I just finished reading Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky (I know, I am about a year late to the conversation — the same thing happened with me and The World is Flat) and my reading of the book comes as I am working with my friend, Bonnie, to create a social network for members of the National Writing Project in the New England and New York region.
We are using a closed Ning social networking site and we hope to model it on a very successful networking venture that the National Writing Project oversees each summer called the eAnthology, which is open only for the summer months. We’re calling our smaller network the iAnthology. It’s experimental and we’re not sure how it will go. But we’re hopeful that we can grow the space into a supportive environment for teachers in our NWP sites to write, share and reflect.
So, as I am reading Here Comes Everybody, some of the concepts that Shirky so clearly articulates begins to resonate off my thinking of how to create the framework of a site that the users can take ownership of and see as their own. It’s clear to me that providing the structure is critical. If users of a network feel affinity with the group, and feel safe in that group, then the network becomes viable. If not — if the network is alien to the interests of the individual — then the network fails.
Here are some ideas that came to mind when reading the book:
- Shirky explains the concept of the Power Law Distribution of networks. It’s a big term which shows how in any large group, there is not an even dispersion of activity. Instead, a large number of a group or network participate only once so often. A much smaller group is active every now and then, depending on their own interests. And a very small group is regularly active. While the network’s survival relies on the large numbers to remain vibrant, it is the small group of leaders who must remain engaged by guiding discussions, presenting new information and encouraging the others to keep connected. In our iAnthology, we have a group of “moderators” whose role will be that of encouragers and overseeing feedback for writing in a supportive way.
- The idea of Small World Connectors is another interesting element to networks, in that people in a network have some natural things that connect them to each other. In our case, it is the National Writing Project and the experience of our summer program called the Summer Institute. We hope folks already self-identify with NWP and view our space as a mirror of sorts of the environment created by NWP in its programs. Also, given that we are limiting the NWP sites involved, we hope that members of our network will know, or know of, folks in the network. These personal connections (think Six Degrees of Separation) will provide a tighter framework for trust and support, or so we hope.
- Shirky notes how small clusters of conversations work more powerfully that large conversations. People feel less invested if they are part of a group of 100 people talking than if it is a group of 10 people. Their opinion matters more because it is less dispersed. In our site, we are setting up “groups” where people can post their writing based on certain umbrella ideas: personal writing, such as poetry or short stories; professional writing, for journals or book projects; sharing classroom practices and lesson plans; and finding ways to connect with other teachers and classrooms within the network itself.
I’m sure there is more here, but these elements seemed important for us to keep in mind as we move forward.
Peace (in the networks),