How I got this way

Karyn Romeis asks, as part of her dissertation, how learning professionals got started with social media, and what difference it’s made. (If you’re a learning professional and are willing to have your own experience become part of her research, I’m sure she’d welcome your comments. See details at her post.)

Naturally, this seems like a great fit with this month’s Working/Learning blog carnival hosted by Rupa Rajagopalan.

How did you get started with social media?

I wanted to say “by accident,” but it’s really been an outgrowth of how I’ve worked for most of my career. I worked for GE Information Services, the company that helped invent timesharing. Our proprietary email was used by clients from Apple Computer to the Vatican.

I realize that email doesn’t strike everyone as “social software,” but it surmounted barriers of geography, making it possible to collaborate with coworkers and clients in North America, Europe, and Asia. To me, that’s the heart of social software: easy access to rapid communication between people who share some interest or issue.

What was your introduction, and how did it unfold?

If email was the start, the real intro came with GE’s use of threaded discussions, online libraries, and the online service called GEnie. As a training specialist, I participated in the alpha test, and so I’ve been connecting online via chat rooms, instant messaging, live discussion and similar channel since 1984.

Initially these were job related rather than profession related (meaning, most of the time I wasn’t dealing with other training/learning folks), but that changed over time. And, for ten years I was also a regular and active participant in the TRDEV-L (“training and development”) listserv.

They\'re names, they\'re not barriersAll of these, which existed before Facebook, WordPress, or Twitter, supplemented and enriched more traditional professional networking offered by local chapters and annual conferences of professional associations. I made (and make) many professional and personal friends as a result of both public-forum and one-to-one backchannel exchanges.

For example, through TRDEV I met Patti Shank, who pointed me to the HTML tutorial developed by Alan Levine, which was how I learned not only to use the web but to create my own content for it. And a little over two years ago, I started my first blog and participated in Jay Cross’s first unworkshop.

What difference has it made in your professional practice?

I’ve worked in the training/learning/performance-improvement arena for thirty years. Early on, professional associations like ISPI helped expand my understanding of what was possible and what was effective. Taking part in local meetings and national conferences acquainted me with a wide range of people with whom I shared interests — different clusters, different interests.

My early experience with mainframe CBT — the 1980s version of distance learning — helped me shed the “sage on the stage” approach to training. Listserv participation highlighted the value of open, casual exchange with strangers who (by virtue of their participating in the same medium) likely had skills, experience, or challenges like mine.

Blogging for me serves several functions.

  • It acts as a personal journal. Thanks in no small part to Harold Jarche’s example, I decided to muse publicly about things that interest me and that fall for the most part under the training / learning / performance umbrella.
  • My blog helps me retain what I’m learning — it’s a do-it-yourself database from which I can easily retrieve, or to which I can direct someone who’s not yet at the social-bookmark stage. “Just go to my blog and search for Hans Rosling.” (If I had a latte for every time I said that, I couldn’t fall asleep till Thursday.)
  • Third, active reflection means I’m also actively looking for information. My feedreader gathers sources that have worked for me; the fact that someone has a blog is a standing invitation for me to join the conversation if it appeals to me.

Although I’m an independent consultant, in the average week I have more professional contact — and contact more attuned to my interests — than I might have had in any six months without these tools. Add to the mix a freer flow of information through social bookmarks, tags, blogs, along with tools that make it easier for someone to create, share, and modify content, and you’ve got a powerful toolbox.

No one social application is essential — Flickr,, or Blogger will disappear, as Netscape, Lotus 1-2-3, and WordStar did before them. But the capabilities are such that learning professionals who ignore them are likely to handicap themselves.

As Roger Schank said, it took the training profession 30 years to get the overhead projector out of the bowling alley.

Scorekeeping: the measurement of performance

I’ll turn back to Alan Levine for a powerful example of social software at work:

It was D’Arcy at the UBC Social Software Salon who described it something like being removing or downplaying the “software” portion of online social interaction. Whatever your way of describing what “social software” is how, submitted below is a nice example of the informal way the web, blogs, maybe even RSS play a role in collectively building something in a way not previously possible.

(See Alan’s full post on social software in action.)

Eastern Boundary photo by Vidiot.
Bowling scoreboard photo by Brian Wallace.

7 thoughts on “How I got this way

  1. I agree with the capabilities of social media tools for learning professionals. To me it is forum to share our experiences and learning. As correctly put by Dave, they are good archiving tools which are easily accessible from anywhere.

  2. Anamika, I’ve been thinking about the word “tool” as an analogy. A hand saw is a tool, as is a laser-guided, electrically-powered table saw.

    So in a sense face-to-face meetings and conferences, together with the phone, have been a kind of networking tool. Then first-generation developments like discussion boards and listservs extended your ability — you could do some of the things you did with the earlier tools, and you could do some things you couldn’t before, like easily retrieve the history of the conversation.

    Current social software both adds power to what was done through other tools and adds capability. As a tool, it seems to me we have to fit it to the work we want to do. (Of course, some people just like puttering around in their digital workshop, having fun with the tools for the tools’ sake.)

  3. Hi Dave,

    Interesting post. This increasingly flat world is shrinking continuously and our capabilities to reach out to others and learn from them and share with them are increasing exponentially. These skills will take time to permeate through to the wider population of learners and learning professionals (just like email did for entire generations, I guess!) and we have to be cognizant of that.


  4. Viplav, look at the connection we have between us. One blogger suggested I get onto Facebook; someone invited to the first working/learning carnival suggested Manish; he’s opened the door for me to interact with people on the other side of the world.

    It’s amusing (or distressing) to see “email” and “entire generations” in the same sentence. Wikipedia puts the dawn of email around 1965, and Ray Tomlinson developed the use of the at sign ( in 1971.

    As Alan Kay said, technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.

  5. Thanks so much for this contribution, Dave. It’s like watching one of those fractal screen savers to see the posts, sparking off other posts, and so on. And each post forms the spark for a conversation in the comments that follow.

    It’s so exciting.

    Good grief. It’s official. I.AM.A.GEEK.

  6. Karyn: in thinking about social software, I saw a parallel with movement from “how to train” to “how to improve performance.” For me the social is and always has been more important than the software; it’s just that the software can both ease and expand the opportunities for the social.

    I hear some of that in Stephen Downes’s reply: early on, he was involved in grad-school face-to-face discussions, early BBS, MUDs. The software made it possible; the connections made it dynamic.

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