Monday, October 06, 2008

It's the community, stupid

Bill Clinton famously said:

and while it's tempting to mention that again where my pension is concerned, so far as social media are concerned, instead, as several people have said on Twitter this week, I'll say:

It's the community, not the tool

For the first time this year, the majority of our students have arrived at university with Facebook accounts. In previous years, joining Facebook was something they did during their first year. It's difficult to say what changes this previous experience with online social networks might cause, but some hints are becoming clear.

Any online community needs some glue to hold it together. For our undergraduates, the glue is Blackboard, which is the hub and authentication system from which the interesting stuff hangs. For our postgraduates, the glue is the Small Worlds wiki. Although they both play an essential role, I wouldn't expect either of these rather static sites to provide sufficient engagement to win the hearts and minds of users. In order to do that, we've tried to add something extra to both projects.

For the undergraduates, this was a suggestion that they look into Twitter, Seesmic, and by default, the "social" features of Blackboard such as the Discussion Board. Not surprisingly, there's very little participation in the non-compulsory areas of Blackboard. Seesmic has also not been taken up yet - presumably the barrier of video is too high. But Twitter seems to be taking off, so we're feeding an aggregated tweet stream back into the Blackboard module to try to keep it interesting.

For the postgraduates, the starting point we've suggested is creating a personal profile on the wiki to facilitate conversations. But we've also suggested they look into Twitter, Seesmic and FriendFeed as conversation channels (in addition to the more research focused technologies such as RSS, social bookmarking, etc). It remains to be seen which of these channels will prove to be the most popular with this more heterogeneous group.

One thing which is clear is that whatever channel they "vote" for by participation, that's the one we'll push to enhance the community. I've always said that neither the undergraduate or the postgraduate projects were technology-driven (but I don't think many people accepted that). So I'll say it again:

It's the community, not the tool