Identity, Participation and Social Learning Implications


  • Identity is vital for people to participate in social activities.  For good or bad, people tend to participate within a discourse when they will be identified for their contribution (or lack thereof).
  • The participation within a discourse breeds trust, and within a discourse of trust, people tend to share “personal” information to elevate context.
  • Sharing sensitive information honestly across discourses as an anonymous agent is different from disclosing such information within a discourse.  Within discourse, trust in others is key.  Inter-discourse sharing requires something else.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve dabbled here and there with experiments in social activity and community building online.  The Star Wars Management Guide was the most recent experiment, but I’ve tried it before with the notion of authoring a SCORM book, group blogs, group podcasts, family blogs… I’ll freely admit I’m not the best guy to lead such community efforts because I just don’t have the time and resources to do the heavy lifting all by myself.  With each fizzled out idea, I’m learning a bit more about how people behave in groups, and how its different when that behavior is exposeable.

When my first daughter was born, I attempted to start up a family-wide blog as a means to collectively capture narratives from around the whole family.  Once a week I’d send out a question to the family and ask my parents and my wife’s parents to respond.  We were geographically dispersed and WordPress required far less maintenance on my part than assembling together a word document.  At the time, there was no Google Docs (this was in 2004-2005).

Eventually, this kinda hit a wall.  Some members of the family just didn’t participate past a first post.  We’re not a huge family, so there was very little readership, and almost no commenting — which meant no visible feedback.  Then there was the fact that it was a blog — so family posting personal anecdotes about growing up was a layer of personal identification that everyone ultimately felt uncomfortable with.  In hindsight, blogging was the wrong tool for this exercise — but there’s something like a contradiction here that we can learn from and it’s evidenced by the misapplication of technical means and what it affords.

Radio Gen1us is hands-down my most successful social effort to-date.  Even though almost no one from the outside comments, we know that there are over 500 downloads a week.  That’s feedback enough.  To participate in Radio Gen1us, you need to record a podcast of yourself dj’ing a mixtape you put together.  You need to upload it to a webserver. You need to post the entry.  It’s a high barrier to entry, and that’s why we’ve only had six people including myself ever DJ, three with any consistency.  But it’s been in existence since June 2007.  Participants are identifiable, but the sensitivity of what they’re sharing (by and large) is pretty low (music preferences are not as risky to share as, say, political leanings). That said, some members who’ve hosted shows repeatedly share more and more, as identity manifests itself through repeated contribution (the Whuffie factor).

Juxtapose that with the Star Wars Management Guide.  I had the idea to put it in a wiki, because I wanted to open up the authoring to “anyone.”  Even though there seemed to be considerable interest in participation — it hasn’t gone anywhere.  As I stated even at the initial post, I’m not making this my life’s work, and that has considerable effect on the success of the project.  Look at what happened as the chapter ideas came in.  First, people wanted to claim chapters to write.  This pre-supposes the idea that authors would “own” the chapters, but the means to author them get in the way.  To author a work in a wiki means that while there’s a history of what you’ve contributed to any one page, someone else may add to that work, edit that work — diminish your writing.  The wiki sits out there right now.  Anyone can go in and write, but they’re not.  I’m not admonishing the lack of participation. I’m hoping we’re learning from that fact.

To participate in a social activity as an individual participant, there’s got to be something in it for you as a participant; generally referred to as the What’s In It For Me (WIIFM).  For me, as a participant, to engage with YOU, as another participant, I need some trust that you are who you appear to be, and that you’re going to respect our shared ground rules of participation (Whuffie).  Without both WIIFM and Whuffie, a social effort tends to falter at the start.  But there’s one more abstraction we need to deal with, and that’s what our interaction looks like from the outside.

There are exchanges that happen within one discourse, like #lrnchat which happens on Twitter every Thursday evening, and because the participants exchange within a certain discourse, and with regularity there’s a high degree of Whuffie factor there among the participants.  Because the chats are enjoyable, reliable and generally thought provoking, there’s also a high factor of WIIFM for each participant.  Twitter, as a means for communication, is widely open — that’s the intent, so participants have no illusions that what they contribute may be seen from outside their discourse.  I should posit that participants “should have” no illusions about this.  I don’t know for certain that they consider that #lrnchat is collected weekly and posted to the #lrnchat blog, which allows the contents of the exchange to be aggregated far beyond Twitter and the blog’s site itself.  For all we know, the #lrnchat gang is being cited in someone’s doctoral thesis across the world (yay) or being co-opted in someone’s for-profit book on E-Learning Best Practices (boo).  In either case, if anyone had the gumption to track down who I am (and judging by blog traffic recently from Twitter, that’s happening), it’s pretty easy to figure out who any of the participants are.  In the case of #lrnchat, on Twitter, everyone’s sharing the kind of information they wish to be known for, so the sharing of information outside of the discourse is something people are hoping for.

This leaves a question in my head: are there examples of social activity we want to share within a discourse but don’t want to share across discourses?  Let me posit a hypothetical.  Imagine you worked for a pharmaceutical company as a sales representative but you have some very strong beliefs in support of holistic medicine.  Chances are if you’re networking with anyone in a professional (“day job”) sense, you’re not talking about your interest or experience with energy healing.  With the risk of discovery by your employer, you either don’t network at all online with other healers, or you do so as anonymously as you can.  I mention this because I know people who are into holistic medicine as practitioners (not just subscribers).  Some of them work at pharmaceutical companies and of the twelve people I’m talking about, none of them participate in a community of practice or even network around holistic medicine.  Why?  It might be that the field itself just doesn’t draw a crowd that thinks about networking.  But it might also be because there’s a contradiction at play that makes it impossible to network and learn from each other.

Clay Shirky talks about, in Here Comes Everybody, that the transaction costs for all sorts of groups to network and collaborate together has become exceedingly low — to the point that anyone can network about anything — but it pre-supposes that you don’t care who knows who you are.  Certainly, people doing nefarious things don’t want anyone to know what they’re doing, but there are a host of reasons why you might wish to network and not be identifiable outside of the group you’re networking with.  I don’t know that I have a solution for that, but it’s something we should be talking about as learning professionals.

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