Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Social Media Fire Hose Waters Down Discussions - Does Education Need Its Own Acamedia?

I love the ability of social media to let me build my personal learning network (PLN) and engage in discussions with people with similar interests.  But social media can be frustrating and as more people join and flood it with content, it is but natural that not everyone would be there for those reasons.  Thus social media is also used for marketing, building an identity, customer service, etc.  As someone who often touts the various potential uses of social media for learning and education, I wonder about the best way to prevent new adopters from getting disillusioned.

A case in point: People very often share links to content that they have not read

This tweet by Tony Haile (CEO of Chartbeat) sparked a series of posts in the blogosphere [The Verge][Small Business Trends]

This "unread" sharing maybe for many reasons - e.g. The title was funny, or the content was shared to someone who might read it, etc.  In the real world a share would be similar to a recommendation; it should mean something like, "I read this, found it worth reading and so am sharing it".  When you print out an article and leave it in a colleagues inbox with a sticky note, the recipient would assume you had read it.  If you had not, you would state something to that effect on that note, e.g. "Not my cup of tea but I thought you would find this interesting".  

It seems sharing on social media might be evolving into something different; we knew before Tony Haile's tweet that people may not have read something they shared.  In addition, there is less of an expectation of a rich discussion when sharing.  Some of this is specific to the platform.  

Thus Facebook is becoming limited to social sharing among friends and family (e.g notable and not so notable life events) and anything intellectual or cognitively stimulating can get frowned upon.  For example a resident recently posted an abstract of her paper that was published in a prestigious journal on FB.  She had to preface this with an apology for a "nerdy post".  There were over 40 likes and "Congrats" but not one question about the abstract or the implications of the study.  Most of the folks who commented were in the medical field.  This is not to criticize the author of the post or her friends, but more a reflection on the culture of the platform.  
The purpose of the interaction appears to be to acknowledge that you saw the post; it is more of a head nod or a high-five rather than an intellectual discussion, an opportunity to truly engage and learn in the process.  

Twitter is a truly terrific platform but the 140 character limit poses a barrier to rich discussions.  The unfiltered timeline moves at a disconcerting pace and can be distracting for some.  Tweetchat sessions can be great for group discussions but take some getting used to.  For some there can be a need to increase follower numbers as can be judged by the many how-to articles describing strategies to do this.  This can lead to retweeting posts by "celetweeps", using multiple trending hashtags and similar methods to try and gain attention.  There are other reasons why it may be difficult to have discussions on Twitter. Many people use sharing tools integrated within the website that they are looking at or use a scheduling service like Buffer.  Thus they share to Twitter but are not actually using the Twitter interface.  They may not see your response till much later.

Recently a physician tweeted a link to a nice study that calculated the number needed to treat for most common treatments for a common condition.  The article was behind a paywall and the abstract did not mention what outcome measure was used to calculate NNT.  This was not a condition that would lead to hospital admissions or death and thus did not have a well-known or guessable outcome measure. I replied to the tweet asking for this information but got no response.  There could be many good reasons for this in this particular case and it is interesting that it did not surprise me too much.   In RL if someone gave you a paper to read, one would expect that he or she would take the time to respond to a question you had.  Unfortunately on Twitter people are "giving out" tens of papers to hundreds and thousands of followers which removes the expectation of responding to all the questions.  

The norm it seems is, "I just shared that with you and the whole world. Don't expect me to be to engage in a discussion on it or to have even read it deeply."  
The Verge article cited above discusses that there are folks who do read the entire article before sharing.  The concern is that it is difficult to separate the two.  Those of use who have used social media for a while have a somewhat robust PLN and continue to grow it.  Twitter is actually a great place to find people with similar interest to build your PLN.  But for recent digital immigrants, the experience can be quite disappointing.

As educators we have seen the potential of social media to create and build PLNs, for lifelong learning, for online journal clubs, for communities of practice and communities of inquiry.  This potential is still there but we may never fully realize it if the culture of the platforms is diametrically opposite to this philosophy.    

So what is the answer?
  • Back to blogging? - unfortunately one would have to post on Twitter to get people back to Blogger to discuss the post.  The problem is folks will retweet without ever visiting the blog!
  • Use Google+ - the ability to create very granular circles for viewing and sharing and lack of character limits are huge plusses!  An additional benefit is the integration of Blogger with Google+ that prevents fragmentation of the conversation
  • Use filters e.g. Lists on Twitter to engage with people who are interested in discussion?
How about Twitter adding a check box, "I have read this"?  It would be a box that would pop up anytime you add a hyperlink or retweet a post that has an embedded hyperlink.  Checking the box would indicate that you are also interested in a discussion on the topic and it is not just a FYI post.

The interface could look something like this:

What do you think?  Maybe social media is just mirroring or even magnifying real life?  Maybe social media was meant to be just that - social, and academia needs to get with it and build its own platform for professional media - maybe call it acamedia?  

Maybe social media is teaching us a real-life lesson - it is not simple to build your PLNs - it is a process that one has to go through and Twitter is a great learning lab to learn this process?