Stephen Harper, Julia Nunes and Social Software

I’m feeling pretty comfortable in the belief that I’m the first person to put these two very differently popular people in the same sentence. Stephen Harper is the Prime Minister of Canada. Julia Nunes is a youtube sensation (she also happens to be a pretty good musician/singer/writer/performer/videoeditor). I’ve been struggling recently to deconstruct the Mark Prensky digital native/digital immigrant concept as well as explain what the social part of social software means to me. For those of you who aren’t familiar with my little corner of the internet I say ‘to me’ because I don’t think that there is any ‘one’ definition of any of these things… but rather try to speak about these things from my own experience for whatever that might be worth. It may be worth something to one person, and not to someone else… I expect this to be true. It is, in a sense, how the social part of social software works… Some people may like the way that I do things or think and others wont. That’s good. I like diversity.

Onward.

Stephen Harper is the conservative leader of Canada. He went to that party from a more right wing party and, generally, can be understood to have conservative values. He also runs a pretty polished campaign, and runs… as the saying goes… a pretty tight ship. Not who you’d expect to be out in the wilds of the social internet, with comments open to all. But he uh… seems to be. Shows what I know. He also happens to have a pretty significant webpresence I’ve noticed today. I don’t think that the ‘numbers’ are the only way of talking about the internet or social software, but they do make things a little easier. And it does seem odd that someone with so many followers is actually following more people. If the prime minister is governing his own twitter account… that would mean that he has searched out 200 people, who he was chosen to follow individually who have decided not to follow him. This seems a bit unlikely.

  • Twitter : pmharper following 2856 followers 2668 has made 106 tweets
  • Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmwebphotos/ 896 photos no comments that i saw. Well tagged. The four photos I looked at had between 3 and 12 views.
  • youtube: http://www.youtube.com/pmharper video views between 50 and 20,000. Subscribers: 453. Channel Views: 23,766. Used primarily as direct, formal addresses to the canadian people

Julia Nunes is a 20 year old student from somewhere in the US. One of her videos hit the front page of youtube in late 2007 early 2008 where i first subscribed to her youtube account. She has since

  • twitter : no presence. just found out about twitter because someone assumed her identity on it.
  • flickr : two people named that… both with private flickr accounts
  • youtube: http://www.youtube.com/user/jaaaaaaa video views between 50,000 and 1,200,000. Subscribers: 71,386 Channel Views: 2,076,754

When I look to compare the ‘social presence’ of these two figures, one with a very polished presence, updated on a very regular basis, the other an occasional poster to youtube and little else some things jump out. Presence, in and of itself, does not make you popular in the social space. There are few people with a higher profile than our prime minister in this country and yet, as of the writing of this post, very very few people have viewed his flickr photos. Julia Nunes, on the other hand, was ‘just another student’ when her video hit the front page of youtube and now averages somewhere in the 100-1200K views for her video posts.

The difference, I would suggest, is the intimacy. It is almost impossible to craft a ‘message’ in social software in the traditional sense. There are certainly people who create excellent viral videos (the current PETA vegetable ad comes to mind) but the medium, by its very nature, is transparent over repeated use. If you post 900 photos… the reason and tone of those photos start to become obvious. If you are going to tweet, your followers will start to get a sense of who you are. Julia’s (and I say julia, because I feel like I know something about her) posts give you a sense of who she is as a person… there is a directness and an honesty that is particularly well suited to the medium. I’m not trying to suggest that Mr. Harper is being dishonest… but rather the social net often doesn’t respond well to polish of this kind.

And, as Julia posted recently, she doesn’t know anything about twitter. Yes. A twenty year old youtube star can be mistified and turned off by a kind of social software. It is not, contrary to the way it is portrayed in the media (I have whined about this week after week on Edtechweekly) a monolith, nor is the generation that just happened to have grown up while it was developing. Assuming a uniform knowledge (and desire for) social software is like assuming that everyone growing up in the sixties loved Bob Dylan. Or, equally, that people (like say Pete Seger) from a generation before, were not able to understand what Dylan had to say.

