The ripple effect

Anyone who is interested in the social media phenomenon would be very interested to read this from Abday Adhikari, writing in the Guardian:

Every time we publish information on the internet, we are effectively starting a conversation, because people can respond or react to it. However, we are also speaking to a vast, unknown audience and it is easy to get lost in the crowd.

Adhikari is right of course. Anything that is posted on the social web can be seen and read by others, but can also spread more widely than it could by the sole efforts of the author. Those involved in this dissemination can be producers as well as consumers of the content, but as James Slevin (2002) suggests, the basis is almost always dialogical in nature. That is why social networking tools are so powerful and if used appropriately, can have such a positive impact on learning. Much of what we learn, we learn within a social context, through dialogue. We synthesise our beliefs, knowledge and understanding of the world through constant exposure to the ideas of others. Our own views can be modified if others are convincing enough, but we in turn also have the power to persuade others. This process of negotiation often changes individuals, but can sometimes change an entire community, as new collective meaning emerges from the dialogue. A 'wisdom of the crowd' emerges, as each individual member of the network applies his or her own personal expertise and tacit, specific knowledge to solve a generic problem (Surowiecki, 2009)

The power of the network resides not only in the sheer strength of its numbers, but also in its public reach. Howard Rheingold makes an important point when he declares that everyone who wants to be, is on the stage, all are in the audience, and everyone can be a critic (Rheingold, 1993). Most importantly though, the potency of the network is often experienced most visibly in its ability to adapt or change its focus. This process occurs through large numbers of sustained discussions between individual members within a network, and then spreads outward in a gradually activating wave like ripples from a stone cast into a pond. Shirky (2008) says that we now have communication tools that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities. We are susceptible to force of the ripple effect, but direction changes can be made if the network requires them. We can take any number of pathways, but essentially, as those pathways become well trodden, they strengthen and provide more value to the network (see Clark, 2003).

When we post content to the social web we are performing our ideas to a vast and unseen audience. We create the opportunity for dialogue. We increase the likelihood for conversation. I don't know who will read this. But what I do know, is that anyone who reads this and has further ideas or alternative perspectives is free to post their comments to this blog for all to see. Who responds next is up for grabs. It might be me, but sometimes, someone else may get in first to offer their support, rebuttal or alternative comments. That is what makes the social web such a fertile place for the creation of good ideas, and re-negotiation of meaning, but also for conjecture, speculation, rumour trading, and a whole host of other distributed thinking. Some of it is to be avoided, but there is also a treasure trove of great ideas and content out there just waiting to be found, discussed and repurposed. Social media amplify and spread ideas, much further than the reach of any single producer, and I know this: The power of this ripple effect will inevitably increase as networks strengthen, and extend their reach.

Clark, A. (2003) Natural Born Cyborgs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rheingold, H. (1993) The Virtual Community. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Shirky, C. (2008) Here Comes Everybody. London: Penguin.
Slevin, J. (2002) The Internet and Society. London: Polity Press.
Surowiecki, J. (2009) The Wisdom of Crowds. London: Abacus.

Image by Seriu Bacioiu

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The ripple effect by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Liz FitzGerald said…
I like the idea that you can measure your online influence - although less convinced that they work or that anyone takes them seriously - anyone else used them at all?
Examples mentioned at
Justin Cometti said…
Hello Steve,

My name is Justin Cometti and I am a student in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama. I will be following your blog for the next week and I will be summarizing your post in my EDM 310 class blog by October 22.

I have to admit that I was completely unaware of the educational opportunities available through social media. Prior to my EDM 310 class, I thought social media was just a way to keep up with friends, post pictures, and gossip. The misconceptions I had are the reason I avoided the use of online social medias until recently.

You brought up a simple point that I am not sure why I never considered. You say, "We increase the likelihood for conversation." This is important to me because I once had a professor tell us, "True education is simply the exchange of ideas." I believe this to be true, and therefore it is necessary to increase the likelihood of ideas being exchanged in conversation. I have a firmer understanding of the importance and specifically the potential power of social media now.

Do you worry at all about the loss of privacy from having all of our information easily accessible on the web?


Justin Cometti
Steve Wheeler said…
Hi Justin. Thanks for dropping by and commenting. In answer to your question on privacy, I made the conscious decision to 'put my stuff out there' online right from the start. The content I make available largely reflects my professional persona and my own research. My family life and other 'back stage' activities (e.g pics, conversations) can always be mediated using privacy settings. Or, in some instances, I simply choose not to post information that is of a private nature.

My best regards to all students on EDM310 - sounds like a fun program!
Anonymous said…
Steve, this post really connects for me. Over the summer I had an unexpected revelation-light-bulb moment when I suddenly realized that all of this e-learning, social networking, media texts - it's all about building relationships.

Contrary to some folks' thinking that the internet means that all our kids are going to spend their entire days playing video games online with no human contact, my students spend their days connecting and interacting with others they know, and new people they meet - they seek connections and relationships!
My own use of social media is in fact all about connecting and relationships - and yes, I never know what kind of conversation is going to end up or even if there will be one. But I'm an adult, and I feel confident and competent in managing whatever connections are made or not made.

So I think that the parents of my Gr 7 students are justifiably concerned about the "public reach" aspect that you mention for their kids. But in this rapidly changing world, I think that that's the very heart of our responsibility as adults -- to learn and understand it ourselves, and then to help our kids learn to manage it too. People who resist and shut the online world out completely because the ripple effect could be dangerous leave me very scared for their kids. There are increasing numbers of social network tools for kids to use where they can learn the skills they'll need as adults to handle this, but as yet, few teachers and parents appear to be aware of them.

More conversations needed!!
Hello Steve,

great post! Everyone sees the potential of online communities but the problem is that most of the people are more "takers" than "givers". They only share when they want something in exchange. I'm sure that you monitor number of visits on your blog. How many of them include comments? Is it a lack of visitors knowledge and experience? Maybe. But where is the curiosity?
Steve Wheeler said…
Hi Bartłomiej, and thanks for your comment and question. I do have metrics for visitors, which averages out on this blog at about 50,000 each month. Only a very small percentage actually comment, but more are engaging with the content in other ways. Often I see my posts mirrored and embedded in other blogs, or in some cases commented upon against excerpts from a blog post I have written. The ultimate I think, is when someone translates one of my posts in to another language to open up a new audience for the conversation.
Marian Casey said…
Hi Steve,
I really enjoyed your analogy of how conversations we put out there in the social sphere are like ripples in a pond. In effect, something or someone is changed by the sharing of our thoughts and opinions online.
I wonder if conversations/interactions online can be subject to groupthink. Does the power or voices of many overshadow this phenomenon online?

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