny those opportunities; rather we must remember that with great power comes great responsibility!

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This video is from the free online course:

Digital Wellbeing

University of York