This interview was compiled for a weekly feature in the Daily Dispatch newspaper in East London:
Online behaviour expert Ramon Thomas talks to the Dispatch about technology and how it affects you. Profiles will appear at www.dispatch.co.za
Q: YOU describe yourself as being an online behaviour expert. What does that entail?
A: My field of research is the overlap between psychology, human behaviour and technology, especially the Internet.
It includes how we use the technology and how it changes our emotional, mental, physical and spiritual states.
New research from a book, iBrain, shows greater use of different parts of the brain, improved multi-tasking and the ability to process more information, faster, in the new generation called digital natives – basically people born post 1990.
Q: You’ve done a lot of research into online dating. Can you share some of your findings with us?
A: Recent reports claim online dating is growing by more than 300 percent in South Africa. Female users are growing at twice the rate of male users from what I’ve seen since 2005. The demographics have also changed to be more representative of the South Africa population as more black users turn to the Internet to find love.
Q: There’s a lot of debate on how sites such as MXit are changing the way we communicate with one another. What’s your view on this?
A: MXit’s major role was moving the conversation from the Web to the mobile phone in South Africa. Another important role it’s played is laying the foundation for an Internet-savvy population in the next 10 to 20 years in South Africa that will far exceed what we’ve seen before.
The most interesting development has been the creative use of their own form of shorthand, the chat room lingo which eventually spilt over to SMS.
Q: A lot of companies block their employees from using Facebook at work, what are your thoughts on this?
A: The main reason companies block Facebook is due to productivity concerns. However, the deeper reason is fear of not understanding the technology and the change in behaviour of their staff. I’ve always advocated a more balanced approach, for example, allowing access to Facebook before, and after work, and during a lunch hour. The clever company will go much further than this and cultivate the online conversation to enhance corporate branding and communications.
Q: How do you balance the fine line between having a Facebook account and giving away too much information about yourself?
A: There is very little users of these services can do to effectively control their exposure on the Web. Once you sign up for a profile, you are giving away bits and pieces of personal privacy. I do recommend you start with the highest level of privacy settings on your browser. The challenge is that Google and Facebook collect so much more information than users are aware of. Ultimately it’s better to not have an account than to try and control your exposure.
Q: Facebook is increasingly being used as an activist tool and not only for social networking. Do you see this getting bigger?
A: Facebook to a large extent has replaced blogging as an online activist tool. Social networking sites have a large built-in audience so it’s easier to rally support for a cause. However, it’s also made people more passive. Why do anything like a protest march when I can support the “Save Darfur” cause on Facebook and donate a few dollars? I agree with Malcolm Gladwell, author of Tipping Point, that social networking promotes weak ties between contacts.
Q: What does the online future hold for us?
A: The future is like the movie Avatar – a fully immersed online virtual environment. It’s already here through online games. On the one hand it can be seen as removing our limitations (virtually) or losing our humanity.
Q: You’re an Eastern Cape boy – where did you grow up and what are the chances of you coming to East London to give a talk?
A: I grew up in Uitenhage and completed my BSc degree in Port Elizabeth. I’ve never received an invitation from schools in the Eastern Cape except Alexandria Christian Academy. I am very keen to reach as many teachers, parents and children as possible with my talks. So I would love to visit East London. I can be contacted through my website.