Not every blog has its day

An article stating the obvious (if you build it then, unless you are Wayne, it’s pretty unlikely they will come) but it’s always worth re-stating. What makes social systems work is people, supported by tools that work in ways that help them, not hinder them.

I like the notion of ‘tribe-leader’ one of the interviewees mentions: so much of getting the impetus to sustain a social system is about champions and enthusiasts doing things and using tools for their intrinsic worth and benefits.

It seems to me that, given a very large, diverse and multi-faceted population of potential users of a system like this, where some needs are known but most are unknowable in advance, especially in detail, that we should start with a range of very soft technologies, ones that can be adapted to different needs and purposes with great flexibility. However, they should not all be so soft that they are an empty vessel: there should be sufficient hardness that different tools can be adapted to different purposes with a bit of precision: blogs, wikis, discussion fora, instant messaging, bookmarking, file sharing, for instance. As needs start to become more fixed and clear, it should be possible to build on those technologies and add new functions and constraints to harden them to fit people’s needs more precisely. However, that has to be seen as a dynamic and shifting process so it should be equally easy to soften the hard things again when needs change. Hardening soft technologies is pretty easy: it’s a well-known problem for which we have many solutions. Softening hard things is way harder.

The softer a tool is, the harder it is to use and the more prone it is to error and confusion, because we have to add extra layers of process to make it work as we wish. email, for instance, is a very soft technology indeed and we bend it to purposes as diverse as arranging meetings, file storage and backup, newsletters, informal dialogues, chats, group meetings, coursework submission, formal feedback and much much more. Each different use requires a different set of norms, rules and conventions to which all participants must adhere. This becomes obvious when people do the ‘wrong thing’ such as when emailing the wrong type of message to the wrong people. Harder, more specialised technologies like file servers for file storage, calendar servers for arranging meetings, instant messaging clients for sending instant messages, assignment submission systems for submitting coursework and so on can reduce the errors and make the processes they enable easier to perform, but they do so at the cost of flexibility. Before long, we reach a point where it becomes possible to say, with a straight face and no hint of irony, ‘the computer says no’.

Soft technologies are hard, but flexible. Hard technologies are easy, but rigid. We have to design systems, or ecologies of systems, that let us shift effortlessly from soft to hard and back again. 

Address of the bookmark:

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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