Report from a Blogwalk 1.0 discussion last Friday. The topic was: "Can blogging replace communities of practice ?"
Background of discussion: Before the development of weblogs, « online community » tools like forums, mailing lists and bulletin boards were predominantly used for community building. Experience seems to show that weblogs are proving far more effective in creating meaningful interpersonal connections than centralized community spaces on the web. Can networks of bloggers be seen as the future of online communities ?
A weblog (or blog) is basically a form of web publishing, usually in journal-writing style. It is predominantly personal, but can also be collective.
A community of practice is a group of people informally bound together and engaged in a joint learning experience on a shared practice.
“ A community of practice defines itself along three dimensions:
- What it is about – its joint enterprise as understood and continually renegotiated by its members
- How it functions mutual engagement that bind members together into a social entity
- What capability it has produced – the shared repertoire of communal resources (routines, sensibilities, artifacts, vocabulary, styles, etc.) that members have developed over time” (Wenger 1998)
Thus, it doesn’t make sense to compare weblogs and communities. As a form of web publishing tool, a weblog can be compared to another form of web-based collaboration tool. As a group of people, a community of practice can be compared to a network of bloggers.
Summary - based on our group discussion
What weblogs provide that other web-based collaboration tools do not:
A- Weblogs are more respectful of their authors and of their audience
1- Weblogs are unmoderated and predominantly centered on the individual. They speak in a human voice. Thus, a weblog author expresses his/her thoughts and ideas in his own words and in a more meaningful and complete way. A new reader can also browse or mine more easily through the past entries and have a better understanding of the author’s personality and current context.
2- A weblog author has no obligation to publish, and no obligation to adopt a format he/she doesn’t feel comfortable with. He/she can keep control over entries, and reedit, update and delete any of them any time. Simple weblogging technology, reinforced by the etiquette of the blogging community, allows new ideas to be more easily attributed to their author (trackbacks, blogrolling etc.). As such, weblogs are a better self-promotion tool.
3- The reader has no obligation to read, comment, trackback, blogroll, or subscribe to the RSS feeds. “Online communities” on the other hand often include some form of social obligation on behalf of its members and typically push entries in a central location were everybody can (and often must) read them. Thus, they are much more invasive and time-consuming.
B- Weblogs are better connecting tools.
Weblogs do not allow to locate expertise easily, but they do allow better profiling and tracking of expertise. Ideas are made stronger by deeper interactions and faster feedback loops. A network of weblogs is open and self-organizing. New ideas and information can circulate freely across the planet through referrals and trackbacks. Search engine technology may be better to obtain complete information on a given topic, but weblogs and trackbacks are much better to obtain quality information coming from like-minded people. The only impediments to the free flow of information are those that the weblog’s author may have set up by setting boundaries to the audience of his/her weblog through subscription.
What Communities of Practice provide that a network of bloggers cannot:
Communities are better social structures for problem-solving, knowledge stewarding and innovation
1- Important problems to be addressed collectively must be kept within the boundaries of a closed group of experts and peers. The required level of trust and sense of closure is incompatible with an open-ended social structure.
2- A weblog is usually very poor in content structure: titles, texts, dates, first level categories, trackbacks. In order to be reuseable, a body of knowledge geared towards action typically has more structure: description, keywords, type of information, type of content, type of data, type of document, summary, domain of knowledge, subdomain, attributes, etc. If it is personal, such a categorization is of little practical use, but it may be of considerable value if it is shared within a group. However, defining categories and catgorizing may represent substantial work (document structure and information architecture), which must be shared among several people.
3- New ideas can indeed be conveyed, discussed and enhanced within a network of bloggers. But for these ideas to become actionable, they need to be supported by a group able to translate them into action-driven documents like courseware, green books or proposals.
B- Communities of practice are better social structures for learning
Communities of practice are self-organized human societies engaged into joint action learning activities. They form around shared learning objectives on specific agreed upon topics, and they strive to build a common understanding of a given domain of knowledge. Their existence is tied to basic form of constitution that is regularly being revisited (membership, rituals, events…). Communities of practice have boundaries, and access to community activities and knowledge base is controlled in order to build and maintain trusted relations between its members and to nurture high quality conversations among peers.
How weblogs and CoPs live together?
A- Blogger networks generate communities of practice (and communities of practice generate projects)
When a group of bloggers have generated enough relationships through entries, comments and trackbacks, they might want to take it to the next step with a more formal structure. Typically, a small group of 3-7 people decide to gather face-to-face to organize a learning event for 20 to 60 bloggers in a synchronous mode, often face-to-face. This event might attract enough energy to become the first of a series, in which case a community of practice is forming. Naturally, after some time, vibrant communities of practice generate projects, which can range from regular social gatherings to start-up companies.
In this respect, the Blogwalk 1.0 gathering can be viewed as a typical example. Should a follow-up ensue, a CoP around the practice of blogging would enter into existence.
B- Communities of Practice can use weblogs to communicate with the outside world.
One of the first manifestations of the existence of a community of practice may be the publication of a collective weblog (a la BoingBoing). By doing this, members engage into some early form of division of labor geared towards saving the time of the readers . This does not imply of course that any weblogger should abandon his/her weblog for the new one, but decide on which weblog site(s) a new entry should be best posted.
The pop-up diagram hereunder illustrates the bubbling up of ideas in weblogs and their coalescence into communities of practice and then projects.