Saturday, January 9, 2010

Participation literacy

Most social networks and discussion boards I know tend to be dominated by a handful of people contributing over 90% of all content. This small core group (sometimes simply one enthusiastic individual) keeps the site alive by providing input and trying to encourage everyone else to contribute. The big problem is how to foster active participation.

For example, I'm involved in a Swedish education network (Dela! - which means "share") which has gathered over 800 registered users since its inception last spring. The problem is how to create a critical mass of discussion. Most users log in and read the latest news but only a minority make regular contributions and the question is how to spread the workload of keeping the network as active as possible.

The same phenomenon appears in course discussion forums where a few students dominate the discussion unless some form of incentive is provided (eg. make at least 2 significant entries in the discussion in the coming week). Without such pressure the general rule holds; 90% are passive, 8% contribute occasionally and 2% contribute a lot. How do we spread the load?

The problem is, I suspect, that people are used to being consumers rather than producers of information. Some students are uneasy about greater participation in the classroom, preferring to simply listen to the teacher's words of wisdom. Larger meetings at work or in the community follow the same lines. Just because social media offer everyone the opportunity to contribute doesn't mean to say that everyone wants to do so. It's so much easier to listen and observe.

Of course people are contributing on a massive scale to Facebook but there's a gap between the chatty social interaction there and the ability to discuss and reflect more deeply in an educational context.

What we need to develop is a kind of participation literacy; the ability to discuss and develop arguments on line. In many ways traditional debating skills are needed but we also an awareness of the rules of engagement on the net; so-called netiquette. The ability to contribute constructively to a discussion needs to be learnt and practiced in school. Those who master this skill will succeed in tomorrow's job market. According to Seth Godin, The future of the library, this type of training could be a new role for libraries to adopt

For more on this theme have a look at Howard Rheingold's interview with researcher Mizuko Ito (see Video interview with Mizuko Ito).


  1. Couldn't agree more. Sometimes I guess it's just lack of time, because of theinformation overload we just keep surfing from one discussion board/blog/network to another and don't really take the time to stop and actually contribute. On the other hand, considering the time we spend uploading pictures, updating our statuses and commenting on other people's updates it shouldn't be that hard.I think most people, as you say, need practise early on to become more confident and take an active part in these communitites.

  2. But as you said, there is the same problem IRL, in job-meetings and in other groups.

    Sometimes people just pay the fee for a group to support it and to get the monthly, glossy paper.

    Sometimes we realy want to be active, but cannot find another way then to be am elected board-member.... Visa mer

    Is there a maximum number of realy active members in a group? It seems so:

    I've been member of small groups with ten or twenty members and almost all active.

    And I've been active in groups with thousends of members and still 10 - 20 active.

    I think the problem has to do with HOW we build groups.

    But it also has to do with how we measure activity. Can't you participate actively without speaking on the meeetings or debating on the forum? Maybe you just listen an learn? Maybe you spread the groups values in your neighborhood.

  3. Du har väl inte missat Jono Bacon's bok The Art och Community, som även finns för nedladdning.