Archive for the ‘Social networking’ category

JSB advocates Slow Learning at Strategy 08

August 2, 2008

Not that he calls it that, but I do. Think “Slow Food of Learning.” Here’s the segue. At his recent presentation at the IIT Institute of Design Strategy conference, John Seely Brown frames new ways of envisioning institutional architectures. As a longtime advocate of rethinking the contemporary organization, he asks how we might deploy emerging adaptations of social network technology to fundamentally change how we learn in organizations and educational systems. He’s talking Big Picture redesign of fundamental assumptions and concepts in and of organization and how we learn together.

JSB builds the platform for the network learning model. Social co-construction of knowledge, enabled by social computing, is already changing the infrastructures of organizations. Informal education networks have already been moving toward a new model. About mid-way through his presentation (see video) he advocates moving institutional education toward this model.

One basis for the shift is that traditional institutional warrants of authority are less meaningful in a world where value is being created by people in ad hoc community networks of interest. Both institutional and organizational learning will shift due to these trends. That students will workaround their institutions, find interest groups around their interests, and learn the necessary skills to satisfy the requirements for projects that nurture their projects, their learning needs, and far-reaching dreams.

This could happen. Probably not in America. (Maybe in India?  For a real scare, see the Globe and Mail’s recent article: If the schools don’t cut it, build your own.) “Why not” in America? That’s another cultural story too long to tell here, but it suffices to note that we have nurtured a couple of generations to want what the learning gives you, not the learning itself. People actually want “the degree” as an instrumental (explicit) warrant, purely “in order to.”

Patricia Kambitsch describes a program called Slow Learning, invented about 4 years ago after her experiences with co-creating the Dayton Early College Academy (a Gates Foundation project) in inner-city Dayton. What she realized was that students remain locked into the institutional warrants by mandate, and that after a decade of conventional learning, students can start to play a new game, but they face very real obstacles. Learning-to-learn requires more than new institutional architectures. It requires personal commitment beyond that supportable by culture and neighborhood. It means a (we think) permanent change of consciousness, and cultural support.

We identified a different target audience than students – mid-career adults – who often believe they need to earn another conventional degree when they decide to change career paths. Slow Learning was born from the frustration of watching our highly educated friends chase the “institutional warrant.” Especially for creative careers, when, in mid-career, it doesn’t actually MATTER whether you have a warrant. You just need to be part of the network of practitioners that learning happens in. Your warrant is that you are already known to othe practitioners, which is what you get after the degree anyway. (See some 2007 posts, such as at College is a Great Place to Learn – So What?)

So JSB is describing a theory of institutional workaround and personal learning paths that sounds a lot like community learning models, or even the Union Institute (which requires learning internships in a tutorial framework).  But to cut to the simple, here’s what Kambitsch says:

Is it possible that we could network with experts and practitioners in authentic settings other than school? Unless my goal is to establish a career as a lifelong academic, wouldn’t I be more fully engaged, raising deeper questions, building more authentic relationships with a broader network by learning outside of school? Is it possible that these experts would take me more seriously if I approach them directly as in individual interested in learning rather than hire them indirectly through an institution like school?

Sure, there’s a role for online communities and Internet-accessible courseware. But these are just enablers. Where JSB and we part ways is that community learning is largely situated and place-based. (That’s why there was a Bauhaus and a “Frankfurt School”). You cannot place yourself in a (creative or intellectual) community solely by Facebook networking. I believe real F2F engagement with your mentors is central to social learning.

Organizational learning also requires the commitment of personal presence, I believe. Virtual presence only goes so far. We are still human beings, blessed with a wide range of sensing, thinking, intuitive, and sensemaking systems and organs. Virtual life excludes most of these, thereby excluding the types of learning necessary to shift self-reflection away from the habitus of abstracting (online, reading, and typing).  To create new roles for ourselves, we literally must “act” those roles. That’s where our beginners’s mind unlocks new ways of knowing we would never find by engaging in any types of online learning activity.

