Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Social Media: An Interview

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Feb 23, 2012

I was asked to contribute my responses to interview questions on social media for a new journal, Future Learning, and of course I was happy to send some thoughts along. The interview, by Lisa Gualtieri, and my responses follow:

When did you start getting interested in the potential of social media in education and why?

It all depends on what you call social media. For me the turning point came in 1986 at the University of Calgary, and specifically, in John A. Baker's graduate Philosophy of Mind class. In addition to the usual readings and essays, he added an online forum run through the university's central computing system. It wasn't internet or anything like that - we had to come to the campus to log in. Most of what we would call the 'social' in social media wasn't there - there weren't any friend lists, zero cat pictures, and no tweets. But whenever we logged on, we could read what everybody else in the class had posted, and add our own responses.

I was drawn into the subject more by that online forum than by any other teaching method prior. It engaged me not only into the course content but also into the arguments and opinions of other people in the class. Before this course, their opinions had been irrelevant - it was about me, the course content, and my papers and tests, which the instructors would mark. But once we got involved in the online forum, it became more important to write something that could be understood by other people and that might actually change their minds. And as a result, my first published paper, 'Why Equi Fails', was basically a direct copy of one of my discussion board posts.

If what you call social media requires live online interactions on the internet, then probably my first experience was in 1990 or so when I joined an online Multi-Use Dungeon, or MUD. It was a game, of course, but over the next five years I progressed through the game to become a wizard, which meant that I was designing the MUD. I also began working with colleagues at the University of Alberta in 1993 and 1994 to create a 'Multiple Academic User Domain', or MAUD, out of the same technology. As with the discussion board, it was the multi-user aspewct of the technology that made all the difference.

From my perspective, contemporary social media technology is an outgrowth of these basis systems. Instant messaging was probably the firsdt pure social media on the internet, as each user would have his or her own 'buddy list' or 'friend list'. I started using ICQ ( ) for example in 1997 (My ICQ number: 1287181) well before it was acquired by AOL. My father and I would chat using ICQ - it was how we got back in touch after I moved out west. I used ICQ, and then later Skype, to keep in touch with my wide Andrea while I was on the road. I started using Twitter ten years later ( and it just seemed to me to be instant messaging for many people at once (still does, actually). These have all seemed to me to have some applicability to learning.

But probably the definitive date would be when I wrote An Introduction to RSS for Educational Designers in 2002 ( ). I have always viewed RSS as the prototypical social media technology. It is based on the internet. You follow a list of friends or content providers, and they follow you. You interact with with each other in the form of links, creating a social graph. RSS is to this day the technology I use to keep in touch with the network (I just channel Twitter, Facebook and other feeds through my RSS reader) and one of the major ways I keep in contact with others. And RSS has been the technology that, for me, has formed the basis of things like the Personal Learning Environment (PLE) and my gRSShopper content syndication application. People are out there saying we're past social media ( eg. ) - but from my perspective, the full force of it has hit yet, at least, not in education.

How do you personally use social media and what have you learned from these experiences?

As I mentioned, I use RSS most of all. But I have a production workflow that involves a number of social media services. I use (as they say) the right tool for the job, and then depend on social services to bring it all together for me.

I use one major blogging service, Blogger. I've tried a bunch of other services and have created accounts on LiveJournal, TypePad, Tumblr, Posterous, and the like. I stay with Blogger because I like the authoring interface. It has its flaws, but it basically allows me to just type and not worry about formatting. It also autosaves, a feature that has saved me numerous times. I've created various Blogs using Blogger over the eyars, but my major ones todfay are 'Half an Hour' , which I use for long-form posts, and 'Let's Make Some Art Dammit' http://letsmakesomeartdammit.blogspot.comwhich I use for ds106 projects and for generic art. Blogger produces an RSS feed for each, and these feed into my other services.

