Do Employees Need Social Media Guidelines?

I've written before about some of my thoughts regarding the responsible use of social media and whether or not we can count on people do the right thing when it comes to blogs and Facebook and Twitter.  In general I tend to believe that if you can't trust your employees to behave appropriately on a social network, then you probably shouldn't be trusting them to go to meetings, answer phones or have customer contact in any way. On the issue of whether or not employee social media guidelines are necessary, I tend to believe that nothing new needs to be spelled out--behave in social media as you would in other professional arenas.

That said, this post on the way a Twitter post bit a VP in the butt has me thinking again about how the nature of social media, even for people who use it all the time, may still feel a little elusive and, therefore, provide ample opportunity for inadvertent screwing up. Long story short, a VP at a major marketing firm tweeted this message upon arriving in Memphis to meet with a major client--FedEx:

True confession but i’m in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say “I would die if I had to live here!”

Apparently the VP forgot that employees from FedEx might be following him on Twitter. And in fact they were, prompting this email:

Many of my peers and I feel this is inappropriate. We do not know the total millions of dollars FedEx Corporation pays Ketchum annually for the valuable and important work your company does for us around the globe. We are confident however, it is enough to expect a greater level of respect and awareness from someone in your position as a vice president at a major global player in your industry. A hazard of social networking is people will read what you write. . .

true confession: many of my peers and I don’t see much relevance between your presentation this morning and the work we do in Employee Communications.

The thing with social media is that in some ways it can feel like our old ways of interacting. A Tweet can be the 140 character equivalent of an email or text message, seen only by your intended recipients. The problem is that the recipients of your social media communications are not always going to be an audience that you intended.

When I blog, I'm aware that anyone can read what I've written here, so I tend to be rather circumspect--or at least relatively thoughtful in terms of what I decide to post. But with some social media, like Twitter, it can be easy to forget that you're not just tweeting to a few friends. Unless you're actively blocking followers (which most of us don't' do because it somewhat defeats the purpose of Twitter) you can have people and connections going on that you're only dimly aware of. I have hundreds of people following me, but it's safe to say that I really only know a handful of them.

So back to the question of guidelines for the use of social media. I think that a lot more conversations need to take place at work about the nature of different types of tools--how a blog differs from Facebook, which is different from Twitter-- and how our behavior changes in sometimes subtle ways depending on the tool we are using.

Stories like what happened with this VP and his client, can be used as terrific fodder for exploring the responsible and effective uses of these tools. They should NOT be a lesson in "why we don't use Twitter." Rather, they can serve as great jumping off points for further discussion about how we walk the fine line between the personal and the professional, between transparency and circumspection.

In this case, we can learn not only about the things you don't do (like publicly insult a client's hometown), but also about the viral nature of social media and the impact it can have on your professional reputation. For example, if I do a Google Search on "Ketchum James Andrews", the fifth item on the list is a link to this debacle, followed by a number of other articles and posts on the same topic. Not good.

What are your thoughts on this? Do we need special social media guidelines for employees? If so, what do we need to emphasize and how do we work with employees to help them see what's "appropriate" and "inappropriate" for public forums?

Deconstructing the Work Literacy Learning Event

The Work Literacy online learning event is over and Harold Jarche has posted some of what he learned from our facilitation of the course. Time for me to share some of my thoughts. .  

Using Ning for the Course

Our first big decision was what platform to use. We ended up going with Ning because it integrated several different tools (blogs, forums, video and photo-sharing, social networking profiles, groups) at the right price (free). We also wanted to use something that would give people a true flavor of Web 2.0 learning. While Moodle would have been a potential choice, it's still a CMS and we wanted to see what would happen with a tool that was set up for social networking rather than for course management. We also considered using a blog platform (like Wordpress) and having people participate via comments and their own blogs, but decided that Ning might give us a fuller experience of using social media tools in a more integrated way.

From my perspective, Ning seemed to work well. It was more chaotic than if we'd used a structured tool like Moodle, and I know that some people struggled a little with feeling that they couldn't quite connect with what was going on. There was less of a step-by-step feel and more of a networked approach that, at first, was disconcerting.  But I also think with Ning we did a better job of helping people to form more social connections. The profile pages gave a good sense of who people were and I felt like I had more of a handle on having specific people involved in the course, rather than a list of names.

One thing that I think was a MAJOR asset of using Ning was the fact that it made it very easy for people to assume responsibility for different aspects of the course. We saw several people start up smaller study and interest groups and various forum threads that really added to the overall learning. Many people seemed to take ownership of the course in a way that wouldn't have happened with a CMS. That was one of the most positive benefits from my perspective of using a social networking platform--it really did a much better job of creating a community of practice/peer-to-peer learning environment. 

