Building a PLN requires that we determine our own value-add. What do we bring to the conversations we are exloring? Networks are built on value, both what we take and what we add. At first, we may be more interested in taking value from the work of others on the Net who are exploring topics that interest us, but that is only half a network, with value flowing only in toward us. If we want a vibrant, lively, sustainable PLN, then we must add value back to the Net. This is very important. A node that adds no value to the Net will eventually be ignored, dropped, isolated, and in a network structure, an isolated node is a dead node. Connectivity between you and others requires that you add value. You must bring something to the conversation, or eventually, people will quit talking to you.
So how do you add value to the Net, thus increasing your own PLN? There are more ways to add value than anyone of us will become accomplished with, but you begin with your own interests and with your familiarity with the various Web 2.0 tools. If you are interested in writing, then you could consider building a blog, such as this one. There's a huge network of over 126 million blogs out on the Net for you to fit into and a variety of blogging tools such as Blogger, Wordpress, and Posterous. It's a rich environment, but it is far from the only one.
The Upside Learning Solutions Blog has a fine image that captures just a bit of the range of tools available for constructing a vibrant PLN:
Are you interested in building a PLN that gathers, vetts, and shares online information? Then look into RSS readers such as Google Reader, Bloglines, or Newsgator and consider social bookmarking tools such as Diigo and Delicious.
Want to build networks not around the written word but around images and videos? Then consider image sharing tools such as Picasa, Photobucket, and Flickr and video sharing tools such as YouTube and Vimeo. Again, this is a very rich environment, with YouTube alone serving up over one billion videos per day. You can find a place for your interests, whatever they are.
Want to host your own talk show? Then consider podcasting tools such as iTunes, Audacity, and Winamp. Your thoughts about the role of Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the rhizome in modern social networks can sit on iTunes along with lectures by professors from Berkeley, MIT, and Oxford. It's a very rich environment with lots of room for you.
Want to talk face-to-face with people? Then look into video-conferencing tools such as Google Chat, Skype, DimDim, or one of the instant messengers. There are millions of people out there who are also looking for someone like you to talk to. You can connect.
Want to connect through a game? As too often happens in the serious world of education, business, and government, games are overlooked as valid tools for connectivity and collaboration. Note that they don't have a place in the pretty graphic above, but games are serious business, so consider World of Warcraft, Battlefied 2, or Second Life. They all have millions of online players, and they have proven both their entertainment value and their connectivity value. Many major universities are holding online classes in Second Life, and BestBuys' Geek Squad unit uses BF2 to facilitate online connectivity among its agents. In the book Wikinomics, Tapscott and Williams include an account from Geek Squad founder Robert Stephens about how his geeks were self-organizing themselves through BF2 even as he was trying to create a sophisticated company wiki to help keep them organized:
Then one day Stephens asked a deputy director of counterintelligence at corporate how things were going in the field. “I worry about those agents in Anchorage, Alaska,” he said. “There’s about twenty of them there, and I worry about them staying connected to the mission.” The deputy director said to Stephens, “Oh, those Anchorage guys, I talk to them all the time.”
Curious, Stephens prodded him to reveal more details. So the deputy director sheepishly told him that they all play Battlefield 2 online. “With each server you can have 128 people simultaneously fighting each other in a virtual environment,” said the director. “We wear headsets and use Ventrilo software so that we can talk over the Internet while we are running around fighting.” Stephens, who now joins in himself from time to time, says the agents taunt each other, saying, “Hey, I see you behind the wall. But then, you know, while we’re running along with the squadron with our rifles in our hands, one of the agents behind me will be like, ‘Yeah, we just hit our revenue to budget,’ and somebody else will be like, ‘Hey, how do you reset the password on a Linksys router?’ ”
Stephens was aghast when he first learned of the agent’s antics. “I just stood there in the hallway going, ‘Oh my God,’ I’m sitting here trying to build this shiny playground with all these tools for collaboration and I failed to notice what the agents were already doing. While I had my head down doing this in preparation to open the wiki’s floodgates, the agents had self-organized online in probably the most effective and efficient collaborative tool that’s already out there.”
Stephens says that the agents now have up to 384 colleagues simultaneously playing at any one time. “They’re talking and they’re hanging out, and often they’re talking shop and swapping tips,” Stephens said. Geek Squad agents had just unofficially added another collaboration tool to the palette. Stephens says the experience changed his thinking completely. “Instead of trying to set an agenda,” he said, “I’m now going to try and discover their agenda, and serve it.” Stephens even muses that he may get the agents to hack Battlefield 2 into a Geek Squad video game that he can use for training and recruitment.
There are more tools, but you get the idea, so I'll conclude with some good news and some better news and some best news: The good news is that Web 2.0 has an incredibly wide range of tools that will help you create and navigate a vibrant PLN. The better news is that most of them are free and rather easy to use. The best news is that you need use only a few of them.
For instance, I have built my own PLN with just a few tools:
- a blog (Google Blogger),
- an RSS reader to track online information (Google Reader),
- a social bookmarking tool to capture, annotate, and share online information (Diigo), and
- a wiki to include others in building new information (Google Sites).
On reflection, I notice that I left out email, but I think I'll leave it out. Email is so standard, so expected, that it is hardly worth noting, though that doesn't mean that it is not important. It is.