If it’s in The Economist…

…it must be mainstream…social networking that is. 

At end January, 2010 The Economist ran a “special report” on all things social (A World of Connections, 2010 – first section available free online) and the Economist only runs a special report if something is big and important. 

But what, you may ask, has social got to do with eLearning?  As it turns out, everything, because people are social creatures.  We live socially and we learn socially.  We like to get together and share things; knowledge and ideas as well as news and gossip.   In this century we are likely to be more isolated in our individual dwellings than at any previous point in history and many people have (at best) only a small physical community.  However, for many people, their real community is online, the virtual world where they reside at least for some of each day (White, 2008).   Facebook (and other similar networking sites like MySpace, Twitter and LinkedIn) have become the new “village well” or “village square” – a place where we can go (anytime, anywhere) to catch up with news and gossip but also with the latest ideas, thinking , learning.  And we are not passive in these spaces; we contribute as much or more than we consume.  In short, these are places where we learn…about ourselves, our community, and our world.

This special report from The Economist provides an overview of social networking and what it means, both for business and for our world culture – it’s the big picture and touches only briefly on social learning.  I chose to share it as a resource because for eLearning people the facts and sentiments presented here are important, if not vital. 

Facebook now has over half a billion followers and, according to Facebook, is growing by 600,000 new users a day.    One billion Facebook chat messages are sent per day.  If Facebook were a nation, it would be the third largest in the world, after China and India, and boasts almost half of India’s population…far larger than the USA.  YouTube is serving up to 1 billion video hits per day.  Twitter tweets go out at the rate of 50 million Tweets per day.  Compared to Facebook and YouTube, Twitter is small fry…still, compared to traditional media, the numbers are huge.  (All facts and figures are from Read Write Web, 2010).  Interestingly, Australians are top in the world for time spent on social sites.  (Does our great distance and physical isolation from the rest of the world drive us online to connect?)

Something for educators to consider: the popularity of Facebook has made more and more of us into content providers – collaboratively contributing to the millions of images, words and designs hosted online.   For example, 2.5 billion photos are posted to Facebook each month.   This kind of activity represents a changing culture in which we are no longer happy to be mere consumers of information but are involved in creating it, representing a shift from hierarchically managed content, to collaboratively created consumer content (creating what Bruns, 2007, refers to as “Generation C” for content, creativity,control [over content], celebrity, cash!)  Facebook developers and “friends” have designed over 500,000 apps which are free to Facebook members.  Twitter, while less than three years old, has 50,000 related apps already.

But it’s not all success stories.  MySpace was in the ascendency long before Twitter but began to decline after being bought out by News Corp, suffering from that organisation’s demanding revenue targets.  According to The Economist many of the new “advertising features” had nothing to do with member’s interests.  It could be said that as demonstrated in this forum alone, News Corp has entirely missed the point of social media.

Twitter on the other hand continues to increase (there was a 1,382%  increase in Twitter membership between February 2008 and February 2009).  Twitter behaves differently to Facebook in that it is more about information than personal news and while photo links are often posted, we have different relationships on Twitter.  I don’t have to be your “friend” to follow you.  I  can follow you because I’m interested in your work, or your research (for example, I follow Gilly Salmon, Howard Rheingold, Anne Bartlett-Bragg and Mollybob, among others).

The Economist report also covers the “enterprise 2.0” or social business angle and gives some thought-provoking examples of how even very small businesses can use social networking to their advantage, as well as the ways in which large business uses social business technologies to connect employees, encourage collaboration and connections, as well as monitoring (and responding to) customer issues and complaints online.  The report also looks at the vexed issue of privacy, and how we are culturally adapting to a whole new set of values, online.

I believe this report is a must-read for educators.  Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube and LinkedIn are not going to go away.  In fact, they are growing at exponential rates.  So, the old adage applies; if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, for this is where the future lies.


Bruns, Axel (2007) “The Future Is User-Led: The Path towards Widespread Produsage.” Paper presented at PerthDAC conference, Perth, Western Australia, 15-18 Sep. 2007.

White, Dave (2008) Not ‘Natives’ & ‘Immigrants’ but ‘Visitors’ & ‘Residents’ accessed online 25/3/10 at http://tallblog.conted.ox.ac.uk/index.php/2008/07/23/not-natives-immigrants-but-visitors-residents/ 


Following up from this, I spent all of yesterday at a Social Business conference hosted by Headshift in Sydney.  We explored many of the same topics touched on by The Economist but instead of just explaining it, we were doing it (sharing case studies, asking questions, sharing tips, and exploring new tactics for everything from sales to recruitment, from collaboration to communication).  A very inspiring and exciting day.  Search Twitter #sbs2010 for some comments from the conference.