Took part in my first Twitter chat in class yesterday, and what an experience!
For those who are not too familiar, people started out using Twitter to post (“tweet”) short messages (140 characters). Then they responded to other people’s tweets. A Twitter chat is when people use Twitter to chat with one another – last night we had 50 participants tweeting at the same time on 4 posted knowledge management topics.
I’m not discussing the topics, because I myself had a tough time keeping up with what was said. But I would like to share some thoughts about the whole experience.
For a newbie, it was a chaotic and painful experience! Picture going to a (conventional) networking event with 50 other people. Instead of talking to one or two persons or within a small group, you can somehow hear what all 50 people are saying. Or maybe you don’t, it’s 50 sets of murmurings. At times, a keyword or phrase catches your attention and draws you into a new conversation. You step into it, and find that the people have strayed to other conversations. Or maybe one or two of them will come back, to talk to you about something you said 10 minutes ago. It’s… totally disorderly!
On reflection, I realize I had a tough time because I was used to certain mental models about engagement and interaction that I refused to let go. For years, we have been trained to honor “one conversation” in a group, to exercise active listening (even then, it was not easy keeping up). Or, when we correspond by email, we see our past messages stitched together nicely to show the flow in one continuous thread. On the other hand, Twitter chat is like a different world where things happen differently. There are too many conversations, often disjointed, often broken, coming together at different points of time from different people.
After struggling for a while, I realized that the problem was not with the Twitter chat or the people in it. The problem was me, my mental models and my expectations! Until I learn and understand the ways of this new world, I will always struggle in it. So I did what many classmates were doing. We “lurked” and observed what the natives in this different world was doing. This is the “socializing” stage of the knowledge creation model I was talking about in a previous post. After a while, as we made some sense of the ways of this new world some of us took a bold step to get into the water.
We did not drown! Nor were we ridiculed. The worst that could happen was for people to just ignore you. And I do appreciated this fact in this new world – that the rules of engagement allow us to lurk, watch and feel comfortable before diving in.
But it still begs the question, why should anyone step into such a world? To answer this question, it helps to look at the interactions beyond the people level, to the knowledge level. Yes, it is often useful to know who said what, but in a way it is not that important in this new world because the knowledge in the space is shared. Something “A” says can be challenged by “C”, picked up by “P”, converted into a new form by “J”, combined with what “H” says, and finally summarized by “Q”. At the same time, 8 to 10 or more other knowledge threads may be spinning at the same time, some will fizzle out, some will be reinforced or consolidated, some will combine with other knowledge.
This rich weaving to produce new knowledge, is what some people call “emergence”. Where in the past knowledge came from a few experts, here knowledge comes from multiple parties interacting and creating together. In fact, the greater the number of participants the greater the possibility that chance encounters can take place to create and share knowledge – an effect known as Metcalfe’s Law. The knowledge passing around may not always be correct, but because it is screened through so many minds, after a while it is clear which knowledge resonates with most people. The paradox of this space is that through chaos emerges order and value. One might argue that there is order and value precisely because of chaos! I can feel myself starting to appreciate this space, and I’m sure it will be my first of more such chats.
As a final thought, a lot of these “non-conventions” lie at the heart of what we often perceive as generational gap or conflict. Much as some of us disdain the “distracted, multi-track attention span” of the Twitter generation, so did many in our parent generation cringe at the way we engaged in an almost hierarchy-less way. It occurred to me that while we often see things as wrong or right, these things that are today perceived as “unorthodox” may in time become the norm while the so-called “defenders of the standards” may in time become dinosaurs. Perhaps the best way to remain relevant in the rapidly changing world of knowledge is to be willing to be flexible in our ways and mental models.
P.S. – Kept dreaming of Twitter in my sleep last night! @_@