What endures? What remains?

A couple of weeks ago, several colleagues and I arranged a retirement dinner for my former Dean, Dr. Michael Tymchak. Michael was the Dean when I was hired at the Faculty of Education back in 1999, and I’ve worked with him in various roles over more than a decade. Michael is one of the most inspiring people I have ever worked and has done powerful work in our province in the areas of teacher education, northern & aboriginal education, and in the development of inclusive, community schooling.

At his retirement, Michael told a story about a recent visit to his family’s homestead. He recalled how as a child he would play and explore in and throughout the many buildings found on the farm – a complete universe through the eyes of youth. Now, with his return, the buildings are completely gone, the land is bare, and the farm is owned by another family. Yet, on this visit Michael dug through the dirt with his hands where he remembered the old landmarks. He tells of finding a perfume bottle, still intact, with a fragrance that triggered still more memories. He also found something he described as a ‘heel protector’, a device much more common at the time. Little things perhaps, but things once important, and at the time of Michael’s visit, enough evidence to trigger important questions, “What endures? What remains?”

I have been thinking about these questions since Michael shared them. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you – this is sure to be more of a ramble than a coherent progression of ideas.

For instance, I saw a post recently on Reddit that was simply titled “Life in Three Pictures“. While I have no idea who these two men are, how they may have lived, or the strength of their relationship, the three photos express so well the commonality of our lived experiences, our changing relationships, and our inevitable fate. But I’ll save those topics for another post.

Today, I discovered a photo (source) that made me think about these key questions a bit differently, more in-line with my work in developing & sustaining network interactions/communities.

Here, I saw the metaphor for so many abandoned online communities. This is MySpace and Friendster. And some day, this will be Facebook & Twitter. Online communities face the same inevitabilities as any other form of community.

This isn’t much of an ‘aha’. I assume that anyone who has studied or participated in online communities would quickly come to the same conclusion. Communities are hard to sustain and develop, and all communities have a finite life-span. So why write about this at all?

First, I think that examining the question “What endures?” is incredibly important for educators – and not simply for its philosophical relevance. Educators are designers. We design (learning) experiences and (hopefully) foster the development of communities for our learners. In these roles, what should we hope endures for our students? What will remain of these experiences? And what do we know will not?

And second, for us – those especially invested in social networks – I hope these questions increase our awareness of the depth and quality of our own connections. While I’ve spent the last decade studying and promoting the importance of ‘weak ties‘ for collaboration/cooperation, I would be the first to admit that such ties can be more practical than meaningful, and by definition, tenuous.

Finally, on the practical level – think about your own use and embeddedness in social networks. Say, if Twitter or Facebook were gone (or dramatically different) tomorrow, would the human connections that matter to you be easily rediscovered/re-formed elsewhere? Are your relationships platform-dependent? Is it time to increase the depth and quality of your social network relationships? And if so, how will you do this?

As expressed near the beginning of the post, these are mostly just rambling thoughts. Help me make sense of this. Your thoughts?

  • http://drawingsforjade.com/ Geoffery Kehrig

    Alec, my ramblings won’t clarify anything … I often have the same thoughts.

    As I age, I’m learning to understand and accept that everything and everyone will eventually be gone.

    Often, this makes me insecure.

    What’ll be our legacies? What’ll people remember about us — as individuals or teachers?

    Will it be a certain phrase or saying? A memorable story? A specific day? A photo? The clothes we wore? A nickname? Maybe it’s something we don’t want them to remember? (Ex. My receding hairline)

    Will my life have meaning for others?

    Regarding communities — I like to think they’re built on connections —possibly shared events, interests and perspectives.

    And as you noted — for communities to last — people or groups need to connect on deeper, emotive levels. Enduring communities are supportive, humorous, compassionate. They operate as a family. They make time for each other. They’re always there and they’ll always care.

    And, like a family, those people transform an empty structure into a home.

    The form of an on-line community (or any community) doesn’t matter as long as people continue to share and connect from one heart to another.

  • gs

    Great post Alec, your comments are so true. The connections we make are enduring and everlasting and built on shared interest and perspectives. This way of sharing connects online from the heart as enduring communities. Online communities are great for promoting critical thinking and shared learning from experiences.
    gs

  • Cathy Germano

    This post speaks to me about reflection. I believe it is human nature to want to reflect and I think people do that in all sorts of ways. Some people are fulfilled by facebook, others like Instagram, while others are caught up in Pinterest. People have different likes and preferences and I feel that is okay. For me, I am on Twitter because I value sharing and being a global citizen. If it went away tomorrow I would look for another way to reconnect/follow/learn from those who share in my same interests. It is the connection that I value in a person not the means that it was delivered by.