Facilitating the Course

In setting up the course, we focused on a topic per week, with different levels of involvement in the assignments--Spectators, Joiners/Collectors and Creators.  One thing we heard repeatedly was that people really liked the idea that they had permission to be spectators, dipping in and out of readings and forums as they wanted to. This kind of "lurking" behavior is the hallmark of any online course, but I think that participants were happy that being a spectator was a more "official" and sanctioned way of participating in the course, rather than a cop-out.

As Harold pointed out, the Ning platform did require us to act as synthesizers and information connectors  because great nuggets of conversation started in various locations (in individual blog posts, on forums, etc.) and they could easily be lost in the discussions. We tried to stay on top of that, though, and to pull those nuggets to the forefront by posting them on the main page, adding them to assignment pages and/or sending out blast emails to the entire group to let them know what was happening.

What was interesting for me as a facilitator was that I found myself paying much more attention to creating a particular kind of environment and trying to facilitate dialogue in ways that it's harder for me to do in a face-to-face setting. When I'm doing stand-up sessions, it's easier for me to fall into the "sage on the stage" kind of behavior, even when I'm actively trying to avoid it. But in an asynchronous, social environment like we had with the Work Literacy course, I couldn't be everywhere at once and I found that many other people stepped up to "teach" to others. I also found myself paying more attention to how I framed questions and assignments so that they encouraged thinking and dialogue. Not that I don't do this in face-to-face, but there was a different quality to my thinking in this setting.

Another interesting aspect was finding the balance between being an "instructor" and being a community facilitator. As an "instructor," I think that there's a tendency to want to comment on every blog and forum post. But in doing that, I'm reinforcing this idea of me as "expert" or "teacher," that I wanted to avoid. I really wanted to try to move out of that more traditional role and into a facilitator/community-builder role. I will say that in a lot of ways it was harder to do than I'd thought. There's a certain level of backing off that's necessary, but overall I think the community is better for it. 

Was the Course a Success?

I wondered before the course ended if we'd been "successful" and this was one of the questions we asked in the final week. We got some excellent feedback from participants on this issue that primarily indicated that people had defined for themselves what success would be and then participated in activities accordingly.

One big aspect of thinking about this was the level of participation. We saw a drop-off in the number of people contributing to forums, blog posts, etc. as the weeks went by, so we naturally had to wonder what this meant. I'm still not sure (Harold wonders if the course lasted too long, something I've asked too), but I'm not sure that participation is really the true measure of success anyway. Or at least it's not the only measure we could use.

What I do think we managed to do was create and foster a community of practice that, for a period of time, brought together a large group of people who wanted to work together on learning about using Web 2.0 tools for learning. Through this network of connections and discussion, we also created an excellent resource that will be available to other people who may want to explore these tools on their own, at their leisure.

I know that for myself, I "met" and had an opportunity to engage with the thinking and ideas of some really smart, interesting people--and even had an outstanding lunch with one of the participants, Catherine Lombardozzi, who happens to live in the Philadelphia area. So for me, at least, this was definitely a successful and enriching experience.

What Would I Do Next Time?

  • I say this every time I do an online learning event, but I think that I'd shorten the course. If you're doing activities every day (like we did for the Comment Challenge), I think it needs to last only a week, maybe two. If we're doing one topic a week, I'm thinking that it shouldn't go longer than a month. More chunking and some breathing time in between might keep energy levels up.
  • I would definitely do the three levels of activities again, at least in circumstances where that's possible. I think that explicit permission and encouragement for lurking really helps people. At the same time, I have to then be prepared for the fact that they WILL lurk.
  • I will be more consistent with some of the structural aspects of the course. One strategy we used was to set up a forum to ask people what they wanted to learn about the next week's topic, but we didn't do that every week. I was trying to fit in the course around work stuff and some weeks were better than others for keeping up with different components. I need to be a little more planful on some of these pieces the next time around. There's only so much "building the plane while you're flying it" that I should do.
  • I would definitely use Ning again for a project like this. Overall there was a lot of flexibilty and functionality that we were able to access and I do think that it encouraged more group ownership than we might have had using a blog or CMS platform.
  • Related to the group ownership idea, I will be more explicit next time about inviting group ownership and suggesting that people feel free to take the learning in directions where they'd like. Paul Lowe volunteered to run a webinar (which was excellent), but he volunteered on his own. Next time I'd have explicit invitations for people from the outset and provide ideas and instructions to encouraget that thinking. (Although is there an advantage to waiting for things to evolve organically?) 

