January 08, 2010

Communities, Audiences and Scale: eight years on

Communities staring in the same direction
Eight years ago Clay Shirky penned his Communities, Audiences and Scale, pointing out the difference between the TV world of one-to-the-masses communication which scales to infinity, and many-to-many community communication, which in the form of forums and blog discussions at the time, had an upper limit to its potential success:

With such software, the obvious question is "Can we get the best of both worlds? Can we have a medium that spreads messages to a large audience, but also allows all the members of that audience to engage with one another like a single community?" The answer seems to be "No."

Communities are different than audiences in fundamental human ways, not merely technological ones. You cannot simply transform an audience into a community with technology, because they assume very different relationships between the sender and receiver of messages.

Though both are held together in some way by communication, an audience is typified by a one-way relationship between sender and receiver, and by the disconnection of its members from one another -- a one-to-many pattern. In a community, by contrast, people typically send and receive messages, and the members of a community are connected to one another, not just to some central outlet -- a many-to-many pattern. The extreme positions for the two patterns might be visualized as a broadcast star where all the interaction is one-way from center to edge, vs. a ring where everyone is directly connected to everyone else without requiring a central hub.

There are many communities still around today that struggle with this scale issue. Glow, the national schools intranet, while it has 650,000 registered users, cannot hope to facilitate meaningful discussion between them all - or even hundreds of them - with the groups-based discussion-board infrastructure on which it relies. The Scottish Governments' efforts at blogging a couple of years back were abandoned after the First Minister received over 4,500 comments - and was unable to answer or converse on any of them.

However, I'm wondering whether the advent of friendfeed and Twitter-type 'streams' of communication do really lend themselves better to scalable communities, as one might be tempted to believe (and as venture capitalists and creative technologists never stop implying).

Or as danah points out in her 'streams' paper, and as Blonde's Phil and I felt this morning discussing the joy of a Christmas lull in online communication, is there merely more skimming on the top of a wave of communication, rather than flow within it, and siding with voices and arguments that we find easy to hear, rather than getting down into the depth of what we're trying to say and challenging our preconceptions?


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I think you've picked up the wrong wnd of the stick about Glow Ewan - whilst it may have a large number of registered users, they form much smaller local communities of interest, or small communities of interest from around the country. I would be troubled if it was trying to facilitate conversation amongst everyone? Rather, it's a collection of tools and locations that people can use.

I thought the premise and promise (or at least a big part) of Glow was to help connect learners across Scotland? It's hard to see how it does that, at scale. What you say is that Glow facilitates
a) geographically local groups
b) interest groups
c) national communities of interest.

So, when involved in small, local communities of interest how does one then reach out to create a group of specific interest around the country? How do you find the potential members of that community? The answer would seem to be the National Directory, but this has a serious failing: people are generally crap at keeping profiles up-to-date. That is why most websites now use Facebook Connect: it's the one profile people tend to keep in flower and all the others can take info from that.

In Glow, a lot of people's current interests will go beyond what they initially put on their profile, and indeed be embedded in the resources they share, the discussions they have. An intelligent search or Zemanta-type recommendation system for people you might want to connect to would be a boon.

Glow is therefore still stuck in a land of discussion boards (lots of small rings that don't overlap) and broadcast (from national groups created not on a whim but through 'official' channels). My understanding, too, is based on what I hear rather than what I see. I'm not teaching in Scotland, so I don't see inside.

There might also be a search function, but it's not much use if people don't publish regularly to larger, more national groups or pages.

You're right that I may not know enough about how it operates, but such is life in a 'secure' network. Makes seeing, playing and understanding hard for those who want to contribute intelligently to the process.

What I would feel confident saying, though, is that there's an interesting dynamic with which Glow struggles quite clearly: fostering the idea that localised communication is useful is one thing. Fostering the idea that sharing that further afield makes that work even more worthwhile is another thing. The work we did in East Lothian set the default to "publish to the world - you might as well anyway to save yourself some effort". From what I can see, the default (technologically and in the marketing/training) in Glow is "Public local and then, if you want, replicate your publishing nationally).

I completely agree regarding profiling Ewan - moving things forward it's definitely the key to successful sharing and searching.

When Glow was created, the model was quite clearly tiered - school, local, and then national. Many schools and some LAs are realising the benefits of the first two, as they are sharing things outwith their walls that they hadn't previously shared. They don't have to publish this again to let people see it elsewhere though (they simply tick a box to let others have access, and then share the url, so it's not really a publish twice model.)

In Spring 2010 Glow will get collaborative tools that will allow users to adopt publication model of East Lothian should they choose. I suspect that will change how Glow is used, and how Scottish education shares with the world quite significantly.

I remember the tortuous afternoon in Stirling discussing the challenge of encouraging public first, private later, and it seems like you're moving closer to an answer in 2010.

Where does one go on the Glow site to get the reassuring "what's next"? The blog is a bit too good news to read between the lines and see what's lined up and the static site betrays the innovation you're trying to bring in.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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