Nothing lasts forever, but some things are more transient than others. When learners come together for classes or workshops, they immediately start to demonstrate elements of community building. Through speech, questions, clothing, behaviour and writing, they start to organise along predictable and repeatable lines. Some people emerge as opinion shapers, some as comics, some as listeners, some as rebels. This happens in groupings that last an hour, or cohorts who work together for years.
Online communities of learners exhibit similar trademark behaviours. In some cases, technology enhances or makes these behaviours more extreme, for example, allowing people to explicitly ‘like’ or ‘report’ other users. Technology makes it far easier to assemble and commit to these types of groupings: it’s an inherent feature of software from Facebook to Yammer and even Outlook that you can create and communicate with groups, sub groups and individuals.
There is, though, a key difference between online and physical communities, and that’s permanence. It’s usually implicit in the formation of online communities that there is a greater degree of permanence. There is a wider understanding that something committed to text in a forum is going to persist for years longer than a comment in the classroom. Whilst some online communities are founded on a notion of transience (e.g. Events in Facebook), the majority are built on the idea of permanence.
In reality, however, nothing lasts forever, and many groups naturally find themselves subject to wastage and shrinkage. Bands become popular, their communities growing and expanding in both popularity and activity, but then they shrink, reduced to a reminiscing hardcore of users. It’s the same with learning groups. Increasingly, i see my name in Google searches, associated with long gone events, ancient discussion and retro technology reviews. Unlike my input at conferences or classes, these transactions are fossilised, retained with a degree of permanence that has never existed before.
It may well be that we should make greater use of this very transience. That we should explore the benefits of transient communities. Often, at the start of trying to create a Community of Practice or working group, we aim to grow and strengthen it, to build something, with no concept of deliberately shrinking it. It might be that we should consider, more often, the benefits of transient groupings, indeed, maybe we should even consider the benefits of deliberately deleting or removing content after the allocated time has expired. We could challenge the very notion of digital permanence. I’ve talked before about the permanence of knowledge, and the impact when it disappears (https://julianstodd.wordpress.com/2011/05/10/the-death-of-knowledge-how-to-cope-when-your-favourite-website-disappears/), but we could consider actively building this very transience into the learning experience.
Similarly, the notion of ‘friending’ or building communities of disciples or followers is inherent in the mindset of many online Communities, but it might be something that we can more away from in some circumstances.
Writing on Leadership earlier this week, i had a link come through from a blog that was just active for one week, accompanying a Leadership Conference in Europe. It was created with the sole aim of accompanying the event, never an intention to build a community. This is a feature of the ease with which blogs can be created. It’s no longer a big job to do it, you can build a blog in minutes.
Whilst there is comfort, collaboration and creative energy in building long term communities, it’s worth exploring what we can do with transient ones.