Jul 05 2010

Putting our diagrams to work

Our goal in writing Digital Habitats was to recognize and move forward the literacies that are involved in stewarding technology for communities.  We are happy when people put our ideas to work and appreciate it when people use our diagrams for that purpose.  If you write us requesting permission to use the diagrams in a copyrighted work, we are happy to give permission.  You may use them in informal ways, where you do not assert copyright, like a blog post without express permission, as long as you use them “as is”.  Here are the diagrams that have been requested most frequently.

Fig 1.1 Learning Activities - p 6


Fig 5.1 Tools Landscape - page 60

Orientations - page 152

Tool Polarities Map - page 162

Note that there are other resources to download under excerpts and diagrams specifically here.

7 responses so far

Jun 19 2010

InkWell.Vue Digital Habitat Conversations

Starting June 23rd for a couple of weeks, the three of us will be part of a discussion about Digital Habitats on The Well’s Inkwell.Vue conference. Inkwell is a cool, public facing bit of the well (the rest is paid membership) that gives folks a chance to have an asynchronous conversation with book authors from or associated with the Well. We invite you to join into the conversation.

For those not familiar with the Well, it is one of the original and most enduring online communities. (Nancy hosts the Virtual Communities conference there with Jon Lebkowsky!)

Inkwell is a great example of a “public facing space” for a private communities which is reflected in Digital Habitats chapter six as the “context” orientation. It gives outsiders a taste of the Well, which may invite them in, and it gives the Well a way to add value out to the world. Plus a few Well member volunteers get free review copies and encouragement to help stimulate the conversation, along with one or two designated conversation hosts. There have been some amazing conversations in Inkwell over the years, and it is now a Well tradition.

In preparation for the two weeks, the three of us thought it might be fun to record a short conversation to introduce ourselves. This is not what usually happens on Inkwell.vue, so we’ll see how it goes.

Some of the questions we raised and which might be fodder for the Inkwell conversation include:

  • Do you recognize yourself as a technology steward?
  • And if you recognize yourself in the role, does it make a difference in practice?  Are there consequences in terms of relationships, labels, or intentions that change as a result?
  • In your community do you see the tech steward  role as more individual or more distributed across community members?  What are the consequences?
  • What can we learn from long-lived communities like The Well?
  • How do technology stewardship practices vary across different socialcontexts?

One response so far

Jun 18 2010

A textbook case

(Cross-posted from my Learning Alliances blog.)

From my perspective we wrote Digital Habitats as a call to action (and reflection) more than anything else. So it’s a bit ironic to see it used as a textbook, at least for me, being so skeptical about exactly what kind of learning is going on in schools. But actually it’s pretty cool. Of course it make me wonder exactly how it’s used? What kinds of conversations result from its use? And: beyond schools or its use as a textbook, I always am curious: how do people use it, if they do? Is it helpful? In what way?

The short answer is: you can never really know. Why? Using our Digital Habitats jargon, it is because participation trumps reification. Here’s one heavy duty answer as to why by Lucy Suchman on p 110 in Orr (1996):

Indexicality of instructions means that an instruction’s significance with respect to actions does not inhere in the instructions, but must be found by the instruction follower with reference to the situation of its use. (Suchman 1987, p .61)

Which amounts to saying that the context of use and the situation where conversations occur matter a lot. (An aside: is Digital Habitats is a set of instructions? Not in any simple way. A call to action, yes. But you have to decide on the actions!)

Anyway, it’s interesting to see a field trip happening in plain sight. A few weeks ago, Kathy Milhauser’s class at City University of Seattle came here for a field trip. A Wordle summary gives a glimpse of the discussion.

The following week they had a conversation “back home” on Blackboard. Kathy provided a nice summary of the discussion.

