Thursday, October 20, 2011

Three antipatterns to protect your learning community from

I'm back from China and it feels great to be back home finally. China's a great place that I recommend everyone tries to visit at least once in their lifetime. That said, if you are hooked to the internet then you've got to be prepared to sacrifice some of that during your visit. So with about 30 days of no access to my blog, several of Google's apps and Twitter or Facebook, socialising on the web was a bit of nightmare.

Anyways, I got back last week and went on an amazing birding trip to Ganeshgudi. In birdwatching parlance, a bird you see for the first time in your life is a called a 'lifer'. My friends Raji, Kannan, Sandeep and I lost count of the number of times we saw a bird and shouted the word 'lifer' to each other. An amazing biodiversity hotspot in the Western Ghats, Ganeshgudi afforded sightings of about a 110 different species of birds. If you're interested, you should look up my photographs. I wasn't looking at photography as a goal on this trip. I wanted to use my camera as a bit of a documentation tool for this trip. I'll be back there soon and then I'll perhaps move around with a monopod and try to get better shots.

Three pillars of successful communities

Speaking of the birding trip, all three of my friends that came with me were folks I know from a naturalists' community that I participate in. It's been an enriching experience being a part of that group. I believe that successful learning communities are founded on three important pillars:
  • Sharing and Altruism: The most successful communities are where people participate because they believe that sharing what they know helps others and they believe that they'll be better off if others share what they know as well.
  • Feedback: In his Last Lecture, Randy Pausch said, "Your critics are the ones telling you they still love you and care." Communities that have a healthy culture of sharing feedback are likely to learn and grow better.
  • Respect: As a fundamental value in most meaningful human relationships, respect has to be out there as one of the fundamental building blocks of successful communities. Communities that respect experience and the lack of it alike and can create safety for people to participate are likely to see a lot of meaningful traffic.
As I was thinking about these three pillars, I've been thinking of three very common antipatterns I've observed on online communities that I'd like to share with you. If I'm running a community, I'll probably avoid these like the plague and I really hope that you do too.

Hero worship

Every community has it's heroes and top contributors, but to elevate these individuals to god-like status is an absolute no-no. I remember that a few days back on a birding community on Facebook an experienced wildlife photographer posted a beautiful photograph of a bird. He'd also posted a write up on the bird. Everyone had great stuff to say about the image and the write up. That being said, there was  problem. The photographer had copy pasted the write up from Thomas Jerdon and had done nothing to attribute to the great naturalist. I was surprised that no one had called him out on this. I have very little tolerance for plagiarism and un-deserved praise gathering, so I had to call him out. This however led me to notice how several of the established photographers and naturalists on the group received nothing but fulsome praise. There was hardly any useful feedback for these folks. Now this is a problem. How does someone with expertise grow and learn if they receive no feedback?

At ThoughtWorks, we have our heroes in people like Ola Bini, Martin Fowler and Jim Highsmith. That doesn't stop us however from sharing our views openly with them, even if we're at odds with how they think. That's what makes the ThoughtWorks community so awesome. Think about where your community suffers from hero worship. If so, you need to fix that soon.

Boorish behaviour

Some months back, I wrote an article about behaviour on social media. A respectful community handles disagreement and feedback respectfully. Often people will say or do things that may or may not be correct in our opinion. It's crucial though that we convey our opinions in a manner that doesn't undermine someone's intelligence and doesn't humiliate them on a public forum. Let me explain.

A few days back one of the members on a naturalists' forum mentioned how he'd attracted a crested bunting by throwing food grains and then lying in wait to snag a photograph. One of the more experienced members of the forum was furious with this. Baiting is generally a frowned upon practice amongst naturalists and for good reason too. The experienced member laid into the photographer and gave him a public dressing down on the forum.

I felt a bit odd about that angry response. I wrote back to this person explaining that while the actions were wrong, the photographer perhaps didn't mean any harm. I explained that by berating someone in public he'd not only insulted that individual, but made the community environment unsafe for genuine, well intentioned mistakes. After all, mistakes are a great way to learn!

Thankfully the experienced member understood my point and immediately wrote back on the group apologising for his outburst and explaining why he felt strongly about the concept of baiting for photography. I'm pretty sure this made the original poster feel a lot better. This was a story that had a happy ending, but a lot of such stories end with just bad behaviour that goes unnoticed. If you're running a community, this is something to be aware of. Remember - good, respectful behaviour creates a safe environment for people to contribute and learn from their mistakes. It also creates a healthy environment to share feedback.

Hoarding over sharing

If you're a member on any wildlife forums, you'll see a lot of people sharing photographs with copyright notices that look like this:

"Copyrighted by _____________ and may not be used in any form,website or print media without written permission of the Photographer.For any enquiry for the photographs please contact _______________."

You know my views about this. Communites are about sharing and restrictive copyrights are about hoarding in the hope of maximising value for an individual. They have no place in learning communities. I'm amazed why people even bother posting restrictively copyrighted work on online forums. Is it just to tease people with a 'see, don't touch' approach from museum culture? Are these contributors so full of their own work that they believe they're better than all of the awesome, successful people who make money despite sharing freely?

This is a simple problem to solve, and yet something that's not easy. It takes talking to people individually, and high standards for sharing in the community. It's quite easy to ignore, but in my opinion this is a stink to watch out for in just about any community.

Over the next few weeks I want to try a few different articles on this blog. In particular I want to focus on photography for elearning media. I've been experimenting with photography over the last few years or so and I wouldn't mind helping elearning professionals select gear, understand the technology behind phototgraphy and play around with the composition and post processing. While I've almost made up my mind to do a series on this, I'd like to know if you think this could be a valuable thing to cover on this blog. I look forward to hearing from you - either on this post or on any other channels you're connected to me on. Until next week, happy learning!

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Somebody ask who you are then you must be tell him about you. Then afcos your style feedback everything will be understood. Three antipatterns to protect our learning community from others. You need some training which help in your services courses. These are three pillars of successful communities, respect sharing and feedback. It help in your nature and your life as well.

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