Overall, this was an excellent experience. I will say that I'm ready for a break though. :-)

How Do You Create a Culture of Sharing?

Yesterday I shared a couple of videos on real-life, online communities of practice. In comments, LaDonna Coy asks an excellent question:

I really appreciate this post. I've been looking for some good examples of communities of practice and here's two that are spot on. Thank you. I'm particularly taken by the sharing culture concept that Dave talks about and Rio Tinto does in practice. In my line of work we'd call it a collaborative culture.

There's a lot of organizations that simply do not have such a culture for a variety of reasons whether silo boundaries, competitiveness or perhaps simply the habit of working locally (co-located) but not connecting beyond in this sharing culture kind of way. I'm wondering if you have examples of companies or organizations that shifted the culture to one of sharing and how they may have seeded the shift?

By coincidence (or perhaps serendipity), Stewart Mader blogged today about an article I had bookmarked awhile ago on how to create a "know-it-all" company. In addition to some excellent real-life examples, it has a few tips that get at LaDonna's question: 

  • Show personal ROI--how will knowledge-sharing help people do a better job or build their own skills?  Communicate this to people, even in the most competitive environments, and they're more likely to start sharing.
  • Hire the right people--look for staff that want to share and that understand the sharing culture. Find people who talk about "we" instead of "I" and who tell stories about shared accomplishments rather than what they alone achieved. Probe specifically for examples of collaboration and knowledge-sharing that wasn't mandated.
  • "Keep it real"--Related to point number 1, the article recommends focusing on nurturing communities around business needs. I would add, though, that there's much to be gained from allowing people to form their own communities based on their interests, etc. Although I think that organizations can certainly provide tools and guidance, if they hold people only to forming communities around "business needs," they're going to miss out on communities that might foster other kinds of relationships or future innovation.
  • Recognize contributors--the most powerful incentive to sharing and creating a community is peer recognition. Find ways to acknowledge the contributions of those who share.
  • Use a range of strategies, including face-to-face--technology is obviously a fabulous tool for nurturing communities of practice, so look at ways you can tie together different tools. How can you use blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, Twitter, forums, social networks, etc. to provide people with a variety of ways to share. But don't forget the power of face-to-face. Find ways to bring people physically together to share knowledge and form stronger community bonds.

What are other ways to nurture a culture of sharing within an organization? How can we create a foundation for building communities of practice? Do you have any real-life examples of how you can move an organization from a culture of competition or knowledge-hoarding to one that generously shares?

Gender and Blogging and Top 25 Lists, Oh My!

Hot on the heels of our two women bloggers sessions at the Brandon Hall conference, Janet Clarey points out that Zaid's list of 25 Great Edublogs features only three women--Cathy Moore (who joined us in our women who blog workshops),  Jane Hart and Patricia Donaghy.  Janet rightly notes that given the large number of female edubloggers, it is interesting that only three would make Zaid's list.

Zaid's response (in comments on Janet's blog) was also interesting and instructive:

To be honest, when I selected the 25 edubloggers, I didn’t consider race, age, gender, religion, etc.

I simply shared 25 EduBloggers that I follow and recommend to others. Or more specifically, educators that I believe have expertise in different areas of learning, which readers could benefit a lot from.

Perhaps, I like to read thoughts be older educators, but that has nothing to with their gender or skin color. It is probably my attraction to what they say, what they have to share, and how they articulate their ideas and thoughts. I suppose their long experience in the field of education (or learning) plays a role of attraction.

However, perhaps the main reason I have not included more women in the list, is that I have yet to discover that many women edubloggers that have attracted my deep attention and learning.

Though, that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist (surely do!), but I have yet to discover them.

In fairness to Zaid, it isn't just his list that is dominated by men. Just about any list I've seen of "top" edubloggers includes more men than women.

This was  one of the big issues we discussed in our Brandon Hall sessions (which also included some other fabulous female bloggers, Christine Martell and Emma King). Frankly, we struggled to understand how in a field that is at least 50% female and where so many women are in fact blogging, that men still seem to dominate any list of edubloggers. (And let's not even get into the lack of racial diversity!)

One factor I suspect plays a role here is the issue of authority and credibility. From my observations, the bloggers who are most linked to (and therefore more noticeable)  tend to be those who write with authority and stick primarily to facts and more "logical" discussions. They are making arguments or sharing resources or commenting on someone else's arguments or resources and generally sounding the way we seem to expect experts to sound. These bloggers, from what I see, tend to be primarily men, although some women (like the three on Zaid's list) also blog this way too.

