Anti-Social Networking

The amazing Boone Gorges has recently released yet another wizzo BuddyPress plugin called Invite Anyone (mk 2) . Not content with this I followed a link to a comment thread from which the topic of ‘Friends’ in social networks emerged:

“It seems to me that the asymmetric model of twitter followers is one that encourages fandom rather than mutual connection. ……  we’re probably less interested in encouraging “fans” than in establishing mutually affirmed, symmetric, friend connections. An asymmetric model could cause all sorts of social problems, with people being upset that someone didn’t follow him or her back.”

and more from the same poster:

“Having said all of that, I’ve been talking to a few members of our community lately who feel uncomfortable with facebook-like friending entirely. These discussions have made me realize how little we’ve actually theorized these issues, and how important it is that we do so soon.” (my italics)

and from the next poster:

“On Twitter, if you’re “following” someone, you’re not a fan as well, you’re just interested in what the person is up to, which is why I love how they use the term “follower”. It doesn’t create any connotations or anything, it is what it is. Another reason why terminology is important when developing a product or service!” (my italics again)

[What’s interesting to me is that Twitter has done this and the term has ‘stuck’].

And Boone himself weighed in with :

“It seems overly simplistic to claim that the possibility of asymmetric relationships “encourages fandom”, as Matt puts it. Twitter is a case in point. Just because Twitter is set up such that the only relationships that are technically relevant in the system are asymmetric, it doesn’t follow that the Twitter platform encourages fandom rather than what you might call a more genuine connection. Bidirectional friendships emerge from and supervene on unidirectional relationships without there being a formal structure to describe them. I see this kind of emergence as a strength of the system, as relationships that arise without a formal structure underlying them are on balance more likely to be worthwhile (I would think, anyway).

[But here is where a study might be in order — hands up Dana Boyd? . Perhaps the possibility of asymmetric relations doesn’t necessarily encourage ‘fandom’ but maybe in actual practice this is often the case. Problem is that to compare you’d need  to find a Twitter like service that has does not have this system, and that’s well nigh impossible. Maybe there are other ways of approaching this? ]

From a practical point of view, though, Matt’s right that there are social issues that arise in spaces like Twitter that don’t in spaces like Facebook or BuddyPress. Hurt feelings might be one of them, though I’m skeptical that such consequences are really all that dire, all so-and-so-didn’t-follow-me-back-on-Twitter bitching aside. I’m more interested in what might happen (both good and bad) as members of a professional community start to experience the arc exemplified by the Twitter user lifecycle: feeling uncomfortable about the idea of following people you don’t know, feeling stalked when other start following you, feeling like you have to follow people back, feeling proud when you get certain kinds of followers, and so on.”

This brought back to my mind an extremely perceptive blog posting (a term paper in fact) that a student in my class (Tessa Bricker) wrote several years ago (five to be precise) bewailing the commodification of friendship as she termed it. Entitled ‘Anti-Social Networking: The Commodity of “friend”ship‘ she makes the following points (did I say already that they were perceptive?):

  • “Friendships are built on shared experiences and trust. With social networks, friendships are broken down to the simplest terms. Instead of being based on trust and experiences, friendships in social networks are engaged in for less pure purposes. Instead of quality friendships, services like Friendster, are all about collecting the most friends.”[She writes about Uncomfortable Situations (referred to above), classifying friends and then quality of friendship :]
  • “Social networks cheapen friendship, turning it into a commodity, to be collected not valued for anything other a number or a means to get in contact with someone else.”[And here’s the stinger :]
  • “Social networks are designed to bring people together and they do that successfully. People meet, find dates, make friends, and find employers through social networks. The term friend really shouldn’t be used to describe buddies on the Internet. The term implies more of an emotional bond and connection than most people have with people they meet on the Internet. Social networks are eroding the values placed on friendship by turning friends into commodities.”

So there you have it. The term ‘friend’ should not be used to describe buddies on the internet. How right this is. I think that this is an excellent point, and thanks to a video from Boone Gorges himself it’s possible to change the term on a BuddyPress installation. But what to? “buddy”? After all, it’s called Buddy Press 🙂

Tracking progress

I’ve been tracking all my intimate  doings with implementing Social Networking s/w in a spanking new and über double plus cool TiddlyWiki system at This implements a javascript subsystem called Treeview which makes creating the side menu a proverbial piece of cake.

So, what’s cooler WordPress-MU + BuddyPress or Morris Gray’s Treeview Tiddlywiki ? That’s a hard one!

