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On trust and how communities are organised

December 18th, 2007 by Graham Attwell

The debate over the closure of eduspaces continues apace. And whilst the decision was originally largely accepted there is growing disquiet over the way on which the closure has been handled – see eduspaces discussion group.

Obviously much of the discussion centers on trying to find a solution to the problem with various offers being put forward.

More fundamental issues will have to be discussed once the short term problem is solved (or not as increasingly seems likely). For me the whole debacle raises major issues over how communities are organised.

Once it would have been relatively easy to answer this question. Face to face communities usually have at least some form of representative organisation – albeit elected, appointed or often self appointed.

It is not so simple with on-line communities. The nature of the eduspaces community needs further examination. A cursory examination suggest many of the groups on eduspaces had few members with little activity. Many of the blog entries, like my own may have been feed inputs from other blogs. So why does the edtech community feel so upset by the closure?

I suggest for two reasons. Curverider and elgg were not just another open source or social software provider. Elgg was seen as coming from our community and we were proud of it (and of Dave and Ben’s achievement). The closure – and especially the way the closure was handled feels like a betrayal in the trust we felt we had.

Secondly is the impact of the closure for those of us who have advocated the use of social software and open source in education. There will be an inevitable fallout in terms of trust of social software. That fallout may well extend to open source. In that regard, Curverider may have badly underestimated the damage they will suffer long term. Trust is not a commodity that can be bought. Inevitably many people are wondering about the future of elgg, which, like eduspaces, is reliant on the support of Curverider.

The eduspaces closure calls into question the way in which online communities are organised (or not) and the relationship between communities, social network providers and software developers. As far as I can see, eduspaces never had any form of community organisation. Curverider set it up and ‘gave’ it to the community. But of course with no organisation, Eduspaces was always the gift of Curverider, to give or to take away. The lack of any discussion between Curverider and the eduspaces community has been one of the most disturbing aspects of the whole affair. But it is a two way thing. With no community organisation there was no body who could engage with Curverider over the future direction of the platform.

The biggest lesson for me is that in future where communities are established, we have to develop ‘organised’ relations between software and service providers and community developers. This in turn may require a reappraisal of the way in which education organisations and communities relate to social software developments.

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2 Responses to “On trust and how communities are organised”

  1. Hello, Graham,

    What’s interesting about the conversation taking place over on eduspaces is that, amidst all the talk of finding a new home for the site, no one is mentioning that they are talking about moving more than a simple php/mysql based app. Eduspaces has been entrusted with a large amount of personal data by end users — many of the people volunteering to take over the eduspaces site are connected with commercial entities working in the field, and access to the userbase of a self-selected group of educators has value as both a rolodex and as a means of studying online community. While I am sure they have the best of intentions, the issue of user privacy — and the steps any new host will take to ensure it — should at least be discussed by any entity volunteering as the new host.

    While people are looking at the technical side of the issue (ie, hard drive space, processor resources, server configurations) they are completely overlooking the user privacy aspect of the problem.



  2. Lanny Arvan says:

    Graham –

    If you do write more about this I’d encourage you to take on a clearly imperfect but perhaps helpful comparison with investors in the stock market. Sometimes there is irrational exuberance that results in a bubble, which ultimately bursts making holders of the stock disconsolate but perhaps creating an overall benefit that the stock value becomes more closely tied to fundamentals. Other times knowledgeable insiders withhold information so the unsuspecting public maintains a trust that isn’t warranted. Perhaps this second case can be further divided into stances where there is out and out fraud versus cases where the insiders intend to act reputably but get caught in trying to time their announcement rather than getting out the news immediately.

    This comparison might help in trying to identify what it is we want among those alternatives that really are possible.

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