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Points of Reference, Comfort, and the Digital Curator

Jay Cross has posted a couple of times recently on documents seminal to learning and the net, basically pointing to the list of readings he is putting together on his wiki. It’s a good list, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to get into deeper thinking about learning and working in a networked world.

I particularly like a quote that Jay highlights from John Seely Brown:

Learning is a remarkably social process. In truth, it occurs not as a response to teaching, but rather as a result of a social framework that fosters learning. To succeed in our struggle to build technology and new media to support learning, we must move far beyond the traditional view of teaching as delivery of information. Although information is a critical part of learning, it’s only one among many forces at work. It’s profoundly misleading and ineffective to separate information, theories, and principles from the activities and situations within which they are used. Knowledge is inextricably situated in the physical and social context of its acquisition and use.

I kept thinking that I needed to dig up a Seely Brown quote for my recent Learning as Key to Social Media Success post, but I never did. This would have been a good one.

Jay’s post and the Seely Brown quote also have me thinking about the role of common points of reference, like the readings on Jay’s list, in a socially networked world.

There was a time in Western society—really not all that long ago in the grand scheme of things—when an educated person (which, of course, generally meant a wealthy white male) could expect another educated person to have read a significant number of the same books. This was a basis for learned conversations and debate.

Prior to Web 2.0. the growth in publishing and the evolution of widespread public education prior had already put this tradition on the ropes, other than in rarified pockets of academia, but the Web would seem like just the phenomenon to finish it off for good. The sheer volume of content now produced and shared, the incredibly diverse range of producers, and the ephemeral nature of so many of the connections across networks would seem to guarantee that our common points of reference would be shallow at best—e.g.., belonging to the same organization or liking the same music.

Funny thing though, for all the diversity across the Web, there seems to be an abiding human tendency towards unity of thought and common identity. A new and improved version, I suppose, of the old “birds of a feather flock together.” Thus I am drawn to Jay’s blog and to his list of readings and chances are, if you are reading this, you are too. We are forging a common set of references together as an outcome of our network behavior.

This is hardly a new idea. Benkler and many others have discussed the phenomenon much more ably than I can. It reminds me, too, of Stuart Kauffman’s thinking on the emergence of order from chaos that I have referenced before in The Capacity Continuum. There are at least a couple of reasons that I was drawn to write about it here today.

The first is that finding Jay’s list resulted in something of an epiphany for me. I am undeniably interested in it and will almost certainly end up reading the items on it that I have not already read. At the same time, I realize I keep finding myself back in the same types of places on the Web—a sort of inevitable tendency to move away from diversity and towards common ground and familiar points of reference.

This is not necessarily negative, but succumbing too easily and too often to this tendency limits my potential experience on the Web. I need to make more effort to boldly go where I have not gone before. I need to get a little—or maybe a lot—less comfortable on occasion.

The second is that it occurs to me this is another area in which a digital curator may be useful. I have tended to think of curators as people (or organizations) who draw connections and help establish common points of reference—as Jay’s list does—but I think in a networked world, a curator can also serve to preserve the diversity of the network by highlighting unique or uncommon points of reference and helping participants realize the full potential of the network.

What do you think? Are you seeing any tendency to stay on familiar ground in your own Web behavior? Does it matter? Does the digital curator have a role here? I welcome your comments.

Jeff Cobb

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About the Author Jeff Cobb

I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.

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1 comment
Michele Martin says

Jeff, I definitely see that I have a tendency to gravitate toward those pieces that reinforce my own viewpoint and I have to force myself to go outside of my comfort zone to read more widely. I like your idea that the role of a digital curator might also be to find the things that challenge existing thinking/norms, particularly if they are gathering information for an organization. What good is it if we use this capacity to reinforce groupthink as opposed to actively challenging our own assumptions and beliefs. If we end up sticking with what we believe, we’ve done so after examining other aspects. If we don’t, then that’s obviously something learned, too.

I think you’re right on the money with this!

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