A couple weeks later I was invited to talk at the opening of the second day of Pepperdine University’s Cadre 12 Action Research Conference of their Master of Arts in Learning Technology because several students had used Digital Habitats as a textbook. Kathy Milhauser graduated from one of Pepperdine’s technology programs and as Margaret Riel pointed out during the session, Pepperdine has made a very systematic effort to bust out of the sequestered classroom model. The event was a wonderful effort to allow people to participate at a distance. I would have liked to be there but appreciated being able to be there at all. Nice to see familiar names.

I have to confess though that I multi-tasked off and on during the morning after my talk. The video stream let me listen in. I heard someone say, “Digital Habitats as become my bible.” I heard Scott Mortensen say “After reading Digital Habitats and everything clicked for me, then I ….” Wow! (Here’s a glimpse of Mortensen’s thinking.) In keeping with the biblical theme, Babette Novak reported that she asked herself:

W W E W D?

Translation “What would Etienne Wenger Do?

Later on I hear Michael Cramer (an IT executive ) tell a story about people brought together into a company through a merger or acquisition process who recognized each other through story telling. One of the snippets was about how many people had been seen sprinkling a loved one’s ashes from the top of a Ferris Wheel because somehow that was where the deceased’s heart was.

Problems of indexicality aside, all this work with our book made one heart in Portland, Oregon feel very warm.

Reference: Julian E. Orr, Talking About Machines: An Ethnography of a Modern Job (Ithaca, NY: Ilr Press/Cornell University Press, 1996)

2 responses so far

Jun 08 2010

Technology Stewardship in Action

Published by under Technology stewardship

Joyce Seitzinger (aka @catspyjamasnz) created an amazing piece of reified technolgy stewardship knowledge with her Moodle Tool Guide for Teachers – Cat’s Pyjamas .

Joyce has matched activities a teacher might want to support with the various tools and features of Moodle. Pretty darn impressive. What I love is the emphasis on the ACTIVITIES, rather than this thing called “Moodle” as some monolith. It shows both deep knowledge and subtlety of use of Moodle. (http://www.moodle.org – an open source learning/classroom platform)

This captures so much of what we wrote about in Digital Habitats – and lives out an important aspect of communities of practice: reification. Reification is the process of capturing or making solid some bit of knowledge or practice from a CoP. While it is a fancy pants word, it is very useful as part of the duality of participation and reification. We talk about, we do, and then we crystalize that knowledge or experience both to help us hone our own learning, but also to make it more sharable, more available to others.

Beautiful work, Joyce!

2 responses so far

Jun 08 2010

Cantilever out from the known

Cross posted from my personal blog at LearningAlliances.net

Several people from the Fall 2009 Foundations of Communities of Practice workshop have continued meeting every few months to catch up with each other, find out what people are working on, and swap stories. In a way it’s a CPsquare dream that people should connect so much during a workshop that they would want to keep in touch afterward. Dreaming and wanting it is not enough, so we do work hard to plant the seeds, and when it does happen it feels great! And in fact it’s a valuable conversation, as this blog post tries to show.

During the Foundations workshop we try to establish the practice of using a teleconference to think together in a very open, self-organizing and relaxed way, allowing the conversation to turn in whatever direction seems to make sense. And we support that practice with MP3 recordings and a chat that captures the main point of our meanderings. It turns out that the logic of the conversation may not be clear at all in advance, but in retrospect you can always see how it makes a lot of sense. I personally have learned a lot about myself, how I facilitate or participate and how I interact with different people by listening to the recordings we make (primarily for the benefit of people who didn’t make it to a meeting). The chat transcripts are very handy for looking up ideas, getting URLs, or making a summary of the conversation. All of that collective context and experience is the base from which we could cantilever out.

At one recent meeting of this group someone was talking about using video for community meetings. We decided to hold a more focused meeting this last time where we experimented with one tool.

