UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

“Celebrating 10,000 Followers!”: Social Media is About Nodes and Connections

Posted by Brian Kelly on 17 Aug 2012


JISC Celebrates 10,000 Followers

Yesterday a tweet from @jisc announced that their Twitter account had reached 10,000 followers:

NEWS: Celebrating 10,000 followers… and our resources to help engage students through social media: … 

This news provided a useful opportunity for JISC to “showcase some resources that can help you blog, tweet and interact your way to better student retention, marketing and teaching online“. The news item highlighted seven resources which were felt to help institutions in using social media to support their students:

  1. Listen to a podcast (MP3 format) on developing your social media strategy with Steph Gray of Helpful Technology.
  2. Read JISC CETIS’ ideas about using Twitter in the classroom.
  3. Learn how Cardiff Northumbria and Bristol universities use Twitter and Facebook to support international students.
  4. Reflect on how your PhD students are using social media and other new technologies to collaborate and stay up to date using the biggest ever survey of PhD students.
  5. Read a case study on engaging students through blogging.
  6. Download the LSE’s guide to Tweeting for academics.
  7. Compare your university to other universities. Find out which social media networks others are using on the UK Web Focus blog post.

And whilst the @JISC Twitter account provides a valuable channel for JISC to disseminate JISC activities and innovative uses of IT across the higher and further education sector, this is complemented by the work of JISC Programme Managers and other JISC staff who use social media technologies for engaging with the sector in the support of development activities. Remember that the solution which may be described in a glossy PDF report or a polished podcast will be the result of rich interactions, discussions and even disagreements; social media provides an environment for supporting such engagement which, ten years ago, tended to be restricted to mailing lists, meetings and trips to workshops and conferences.

It probably goes without saying that the benefits of social media aren’t restricted to supporting students; LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog, for example, regularly provides examples of how social media can support research activities. A good example is Mellisa Terras’s post which asked The verdict: is blogging or tweeting about research papers worth it? and described how “Melissa Terras took all of her academic research, including papers that have been available online for years, to the web and found that her audience responded with a huge leap in interest in her work“.

Nodes and Connections

In a recent post I described how Social Media? It’s About The Numbers! The post reflected on how the popularity of Twitter for talking about the Olympics indicated a mass take-up of the channel which appears to becoming an ’embedded technology’ – a technology which large numbers of familiar with and comfortable in using for a range of activities. The post went on to explain how for many communication channels achieving a critical mass is important in order to maximise awareness, engagement discussion, feedback and marketing opportunities. JISC clearly appreciate the importance of such numbers, and it is very pleasing to see the significant growth in their followers since the account was established on 10 January 2009.

Yesterday Steve Wheeler in a post on Separation and connection reinforced this view when he described how “We are witnessing a time where a mobile world wide web of connections is proliferating, and in which social mores, human relationships and communication conventions have been irrevocably changed“, supporting this view with the evidence that “Facebook boasts over 845 million subscriptions and this statistics grows each month. What is even more remarkable is that these 845 million user accounts have so far generated over 100 billion connections“. Steve concluded with an optimistic view of the role of social media in education: “I believe we have not even started to scratch the surface of the massive potential of social media and mobile technology to disrupt and transform learning. That’s why it’s so exciting to be an educator in the digital age.

But not everyone, I feel, appreciates the importance of ‘nodes’ and ‘connections’ which are at the heart of successful social web services. As I described in a post entitled It’s About Links; It’s About Connectedness! Cameron Neylon’s opening plenary talk at the Open Repositories OR 2012 conference addressed the importance of such connectivity. As reported in the live blog of Cameron’s talk:

Most of you can remember a time without mobile phones. 20 years ago if I’d shown up and wanted to meet for a drink it would have been difficult or impossible. Email wasn’t useful back then either as so few people had it. When you start with nodes and start joining up the network… for a long time little changes. You just let people communicate in the same way you did before… right up until everyone has access to a mobile phone. or everyone has email. You move from a network that is better connected network to a network that can be traversed in new ways. for chemists THIS IS A Cooperative phase transition. Where the network crystalises out from a solution.

Cameron has kindly shared his slides with me (prior to making a more generic version of the slides publicly available) which has helped me to refresh my memories of his talk and reuse some of the images he provided.

Cameron argued that “Networks qualitatively change our capacity” and depicted this ‘phase transition’ as shown: with only 20% of a community being connected only a limited amount of interaction can take place, but this increases drastically as the numbers of connected nodes grows – and imagine the possibilities as the numbers approach 100%!

