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Donkeys, communities and social software

July 8th, 2008 by Graham Attwell

Picture by Tank girl -

(Photo by tankgirl) Yesterday I was talking with Cristina Costa on skype about supporting communities of practice with social software. Talking about one of the groups she works with she said: “getting this community to twitter is proving harder than getting a donkey to walk downhill.” LOL. Well I nearly fell off my chair. I didn’t know that it was hard to get a donkey to walk downhill but it seems it is. I feel a graphic coming on.

But seriously, Cristina’s point does raise some issues. Much of Pontydysgu’s work is developing applications to support social networking in communities of practice and, perhaps more importantly, facilitating the process of social collaboration and learning. Most of the communities we work in are not techy. They are not interested in the technology itself but the affordances it provides in their work and work-life.

It is not easy. Many people are unsure about technologies. Even simple interfaces can be confusing. People are especially confused by us using so many different tools. And for the more techncially confident, people often have their own favoured tools and ways of working. What one person likes is not necessarily what suits another. My friend Jenny and I both have the same Ibooks. We have much the same software. But we use the machines in totally different ways. She files things carefully in a well organised folder structure. She closes one programe before opening another. I only close a programme if the machine starts grinding to a halt. I tend to leave things lying around everywhere and use the search function when I want to find something.

People are also struggling with multiple community sites. We cannot blog everywhere. And only a minority are used to using newsreaders so tend to feel every new community is an imposition to have to log in to find out what is going on. More fundamenatelly, many people are not comfortable or do not wish to share personal data and be so open in their personal lives in the way that we have come to associate with social software. Many people value their privacy. Twitter seems to be for those who make little distinction between their personal and work lives. Yet many of those we work with do make a distinction.

Communities of Practice are bound by a shared practice and shared artefacts of that practice. ICT based applications can support the sharing of practice but are not in themselves an artefact of the practice. There is no reason why members of Communities of Practice will have the same experience of using software or have the same attitudes towards personal openness and sharing.

One of the big problems we constantly face is terminology. On one site we run I had used the term ‘About me’. The project co-ordinator was insistent we changed this to ‘profile’ saying this was the accepted term. Others of course will find such a term less friendly. How do we resolve such issues. Sometimes I fall back on that old idiom that our software would work perfectly if it was not for users! But, at the end of the day, much is down to the motivation to learn – what in Germany is called ‘Bereit(schaft)’. However we design the software it will always require some learning and without an openess to trying things , to experimenting, to learning, we will fail to involve individuals in the community.

The challenge for us is to overcome these issues. Be interested to know what you think Cristina.

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One Response to “Donkeys, communities and social software”

  1. hi Graham – it is always great to be quoted! LOL (blushing)

    Anyway, I totally agree with you. You say “Communities of Practice are bound by a shared practice and shared artefacts of that practice”, and I think I can add to that that communities are also bound by its actors, by the people who (are willing to ) make it work. You rarely stay long in a community for the same reason you joined it in the first place . You stay because you have created bonds with the people, many times friends, because you have found your comfort zone, because it has become a familiar place, because you know that there you have people you learned you can trust,etc. That cannot be achieved with the software per se, but the software can be used to mediate those messages… to set up and run humarware inside the community.

    There are no recipes to how to get a group of people involved online and help them mature into a community, although you can argue there are some guideline. The truth s It takes time, it takes patience and it especially takes self-initiative and motivation. Without those there is nothing you can do.

    Now picking up on the Donkey metaphor – I remember this episode very lively – I was on the country side and this donkey which was on a hill was refusing to come down, regardless of its master’s efforts to make the poor animal walk. Do you how they succeeded to make it walk? They covered its eyes with a cloth and the donkey trusted someone would guide it while not realizing he was walking “on the edge”. I wish software was much easier to use than it is, and that there were no pre-concepts about social networking. I wish we all became software-blind!
    We would then not say we were going to twitter or blog, and immediately picture the tool we were going to use. We would instead picture the content of our messages and the purpose of such actions: wider communication, sharing and reflection = learning.

    It will become easier, just like it happened with the telephone. More than half a century ago many people would get nervous just to hear the ring of the telephone or make a phone call. It was not a something natural to them and making a telephone call in those days was hard work. Today you push a button and you are on the other side of the continent. You don’t even have to speak louder (as my grandpa thought) because the distance doesn’t really matter anymore.

    There is only psychological distance. The challenge is to overcome it. I think the way is to mentor people. To inspire them to try new ways of learning, to make them feel we know what is like to be in their shoes because we have been there ourselves…and because we are also learning. It is important to provide constant support as it is to address people in a way they feel they can trust us, and that we are available to help them answer their questions and walk their learning path. But all of that if they wish to.
    In short, it all has to do with self motivation and how the moderators and the “technology Stewards” address people and use the right tone to do so! …not always easy…you need to understand the individuals, to be available to listen and to let them know they are being listened to! ….

    The software is only about pushing buttons; the humanware is about appealing to people’s hearts in order to make them push what they thought to be their limits!,

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