Last week we experimented with TokBox.com, a video meeting tool. It’s a free tool that sets up a “Hollywood Squares” kind of format where everyone can see everyone else who has a video cam. In a way *the way that we explored it* is was as interesting as the tool itself. Two people met on TokBox beforehand and found that they had some audio feedback problems, so we decided to use the CPsquare phone bridge for the session’s audio channel. Someone sent out an email invitation to all the workshop participants, (whether they’d participated in these interim check-ins or not). It named the phone bridge as the initial meeting point and the first thing each person had to do when they arrived at the TokBox meeting page was find the mute button so that anything they said (or heard through the TokBox audio feed) wouldn’t disrupt the conversation. One of the people who had explored the tool beforehand sent out session invitations during the call by email as people showed up on the phone bridge.

It’s obvious that to explore a social tool like TokBox you can’t do it alone. You need partners. But to find out how it supports a conversation, you need to have a conversation. So you need other people who share your language, are willing to explore the tool, and can connect (and re-connect when you fall off the call). In particular it’s helpful to have a back-channel, whether email or a Skype chat. Several back-channels are helpful, actually. Our phone bridge was a back-channel and the backbone of our conversation. We cantilevered out from there. And the standard against which we measured the tool was known to all: our previous conversations on the phone bridge.

In addition to the phone bridge connection, during the session several of us were also connected via a Skype group chat. Most but not all of us were on the TokBox site. Several people didn’t have a video connection (or maybe they were having a bad hair day?) and one just listened in on the phone (e.g., a mobile phone while driving). At different points we experimented with TokBox’s auxiliary tools like its chat tool, its etherpad, and some others. All of that makes for a very complicated group structure. All of us could hear, but what each person could see was not the same.

The conversation was very much about observing out loud what we were seeing, considering how it worked for us, and thinking about how it would work for the several groups that each of us work with professionally. Was there value in seeing other people’s faces via the group video? (Answer: for some, but not all.) How would the tool work for a lecture or for a more horizontal conversation? What were the set-up issues in terms of inviting other people to join on the fly? Was there a difference between using the TokBox email invitation tool and sending the URL by some other means? (Answer: not much.) Although some web conferencing software completely lock down the structure and shape of the interface, TokBox lets you float video windows around, open and close apps like etherpad, and much more. What are the benefits of that kind of malleability? Does it also cause problems? (One of us kept getting dumped from the video connection whenever we entered an etherpad window. We never figured out why.) We compared TokBox to others that we’ve been exploring, including:

(there are more tools mentioned on the CPsquare wiki)

From this example, I’m left thinking of three different overlapping questions:

  • How does a community explore existing variance in the use of a tool? What are the benefits of or problems with uniform competence in using a tool once a group has settled on it? In this example, some people didn’t want to use video at all or found that it didn’t add much to their experience of closeness beyond what our phone bridge provides. For others it added quite a bit of context and sense of closeness that was useful.
  • Is it always clear what tool we cantilever from? Does that matter? Different groups might use different technologies and will have different amounts of trust or determination to explore. In this example, we used email to get everyone on a phone bridge from which we all got into TokBox. Stragglers got caught up via Skype chat. This is related with the “one more tool” question that Patricia Arnold, Beverly Trayner and I asked in the paper we gave at the Networked Learning Conference 210 a few weeks ago.
  • A final question is about what this process of exploration does to the group itself. Can it be outsourced? Can we leverage the experience of others? What are the implications of having others do the exploration for us, be they experts in your company’s IT department or technology stewards or whomever? In this example we were very much doing it for ourselves and that certainly colors our experience. How important is first hand experience of exploration?

TokBox came out looking really good! And it was great to see our learning companions!

Photo by Pete Lewis.

One response so far

May 21 2010

Digital Habitats for project teams

(This post is cross-posted from my blog at Learning Alliances.)