Cameron provided some examples of such approaches in scientific research including Galaxy Zoo and the Timothy Gower’s experiment in which Professor Gower asked “is massively collaborative mathematics possible?“. The answer was “yes” with a new combinatorial proof to the density version of the Hales–Jewett theorem being found using “blogs and a wiki to organize an open mathematical collaboration attempting to find a new proof ” after only 7 weeks.

The importance is the network effect, with a growth in the number of nodes (the bloggers, the contributors, the Twitter users) leading to a growth in the number of connections (the posts, the comments, the tweets, the retweets) which help in the development of new insights and new ideas.

Let’s Not Kill The Golden Goose!

A concern which needs to be recognised is that the evidence of the benefits of use of social media will lead to organisations seeking to use the social web in inappropriate ways, leading to a failure to provide the benefits based on the network effect. There are dangers that the benefits of the social web are felt to be its ease-of-use and its virality, but that the tools should be used in a corporate way. Seeking to take the individuality away from use of such tools could lead a reduction in the number of nodes and in the connections which often take place between individuals rather than organisations. Such approaches could kill the golden goose and lead to social networks which people abandon due to the lack of openness and transparency and effectiveness.

One barrier which people sometimes mention are concerns of information overload – and this may have been the reaction when I suggested that people should “imagine the possibilities as the numbers approach 100%!“.

Cameron Neylon addressed this as one of the three key issues in his plenary talk at OR 2012. “Filters block” argued Cameron, “Filters cause friction“. And as there’s not a single right filter for everyone (as we all have different needs, with your rubbish being my valuable resources) we should reject inappropriate supply-side filters and focus, instead, on developing and using client-side filters.

Let’s therefore keep on encouraging new nodes to spring up – new Twitter users (many of whom may have started tweeting during the Olympics) and new bloggers – and avoid developing barriers on the creation of new connections – the tweets, the comments and the posts.

But we need to appreciate that those who may be considering the development of top-down approaches to use of social media are probably doing so because they have legitimate concerns. As described in a paper on Moving From Personal to Organisational Use of the Social Web there is a need for “a policy framework which seeks to ensure that authors can exploit Cloud Services to engage with their audiences in a professional and authentic manner whilst addressing the concerns of their host institution“. And note that such policies need not be difficult to write.


8 Responses to ““Celebrating 10,000 Followers!”: Social Media is About Nodes and Connections”

  1. […] JISC Celebrates 10,000 followers Yesterday a tweet from @jisc announced that their Twitter account had reached 10,000 followers: NEWS: Celebrating 10,000 followers… and our resources to help …  […]

  2. […] “Celebrating 10,000 Followers!”: Social Media is About Nodes and Connections […]

  3. Interesting post and thank you Brian for your supportive view of the JISC Twitter feed which we manage in the central communications team.

    I agree that there’s a risk of information overload as more corporate players enter the blogosphere. But as I think you’ve said before, I’m not too worried about “organisations seeking to use the social web in inappropriate ways”. For me at least the web is pretty self-regulating and I quickly un-follow brands that are using twitter in favour of accounts that aren’t, eg. @timeshighered

    In our personal lives, we’re usually ‘client-side’ without thinking about it – so here’s to more corporate social media accounts that dare to do the same.

    • Thanks for the comment. A number of examples of corporate use of Twitter have gone down the route of initially providing a feed from editorialised content (e.g. the Twitter feed based on automated tweets form a corporate blog’s RSS output) to an authentic voice (or voices) provided by people who can respond in timely and appropriate ways. As you say, as experience in use of Twitter is gained, experienced Twitter users can use the service without having to think too deeply: the appropriate ‘voice’ and content becomes engrained in one’s working practices. As you say, we need more people tweeting, so that they can develop such skills in order to support outreach and engagement activities.

      • Yes indeed – it’s certainly a journey that depends on how much resource an organisation has to manage their accounts and how much value they place on them. As you say, “timely and appropriate” is key – we regularly have people asking @JISC questions that a year ago might have come through on the phone, or at worse, not at all – so our ability to respond quickly is vital.

        Thanks Brian!

  4. […] it becomes vital to have people dedicated to responding to queries and seeding communications. Brian Kelly suggests we are moving towards a time when social media might impact scholarly research in profound […]

  5. […] “Celebrating 10,000 Followers!”: Social Media is About Nodes and Connections […]

  6. […] “Celebrating 10,000 Followers!”: Social Media is About Nodes and Connections ( […]

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