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?