Kathy Milhauser mentioned that she assigned Digital Habitats to students in a course on globally distributed project teams. That got me thinking about the difference between a project team and a community as far as their digital habitat is concerned. Of course there are many project teams that have spawned communities and many communities that have launched projects, so there are many connections. When a project begets a community it’s often because the sense of accomplishment that people have sparks that sense of recognition of each other’s expertise and people feel that they need to stay connected to each other. I was on a team at StorageTek in the ’90’s that designed and produced a big learning event; afterward we staid in touch, got together frequently and looked for more work along the same lines. When a community launches a project, it could be to produce an event, to explore a topic, to standardize a practice, or to provide the community with a technology advance. For example, when Beverly Trayner agreed with me to head a the project to hold a dialog in Setubal in 2002, there was a clear moment when she announced that “project team rules” would apply, not the discursive, relaxed, “let’s think and talk about whatever seems important,” and “everybody gets their say,” approach that had previously prevented us from meeting face-to-face.

But there are are also differences between the two. Quoting from the Table 2.2 on p. 42 of Cultivating Communities of Practice (Wenger et al., 2002) proposes these differences:

Communities of Practice
Project teams
What’s the purpose? To create, expand, and exchange knowledge, and to develop individual capabilities. To accomplish a specified task
Who belongs? Self-selection based on expertise or passion for a topic People who have a direct role in accomplishing the task
How clear are the boundaries? Fuzzy Clear
What holds them together? Passion, commitment, and identification with the group and its expertise The project goals and milestones

Sometimes the two blur and the difference may be more about a point of view than anything else. In fact, it may be useful to think of project teams as if they were communities of practice in some cases, especially when teams are globally distributed, learning is a fundamental component of their assignment, and project scope is to be discovered as the project proceeds. Here are some ideas about when a community perspective on technology such as we propose in Digital Habitats may be useful for a project team:

  • There are many cultural and technological uncertainties that come up when a project team is global. A part of the project’s work needs to be focused on learning how to cope with differences in time zones, bandwidth, technology environment, language, customs regarding deadlines or commitments, etc., etc. All of those elements have technology implications. The improvisational, emergent, approach we develop in Digital Habitats, and the frameworks we develop such as the polarities in Chapter 5, help us think about how to get conversations to address tricky questions issues such as, “How do we work together?”
  • Who is on a project team is not always as clear as we’d like. Sometimes a key resource or contributor will be part of the network or surrounding community but not part of the formal project team. When the knowledge and skills required for a project are very cutting-edge or very diverse, project team membership sometimes can’t be known in advance, much less specified. All of the discussion about permeable community boundaries will apply in those situations because team members may need to bring an expert into a few technology-mediated conversations, not involve them in the whole project’s work-space. During the project of writing Digital Habitats, Nancy White kept repeating “Technology is used collectively but experienced individually,” (or something to that effect) till Etienne and I could say it on cue. In my observation, communities are expert at dealing with the differences in people’s experience of technology and somehow inventing ways of bringing people together despite the obstacles.
  • Even when a community isn’t sponsoring a project, sometimes the community is the critical sounding-board or peanut gallery for the project. Unless the project team pays careful attention to the larger community’s conversations, the project will fail. For a distributed, technology-mediated team that may require that project team members stay involved in the conversations or activities of that surrounding community (which have more fuzzy and ad hoc technology boundaries than what we normally think about as “the project area”).
  • When you observe projects in real life they are quite diverse, not just the instantiation so many Gantt charts. If we look closely we might find projects that are oriented toward “meetings,” “open ended conversations,” or “access to expertise,” or “relationships” much like the orientations for communities that we propose in Chapter 6. If those orientations have technology implications, the surely the orientations in projects must also.
  • Finally, when a long-running project team experiences member turn-over, there’s a need to bring new members of the team into the team’s culture and tell them the stories from the team’s history. That sounds like the time for community thinking to me. Bottom line, there is more self-selection going on in project activities than an “everybody is on task in this project” kind of perspective would suggest.

Of course there’s the question of whether project teams can learn more from communities or the other way around.

