How to cultivate a personal learning network: Tips from Howard Rheingold

personal learning network

If you cultivate your social media relationships with care, you can develop a personal learning network that will put you in contact with a steady stream of valuable ideas. So says Howard Rheingold, a critic, writer, and teacher who specializes in researching and sharing his findings on the cultural, social and political implications of modern communication.

Rheingold has spent a lot of time thinking about the ways in which people network and share ideas online. He even offers an online course called the Social Media Classroom on the most productive ways to use these online tools. In a recent Twitter conversation, he laid out 8 key thoughts on how to build your own personal learning network from your social media channels. Here they are, along with my thoughts on each:

1. Explore: It’s not just about knowing how to find experts, co-learners, but about exploration as invitation to serendipitous encounter.

Whether you’re viewing the latest posts to the social media channels in which you participate or conducting a Google search, be open to encountering ideas and new knowledge that you didn’t expect to find. This happens all the time for me; the bits and pieces of information I discover online take my thinking in exciting new directions, and force me to ask, “How can I use this?” and “What does this mean to me?” It never fails to challenge my thinking. Rheingold’s advice is well taken here. You need to be open: To new people, opportunities, possibilities, to knowledge.

2. Search – Use Diigo, delicious, listorious, to find pools of expertise in the fields that interest you.

The tools that Rheingold describes in this tweet enable you to capture what you’ve found for your own personal reference (Diigo, a browser plug-in that enables you to capture web pages and portions of them), for sharing with others (delicious, a social sharing tool) and for finding relevant Twitter lists and subject matter experts in your areas of inquiry (listorious). Your goal is to identify people and potential sources you can add to your personal knowledge network.

3. Follow candidates through RSS, Twitter. Ask yourself over days, weeks, whether each candidate merits continued attention

Once you’ve identified people who are posting information that appears to be relevant to your areas of intererst, follow them. Add them to your network. This is the only way you can vett them, to determine if they are worthy members of your network. Analyze the quality of their social media posts. What is their point of view? Is the information they’re posting accurate? Are they focused or scattershot? What is the “signal to noise ratio” of their feed? In other words, out of everything they post, how much useful information?

4. Always keep tuning your network, dropping people who don’t gain sufficiently high interest; adding new candidates

That’s the beautiful thing about many of the social networks: You can not only see what your new-found online friends are posting, but you often get exposed to the ideas of their friends as well. Look for interesting people you can add to your personal network. At the same time, cull those who seem to be posting too much “noise” and not enough “signal.” It’s like an old analog radio, with a tuning dial. When you tuned in a radio station, you had to slowly move the tuner knob until the radio station was strongest and the static was the least. The same goes for “tuning” your personal knowledge network.

I follow about 900 people on Twitter. But I’ve developed a list I call “rockstars” who consistently provide the best ideas and resources in their feeds. That’s the tweetstream I visit first, because that’s where I’ll find the best stuff in the least amount of time. Next, I view the topical searches I have set up, looking for gold among the dross. Then finally, if time permits, I’ll view my entire Twitter feed. That’s how I get the most out of my time on Twitter.

If you treat social media strictly as a numbers game, following thousands or tens of thousands of random people in hopes they’ll follow you back, then you’ll end up with an incoming feed that is so filled with useless “noise” that you won’t stand a chance of finding the needle in the haystack, the great idea you can use to help fuel your next project or to solve a vexing problem you face. Sure, you can brag about having a gargantuan follower count, but how valuable is it, really?

5. Feed the people you follow if you come across information that you suspect would interest them.

This step is critical to relationship building within your social media channels. As you begin to understand what motivates some of the key people you follow, you will naturally encounter nuggets of information that may be of value to them. Make the first move. Share it with them. That increases the odds that they’ll share good stuff with you. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. It’s just like in real life: If you’re open and generous, you’ll tend to build more and better relationships than if you’re stingy and selfish. So be proactive – share FIRST. Don’t wait for someone you’re connected with to share something with you.

6. Engage the people you follow. Be polite, mindful of making demands on their attention. Put work into dialogue if they welcome it. Thank them for sharing.

Tools like Twitter and Google+ aren’t just a powerful “radar” for discovering great ideas and
sharing cool resources with others. They’re also a platform for dialogue and discussion, going beyond information exchanges into deeper levels of communication – sharing insights and experiences. Rheingold reminds us to be kind and show gratitude; please and thank you count even more in cyperspace, where we can’t see our colleauges face-to-face.

7. Inquire of the people you follow, of the people who follow you. But be careful. Ask engaging questions – answers shd be useful to others

Rheingold emphasizes once again that there should be a productive give and take. Give value, receive value. If all you do it take information from others, or give them cursory bits of attention and throw-away answers, people won’t want to engage with you. If we don’t feel valued in a relationship, online or offline, we’ll take our time, attention and ideas and focus them elsewhere. It’s human nature. Being mindful of being useful to others helps to ensure that we build mutually productive and gratifying relationships in our social channels.

8. Respond to inquiries made to you. Contribute to both diffuse reciprocity and quid pro quo

Pay it forward. Be the kind of person that you’d like others to be. Set a good example and influence others, so they’re more likely to do the same for you. The same rules that we’ve all heard about writing effective e-mails applies just as much if not more in social channels:

  • Beware of unintentionally sounding curt or sarcastic.
  • Watch your tone and tenor.
  • Remember, these electronic communication channels are missing the non-verbal elements of communication. The other person can’t see your eyes or expression, and so they can’t make judgments about how you’re reacting to what they’re saying. So they interpret your words, and that can lead to trouble if you’re not careful.

By reminding us to respond to inquiries, Rheingold is also encouraging us not to ignore others. We hate to be ignored. So don’t do it to others. Ignorance doesn’t build relationships; it destroys them. People won’t share their ideas and insights with you if they think you’re an asshole.

Howard Rheingold is a fascinating guy. He’s been exploring and writing about online communication since the early days of The Well, an online community that predates the web. He done some things in his life that in have given him an incredible worldview on modern communications, and he is quite generous in his engagements with others. He practices what he preaches. I’ve been impressed with him, and I think you will be, too! I’m seriously thinking about investing in his online research course. Here’s how you can engage with him online:


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