No Excuses Leadership
The Social Media Spiral Revisited

The Social Media Spiral

One of the first things you learn as a trainer is that you have to anchor new knowledge in previous knowledge. That is, for people to understand new concepts and develop new skills, you have to start with what they already know.

I've been doing some thinking about how to help staff make connections between new media and the older tools they already know how to use.  In a long phone conversation with Christine Martell, I came up with the following schematic. Note that putting it in a spiral was Christine's idea, while drawing it on paper was my own lame attempt.

Socialmediaspiral3_3 Now let me explain where I'm going with this, because I'm also looking for your feedback.

First, what I'm trying to do is show how the tools and activities at the bottom build up to the top. So starting at the bottom, most people know how to do searches and use email and are at least familiar with the concepts of Chat or IM, even if they haven't used them before.

Then comes email subscriptions to listservs and to newsletters, something a lot of people are comfortable with as well.

As we move up the spiral, people start to "consume" blogs, podcasts and videos in isolation--usually because someone sent them a link to an item or they clicked through to a blog or podcast from a website. They generally aren't interacting with these items by commenting, rating, etc. They are usually just passively consuming them

Then comes Aggregation, when people start to learn about things like RSS and Google Alerts where they can "pull" information to themselves and about social bookmarking where they can aggregate their bookmarks online. This is a level where the web moves from being "push" to "pull" and where they begin to see more active networks being built.

I think that many people hang out in the Aggregation phase indefinitely. They've started pulling info to themselves, but for the most part they are still passive consumers of information--the most they may do is share bookmarks with other people.

Moving into the Interaction phase means starting to create online (beyond sending emails), but not in the same full-blown way as the final level. This is where people may begin commenting on other blogs or creating profiles and participating in social networks. There's a level of interaction and content creation here, but it hasn't fully evolved.

The top level is Creation and this is where microb-blogging, blogging, Twitter, podcasting, etc. occur. You might conceivably divide this into Creation A and Creation B, with Twitter and micro-blogging at level A and Blogging, podcasting, video creation, etc. at Creation B. For me the distinction comes from the amount of work involved, but maybe that's a false distinction because God knows it seems to take a ton of work to keep up with Twitter!

A few additional thoughts on this:

  • I started this as a sort of pyramid, that implied building blocks that go up to the top, but Christine pointed out that it's really more of a spiral, where we're constantly building on and using all of the different "levels."
  • Looking at this spiral, it seems that we go from more familiar activities to less familiar and from more "passive" activities to more active content creation. You can argue that emails and IM are certainly "active," but they don't carry with them the same content creation demands that blogging, podcasting and video do, so I see them operating at distinctly different levels.
  • I would argue that there are different skills and knowledge that are required to fully function within the spiral and trying to leap over the different parts of the spiral is where people can get into trouble. For example, Christine pointed out that often people will make the leap from "email newsletter" to "blog,"  so that they see having a blog as essentially a one-way communication device that broadcasts their message. When they do this, though, they miss the levels that occur in between, such as understanding the importance of the Aggregation and Interaction levels in being able to fully realize the benefits of blogging. Not that there needs to be a slow plodding through the different levels, but time spent operating in the different environments is time well-spent before moving to the Content Creation level. If you don't understand how Aggregation (particularly RSS) and Interaction work, then you won't be as effective at the content creation level.
  • There's nothing that says that people need to use all of the tools of each level. So I don't have to be blogging, Twittering, podcasting and videocasting to be fully functional at the Creation level. But particularly when it comes to developing a personal learning environment, there is benefit to integrating selected tools and knowledge from each of these levels into my overall PLE if I want to fully realize the benefits. In particular, Aggregation, Interaction and Creation seem critical to me as they are the ways in which we can continually get and manage content and interact with it to continue learning. We need to learn how to use tools at each of those levels to be the most effective.
  • The Creation level is fundamentally about taking all of this data and interaction and using it to tell a variety of different stories. When you're new to social media, you tend to be working your way through the spiral, mastering the skills and knowledge of the different levels. When you reach the Creation level, then you're looking at how to aggregate information and conversations to tell different stories that serve different purposes. There is essentially an infinite number of stories to be told--this level is about how we apply our human ingenuity and creativity to massaging those stories. I would go so far as to say that using a tool like Yahoo Pipes, for example, is a form of creation and story-telling, because you're essentially trying to create custom feeds that will manipulate data and information to come from a particular perspective.
  • This is a schematic that I see working primarily for digital immigrants--those who did not grow up with these technologies. I suspect that the "levels" I'm describing here would seem kind of irrelevant to digital natives because to them, it's all part and parcel of using the Web. But for those who are trying to learn new technologies, it seems like this might be a useful way to look at things as it shows a natural progression and evolution that tends to build on what people already know.