  • http://willrichardson.com Will Richardson

    Those photos were striking, and the questions are important.

    At some point, I would love to have a conversation with you around what happens to those for whom human connections in real space or online, strong or weak, are uncomfortable or exceedingly difficult. Are we saying that if we are unable to reach a certain “depth and quality” in that connection that the affordances of communities and networks are out of our reach? Will “success” more and more be predicated on our ability or even desire to network in meaningful ways? If so, what does that mean for the ways in which we raise our children? If not, where are the other entry points?

    And I guess the larger question is always to what end the investment in time and energy and emotion that we make? Is it different from the face to face investment?

    Safe travels to Australia. Will be tough to follow you at SLAV. ;0)

  • http://Techieang.edublogs.org Angie

    You asked, ‘Are your relationships platform dependent?’ That question made me reflect on my relationships. I have to say yes, there are some relationships that may disappear without Twitter. However, many of my meaningful collaborative relationships i have made have branched out to use multiple forms platforms for sustained relatiosnhps. This year I’ve used Twitter to make connections but then consolidated those connections through emails, Skype and face to face interactions. I’ve joined classrooms via Skype and I met some truly awesome people who were willing to share their thinking with our class. These connections might never have happened without Twitter. Perhaps Twitter is a means to facilitate interactions. Those who really want to branch out will find alternate ways to do so.

    On the flip side, I ran into a colleague at a union meeting who I hadn’t seen in five years. We set a date and had a dinner out together. Since then we have connected via email and now she has joined Twitter. We are getting together again on Monday for a mentoring session on iPad use and Twitter tips. Perhaps Twitter gives that quick burst of interactions that we can fit into our busy lives. Tweets have less commitment than an email yet can led us into alternate paths on our journey. Maybe Twitter provides the place to share our voice and connect with others. Twitter provides quick bits of information to keep us tied together. It’s not about the platform, it’s about ways to share and reflect. The platforms will change but hopefully the true bonds will remain.
    My thoughts,

    Angie

  • http://malyn.edublogs.org/ Malyn

    I accept that with my social networks, some relationships are transient and platform dependent as well as that connections vary in depth and breadth (also, purpose). This is what life is, isn’t it?

    People, individuals or communities, come and go in our lives. In terms of developing relationships, I think you said it best with “blurring the lines”. Awareness of transience can help drive this – making the most of the shared moments, so-to-speak.

  • http://lisahistory.net/wordpress Lisa M Lane

    Perhaps we focus too much on the spaces and artifacts instead of the people. If a network location disappears (MySpace, Facebook) it shouldn’t matter any more than if the local coffee house closes. You’ll meet somewhere else.

    And yet I have network friends who won’t use Facebook or won’t use Google, so I have to go where they are to keep the connections.

    There are certain people I’ve met online that I feel a closeness too, mostly because I’ve been open with them and they’ve been open with me and we like each other’s work or ideas or form of expression. Those seem to endure regardless of platform.

    My own work will endure because I try to ensure it will by keeping my own copies of most artifacts of I create. I can put them somewhere or nowhere.

    But my relationships with people are only partly dependent on me. It is a relationship. I may feel closer to someone than they feel to me, or vice versa. I may think something is worth the effort to endure, but the other person may not. And that’s no different than in any “real life” relationship.

  • http://www.jabizraisdana.com Jabiz Raisdana

    As someone who is relatively new to these online communities (4 years or so) my gut reaction is that I would be crushed if Twitter changed, because at the moment it is my most stable connector and the tool that brought me into the game.

    Having said that, the longer I connected and strengthen ties, the more I see that a core of people are on all my platforms and those people, I would easily find if Twitter ended tomorrow. These are the people I truly value and who matter to me. This is my community.

    One thing that is making things easier though is the wholesale movement of lists of users from platform to platform. For example: you can find all your Twitter friends on Instagram as soon as you sign up. This will help our communities migrant when the time comes to move. Sort of like digital nomads…woah. Let that blow your mind for a while.