This "voice" or "tone" or whatever you want to call it is different than the one that many women bloggers seem to have. In general, I've observed that women bloggers tend to be more  "personal" in their posts, for lack of a better word. They are more likely to mention their children or issues about their home lives. They may relate more personal stories, like about their daughter's driving lessons or experiences in a semester abroad. They are also more likely to express doubt about issues or to wonder if their opinions are "correct" or accurate.They may also be more revealing about their "short-comings."

This does not, in my mind, make these women less authoritative. It's just that they may SOUND less "expert" because we're accustomed to a certain "tone" from experts and many women bloggers don't communicate that same tone. I know that for myself, while I certainly want to communicate credibility and competence, I also believe that a certain amount of humility, uncertainty and "wholeness" should make me more trustworthy, not less so.

Related to this, Janet pointed out in both of our Brandon Hall sessions that men tend to write posts that include more links to other posts, while women tend to write more "original' content--that is, to write more of their own thoughts and observations as opposed to commenting on and pulling together links to other bloggers. This tends to create a higher profile for men in the blogosphere because they're quite literally creating an "old boy's network"--right in front of our eyes!

This is nothing against male bloggers--I personally think that this is just off-line behavior being more visible online--the old "men are more transactional and women are more relational" thing. Let me be clear, too, that I'm talking in general here--you can always find exceptions to the two styles I'm mentioning. And I also think that women probably feed into it. For example, I'd ask how many women bloggers have more males than females in their feed readers? I probably have to plead guilty to that one myself.

I do think that once the issue is raised, though, we need to start asking ourselves some questions about homophily and how we may need to expand our reach by inviting a more diverse set of bloggers into our lives. I would add to this that I don't just mean more female edubloggers, but also more bloggers of color (something Rosetta Thurman continually champions) and bloggers from other countries and who write from different assumptions than our own. If we find ourselves too often saying "I AGREE," then we may need to expand our horizons here.   

I also believe we need to do something on a larger scale to more systematically address this issue. At Brandon Hall, we discussed mentoring and encouraging women and minorities to blog more. We also wanted to find ways we could better integrate their voices into the echelons of the experts. Personally I don't want to have separate lists because I think this doesn't address the larger issue. It just creates a two-tier sort of system that doesn't do anyone any favors.

At any rate, these are a few of my thoughts on the subject. I'm curious to hear what you have to say. Do you see this as an issue? If so, why do you think women and minorities don't tend to make the Top Blogger lists in our space? Should we be doing something about that? What do we need to do?

Comments and blog responses most welcome. 

Some Observations on Getting Value from a Social Network

Networks For the past few days I've been working with a group of grant-funded projects from across Pennsylvania who are evaluating whether or not to form a state-wide network and thinking through what such a network could do. One of the issues that came up (as it inevitably does) was how to share information, which naturally led to a discussion of social media and networks.

Last year I'd set up a Ning network for this group to use to share information and ideas. It never took off and we continued to send group emails and do phone calls and face-to-face meetings where people lamented the fact that we didn't have a better way to share information.

Yesterday when the issue came up, I reminded the group that I'd set up a site last year and described again what they could do with it. The response was somewhat warmer, but then we got into whether or not people wanted to visit one more information portal. Which led to a deeper discussion about whether or not people had the time to share best practices. Which led into a discussion about how to get "value" from networks.

What I realized was that people were looking at the Ning network as a respository for information, not as a vehicle for conversation. To them, it was basically a library that could hold everyone's tools and resources and to which they could go if they needed to look up some piece of information. While that can be one use of a network, I don't think that's the most valuable part of it. In fact, it became clear that although people said they wanted access to best practices, researching best practices wasn't really part of their work process. What they really want is access to people, something a social network is designed for, but that requires you to participate differently.

When the web is a destination for information, then you can visit a site as often or as little as you want with no appreciable difference in the qualtity and quantity of information you access. You can dip in and out and your visits do not impact the information you encounter. But when the web is a place where you're engaging in conversations, you can't jump in and out in the same ways. You have to put some effort into engaging with other people, into being social, asking questions, giving answers, even participating in "small talk." Using the web for conversation is not an event, but a process and, at least initially, it requires a fairly significant investment of time.

My personal opinion is that this initial social investment can have incredible benefits. By connnecting to other people, you start to get quicker answers to your questions and you are able to more easily find the RIGHT information, rather than a ton of resources you have to wade through. You also learn from the process of conversation with other people, answering their questions, seeing the kinds of questions they ask that may lead you to ask additional questions of your own.  Again, this requires an investment of time, so that's a major hurdle.

