Tag Archives: technology-stewarding

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.

Staying on top of the information avalanche

Orange RSS logo made from fabric on jacketAt the end of my workshop I quipped “I hope you haven’t ended up more overloaded than when you began.” The participants in my workshop at the Engage your community conference on Friday smiled warily in reply.

Setting out to cover the main bases of how to fine-tune harvesting information online meant we had to cover a lot of ground.

During the 2.5 hour session we touched on email alerts, email filtering/ rules, twitter, url shorteners, social bookmarking, dashboards and folksonomies. The main focus was on using RSS to manage the information flow, and blogging networks.

The benefits of staying in touch and contributing to a virtual network of fellow bloggers can be very rewarding. The opportunity for interaction combined with personal reflection makes for a great way to learn. Fortunately I found an article on online that sets out the key ideas behind a blogging network, so I won’t expound on these here. (See “How do you build community?” by Denise on here Flamingo House Happenings blog.)

The utter lack of standardisation on the internet is no more apparent than with the RSS button. It appears on websites not only in standard orange, but also in blue, green, grey and other rogue colours. Try explaning why this might be to people new to using RSS.

Another challenge for me as trainer was explaining why an RSS feed one of the participants found couldn’t be imported into a reader. (I’d welcome any explanations about the offending RSS feed didn’t work, the URL is http://www.nrl.com/ajax.aspx?Feed=News.RSS&moduleId=114260).

The most important question that arose was, what is the best way of receiving updates?

My answer was: it depends.

Choices include: using online services, eg Google Reader, Bloglines, MyYahoo, PageFlakes; installing software on your computer eg RSSOwl, NetNewsWire, FeedDemon; using your browser, eg LiveBookmarks in Firefox, or Favorites in Internet Explorer; and I’m sure there are other ways I haven’t come across.

Each of the options has pros and cons. As I didn’t really get time to go into this in-depth on Friday I’ll cover this briefly based on my own experiences.

I use Google Reader as it means I can read feeds anywhere there is an internet connection (using my computer or someone elses). It also means I can add new subscriptions when I find them rather doing later, which l invariably forget to do. The tagging and sorting features are strong, plus there are ways you can follow people or explore sources of new feeds. Importantly, it’s moderately uncluttered so actually reading articles is fine.

At the same time I also use a desktop client called NetNewsWire (for Mac OS only). Fortunately this syncs with Google Reader so I get exactly the same list. I want a desktop client so I can scan, search and read articles (or excerpts) without needing to be connected to the internet. The sorting features and readibility meet my peculiar standards.

I’ve never been drawn to following feeds in my Browser (or Email client such as Thunderbird) as these lack the powerful sorting/ highlighting features of the others and updates don’t follow you around. I also don’t find lists in the browser easy to navigate or the most attractive reading option.

Now, I can imagine someone liking the reverse of what I do. Perhaps you’d like to have one place to look at all your updates, and if you subscribe to a few sources sorting is not so important.

Although anything goes, I’d suggest you don’t get stuck with the first option you come across (which is likely to be browser based as it’s obvious). Try it out another way of subscribing. Check first that you can export your subscription, as you can easily move if you can do this (something that’s important if you follow more than a handful of feeds). I’ve changed RSS clients 3 or 4 times in the last five years.

I’m not about to launch a campaign to promote recognition of the neglected RSS service (for an honour after an industrious career, in web years at least). But I will say that anyone who is serious about staying on top of the information avalanche should take a look at using RSS to stay in control.

PS For anyone who attended my workshop, I’m still waiting for a reply from the insurance company about whether my laptop is repairable, or if they’ll replace it. Unfortunately I had a Minities moment at the beginning of the session. A glass of water ended up on my keyboard. For those of you that we’ren’t there, this didn’t stop me.


Fine-tune how you harvest information slides
Fine-tune how you harvest information resource list on wikispaces
A list of RSS readers on AlternitveTo.net

Photo credit: Popoever.

Does the tool really do the job?

I’m up to my eyeballs investigating options for running a live, online launch. It’s interesting that once you take the wrapping off the box of some of the web conference products you quickly find out just what the strengths and limitations are.

The marketing hype promises seamless use of video and application sharing. But during a recent trial of Webex Event Centre we spent an hour viewing barely a single moving image. Somehow the formats uploaded didn’t work (mainly because I was uploading from a Mac), then there was a problem from down the line when somebody didn’t have all the right browser plugins or Java updates.

It was frustrating and pre-figured some of the difficulties participants may face.

Our fears about the likely difficulties of running an online event in the way we envisage were realised. For all the convenience all-in-one web conference software might offer (ie integrated presentations, whiteboards, VOIP, chat, recording, registration, etc) it seems sharing pre-recorded video is not a strength.

