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How to Create a Useful Social Network

How to Create a Useful Social Network

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.



So: new job title (“Emerging Technologies Librarian”). Definitely something that I wanted to see happen. I feel like it reflects what I actually do a lot better. Though I have pangs of regret when I think about instructional technology, but the lines are still blurry. Now I deliberately look at emerging technologies in teaching and learning, or maybe ones that haven’t quite emerged at all yet. Also emerging technologies as they apply to libraries in general, and our library in particular.

It’s exciting to have a job title that reflects what I’m already doing anyway, but it’s also kind of intimidating. I mean, keeping up with the trends was something I did as a bonus. Suddenly it’s in my job title.

So I was thinking about what trends I’m currently tracking, and I wonder how they fit into the whole “emerging” thing.

Second Life/Virtual Worlds. I’ve been on this one for a while, but I still think it’s emerging. Mostly because I think no one’s popularized the one true way to use virtual worlds in teaching and learning yet. In fact, there are so many wrong ways in practice currently that many people are getting turned off using Second Life in teaching. I’m still interested in it. I’m a builder, I’m interested in what you could use the environment for to build things and have students build things. A giant collaborative place filled with student-created expression of course content would be awesome. So I’m holding on to this one.

Twitter. I can’t believe I’m putting it on the list, but I am. Mostly because I’ve been talking about how great it is at a conference for some time now and I’m starting to see the argument come back to me from much larger places. People complain about what people twitter during events (“Too critical! Too snarky! The audience is the new keynote!”), but that’s pretty much exactly what would make things interesting in a classroom. I want to install the open source version and try it out with a willing instructor. I’m also interested in it for easy website updates, but most people would tell me that that’s a total misuse of the application. (Too bad!)

Ubiquitous Computing. I’ll say that instead of mobile devices. The hardware will come and go, but the concept of ubiquity for computing is fascinating. It’s coming in fits and starts; I want to see how I can push this one in small ways in the library. Computing without the computer. Ideally without a cell phone either. This is something I’m going to track for a good long while. I have this ubiquitous future in my head that seems like a perfect setting for a cyberpunk novel. (I might get around to writing it one of these days.)

Cheap Storage. As a rule hardware isn’t my area, but I’m interested to see what it means that storage capacity is getting so crazily cheap. If I can carry 120 gb in my pocket without even noticing it, what does that mean for computing in general?

Cloud Computing. This goes along with the cheap storage. Jeremy tells me we will never be affected by the cloud because we are a locked down environment for the most part, but I think he might be wrong. Even if we can’t fully employ the cloud because of security and legal limitations, I think the concept of cloud computing will sink into the consciousnesses of our users. We will need to be prepared to offer services as easily as the cloud can.

Netbooks. This fits in with cloud computing and cheap storage; if we can have tiny little computers with us at all times, massive amounts of physical storage and powerful applications coming down from the cloud, what does the world end up looking like?

Social Networks. Embracing the networks you have, on facebook, on IRC, on Twitter, on IM, wherever. Accepting that we are no longer a culture that uses its brain for information storage; we are processors, connectors. We store our knowledge in machines and in our networks. While social software may look like too much fun to be productive, those social networks are what’s going to scaffold us through most of the rest of our lives. Learning how to respectfully and usefully employ our networks as part of our learning (and teaching, for that matter) is an important skill.

There are some other pieces that are just never going to go away: blogging (for librarians!), wikis for everyone, IM: I think we’ve finally reached a point where we can intelligently choose the best tool for the task at hand from an incredible range of options. So I think part of the emerging trend is to use what’s best, not necessarily what’s most powerful, most expensive, or most popular. Things like twitter and netbooks are evidence of that: sometimes you don’t need all the bells and whistles.

So that’s my emerging update of the moment.