Sociality en leren in social software

IJKLNaast de verbouwing heb ik afgelopen tijd een bijdrage geleverd aan een artikel dat momenteel ter review ligt bij de International Journal of Knowledge and Learning. Dit artikel heb ik samen met Tim Hoogenboom, Rene Jansen en Wim Bouman geschreven en beschrijft twee kritieken op de huidige benadering van web2.0 of social software diensten.

De huidige generatie tools blijken namelijk wel de naam ‘social’ te dragen, maar hanteren daarin een relatief nauwe betekenis van het begrip sociaal. Voorts is het de vraag of social software niet teveel leunt op marktgeoriënteerde transacties, in plaats van het hele spectrum aan governance structuren te faciliteren, zoals bureaucratieën, markten, fiefs en clans (Boisot, 1999). Daarom tracht ons artikel een theorie te formuleren die sociaal leren rondom technologische objecten ondersteund, door uit te gaan van de design principles van Wenger (1998) en de Social Learning Cycle van Boisot (1999);

Tim Hoogenboom heeft de tekst online gezet, dus die kan ik hier overnemen.

Abstract: This article seeks to provide a theoretical fundament for social learning with regard to current social software or web2.0 services. The article departs from two criticisms on current manifestations of social software, namely that it is biased towards market-organizing and that it lacks a social theory of learning. By using the social learning cycle of Boisot (1999) and the learning architecture of Wenger (1998) we aim to provide a structure that guides the design of social software. The objective of these design principles is to aspire object-centred sociality and a more social approach to learning within social software.

1. Introduction

In this article we explore the relationship between social software and social learning. We do this by theorizing about design principles within social software to achieve object-centered sociality and learning.

Recently, a new wave of software inundated the Internet under the denominator web2.0 or in academic contexts defined as social software. Social software is very hard to pinpoint because of its multifarious manifestations, but their common denominator is their dependency on interactive processes and networks (Bryant, 2006). This interaction is mainly facilitated by a transition from supply driven to demand driven, in which user-generated content is prevailing. Renowned web 2.0 services are social bookmarking, like Del.Icio.Us, blogging, such as Blogger and wiki’s, such as Wikipedia. Social bookmarking facilitates online sharing, tagging and commenting of favourite hyperlinks. Blogging makes it possible to maintain an online journal on which others can comment, which can initiate prosperous discussions. Finally, wiki’s are collaborative writing instruments. Derivatives integrate sharing of photos, music, or videos, but their joint keynote lies in one of these three ancestors noted above. These services and their offspring generated considerable media attention and still claim an ever expanding user base.

Social software in any form relates to social learning. Early social learning theories posit that people learn from observing other people (Bandura, 1977). Contemporary social learning theories, like situated learning, focus on the act of participating and belonging to situated practices of a community (Wenger, 1998). Learning by groups and their members is dependant on the social structure they belong to and the experiences their members bring along. The act of learning is also influenced by members’ active participation in practices that let them engage with the world around them. The act of participation entails the negotiation of ways of being a person within a certain context context, that invariably affects the formation of identities and learning. These components of learning can be integrated in a framework, in which social learning is located in the intersection of both extremes (see figure 1). Characteristic of social learning is its transient character, in which members move from the boundary of a group to the core, and the other way around, based on their participation within that community. These boundary trajectories are denoted as legitimate peripheral participation, and constitute the fundaments of social learning.

Increasingly, the learning capabilities of social software are getting more attention in scientific literature (Dalsgaard, 2006; Alexander, 2006; Downes, 2005; Williams and Jacobs, 2004). Our paper addresses two criticisms about the extent to which social software is equipped to support social learning processes, and what design principles could enable these processes.

Figure 1 – Components of social learning theory

2 . Two Criticisms on Social Software

It appears that every day social software services are launched by unknown parties, that all gain massive media exposure on the internet. Monitoring sites, like Webcrunch, report on new infants of the web2.0 family every single day. And although array of websites and services that comprise the social software concept lacks a solid definition or demarcation, social software services can be identified quite uniquely. The common denominator of all social software services is their underlying social network (Gorrisen, 2006). The value of social networks in organizational settings is already broadly accepted (Granovetter, 1982; Cross and Parker, 2004; Burt, 2004), and now with the rise of social software, some claim that socially connecting isolated users is becoming possible. Increasingly, the learning capabilities of social software are getting more attention. Various scholars claim that social software supports learning (Dalsgaard, 2006; Alexander, 2006; Downes, 2005; Williams and Jacobs, 2004), however a learning theory that is social in nature supporting this claim is currently lacking. Therefore, our article departs from two major criticisms on social software theory and practices.

