A couple of weeks ago, I attended the East Alabama Crops Tour, an annual event that started when I was still in high school, Jimmy Carter was president and cotton was king in Dixie.
Among east and central Alabama farmers, it remains as popular as ever, still planned, executed and organized by Dr. Jeff Clary, the enthusiastic, stalwart Extension employee who launched the first tour as a young Extension agent way back in 1978.
For me, the tour serves as a reminder, a poignant reminder, of a time, not too long ago, when Extension fit seamlessly into the prevailing communications landscape —one that has changed drastically and inalterably in the 32 years since the tour’s inauguration.
The stark realization of just how much the landscape has changed led me several years ago to take stock of what was happening, what it portended for the future of Cooperative Extension, and how we could master the prevailing tools of the new digital information order, namely social media.
Up to now, I’ve viewed these tools in terms of how Extension educators could use them to enhance current outreach methods rather than as the basis for a whole new approach to outreach.
To put it another way, I’ve looked at social media as an add-on rather than as the harbinger of a new outreach paradigm.
I think I’ve been wrong all along. A recent Opinionator piece in the New York Times has helped me realize that.
The Rise of the Third Replicator
“All around us information seems to be multiplying at an ever-increasing pace,” writes Susan Blackmore in the New York Times’s Aug. 22 Opinionator. “New books are published, new designs for toasters and i-gadgets appear, new music is composed or synthesized and, perhaps above all, new content is uploaded into cyberspace.”
What accounts for this dramatic expansion of information? Blackmore, freelance writer, futurist and author of The Meme Machine, believes it’s an effect of the next quantum leap in evolution, which she describes as the third replicator.
Genes were the first replicator, a tangible expression of which is humanity, followed by the second replicator — human forebears who used their singular genetic inheritance to imitate behaviors in the form of sounds, skills and habits and passed them along to succeeding generations. Over time, these behaviors, now described by some evolutionary biologists as memes, competed to be selected by humans to be copied again.
So began the succeeding evolutionary phase, the second replicator, a process driven by a combination of genes and memes.
Temes: The Next Step beyond Memes?
Blackmore now believes we are seeing the first evidence of a third replicator expressed as temes (short for technological memes) — “the digital information stored, copied, varied and selected by machines.”
While conceding that temes remain a hotly debated issue, she says we can’t ignore the fact that the Internet continues to create new forms of information at increasingly accelerated rates.
“Already there are examples of computer programs recombining old texts to create new essays or poems, translating texts to create new versions, and selecting between vast quantities of text, images and data,” says Blackmore.
Likewise, each inquiry to Google, Alta or Yahoo generates new combinations of pages based on the search engines’ own algorithms as well as previous searches and link structures.
Back to my stark realization: In the future, the primary preoccupation of all knowledge providers will be ramping up the speed and volume of information delivery to keep pace within this new digital order.
This explains why I’ve most likely been wrong all along. Up to now I’ve thought of social media as a kind of add-on — as something that could be used to enhance current Extension methods.
Now I’m convinced that social media, rather than traditional Extension methods, will be the basis of all that we do.
Still a Place for the Old Order
Yet, I’m not convinced this will lead to the wholesale abandonment of the old order. There will still be a place for the old order, for the face-to-face encounters that once characterized so much of our work.
This undoubtedly accounts for why the East Alabama Crops Tour endures after all these years. Human beings will always prize personal encounters over virtual encounters. For me, the face-to-face encounters that have often followed online intellectual and professional friendships have been one of the most satisfying effects of my use of social media.
It’s even possible that the historic role we Extension educators have played in facilitating these sorts of personal relationships may go a long way toward helping distinguish us from others players within the new digital information order.
Yet, this should not detract from the take-home message: that social media amounts to a paradigm shift, not an add-on.