There is a sense, however, a ‘social sense’ in which you could say that Julia has a more intuitive sense of how to use social software. That growing up in her generation has allowed for a better grasp of the medium than someone of, say, Stephen Harper’s generation. This is certainly the argument that I’ve heard from many, many people. But here it is… surf around youtube and see all of the videos (some of them mine 🙂 ) from people who have 10 views, 30 views 50 views on their videos. They by far outweigh the people who have ‘made it’. Julia Nunes happens to be a talented artist who’s direct, funny emotional style is particularly well suited to the immediacy of being played 18 inches from your nose. The people who are managing our PMs webpresence are creating media designed for an entirely different interface and experience. And could be, for all I know, managed by people no older than Julia.

Oh… and buy Julia’s CD. It’s good. As for the videos… this one is won her a ukelele.

How to choose the right CMS for Education

About an hour ago I saw a tweet from All-Canadian uber-online edugeek Alec Couros saying

How to choose the right CMS – http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2009/01/how-to-choose-the-right-cms/

To which I responded

@courosa i think that’s the worst article on that subject I’ve ever read

Now in all of my discussions with folks about online learning, community building and network knowledge construction my constant refreain is always about responsibility. You are responsible for the things that you say, and to pass on the things that you think that you know on to the rest of the folks in your community. It is not particularly essential that you are ‘right’ but rather that you share the best of what you have in the hopes that it helps other folks find their own right… even if that right is by disagreeing with just about everythign that you say… Which is what I’m going to do with this post from “Webmaster Depot”disagreeing, as it were, from my position as an educator/webdude working on the projects that I have.

<--Boring dave CMS background-->
I’ve been smashing around in CMSs for about four years now, starting after I gave up trying to build my own websites by hand. I was on the bandwaggon when Elgg 0.2 came out and wrote some (for me) considered commentary about how I thought it could take a direction that would be better for the kinds of work that I’d be doing. I got out of the Elgg game just around 0.8 when I realized that the concerns that I had were getting worse rather than better… and those projects had spawned two 1500+ collaborative student projects in that wholelly ‘non-managed’ environment, with a user interface that seemed built more to support the technology than promote the user. I think, also, that it is an anti-PLE which also hurt it a bit. I’ve been running Drupal’s for a few years (started as 4.6 was turning to 4.7), manage a 100 multisite installation at UPEI and also help work on a variety of other drupal sites, including http://edtechtalk.com and http://openhabitat.org. This blog is in wordpress and has been since July 2005 (don’t be fooled by the archive, we had a total server crash in 2006 and I repopulated the old posts from googlecache. I’ve also played around with probably 10 or more others (notably mediawiki, which i wont touch anymore)… I’ve also stopped running moodle, mostly for philosophical reasons, as I’d rather a platform designed to be open rather than designed along institutional guidelines that I have no interest in replicating in my classrooms.
<--end of boring background-->

First… and lets face it… the webdesigner depot has alot of ads on this page which specifically correspond to the content being talked about, so I’ll give our friend a break on the way the article is written… we all have to make a living. It’s easy for me to claim I don’t do ads here as I don’t really get enough traffic to make it worthwhile and my RSS feed has been broken for weeks… and I can’t even get around to fixing it. We are not in the same business.

Why you should use a CMS
The main reason for using a CMS is that it makes your content portable. It allows you to easily export your content to relevant places (say send an RSS feed to a community of practice that you find interesting) or export your content to the next-best-thing that comes out three years from now. The pain of using something like dreamweaver (curse you dreamweaver 4) is that that is pretty much what your stuck with. A content management system will also allow things like user authentication and slightly easier content creation, but these are all things with a possible downside. The reason you should absolutely positively be using a CMS is portabillity. Our fearless reader claims that ease of content editing and creation should be your main driving factor… it can be easy… but this can be a curse. Ease of content creation can often lead to a very huge mess… (see most mediawikis)

On the 5 Common mistakes mentioned in my foil of an article
Number 1 and 5 seem to be both suggesting that you should “not trust the IT guy”. That is, don’t choose the supergeeky CMS. While I agree that choosing the most complicated and perhaps the most elegant CMS is not necessarily going to do the job, the top spot on his list of CMSs is drupal, which can be a real monster to set up and administer. We used to have a drupal academy at worldbridges… trust me… it’s not that simple to administer. It can be easy to create an entire website and allow users ‘content creation’ access… but you will not be able to turn ‘adminstration of drupal’ over to most clients. As an educator approaching drupal, understand, it IS the geeks choice. If you are serious about it, buy Bill Fitzgerald’s book and set aside a significant amount of time… it’s worth it if you’re serious about it… but it can be a tough nut.

