Some of the most interesting conversations i had at the Learning Technology Conference this week were around social media and, in particular, formal and informal networks.
I found the conference to be a particularly useful example of these networks, and their confluence, in action. The event itself was a formal network, a group of people in established relationships in a formal space. Relationships included supplier to customer, potential supplier to potential customer, peer to peer, organisational groups, organisers, security, catering and so on. There were cultures and sub cultures, for example, the interactions of the college students running the coffee stall next to us and interacting with the other students on other coffee stalls was a sub culture in itself.
In paralel to all of this, there was a separate informal space, running in Twitter. The Twittersphere overlapped in terms of community members and location, but also included people not at the event, and not in the UK. Indeed, it overlapped with a similar event happening in the USA, with community members interacting about the two events.
For the Twitter uninitiated, you can use something called a hashtag to associate your ‘tweet’ with a particular group. So, by using the hashtag #lt11uk, a tweet is associated with the Learning Technology event. The LT informal community was therefore built out of all the #lt11uk tagged tweets.
What was interesting was the level of interaction between the two spaces, the formal and informal.
“Nice people at Mindleaders stand 77 just gave me great freebies #lt11uk” tweeted learninganorak. Fair enough, although i wonder if Mindleaders were subsequently inundated with corporate freeloaders.
“Information flow and quality from #lt11uk is much better than from #CIPD conf. Well done to all those making the effort” tweeted AnnaFM. Interesting to see how the Twittersphere is already being seen as a source of credible, reliable, peer tested information.
“@finiteattention thanks for finally shwing a great ppt presentation. Too few of those so far #lt11uk”, this last tweet from mattiaskareld actually during the presentation.
This last comment illustrates perfectly the interaction of the formal and informal learning spaces, it’s like a child talking at the back of the class, but interacting directly with the teacher at the same time. The formal space is the subject of teacher to student learning, whilst the Twittersphere is housing the informal, community generated and, to an extent, peer reviewed learning.
I interacted with more Tweeters than i did human beings, although my most ‘retweeted’ post related to the fact that you couldn’t get a decent sandwich, so not quite the authoritative L&D expert post i was hoping for.
Where things get really interesting is where the formal spaces start to try and colonise the informal ones. Social media is the big thing and organisations are trying to impose themselves into these spaces, but often without understanding how these spaces work. The Twittersphere is one simple example. The environment consists of technology that is ‘enabled’ by installing the Twitter App, so my Mac, my phone and my iPad are all ‘twitter’ enabled. It then consists of people who join, in this case by electing to use the #lt11uk hashtag.
There is no organisational control, no moderation. People are far more likely to give honest feedback through a tweet than to the person presenting. The ripples of polite applause that echoed through the conference hall weren’t always reflected in the Twittersphere.
Organisations can undoubtedly learn a great deal and benefit from creating informal spaces, but they need to consider who colonises them and how. If i created a #julianstodd hashtag, anyone could join that community, i would have no control over it.
Also, consider that there may well be other, parallel and deeper communities at play. Linkedin, Facebook and so on will all have informal communities relating to specific events, but there will be (or could be) other subsets within Twitter itself.
Then consider the harshtag, a concept that my colleague Nick Grant introduced me to. The harshtag is indistinguishable from the hashtag, except that it’s malicious in intent. In other words, i can create multiple online personalities and then harshtag my competitors. Or my employer. Or the person who failed to provide any decent sandwiches for the event. Whilst those of us in our thirties are often heavily wedded to our online personas, the evidence is that the younger people are, the more disposable they view their online personalities as.
In other words, whilst i won’t heckle a presentation, because i’d be embarrassed to, there’s nothing to stop me creating a credible persona and doing it online.
Formal and informal spaces have always existing, be it the staff canteen and the pub next to the office. What’s different now is the way they permeate through the physical and the fact that everything is captured in perpetuity.
Challenging dilemmas will arise and mistakes will be made. It’s good for organisations to explore the informal spaces, but they have to understand that they don’t write the rules.