This is Progress?

Twitter opened a world to me. All the great educational technologists and teachers, posting links and talking to each other and to me. Often every day. It was riveting to follow the flow of conversation, check out the links. I’d post a question about an application, or Moodle, or which camera I should buy, and I’d get advice from several people whose opinion I trusted, within a few hours. Unlike many who use Twitter, I wasn’t posting what I had for breakfast and neither were they. This was cool professional development.

But then I noticed, as the number of my “followers”, and those I “followed” increased, everything spread out. I follow 121 people. 394 follow me. But some of the people I follow, they follow thousands (like *Alec Couros, at a whopping 2,146). New apps (like <*Tweetdeck) were designed to help us sort the tweets, because they all scroll by so fast when following so many people. We could sort into columns by who we really, really wanted to read. Or use hashtags to follow topics we really, really wanted to follow.

I notice now, over the past few months, that my tweets for help or advice are only answered by one or two people, usually none. If I don’t use an “@” symbol to talk to someone specific, I rarely get a response. One day I tweeted:

I think there are now so many people on Twitter that no one can keep up — I’m getting great ideas, but few answers to questions now

I received (one) response in agreement. People have overloaded themselves with followers, and in an attempt to preserve sanity actually only communicate with a few.

I am noticing a similar pattern with many of the social networking tools used by educators. Nings and Facebook groups are established, then abandoned. Our RSS readers fill up until we give up and actually read very little (what, our readers don’t read for us?). Sometimes I scan for hours and find fascinating tidbits I don’t know what to do with. I bookmark them, socially of course, on Delicious, but rarely go back to them unless I remember I did that.

Although there seem to be new technologies every day, the basic formats are calcifying. Wikis are a great idea, because people can collaborate. But in practice, people don’t really want to work inside other people’s wikis (come on over and paint a wall at my house, will you?). Blogs, because of their post/comment format, are most conducive to presentation, then commentary, not true conversations. There are also problems with the keys. We’re tired of logging in differently everywhere (yeah, that OpenID thing was a fine idea, but didn’t work), so we don’t bother to show up at all. The cocktail party goes on without us. We’d look it up later except that, in a desire to maintain individuality, no one is tagging stuff the same way.

Aggregation, which was supposed to make it possible for us to follow only the people and trends that were important to us, has atrophied. RSS is stuck in a phase where it is still overly visible and geeky to be useful to most people. It’s like a British hot water heater, requiring continual tinkering. “Friendly” aggregators like MyYahoo never advanced beyond their “customizable home page” idea. I can put everything on Pageflakes, but I have to log into everything individually anyway, so why bother? I could join a Ning, but each Ning also requires its own log-in.

On the other hand, Google tries so hard at single log-in it’s creepy, as they persistently invite me to sign in with my Google ID to sites that used to be independent. But Facebook is even darker, with its targeted individualized collection of user information. All this is so they can market to me, personally. The Google method is algorithms, based on use (unfortunately for them, my use varies depending on what I’m researching at that minute, not what I looked for last time). The Amazon/Facebook way is to target me via my purchases (if I buy a flea comb to clean my fingernails, I will receive ads for cat food). The Firefox way is to offer oodles of “plug ins” (all of which should have been included and invisible by now), pastry tips on the firehose of information.

The persistent lack of profitability from all these methods causes its own problem. Some of the trendiest tech conferences won’t UStream their sessions, because they need people to come and pay at the conference. Web apps let you create great multimedia…things…but you can’t download them in a common format. Web app companies don’t want you to download the products you create, because then you won’t need to come back into the program, where they want you to pay, or see advertising. Often such “free” apps are stuck in permanent beta (I still can’t move the text box in Zoho Show without erasing it).

Desktop technology isn’t any better, even as prices rise. Apple’s software continues to devolve rather than improve (sure, you can do chapter markers in iMovie, but they don’t transfer to iDVD) and the best use of their glossy monitor is to see people sneaking up behind you. It’s hard to find an inexpensive netbook that doesn’t have Windows Hasta-La-Vista pre-installed, and MS Office for Mac is simply awful. But we pay for new machines because we need the speed, and we need the speed to use all those web applications to create the cool stuff we can’t download.

I see no great vision out there. After a hot couple of years of innovation, things have gone glacial. And I can’t even figure out which camera to buy. Maybe it’s time to post about that Mesa Sunrise cereal I had this morning.

14 comments to This is Progress?

  • I relate quite strongly to your point about Twitter. I’m following 455 people, and it is like drinking from a firehose. You’re one of the people whose Tweets I will always follow and respond to – if I manage to see them. As you say though, when you’re following 455 people, on the active days your updates look like a Wall Street ticker tape. It’s incredible.

    Personally I still sit quite strongly in the blog camp. It’s the medium I allow myself the most time to for slow consumption and consideration of meaning and response.

    RSS comes into play there too as a supporting technology (that’s how I found this post), but again when you’re following several dozen feeds (as I am) you tend to get a bit brutal about what you filter out and what you don’t.

