What My Students Taught Me About Online Communities
As some of you may know, this semester I’m teaching a course at Algonquin College on Web Media. We’re talking about and doing everything from blogging to podcasting to social networking and anything else that falls under the Web 2.0 umbrella.
What I love about this course is that though I was given a basic outline by the college, I’ve pretty much been given free reign to design the course the way I want. This means, not only do I get to come up with all the fun activities we get to do, but I get to hand pick who I’m going to bring in to help me teach the stuff.
Today we were fortunate to welcome my friend, Information Architect extraordinaire Jeff Parks to the class. I knew the students were in for a treat, as Jeff is one of the most passionate speakers I know. Perhaps it’s because if his info architect nature, but the guy can analogize like nobody’s business. And, he’s funny as heck, too.
Needless to say, the class was enthralled for the whole hour he was with us, as he discussed how people disseminate data into real value and how understanding the way people communicate is absolutely vital to succeeding in the online world. Many thanks to Jeff for his invaluable contribution to today’s class.
After Jeff left, we were back to business, and today was the day the students were presenting their second assignment, about online communities. Their task was to work in pairs, and research an online community. They could pick any community they wanted, but they had to explore it thoroughly – what tools were being used, how people were being encouraged to participate, and so on.
Well, not only was I extremely impressed with the quality of the students’ presentations, but I was quite pleased to have been reminded of some interesting facts in the process.
Social media ain’t the only game in town. So here we all are, us social media types, Twittering and blogging away about Twittering and blogging. Meanwhile, out there (I mean, still in the online world – just outside of the social media bubble) there are communities upon communities chock full of wonderful people connecting in amazing ways. It’s true! Go look for yourselves!
Today I heard presentations from my class about online communities that exist around sports (Canadian sports broadcaster TSN is doing some really cool stuff), video games, 3-D animation, local independent music and even candy! Yes, entire online communities exist about CANDY. There are blogs, forums, podcasts, and videos a-plenty in these communities. And most importantly, there are lots and lots and LOTS of people hanging out in these communities. Are they all on Twitter? Well, a few are. Are they all blogging and Facebooking – yep, quite a few, and their numbers are growing. Are they participating in forums and having conversations and connecting? In droves!
Go on, go look! Here’s a task for you – take a walk outside the bubble this week. Do some searches for other stuff that interests you besides social media (or even stuff that doesn’t interest you that much). You will be amazed at what you find. The thing is, the candy lovers, gamers, sports fanatics, and musicians that are out there interacting in these communities? I bet if you asked them, a lot of them wouldn’t even know that what they are doing is social media. They are just out there. Interacting, contributing, and connecting, without even thinking twice about how to do it better or more effectively. We can learn a lot from watching what’s going on out there.
Ooh! More secret sauce. I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. The answers we’re looking for, on how to build better communities and use social media more effectively? They’re already out there. In the candy community, and the sports community, and the gamer community. Go check! You’ll see what I mean.
The thinkers have their place. Now, I’m not trying to say that studying social media, analyzing it like crazy and teaching people how to use social media more effectively is not useful. It’s extremely useful, and not only would I be dead wrong, I’d be putting myself out of a job if I said otherwise.
What I AM saying is that we need to remember that the echo chamber is alive and well, and that once in a while, we need to turn our radar outwards. We need to stop talking to each other, and start talking to the communities themselves. So do you still need to be thinking about social media in these terms? If it’s part of your business, then absolutely. Just don’t forget about the Candy People in the process, or your view will be too narrow and too skewed.
Why I teach. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Teaching, although it is only a smallish part of what I do for a living, is absolutely one of the most rewarding parts of my job. Why? Because I get to talk to people about things I love to talk about, like video and blogging and writing and geeky tech stuff. But what I also love is that every time I go into that classroom, I’m learning too. Thanks to my class today, I gained a new perspective on my work in this space. And for that I’m very grateful!