Social media are (also) learning networks

Social media can be learning networks. Self-evident? Maybe so, but these last few months I gave a few presentations for young, somewhat less young and more senior people – all of them well-educated – and they seemed to be surprised about stuff such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the fact that we can consider Wikipedia, Linux or Arduino as learning networks, the Maker Movement and related topics.
Mentioning Facebook often results in discussions about privacy and the NSA (older folks), about looking for alternatives such as Twitter (younger people), but Facebook as part of a personal learning environment is new for many people ‘out there’.

Of course, the only solution is to talk even more about it. Especially because the ‘digital world’ is merging rapidly with what we used to consider as a purely ‘physical’ world – sensors, social media, data, mobile internet, location aware devices, it all permeates that so-called ‘physical world’, turning it effectively into a mixed reality.

Once people start to realize the opportunities and dangers they start asking ‘how do I start learning about this’, on a rather practical level. I’ll limit myself to three books:

Net Smart by Howard Rheingold in order to learn to use social media intelligently, mindfully and humanely., a handbook for all those wanting to engage themselves into peer2peer learning (a collective work in which I participated).
The Age of Context by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel about mobile, social media, data, sensors and location services.

In case you wonder what I talked about during the presentation:


The five forces transforming media revisited (updated)

Updated: at the end of the post, discussion notes

I had a great discussion today with a group of journalism students at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium). I facilitated a discussion about the five forces transforming media, based on the book The Age of Context by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel  (about mobile, social media, data, sensors and location):



After this discussion I talked about how we adapt our newspaper and newsroom practices.

I also presented a Prezi about how journalists (or bloggers of course) can use social media to make the people formerly called ‘the audience’ participate in the production of the story or project:



I was very fortunate: my students had very outspoken opinions. They insisted on the need for well-designed digital news media. It seems people get bombarded with far too much information they are not interested in.

Some students suggested to present only a few news items deemed ‘need to know’ to all users. So each day journalists would select two, maybe 5 at the most, news items as ‘universally’ important. There would be much more content, but that content would be suggested through personalized filters so that people get news in function of their own preferences. Tags, key words, hidden tags and semantic techniques were suggested to accomplish this.

Another suggestion was to use tools such as ‘people who read this article also read these other articles’. I mentioned Flipboard which uses the social graph as a filter and Zite which allows users to correct the suggestions made by the algorithm (by giving a thumbs up or down).

However, not all students liked the idea of personalized digital news media – some of them wanted the newsroom to continue to decide the news selection and hierarchy. They fear that personalized news could lead to a filter bubble in which we only learn what we want to learn and block everything which is inconvenient.

We did not go very deep in analyzing how wearable computing could impact news media. Google Glass, virtual assistents will make us rethink the newspaper-metaphor for digital media in a very fundamental way, and I’m sure the issues of ‘filter bubble’ and privacy will stay high on the list of urgent discussion themes.

The Age of Context shows us the storm ahead for news media

What happens if we apply the lessons of the book The Age of Context (Robert Scoble and Shel Israel) to news media? Well, I tried it today for a group of communication experts invited by the Belgian company Outsource and we got an intense debate.

The Age of Context analyzes five forces which are developing rapidly and interacting with each other: mobile, social, data, sensors and location-based technology. What could it mean for news media?

1) Mobile: we’re still finding out how to use tablets and smartphones to the fullest extent. More often than not newspapers transfer their print content to the mobile device, making it swipable, adding some videos and links. I think tablets offer new ways of telling stories. Remember movies: these are not just recordings of theater plays, using techniques such as cuts we can deliver a new media form – we’re still in the early phase of discovering the ‘cut’ which unlocks the unique possibilities of the tablet.

While we’re doing that, a new kind of mobile devices is about to be launched: wearable stuff such as Google Glass, making it even harder to stay in the print newspaper paradigm.

2) Social Media: meaning new curation practices for journalists but also new distribution challenges. Flipboard and Zite for instance convert social streams into customized news magazines. People re-assemble the content of very different providers through the filter of their social graph and preferences.

3) Data: do news media use the data on social media and on their own digital platforms to get to know the needs and intentions of their communities? They try to do so, but much more could be done.

4) Sensors. If sensors make devices aware of what their owner is doing (traveling, running, relaxing…) one could imagine that news will be selected and transmitted in a way which suits the user.

5) Location. There is no reason to assume that a user of a Belgian newspaper who happens to be in New York City needs the same information as someone who is in Brussels.

I added some ideas about communities, which in part can mitigate the conclusions mentioned above. If a newsroom can determine efficiently what really matters for a certain community, they’ll be more able to produce a common news selection which is relevant for the users as members of that community. The news provides a common background for the social interactions in that community. Real life meetings, forums and chat sessions help the newsroom to open up and to gain deeper insight in the needs of the community.

