The right tool for the job: my first 750words.com story

160502_toolbox

I am fascinated by online tools. Tools in the proper sense, of technologies fitting the job. It never ceases to amaze me how clients often think that “anything goes” when digital tools are concerned. Everybody would agree that a carpenter needs a whole toolbox full of different hammers, drills, and screwdrivers. Yet, when discussing the digital platforms they need for often very complex collaborative networks and communities, managers often say: “but we already have a website/blog/Sharepoint/Facebook-page…” This will not do. Online collaboration takes places in very complex socio-technical ecosystems. Task-tool fit is not trivial at all. On the contrary, developing the right set of tools for the community often takes a long time of trial-and-error, tinkering, and continuous re-adjustment as and when the community evolves.

To drive down this point,  I’d like to share an example of a tool that perfectly seems to fit its task. 750words.com has a very simple premise. Just keep practicing writing 750 words a day, every day, just for yourself, and you will get better at it over time. As the tool’s authors say: just ordinary blogs won’t do, as you may mix up public and private posts, are not prompted daily to write, don’t receive friendly & fun nudges, and there is no sense of community with fellow sufferwriters. To deal with this, they developed this delightful site, around which a lively community grew. A great example of a tool fitting the job. To show proof of concept, I share my first story I wrote on this site, just because it was so cool to do:

This is my first attempt at writing at least 750 words daily. I’ve been toying with this idea for a long time. And yes, tools matter. I really like this idea of a protected space, where you are your only audience. Nobody else to criticize you. A stream of consciousness suffices. It’s really about breaking that writer’s block. To the unpracticed writer-newbie, 750 words seems an awful lot. Is it really? The real pace killer is probably that you want it to look perfect. But if, indeed, all you want to do is to exercise your writing muscle, then this amount of words seems quite doable!

So what am I going to use this “personal blog” for? I have many writing projects that have been stalled way too long. For example, I have this CommunitySense blog. My orginal goal was to have regular updates, at the very least once a week. In those early, pre-social media days, I actually managed quite well at sticking to that frequency. Alas, so many distractions these days. Still, the urge remained, and hopefully this tool will help me better satisfy that urge!

The secret to keeping the use of this tool going probably is to choose a topic related to your own interests and then do a total braindump on that very topic. Trying to cover too many topics at once is probably deadly. If other topics come to mind, I will probably just write them down and delve into them another day.

I wonder if, by using this tool daily, my writing rate actually will increase. I suspect it will. Practice makes perfect, right? What would be the maximum speed I could write at? Are there any comparative figures about this? Perhaps provided by 750words.com itself? It would be really cool if over time my rate would go up.

I also wonder what effect the kind of topic one writes about has? Would writing a piece of fiction be easier than, say, writing a professional post related to one’s expertise? Writing fiction might be easier in the sense that one is less constrained. On the other hand, that lack of boundary might also be paralyzing, as there is nothing to hold on to, conceptually. We shall see, I will probably try my hand at both types of prose.

So, what would be the best strategy to keep those words coming? Think for a while first, then get started, or start right away, and see where the flow takes you? Would making an outline help, or actually be detrimental to the flow?

One interesting effect I can already see happening, as I am writing my very first 750words piece. I observe a slight mental fatigue, such as experienced when jogging or cycling long-distance and that first wave of tiredness sets in. That moment when you realize that you still have such a long way to go, yet your body says, “that was nice for now, now relax”. But hey, in fact, I am already way over the hill: 506 words, and counting! 🙂 Now it should be possible to reach the finish line without too much effort. Just one or two more topics should probably do.

So, let’s see, what have I covered so far: trying not to strive for perfection, the so far unsatisfied urge to write, sticking to your topic, the kind of topic, increasing the speed of writing, the writing strategy, and combatting mental fatigue. That’s quite an impressive list already for just-another-braindump!

Okay, I just experienced a mini-writer’s block. Nothing to worry about, it’s nothing compared to that massive wall of concrete that I regularly ran into during those so terribly exhausting PhD dissertation-writing years. No, just a friendly, suddenly-I-really-seem-to-be-running-low-on-inspiration kind of writer’s hurdle. But no problem. A famous writer’s trick is to “go meta” in such a case. Just start writing about your experiencing that blockade and new ideas will start forming. It’s like being on a mountain hike, when you have been trodding along for quite some time through sticky, dense forest, harassed by those annoying stinging flies, and suddenly the trail starts winding upwards. It’s still hard work, you’re sweating away in the blistering sun, but suddenly, there is that breathtaking, panoramic view all around you. And you are only 40 words away from the finish line 🙂 Almost time for that so deserved break by that mountain lake, overlooking the scenery, drinking in the panorama, feeling so satisfied by your achievement. 750 words, I did it!

