Who’s afraid of the big bad MOOC…


In his new book, Who Owns the Future?, Jaron Lanier warns us about “Siren Servers” (sirens because they appear to offer amazing value for our lives and seduce us by not charging for this) sucking the worth from our futures while externalizing risk and hoarding the aggregated value of our contributions as their own assets. He is talking about Facebook and Amazon and Google and Apple, etc.. In our present economy, he argues, she who owns the server owns the future.  Many of his concerns apply rather starkly to the big MOOC consortia. As he notes, “(h)igher education could be Napsterized and vaporized in a matter of a few short years.” (Lanier, 84).

In some ways, the picture of higher education as an advanced content delivery system—where MOOCs and other internet services will disintermediate the jobs of faculty by providing content universally—offers a Dorian Gray solution to the problems of accelerating costs in higher education. In this scenario, if you could MOOC-ify as much of the classroom content as possible, you could eliminate a majority of faculty jobs while offering city college students Harvard-level classes.  Higher education would look and work better and brighter, and be cheaper and more available than it is now. However, the real picture of higher education (presumably withered and grotesque, hidden in a locked closet somewhere) would remind us that learning only starts with content delivery and that understanding content (however this is delivered) is really just the first step in higher education. Everything beyond this improves with and through classroom conversations. In a recent (May 20, 2013) New Yorker article on MOOCs, Nathan Heller ends his exploration of online courses with a paean to in-class conversation: “Their discussion left an energetic silence in the room, a feeling of wet paint being laid on canvas.” If MOOCs were the only option left for students in the future, higher education would be as impoverished (in terms of learning) as its graduates are today (in terms of loans).

I discuss this issue more on HASTAC: Flipping the MOOC: networked badges and massive online peer evaluation (MOPE)

Image from the Picture of Dorian Gray… [Image used under CC license on Flickr: photo by MassafelliPhotography.]

The Intention Economy: a window into the next phase of the Internet

Doc Searls
Doc Searls: The Intention Economy. used under CC license from dsearls on flickr.

I just finished Doc Searls’ latest book. This book is several things, all of them good. This is a knowledgeable look at the future of being a customer in a world where the Internet realizes its potential as an information commons (instead of a storefront). The book is simultaneously about being a consumer and a customer (not exactly the same), and about big data and little data (the data you should be in control of), and about the Internet and the economy. Doc introduces a new (5 years old or so) effort to create software services that enable customers to announce to the world their intentions, and to then receive bids from vendors who wish to sell the products and services that might be some value for those intentions. This is a reversal of rules and roles which currently lock customers into the loyalty silos that companies use to corral their wallets.

Every chapter in this book is a revelation on an important topic, from the coming collapse of the advertising bubble, to the need for customer-based contracts instead of the current lopsided boilerplate contracts of adhesion, to the Internet as a managed commons, which can support individuals owning their own data and negotiating with an open market for what they need: based on their own intentions, rather than from some expensive (in money and effort) algorithm devised to mine their data and ferret these out. Who knows their intentions better than the customer?

The new economy, based on fourth-party brokers that act on behalf of the customer —not the vendor—will be open (newcomers welcome, no silos allowed), efficient (no more guessing intentions, transactions are knowledge-full), effective (allowing vendors to work together), and it will bring the Internet closer to its potential as a free exchange of knowledge that can also support innumerable transactions and contracts. In the end, this is also a story of a work in progress, as Doc and others have already started to build software services to explore this new economy. This is an important work, that announces what could, and I would argue, should be a new direction for an Internet enabled economy.

As a bonus, the work is extraordinarily well written at the prose level, and is not simply a blog-to-book. Each chapter adds substantially to the overall argument. I cannot recommend this book too highly. I am encouraging friends and strangers alike to give it a read.

I would also submit that there are corollaries to the commercial vendor/customer relationship that Doc’s logic and services would help improve. How much better would civil society be if the intentions and the capabilities of citizens, and the problems they face, were announced in this fashion to their local governments? How much more effective would continuing education be if the student could announce the skills they require to the world and have multiple offers for training? The Internet as a managed commons (Doc does a great job of advancing Lewis Hyde’s work on the commons) extends to many facets of our social interactions, not just those that involve transactions for money. Doc does talk about micro-transactions, but there are also new efforts to enable a sharing economy that would benefit greatly from these services.

