Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Some Things I've Learned About Building Effective Social Networks

I wasn't sure I was going to be at Educon 2.1, so I didn't submit to speak on any topics and I went to the conference solely to be an observer (which, to the great credit of the conference, is not really a good description of someone attending but not presenting, since there's ample opportunity for everyone to participate). As it turned out, there was need for a substitute speaker on Saturday, so I filled in at the last minute. We decided to call my session "Classroom 2.0: Things I Think We've Learned About Social Networking in Education."

We were a small group in that session, but the conversation was really, really good, and I think I took as many notes as anyone else. I love learning that way: with others. Here are six themes that came out of the discussion and from my experiences.

  1. You don't really know which social networking sites you create will take off or succeed. Clay Shirkey reminds us that when "failure is free" you get innovative experimentation because you can easily move on from failures. This turns out to be especially important with Web 2.0 and social networking services since you really don't know how people are going to react to what you have to offer when what you are offering is a chance for them to participate. It's very easy and most common to put something "out there" and not get the response you expect. Unlike traditional models of providing authoritative services, when building the frameworks for others' participation you have to respond from the very beginning to users needs and feedback and direction, and if you jump in front of what you think is a parade and it turns out not to be have been, you have to be willing to move on or morph. Flickr didn't start out as a photo uploading/sharing site. Ning didn't start out as the "build your own social networking" service. Humility of purpose turns out to be important. Sure, Classroom 2.0 has 17,000 members--but you're not seeing the dozens of other networks I've started that never got off the ground--even ones that I thought were a total shoe-in (like the network for those who worked, like I did, at the Stanford Alumni Association summer camp--which has all of three members right now).

  2. What makes the foregoing OK is: topic or content is maybe not as important as the act of engagement. We each have dozens to hundreds of things that we are passionate or care about. In some interesting way, engagement trumps topic--when we find a topic that creates engagement, that engagement changes how we view our lives and sense of learning in all areas we are interested in. It changes how we think about sharing and discussing things with others. So when a network we thought was going to be a big hit isn't, all is not lost. Our job is not as much to define what is talked about, but to help conversation to take place.

  3. It turns out that you are especially dependent on early adopters for the success of the network--in some cases, they are more important than you as the network creator are. This gets a little deep, but let's see if I can say it clearly: Web 2.0 depends on user-generated content, so if you build a Web 2.0 service or network that is not also dependent on the excitement or active participation of key early adopters to help build where the service goes, it may be a sign you're trying to overlay Web 2.0 on top of your authoritative desires. You can't only provide for collaborative content, you have to provide for collaborative building. In a world now with so many options for where people can spend their time, you have to provide an opportunity for those early and important adopters to be a part of determining where the network goes and how it gets used. Early adopters are also often attracted to places where they can play roles of significance that bring them visibility and opportunity, and so you have to help them get that. If you don't provide an environment where others can function and be seen as leaders, they will go somewhere they can.

    This is sometimes harder than we think, as it's so easy to fall back to our regular ways of how things get done--even for those of us who think we are highly collaborative. I've got a blog post brewing on just this topic. Many of us who adopted collaborative technologies early did so, I believe, because we were already inherently collaborative. As the success of collaborative technologies becomes more and more apparent, there will be many who will try to adopt these technologies because they want the end result, but don't understand the importance of the process of getting there. The huge bonus, however, to this shift in thinking is that the end result can be so much better than you thought it would be when you were dreaming up your network in your solitary brain.

    Web 2.0 is about participation, and one of the brilliant lessons of creating a Web 2.0 network or service is seeing your primary role as being that of encouraging and providing an environment for others to participate and lead. We manage the process instead of trying to manage the outcome (another theme I love). And you can't do this without being authentic.

    There are some great examples of this in my own networks. In Classroom 2.0, Nancy Bosch plays a more active role with other users than I do most of the time. In my high school reunion network, Alan Nelson is the one who scanned and uploaded the yearbook photos of everyone in our class (amazing).

  4. A network must fulfill some compelling need(s). You can't expect people to come to your network just because you have a great idea for talking about something and when they understand the power of that idea they will want to participate. They have to have a reason to come that is compelling, that solves a problem for them, or offers them the ability to do something they have really wanted to do that was much harder before. Finding friends for Facebook does that. Finding answers about how to use technology in the classroom does that. One more online book club may not.

