If i say that riding a bike is intuitive, i mean that no conscious thought is needed to do it, that anyone can just pick it up, that no instruction is required. My statement would, of course, be wrong: it just feels intuitive now that i can do it. When i was four, it was far from obvious what came next after that first foot had left the ground.
Many things that seem ‘obvious’, that feel intuitive to some of us are, in fact, just learnt behaviours that require the same amount of practice and instruction, even if they involve fewer grazed knees. People learn to engage in online spaces, the same as they learn to engage in real conversations or to fit in when standing at the bar in the pub. Behaviours are shaped by requirements, moulded by the community in a process of both self moderation and moderation by the group. The etiquette, netiquette or Twittiquette of online spaces is shaped by the same factors: a combination of self promotion and peer pressure, driven by requirement and desire.
And these dynamics seem to be changing. The old view was that a tiny minority of people were active creators of content in online spaces (around one percent), with the vast majority passively ‘lurking’. Jarche (2012) chronicles an interesting view on how this shift. Discussing recent BBC research, he notes that a far higher percentage (around 17%) are now active creators, with a far larger proportion of lurkers being more active.
It’s likely that our observed view of a productive minority surrounded by a huge audience of passive consumers was shaped as much by the environment as it was by desire: that maybe it wasn’t that those people had nothing to say, but that they were not confident of how to say it, or that they were simply in the wrong forum. The key thing to note is that this was not a static audience: just because we see one set of behaviours exhibited in one context does not meant that the group is unable to exhibit different behaviours in different contexts.
Indeed, Jarche reflects that exposure to Facebook and a plethora of other social spaces may have ‘unlocked’ both desire and ability to contribute: in other words that engagement may have become ‘intuitive’ for a far larger minority.
The consequences of this are clear, that we must avoid thinking of particular populations of learners as ‘static’ in their behaviours, that we should recognise that, especially in the rapidly evolving ecosystem of the social, individuals exhibit flexible behaviours and the ability to rapidly prototype new ones. Indeed, if anything, there is more risk of lethargy driven by excessive opportunities to engage than there is of paralysis through lack of opportunity.
So we need to ensure that we cater for the observed behaviours of a group, whilst recognising that these behaviours are not enshrined in stone: that given the right circumstances, people change, and that patterns of engagement in social spaces are adaptable.
As ever, this mitigates against trying to systematise, process or procure technology based purely on what we see today: any challenges around low engagement will only be met by having the right conversations and flexing our presentational and interaction style, not by systems, reminders and prompts.
The only generalisation i would draw is to say that we can see that people want to engage. The fact that the patterns and styles of engagement are fluid simply shows a population that is willing to experiment and respond. Our challenge is to create and moderate those spaces, whilst remaining flexible in our approach and viewpoint.