So I'm throwing this out into the world for your thoughts and comments. Some of what I'm wondering:

  • Is this a useful way to think about these different tools and skills when it comes to training staff?
  • Do these "levels" make sense? What changes would you suggest?
  • What skills do you see associated with the different levels? Do you think that there are different skills entirely or is it in how we use the skills?

What do you think? Am I off base? Does this even matter?



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Here's another view of this kind of knowledge and sense-making, using a spiral:

I think you're completely on track here. The one thing I will say is that I'm not sure I agree with your idea that this would be primarly for digital-immigrants. I can tell you that I work as a social networks adviser at a major university and I work with people on a daily basis that are lucky to have made it past your first level and will take a lot of coaxing, training and support to feel comfortable going to the other levels. It's not that they don't *want* to, it's just that in their day to day lives, they have no need to and unless I (or someone else) shows them how, and why they should.. then there's no need for them to change.

Shannon has it. Digital-Natives or Gen-Y or whatever we want to call 'them' (as opposed to 'us' who have not grown up with digital technologies and have had to work at it), are no more able to integrate the array of tools with their requisite skills and knowledge unless they are willing and able to do so ... just like us. Actually the spiralling synergy model you have created is a lovely flow pattern of learning for all levels and abilities. IMHO the challenge is to make porous the silo-ed areas of expertise which many of us have. As a foot-note, I wouldn't challenge a younger Digital Native to a duel using a mobile phone. They are masters of the tiny keyboard for texting and calling and grabbing images, but even if they do have smart phones, they rarely use them. Too expensive is one cry ... and despite the growing improvement in design features, it's that one fact that's holding back the proliferation of the 'fourth screen' and its capacity to provide mobile access to learning.

Your spiral makes a great deal of sense. I think that good facility with the skills at the base improve success as we go up the spiral. My problem is I haven't figured lots of the basic stuff out yet.

A nephew was visiting in the Spring. He was at first incredulous about a blog, and wanted pretty tight control over whatever he creates. Later his work offered a little training in Web 2.0 with a prize for the person who did some of tasks first. One of the tasks was to set up a Flickr account. Flickr is an important breakthrough for so many. One of the great things is that people can control access to the content. And you can share without having to explain much to people, they don't even have to sign up to Flickr to see links you send. It's also a such a nice social network. Flickr was a break through for my nephew. Now he has a blog getting hundreds of hits a day.

Nice article, but that's a helix, not a spiral!

Michele, I think it's great! Only think is I'd try and find a different way of depicting it (don't know what) to shake off the idea of a directly linear progression up the way - it can be multi-directional as you suggest in your article, and I don't think you'd necessarily want to suggest there's a 'right' way of doing it to get to the 'top'

In my own experience I started blogging before I knew anything about the world that is web 2.0, because I was travelling in Mexico and wanted to capture my experiences. I then thought about a blog to develop my business when I got back. It was only in the early days of developing that blog that I started reading other blogs, commenting, finding out about other social networks etc so I was definitely going up and down the way (and there's probably still some basic technology I know nothing about!)

Maybe one way to think about it would be as a learning cycle - so wherever you were on it, you could always look to stretch and grow and learn by moving in, out, up, down, side-ways...


That's a really good diagram and it certainly rings true with my personal experiences. However I too don't think that it only applies only to 'digital immigrants'. I think the levels you are describing are true for all online users - where web2.0 is concerened keep the 1% rule in mind (I tried adding a link here but wasn't allowed, so Google for "web2.0" + "1% rule"): 1% create content, 10% comment/interact and the remainder are passive consumers. To date this appears to apply to all user types.

