From coal face to Facebook : using new social media and technology to record, remember and share child care experience.”

This is the text of a  presentation I made to introduce the Child Care History Network’s conference held in 2010. The conference’s theme “From coal face to Facebook : using social media and technology to record, remember and share child care experiences” gave an opportunity for the delegates to consider the implications new communications systems had for children, young and adults alike who were involved in the world of children in care.
In the five years that have passed since the conference predictions about the rejection of the new technologies by the generations born before 1980 may have proved wrong and there have been enormous developments in the field of communications as is evidenced by the fates, good and bad, of some of the communication products and methods I mentioned then.  Despite these changes for interest’s sake I have posted this text as way of establishing what one person thought about these matters at that time.
Charles Sharpe, Totnes, June 12th, 2015

I see my job is to introduce the issues, concerns, and objects of the day. So I will embark on a brief personal journey around the some of the issues which stir me about the theme of this conference in the hope that even if this is not the quite the journey you had intended taking today, it may at least stir you to think about the avenues you do wish to walk along.
The theme is a question which like any question in the child care field carries with it traces of a hidden agenda, implications of long held values being challenged as well perhaps of those all too familiar – to me at least – adult anxieties that things will all too soon spiral out of our control. The theme also suggests a transition from somewhere towards somewhere else : from coalface to facebook and perhaps it this transition we will explore today when we hear about and discuss how new social media and new technology will, and no doubt as already does, influence the way we record, remember and share child care experience.
I should say what I understand by the use of the coalface metaphor today. This is my personal take, as they say, and I am talking about a child care world where communication between child and adult is direct and in person. Where the experiences of both child and adult carer of the child care process are shared in the physical presence of the other. The coalface is a place where shared, activities, birthdays, holidays, and other significant events are recalled and relived between child and adult together through reflective conversation, perhaps through photographs and occasionally video recordings. It is a place where though children have space for choice, self expression and reflection, the interpretation of what is actually going on, is, in significant part, the prerogative of the adult. It is a world in which adults record things in the traditional way by writing things down, either with pencil and pen but even though it’s the coalface this world may be allowed to use of a word processing programme on a computer as a way of recording. It is a place where children and staff are involved in making sense of a child’s history, but though meetings are held here which include the child and allows him a chance to give his views it is expected that adults in large measure will control the content and interpretation of a child’s history.
Now allow me to give my account of what is for me a less familiar world – the Facebook world. I am using the word Facebook not because the Child Care History Network is receiving a fee from Facebook to promote its product and I certainly have nothing against Bebo or Monsters Mash but I am using it here as a metaphor, a generic symbol of a place where so many new and different things can happen as a consequence of the development of all manner of media technology.
If you like you might consider my approach to this presentation as representative of the world of coalface. I am using what may seem to some as primitive aids. Printed text on a piece of paper. I can imagine some of the things I might be doing to make my presentation to you this morning if I represented the world of Facebook. I would certainly entertain you with a powerpoint display – that might include not only exciting ways to put my words on a screen but also would allow me to play you musical jingles, and see projected on to this screen illustrations and moving pictures ( I use the latter expression just to remind you that I come from the coalface). In addition I will have arranged that a video recording is being made of my talk as part of a documentary film I am making about myself and I may also be beaming this presentation out to computers all over the world where the thousands of people who couldn’t come to hear me this morning have the consolation of watching me live on their laptops or on their 3g mobile phones. The recording will also be posted on U tube. I might be disappointed too if a number of you at this very moment are not making a video recording of me using your mobile phones. On the other hand of course it is possible that I may not have been able to come here today so I have the possibility of staying at home and skyping my presentation to you on to this very screen. Simultaneously I have arranged that my words are being heard by a voice recognition application and are being converted into text and immediately uploaded to my website which no doubt you will visit when you return home. Of course you will in the future want to keep up with what I am doing so I will invite you to visit my blog, or to become a friend on my social network site and you can also follow my every thought on Twitter. You can see how all this has allowed me to declare myself a personality in my own right. I don’t need any external verification or recognition of this. Indeed the other day I saw the business network space of someone who claimed to be a “respected commentator” on social affairs. I could not verify this for myself I hadn’t heard of this person and of course in the coalface world it is not the done thing to blow one’s own trumpet. Others must do this for us.

