A couple of things have gotten me musing about social lately. The first was Dave Cormier's thought-provoking blog post about how PLEs are supposed to disaggregate power, not people. The second was a private conversation with a friend who is thinking hard about how to add a social layer to an existing LMS. And the third was a blog post by Union Square Ventures VC Fred Wilson expressing skepticism about Google's plan to add a social layer to its existing services. I have been struggling to articulate why I am ambivalent about both the attempts I have seen so far to create a Personal Learning Environment and attempts to layer on social capabilities to existing LMSs. Wilson says it better than I can:
Q. Why did Twitter succeed and FriendFeed fail?
A. Because FriendFeed was largely a social aggregator whereas Twitter is a service with specific social intent.
I think this is an important distinction. I have not seen any breakout social layers. The social services that have broken out to date have been services where a user has a very specific intent.
Social engagements are weird out of context. Comments to this blog make perfect sense on this blog but less sense when they are tweeted out into a Twitter stream or show up in FriendFeed.
There is value in social aggregation but not huge value.
Twitter was constructed with an idea of facilitating certain types of conversation. You can use Twitter as an aggregator by tweeting links, but that function is contextualized by and subordinate to the conversations---as staccato and shorthand as they may be---and relationships that Twitter supports. More often than not, when you just dump data from a feed into a social environment, it doesn't work. Sure, some of the items may prompt conversation, but more often than not, they don't. (How often depends on what kind of stuff is in the feed and what kind of community it's feeding into.) In and of itself, aggregation has limited value as a social (learning) lubricant.
I firmly believe that a social platform for learning, whether it is a PLE, an LMS, or whatever, needs to be designed with a "specific social intent in mind," as Wilson puts it. What kinds of social interactions are people looking to have in your learning environment? What kinds of social interactions are you looking to facilitate? How and from where do those interactions start? Where do the conversations go? What do people do with the outcomes of those conversations? Putting feeds everywhere and then aggregating some of them into some kind of sharing/discussion environment isn't enough to reliably facilitate social learning. Don't get me wrong. Feeds are good. Aggregation is good. Wrapping conversational capabilities around your aggregator has some value. But it's not enough to create a truly social learning environment. To do that, we have to start by understanding and articulating the participants' specific intention to share, and then build an environment that supports that intention.
That's hard to do. And it's particularly hard to do in an environment in which you assume very loose and light coupling (as is often the case with early designs of PLEs) or in which you're working within and around the structure of existing software that has strong and relatively rigid definitions of roles, groups, and permissions (as is often the case with current-generation LMSs). I'm not saying that it can't be done, but it requires a lot of hard work, both conceptually and technologically. My personal belief is that, to the degree that you succeed in creating such an environment (regardless of where you start from), you will substantially blur the line between a PLE and an LMS.
Update: I just thought of an example that might make this at least slightly more concrete. Today I signed up with Ping.fm. It's been bothering me that I haven't been able to share items that I like from my Google Reader, which is my RSS aggregator, with my Twitter feed, which is the social network I use the most at the moment. Ping.fm lets me do that. But already, after less than a day, I'm discovering that I'm not sure I can continue to share the same items I've been sharing through Google Reader and, by extension, Buzz. I read a fair number of political blogs and often share posts that I think are interesting or provocative. But I do much less sharing of political links in my Twitter feed because I'm aware that a lot of people follow me for my e-Learning stuff and aren't necessarily interested in my politics. So what do I do? Do I continue to share the same number of political links and let people on my Twitter feed decide if they want to keep following? Do I change my RSS sharing habits? Do I decouple the two? And what would happen if I decided to also update my LinkedIn status with my shared RSS items? How would that affect what I want to share? Or what if I added a feed to Facebook? For the same reason, I no longer automatically feed my tweets into Facebook or Buzz, and I never fed my tweets into a widget on my blog. Each of these social contexts has a huge impact on what I want to share and how I expect it to be received. If we don't start our designs by understanding the initial social intention behind each act of sharing, then we are not going to end up with designs that facilitate social learning.