46 responses so far

Apr 09 2010

Bumping into friends

(Cross-posted from the CPsquare blog…)

One of the great things about the sustained connections we make through CPsquare is that when you bump into people in other settings there’s such a strong connection. There are common interests, common vocabulary, and an extraordinary willingness to share insights. Last week during the Yi-Tan Tech Call 274: on Digital Habitats, I noticed LaDonna Coy tweeting about it. Afterward I wrote here, asking:

I’ve seen your tweets off and on and wondered what you’re up to and was really excited to see that you were on the Yi-Tan call.

How was it? What was surprising? I was wondering if you’d be up for sharing some reactions & thoughts — possibly even on the CPsquare blog.

Here is LaDonna’s response:

Hi John,

I’ve got a colleague I work with (Ken Homer) out in CA and he has encouraged me to join in on the Yi-Tan calls for some time — when I saw it was you, Etienne and Nancy engaging in a convo about the new book — I just knew the time had come for me to be there. Now that I’ve had the experience I’m wondering how I can fit the call in more often? If we don’t get a respectable outcome with our CoPs work, I may have significant free time on my hands, sigh.

Surprising, provocative, intriguing — very much so. Here’s my takeaways

  • Considering the important truth that no matter what tech we choose (or don’t choose) we include some, exclude others. Not an easy space to stand in.
  • thinking about Nancy’s statement, “technology is designed for group but experienced by the individual” .. pondering .. she’s given voice to my wiki experience.
  • Challenge of navigating and negotiating the spaces with broad continuum of experience, knowledge and skills. What a challenge it is even when some are adept with the the tech while others remain timid or right-down resistant. Not so much critical mass but critical intention.
  • What if tech development were guided by tech steward rather than IT peeps? (great question, huge wish, especially in state gov where all things are Sharepoint. Wrestling with how to make Sharepoint do what the groups//community need it to do, sigh.
  • Tools in “tech stone age” … not so sure, maybe bronze age … at least I don’t have to know and be able to write code to engage my colleagues – I remember when it was that way, when one had to be 90% geek not 10%. Now, 10% geek will do in most cases.
  • Difference in perspective between “what can we make/do with these [tools, platform]” versus what do we need the [tool, platform] to do for us? One feels resigned, adaptive to what exists while the other creative challenge for what could be.


What we didn’t talk about is something I’m facing and wrestling with still. Seeding (where there is little or no real community) and supporting engagement in our withering attempt to engage community sectors online. The Provider Network is doing a bit better but not by much. Thinking about why — conditions, capacity, attitudes, and what we are learning mixed with disappointment.

Measurement? (still)
I’ve also been thinking a lot about measurement, and what I think of as the core about what CoPs are about about. Seems the main thing about online community is 1) relationships and engagement... wondering how to measure, has anyone actually done it … so went looking for tools and resources — found two instruments that measure relationships that I’m thinking of tinkering with and using with my group in KS (want to tinker?). Grunig-Hon here and in Katie’s book, Measuring Public Relationships and attached paper and instrument from Vern Larsen’s work on collaboration (research shows quality of collaboration has a direct impact on the quality of the outcomes).

Not sure this is what were looking for or whether appropriate for the blog – but if it fits, point me that away 🙂 I’d be happy to share and learn with everyone.


One response so far

Apr 02 2010

Yi-Tan call on Monday, April 5

If you’ve never participated in one of Jerry Michalski’s Yi-Tan phone calls, you are in for a tweet.  Join Jerry, Etienne, Nancy and John on Monday April 5 at 10:30 am, to discuss:

  • How has technology changed what it means for communities to “be together”?
  • What is the role of a technology steward? the key skills? the new terms of art?
  • Where can we see these stewards in action? How can we learn these skills?

One response so far

Mar 14 2010

Skype as a community platform

(This is cross-posted from my blog on Learning Alliances.)

You probably already know that Skype is a great tool – especially for community leaders. If you are a technology steward, it’s not only a great tool but it’s also a handy example for illustrating some of the use and integration issues that we have to deal with and be able to talk about.