All these new media tools are available now and more are in the pipeline.

Having exercised my own fantasies of what my presentation might have been, what implications does the new media have for the recording and sharing the child care experience. No doubt the technology I have described, and I am sure a great deal more is on its way, has in one way or another been used in child care settings.

Yes, a great deal more is on its way and John Moorhouse will be talking to us about these new technologies and their potential. My sense is that we are still at the beginning of the transition implied in our theme for today’s conference and although I don’t have time to pursue the point now my feeling is that once those at the coalface have come to grips with the new technology the transition will not be a one way process and that in a healthy sense it will be fluid. My personal fear is that this transition is accelerating at such a rate that some of us may struggle to come to terms with it and that many of the children who are always present in our thoughts today will not have the same access to it as children from more affluent backgrounds. You may not accept this notion and may feel that both worlds have already become integrated. It will be interesting to hear if these issues arise in the case studies that Jim Goddard, Gudrun Limerick, Mark Twinberrow, Gemma Goddard and Craig Fees introduce this afternoon.

When this conference was first mooted another notion expressed was that the people working at the coalface, those working directly with children – the workers whose knowledge, experience, and insight are invaluable – were rarely given a platform through which all this could be shared. Upon retiring, they and their wisdom disappeared and were lost to the wider community. Was it possible that new media tools could change all this? Could it offer an opportunity for both currently practicing staff as well as retired care staff to give expression to their experiences. Anecdotally we are aware of projects like “Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children”, that have an array of new media built in, which attempt to address these issues albeit with both former care staff and adults who had been in care as children. I am looking forward to hearing more about this in this afternoon’s discussions and perhaps about other initiatives which involve care staff who are currently in practice.

Looking to the future I wonder too about how the history of child care will be influenced as these new ways of communicating and their associated technologies gather momentum ? When I think about history nowadays I tend to ask whose history it is that is being spoken about ? And while I do not agree with Henry Ford that history is bunk – well not all of it – and neither do I totally agree with Napoleon that history is a myth but I do suppose I should consider what qualifies as history. This may be something that underlies our discussions today. For instance is history as David McCullough the American historian suggests a record that tells us about what we are and why we are the way we are ? If so who takes the lead in how it is recorded and who does the analysing ? Is it merely the aggregate of past events and all human activity which some would claim is the problem with new media. Too much information and no containment or quality control. Perhaps this may be considered today also.

I may speak as if I am someone with helmet, lamp and pick emerging reluctantly from the coalface, but I am trying not to adopt a Luddite approach. Even if I thought to, it is too late. Things have gone too far and in such a short time. I think this is what my coalface generation is struggling to come to terms with. I admire and envy the new media’s youth, its energy, its very adolescence, and yet I am fearful of what I imagine is its adolescent desire to destroy me and all that I stand for, Perhaps fearful in way the French philosopher Herbert Marcuse was when he suggested that the new mass media would destroy the fabric of the family by converting “revolt into style” thus making obsolescent the Freudian notion of the father dominated family by its – that is the new media’s – capacity to invalidate the family as the agent of mental socialisation by taking over the management of the nascent adolescent ego from parenting figures ? Is this something we should fear or should we acknowledge that just as the printing press is credited with transforming society, the new media’s capacity for what seems the boundless low cost reproduction of any digital item by anyone who owns a computer, seems to have swept away any obstacles in the way of universal participation ? Can we accept that the new media may have revealed a tendency in human beings which not only demonstrates a creativity and generosity but also exposes a desire to exercise these qualities for themselves rather than passively consuming what a privileged elite has suggested that they should be watching or reading.

Clay Shirky (2008) puts forward the thesis that when people are given new and easy ways to come together – through email, social networking sites, wikis, and the like – then remarkable and unexpected things happen. He argues that those born before 1980 are likely to reject a ‘real, once in a lifetime change’ as a fad and be  dismissive about Facebook, My Space, Twitter, and Wikipedia, and in so doing, Shirky argues, they are in peril of casting themselves off into  isolation, for these changes are real, and are operating and growing now towards becoming the predominant form of communication if they are not already so.