Mind you, in collaborative communities task-tool fit is much more complex, as it is about often very complex social networks of individuals, organizations, and communities collaborating, with widely diverging requirements and technical capabilities. Still, if already for such a “simple case” we need to think different tools, then it should be clear that there is definitely no one size-fits all solution for collaborative communities.

 

Happy 25th birthday, World Wide Web!

World Wide WebToday, the Web’s been around for 25 years, hip hip hurray! In this excellent interview, founder Tim Berners-Lee makes some remarks that should be particularly close to the hearts of fellow community informatics researchers and practitioners, e.g.:

– “I’ve been very satisfied with the international spirit. It’s wonderful how the Web has taken off as non-national thing. I don’t think of it as international, because that’s nations getting
together.”

– “The control thing — we’ve got big companies and big governments. Now in some countries the corporations and the governments are very hard to tell apart. I’m concerned about that.”

– “what I want to see that I haven’t seen is the Web being used to bridge cultural divides. Every day we get people falling for the temptation to be xenophobic and to throw themselves against other cultures. The Web has gone up without national borders, but when you look at the people that other people support, it tends to be people very much of same culture.”

– “We look at governing the Internet in a multi-stakeholder, non-national way, but the world is still very nation-based and people are still very culture-based. I’d like it if developers on the Web could tackle the question of how to make Web sites that actually make us more friendly to people we don’t know so well”

Enjoy the full article:

http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-57620198-93/tim-berners-lee-25-years-on-the-web-still-needs-work-q-a/

My first MOOC: diary of 1 of 24,000 students following a truly “Massive Open Online Course”

130225_MOOCMassive Open Online Courses are all the rage. A truly exciting and massive one (over 24,000 students enrolled!) is the Learn Creative Learning MOOC organized by MIT Media Lab, which will run from February- May 2013 . Since MOOCs are so new, still much ground needs to be broken about what they are, what they mean, and how to organize them. Having enrolled in this course which is so close to my heart, I decided to keep a diary of observations as “an average MOOC student”. I hope they help myself and others make better sense of what this phenomenon means, what deep impact it could have on learning in a globalizing society, but also how to practically organize and “tinker” such courses to realize the vision. Would be interested to hear your own experiences and comments!
6-8 February 2013
  • Registration was difficult. No confirmation mail received. Amazing how much stress this generated. Even though all materials are open, also for non-enrolled, the sense of risking “not belonging” was strong. Is this one of the secrets of courses, and continued reasons of existence for physical universities?
  • Managed after 5 times to enroll through an Android client, of all devices! Really experienced a thrill when I finally received that confirmation mail!
10 February 2013
  • Got an e-mail from an assistant to an earlier mail from me to the team that my application would be processed manually this weekend. No longer necessary, but nice to receive this human touch. They must be overwhelmed.
11 February 2013
  • Over 24,000 people enrolled! This is truly a Massive Open Online Course..
  • A bot subdivides the masses into learning groups, clever! The bot mail didn’t say how large our group is or who my peer members are. Would be nice to get that sense of awareness. There is “the mother of all Google+” communities supporting the whole course. Each group has its own “mini mailing list” (ours is lcl-849@lcl.mechanicalmooc.org) and is advised to start its own G+ community as well. Wonder if anybody will take the initiative? Normally, I set up these things myself, but now really too busy with too many deadlines…
  • Many introduction mails from fellow group members coming in. I’ve also sent mine. Would be nice to have a mailing list archive for future reference, but also to check whether your own mails have actually been distributed, as I often do when sending mails to the Community Informatics Researchers mailing list.
  • My introduction mail to the group bounced! Instructions in the bot mail said to “hit the reply button”, which I did, but apparently didn’t work. Now how do I introduce myself to my coursemates?
  • I posted my problem on the general course G+ forum.  Immediately got lots of encouraging comments. Nice to feel the buzz!
  • Also a second attempt to introduce myself failed. More people seem to have that same problem of recurring bounces. It made me lament: ” Team: please help! Even though I have been admitted to the course, I know feel like an inivisible ghost, not worthy to be seen by my course mates…”
  • One of the replies to my Google+ post helped: turns out the reply address was wrong. My introduction mail has been received. Feel so much belonging now 🙂
  • (4 pm, Dutch time) Getting ready for our 1st live lecture, with 1080 classmates from all over the world, and counting…
  • (4:05 pm) Yes, we’ve got live video, but I can hear no sound! 😦
  • (4:20 pm)  I hate computers! Checked everything before start of class, YouTube worked fine. When the live stream started, I could see the video, but no sound! 😦 Spent a full 15 minutes checking the d..mn PC, finally having to restart it. So, virtually late for class even though physically I was in time!
  • Getting introduced by the speakers to the main course ideas & team, really feel excited! Highly interesting speakers and themes ahead in weeks to come
  • Student 2.0: switching from Google+ for video via Twitter for backchannel comments to Evernote for note-taking, and back!
  • This course big experiment: how to move in #MOOCs from massive, one-way video presentations to small group interactions?