I also like the distinction that the web moves from 'push' to 'pull' at the 'aggreggation' point - I think this is an important distinction and worth adding to the diagram in some way.

This is all really helpful, starting with AJ's point that this is a helix, not a spiral! :-) I'm thinking that in some ways I am seeing a sense of hierarchy, in part because I'm thinking about how to train other people to do this stuff. I think that the "discovery learners" might go in and out and around, but if you're trying to do something more structured with people who just aren't out there doing it for themselves, they're looking for something to anchor their learning to, so that does imply a sense of levels that can be helpful.

Mark, you're right that I should find a way to integrate the push/pull switch. I also have a post in draft form on how I think that there's a significant change in learning once you get to the Aggregation level.

Point well taken on the digital immigrant vs. the digital native distinction. I still feel like there's probably some level of "innate" understanding--in the sense that it's more unconscious for them--that digital natives have about technology that may impact how they learn this stuff, but maybe I'm off base.

I also think that Shannon makes an excellent point about how people have to see a reason to move into the next level. I personally think that the big change is moving into Aggregation--that if you can get people to move to that level, it makes it easier to keep going because at some point they'll probably be drawn into at least commenting on blogs. But the challenge is really about getting people to see a reason to move.

This is great stuff, everyone--thank you! It's definitely helping with my further thinking about this.

It's an interesting framework, Michelle, and one I can see helping ______ (what ever label you want to put in there for an audience new to this stuff). A few quick thoughts:

* The helix, spiral, levels suggest there is some sort of linear progression, or more worrisome, that one level is desirable over another. We can skip levels, operate at multiple levels, the whole nature of it defies 2D or 3D structuring. The phases people are at are not the levels per se, but some sort of overlay that might be a bubble that intersects the phases vertically. But again, I think the concept that it is a linear path is misleading.

* An important part is missing- how we use these same items (or different) ones for personal purposes. The work/life divide is a blurrier boundary, and networking tools I use for either domain feeds the other. So where is photosharing? Is flickr, youtube content creation or is it social networking? Where is collaborative games, MMORPGS. shopping, travel planning, researching purchases, geneology...

BTW, I found this via some hybrid level- Sue Waters ahd shared this in your Google Reader (aggregation) that I noticed via their new ability to see shared items from your contacts (social networking). This stuff defies putting into neat cubibles!

1) It's a helix, not a spiral.

2) Since you've gone to the trouble of inventing a phase angle around the helix, it must be intended to represent something. What?

While I agree with other comments it's not good to lock brains into a linear progression I think that people do graduate into new levels of risk as they gain confidence.

However, I would argue that what's at the top of the helix/spiral is very personal. Perhaps because I have a background in video production and journalism, I find the social networking to be the latest adventure for me. I've been creating content for years -- but learning how to be a supportive, contributing member of an online community and being willing to put an opinion out that could be contradicted or ridiculed is a brave new world for me. Playing with technology and learning new software is the easy bit.

I thought at first this made a lot of sense and was a better representation than the sort of pyramid style one that I have seen before.

However it does make it look like a progression, linear as some people suggest, whereas I think what happens in "real life" is more like a fractal, where we branch this way and that. I think perhaps, since web 2.0, the social networking may come a bit earlier, that we may try other things because of what we've learnt, often by lurking, in social networks.
Some people may start in a social network or perhaps a blog, and never ever go through the list serv stage.

This gets more interesting all the time. And even harder to visualize since there can be so many entry points. It reminds me of designing websites, especially in the old days. We set them up to be branches off a home page and the first week it is up we see all these people on the stats coming in random pages. And when we try to envision entering the site from those pages suddenly the carefully crafted message doesn't make sense anymore.

Wonder if it would work to flatten the spiral/helix out, put the user in the center, with all the circles of potential participation radiating from them? It's tough to create models of involvement when there are real live unpredictable people involved!

Drat. Now I have images of branching afro hair connected to multiple heads.
Perhaps I need less coffee.

The comments to this entry are closed.