    To me this really highlights the significance of network development; of locating people you identify with and cultivating relationships with them that can facilitate more in depth discussion. Without the networks the technical frameworks lose their value tremendously I think, so when we talk about blogs, wikis, Twitter, etcetera – I think it must be a core component of the discussion.

  • Hi Lisa,

    Your observation about Twitter seems dead-on to me: as the number of people you follow increases, the amount of per capita attention you can devote to each one decreases. This is true for streams (of data, of relationships, whatever) that require our necessarily finite attention: in order to make the pie get all the way around the table, you end up cutting it into smaller and smaller pieces.

    But this, by itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When I first started using Twitter or RSS, I obsessed over reading every word of every tweet or feed item. Now I don’t. But here’s the thing: Overall, I think I still read just as many tweets/items – possibly even more. It’s just that I now pull that material from a larger variety of sources.

    Herein lies the real problem, which I think is echoed in what Mike says above. The deeper your engagement with an information-gathering technology becomes, the greater becomes the importance of the skill of finding the worthwhile information in a firehose stream – the skill of filtering. The personal network development that Mike suggests is one sort of filter: when information comes from person X, I am more likely to give it more careful scrutiny than person Y.

    A big +1 on your comments regarding ever-more-powerful computers to run ever-more-bloated software. Ick.

  • I can’t believe this!! Probably the topic of this post is the most important at this moment and nobody seems to care. Nobody wants to discuss about the problems pointed by Lisa. It deserves a conference. I am having all these problems myself!!

  • It does make me wonder where the conversation is happening — must be out there somewhere, Eduardo… somewhere in between the anti-tech and the pro-tech people.

  • Yes, the pro-tech people don’t want to discuss all these and other problems we are having today, how to find good content and conversations.

  • Lisa, what can we do, we pro_tech people? This is what I was trying to discuss with you?

  • I’m not necessarily pro-tech, because I think that a lot of the “enthusiasts” begin to miss the point after awhile!

    Perhaps we are simply in too much of a rush. There is an acceptance of products that aren’t ready. Perhaps we wouldn’t have use of them at all if they weren’t rushed to market or the internet. But we’ve got a cultural problem as people simply move on to the next thing. Kind of a social ADD. And the ongoing view of the internet as a place that isn’t real, kind of like outer space, so why clean up the space junk?

  • Lisa, groups come and go. Connections come and go. We must choose wisely our network connections: strong ties or weak ties. Mavens, connectors or persuaders. I even don’t know if you are in Delicious or Diigo

  • Eduardo, *I* don’t know whether I am on Delicious or Diigo! I’m considering doing articles I want to annotate in Diigo, and everything else in Delicious, but right now I’m sort of double posting. And yes, we must choose wisely, but I think sometimes weak ties can become strong, and vice versa, just like our RL connections. There does not seem to be as much commitment in online “communities” — they come together as needed, then separate.

  • you two (lisa/emapey) please: more of this!
    great topics:
    -social ADD (or net ADD??), *I* don’t know whether I am on Delicious or Diigo!, Nobody wants to discuss about this problems.

  • (*nods head vigorously*) yup, yup, and yup. this is the risk. I love Mike’s comment about “drinking from a firehose”. and I am concerned about it, because I’m still in the honeymoon stage with Twitter. I love it – for me it is still a very valuable source of info and pro-d about ed tech. but nothing else. to me, that’s what Facebook is for (a pretty common distinction, I think)

    I have done some faculty training sessions on Twitter recently and in these I make the case that you have to be very very VERY careful and selective about who you follow (I follow 56, 76 follow me). even if you LIKE someone, if they turn out to be a “breakfast” tweeter, or if the value-to-noise ratio of tweets is out of whack, I unapologetically unfollow. no hard feelings, I hope. I *have* to, lest the honeymoon end.

    As you suggest, we end up craving an ultimate “dashboard” solution to keep track of all this stuff, one that really works, and it sounds like you’ve tried them all and found them wanting in one way or another. My solution at the moment is firefox add-ons and iGoogle, but I hope for something better too.

  • My favourite is google reader followed by facebook. I know how to post a tweet but I haven’t learned the finer aspects of replying or receiving answers. I used tweetdeck for a short time but someone posted that it slowed your computer and I found it a bit overwhelming so I took it off. I’m never in a situation where I need a quick answer to a question so blogs work best for me. Facebook lifts me out of my favorites rut and points to to things other people think worthy of notice and I have some people on my facebook friend list who only do facebook for social networking. I also have a list of people whose del-icio-us pages I visit periodically (Lisa is on the list) although there seems to be growing interest in Diigo but it’s new to me. I favorite in google bookmark because it’s on my toolbar but I’ll probably get into sharing when my tagging skills get more refined.

  • Hi Ruth! Yes, I do tend to use Twitter for quick questions and answers, and it’s there primarily that I find things shared that I want to look at.

    In a way, it all comes down to “who you know”. These social networking tools seem to work for people based on who they use them with, rather than how they use them!

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