Patricia is not a JSB, she mostly publishes memoirs and satire, and convenes participatory arts and writing events. I am the more abstract one in the team, and have a paper at this year’s Participatory Design conference that deepens some of John’s other ideas about socializing organizational learning practices. These ideas are not institutionally warranted, yet. But perhaps, instead, we might co-create a Learning Lab with interested parties who also see this as a possible vision.


As Facebook scales up, can it handle identity conflict?

December 1, 2007

The killer business notion behind Facebook, MySpace, and other massively scaled social networking services is based on the assumption that millions of users make for a better experience. That may be true for business, but its arguable on behalf of the users themselves. The Times reports the failure of Beacon, its perverse “collaborative consumption” push service that reveals your buying habits to your friends.

York University’s Sam Ladner posts an insightful interpretation of the roots of this failure as a conflict of identities, the clash of fronts. She cites fellow Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman’s notion of the front, the individual’s persona expressed in the presentation of self in everyday life. Goffman posits a front stage, back stage, and – he suggests we like to think – a core self. These get mixed together in Facebook, resulting in embarrassing relationship management issues as cited by the Times article. Samantha says designers should pay attention to these issues:

Facebook has done the same thing by forcing its users to expose their selves to different fronts simultaneously. It is embarrassing, even shameful.

What Designers Can Learn From Facebook’s Beacon

  • Discover your users’ fronts: If you are designing a product or a virtual place, ask your potential users what they consider the character of this “place” to be. Is is a formal place? Is it a casual atmosphere? What kinds of “props” are expected here? What would be an embarrassing topic of conversation or incident?
  • Design using the theatre metaphor: Make the product consistent with that place, as if you were writing a play. Ensure that what you design is part of a script that users understand or expect.
  • Pay attention to embarrassment: If your users mention shame or embarrassment in any way, gently press them about it. Discover the character of the “collision of fronts” that is the source of that embarrassment, and, above all, avoid forcing users to feel embarrassment.

Sam’s brief take is a wonderfuly concise, cogent piece of design analysis and a lovely application of classical, cultural theory. It stands up. And it inspired me to post as well, something I’ve been sitting on. When I read about Facebook’s very public debacles, my smarty-pants “core self” snickers knowingly at my avoidance  of Facebook altogether. Like Sam’s analysis suggests, I have many fronts to juggle, and across multiple communities. But for me there’s an overriding issue that also has a theoretical basis.

There’s no activity system in the Facebook ecology for me. There’s nothing for me to DO there. At least with LinkedIn (as Avi responding to Sam;s post also says) there’s a proscribed purpose, a well-defined kind of resume-exchanging business-oriented community. An activity theory perspective shows LinkedIn as a complete system: It mediates my interaction with many others toward business-oriented objectives, following a certain rule base, community values, and fits within an organizational schema of sorts. Faceboo, for me, is a random system that would be useful for invitations, spying on my friends, and keeping up with social drama. But as someone with a life to live, I don’t have that extra time to devote to maintaining such a profile.

“Keeping up with classmates” was its original purpose, and then it grew. It seems to me more feature and tech-driven, making a cool testbed for new ideas. But ultimately a waste of time for someone like me to actually invest in and use with intention.

I’m an established researcher and business person, anyone who wants to find me can without Facebook. My everyday lifeworld social networks are rich, diverse, and within my capacity to be with. When a surprise encounter mixes up my social fronts in the real world, as happens often, I can press my social skills into service and enjoy the impudence of, say, my art world friends bumping into my clients at a club. But in Facebook, the activity is based on exchanging information without your control. I can do without that mashup, and I can do without their ambiguous Terms of Service.

So, there may not be a core self, as the Goffman exchange suggests. Our identities are largely socially-constructed, and therefore remain vulnerable, can be socially deconstructed, in unexpected conflicts. But as a word to designers, what is the core activity system in Facebook? Is it too large to contain a well-defined activity and purpose anymore? I prefer and recommend the creation of activity ecologies using DIY, invitational social networks such as Ning, CrowdVine, GoingOn, or wikis such as Wetpaint. Everyone knows what to do, and why you’re there. And Google’s OpenSocial has only just started to diffuse – I think the purposeful community is the more inviting future of social networking.