Of course we also discussed privacy. The Age of Context is optimistic: respect for privacy concerns will be a competitive advantage for makers of devices or service providers. Not everyone is that convinced – maybe the new generation cares less about privacy.

There was quite some discussion about ‘who determines what the individual wants’. I have the feeling that it’s not the newsroom, but not the individual either. It will be an algorithm, which makes a selection for the individual on the basis of revealed preferences, social graph, sensor and location data, and expressed preferences (explicit likes and dislikes).

The changes ahead are tremendous (we only discussed news production and distribution, but then there’s also the impact on advertising which adds another layer of complications) and very hard to predict. Exactly the kind of situation journalists like…



Weekend Reading: Atlantis goes down, brands not almighty and be warned about realtime

– News about the darknet. John Biggs on TechCrunch announces the demise of Atlantis, the competitor of the Silk Road online market for all kinds of drugs. Users access these markets, with encrypted web sessions on the Tor net and they pay in bitcoin.

– Interesting observation by David Holmes on Pandodaily about the divorce between Dow Jones and the tech bloggers at AllThingsD. The brand remains with News Corp (parent to Dow Jones) while journalists/bloggers/columnists Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg go their way and keep the staff.  Holmes points out that Swisher has more than 900,000 followers (Mossberg  500,000+) while AllThingsD has around 162,000. Guess who the readers will follow?

– Good news about Feedly, the leader of RSS-feeds since the closure of Google Reader. Saroj Kar on Devopsangle reports that Feedly opens APIs for developers to create third-party applications.

– On Hunterwalk I read more philosophical musings: Realtime Is A Trap & The Past Is Underrated. As he points out: “This isn’t a screed against multitasking, or social media, both of which I enjoy. It’s a question about a cognitive bias being exacerbated by our current product design.”

A learning & facilitation challenge

A dear friend has an interesting question for me:

A group of about 30 adults want to explore various themes on the intersections between social care, web skills, various other professional occupations and social media. Possible topics are cyberbullying, safety on the web, collaboration practices. These people have various backgrounds, they are no academics, but they participate in the same course in “real world” – they meet on a weekly basis in a physical classroom. The course starts now and they’ll wrap it up at year-end. How can these people, working in groups of about 5 people, learn to put social themes on the agenda and engage in a collaboration to tackle these issues, using social media?

First thoughts I have about this challenge, based on my own learning at Rheingold U:

– Organize the physical classroom for group discussions (put the desks in such a way that the group members can interact in a natural way).

– For the facilitator: maybe it’s unavoidable to give a slide-presentation, but also try to use a mind map to present the project. The mindmap can be digital and online (I like using Mindjet and MindMeister) but one can use PostIts on the wall or blackboard as well (maybe even better, in a physical context). Make it physically interactive! The learners can use the mind mapping techniques later on for their own group discussions.

– Once the groups are formed and topics are decided, give every group member a role. Someone will be in charge of storing relevant links into a social bookmarking service such as Diigo (one can organize a closed or open group in Diigo, so all group members have access to a central place where they can find their stuff). There’s an instructive video on the Diigo homepage.

Another person will be a searcher, and look for relevant links (the facilitator can give tips about using Google or other engines for advanced search).

Yet another participant can look for central concepts and explain them in a document.

Maybe someone will be a mind map master (all participants can collaborate in drawing the map, and one person could make a ‘clean’ version of it later on), and ultimately someone could write a text/post about the session proceedings.

IMPORTANT: as there are a number of sessions, people should switch roles, so ideally everyone in the group would at least once have done the job of bookmarker, searcher, explainer, mind map master or blogger.

I’m not aware about the specific classroom conditions. Do they have wifi, does every participant has her own laptop? Maybe the facilitator will have to be very flexible…

– Where do these people meet outside the classroom? My friend suggested a Facebook group, and even though I’m in general more in favor of Google+, this might be a good idea because the participants are far more familiar with Facebook (also, in Diigo people can leave comments on links and react on those comments).

– How do the participants reach out to others? As they explore web resources, they can try to find interesting experts/authors on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Google+ and ask them questions using those networks. They could use the Facebook-group to keep each other informed about these conversations.

– What is the objective? The objective could be to make a web document about their collaborative work. This could be a text about how to deal with cyberbullying, for instance. The text could be written in a collaborative way on Google Drive and share it (for certain others or publicly). Or it could be a video of course, posted on YouTube or Vimeo. Or it could be a series of pictures, posted with texts, sounds and videos on Tumblr. Or it could be a Pinterest collection.

– Will others react on those documents? Will they succeed in having an online conversation? That’ll be one of the challenges.