To really talk about how to use a tool we need to be able to point to specific buttons and understand the user’s context and experience. Given that we often have many tools to choose from, that we use them in tandem and that that the tools a community uses interact with each other in complex ways, how we talk about the tools and people’s experience matters. That experience affects usability, learning and collaboration. Although most people probably think of Skype as a personal or individual tool, it is complex enough to demonstrate the issues involved in understanding a community platform. This post demonstrates the language we developed in Digital Habitats to make sense of the technology landscape on just one tool.

First of all, Skype is not just one tool. It’s a platform with lots of different tools on top of it. The tools tools in Skype are essential for my work as a community leader. If you follow this discussion about how all of them work together, you’ll have a good example of the approach we developed in Digital Habitats to make sense of platforms in a way that brings out the issues around tool comparison, duplication, and integration.

A phone

It looks like a phone

The most obvious thing to notice about Skype is that it works like a phone. (Another phone? I already have several! My phone call arbitrage is complicated enough: I pay a flat fee for my plain old telephone system (POTS) land line for local calls and for long-distance within the US. And I already have a pre-pay scheme for cheap international phone calls! And I have a cell phone in my pocket. Why do I need another phone?) Well, Skype is actually two phone tools that have useful features in and of themselves and are integrated with other Skype tools that I’ll talk about below. The two phone tools are different in that one is for calling a POTS phone with a number and another for calling other Skype users (with a Skype ID)

One-to-one interaction on-the-spur of the moment is ideal for reaching out to community members – to find out what’s on their minds or provide exactly the help that they happen to need at that moment. In my community work I make it a point to ask people for their POTS phone numbers or Skype IDs.

In this post I discuss several Skype tools (not all of them) in terms of how their features are useful, how they work with each other and how they work with tools on other platforms that people in my community might use. In a way this puts to work some of the analytical framework we develop in Chapter 4 of Digital Habitats. The polarities discussed in Chapter 5 are a big help in organizing our thinking about these issues. So I represent each tool with a screen-shot and a diagram below it suggesting how the polarities seem to me at the moment. The phone diagram shown below indicates that I think the phone is on the participation end (unless you reify the conversation with a recording); you have to participate in real time, so it’s synchronous (exchanging voice-mails moves the red triangle toward asynchronous); and it’s a one-to-one experience, so I place it close to the individual end of the spectrum. The placements in this diagram then determine the placement of the tool in a tool landscape at the end of the post.

My impression of Skype as a phone

Each of the two phone tools has its interface: the Skype-to-POTS interface has a keypad that looks like the keypad on a regular phone. When clicking on the keypad gets tedious, you can just type in the number you’re calling in a text box labeled “Enter phone number.”

Lots to do with a contact

Notice that the two tools are really different in cost and function: it costs a small amount to call someone on a regular phone and you can’t receive a call back from them unless you buy a POTS number from Skype. A Skype-to-Skype call is free and it’s very easy for someone to call you back if they miss your call. Integration asymmetries between Skype and other platforms force different interfaces, so make me think that Skype has two different phone tools.

Contact list

You make a call to another Skype user using its contacts list tool. The contacts tool partly overlaps with my Outlook, Gmail, and mobile phone contacts tools, but it things that the others don’t. One is to show who’s currently “available,” indicated by a green dot with a check-mark in it, so it works like a global “presence indicator.” Also, you can group contacts, rename them, send them to other Skype users and perform various other actions.

Your personal contacts list is available whenever you log onto Skype – from whatever machine you use. (Surprisingly, the same account can be logged on from two different machines.) When you click on a Skype contact, you have the choice of calling their regular phone, which will cost you but is more attention-getting, or calling them on Skype which only “rings” on their computer.

In my opinion the most polite way to reach someone is to first check if they are available using the text chat tool (discussed next) and then call them on Skype or by regular phone only after the other party has responded that it’s OK to call. If we’ve made an appointment to talk and the other party doesn’t respond, I may call them on their regular phone, which rings loudly (and may be a mobile phone that they carry with them).