By the end of the meeting, the group had decided to try using the Ning network, but I can tell we have a long way to go. The members are going to have to make a major mental shift in recognizing that this network is about people, not information, and that they will have to put some initial effort into connecting with each other, rather than just connecting with the information. Should be an interesting process. Any suggestions on how I can help them make the shift?

Flickr photo via Nimages DR

Ninging It

Conversation Jen of @injenuity is feeling frustrated with Ning:

It pains me to say this, but I am no longer a fan of Ning for community building. It has been a year since I created my first site, a network for moms that has grown to 200 plus members, but I have no time to maintain. The network I created for faculty at my campus plugs along, but isn’t functioning the way a social network naturally should. I feel like my members are trapped! It’s no better than an LMS. . . .

People are distributed everywhere, yet all accessible from anywhere I have connectivity. We don’t need to congregate on a single platform. Everyone knows where to find me. The tool doesn’t matter. We can use whatever tools we like, as long as we take the time to learn more about the people in our network and how best to communicate with them.

Since I'm in the process of considering Ning for some other projects and have had my own experiences with running Ning communities, this got me thinking about when/if Ning is a good idea. What occurred to me is that maybe Ning is better as a sort of "gateway" tool for those who are relatively new to social media, rather than for connecting with those who are more experienced in using Web 2.0 tools.

After you've spent some time functioning with social media, like Jen, you begin to figure out where your contacts are and you'll "meet them" at their blogs, on Twitter, through their tags, etc. Having to go to a single destination like Ning feels limiting and useless because at that point, you've tended to develop a more fluid, connected notion of what it means to network with people online. But as I've said before, we're the exceptions. I think we're a particular kind of user who's comfortable with the more distributed nature of connection online and we've become unconsciously competent in working those networks. For us, our single point of contact is through our RSS feeds, not through a particular website.

This isn't true for most people, though. Power RSS users are still a decided minority and reality is, a LOT of people want and need a single location for accessing information and conversations that interest them. Most people do not have a blog, so the blog function in Ning is a way to help people get started with the idea in a safe environment, surrounded by people who share their interests. Many people don't get the idea of social bookmarking or tagging, so being able to share videos, etc. and tag them in Ning is another way to practice new skills.

Yes, I believe that the tools that exist outside of Ning for these purposes are superior to running them within a Ning community. But the reality is, Ning can also be a good set of "training wheels" for helping people try out some things before they are set loose into the wider Web 2.0 world. For beginners, they can be a great way to get a sense of the possibilities of social media within some kind of bounded arena before launching themselves into signing up with Blogger or getting a Twitter account. I think that this may be one of the reasons that Classroom 2.0 is so active--beside the fact that it's now large enough for the 1% rule to mean there are a ton of people participating, it's also filled with people who are beginning to get their feet wet with social media.

This isn't to say that I don't see issues with running a Ning community. Jen is right when she says that they can require a lot of facilitation, especially in the beginning stages. I also think that they may work best for time-limited purposes (such as planning for a face-to-face event or to facilitate a class) or when the focus is broad enough to invite a range of active participants. They can also work, I think, when used in combination with more traditional tools, like email, to help ease the transition and drive traffic to the site.

I haven't given up on Ning, but I definitely see its limitations. One of those, I think, is that it's probably better suited for "newbies."

What do you think? Are you with Jen in thinking Ning is too limited or do you think that there are times when Ning is the right tool?

Flickr photo via eye2eye.

Combating "Birds of a Feather" Syndrome

Marbles For the past few days I've been deep into thinking and learning about homophily, our tendency to connect to people who share similar backgrounds, experiences, interests and values. I've been excited to see a conversation beginning to occur both here in comments and at other blogs. It's interesting to see the conversations evolve and new pieces being added to the puzzle.

As I continue my reading, discussions and thinking, I've delved into some concepts I haven't visited for awhile, most particularly the nature of networks and two types of behaviors that occur to build them--bonding and bridging activities. I think that these offer additional ways to think about the issue of homophily and give us some strategies for creating a better balance for healthier network growth.

Adaptive Networks and the Role of Bonding and Bridging Activities
If you believe in the value of networked learning, it's because you've observed that there's value in the social capital that we develop through our participation in networks. In other words, we benefit from our connections to the people in our network.

However, as Lenore Newman and Ann Dale observe in their paper on Network Structure, Diversity and Proactive Resilience Building, not all social networks are created equal:

". . . networks composed of "bridging" links to a diverse web of resources strengthen a community's ability to adapt to change, but networks composed only of local "bonding" links which compose constraining social norms and foster group homophily can reduce resilience."

This paper raises a couple of issues for me--the idea of bonding and bridging activities and the notion that we need a healthy balance of both to create resilient networks.