For photos, I process images from my cameras on my computer using Adobe Photoshop Elements (PC) or iPhoto (Mac). I then upload to my Flickr account using the Flickr Upload application. I have a pro account with Flickr (one of few services I pay for) so I have unlimited uploading. I need it. I have more than 16,500 photos uploaded. Flickr also provides RSS feeds of new content, but I don't use it as one-post-per-image would overwhelm most people. I use the Blogger API in Flickr to publish selected photos, sets and slide shows to Blogger. If I need to edit online I use the Flickr API and edit my photos in Piknik ( ). I edit video using Adobe Premiere Elements or Camtasia (the latter if I need a screencast), or as saved from a live desktop session using UStream (less frequently) or LiveStream (more frequently). My videos I upload to (because I can upload mlonger and more free-form videos than to YouTube). Blip[ allows me to embed, and I'll ususally cut-and-paste the embed code directly to Blogger or wherever I want the content.

Social media content from other places I'll typically read straight from my thousand or so subscriptions on Google Reader. Mostly I grab RSS feeds from blogs, newsletters and websites, but I also harvest Twitter TSS feeds (often for hashtags) as well as Google Alert RSS feeds (again, often for hashtags, but also for subjects I follow). I also use the RSS reader in gRSShopper. I wrote this application myself, I use it to support our Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and it streamlines the authoring process, but it's not ready for prime time). People complain that I don't subscribe to them using other services, such as Twitter, but *this* is my primary input, and I definitely don't need another. Everything else I need I get from email. I subscribe to some discussion lists, and I get notifications from Facebook and Google+ (neither of these services place well with the open web; that's why I use email - I very rarely go into either of them to just browse). Content that I've aggregated and commented upon I store in gRSShopper; if I didn't have that, I'd probably use some combination of and Evernote, but since I have it I don't need those.

My primary content outlet is, of course, my own website. Content from my blogs is aggregated and stored on my website. From my website, I distributed some RSS feeds, I distribute a popular email newsletter, and of course I make the content available on my website. I use an application called to link everything into my social networks. Content from my newsletter goes into an oldaily Twitter account, while content from my blogs goes to the Downes Twitter account. then takes the content of these two Twitter accounts and sends it to my Facebook account. So for me, the social network sites are mostly broadcast locations. People sometimes criticize, saying I don't have 'genuine conversations' with Twitter or Facebook. If I followed and had about 100 or 150 followers, that would be realistic. But when I post on Twitter, almost 5000 people read it. Now that's not Ashton Kutcher big, but it's big enough that a 'conversation' on Flickr would make to sense, and be really annoying, to a lot of people.

To me, the social network isn't about gathering into some small close-knit community. I know a lot of people do it this way - I could identify dozens of such communities - but I think that what happens is that they withdraw from the wider web and become more insular. I interact with these communities but I don't get drawn into them. My focus in the use of social networks is the one-off one-to-one exchange with a lot of people. I'll have a quick conversation on someone's website, a back-and-forth on LinkedIn, an interview with someone over Skype, and an email exchange with someone who reads my newsletter. I don't join communities and I haven't tried to set up a community of my own for people to join. If I've learned anything though my use of social networking, it's a variation on J.B.S. Haldane's observation - the universe is not only more amazing than I imagine, it's more amazing than I *can* imagine.

What may have been expected when the question was asked was an answer like "I use social media to connect with people" or "I use social media to get information for my papers" or some such end-use based response. From such a perspective the answer above may appear to be mechanical and procedural. But it's important not to skip the steps, not to go straight from 'social media' to 'educate the world'. There's a *lot* that goes on in the middle. I use social media to do a certain set of things, which I've described above. These things, after several other steps, become something like 'educate the world'. But there's a lot that goes on in between, as I'll describe in a bit.

What are some of the most innovative uses of social media for learning that you have encountered?

What are some of the most effective uses of social media for learning that you have encountered (if different)?

I can't say enough good things about Jim Groom's DS106 course. Groom has taken the basic elements of the Massive Open Online Course that George Siemens and I developed and turned it into something special.

A big part of it, I think, lies in the subject matter. George and I have to this date focused on dry theoretical academic subjects - things like connective knowledge and critical literacies. DS106, by contrast, looks at digital media writ large. It has two feet placed firmly into popular culture. Participants learn about and mash up cultural icons - hit music, blockbuster movies, evocative art, the works. I think that the wider focus along with the populist appeal provides Groom with the framework to do something larger (and thus it has always been - there were bloggers, but the first hit bloggers were the ones who, like Drudge and Perez Hilton, focused on the famous and the popular; the surest path to fame has always been to focus on the famous).