Continue reading “My first MOOC: diary of 1 of 24,000 students following a truly “Massive Open Online Course””

LinkedIn Maps: art or science?

LinkedIn is a great resource for exploring professional profiles. However, when your personal social network starts to grow into the hundreds of contacts, it becomes very hard to – quite literally – still see the bigger picture. One feature that can help you visualize your network is LinkedIn Maps. It both shows the links between your connections and color-codes major clusters that are rough approximations of the various professional and personal worlds you move around in. You can zoom in and out, and select individual contacts to see which persons you know they are also connected to.

Of course, it makes for pretty art. However, the maps can also be useful. First, they give you a quick sense of the roles you play in your social world, through the colored sub-networks. Another use is to find out which people who you think don’t know one another, in fact are acquainted.

My LinkedIn Map – Overview

To give you an idea of what LinkedIn Maps is about in practice, here are some of my own maps. First, the total overview, showing the “regions of my personal world map” (click on the figures to see the details). For instance, one big region is formed by my local Tilburg connections, other regions by my Tilburg University research contacts, my international Community Informatics research connections, etc.

Zooming in on my personal network

The closer the regions are to my own node, and the more densely connected they are, the more they represent my “daily social circles”. When zooming in, the names of individual connections become visible.  The bigger the dots depicting my contacts, the more they are connected to my own contacts, and the more likely we have something in common, if only by knowing the same people.

Zooming in on a close “general connector” who is well connected to many of the people I know across many of my social circles

Finally, by selecting particular contacts, you can quickly explore which of your contacts in the various regions you share. This can be very valuable information, in, for example, setting up joint projects, selecting network coordinators or community managers who need to act as “spiders in your webs”, and so on. In this figure, I have selected one of my close contacts, and immediately see he is quite evenly connected to all of my “daily networks”. If I were to set up a project involving those networks, he would be a good candidate to ask for assistance.

Zooming in on a “specialized connector” who is well connected to many of the people I know in one particular circle

On the other hand, the contact I selected in this example, is very much connected to many of the people in my subnetwork that I have dubbed my “Tilburg University research network”. So, if I were to set up a joint research project with my former colleagues, he would be one of the persons to talk to first!

Yes We Can 2.0

It’s amazing what transformative power Web 2.0 services are increasingly making available to everybody at (almost) no cost. Using Animoto “The End of Slideshows” I just made a professional looking video supported by (Creative Commons)-music out of my collection of 1993 Clayoquot Sound uprising-pics for only US$ 3,- (30 sec videos are even free):

Compare this to the static slideshows “of old”.

Of course, such “fast and furious” MTV-style videos are not always the best choice, but they could play an important role in energizing, for example, youth to participate in community-building campaigns.

Happy Change Year!

Tag clouds on the move

Yesterday, I discussed Wordle. Today, I came across a related tool, TagCrowd:

TagCrowd is a web application for visualizing word frequencies in any user-supplied text by creating what is popularly known as a tag cloud or text cloud.

TagCrowd is taking tag clouds far beyond their original function:

  • as topic summaries for speeches and written works
  • for visual analysis of survey data
  • as brand clouds that let companies see how they are perceived by the world
  • for data mining a text corpus
  • for helping writers and students reflect on their work
  • as name tags for conferences, cocktail parties or wherever new collaborations start
  • as resumes in a single glance
  • as visual poetry

Interestingly, both tools seem to indicate the growing realization that tag clouds have many more uses than their original, narrow application for indicating blog topic frequencies. A good example of the how tools often get used for very different purposes than what they were originally designed for!

Another application of “serious tagging” is not to use one tag cloud for various purposes, but to compare tag clouds.  Lilia Efimova gives a nice illustration of how she compared the tag clouds of her blog posts and a dissertation chapter on the same topic. Another comparison is to see how different tag cloud tools process the same text. Here’s the TagCrowd interpretation of the CommunitySense home page:

Quite a diffferent look and feel from the one provided by Wordle, right? It would be interesting to come up with visualization criteria which provide the best type of tag cloud for the particular purpose for which they are used.

Word (art) clouds

A friend pointed out Wordle to me, which “is a toy for generating ‘word clouds’ from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes.”

I tried it out with the text on the CommunitySense home page:

Apart from truly being a piece of art and aesthetically pleasing, such “tag clouds ++” should have real business applications. It would be interesting to see how, say, a 100 page report would look like and whether its visualization could help in quickly grasping some of its essential meaning.