Clearly it's the bonding opportunities that attract most of us to social media and the development of our personal networks. How excited we become by finding legions of like-minded people who finally "get us." It's the many instances of "me too" and "I've had that experience" that seem to most draw us together. They are a big part of what makes learning through social media so rewarding--we feel part of a large learning family.

These bonding activities help us build strong networks, but how resilient are those networks in adapting to change? Again from Newman and Dale:

"A densely developed social capital network can, for example, lead to the exclusion of outsiders, make excess claims on group members, and restrict individual freedom (Portes, 1998). Bonding capital has the potential to hinder social innovation by 1) cutting off actors from needed information and, 2) imposing social norms that discourage innovation.

My interest in homophily developed as part of my consideration of why edubloggers and bloggers involved in workplace learning were not having more dialogue on 21st century literacy skills. I realize now that what I was observing was that the bonding behaviors for both groups have been very strong, creating internal cohesion, and a great sense of community. However there have been fewer bridging behaviors connecting the two communities, effectively cutting each group off from learning more from the other. This, in turn, may seriously impact both groups' abilities to adapt to the changes they are currently experiencing.

Bridging behaviors, argue Newman and Dale are what help us create resilient networks:

Bridging social capital allows actors to access outside information and overcome social norms with support from outside the local network, in addition to increasing access to diverse forms of other capital. Because bridging capital brings in new and potentially novel information, it is here that bonding capital provides the group resilience needed to absorb the benefits of bridging capital; the two capitals are complementary. The sheer amount of social capital is not likely to be a good indicator of how well a community will be able to engage problems. It is a dynamic balance of bonding and bridging social capital that builds resilience and makes the difference between a small community “getting by” or “getting ahead” (Dale and Onyx 2005).

What strikes me here is this quote: "The sheer amount of social capital is not likely to be a good indicator of how well a community will be able to engage problems." 

Right now, we have a huge quantity of social capital that is being developed every day. If I look at the communities I'm dealing with, for example, new bloggers come online constantly, adding their voices to the conversation. But the issue isn't the quantity, of course. It's the mix of bonding vs. bridging that goes on that truly is the measure of the effectiveness of the network, both on a large scale, as well as in individual personal learning networks. If my personal learning network consists of people who largely think as I do, then I'm focusing too much on bonding and not enough on bridging and need to find a way to develop greater bridging social capital. It's why sometimes I feel like I'm stagnating ("getting by") rather than growing ("getting ahead.").

Bridge Developing More Bridging Social Capital
The question becomes then, how to engage in more bridging? I actually think it begins with diagnosing my tendencies toward homophily--a homophily self-assessment if you will. This is something I've started to do here and, through comments, discovered that Tom Hamilton is doing on his own blog. The first step in solving a problem is to admit you have it.

I can also start building bridges myself between the various communities I belong to, something that Meryn Stol suggested I do.

But these are relatively simple steps that don't get at some of my deeper concerns. What I'm wondering now are things like:

  • How do I find and connect to more diverse voices online? As I said the other day, I don't know that this is an issue of me being more interdisciplinary--I already read a fairly diverse set of materials. This is more about finding the voices that don't echo what I already believe. I'm honestly not sure how to do that? How do I do a search on "the opposite of The Bamboo Project"?
  • What do I do about not having access to a lot of other perspectives? How do you connect to groups of people who are not online and who may not be part of your physical network either?
  • What are the best ways to build bridges between communities? I can do as Meryn suggested, visit various blogs and leave comments and links to pull the two groups together, but does that work? And if only a few people do it, can you really achieve the critical mass necessary to build the bridges?
  • How do you get homophilous communities to be more open? One of my ongoing frustrations with building bridges between academic and workplace learning communities (both on and off-line) is that both seem to be closed to the perspectives of the other. The work world is dismissive of education as being too "academic" and not getting the real world, while educators feel that businesses don't understand the pressures and issues that they live with. Each may be speaking some truths, but I also think that these are symptoms of the closed networks that each group has created. Homophily breeds intolerance and polarization.
  • How can we get technology to help? The current state of social media is that it tends to build strong bonds, but it doesn't necessarily contribute to building bridges. Nat Torkington has some ideas here on how to mix things up. I'd like to actually see these at work in social software.

This is obviously an ongoing issue for me, something I'm trying to understand as I honestly believe that we will not get the full benefit of social media until we can figure out how to build more resilient networks through bridging social capital.

What ideas do you have for how we could build more bridging behaviors and opportunities into our online activities? How can we find more diverse voices and create connections between different communities so we could learn from each other?