Chat: SMS and alert

Like the phones, Skype’s text chat tool is complicated: it’s the same on the front end, but different on the back end.

I'm running late

The text chat with other Skype users is a full-bore chat tool: like an instant message tool but better because it’s integrated with other Skype tools. For me it is the most frequently used of all Skype’s tools. Messages can be long and replying is easy. The interface is clean and it’s very robust: people are not dropped off a chat and they receive chat text even if their machine crashes. Skype keeps the chats on your machine since you installed it and you can search through them.

You can send a 160-character SMS text message to a mobile phone from the same window you use to call a POTS number (provided the number goes with a mobile phone). That’s handy but asymmetrical because a reply message from a mobile phone can only go back to another mobile, not to you on Skype. So it works more like an alert than a conversation tool.

Skype alert

Nancy White and I regularly use the Skype text chat as an alert – to drop notes off on each other’s desks. Often the drop-off is a URL and the message is no more than “Hey, look at this!” A direct message on Twitter or the inbox feature on http://delicious.comwould be obvious alternatives, but on a windows machine Skype blinks so it’s visible and hard to miss. No response is required but an alert can lead to extended conversations.

Chat is one of the most versatile tools we have. A chat is useful for alerts, for sharing, for conversations, for negotiating meeting times, and on and on. It’s ironic that there are so many different and incompatible chat protocols and tools. Once you have a chat connection with someone the possibilities for collaboration increase dramatically.

A profile that gets used

How many profiles have you grudgingly completed in your life, imagining that someone you really need to be in touch with will find you? One for each community tool you have ever used, perhaps. If you’re like me, you’ve completed dozens of them and probably most of them are now out of date! Our likelihood of keeping them up-to-date depends on how frequently we use a tool or how close at hand the profile tool is. I keep my Skype profile current because I consider it an interaction tool, not just a publication. Skype’s profiles are in a proprietary format and not available outside of Skype. However you can send a profile to another Skype user.

The Skype profile tool is an example of a tool that’s mostly an individual’s public description of themselves. But when you use the “mood message” to let people know where in the world you are or what you’re doing, it’s an interaction kick-off.

Hello world

Skype makes other people’s profiles useful by letting you modify or add to the information that they provide. Skype lets you edit other people’s names, which I find is handy if people haven’t completed their profile. Also, if you have a private phone number for someone that they don’t post on their profile, you can add it to your copy of their profile.

Skype would be a useful platform just for its one-to-one phone calls and text messages, but it becomes indispensable because the audio and text tools work in a many-to-many mode. Skype as a conferencing tool makes it a real community platform, especially given how all the other tools are integrated on the platform. Here again the user interface masks differences on the back end. A group chat is extremely robust, working in a point-to-point fashion: any one of those on the chat can drop out (e.g., turn of their computer) without affecting the others. And when Skype comes back up, the intervening text messages that were exchanged among the other parties to the chat magically appear on the machine that dropped out.

Group Chats

Chat is the workhorse

Audio conferences (not shown in a screen shot) are different: all the audio signals go through the computer of the “host” who initiates the call. If the host drops, the audio call ends for everyone. It’s important for an audio conference to be initiated by the person with the fastest and most stable Internet bandwidth: if the host is on a dial-up connection or an overloaded wi-fi network, it will impact everyone.

Another difference between audio conferences and text chats has to do with scale. A large number of people can be on a text chat, but an audio conference starts getting noisy and unstable well before running up against the Skype maximum of 9 callers.If everyone is on Skype, conference calling and group chat are nicely integrated. You have a “call Group button” to launch an audio conference from a text chat and a chat transcript appears automatically when you are on a group chat.