  5. Focus in important to having a good conversation. An unfocused network doesn't offer a good reason to come back. Future of Education faces this as a very real challenge, and I'm hopeful that the interview series will provide some focus since the topic is so big. A network doesn't need to be 17,000 people. It can be a great place for 25 or 50 if there is a good conversation taking place.

  6. There is very real value in "moderating" or "guiding" your network. I think maybe I learned this from the four years I spent as a manager of group tours, where group dynamics (like in a classroom) are so important. It's important to help manage expectations and also to see problems when they first arise and deal with them quickly. For example, Classroom 2.0 has an evolving need to manage the participation of commercial vendors in the network. (No one wants to come some place to have questions answered or to talk about something and be bombarded by ads.)

    Being polite matters. Setting boundaries matters. Improving the network matters. You have to learn from the users, let them know you are learning from them, and make things better. Be transparent and authentic. Facilitate, help, encourage, console, understand, and support. Help to create a culture or feeling or tenor for the network.
I'm sure there are many other lessons, but these are the ones we covered and that filled two pages of notes in my little Paper 1.0 notebook. :) I hope they help you.


  1. Thanks for the post. For a while, I've been thinking about the shape a future staff PD and support portal I'd like to create at my school should take. Your post will be good reference for myself and others working on the project as we move forward.

    In particular, I want to keep your points about engagement and early adopters in mind.

  2. Anonymous6:18 PM

    This is a beautiful line, "We manage the process instead of trying to manage the outcome (another theme I love)."

    It is not just true of the web, but of all teaching/learning events. And all those who participate.

    It clearly defines the role of the educator/student.

    Thanks for reminding me.

  3. Steve, This is a fantastic summary of the session and a great opportunity to read the ideas shared by the few that spoke to the many. My favorite: "failure is free". I need to help my students recognize that it is ok to fail at something you have given you all too. The important part of that is try. Thank you for being an inspiration to me. I am engaged in the social environment that you helped create and I go there often to be inspired by its participants. Keep writing and creating and socializing. Christine

  4. Anonymous3:43 PM

    Your post will be good reference for myself and others working on the project as we move forward.

  5. Great post Steve, I am the owner of the Ning community, College 2.0.

    Steve, you are so right. You wrote "It turns out that you are especially dependent on early adopters for the success of the network--in some cases, they are more important than you as the network creator are."

    There are some members in my community, whom I am very thankful, because with their discussions in the forum attract the interest of others, increasing the College 2.0 community activity. I am still dependant on them. They are really very important to the success of College 2.0. But they always appreciate tha I created the community

  6. Anonymous9:30 AM

    This was a great post, Steve.

    One question, though: You mention that content isn't as important as engagement. For me, content is what leads to engagement in digital communities. Without good content, I do the Shirky-Bail and go find somewhere else to play.

    Is this a "chicken and the egg" situation where it's impossible to separate content from engagement and/or engagement from content?


  7. @Bill F: yes, this is subtle. It's not that the content isn't important. What I was trying to convey is that if you have three subject/content areas you care about, but only one of them works to generate engagement and it wouldn't have been your first choice, I would still go with that one. Once the engagement is in place, then you have lots of latitude to bring folks to new discussions. Does that make sense?

  8. Kia ora Steve!

    It has taken me a while to get to this post - but then "I'm very old and I'm going to die soon" :-) .

    I have just read your Web2.0 Is The Future of Education and concurred with all you said in that. Now this!

    A splendid affirmation of what I waxed about, over a year ago. Thanks for confirming my beliefs of the nature of networks.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-eath

  9. Anonymous11:30 PM

    Thank you for these ideas. I am a new teacher and I teach drama. I often feel all alone in my attempts to get my students to learn by doing. I see the web as a great resource for that. In the theatre it is all about collaboration. If you don't collaborate you end up running a very small theatre filled with only your "fans". It's hard to convince teenagers to wait for the process to work, but when it does it is so beautiful to watch.

    Thanks again,
    Danna Doyle

  10. Danna: Thanks so much for the comment. Both my wife and daughter have been involved in a local drama troupe that really works hard to teach life skills through theater. I hope I can make a connection between them and you! My daugther's website is and the troupe's is



  11. Anonymous7:37 PM

    Love the phrase "failure is free" but does this suggest that success costs? I prefer "failure free" as a priority for both teachers and students in creating an environment for learning that supports risk taking and challenges the high stakes accountability of current testing regimes.


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