The last time I took a written test, I found myself very frustrated. I was sitting by myself in a room, answering questions on a sheet of paper, cut off from the large network of people I have digitally gathered around me over the years. The questions were testing my knowledge, not how I could put knowledge to use with the help of my extended social networks, which, practically, is how I would solve the problem. We are increasingly living in a world where our general understanding of things is more important than the particular details we can remember; we are using our brains more to make sketches of how things work and letting things like Google and our social networks fill in the blanks. Rather than spending time memorizing, we are jumping up the ladder and processing meaning and use. We expand our understanding knowing that the details will come via our always-on internet connections.
And this is why your social networks are important. You store information in your social networks, in the people you trust and communicate with. One of your friends reads a lot of historical novels; when you need to know the name of Henry VIII’s second wife, you can ask him. Or you can just Google it. You don’t need to store that name in your grey matter. You know you don’t need to; you know Henry VIII had a second wife. And that’s largely enough. Your friend would be happy to chat with you about English history, and when your friend stumbles into an area you’re interested in, you’re happy to chat with him about that. Reciprocal information-sharing. Two heads are better than one!
Step one in creating and using a social network is to acknowledge that it’s there. Asking a friend is something they let you do on TV game shows, but we often don’t see that knowledge network as real or valuable in our professional lives. But it’s probably the biggest asset we have. Your social network is your living library. You are part of other people’s living libraries. One of the best things you can do is to contribute to your network when they need your obscure knowledge and educated opinion. Engage with your network; provide ideas, thoughts, where required. Let your network shine by employing your knowledge. Then you can do the same.
I would comfortably posit that people at certain stages in their lives don’t have functionally useful networks. This might be because your network isn’t comfortable in its knowledge yet, or that knowledge isn’t yet solidified, or that the individuals in your network haven’t had a chance yet to set out on its own and develop knowledge and experience independent of their peers. If everyone in your network reads the same books, has similar summer jobs, and lives in the same town, that network isn’t going to be terribly useful to you. So branch out a bit: cultivate difference. Embrace it. Share your experiences. Become expert at something. It doesn’t have to be something lofty; it could be about gardening in a micoclimate, or knitting, or the history of a pop band, or the works of Margaret Atwood, or doing laundry. Become the go-to person. Everyone has expertise in something; if we pool all that expertise together, we get a really interesting resource that makes us all better people.
I’ve found that the deeper I dig into my passion (which is my work: internet apps in academia), the more obscure my knowledge and expertise gets. And so does that of my friends and my peers. So my networks have become really interesting and rich. I know that if I announce an opinion on a social network (facebook, twitter, my blog, etc.), I will surely get some diverse responses. Because the people I care about are coming from so many different spaces, I am enriched by interacting with them.
We largely categorize this kind of interaction as “social” and therefore “fun” and therefore “not work/serious”. But interacting with our networks is often the key that opens up whole new worlds for us. Our friends and our peers shape us, just as much as official, serious education and information do (likely far more). Let’s just acknowledge that while our friends are great and fun and we blow off steam with them and have fun with them, they are still valid sources of information and growth for us. Often when we’re working on a thorny problem, and have a few IM windows open, and Twitter, and Facebook, and are composing a blog post, we’re not just messing around on the internet. It might be fun, it might be building our friendships, it might look like we’re not paying proper attention, but in actual fact we are learning and processing and drawing on the collective knowledge of our networks. Even pure socializing, pure “not-work”, is part of building a real and useful social network. We are laying the groundwork to trust and share with our peers.
So: is it a bad thing to have facebook open at work? It can be if it’s distracting you from getting something done. I remember back at library school everyone would open up their IM clients and complain about the assignment we all had due. It can distract, it can act as the thing you do instead of doing what you need to do. Or, we can use these tools to build ourselves. We can use them as our interactive library. The thing itself isn’t the problem; it’s how we use it.
This is largely why I like to share what I’m thinking about or experiencing via social networks. I know that many of my friends and peers find it engaging and thought-provoking professionally, and I find the same when they share their work with me. I get to benefit from their learning when they share it. My professional development expands via sharing. When I attend an event about a subject I’m only passingly familiar with, I go to that event with the collective knowledge of my network, who correct my assumptions and add colour to the details I learn.
So embrace your social network. Cultivate it. add to it the people who challenge and inspire you. Let your network build you into the sort of person you want to be, and return the favour.