The Power of Networks

I always enjoy listening to talks embedded in RSA animations. I find they are thoroughly stimulating, but revisiting this video I couldn’t not comment or link to it from my blog.

Connections and networks, are two words that have been around since the existence of mankind but that have enjoyed the benefit of being right in the middle of the ‘buzz’ only recently through the application of the online social media phenomena like Facebook and Twitter. Many people, including educators, discourage the use of online social networking because of what they call as ‘the implications’ of online social networks. I gather, that by ‘implications’ they are actually thinking about the negative or the adverse effects. To these people I would really suggest this book – by Christakis and Fowler – for it presents some interesting insights about what networks really are and what they can really do, whether for education, life, love, economy and politics.

In reality, we have a lot to learn through our connections. Wherever in the 1980’s I could only interact, and possibly learn, by the close knit community I had built around me of parents, and a few school friends, 30 years on, my learning interactions have possibly become … limitless! In the 1980’s and 1990’s I guess it was understandable and excusable that we would only learn from books. Possibly employers might have been right in saying that people coming out of higher education were not so practical – unless they went through a student-worker kind of scheme. And even so, most of our learning could come only from books, and from the teacher or lecturer. That was the era. But now, that the power of networks has been unleashed – that we have become so much aware of what connected really means and what it can really imply, I find it beyond comprehension that we are still listening to people saying that there is a gap between theory and practice, just as I find it incomprehensible that at higher education, students are still expecting to be told what to learn, when to learn it and how to learn it. Students, academics, teachers, everyone – can wield and harness such great power. The question is – do they know how? do they even know where to start from? I think the answer has to start with education – education is the key to this. No more regurgitation of content please! No more passivity – no more of the recipient metaphor. And if we start with education about the power of networks… who knows where we might end. The journey in itself is a most interesting pursue!

The Power of Social Media… or not…

These past couple of days Malta’s media sources have been unleashed on this grisly crime… a double murder which has shocked the tightly knit Maltese community. However what might be slightly more shocking is the power which is given to the people’s voice. I use the term shocking without implications of strict negativity, but I use it to indicate disruption. A disruptive chaotic medium pervasively rocking society – because people have discovered that their voice has gotten louder (let’s say amplified) in the last decade (actually less!), and that the near-safety which online media has to offer, can empower them with more than the daily afternoon gossip shared amongst kin and neighbors… suddenly sound justice based on reasoned arguments might even take a secondary role (for some) as some kind of different need seems to emerge.

It seems people these days feel the need to voice out their thoughts, without pausing – without reflection. We have seen the power online social media held for the past African revolutions, starting out in Tunisia, moving on to the so-called ‘uprisal’ in Egypt, followed by Libya, Syria, etc. Oh – Twitter and Facebook – the viral effect, as information spreads from one person to many, in proverbial seconds. But one has to ask: How does the information spread? What sort of information does everyone want to spread out?

Do you remember the London Riots?… and the #londonriot chat on Twitter? Some of it was … ‘shocking’… people describing their own irrational actions – with a certain pride… as if daring anyone to take action over Twitter… some did I believe, but the majority got away with it; the beauty and the power of online media is the lack of media control… suddenly the control of the media and the powers-that-be are transferred from George Orwell’s thought-provoking 1984‘s  ‘Big Brother’ … to – well – everyone. Do not misunderstand or misquote me… I do not think that the powers-that-be should control people – their minds and thoughts – it’s not about control, but it’s about responsibility which this great power begs… and yet as society, as individuals within society, one asks, with which kind of responsibility do we handle the power that this social media has so kindly transferred to us…?

And I want to close the loop by once again looking at this horrendous crime which has shaken the Maltese community and the ‘disruption’ this is causing … within the online media, from Facebook to online newspapers – how responsible is everyone being when spreading ‘news’? How justified are all the allegations; all the supposed inferences? Everyone seems to cry – Justice! Truth! but I very much wonder if the power we are assigning ourselves through this wonderful medium is simply to satisfy one of the very seemingly basic human needs … the need for power  – power to affect and the power to control.


Of #pencilchat and more…igniting the spark

A couple of days ago, I couldn’t help but seeing this new #pencilchat going round in my twitter feeds on tweet deck. So I couldn’t help but become intrigued. At first glance it wasn’t much but then, the amounts of tweets piqued my curiousity…finally my curiosity got the better of me and I started trying to trace its origins. The more the tweets kept coming, the more I couldn’t really trace how it all started the more curious I became. Then edteck curated a series of #pencilchat logs, that served to add more info to what was happening.

