Pointing to the ‘Social’ and the ‘Network’ in making the case for social networking (twitter edition)

I recently did a presentation for a senior administration group on campus at UPEI and, in combination with some very good questions from PatParslow about how I talk about organizing my twitter account, I figured it would better mark my learning and potentially prepare these thoughts for a more deeply thought article to post it here and get some feedback from you fine folks if the topic interests you.

The difference between social software and social networking
Let’s get this out of the way. Social Software is a vague term that describes a type of software, often web based, that, as part of it’s core functionality allows for a social interaction of some sort (sometimes called web2.0). Its content is often contributed by the visitors to the website. Social networking is the act of using those particular functionalities in a social, networked type way. Consider the example of using delicious.com as a place to find (by using the search) and store your bookmarks (maybe by using browser plugins) because it’s more convenient than storing it on your desktop. This is an example of using social software. Now, consider actively becoming a part of other people’s delicious network, using the for:username functionality to share to people within that network, and tagging strategically to help the larger community potentially use those links. I have two delicious accounts, one – davecormier – is just me using social software… the other, which i share with other folks, – edtechtalk – is a fully socially networked account. People share to it, and from it. There is social and network.

A story for talking about social network based on the Hemmings pink slip party
Imagine walking in a room full of two hundred faceless people in suits. You walk in, look around, and slowly start to ask each person, one by one, what they do and who they are, and who ‘their people are’. It was this situation that the Hemmings pink slip parties were designed to combat. They were designed as a way of facilitating the hiring of otherwise excellent geeks who lost their jobs when the tech bubble crashed in 2001. They were parties where employers wore green armbands, job seekers wore pink ones and ‘friends’ wore blue armbands. A simple solution with some really far reaching consequences.

Three things happen immediately. The context becomes defined – the first practical purpose of the ‘gathering’ is for people to find and offer jobs. Yes, some people may be looking for a partner or a good time, but these are now formally secondary. Two, when you look around you no longer see a sea of suits, you see people as they have defined themselves for this particular context. Third, and potentially most importantly, you know who YOU are. You can, at any time, look down at your arm and figure out why you are in this particular context.

A word about twitter
Twitter is a pretty clean example for talking about the division between social software and social networking. It is, by its core structures, inherently social. You can, if you want, be a pure consumer on twitter. You can also be a pure broadcaster. These are both uses of social software, but, I would say, aren’t strictly ‘social networking’. Imagine the non-web equivalent at our party of a person in the party giving a speech for the entire night, or conversely, sitting i a corner and listening in on everyone’s conversation, but never opening their mouth. Not social. Not networking.

Approaching social software and becoming a social networker. twitter
First, and I think most importantly, you need to decide on an armband. There are, of course, any number of ways of going about this, but it’s critical to ‘getting’ twitter. If you simply see those 200 faceless people from our above example and you yourself aren’t identified, then you are just going to run into and find random people. This is probably going to be frustrating and leads to the “Twitter is stupid, it’s just people talking about themselves all the time, why would i want to do that?” or my favourite “yes, i can see how it works for you, but i don’t have time for that.”(meaning, of course, that they probably don’t see)


So you can create a simple description of who you are, you can use things like wefollow to join tags and you can write about the things that you are interested in. These things add up. That’s not to say that you can’t talk about other things on your twitter account or that it isn’t social, but you will get back from it what you put in.

The second issue, is that you need to start identifying who those other people are. You can see your armband(s) but you need to learn how to see other people’s armbands so you can join the discussions that are going to be of interest to you. There are any number of ways to go about this, Mr. Tweet is a good example… it will give you the folks most like you (again, you need a good profile) who are the most popular (notice i didn’t say interesting, they aren’t necessarily connected). A nice strategy is to follow a particular search and reply to folks inside of that stream. Downloading something like tweetdeck, and using the search functionality to follow a word (or phrase) (I follow drupal and upei on my work tweetdeck and different ones depending on my current whims at home). This will give you a quick snapshot of every user using that word on twitter. Hugely powerful and a great way to get your networking… uh… networked. (note: actually helping people is always the best way to start a network)


So, in the process of doing this, you click on the people who are saying things that are of particular interest to you, you combine those with some of your existing colleagues, a couple of superstars in your field (or not in your field) and you start to interact.

The final issue i wanted to discuss was the management of your network. There are many theories about this, and I wont claim any supremacy for mine other than to say that it is how i stay effective with the degree of networkedness that I have created for myself. I am a constant gardener of my network, following people, unfollowing people, paying more attention to some people for a while and then moving on to others. This is the critical difference between a network and a community… My community members i stay with, my network is something more practical.

3RD Weed/feed your network

I do not follow everyone who follows me. I do occasionally monitor that list, and choose people to follow and see if they ‘work’ for how I use twitter. I know that a few people have been irritated by the fact that I have unfollowed them, even when i participate with them in a community elsewhere. I’m sorry they are irritated, but I personally can’t follow 1200 people, some people can.

Why I unfollow
I try to keep my twitter network as light as possible. I realize that to some people 145 people seems like alot, but they are all folks who either don’t post (which i eventually weed out) or people who’s posts are helping me with my work (sometimes just by being entertaining 🙂 ). Contrary to the popular criticism of social networking, I tend to choose people (like PatParslow) who challenge my thinking rather than people who already agree with me. (that might be because there aren’t many of those latter folks 😛 ) The tweet that got Pat responding today was “If a person’s tweets impedes my ability to scan twitter in a negative way.” And that’s what ‘different’ tweets do. They stop me from scanning. There are two sorts.. the kind that stop me from scanning and produce new thoughts, new ideas, give me an insight into a person I work with or a laugh 🙂 and then there are those that stop me and leave me with none of the above results. This is not meant to be claim of general interest (certainly i’ve unfollowed some very popular people who are much smarter than me) but rather that it doesn’t suit the particular way that I use twitter. When one person does this more than once, I stop following them for a while. This is how i managed to keep myself moving forward.