Doc Searls: The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge. Harvard Business Review Press


Creating the “town-effect” for social networks

Remember back when? Back when you needed to have a .edu account to get into your college’s Facebook network? And then remember when your company could start up a “network” and you could join in? But once you got in, it really just became a label on your profile. Nobody could send a message to the “network.” No members could vote on who administered the “network.” These were containers without purpose. When Facebook abandoned these vacuous networks, nobody really cared. After all there were still “pages.” And “likes” and, for a while, “fans.” Like many others, I became one of the “citizens for boysenberry jam” fans.

Of course, as of now, Facebook has become the monster platform for microblogging, social gaming, and media sharing. In actual terms, every individual member of Facebook is a customer for one giant network managed by Facebook (for its own purposes—read: IPO). Despite some attempts to provide for member input into its rules, Facebook continues to mold the user experience to meet its own goals. Getting a Facebook account is like moving into a city of 500 million people without a map and no way of fostering anything like a neighborhood that responds to your needs.

This membership model is significantly different from, say, the Ning model, where communities of interest spun up their own networks, and within these networks, smaller working-groups for focused collaboration and event planning. The real problem with the Ning model is discoverability. The networks are too small and their visions mostly too modest for them to have much of a presence on the big-bad web. They are like villages in the valleys; useful for their core membership, but not likely to grow into anything significantly more than what they were in the beginning. Here you’ll find brands and fans and NGOs galore. The sites are better than web portals for many purposes, but surely there’s something missing.

This something is what I would call the “town-effect.” A town is bigger than a village and smaller than a city. Neighbors live in a town, but so do strangers. So there are new people to meet. Unexpected, potentially marvelous events might happen. The town has a town hall; some place and some manner of governing what happens and why. This facility for self-governance is entirely lacking from Facebook and is mostly trivial for Ning (where, if you don’t like the network rules, you can always just start your own). The best cities in the world are really made up of several towns. From Seattle to New York to Paris to Rome: residents will tell you the town where they live, rather than the city where they dwell. They live in Fremont, or The Village, or Covent Garden, or Navona. Within these towns people live in neighborhoods where they might know many of the people they meet. But they also cultivate the conviviality of their town as a place to find new friends and opportunities. And when they visit a neighboring town, they know they are strangers only once (thanks Liz!).

The real challenge for the future of social networking is to build a platform where digital towns can emerge. Such a platform would enable a network-of-networks; each of which would be capable of growing into a digital-town, with real self-governance and aspects of community (opportunities for trustful collaborations, reputation building, micro-volunteering).  Each network can determine its own membership rules. An individual might be a member of several networks at the same time. The platform would scale up to millions of individual members, but any one network might have ten to fifty thousand.

In the US there are about two million people with PhDs (and twenty-times that number globally). The research interests of these individuals are amazingly diverse. An academic network-of-networks would reasonably contain several dozen networks centered on arenas of interest. Each network is a container that filters the content and amplifies the opportunities of its members. The “early American novel” network would not need to handle content from the “biogenetic structuralism” network. Job opportunities in geology would not show up in the oncology network. Any individual can join more than one network as their own interests dictate. And technical innovation at the platform level “lifts all boats.” Picture every network as a vibrant townscape, and you are approaching the model for this new platform.

Many of the potentials for social networking have not be explored by Facebook, which made the decision early on to dissolve its network-of-networks in favor of one great city.  The technology to create this network-of-networks is already here. In fact, this is built into Drupal Gardens (a software add-on to Drupal). I’m still on Facebook. And yet, beyond the possibility that someone from my kindergarden class might decide to friend me, I get very little out of being one among 500 million. I would feel much more productive and at home in a digital town.

Photo Credit: CC licensed by SouthernPixel on Flickr.

Creating Community is a Process and a Goal

People who talk to me about “adding a little Web 2.0” to their sites fail to understand that the heart of every successful Web 2.0 venture are the various communities that grow to depend upon the opportunities they acquire through the service. That frosting of Web 2.0 people apply to their portals and websites is mostly aggravating overhead. For the user, it’s like getting a box of chocolate-covered gravel.  Sure, you can add a dozen social media posting links for readers, but if you really want to start a conversation, then you need to dig a little deeper and offer the reader a better bargain for their end of the deal. Find a way to reward those readers who offer feedback or repost your content, and they might just do this again and again.