View the story “#Pencilchat Log” on Storify

However today I finally managed to come across the whole point of where it all started from. The article was submitted by John Spencer and you can read more about his: Meme, Myself and I and it presents an interesting perspective. However what is really remarkable and worth thinking about in this case, is this…
Once again we come across a phenomenon whereby one person lights a spark…and the subject matter, although central to the conversation is rather irrelevant. One person triggers this domino or viral effect across a social network and that’s it… suddenly the argument, the topic, the content, whatever it is, comes alive… really it takes a life of its own. As the original author put it, he merely started something as a “light-hearted satire” to voice out his thoughts on a matter, that so many people have implied in so many ways and yet… only this person managed to ignite the right spark.

The chat logs about this issue say it all. So many people want to participate in, so many people want to contribute in their own ways. If we can initiate this type of attitude in the classroom, if we manage to ignite the spark that catches fire, and takes a life of its own, led by the people, by everyone, then I think we can unlock this rubic puzzle of how to improve learning in the classrooms. Why do teachers keep persisting that they are at the centre of all knowledge? Why do parents keep insisting that the teachers should be the centre of all knowledge? Why can’t we appreciate that everyone can have some knowledge to contribute to? What can’t we appreciate that teachers are far more intelligent beings with a passion and a vocation to help people but not to have to be told exactly what to do? We need teachers to ignite the spark and we need learners to catch up to the spark…

The gist of my 2c worth of thoughts is this: let’s start igniting sparks so that maybe we light a fire that can propagate throughout. It’s infectious, and it’s also fun… read the threads for the pencilchat… they’re entertaining at the least…

My 2cents worth of thoughts…

Whilst reading about the London Riots I decided to write down my 2cents worth of thoughts about the matter. I am reading stuff now and of course what I read shows (and very rightfully) a sense of indignation, loss, despair and helplessness. People trying to react, some successfully – some not so successfully. The riot cleanup campaigns are in full blast, however people, especially outsiders are on the hunt for excuses, for justifications and for explanations of why this is all happening.

But I ask myself, are there? I mean rather than are there… can we just pinpoint this to one simple excuse or is this much more complex, much more than is apparent to the onlooker or to the people who are outside the circles of those stricken by the riots?

I have looked at the Twitter hashtag for London Riots and I was amazed and at times horrified reading about people bragging about their loots on this social network. Videos have been posted about the lootings, people are happy. Some people are commenting, this is real life ‘Grand Theft Auto’.

And then – lo an behold – there is the great justification. The rioters are all youngsters, kids as young as 11??!! and this has all happened because of Social Media and the impact it has on spreading rage, or information. This has all happened because our kids are playing these violent games, they are addicted to these games. This all happened because parents are not in control of their kids – could it be because parents work and therefore they don’t know where their kids are or what they are doing??!!!!

And again my thoughts on these ‘justifications’ if they can be so-called are that such excuses are completely irrational and they simply scratch the surface of deeper social problems. Connections, networks and the spread of virtually anything, both physically, emotionally and even meta-physically have existed since the birth of man. Phenomena, such as these which we are seeing now, have existed throughout the ages. The only difference is that now we have the means to really get a glimpse into what is going on in people’s lives all across the globe. The only difference is that now people feel they are connected across separate geographical distances. This isn’t about games, or the fact that kids or adults (which statistically represent the higher percentage of gamers across the globe) are immersed in these alternate realities. Because that is what most games do – and most gamers are aware of this – games allow you to create a reality which cannot be recreated physically. If there are people with mental problems who cannot distinguish the real from the virtual or the unreal, they will still react negatively irrespective of whether they play or not.

Journalists and commentators have remarked on the fact that Social Media and technology are to blame… just read a twitter comment which said: “Just heard Chief of Manchester Police (I think) describing young people with BlackBerries as ‘ants’ who must be ‘punished’. Don’t like this.” This is beyond the level of acceptance. Technology is revealing. Technology is connecting. Technology is the means… it is not the end.

These riots, revolutions, uprisals or whatever you want to call them, have been with us throughout decades, centuries and millennia. They will be with us for as long as we have members of the society leading a dissatisfied life. Maybe we should try to dig deeper and try to find the cause of this dissatisfaction. Although I would say that even that is too complex to contemplate. Because human nature is complex and the way people are connected is complex. The ways these connections affect people’s behaviour is something which is not dependent on one person, but on the whole network. What we can do is to think about how technology, which is pervasive and here to stay, can mitigate the threats that we as complex human beings create. And yet… that is more food for thought.


I have been reading the book Connected by Dr Christakis and Dr Fowler, and I have to admit that they have managed to give me a whole new perspective on the issue of connections constructed in social networks and beyond. I have also read the blog post by Audrey Watters on the sharing of educational resources in and on social networks, and especially her views on Google+ and Twitter and what these might imply.