Anyway, these are first thoughts… maybe you, dear reader, have suggestions to make, and I’ll ask around in our Google+ Peeragogy in Action community…



Journalism as a service: what it means

There are no journalists, there is only the service of journalism. That’s at least what Jeff Jarvis, author, journalist and entrepreneurial journalism expert wrote on his blog BuzzMachine. So what does this mean? In his post he explains:

Journalism helps communities organize their knowledge so they can better organize themselves.

Anyway, I had the opportunity to meet him in Mechelen, Belgium, at the World Journalism Education Congress:

So why is this important? Because it makes it obvious that thinking about journalism is not something only journalists should do. As so many of us engage in ‘acts of journalism’, there are important issues which concern far more people in a very direct way.

This became very obvious when professor Yochai Benkler testified (pdf) in the case United States vs. PFC Bradley E. Manning. Jarvis reacted on this testimony in the Guardian (read it, also for the discussion section and the many links provided by Jarvis). Benkler explained that journalism is a network in which there are many roles that can be linked together: witnessing, gathering, selecting, authenticating, explaining, distributing. Each can be an act of journalism. Each can be done by someone else, not necessarily working in a single institution. Jarvis quotes him as saying:

One of the things that’s happened is people realize that you can’t have all the smartest people and all the resources working in the same organization. So we have seen a much greater distribution in networks that even though they use the internet, what’s important about the network structure is actually permissions, who’s allowed to work on what resource or assignments of work assignments.

Which is an important thought, as it has consequences for the political debate about whistle blowers, security and transparency, but also for the organization of journalism as a business.

R.I.P. Google Reader and the Open Web

A friend of mine started a Facebook page, asking for one minute of silence for the demise of Google Reader.

For many of us, Google Reader was a crucial part of the curating toolkit. Just subscribe to RSS-feeds, organize them in folders, view it in various ways. Save the interesting stuff for later, then put those articles which stay relevant for a longer time in diigo/dilicious/pearltrees… It was easy, and then Google killed it.

The company said it wants to focus on fewer projects. They felt there were enough good alternatives. And mostly, I guess, they were convinced Google Reader was no longer the future. So what is the future according to Google? Curation via social networks, first of all Google+, but of course also Twitter and Facebook. Algorithms and clever apps such as Flipboard and Zite are the present, readers the past. The future: even more algorithms, pushing information to you based on your explicitly and implicitly revealed preferences, your social graph, your locations, the time of the day… through wearable devices such as Glass.

Let’s be honest: the mainstream web users never embraced Reader. So, was Reader right about stopping Reader? What’s all the fuss about anyway?

The fuss is about the fear that Google is turning its back to the open web. People like Dave Winer, Felix Salmon  and Anil Dash lament about link rot and ‘the web we lost’. The big corporates such as Twitter, Facebook and Google primarily want to lock the users into their very own walled gardens. You and your friends can get data into those places, but getting the data out is another matter. Not that your data are particularly safe, they are not. They are not longer YOUR data, they are owned by the big corporations. When the web was still young people worked really hard for interoperability. Now the open web is on the retreat.

The mainstream, who never made it to Reader, is addicted to Facebook, and somewhat less to Twitter and Google+. Robert Scoble says it’s too late to save the common web, because the common users left. He gets more conversations about his articles and videos on Facebook and Google+ than on his blog/RSS feeds. Bruce Sterling says talking about “the internet” makes no sense anymore, and there are five reasons for that: Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft (not clear to me why he doesn’t add Twitter):

Stacks. In 2012 it made less and less sense to talk about “the Internet,” “the PC business,” “telephones,” “Silicon Valley,” or “the media,” and much more sense to just study Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. These big five American vertically organized silos are re-making the world in their image.

Chances are this will be self-defeating. It reminds me of the old Compuserve and AOL, ancient examples of walled gardens brought down or being forced to reinvent themselves by the open web. Sterling does not think that the stacks are stable entities:

Still, the Stacks figure they can disrupt and disintermediate all those old-school businesses; it’s the stock-markets that scare them, because they all know that, if they’re destroyed, it will surely be through that method; moguls can destroy the Stacks just like they destroyed the world of the 90s dot-com boom.

Are the Stacks “stable?” In a word, No. They’re all dizzyingly unstable Napoleonic gimcrack empires built by eccentric geek weirdos. Besides which, they’ve all learned to hate each other, and they’ve been stocking up patents for an almighty legal war for years now.

Maybe there will be non-American stacks (Samsung? some Chinese conglomerate?) – or maybe the open source and Makers movements will come up with something which is open van vastly superior to what the stacks offer now. We simply don’t know.

Strange things happen…

I did something strange today. I registered for a course facilitated by Howard Rheingold, the Think-Know Tools, you’ll find more about this on the wiki of Rheingold U (I even think you can still register, but hurry up – also, this course is not free).