Photos via Michelle Brea and WisDoc

Why the Internet is Making Me Stupid

Birds_of_a_feather2 I learned a new word this week--"homophily," which is the tendency for people to associate and bond with others who share their interests, values, culture, demographics, class etc. This is the all-too-familiar online behavior I was remarking on earlier this week in my post on 21st century workplace literacy. There I noted that it seems like edubloggers tend to associate online with other edubloggers, while the workplace learning folks are talking to other workplace learning professionals. And it seems like there's little cross-communication happening between the two groups. I plan to come back to that discussion, especially after seeing all the great comments, but right now I'm fascinated by the whole homophily idea and how social media tools seem to further strengthen this very human tendency.

It was Amy Gahran's post, Breaking out of the Echo Chamber, that helped me identify the phenomenon. It's something I've noticed before, but didn't realize had a name attached to it. I've been thinking that being online has been this fabulous learning experience (which it definitely has been in many ways), but after following Amy's trail of links, I can also see that it also has the potential to make me dumber. She points to an interview with Ethan Zuckerman and Solana Larsen in which Zuckerman says:

“We know so little about one another, and what we do know is generally so wrong, that our first instinct is to try to shut each other off. …We have to work a whole lot harder. We can’t just assume that being connected [via the net] solves these problems. If you let us work it out on our own, we tend to reinforce our own prejudices and stereotypes. . .

Cass Sunstein, an amazing legal scholar, says that one of the dangers of the internet is that we’re only hearing like voices, and that makes us more polarized. Homophily can make you really, really dumb. What’s incredible about the net is we have this opportunity to hear more voices than ever. But the tools we tend to build to it have us listening to the same voices again and again."

Social media--blogs, social bookmarking, social networks--all of these can be tremendous ways for us to find and bond with like-minded people online. In fact, these tools have allowed us to find even MORE people like us than we tended to encounter in "meat space." The problem is that we'll tend to seek out ONLY like-minded people, looking for groups, blogs, etc. that reinforce our preconceived notions and our personal interests. We then start to live in an online world where we don't see or hear other voices.

Worse, I think we're living under this delusion that we're actually BROADENING our experiences because we're connecting to such large groups of people. I suspect all that does is further reinforce our pre-existing beliefs while at the same time making us believe that somehow we're being broad-minded because there are so many more people in our network. More of the same thinking isn't exactly a recipe for learning.

Partially this is a human thing--we tend to build relationships on finding the commonalities. But it's being encouraged by the technologies:

  • We go to Amazon or Netflix and get recommendations for books and movies based on what other people like us are reading or watching.
  • On Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace, we tend to first connect with the people we already know in real-life who tend to share our same values and world-view. Then we connect to their friends (who presumably also share similar world-views) and to seek out groups etc. that fit in with our interests and comfort zones. I know, for example, that as a Democrat, I've made zero attempt to find Facebook groups for Republicans. I don't even look at them.
  • As I've already noticed, many of us operate within the same narrow blogging fields. Edubloggers seek out other edubloggers, nonprofits seek out other nonprofits. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this--except that if these are the ONLY blogs in our feed readers. (Here's a test, by the way--go check your reader right now and see how many blogs you have in there that come from industries and occupations other than your own. If you do, I'll guess it's because you may also have blogs related to personal interests, etc. Do you have anything in there that doesn't MATCH what you already think? I know I don't have too many).

All of this has the impact of making me dumber. I know this. I think it's been the source of many of my instances of writer's block here. I also can see how it would make me a little lazy as a thinker--not as many challenges to my worldview. Certainly I get comments and suggestions that have me tinkering with the edges of my ideas, but am I encountering things that fundamentally shake my worldview or at least force me to examine my own? And if I do, do I actually examine my view or do I dismiss what I see, read or hear? I'm ashamed to say that many times I do.

The question becomes, what to do about it? If this is something to truly break out of (and I think it is), then how to do that?

That's something I'm going to delve into more deeply in another post. Through Amy's links I found a few ideas. I also found some interesting stuff on my own that I want to explore.

In the meantime--what do you think? Do you see homophily going on in your online interactions? Do you think it's making you dumber? What are you doing about it?

Photo via desert trumpet.

Egocentric vs. Object Centric Networks: I Think I Know the Problem With Ning

Networks2 Three months ago we started the Building a Better Blog Ning network. After three weeks I was still enamored with the community. Things were going well, we had a lot of new members. All was right with our little corner of the digital world.

Then we hit a wall, which I blogged about a few weeks ago. Site activity was way down and we began struggling with ways to continue to maintain the community and attract new members. We're still working on that, but now I think I see more clearly why we've hit the wall, so to speak. It's because we're an egocentric network, not an object centric network.

