The Social Media Spiral
The Social Media Helix and Learning

The Social Media Spiral Revisited

Socialmediaarray On Sunday, I asked for feedback on the social media spiral I drew to represent my current thinking about how people transition from "old" media to new social media. This is a follow-up post to tease out some of the comments I received and integrate them further into my thinking. I will warn you that it's 6 a.m. and this is a little stream of consciousness.

First, a few people pointed out to me that what I'd drawn was not a spiral, but a helix, so the first thing I need to do is start referring to this thing as the "social media helix."

The visual here shows the progression I went through with Christine Martell in getting to my helix. I sent her the pyramid and then we did a long call. The result for me was the helix, while the result for her was the spiral. (Check out Christine's post on how these visualizations are showing us where we had differences in our thinking that need further discussion).

The helix construction is important, because as many people pointed out, it creates an implied hierarchy that a lot of people disagree with. As Alan Levine said:

The helix, spiral, levels suggest there is some sort of linear progression, or more worrisome, that one level is desirable over another. We can skip levels, operate at multiple levels, the whole nature of it defies 2D or 3D structuring. The phases people are at are not the levels per se, but some sort of overlay that might be a bubble that intersects the phases vertically. But again, I think the concept that it is a linear path is misleading.

This thought was echoed by many people, so I had to go back and ask myself why I'd seen this as a helix, with its implied progression. What I've realized is that I'm not really talking about how people tend to play around with and experiment with social media, which is generally not linear at all. Instead, what I'm trying to depict here is a way to introduce people to these tools so they see a progression and connection between what they already know and the new tools they don't understand. I'm seeing this as more of a training kind of a progression, I think, which is also why I was asking about the skills we think are associated with each of the different levels or phases.

Now of course with any training model, everyone is going to come to it with different entry-level skills. So this is far too simplistic to represent that. For example, some people may jump right into commenting on blogs long before they set up RSS feeds. That's how I was. In fact, I was blogging for two years before I set up RSS, so as a model for looking at how people actually use tools, my helix is clearly not the answer.

Another piece that got thrown into the mix was from Mark Aberdour, who reminded me of the 1% rule--that 1% of people will create/participate on a regular basis, another 10% will do so sporadically and the rest will lurk.

Part of what I think is going on right now is that we're still in the early adopter phase of social media use, looking at how to leap over the chasm between the early adopters and the majority of users--how to get more than 1% of people actively using the web. My interest in social media is primarily in how it can be used for learning, so I want to see as many people as possible using these tools for their personal and professional development. Part of what I'm trying to understand is how to help people build on their previous knowledge of the web and how to do use it so that they can progress into the more active learning that I think occurs when you move into the Aggregation, Interaction and Creation phases.

I think that how the early adopters are learning to use these tools is substantially different from what will need to happen for the early and late majorities. Remember email and learning to surf the web? The early adopters didn't need to be "taught" how to do those things. They generally figured it out on their own. But once we got into the early and late majorities, that's when we started to need training classes and "Email for Dummies" books, etc. We weren't able to fully scale up until more deliberate training occurred with the largest groups of people.

I think that there's a fundamental difference between the people who are using social media tools now and those that we're trying to help "see the light" for the future. I think that by their very nature, early adopters are self-directed learners, so to try to use our experiences to help the next phase of adopters may be a mistake. The early and late majorities are people who are more deliberate and pragmatic. They tend to want to be "taught" rather than to want to learn these things on their own. They feel more comfortable if someone shows them why they need a new tool and helps them learn it. They have lots of questions and worry more about "rules."

So where I'm going with this isn't so much about understanding how we early adopters are learning and using these tools. It's more about trying to find a more deliberate way to introduce these tools and concepts to people who aren't as self-directed or comfortable with exploration learning as the early adopters. I'm trying to understand the progression of skills and knowledge that people need to develop to full understand and engage with the learning opportunities provided by social media. Ideally I'd prefer it if they didn't have to be "taught"--I wish everyone was self-directed. But I'm a pragmatist, too, and I understand that we may need to think differently about how to help this next wave of people experience what we have.

With that in mind, does the helix make more sense? And am I on track in thinking that we may need to be thinking differently about helping this next phase of learners get the full benefits of social media to construct their own personal learning environments?


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This post really rang a bell with me, Michelle, and I totally agree with what you say about the next wave of adopters. I tend to get very caught up with all the learning I am currently doing and cannot understand why other people cannot see how great it is. So I forget that my experience will not be that of others. I think it is vital that as a teacher I strategize and plan very carefully how I am going to support my students and colleagues and introduce them to Web 2.0 learning otherwise, I can see that it just will not work effectively.

My concern with the helix is that if I were at the very bottom (which is where I was a few months ago) it is implied that to get to the creation stage I have to go through all the other steps. I think I would find this really overwhelming--and I'm a self directed learner. If the goal is to encourage people who are not so self directed to use the other tools in the helix, perhaps a different visual is needed. Unfortunately I don't know what that visual is. I'll have to let my subconscious work on that one for a bit :-)

I love this topic and comments it has elicited!

I hadn't seen the helix graphic before, but think it shows the progression from passive to active use of social media tools very well. You make a good point about being aware that not everyone is comfortable with a self-directed learning approach, and the need for alternative methods to teach and educate others about the benefits of social media. I'd like to think that most of the industry is also aware of this and the best way of engaging the timid or the reluctant is to make these facilities simple and intuitive to use. This will mean improving human-machine interfaces and hiding much of the jargon. It can be fairly intimidating to the novice blogger when he/she is asked to provide 'trackbacks' or prompted for 'tags'. I'm not a Microsoft fan, but to give them credit, they brought word processing to the masses by simplifying and standardising the interface to their applications. There are still too many quirks and foibles when using the various web-based social media applications - not that is is unusual for an industry that is still in 'discovery' mode.

Please submit this to the next Active Learning Carnival You can submit by going to

I love your illustrations of Social Media progression.

Claire, I agree that this looks complicated and I definitely want to stay away from that. In some ways I think the problem is the amount of choice that's available to people--it's too many options that seem to require too much decision-making. I think that people actually prefer less choice, but I also don't want to make choices for people in this. And Steve I think you're right that it's partially about the interface and making things as easy as possible. Again, that also goes back to needing to anchor new learning in old learning--thinking about what metaphors or terminology do people already know that we can use to explain things. Part of why people get email is because they get the idea of an "inbox" and of "mail" being delivered to you, etc. So how to find the right metaphors, etc. for these new tools?

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