Why ‘kate_bush’? Well, everyone knows that she was the premier woman artiste of the mid 70s and a great track of hers is called Experiment IV. Since this tracks my experiments I figured I would pay homage to Kate.


Kate Bush - the Whole Story

NextGEN goodness

Just spent some time fooling around with the NextGEN gallery plugin for WP-MU. It has to be said that this is uber cool. I figured out how to use it with any old template. It does everything that Gallery3 does and more. Ideal for travel blogs I would say. There is one glitch however. The ‘slideshow’ feature does not render properly. This screenshot from Windows Exploder 8 shows the gaps where the slideshow ought to be placed (the gaps do not appear in Firefox or Flock browsers):

Blog with slideshow

Screenshot of blog display with NextGEN slidehow (browser: I.E v8)

I’m not actually sure whether this is a problem with WP-MU 2.9.1 or the NextGEN plugin or the template (don’t think so) or (perhaps) the imagerotator.swf. I downloaded the latest version of the JW Image Rotator (v3.17) and I know that I set the absolute path correctly in Gallery : Options : Slideshow. Having gorn back to the download and opened the accompanying demo html file (which displays a working slideshow) I’m now thinking that it’s a version discombobulation between NextGEN and the rotator.  However, even absent the slideshow this plugin is double plus super triffic!


Rather embarrassing this. I’ve sussed the problem. It was the path descriptor. When I see the phrase ‘path’ I always assume that it means absolute file path, so I had /usr/local/www/apache/data/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/imagerotator.swf as the “path to imagerotator”. What it actually means is the URL, so changing this to did the trick. I guess it does say (URL) in the field descriptor but the if the [Search now] button doesn’t work (which mine didn’t) then you have to trial and error it.

Correct display of slideshow

One thing that this does show is an issue with aspect ratios. I often like taking ‘portrait’ style photos and so will turn my camera onto it’s long axis to take the photo. But mixing ‘wide’ landscape orientation and tall portrait orientation within a single slideshow does not work well as the widget shows. This is because the slideshow has to have a fixed size and this can accommodate either one or the other orientation, but not both. So, I will  have to think about sorting photos before displaying in a slideshow format. Fortunately, the system of Albums – Galleries makes this easy to do. One can just have a Gallery of tall images and wide images in the same Album and then use two different slideshow settings to display.

Comments on “Web 2.0” and social software

People often use the word “energy” to mean entirely different things in different contexts. It may mean oil when used in the context of transportation, it may mean electricity when used in the context of buildings, it may mean nuclear when used in the context of ‘green’. And for “energy” we can read “web 2 point oh”.  With this in mind, let’s look at this intriguing post from Graham Attwell’s Pontydysgu (pronunciation guide for non-Welsh speakers — Pont – uh – duz – gee — at least that’s how I think it’s pronounced from my limited Welsh experience) entitled “Developing a Pedagogical Framework for Web 2.0 and social software“.

“And whilst the educational technology community has tended to espouse constructivist approaches to learning, the reality is that most Virtual Learning Environments have tended to be a barrier to such an approach to learning.”

I think that while this assertion is generally true I do think that, for Moodle at least, the reason why this might be the case has more to do with the attitudes, approaches and fears of teachers themselves than intrinsic limitations of the particular VLE system. Teachers are afraid of openness. They don’t want their classrooms to be open. They often feel vulnerable and unsafe when trying new technologies and so they shy away from such innovation. They fear censure (quite rightly) if their experiment with technology fails or comes off half cock. Moreover, I would assert that in many people’s minds the phrase “Web 2.0 and social software” equates 1:1 with Facebook using the same argument that I introduced this piece with. And Facebook in the minds of many teachers (and especially young teachers like my daughter who is just coming into the system) conjures up images not of collaboration in learning new things but of superficial time wasting frippery.

So, to my mind, we have to start with where teachers in real classrooms are situated. It’s one thing to preach the gospel of collaborative learning; it’s quite another to make a class wiki using MediaWiki the basis of a collaborative class wide pedagogic effort. The ‘tools’ that teachers use online have to be designed for teachers and teaching whether they are Web 2.0 or Moodle/VLE based. While generalized Web 2.0 instruments may be pressed into pedagogical service by teachers who are adept with the particular tool the transient nature of much of these sites renders the process unsustainable over more than the very short term.

For a real teaching Web 2.0 site take a look at Zach Whalen’s home site at University of Mary Washington and his excellent New Media course. The guy operates his own drupal site for heaven’s sake!

