Some Advice to those Building PLNs…

…or Freds…or Sergios…or NIHCTTARs…

image from flickr licensed through creative commons by e.m.fields

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?

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One Response

  1. When I first started on Twitter, I honestly didn’t get it. I set up an account after a suggestion from @kellyhines but figured since I only knew her on it, what was the point. It wasn’t until I attended ISTE09 that I saw the true power of Twitter. I realized what a PLN can truly be. For the first few weeks/months after ISTE, I was pretty much a lurker. I read the tweets of those I followed and occasionally sent my own tweet or retweeted. By lurking, I was able to watch how people interacted, read what kinds of items they posted and figure out how I would select people to follow and/or follow back.It was my way of getting my feet wet and warming up to the water instead of just diving in to the unknown. My advice for those just starting out: don’t try to be the superstar. Take it day by day and slowly build your network. Just because you are followed doesn’t mean you have to follow back (immediately or ever).Will Richardson mentions in his book” Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, …” that he only follows about 65 people (even though he has hundreds of followers.) Read others tweets and decide if they mention topics that will be beneficial to you. Just remember, it’s your PLN. You get to decide the members so have fun with it.

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