Egocentric and Object Centric Networks
This was actually a new one to me, that I stumbled across while reading this article from Fred Stutzman. In it he explains that egocentric networks are places like Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn. They develop around the profiles of the people who join them. Object centric networks, on the other hand, develop around interactions over digital artifacts--like Flickr, which has formed communities around photo-sharing and, which focuses on sharing links.

In  Will Flickr and YouTube outlast Facebook and MySpace?, Josh Porter elaborates on Fred's thinking:

Fred has a lot wrapped up in here. First, the cleavage on the lines of ego vs. object. Social networking sites are ego-centric. Object-centric social sites, like Flickr, YouTube,, place something else at the nodes of the network (admittedly, though, Flickr is a tough one). I have previously called this the primary pivot. The way to ascertain what type of network you’re looking at is to look at what gets the URLs…what is the primary thing being shown at the URL? In ego-centric sites it’s a profile. In object-centric sites it’s the object…

Fred also suggests, and this is one of the best ways I’ve heard this described, that this is why migration away from ego-centric sites is easier than object-centric sites. It’s because we’re not storing anything other than our identity, which we feel like we take with us when we move to a new site, right? (even though all of the info we’ve submitted to the site is lost!) But we never feel like we’re taking our photos with us when we leave…they are obviously objects we possess.

Josh concludes that our ability to handle egocentric networks is finite--we can handle only so many people in our lives. But our ability to manage object centered networks is infinite, especially when it's so easy to share digital pieces of information.

So basically what we're saying here is that when people are interacting about an object (like a photo or a video), they tend to visit and revisit the site to add more of these objects and find new ones. In an egocentric site, though, once you've put up your identity, then what do you do?  Eventually you will probably get tired and move on (unless you're someone who has endless amounts of online time, like teens who are happy to spend hours on Facebook).

In thinking about our Ning network, I think that the fact that we formed the network around a common interest puts us in a funny in-between position between an object-centered network and an egocentric network. The common interest of better blogging is to some extent like an "object" for us--it pulls us together around a central theme more than might happen in a more general network. But at the same time, our profiles are a much bigger part of the community interaction than we might find in a place like Flickr. And there isn't the reason to go there to add objects that you have with a YouTube kind of network.

Another aspect of this "egocentricity" at Ning is that you have to have a network creator. In this case it was me and what I've found is that most people feel like I "own" the community somehow. Part of that is because I have the network controls, so that means I'm the one with the capability to make the most changes to the site and to send broadcast messages. But part of it is because every time you visit, there are signs everywhere that say "this network created by Michele Martin." Kind of hard to feel like the place belongs to the community when you see that plastered everywhere. And I know that I even add to this--when I first wrote this post, the first sentence started "Three months ago I started.  . " not "we started"!

I'm not sure that this takes me any closer to answers about what to do, but it does explain a lot about why we're facing the challenges that we are. What thoughts on this do you have? Does it ring true?

Graphic via Rob Goodspeed.

More On Facebook

Facebook_logo_2 Looks like interest in Facebook is continuing:

It's Facebook Week!
Over at Read/WriteWeb, it's Day One of Facebook Week. You can join the Facebook group for Read/WriteWeb readers and learn a little about the platform. During the rest of the week the plan is to look more closely at some specific applications--like in this post Top Ten Facebook Apps for Work.

If you're interested in following the posts, you may want to sign up for the feed.

Facebook Apps as Portals,  PLEs and Conferencing Supports
The University of Wales/Newport has taken advantage of Facebook's open API to create MyNewport: My Learning Essentials for Facebook, an application that students, staff, etc. can integrate into their Facebook profiles. According to the developers, it took about a day and a half to get from conception to a completed application. You can see the application and learn more here.

This may be the future of portals and/or a step forward in the PLE discussion (although I'll say that I'm inclined to see this as more of a learning management system than a real personal learning environment.) And if it's truly this simple to create Facebook applications, might this not be an addition to the better conferencing thread as well?

Facebook Etiquette
Pamela Smart of Escape from Cubicle Nation wonders about the etiquette of social networking and when it's appropriate to accept friend requests. She also has a Wall Street Journal video on the delicate issue  of accepting your boss's friend request. Does putting your boss on limited profile signal that you have something to hide?

Facebook as a Tool for Engagement and Re-Invention
David Wilcox of Designing for Civil Society has some good information on how Facebook is helping a nonprofit he works with to re-invent itself. As David points out, creating Facebook groups should probably become a regular part of the engagement process.

Other Facebook Resources