Well, I’ve been thinking about this post for some time now, and I can already hear the clatter of keyboards as they dash to respond… The thing is – and this is the nub of the post (and a comment I threw in to Twitter this morning) – I think all this ‘PLN’ business is seriously over-hyped and overrated and most people are kidding themselves about just how much they get out of theirs, just how many of their PLN would be friends and mentors ‘in real life’, and just, well, just how real it all is…
So hey ho, here we go – feel free to tell me just how valuable it is to you, of all the new ‘friends’ you’ve made and all the rest. And I do know, of course, that real friendships and professional relationships and things like that are made every day online – I know there are real ‘success’ stories, but I also think there’s a slightly creepy, slightly seedy, slightly self-congratulatory, slightly odd, slightly desperate and slightly unreal side to the whole thing…
Here’s what I know (and I must stress this is a personal post – your mileage may vary)… My best friends are all, with one or two exceptions, people I have first met face-to-face and then continued to contact online due to distance or whatever. I also know that, like most people, I have an optimum number of friends, and that number is very small. I see these people when I can, and I get more out of two hours in their company than I could ever in a few weeks with them online in Twitter.
In fact I got a lot more out of TESOL Spain last weekend than I ever could in a few weeks of Twitter. And yes, I do know that not everyone gets to go to conferences. But really, all that makes Twitter or any other online community (at least for me) is ‘better than nothing’.
Twitter is, of course, fantastic for many things – new links to interesting websites and research, to reviews and all the rest. On a daily basis I probably bookmark half a dozen or so of these (though I never, of course, have time to go and look at them again). It’s great for quick questions to someone, and excellent at JIT training and solutions when you need to know how to do something. But I can’t help feeling that it’s all being stretched a bit far when it gets called a ‘community’ or ‘network’…. Well, maybe it’s a network in the strictest sense.
It’s a bit like Facebook in some ways. It’s ridiculous for me to sign in to Facebook and see my 500+ ‘friends’. The thing is, you see, they’re not really friends, most of them. At best most of them are acquaintances, generally they’re friends of someone I once met at a conference and with whom I had a most pleasant and edifying chat. But that doesn’t mean we should swap holiday photos or call each other ‘friends’. We’re colleagues, perhaps, in the same way that everyone who works at a university is a colleague of everyone else…. Except they rarely meet each other, have nothing in common and probably never will.
The truth of the matter is that we can’t all be sane, nice, amazing people – there must be some loonies out there… Yet everyday people arrange to meet someone they’ve only met online, to stay in their houses and go out for dinner with them, and more… As if it were the most natural thing in the world. And we educators are generally ok, but there must be some mad axe murderers amongst us. Have any of your friends disappeared from a ‘tweet-up’ recently (God how I hate that word)? Perhaps you should check…
I’m a social animal. I love meeting people, talking to them, discussing their work and mine – but I’m sure there are many hundreds of people I’m connected to on Twitter who would find me dull beyond belief, and I’m sure the same would happen to me. There’s been much written on the ‘love fest’ of online communities, and I really do think it’s over-played. It ain’t all rosy, we’re not all due to be the best of friends, and the sooner we get over that, the better.
Twitter has, of course, improved the first-time conference experience for many – and that is an amazing thing. But when people get home after their ‘tweet-up’, do they ever sit down and wonder if any of the people they met would really ever be close friends of theirs in real life? Do we really all find each other so utterly fascinating, lovely and professionally inspiring that we long to retire to a commune the size of Belgium and start a new Utopia? I think not. Twitter has its strengths, but it is also unpredictable and it draws us in to an ever-increasing love-fest where everyone is frilly and pretty (intellectually and personally speaking, of course). And life isn’t like that. I don’t share my family snaps with strangers online, and increasingly I feel uneasy abut doing the same with my ‘PLN’.
And what of other communities? I’ve already mentioned Facebook – to me it’s simply an address book. I sign in, accept invitations from people who are friends of people who are friends of a guy who once talked to me in Buenos Aires, and then I sign out again. Because if I hang around for too long, the second cousin of the woman who gave me a lift to the bloke who was going to arrange my transfer to the airport is going to open a chat window and ask me about ‘some’ and ‘any’. Or maybe for a quick edit on their PhD thesis on mole wrenches… since we have so much in common and all that.
This week I have been invited to join four more communities and two Nings. And the thing is, I’m already over-stretched with work and Twitter and all the rest. And it’s not that I don’t want to socialise with people, it’s that I don’t know what I can bring to yet another community. If everyone is like me, and if everyone is increasingly spread thinner over life’s slice of bread, what good are we to any of the communities we join? The old thing of 90-9-1 really does make sense…
So I’m currently caught between stools, as it were. I love my work and I love technologies and what they can bring to teaching and training. I love technologies for my work, and also for a lot of my play. I love the fact that I can talk to people all over the world at any point in the night and day. But increasingly I find it’s the richness of one-to-one discussions (online or face-to-face) that make more sense to me. Or small group discussions, again, either online or in meat space. What I don’t get, mostly, is how one has a decent discussion on Twitter or Facebook where the interface is simply not rich enough to allow for that.
Most of the discussions or arguments I see on Twitter, as one example, consist mainly of soundbites which are then re-tweeted as gospel truths. You don’t see much critical thinking in 140 characters, nor should you… It’s all so very tiring when you’re an old man
I’ve more to say on this, I reckon – but there are dozens of seething keyboards warming up to get to grips with this bit, so I’ll leave it here and let you all get on with it. I think I’ll come back when I’ve had a bit more time to think about it, and when I can see what everyone else thinks about it, too. All I can say is that in the past few weeks when I’ve put Twitter on the back burner I’ve done more work, more reading and more in-depth chatting to people than I have all year.
And it’s been wonderful.
Now, I really must go… got to fly to Manitoba to stay with this bloke I met through a friend on Twitter who put me on to his Facebook page and invited in his friends from when he was at college in the 80s. We’re already the best of friends and I’m sure we’re going to have lots in common. I’ll be staying at his place – you can contact me c/o Mad Billy Stokes, Mantitoba