To Socialize or not?

That is the question.
My mate Jon Breitenbucher has been beavering away and produced a sh*t hot system for the College of Wooster that he calls ‘Voices’. Let’s take a quick look at the home page:

screenshot of Voices site

Screenshot of Voices site

Very impressive I think you’ll agree. But there’s more. The Privacy Policy and Terms of Service are actually readble and make sense! Jon has modelled these on weblogs at Harvard Law but kudos for doing this!

Let’s have a look at How is Voices doing. Evidently Jon has got a Google Analytics plugin operational and he reports:

Would you have believed that Voices has had 15,836 visitors, from 74 countries and territories, and generating 52,957 page views since the semester started on August 24? The only state that has not visited Voices is South Dakota and we’ve had over 200 visitors from the United Kingdom.

This is impressive n’est ce pas? He concludes:

Clearly all of you are writing about things that people want to read. We just want to thank you and say keep expressing yourselves!

Earlham admissions would kill for this sort of coverage! So, nice one, Jon.

To BuddyPress or not to BuddyPress?

This site has of course raised the bar for social networking here at Earlham. Should I start with BuddyPress + WP-MU or keep things a bit simpler by doing everything through WP-MU and migrate later? I wonder how much you have to undo when moving to Buddy Press (BP)? I’d like to get a pilot up soon and so I don’t want to waste my time exploring WP-MU options if I’d be better off doing the same thing through BP. Seems like a Skype call to Jon B is on the horizon.

Questions for Jon

  1. Groups. Can any user create a Group? Or can group creation be restricted? Ideally, I’d like to institute a system whereby the group creator has to accumulate a quorum of other willing users before the group gets created. So, the way it might work is that someone proposes a new group, lists members who might like to join, and then a certain minimum number need to respond ‘yes’ before the group gets created and they are enrolled. I wonder whether this is possible? This would ameliorate the situation whereby it’s often the case in social networking systems that 90% (or thereabouts) of groups are duds which are never active.
    1. Can you have a group blog automatically created when a group is created?
  2. Privacy options. Can you have Public — Logged in users — Private options for privacy?
  3. I’m wondering what the point of ‘The Wire’ and ‘Forums’ are within Voices? I think I’d like a college wide open discussion forum where students and faculty could sound off about their concerns. This would a ‘logged in users’ only forum. But it seems to me that in general the Forum and Group Blog functionality overlaps. Ditto ‘Wire’ and blog. There’s a cool blog theme that allows twitter style comments.
  4. Twitter feeds — what’s the dope on importing Titter feeds?
  5. ‘Friending’ options. I didn’t see any friending but that’s a feature, right?

Just getting started, and this is looking good.

Changing the way we look at course content

Imagine for a moment that you’re at the optician. There your eyesight gets tested by comparing vision through different lenses; “how does this look? now this?”. So let’s take a quick look at the way that courses can be presented. So, quickly now, what is this course about?

Screenshot of course display in blog format

Screenshot of course display in blog format

and now this one?

Screenshot of course display in Moodle

Screenshot of course display in Moodle

They are both about the same thing. In fact, the Blog site has merely sucked in the open content from the Moodle course.  The interesting aspect to this is that the content of the courses is exactly the same. It’s just that the presentation and peripheral stuff is different. Which is the more effective site in delivering this course content? Personally, I’m not sure. More to the point, which is the more effective site for eliciting voluntary student responses? I think it has to be the blog site. I will return to this theme in a later posting but suffice it to say that it’s all fuel for an articulation of why teaching faculty should think about using a course blog in addition to Moodle.

Changing the way we look at information

As a Russophile it’s always great to have an excuse to use a quote from an author from Mother Russia. So it was Count Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoi who said somewhere, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself. ”

This quote occurred to me in the context of a blog posting by Cardiff native, Martin Weller, entitled “What the Digital Britain report should have said“. In and of itself this is an interesting post, but the reason that I draw attention to it in the context of the Tolstoi quote is the link to an alternative presentation of the report on a site, aptly named Writeto Reply. Here the report is broken down into chapters and paragraphs and presented in such a way that the public can comment on either the whole page or individual paragraphs. A simple concept and stunningly effectively delivered using the CommentPress theme for WordPress. Thus it seems to me that by empowering commenting on a scale this granular the authors of the report on WritetoReply are indeed changing the world so to speak by changing the presentation of this important report.