Should your Web 2.0 designs include building and supporting one or more communities of users, then you will certainly need more than a little Web 2.0 in the mix. Mostly you will need to start with a modest number of tools (microblogs, group support, media sharing) and then tune this list using the recommendations of active users. As soon as someone needs to sign in, they should also want to sign on as a member of something larger than just the software platform.  Make your Web 2.0 services launching pads for those who are ready to become community leaders. And then just stand back and watch.

Photo Credit: Chris Devers on Flickr cc license

Facebook, schmacebook: We’re getting tired of shopping at the company store

I can’t wait to get off Facebook. Everyone I know can’t wait to get off Facebook. We are all waiting for the next good thing to come along and take us off this island of wasted opportunities. The two questions surrounding this situation are these: what’s wrong with Facebook? and what can we know, say, or do to help the next good thing happen?
A large problem with Facebook has to do not with what it does (or fails to do) but what it is. In fact, Facebook nailed the whole “social” side of social networking early on, only to then lose it. Facebook is a piece of software run by someone else with a business model designed to maximize how my content can be used by them to make money, but not for me. I donate my content and my time, and they keep tweaking the service to make my contributions more valuable for them. This situation is hardly a secret, so we are not talking about deception here. Just bad faith. Facebook is a social network service designed to convert my efforts (and those of 500 million others) into their IPO. Fine. For this, what do I get? A place to pop up microblogs (status updates). A space for random photos and videos (and a not very good service in terms of storing and retrieving these).  A constantly changing user interface that sends me suggestions I don’t need. A collection of my stuff that forever and without compensation now belongs to Facebook. There is no exit from Facebook. Users can only flee. But flee to where?
The next good thing in social networking will have to so several things better than Facebook:
  • Be big and small at the same time. Be a network of networks where each network has the means and the incentive to become more coherent and thus more useful and attractive. 500m members don’t help me out. 500 of the right members, with the right tools. That’s what I’m looking for.
  • Build in real reputation services, on top of powerful collaboration and publication tools. I’m looking for a place to publish once and publish everywhere. I need to know who’s reading what I contribute. I want to reward others for their insights.
  • Build in content sharing services so that I can load up my really good content and have this licensed (Creative Commons) and cited.
  • Build in property and privacy rules so that I control my own contributions. Give me an exit that packages all my content for me to take somewhere else and erases all of this on the system. Chances are I will not use this, simply because it is there. If you love my content, let it go. That’s how you get me to stay.
  • Last, and most importantly: build in network governance so that I have a say in how my social network(s) in the system are managed. I might want to donate some time to curate a part of the content. I might want to help build some policies about member services. Governance is the launching pad for network growth. When members own their own networks they care for and about these. Leaders emerge. Members become evangelists. This is the future of social networking. It looks a lot like democracy. Get used to it.
Back when a mining company opened up in a remote village it would force its workers to use the company store by paying them with scrip only that store would honor. The prices in the company store were managed to the company’s benefit. Often it was a pastel kind of slavery. Sound a lot like Facebook? This is where we are today in the tail-end of the first generation of social networking. We are living our online lives in the company store. And we are ready to jump ship.
Photo Credit: CC licensed for reuse by jekemp

Why should I move my webspace onto a full Web 2.0 platform?

One of the opportunities created by moving your program’s content onto a robust Web 2.0 platform is the ability to add social networking (peer-to-peer conversations) and social media (comments, ratings, and tagging of content) capabilities to your user community’s activities. You also gain new lines of communication with your service users and community members.

Developing on one of the leading Web 2.0 CMS platforms will also accelerate the means to integrate other important tools (such as Google language translation capabilities) into the your program. Content curation capabilities can also be assigned to the appropriate employees and volunteers, so that content updating is a shared responsibility and requires limited technical support.

Your multi-year technology budget will need to be front-loaded to trade some monies for time in order to get this online within months. However, the cost on maintaining this system will be significantly lower over the period of the contract.

Photo Credit: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid