Don’t choose your online networking space(s) first

I invariably try to frame whatever I’m writing or talking about in a resolutely positive way. Turn the statements around. Glass half full. And all that.

As I feel strongly about this topic, I’m going to stick to a negative assertion that struck me as I was thinking about this blog post. If there is one that might stick it’s this: whatever you do, don’t choose the tools or spaces for an online network first.

It feels trite to say it’s necessary to begin by understanding the particular needs of each organisation (or amorphous network) and what people are seeking to do.

Isn’t this so, so obvious? Does it really need saying? Aren’t all online groups basically the same away?

For a number of reasons, we do need to reassert a fairly predictable starting point.

We’re bombarded with sales pitches, free ways to form groups at the drop of a button, and hear of countless others setting up groups on this or that platform. Why don’t we do the same?

Under pressure to do something, getting started is better than doing nothing.

I’m writing about this now after making just this point to the Comm2Comms network in Wellington last week. (See my “Choosing the right online spaces to support your unique network(s) presentation” notes.)

In brief, I recommended people think about practices and activities first, and then match these with online tools or spaces. In the end we didn’t directly address what can be a very long list of tools. But we certainly talked around the rationale for networks. (BTW: for a jumbled list of tools, take a look at my delicious links listing online networking and related applications.)

I am grateful for the work of community of practice luminaries Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John D Smith who have given anyone wanting to successfully use technology to support learning networks some sound guidance in their book “Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities” (2009).

Leaving aside the approach to technology acquisition, ongoing support and all that jazz, Wenger et al, offer a useful way for understanding the different foci of groups. There starting point is with what they call orientations. These are described as:

“a typical pattern of activities and connections through which members experience being a community”.

Orientations could be described as the things people actually do (or want to focus on) within a network. This could be: holding meetings, online or off; having open-ended conversations; running projects; accessing expertise; enabling individual participation; forming and maintaining relationships. This is by no means a definitive list, rather it’s offered as a starting point.

To get to the point, if you are clear on the orientation(s) then everything else will follow. Included in “Digital Habitats” are useful guides for each of the nine orientations. Each of these matches the types of things people want to do with the practices that will keep them alive, and, yes, the tools.

During the workshop I did say that anyone running a network shouldn’t expect people to be monogamous. Thinking people will loyally participate in just a single online space or place is unrealistic.

With the exploding demands for our attention every online network needs to be relevant. Even with a group different people with varying levels of technology nous will want to interact in different ways. Better to accept this than fight against the flow.

Somehow I’ve ended up saying much more than my heading. In hindsight, perhaps I should rename it “Setting up thriving online networks – where to start”.

Is this relevant to your organisation or network?

Below are the slides of my presentation, plus I’ve listed the links I referred to about online networking resources. I am available to repeat or customise this presentation for your unique network. Contact me.

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