The strange thing is that I participate in this course for the second time. In fact it’s about the fifth time I participate in one of Howard’s courses, not counting my participation in real life in a master class he gave in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Here you find his keynote he gave on that occasion:


So, why taking a course for a second time (even taking into account the discount Rheingold U alumni get)? Because, even though it’s important to have a great facilitator such as Howard, the students ultimately learn from each other. New contacts mean new discoveries. And because people change – the questions I have today are different from the questions I had the first time I took this course.

For instance, I read a great article by John Reynols in the Guardian about Google X. One quote from the article:

Teller said he believed that a likely innovation within the next 20 to 30 years will be the creation of “factories for ideas”, virtual factories which will produce “new ideas in every domain”. (RL: Astro Teller is the top executive of Google X)

I’ve no idea what he really means by these “factories for ideas”. Maybe these virtual factories are beyond humans, as they will be populated by intelligent computers? But in my presentation we can make virtual factories for ideas today already, using Think-Know tools helping us to collaborate, to detect crap, to filter information and build knowledge radars. That’s at least something I want to explore in this course.

Are our attention spans becoming longer again?

There has been an eerie silence on this blog for the past weeks. I was immersed in various learning projects. I had to focus for longer times, and this made me switch my attention away from social media streams, unless I could focus on certain topics via Twitter lists for instance.

howard rheingoldSo what is the learning about? I’m still absorbing stuff I learned at the various courses facilitated by Howard Rheingold (there’s a new one coming up about Mind Amplifiers). Also, I attended a real life class featuring Howard in the Netherlands (more about this in a later post, but that’s where I took the picture), where he discussed the major findings of his book Net Smart (which can be considered as a long and deep study of attention practices). In this part of the learning it’s all about forums, blogs, wikis, mindmaps, social bookmarks, synchronous audio, video, chat and Twitter.

– The other part of my learning is about tools for digital stortytelling and data journalism. I made a good start on Codeacademy, but somehow I need the intervention of real tutors to continue the learning process. So I decided to take courses at the O’Reilly School of Technology. They even deliver certificates for professional developments. I do realize it are not the certificates which are that important, but it’s a kind of an interesting gamification element. The ‘school’ offers a nice interactive coding environment and tutors evaluate the homework and give feedback.

Crucial technologies I want to master: the components of HTML5 (HTML, CSS, JavaScript), jQuery, and for stuff such as web scraping I need a language such as Python.

Data Journalism is something we’re learning at our media company, and our teacher is Peter Verweij (who was so kind as to include the very basics of using spreadsheets in his program).

– Finally there is a big experiment of helping a newsroom to adapt to the age of never-ending social media streams, community interaction and digital storytelling.

Frankly, all this is pretty exhausting – but at least it forces me to focus for longer periods of time on the same subjects. In this sense it’s immersive – when one is trying to meet some Python course objective, times passes very fast – it’s like playing in some 3D environment.

Is something changing?

These last few years I got the impression we were evolving from longer, immersive experiences to sequences of fast dipping in and out of media streams (status updates, tweets etc). In that context I was not surprised an immersive envrionment such as Second Life was stagnating. It quite simply takes too much time and our attention spans were getting too short for this.

But think again. Maybe we once again want something more. People start complaining about the ‘Facebook-experience’. They start reading books such as Net Smart or meditate about mindfulness. But there’s also something going on at the technology-side of things.

Philip Rosedale, Chairman of Linden LabPhilip Rosedale (archive picture), the founding father of Second Life, has a new company, High Fidelity, to create a new kind of virtual reality platform. True Ventures invested in the company. It’s about a new virtual world enabling rich avatar interactions driven by sensor-equipped hardware, simulated and served by devices (phones, tablets and laptops/desktops) contributed by end-users. Virtual worlds watcher Wagner James Au on New World Notes says that Rosedale is not alone: others are working hard to create new virtual reality platforms: “Overall, this feels like a real trend, made possible by continued leaps in computer power, especially related to 3D graphics, and their continued drop in price.”

But maybe this new trend is also driven by the need of balancing the short attention bursts by longer periods of mindful attention…

Read also: 

True Ventures about the investment in High Fidelity.

Teaching journalists to become entrepreneurs…

Student journalists, financing their projects through the French crowdsourcing platform KissKissBankBank, that’s what I encountered last Saturday in the offices of the Belgian startup accelerator NestUp at Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium). The journalist/teacher/entrepreneur/blogger Damain Van Achter facilitates the project. He is a guy who teaches his students to first learn the rules, then break them. Anyway, what he actually teaches them, is to thrive in a media environment which will become totally disrupted.

They also learn themselves to sell their projects on the crowdfinancing platform and to their peers. It involves communicating and connecting, also after they manage to get the money – they need to explain what they’re doing and how the project advances.

In some cases this is a great way to finance the making of a video, in other cases it may lead to the creation of a more permanent project or even… a media company.