And so Carol a 17 years old care leaver has used her mobile phone and produced and directed a film about her life which has won an award at a prestigious film festival, while Hugo a fifteen years old boy who is being fostered has presented his sister with a book he has produced using software applications on his computer. The book is a gift for her 18th birthday and contains photographs of her for each year of her life which he has patiently searched out. Barry and David were both in care but now at the ages of 26 and 24 respectively have enjoyed a stable relationship for over four years. They first got to know each other on a social network site.

On the other hand I can talk of two of three girls who merged to bully the third girl through the medium of a Facebook page. Indeed the professional carers, as well as teachers I meet tell me that most bullying they now encounter goes on through the medium of the mobile phone or through social networks. Let me acknowledge here though I am not dealing with this for the length of time it may be due, that social networks have been used as a vehicle to target vulnerable youngsters and to place them in danger of abuse. Yet I suspect that like any human endeavour there are pockets of what might be termed evil behaviour and social network sites are no better nor worse in this. I accept of course that children in care may be more vulnerable to this kind of abuse than others but I have no evidence to back this up. This may be something we will talk about in our sessions and in our informal discussions today.

In some quarters concerns are expressed about the quality of relationships which people have with others over the internet and fears are expressed that young people will lose or fail to gain the capacity to develop relationships in the presence of another. Gary an 18 year old who lives on his own and says he finds it difficult to make friends told me that one of the good things about friendships on the internet is that you can lose touch with someone for a long time and yet it is easy to start again. He also says that you never have to “get real” with anyone over the internet. “You can always keep it happy if you want.”

Before I come to my concluding personal list of questions that I hope will be addressed today, it may be important here to consider the European Court of Human Rights ruling that a person’s child care files were equivalent to a family memory about them, and that former children in care therefore had a human right to the information held on them in their files;

This right had been enshrined in British Law in the Data Protection Act 1998 and there is a suggestion that child care and social workers knowing that their observations and comments could be seen by the subject, may tend to write progressively sterile child care records which may be of little use to a child trying to gain some understanding about themselves.
If this is the case, it is an unhappy irony that it occurs at the same time as social workers and care workers, as I am sure Simon Hammond’s presentation on life story work will in some way address are being trained to understand that children who have a clear picture and understanding of their life narrative are more likely to experience a healthy emotional development. It may be then that the new media offers possibilities to breathe life into these sterile records, by allowing the child to store their own memories and reflections, by, for example, as Craig Fees has suggested to me, assigning to each child in care a permanent, secure, and confidential online memory bank, into which they could deposit photographs, recordings, videos, documents, diary entries or anything they wished, in real time, to be accessible to them throughout their lives. It would be locked, so that once a file had been uploaded it could not be edited, meaning it would remain evidentially authentic. This could become a rich resource for them throughout their lives.

I’ll finish now with some of the questions I will be thinking about as I listen to our presenters today.

Should we and could we embrace these new forms of communication which are considered by some to be truly democratic but seen by others as creating an obstacle towards the development of healthy human relationships and by yet others as an avenue for the exploitation and abuse of children and young people ?

How far are experienced child care professionals resistant to these new forms of communication ? If so is this resistance justified ? If these resistances are acted upon what experiences and insights may be lost ?

Can this new media technology really help children, child care professionals, historians and archivists in remembering, recording, gathering and archiving child care experience and history ?

What online communication networks and technological applications and facilities are available now for children and child care professionals alike to record their experiences and make them known ? How effective have they proven today?

Finally things seem to happen quickly these days . For instance in the year 2000 online social networking was unknown as a concept. Developments like Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter now seem to be the web’s principal purpose for many people over the world. I wonder where it will all be in 2020 and I wonder who will be the child care historians then ?




Marcuse, H. (1970) Five Lectures : Psychoanalysis, Politics and Utopia     London :  Allen Lane
Shirky. C. (2008) Here Comes Everybody : How Change Happens When People Come Together     Harmondsworth :   Penguin Books

© and Charles Sharpe 2013