When a group is working on a project over a long period, for example, a long-running Skype chat is a great way to keep everybody connected and focused. Ten weeks is the record in my experience. When you turn on your computer in the morning, all the conversations between people in different time zones pop up. The flexibility of chat makes it an ideal tools for coordinating work on other platforms.

Contact groups

Which list are you on?

Over time you accumulate a lot of contacts in Skype and it’s very helpful that Skype lets you organize them into Groups. Skype automatically creates some groups, such as “recently contacted” or “requests from new contacts.” But you can create as many groups as you want. Adding people to or removing them from a group is easy and you can put people in multiple groups.

The groups tool is useful in combination with other tools. For example, when you select a group, you can easily see who is currently logged on to Skype. What that means depends on whether being logged on to Skype at a given point is a norm in that group of people or not. A Skype group makes it easy to start a group chat or a group audio conference. One advantage of using a group to set up a chat is that you include people whether they are logged on or not; when they do log on, the chat messages will pop up on their computer.

So what?

The point of using these polarities and the feature-tool-platform-configuration scheme are not to enable a final analysis of a technology. We developed them as a natural way to help a technology steward take a step back from the hand-on level and make sense of the experiences that enable a community to be together and to learn. This tour of Skype is not meant to prove anything: it’s more suggesting a way of making sense of a technology. Here are some further thoughts that I’ve got floating around as I try to get this post shipped off:

  • The polarities and how they play off of each other are intuitive and practical but they are also slippery.
    • It’s more difficult to talk about a tool’s polarities in general than to talk about a specific group’s practice of using a specific tool.
    • People intuitively pick up on the practices around a tool, but these polarities can sometimes help us figure out why things aren’t working.
    • A tool’s polarities are determined as much by their design as by their technological background and how they fit within a larger configuration. For example, where we put an SMS one-way alert message from Skype in our technology landscape is determined by the technology infrastructure; a Skype-to-Skype alert is a convention for some people.
  • Tech stewards need to understand what it’s like to use a tool and to be able to talk about the experience and the tool separately.
  • Preferred, ignored, duplicate, or competing tools all make sense within this social and technical mix we call a digital habitat.
  • Each software feature makes sense within the context of a tool, and each tool is framed by its position on a platform, which has meaning in the context of a configuration that’s shared by a group of people.
  • In a way it’s all circular because you can’t see a community’s configuration (or digital habitat) directly or simply.
    • You can’t stand outside of your own digital habitat
    • You can’t really see a community unless you’re participating in their habitat
    • Seeing their habitat as they see it requires relationships and access to their practices, habits, and cultural frame
    • Understanding the role of a tool in a habitat involves a sense of shared timing and even group improvisation

A provisional placing of Skype tools on the digital landscape

What do you think?

12 responses so far

Mar 08 2010

Talking with strangers

New tools on the Digital Habitats technology landscape diagramThe surprise that you want to have when your book is published is to move a conversation forward and to pick up on the conversation with new people.  At least that’s what I think now, after Digital Habitats has been out for a while.

One of my big hopes is to see people actually put the diagrams and schemes to work.  I struck up a conversation with Derek Moore on Twitter (http://twitter.com/weblearning) because  Nancy White pointed out a diagram that he posted.

After a few exchanges via direct messages in Twitter, we resorted to email.  He shared this diagram, an updated version of the Tools Landscape diagram he had posted on Twitter. His version has fewer tools on it than the version on page 60 of the book and it has some new ones. I was working on a blog post where I wanted to revise the diagram and I was struck by how elegant and clean Derek’s version was.  And very pleased to see someone else put the idea to work.

I thought it was interesting that I misinterpreted “life streaming” as “live streaming” (e.g., video). And I was really surprised and delighted to realize that the .png format can have layers in it.  That is, with software like Adobe’s Fireworks, you can replace layers in Derek’s version of the diagram.  So the conversation keeps going – not only through Twitter, email, blog posts, but via revisions of each other’s diagrams.

But we’re not longer strangers.

7 responses so far

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