The first criticism is that the driving forces behind social software are mainly its (hidden) social networking processes, but its current manifestations predominantly follow a market-oriented approach (Boisot, 1999). One would expect social software to reflect the rich and ambiguous nature of social networking processes, clans and communities. In practice, this seems not the case. The logic of the gift (Boisot, 1999) is often blurred by formal mechanisms, such as profile based identities and transaction based interaction. Our second hypothesis is therefore that these discrepancies can be avoided by paying equal attention to all governance varieties and their transactions by addressing all phases of Boisot’s social learning cycle.

The second criticism is that social software in general seems to build from a rather naïve, individualistic, generative theory of learning. We hold that a complex, social reality such as is meant to be facilitated by social software like, FlickR and Swivel is more effectively described and understood by a social theory of learning. Kloos (2006) concluded that current social software does not equally support the design principles of Wenger. By exploring these designing-for-learning principles in more depth, we criticize the alleged social nature of social software, and argued how social software could be enhanced to support the work of engagement, imagination and alignment to honour social learning processes. Following this criticism, we state our first hypothesis: The design principles of situated learning, imagination, alignment and engagement (Wenger, 1998), should all be addressed in order for social software to achieve a truly social nature.

In the remainder of the article we will address both the criticisms and hypotheses to elaborate design principles that could render sociality within social software. Therefore we explain how social software should incorporate different transactional functionalities according to its susceptible governance structure.

3. Market Bias on Social Software

The first criticism is that social software is biased towards markets. And if we want to support learning in various contexts by social software, we need to acknowledge that a ‘one size fits all’ philosophy does not fit. We need to appreciate the distinctive features of organizations, like organizational structures, processes, evolving maturities, cultures and transactions in order to support social learning. We argued earlier that social software’s viability lies in its social network. Human networking literature sees networking as a combination as informational and personal attention (Nardi, Whittaker and Schwarz, 2002). To relate the position of social networking, social learning and social software to each other, we will use the social learning cycle of Boisot (1998; see figure 2).

The social learning cycle describes the successive movement of knowledge through the information space. The information space is a conceptual framework through which the behaviour of knowledge can be explored. The social learning cycle can be applied to various context, to help us understand how organizations can be supported by knowledge, what type of processes are needed, en how we attain higher maturity levels.

Current social software focuses predominantly making available rather explicit information to a large audience. This information can be enriched by adding multimedia, comments and tags. Transactions are rather homogenous and anonymous in their looks and application. Although their rich variety of manifestions, blogs, wiki’s and social bookmarking tools offer rather simple integration and publication mechanisms of explicit knowledge. The inherent transaction-based nature of social software inclines towards a market-oriented focus, instead of the richer structures of communities and clans. The social learning cycle in figure 2 identifies social services as diffusion-focussed.

The fact that social software is market oriented is rather paradoxical, because the market bias hinders efficient ‘social networking processes’ (see figure 2, B). Besides, object centered learning is not fostered by adapting a market or network approach, but by facilitating the spectrum of knowledge movements along the complete social learning cycle simultaneously. The challenge is thus to acknowledge design principles to foster rich learning objects, instead of the rather naïve learning endeavours in supports currently.

The social learning cycle illustrates that knowledge moves along three axes, and that learning systems should not only support learning of ‘textbook knowledge’, but also learning within the rather chaotic region of the information space. In this region knowledge is rather conceptual, not yet codified and generalized. To shift from a transaction based approach to a networking based approach, social software should support negotiation of meaning of knowledge and apply it to various contexts. However over time, due to recurrent transactional patterns members within that network should be ‘able to get to know and trust each other’ (Boisot, 1998, p.226). A more dense relationship also brings along knowledge flows that rely on more informal and qualitative interaction, which calls for boundary trajectories as described earlier. Although social software pays a great deal to creative find-ability, and thus search-ability, of its content and it gives users a vote in presenting and ordering this information, the focus is still on he object of the relation, instead of the relation itself (Gal, Yoo and Boland, 2004). Alleged social systems as LinkedIn do focus mainly on these relationships, however they neglect its boundary objects-in-practice (Levina and Vaast, 2005) or a shared mutual interest (like an employer, an interest or profession) which can be limitedly expressed via bookmarks, classifications, or tags. In this phase the modes of belonging by Wenger (1998) could offer help, by offering facilities for alignment (to create a social structure), imagination (to walk off beaten tracks) and engagement (to actively negotiate meaning).