The lesson in all this is not to take the claims of marketers at face value (who is surprised when I suggest this), and really drill down into the specifics of what is offered. I’m realistic to know some trade-offs are inevitable, but it’s best not to sacrifice the most important type of interaction or content to be shared. In this instance it’s all about wanting to share high quality video.

The matching of technology to audience, event goals, and processes is actually a complicated business. It’s something we’re all having to grapple with in the #FO09 course. In November students are jointly running an online mini-conference. Each is choosing the way to deliver each conference sessions, as well as the topic, with initial ideas being shared through the course wiki.

Facilitating learning in an online setting, raises some alarm bells for my classmate Willie Campbell. She says:

I am conscious of the constraints and affordances of any platform you use to work with others in an educational way. Doesn’t matter whether or not it is digital or manual. SO choose wisely- is this piece of digital technology able to be accessed, understood, interpreted by your group of learners? If not, then why are you choosing it?

With my recent experiences and Willie’s words ringing in my ear, I actually think it is very relevant to delve into methods and practices that help community leaders and teachers get the balance right between activities, processes and technology choices. In a few words this seems to be about stewarding technology for communities, as described by Wenger, White and Smith in Digital Habitats.

The mini-conference is open to the wider public so I’m keen to hear about the level of interest in a session exploring these sorts of issues. Two options present themselves: hearing from someone who has studied in this area, or inviting two or three local practitioners to share their insights and then have a conversation.

I’ve got a month to get organised, so let me know your views.

BTW: I’m not one to be put off, so we have begun exploring another avenue to host the live website launch. The goal is to remove any impediments to people joining in, particularly any software constraints that mean people walk away dis-satisfied and potentially bearing some sort of a grudge against the website being launched.

Personal technology configuration: backups

Yesterday when I arrived at Deirdre Kent’s place she was sitting with a friend sharing tools and tips for using their laptop computers. It looked liked they were having a productive session. Deirdre is a convenor of the Transition Towns Aotearoa social media network.

It’s about the third time in the last fortnight where I’ve encountered people talking about their peculiar mix of technology and practices to get work done, communicate, and ideally be creative.

On the groupings blog Earl draws out some insights from a post by Nancy White describing what he sees as an “Object lesson in ICT competence”. Nancy has written about the “the architecture of the information technology of a person busy online” (see “the social media I use”, 12 August 2009).

Earl suggests she “never, ever, uses just one [tool] for any particular task”.  The list for email alone includes the Eudora email client, two Gmail accounts, web-based mail plus probably a Yahoo or Hotmail account.

The question raised on the groupings blog is “whether this feels doable and reasonable or just a welter of work and organisation that is too steep a cliff to climb?” I’d suggest many individual practices come about in an organic way. New needs dictate new tools, but the old ways don’t necessarily disappear. This is different to how organisations generally approach things where planning and some element of rigor plays a far greater role.

Pausing for a second to look at my personal technology configuration, to use Nancy’s phrase, most of what I end up doing is the result of a happy accident or an urgent need. It’s got me thinking I could write about some of the ways I learn and adapt what tools I use, how and why.

My back-up regime is classic example. Most of my back-up is manual. Even though I’m using the ChronoSync programme which allows for scheduling I’ve never got around to learning how to set this up. Instead I’ve got a weekly habit of backing up at a specific time.

It’s a bit complicated so I’ve got a list. I’m want my back-up to cater for recovery of any files I accidentally over-write and for disaster recovery (including fire), so I’ve got a combination of on-site and online back-up. I mostly save just files I’m working on plus associated resources, though I do have an old snapshot of the entire contents of my hard-drive.

At the moment this is the backup I’ve got in place:

  1. Hourly: Portable hard-drive using Time Machine programme which makes back-ups via Firewire cable. I’m able to instantly retrieve files from the last month.
  2. Daily: synchronised backup to JungleDisk, online service. I found this particular service after reading an opinion piece in by Cory Doctorow called “Not every cloud has a silver lining”. My data is transferred securely and can be encrypted. I’m able to drag and drop files or use my file sync programme. I only pay for data transferred or stored, rather than a set amount per month. As it’s backed by Amazon I feel pretty confident about the reliability of the service.
  3. Weekly: synchronised backup to my 80GB iPod and another computer. As I generally take my music player out with me I class this as offsite storage. With an iPod files will easily be able to extracted, singly or en masse, should I need it.

To get another perspective on backups, listen to Peter Griffin reviewing some of the free and paid-for options for storing and backing up your important personal data online (see “Digital back-ups”). (This aired on This Way Up on Saturday 3 October is available online for  up to 10 weeks).

As my backup regime is something that’s evolved over the last few years I’ve grown to be pretty comfortable with it, but I don’t know if it’d stand-up to outside scrutiny.  Perhaps reflecting on my personal technology configuration and sharing my thoughts might lead to some changes. As I’m not going to do everything at once I definitely think it’s doable and reasonable, to answer Earl’s question.