Like us, Groom asks his participating students (some from his class at Mary Washington University, others from the wider social network community) to establish an online presence of some sort. Typically this is a blog site at Blogger or Tumblr or Posterous, just as in the MOOC. He then has the students use these platforms as the place where they post (or link to) things they have created for the course. This is a two part process, First, he has set up an online form where people - whether members of the class or otherwise - can suggest assignments. For example, Alan Levine, in the current DS106, suggested that people create multimedia adaptations using words that have no English translations. What I like is the way these assignments are often creative acts in themselves - Levine, for example, actually built the tool that makes the assignment possible.

It's the building that Groom's course has inspired that is of real interest to me. It goes well beyond simply adding some words to a movie still (though that's fun too). For example, Grant Potter thought it would be fun to improve an audio assignment by creating a web radio station. DS106 Radio became a phenomenon in its own right. And it does many of the innovative sort of things you find when people start putting social media applications to use. Potter set up his own dropbox account, and connected it to a dropittome account and gave out the password using Twitter and email. This allows people to send him MP3 audio files. He then connected this input directory to WinAmp which when combined with EdCast can be used to create an input stream for an IceCast media stream. He set up an account with MyAutoDJ for his web radio service. This offbeat effort drew participants from around the world who communicated via Twitter and set up what amounts to a world-wide community radio station. And it resulted in some memorable audio, including coverage from Japan during the earthquake and tsunami.

Again, this may all seem procedural and mechanical, but by the time we get to the other end we see something really significant has happened, how me setting up my social network has connected me with Jim Groom and his newtork which in turn connected me to DS106 and made me feel a part of an event around the world. A few weeks earlier, I was marveling at how I was listening to live audio from a Japanese train station, and then this! It reminded me of our coverage on our own NewsTrolls site during 9-11, when one of our members sent me updates by instant message from he phone as she walked home from downtown along Broadway to the upper west side, messages I posted to our site as our live coverage of the event. This happens, not once in a lifetime, now twice, but on a regular basis, by people around the world. This awareness of the event actually happening is the leap we make from the mechanical and procedural to something a lot more human.

The key message, though, is that you don't just wave your hands and have these amazing connections happen. There's a lot of stuff that happens in between, stuff that might have nothing to do with the connection that is finally made, stuff that involves enormous creativity and ingenuity at each step. You can't really pull out one or another 'example of an innovative use' because the innovative uses are all so interdependent on each other.

What do you see as the potential and future of social media in learning for higher education, continuing education, training, and informal learning?

I'm sure a lot of people are looking at Thrun and Norvig's AI course at Stanford or at the Khan Academy or at MITx and are connecting the dots. "We will learn from these open education sites online," they are thinking, "and then we will take online quizzes, either inside the course or standalone like BrainBench and get badges for the work we do, where the badges correspond to competences or whatever, or maybe like OERu we'll get actual university credentials for independent study."

I think that's part of it - but what strikes me as singular about that account is that it does not involve social media - or sociality - at all. And if you believe that education is essentially social, then there is something missing in the heart of this description. Learning is not simply a matter of getting resources, passing tests and earning credentials. There are too many steps in between, too much innovation and creativity that has to happen for this end-use based description to come to pass.

Let's take the Thrun and Norvig AI course, for example. It was a phenomenon, attracting some 225,000 signups, and engaging some 25,000 to complete it start to finish. This popularity was in *itself* driven by social media (at least in part). But what I find more interesting was the social media activity that took place during the source. Although it wasn't designed with any overt social media component people took it upon themselves to transfer the discussion to their own forums - Facebook groups, Twitter feeds, Google Hangouts and more. Some of the best work in the course took place in these forums. Seb Schmoller sent me one link that goes well beyond my mathematical acumen but which really illustrates how deep the discussions outside the course became.