  • http://Evenfromhere.org Clarence Fisher

    Back in the heady days of about 2007, when many 2.0 platforms were beginning to emerge, it was interesting to find many of the same people over and over again in different spaces and places. I know that I have made choices about platforms simply because my network was there. For example, I don’t think that’s twitter is inherently much better than plunk, but when I went there and looked around, that isnt where people were collecting, so I didn’t use the service. I think that as edtech networks have solidified (aged? Calcified?) we are currently platform dependent, but I also believe that I could get up and move someplace else when needed. Great post, powerful photos.

  • http://attheteachersdesk.blogspot.com William Chamberlain

    We are creating a huge legacy data base with our online interactions. As our technology becomes even more ubiquitous and our seeming lack of need for privacy increases I see even more data being gathered through the generations that follow. There will be a lot of data for sociologists and historians to sift through.

    With that being said, all this information we share or that is shared for us still will not capture our true inner selves. Only the most gifted artist or writer can come close to truly, honestly expressing who they are. Most of us won’t even try.

    In the end it comes down to who we are right now and what we do with it. Do the tools really matter anymore?

  • http://clintlalonde.net Clint Lalonde

    I’m rambling as well. Have typed and retyped this response 6 times in the last hour. Clearly, this has resonated :).

    I don’t know that we can (or should) define our relationships by the methods we use to mediate them. Relationships and communities come and go, ebb and flow. Some grow stronger over time, while others fade or burn out. If a relationship/community/network does not survive without the technology, then maybe it isn’t meant to survive and, actually, that is okay.

    I think back to my experiences at summer drama camp when I was a kid. For a couple of weeks each summer, this community would coalesce at a college campus in northern Alberta and, for a few short, intense weeks, we all learned together. Intense immersion.

    I no longer have any connection with any of those kids 30 years later, but still carry great memories of because we shared this very short, very intense experience. The fact that I have not maintained a connection with them hasn’t diminished my learning experience, or my memories of the camp and the people I shared the experience with.

    And that is what endures, what remains – memory. My memories. Memories of experiences, forged by some kind of emotional release associated with the experience. At least, this has been true from my own personal learning context. Nervousness. Excitement. Contentment. Happiness. Distress. Those moments when my body is “feeling” something is when I stop and ask questions about what is happening, and try to understand. It is in those heightened states of awareness and emotional engagement (positive and negative) which triggers reflection and cements experiences into memories.

    Memories endure and remain.

  • http://clintlalonde.net Clint Lalonde

    Geez, how rambling was my response? So much so that I didn’t include what got me commenting in the first place – a link to a piece on Spark this week about tangible artifacts. It’s a first person essay from a woman who discovered a box of her old love letters http://www.cbc.ca/video/player.html?clipid=2250865615&position=236331&site=cbc.news.ca (9 minutes)

  • Megan

    I just “found” you today and what a great post to read as an introduction. I think I have the reverse problem – I treasure and foster my real connections and I struggle with joining virtual networks to increase my networked connections. I found you through a circuitous path – I’m doing research for a paper and went to DML central and there was an article by Howard Rheingold about you, including an interview. So, now I am connected to you – you are part of my learning and understanding of virtual connections. As an educator, I will share your resources with my real network as I foster their increasing understanding of technology as a tool for collaboration and learning.

    Thank you.

  • Sue King

    I looked at your photo source when you first mentioned it – I think I followed the link from a ‘tweet’ of yours. Although I do not know you, I follow many of your links and find them inspiring & thought-provoking. I struggle with that aspect of on-line connections but have concluded it is no different than being inspired by writers whose work I follow but do not know personally. Perhaps we expect too much from on-line interactions.

    I love framing what we do in education with “what enures?” I just started a new job and began working with teachers on revising programs of instruction. That would be a very powerful framework for our work.

    As far as enduring aspects of relationships and communities I have been thinking about that a great deal – especially in the midst of a transition that was somewhat unexpected and also getting to that age where losing loved ones is a happening bit more frequently. I think I knew but never fully accepted that it takes time and effort to create and sustain healthy and enduring relationships – and to contribute to communities in meaningful ways. I have taken specific actions and re-prioritized in order to give the proper attention to people and things I value. In my work, I want the work I do and the way I interact with people to be a contribution to the way we value one another and most importantly our children. I am not too concerned with people remembering me per se – I just want my work to have made a positive impact in some way. I think I feel the same way with my contributions “on-line” and with my on-line communities.

    I love that this post was still here and still relevant for me several months after you wrote it! That is an aspect of endurance I guess – something else for me to ponder for my own writing!