Figure 2 – The social learning cycle enclosed in the information space

A higher order in supporting learning is when next to knowledge explication and social interaction, the practices of small groups of users are facilitated. Boisot (1999) denotes this next order as ‘community processes’ (see figure 2, C), in which members of the community are facilitated in their collective learning that result in “practices that reflect both the pursuit of our enterprises and the attendant social relations” (Wenger, 1998, p.45). Communities are social structures that serve as active frameworks to guide negotiation, meaning, and creation of (new) knowledge. When sojourning in the lower regions of the information space both question and answers to retrieve knowledge are rather fuzzy. In order to alleviate this phase, social software should be equipped with mechanisms to address the three generic information problems that hamper fluent knowledge transfer (Huizing and Bouman, 2002). These are; firstly finding the right source, secondly knowing how to acquire knowledge, and thirdly interpreting and translating the acquired knowledge within a unique social practice. None of the three problems are completely absent in the current market-oriented social software, however in these structured environments the context for interpreting knowledge is relatively stable and univocal. In order to attain these community processes it’s suggested to facilitate rich and interactive meeting points in which users and members can actively participate in shared interests. And in order for knowledge to be appropriated it’s necessary to make it applicable to a wider context.

This movement along the social learning cycle takes us from community processes to the last type of processes; team processes (see figure 2, D), in which practices are structured and formalized to appropriate its value efficiently.

By moving along the various processes, organizational, network, community and team, we moved along the social learning cycle and theorized how social software can be enriched to achieve a more social approach to learning. And although the current market bias of social software isn’t harmful or wrong, it is rather limited. An evolution along the more chaotic and personal regimes of the information space (lower left and right) can foster both its learning and its acceptation within a wider range of organizations. What’s more the social learning cycle can help us to evolve and understand social software. For example, social software hasn’t yet been incorporated in many bureaucratic organizations, and still lingers in the public stratospheres. This is because current web2.0 services lack control over its diffusion. Bureaucracies (located at the higher left region of the information space) have a tendency to control their explicit knowledge, in order for it to be appropriable. More specifically this means in case of Del.Icio.Us, that internal tags identifying bookmarks should refer to cross-boundary information, available on the World Wide Web, without facilitating the opposite.

The last thing to note is that social learning is a continuous process that avails on integrating various mechanisms for learning. Thus for social software to achieve object-centered social learning it needs to address all corner of the information space to facilitate the social learning cycle completely. More explicitly, Boisot (1999) speaks of linkages that integrate various technical systems in order to maximally exploit its collectively stored knowledge.

4. Lacking Social Learning Theory

In the first criticism we addressed how social software could be of use to a wider variety of contexts, by addressing various types of organizational forms and processes. The second criticism goes into more detail on how social software can be designed to attain a more social way of learning.

Current scientific literature puts more and more emphasis on learning as a social process. Social theories on learning postulate that learning is based on social processes of negotiation of meaning (Wenger, 1998). With the advancements in social software negotiation of meaning is coming more and more to the fore, and with it objects that appear to facilitate learning. Nonetheless, we need to understand what makes objects social, in order to understand the concept of ‘social’ learning. Therefore we will explore the concept of sociality, in order to advance social learning. The concept of sociality addresses our first criticism, in that we have a scrupulous attitude against the alleged social character of web2.0. Therefore we will explore various views on how sociality is construed. From these views we will advance how object sociality can be realized, in order to organize learning around technological objects, especially social software. Hereafter we will explore how social learning within social software can be designed by means of the learning framework of Wenger.

4.1 On the concept of sociality

Sociality is a derivative of biological anthropology practices, to understand how creatures organize their relations. Human sociality is thus about how actors relate to each other to organize their social practices and construe their identities (Fiske, 1998). What defines a person’s sociality can be viewed from many angles. Wenger (1998) ascribes sociality to the level of participation and belonging by individuals within a community of practice and vice versa. He observed that learning is situated and takes place in the thick of ongoing practice. Nardi, Whittaker and Schwarz (2002) state that sociality is organized by an individual’s intensional network. Intensional networks are the personal social networks workers draw from and collaborate with to get work done. They describe how intensional networks are always in an ongoing process of constitution through acts of remembering and communicating. Wittel (2001) attributes sociality solely to networks and even excludes communities as relational objects. He defines sociality as a matrix of social relations, that are fleeting and transient, intense, but under more dynamic processes of construction and deconstruction, while Wenger defines sociality with a more permanent character. Wittel thus disagrees with Wenger, in that community-based sociality has an affiliative character (legitimate peripheral participation) and network-based sociality has a rather nomadic character.