Other network notes
I tend to have my tweetdeck up, in some form, on my computer about 85% of the time I’m in front of the screen. I don’t need to turn it off for deadlines, because i use it too much when i’m in a hurry. I do turn it off if I’m trying to do paper work or other non-time related tasks… then it get distracted.

I do not think that an @davecormier requires a reply. I try to reply to folks asking me questions, but will not always ‘stop working on the things I’m working on’ in order to do so. A direct message does require a reply.

The twits I follow are the 145 people I think I’d like to run into at the coffee pot when i’m working… where i’ll learn little bits of stuff, have a laugh, bend my thinking. I’m often wrong about that… but not very often. It helps me work.

(note: see Ulrich’s comments in post regarding plurality. I do mean networks, not network)

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

11 thoughts on “Pointing to the ‘Social’ and the ‘Network’ in making the case for social networking (twitter edition)”

  1. Very good post, thank you for sharing your thoughts, it was helpful for me. Just one question: Is it really so that you experience “your network” as one network? Isn’t it rather a combination of networks reflecting the different hats you are wearing and the different interests at the moment which may change in time. The only common node in these networks maybe only you. Maybe your pruning does reflect changes in your context or interests.

    1. Quite right. I should definitely be using the plural. It makes the understanding of the article more complicated but i really should add a note about it.

  2. Thanks for sharing — I find that a clear and accessible description of a very practical approach to Twitter.

    As I think about this more, I realize that many of the cognitive speedbumps I have with Twitter have to do with its characteristics. I can see the tremendous benefit of self-organizing groups of people engaging in (near?) real-time exchanges, but why limit to 140 characters? Why is everything public? I haven’t seen (but maybe there is) a “status” display that let’s you know if someone is on-line or not, etc.

    It seems to me that tools that deliver this same kind of community-building have been around since the Usenet days (my lawn…), and what we’re seeing is the waxing and waning of the popularity of social software gadgets that have sprung from the minds of the latest batch of propeller heads — and that popularity is based on many other things beside practicality and features.

    So here’s a hypothetical question: if you could build a new social software piece that you knew would reach the same level of popularity as Twitter, would it look much like Twitter? What features would the ultimate social software include?

    1. All good points. No. twitter is not particularly new. It works because my people are there… if my community moved (or my networks) i would move with it.

      The thing that makes twitter a ‘not a status’ kind of place (that’s what i use skype for) is that I don’t want to ‘be available’ for everyone on twitter all the time. I participate as I have time. This seems to work well.

      When i need to write something more concrete than 140 characters I write here on this blog. (or I call someone) the 140 characters forces people to refine their ideas to a point. I find that helpful.

      As for designing a better one? In a sense I’m trying that at the university with the laconica project… which offers more of a common ground and isn’t proprietary. I’m not sure what ‘better’ would look like, maybe the combination of the twelve things i use… but i like the fact that i can keep my networks a little separated. It’d be fun to sit around and fight about though 🙂

      for me the software comes after the network… I’ll always choose bad software with good people, might sound weird… but i can’t always predict what people will use.

  3. Doesn’t this add another dimension to your networks as it can not be assumed that everyone is using all the information paths (twitter, blogs, Skype status, …). So you networks might be different due to interest, but also due to technology being used.

  4. Hi Dave,

    Glad I helped prompt you to write about this! It is a great piece, and it is always useful to see someone else’s perspective. As I was reading this, it reminded me of the role analysis piece of Folksonomological Reification (http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/folksonomological-reification/6043166) which I wrote a while back. You advocate clarity in choice of roles when using Twitter – which I think is good, but I am not sure I have put that much cognitive effort into it.

    I haven’t pruned my Twitter network at all yet. I choose to follow people either because I have seen the other end of conversations with them or because they follow me. I then get curious enough to look at what they have to say for themselves, and if I like it I follow them. Like you, though, ‘if I like it’ doesn’t mean ‘if they agree with me’ – I follow people who will stretch my understanding and give me insights into areas where I am weak (most!). Without deliberately designing my Tweeple to be one, I am building my personal learning network – people who help me understand the world better, who make me think. Maybe one day I will have enough people attracting my attention that I will have to see about some un-following.

    I think a strength of Twitter, over, say IRC, is that it is a global space. Because it isn’t fragmented, it allows dynamic communities to spring up. Whilst walled gardens have their purpose (protecting fragile flowers while they develop, either horticulturally or academically) a global space also has benefits.

  5. I’ve always been jealous of your 145, but now I’m paranoid of being bumped! 😉 This piece triggered a few questions, which are probably off topic, as usual.
    1. Why do we feel the need to defend our Twitter habits?
    2. If people don’t get it, does it matter?
    3. Does everyone need to use it?
    4. Where are we in promoting it? Do we have an obligation to show/teach it to certain people? Who? Why?

  6. Them’s some good questions… The 145 is tough to keep… i had promised to keep myself at 100 but i keep slipping away from that. I could run the alternative route and use groups in tweetdeck… but that doesn’t seem right somehow.

    1. I’m explaining to my administration why people should be using it at my university.
    2. no. it doesn’t.
    3. no.
    4. I’ll try and explain anything to anyone if they’ve asked me to… I’m not particularly interested in proselitysing.

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