Buber on social networking

September 16, 2007

OK, not really, but I got your attention – I am rereading Martin Buber on dialogue, where he takes on the problem of “monologue disguised as dialogue.” a false dialogue of abstracted opponents. More than anyone else I’ve read, Buber reminds usof the inherent and deep human need to connect.  And in distinguishing between dialogue real and false, he’s speaking to a fatal flaw / human need underlying all of our attempts to perfect online social networking. Because a lot of his ideas are so underappreciated now, they are worth recovering in the new contexts of the dissociating online world we spend half our lives in.

Buber spoke about the relationship of human beings to one another, the importance of true dialogic encounter, the power of the here and now, and the threats of the modernity to psychological health or wholeness. Dissociation was a critical concern of his, back then in the 50’s when people typically had (or lived as thought they had) just a single identity.

“Vital dissociation is the sickness of the peoples of our age.”

Dissociation with the real world of human lifeworld was a predominating concern for Buber, and other pre-postmodern thinkers: Maslow, R.D. Laing, Carl Rogers, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Fromm, Krishnamurti. Just because we have socially adapted to embrace our dissociation as a way of celebrating the fragmentation of contemporary life does not mean we have evolved into it. Human beings become partial identities, fragmented souls, if starved of F2F encounters and genuine communication. Consider your own experience –  which of our own virtual interactions lead to real interpersonal connections (beyond the instrumental)?

In Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue, Maurice Friedman goes on: “These organic forms — the family, union in work, and the community in village and town — were based on a vital tradition which has now been lost. Despite the outward preservation of some of the old forms, the inward decay has resulted in an intensification of man’s solitude and a destruction of his security. In their place new community forms have arisen which have attempted to bring the individual into relation with others; but these forms, such as the club, the trade union, and the party, ‘have not been able to re-establish the security which has been destroyed,’ ‘since they have no access to the life of society itself and its foundations: production and consumption.’ (Between Man and Man, ‘What Is Man?’ p. 157).

Buber wrote this in 1954 – so how much further have we (socially and intrapersonally) dissociated since then? Do we even care, do we have any way of assessing our essential disconnection, even as we evermore frantically connect online?

Back to tech – First of all, small-scale networking is highly intentional – wikis, invited lists, social network services like Ning, Web and email groups. But I’m uncomfortable with the large-scale social networking services, even though I use some of them. Not with the tech, which is cool enough, but with the meaning of the experience and the “meaning of the network.” These are not values-neutral services.  OK, LinkedIn is fine for keeping track business connections, especially the weak-tie relationships that are easy to let slip by. A blue-suit values system, useful but not all that inspiring.

As a professional, MySpace is not worth my time, and Facebook – well, I’m not even going to get started. Its not just that the scale and reach of Facebook creeps me out, or the total loss of personal privacy you give up, allowing their corporation to locate any information on the web someone tags about you and associates it with Facebook. Even if you consider its value as a “terrorist network” search tool as purported by some, based on its CIA links and Gilman Louie investment, its not that. Its this:

– Do I really want to create an online identity that represents “me” to a million people I don’t need to be in touch with? And then to maintain and upgrade that identity on a persistent basis based on its inherent values system, its distracting features, and its communities that don’t help me personally?

– What if my identity is not static enough to fit their context-free model? In my genuine experience I”m not really the same, consistent person to everyone. Any self-simulacrum removed from its context seems ultimately unsatisfying and phony.

– What if the very idea of my online Self is something I wish to have control over, to assert and retract my self-presentation when and as I want? At least LinkedIn is just an online resume service – I don’t know what Facebook will do with my identity once I’m tired of it. Will people find me in 5 years after I’ve left the service and ask where the old Peter Jones went to?

– What if its becomes the new “permanent record?” Do I trust these guys with my personal data?

Yes, we are all postmodernists now. We have learned to thrive in the temporary autonomous zones created by a shared life of the mind. But I prefer to do my Facebooking live, F2F.