I've seen the same sort of thing elsewhere. Ray Schroeder, for example, ran something called eduMOOC which really didn't involve any sort of participation at all - it was as though he saw the overt structure of the MOOC but not the networking behind it. So he did some online interviews and had people chat with each other on Twitter. Instead of just sitting back, Jeff Lebow set up what he called a MOOCcast (later called a COOLcast ) to create the social and interactive component. That's what we saw (and encouraged) in our MOOCs. That's what we see (and is variously encouraged, discouraged, or called cheating) in just about every course being run today."course+facebook+group"

So what does that tell meÉ I think the main thing I learn is that the idea of 'teaching a course using Facebook' or some other social network service fundamentally misunderstands how these services are used. Even if you 'taught' a course using Facebook, participants would use some other social media channel (maybe even Facebook, but in a different group) to discuss the course. Different people would form different groups. Some groups would overlap with other courses, other groups would overlap with other countries. The discussion would weave in Facebook through Twitter out across a Google Group and back again. Some of it could be aggregated (if, say, they used a course tag, such as we do in #change11) but others would be completely inaccessible to any formal organization.

So - I suppose not surprisingly - I see the role of social media as being very similar to the way I use social media - not as the locus of anything specific (not even community or conversation) but as the transit conduit - the place through which I send resources I've aggregated or created. Social media is, in short, a communications channel. Which I guess on reflection is somewhat obvious.

What do you see as the shortcomings of the current social media technologies?

Insofar as social media functions effectively as a communications channel, it is operating efficiently. However because social media services are privately owned and depend on commercial transactions for their success, they have a built-in incentive to slow communication and divert attention to advertising and other media. They become, in other words, destinations, places to which you much come in order to receive your communications, but which then resist your departure.

This is nothing unique to social networks. Online media properties have been doing the same things as long as there has been an internet. Try getting to an external link when searching through Microsoft's maze-like site looking for some Windows advice, for example. Or if you visit Yahoo (the old Yahoo; I haven't been to Yahoo proper for years) you would be shuffled from group to games to sites. Google is currently setting up the same sort of system, one so pervasive it actually extends to the operating system on your mobile phone. America Online (back before it was called AOL) was the classic walled-garden site, and before the internet was well established services like Compuserve and Prodigy kept people firmly locked within their domains.

What has always ended these silos of isolation has been some sort of system of common standards. The network protocols (TCP/IP and HTTP) ended the domination of the dial-in services, and syndication protocols (email, HTML and RSS) ended the domination of the portals. I would like to think that something similar will happen with the social networks, allowing for full linkage between Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and the rest, but I am less hopeful now. One major think that would have would would have been a common identity standard, like OpenID, but what happened instead is that each of them set up their own ID mechanism, so now you 'log on with Facebook Connect' or 'log on with Twitter' or whatever. They are also beginning to turn back the clock on the interoperability that previously existed - Google+ doesn't support RSS at all, for example. How long before one of them thinks it has become big enough that it can depart the web altogether (as Apple almost has with iTunes).

The model of social network as neutral broker is being replaced with the model of social network as content provider. As this happens, we begin to see more and more packaged content (including educational content, such as iTunes University, TED, MITx, and the like) and, as a consequence, less and less social interaction. It won't be the case that we use our interpretations of popular culture to communicate with each other, as in ds106. Rather, popular culture (the new version) will replace this communication altogether. That's a worst-case scenario, of course, and reality will be nothing like that. But to the extent it becomes like that, social media as a communications system becomes less effective, and social media as a form of population control becomes more pervasive. And I am worried about that, and it's a legitimate worry, not just in the realm of education (which becomes something like mass media broadcasting) but in civil society in general.

So we need to keep inventing. We need to keep creating our own software, and our own content, even if it isn't mainstream, even if it means we are not Twitter stars or TED gurus, because it's the only antidote to the homogenization and commercialization of mass culture, as happened to the media of radio and television before the internet. We have to ensure that we have the legal and moral right to create and communicate directly with each other, to build our own networks, to share our own content, and to be able to shine a bright light on, and criticize, the popular media. Maybe it's just cat videos, maybe it's corrections of errors in AI courses, maybe it's commentary on a Chanel commercial campaign, maybe it's the creation of a way for families to keep in touch across borders. It's because this is how we grow as a society, this is how we learn as a society.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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