Number 2 and 3 suggest that you should choose a CMS based on wether the community is large or whether it is small. I guess I can’t technically disagree with that… but you should choose it partly based on the community. More on this later.

Number 4 suggests that you shouldn’t ‘just pick one without researching it’… umm… I agree. But suggesting something that couldn’t possibly be false doesn’t feel like much help really. “pick anything at all!”

His 5 things to look for are
1. Quick and easy installation – no. no no no. Ease of installation is not necessarily connected to success. It can be a suggestion of how much the developers care about their users… it can also be the only thing they focused on. Ignore this.
2. Simple administration interface – umm… no. Good user adminstration… yes. simple can be an illusion. If you are going to go through lots of content over many many years, you want to have the things that you need.
3. Quick and easy extension of CMS for extra functionality – ok. I agree with this.
4. Simple template manipulation – yes.
5. Helpful user community – yes.

What to do if you are looking for a CMS

  1. Ask yourself why you are trying to do this by yourself. A CMS requires server space, at least the vaguest of understandings of how that can work and some idea of security issues on the internet. Find someone else’s CMS and use it.
  2. Ask yourself if getting a CMS is worth the time and money to do a grant application to find someone to help you. If you are very serious about starting some kind of educational project because you have a fantastic idea, the time put into planning a grant application (even if you don’t get it) will force you to really think about what you are trying to get out of it. Hire someone who has done this before, even if its only for one day.
  3. I like to put CMSs into three simple categories based on the CMSs that I think of as being best of breed in the open market right now. Do you want to do a wordpress project, a moodle project or a drupal project. (you could also say ‘a wordpress.com project, a moodlehosted project or a ning project if you don’t care about controlling your data… which i do… but you may not)
  4. If you are debating between two different projects, choose the simpler one. running a CMS is a pain, and it will take you about a year to get comfortable with it. If you plan on doing this for a long time, it is very worth it, but it is a real commitment. Do not let the ease of setup mislead you. Your first wordpress upgrade where ‘things stop showing up’ will probably surprise you, but the ‘white screen of death’ is a very common sight to people who host CMSs
  5. Get your data sorted out. Don’t worry about what it looks like. The biggest mistake that people make is saying “i don’t like how that looks”. One of the cool advantages of a database driven website is that you can move the stuff around and make it pretty as you go along. What you can’t do so easily is tag your data properly after the fact. I still curse my lack of categories on my blog and the lack of CCK organization in some of my drupals. Know what you are going to try and do and get ready for how you are going to use it later.

The three choices
WordPress – It gets a little more powerful every six months or so. I’m not sure this is a good thing, as it seems to be a little more fragile than it used to be (that is, slightly more fragile than a mountain, which is how I felt about it two years ago) It is very easy to install, easy to manage and can allow for a fair amount of flexibility. If you want to get online, and do some cool stuff and manage your own content. This is a pretty nice place to be. All the RSS feeds by category you could want (very useful for sending feeds by categories to other communities), some pretty cool add-ons that allow you to do most things on the net. Handles media well… This is a great PLE.

Moodle – As I mentioned earlier, I don’t really install this anymore (liar! I just installed it to test out a few themes for a friend) but I do teach with it at the University of Manitoba. If you are concerned with security, and want to work in a dark hole away from the nasty outside internets… this is perfect. The security is built in, can be layered and is easy to administer. You can have different courses and things closed to the world and things that are open. Good for teaching (in a traditional top-down approach I would argue… but that’s just me) and good for use with kids as I’ve never heard of the security having been broken into. (no guarantees… but I haven’t heard of it) Not so good handling media, but you can do it.

Drupal – oh the love/hate i have for this software. I use it all the time. I particularly like to teach with it. It allows for very subtle control over content, for, some very interesting monitoring and redirecting of traffic and really can do anything. Of course that’s exactly the problem… it can do anything. My general statement about drupal is that you should probably give yourself two years to learn how to do cool things with it. You are probably better off finding someone’s version of drupal to install and work from… building an educational environment from scratch can be tough… but they are cool. This would be a good thing to go after a bit of cash for. Check out http://youthvoices.net.

