In a couple of recent tweets, comments, and blog posts I’ve hinted at my feeling that Twitter and other social networks used for informal learning, may be collapsing under their own success. During the PLN Backlash conversation last week, there was a tweet which implied that Twitter as a PLN is becoming somewhat of an “exclusive club”. I wanted to hash out a few thoughts I’ve had that don’t entirely fit into solid post format:
- It’s already hard to stick with Twitter…from the Nielson study in April 2009, we learned that 60% of Twitter users quit within the first 30 days. That means, most of those who have a cursory introduction to PLNs will likely struggle with Twitter before adding any of the things below into the mix.
- Twitter restructuring has caused problems…Initially, when you followed someone on Twitter, you could see their tweets to users you did not already follow. This meant you could see half a conversation, which allowed you to find other half and follow that user if they interested you enough. Now, you can only see conversations between those parties where you follow both (or all) users. This severely limits the visibility of those within the community of educators. Someone starting out small (as I’ve suggested frequently) will struggle to see who else to follow.
- Increase in network size makes it hard to get started…As we build larger and larger groups from which to learn, it becomes harder for new users to wade through hundreds that someone is following. For example, I started building my learning network through Twitter after a session (like many) with Will Richardson. Will has kept the number of users he is following relatively small at ~150. That is a reasonable number to wade through. As many of our networks grow into the 400 – 2000 range, it becomes entirely impossible for a new user to wade through and find the users with the most relevance to themselves. This leads to…
- Lists as the starting point…hey, look there’s a dead horse, let me beat it…seriously, digging through a small list (<50) and finding the most relevant from there is great, just don’t follow a list en masse because it’s easy.
- Plurk isn’t easy either…This is not a problem inherent in Twitter. From my own recent experience, Plurk is a different environment, but with many of the same issues. It’s been stated that Plurk is a more tight-knit community. If Twitter is becoming an exclusive club, Plurk is a different “club” if you will, but it’s still hard to get a foot in the door. Despite having been an active participant on Twitter for nearly two years, an active del.icio.us user, blogger, and general PLN/NIHCTTAR supporter, I’m struggling to find folks to follow on Plurk, and am having very few response to my attempts to engage the community. Time will tell, but it seems to be the same song, different verse for new users to either service.
- When everyone knows everyone it’s hard for the new folks to get their voices heard…going back to the analogy in my previous post: When everyone at the party knows everyone else, it’s hard for someone new to come in and join the conversation. This is where it becomes imperative that we, as a community, work to embrace new members. We can’t just hand them a network and say “go to town”.
- Strange occurrence…for the first year I was on Twitter, I maxed out at being able to follow tweets from 100 users. Beyond that, I began to get lost in the stream. In the last 6 months, my time “reading” Twitter has drastically decreased. During that time, I’ve ballooned from following approximately 100 users, to following 400 users…May never get comfortable with 2,000+ but it seems to me, that the less I focus on reading everything the more conversations I can get involved in.
…or Freds…or Sergios…or NIHCTTARs…
The conventional wisdom passed along to those just starting out on the Informal, Networked Learning Path is to jump in, start following some people and engage with them. After my recent rants here and here I had an encounter today that has totally cemented in my brain that network formation is an art/skill that cannot be distilled down into a few succinct statements of “Here’s how you build a PLN.” This encounter happened in large part due to the sharing of a couple of TweepML lists during recent trainings I completed with @kellyhines. I tried to stress to my group of participants that the lists were merely a suggestion, and not a definitive staring point. However, today I got a plea from one of the participants:
I need twitter help!…when I wake up and have 300 tweets, I’m overwhelmed and want to shut it down. Advice, please
I received this plea as a DM while I was walking through Wal-mart and began to think through responses while I was walking around. Here’s what I wound up telling her:
1) It’s not email…remember you don’t have to READ everything that comes through your Twitter stream. Many times I will simply scan through the 20 or 30 most recent tweets and see if anything catches my eye. If not, I move on…if so, then I’ll pull up the link in Firefox, and leave it sitting in a tab until I can clear out my FF tabs. It’s nothing for me to have 20 tabs open in FF, go through and read some articles, add others to Delicious, and just nix some of the others. The key is, I do this when I have the time…if I don’t have the time, then I’ll close them out and move on, because…
2) The best stuff will show up again…another reason not to feel like you need to read every tweet is because the sites and info that are the most useful will show up in your Twitter stream again. If you have a focused group of people that you follow, they’re going to be finding a lot of the same things you are and sharing them again. That way, if you see a link show up 2 or 3 times, you know it’s probably pretty good (just like we discussed more people bookmarking a site in delicious giving you some idea of its value).
3) Focus your Following list…This may be the biggest recommendation I can give you…you’ve been on Twitter for roughly 4 days now and you’re following 72 people…after a year on Twitter, I was managing to keep up with 120…Network building is a slow process (trying to keep from getting on my soapbox here). The reason I’m somewhat against the “Instant PLN” idea is a personal learning network is just that: Personal. Who you follow makes sense to you…someone else can’t tell you who is and is not good to follow. So task #1, whittle down your list…pick about 20 folks from your list that you want to continue to follow.
That final point was the one that I think has really been sticking in my craw lately. This teacher is a high school, Family and Consumer Sciences teacher. She came to a week of training on Web 2.0 and has begun to incorporate some of the things she learned into an awesome Weebly website. She’s added a blog, knows what it means for her blog to have an RSS feed, even found out how to add a single del.icio.us tag category to her sidebar of her blog. She is a pretty savvy Internet user from what I can tell through working with her for just a few days. But the Prefabricated PLN created through suddenly following a laundry list of users was overwhelming and counterproductive for her. The focus of many of these lists (at the present) is on social media thinkers, big idea guys in education, the “movers and the shakers” if you will. Sure, those of us in the fight to get more SM attention in schools love their ideas and their tweets, but to the standard Educational Twitter user, they aren’t the right place to start.
During our session I gave this analogy:
You’ve moved to a new town. In an effort to gain some friends, learn the area, and become more comfortable, you throw an enormous party. During the course of the evening you have 200 people whom you’ve never met show up. They all know each other. They all have a lot to say. In fact, there conversations are so interwoven, you can barely get a word in edgewise. Is that the best way to get acquainted with your new town?
The parallels to Twitter, Plurk, del.icio.us, Diigo, Ning, and many of the other social networking sites people use to build personal learning networks are very important. I “network” starts small, and takes time to build. When you move to a new area, you generally meet a few similar individuals, branch out into their networks, and make more and more connections on your own over time. Plopping down 200 new friends in your life is not an advisable way to get acquainted with any of them.
There is still no one “right path” for everyone beginning to use social media. Sure, some out there could jump into the conversation with 200 others, just as some could do that at a party in real life. For most, however, it’s important to gain traction and a foothold on the conversation, and go from there.
What other advice do you have for those folks coming into social media for the classroom for the first time? Especially those that are not specifically exploring from the most technological perspective?