To be honest before I started using Twitter myself, and using it for real I never understood the real power of its potential for harvesting huge amounts of data and presenting it as knowledge into context. Reading through the blog post, reminded me of something which I came across in the book. What Twitter essentially builds upon is the power of the networks as connections are established within a cleverly constructed structure. What happens initially is that networks are established amongst the people or connections who are somehow related or considered as “trustworthy”. Most often these people know each other previously and physically and the connections between these people are in fact seen as ‘strong’ ties. However, research has shown that keeping connections only limited to these strong ties, might inhibit certain creativity, innovation and the ability to find solutions which go beyond, the mentality or culture of the circles which predominantly feature amongst people having strong connections. What Twitter does, is ultimately providing the capabilities of establishing what are termed as ‘weak’ or loose ties, which occur as a result of intermediary people in the network which help connect groups to other groups with differing individual capabilities. This is what happens when the power of the whole, is so much more than the power of the individual – the information spread is much more effective and successful and the drive towards a common goal is thus enhanced.

This can also be seen in the various guilds which are established in MMORPGs – the most succesful case study of which is World of Warcraft, is an embodiment of this concept. Strong connections which are established naturally as guilds form, give the group a steady direction, and a common goal to aim for built upon elements of trust which would have been established prior to the formation of the guild. The weak ties which are established following the natural guild formation, ensures creative capabilities, a more competitive drive and an attainment of knowledge and skills which is made up of the ‘whole’ rather than the individual.

So to come back to social networks, Twitter and Google+ the power which they hold is that of providing the right structure to facilitate these connections. How this is done seems to work differently for both Twitter and Google+ although inherently they may be based on the same principles. As research has shown, the most important thing is that for a successful enterprise, whether this is education or not, is the way the connections are established and maintained over time. Twitter has shown that it can do it, but can Google+ live up to the challenge now?

Google+: is it a yes, no or too soon to say?

Well this morning, saw a lot of tweeting around the Google+, then read a bit about it and finally decided to get myself invited to it, and see what they “buzz” was all about.

In actual fact, as a first impression it is not too far off from the dreaded Facebook. Having said that, I am not an advocate of Facebook, although I am an advocate of the power of social media, and I, of course, admit that Facebook is really THE social network. It has indeed taken the world by storm and not just the tiny rock on which I happen to live.

What I don’t appreciate of Facebook is the triviality of the matters which arise, the language at times rather rude, or arrogant of the people commenting, the mediocre language of the masses if you wish. And that in reality, can happen with any SN and this includes Google+ if this picks up. The solution is of course, to delete my Facebook account so that I am no longer participative of the discussion of the 300 or so “friends” some of whom I hardly know, and hardly care about knowing what they are actually doing in their daily lives. But something, and don’t tell me what it is, keeps me back. Would I lose out on a chunk of information if I opt out (no matter how much I criticise it?) – so well I’m still in… still there. IF and if Google+ manages to pick up, it will be pretty much like it I suppose, but I keep thinking that maybe Google+ will not pick up with everyone, but only those who actually dare to switch one SN interface with another, and therefore I won’t be missing out, but maybe I might be with those few who are much less into triviality and more into things which matter in life.

So for the +, I think it’s a ***** star rating for the integration with all the Google apps of course – same profile accesses all the features and functions.

It’s a **** star rating for the circles… I mean it’s replicating the FB groups but the interface is much cleaner, nicer to work with too.

On the negative side, there is one FAIL for the lack of integration with the twitter app. The fact that you cannot tweet from it, or follow tweets, is something which definitely needs improvement and which I sincerely hope Google will do something about.

The next low star ** rating is for the notifications which are turned on by default – this really irritates me in SN networks… why on earth is that these features which bug you, and in FB’s face are also even privacy-related on by default? I think that most people have no idea that they need to turn these off in order to lessen influx of mail, or in FB’s case to retain some degree of privacy over your own face.

Another negative point is in the discussion thread, which seems to be rather inexistent and which therefore makes it more like FB and less like a discussion board – maybe give it that less trivial tone, and more of a serious kind of SN. But I wonder, would that work out for Google, and in the end – do we really want another product which is only triggered by mass trivialities?


A recent (this was 2009) study shows that college students who use Facebook spend less time studying and have lower grade point averages than students who have not signed up for the social networking website, according to a pilot study at one university. However, more than three-quarters of Facebook users claimed that their use of the social networking site didn’t interfere with their studies. There is no direct proof that Facebook leads to lower grades and less studying but there seems to be a relationship. While this was a relatively small, exploratory study, it is one of the first to find a relationship between college students’ use of Facebook and their academic achievement. In addition, users said they averaged one to five hours a week studying, while non-users studied 11 to 15 hours per week.
Personally I agree with this study and think that there is a very clear link (direct or indirect) between Facebook usage and academic performance in students, it is interesting to know more about this matter keeping in mind that almost every student spends at least some time on Facebook every day.