Conclusion
CMSs are alot of work. They can be very rewarding… but just ask yourself. Why do I want to become a publisher? If you have a good answer to this question, most CMSs will probably get you somewhere. I’ve worked a great deal with the three above and can pretty much tell you that, if the downsides don’t bother you, they’ll do what you want them to. Given time. And backups. Lots and lots of backups.

Community participation, responsibility and defending lurking – introduction to emerging tech week 5

Listening my way through a series of podcasts created by the students of the intro to emerging tech course being taught through the University of Manitoba. The two papers at issue this week are on Communities of Practice and Why Lurkers Lurk (.pdf) . They’re a nicely matched pair for introducing ideas around the contributions that people make in a community learning environment, and seemed to strike a chord with our students in both the live discussions and in the podcasts that the students created in response to this week’s reading as well.

Response no 1 – I’m bad because I lurk
By far the overwhelming response from the students who have posted their podcasts (hem hem to you who have not) is that they felt a little ashamed of their lurking in their learning. There is some feeling that the word ‘lurk’ presents too negative a feeling based on the meaning that the word caries over from other context… but this isn’t the meat of the response. There is almost a sense in which the podcaster/students seem to feel like they are cheating themselves by lurking… like they are somehow “doing it wrong.” There is another, more traditional interpretation, in which they feel like they aren’t contributing to a community and are parasites on the work of others… but I find this ‘doing it wrong’ idea a compelling one. Where is this ‘right’ that they are comparing against? Is this another example of our traditional learning models looming…?

The students are drawing a tight connection between their own offline propensity for sitting ‘on the outside’ and not directly participating and their preference for luking online. (which does seem confusing as they feel like their offline learning is not ‘wrong’) And, as they progress from the lurker article to the community of practice article they find the language that they need in ‘legitimate peripheral participation’… lurking with a purpose, as it were.

“‘the purpose is not to learn from talk as a substitute for legitimate peripheral participation; it is to learn to talk as a key to legitimate peripheral participation’.”

(quoted in community of practice article from original Lave/Wenger book)

This then, is the defence of learning… assuming that there is a further goal beyond that. It’s a great defence if your lurking will eventually lead to more direct participation as you move towards the middle and begin to be able ‘to talk’ better within that community. Not that lurking particularly even needs a defence… I mean… how many expert knitters do we really need. I go to a knitting website, and I get information. If you are actually engaged in a community and are not helping, if people have helped you reach a level of proficiency that you then do not pass on… then that’s bad. But, like so many things, I think it just comes down to being honest about where you are, why you’re there, and what people have done for you.

The Community Social Contract
This is not a comment on what you ‘should’ do when you are in a community, but rather, an idea of what’s going. In response to one of my students in the course, I mentioned that teh social contract that is inherent in a community is different then other locations for knowledge acquisition and co-creation. If you are in a library, for instance, searching through books, there is an entire infrastructure (government or school created) that is behind trying to engender a certain kind of learning in a populace, trying to enhance the status of an institution or a particular person. This is not to say that they don’t want people to learn, but rather that these institutions exist in our society for a reason. they are paid for with tax dollars or as part of a business.

A community, on the other hand, is often the result of shared passion, shared interest, or shared self-interest. The social contract that exists is often difficult to read… There are some communities that love lurkers (edtechtalk is certainly one of those, by far the vast majority of our listeners we never hear from) there are others that expect a certain amount of participation… that would rather people ‘contribute’.

For my own part, I like to think of it like my no doubt oversimplified understanding of the word Karma. I don’t expect that most of the communities that I learn from particularly need my contributions. I try to leave behind questions and answers to issues that I have run into in order to leave that information behind me. And, what i particularly try and do is make sure that I participate where and when i can… This is the responsibilty that I have to the overall communities that I work in.

The mantra that i’ve been repeating over and over again lately is this “The stuff that you are reading on the internet, the communities that you interact with are REAL. They are created by real people. Treat them with respect. That is your responsibility as a good citizen.”

bit high handed I suppose… oh well…