The current overview expresses that sociality is not so much based on the object of relation between persons, but rather on the capability that facilitate intense interactions between persons. Sociality is thus based on “mobility and speed” to fulfil a situated need, “which lead to a shift from a narrative or experience-based sociality to an informational sociality” (Wittel, 2001, p.68). This ephemeral sociality is mainly technology driven, however current social software is largely narrative based like blogging or static like social bookmarking or networking, which go against the volatile nature of modern concepts of sociality. Similar to Wittel’s example about business cards, the same goes for social software, in that it uses simple categorization, instead of matching patterns to create relevant results (Wittel, 2001). Besides, social software formalizes relationships, while detaching them from their identities. Nonetheless, object sociality is a worthwhile objective in order to organize social learning processes around them.

To enable sociality within objects, these objects should be constructed and deconstructed by ongoing boundary practices among multiple actors. Translated to social software, this software should “be part of a dynamic system whose elements are bound up together in reciprocal relationships” (Gal, Yoo and Boland, 2004, p.199) to conceive its sociality.

4.2 Design principles for learning

Wenger states that learning is a reflective process. To engage in learning the environment should stimulate us to both engage and to distance, “to identify with an enterprise as well as to view it in context, with the eyes of an outsider” (Wenger, p.217).

In order to develop design principles for social software that facilitate social learning through social objects, we adopt Wenger’s learning framework (1998; see figure 3). This learning architecture acknowledges design dimensions that inevitably influence practices and identities of the communities’ members. However in addressing these dimensions of design, a learning architecture must offer facilities for each of the modes of belonging, which are imagination, alignment and engagement. Practices and identities within a community are construed and negotiated by its members at three modes of belonging; engagement, imagination and alignment. Modes of belonging are is about how members interactively pursue a certain level of collectivity and solidarity to facilitate their learning. The level of engagement, imagination and alignment is continuously influenced by four dimensions; the moment in which learning takes place, the location in which the learning its situated, powers that exercise control of learning and the maturity of its learning structure. The latter four dimensions are dualities, or “single conceptual units that are formed by two inseparable and mutually constitutive elements whose inherent tension and complementarity give the concept richness and dynamism” (Wenger, 1998, p.66).

This learning architecture underlies the theoretical foundations of communities of practice. In organizational settings communities of practice gained popularity at the early start of the millennium. Through the concept of communities of practice its underlying learning theory, situated learning, also gained popularity (Wenger, 1998). Communities of practice primarily focus on belonging and participation, and are environments of “collective learning that result in practices that reflect both the pursuit of our enterprises and the attendant social relations” (Wenger, 1998, p.45). Nonetheless, its emphasis was rather on communities or interactional facilities than on their practice (Dirksen, Huizing and Smit, 2005; Wenger, McDermott and Snyder, 2002). (Wenger, 1998, p.229) reckoned these frustrations, by stating that “learning cannot be designed: it can only be designed for – that is, facilitated or frustrated”. The purpose of this architecture is to guide the design of facilities that create a dynamic interplay of belonging and participating through boundary objects, to facilitate learning.

Kloos (2006) noted that social software supported the aforementioned learning architecture, however this learning capabilities could be optimized. He noted that various social software tools supported different axes of the learning architecture of Wenger (1998; see figure 3). Wiki’s predominantly facilitate the work of engagement and alignment, due its weight on collaborative writing that requires negotiation of meaning, reflection and mutual comprehension. Social bookmarking predominantly facilitate the work of engagement and imagination, because the emphasis of bookmarks is on sharing and commenting for others that support identity formation, while its tag clouds simplify exploration to unknown areas of interest, due to its high connectivity between links and tags. Finally, blogs facilitate imagination and alignment. Based on his preliminary research findings we will examine these three infrastructures in more depth, and explore how social software can truly support the learning architecture by Wenger (1998).

Figure 3 – Learning Architecture with three modes of belonging


Current social software advance object centered sociality. Social software services offer fertile soil that foster sizeable communities around these tools. Given the inherent nature of social software to generate massive communities, it would be useful to explore how these communities could exploit their learning potential. We believe that this learning potential can be exploited in a social manner by calling for more engagement.

Engagement is defined as active involvement in mutual processes of negotiation of meaning (Wenger, 1998, p.173) and it involves the ways in which we engage with each other and the world. It is through the negotiation of meaning that new meaning is created and meaning is what learning ultimately has to produce. In order to fully engage it is important to meet people, to connect with people and to create a bond. In other words, engagement deals with intense social relationship or sociality. Also engagement requires different levels of participation and relations, also referred to as peripherality (Wenger, 1998). Peripherality, and legitimate peripheral participation is the concept of operating at the boundaries of a community, without being obliged to becoming full member. Peripheral members often introduce interesting new concepts in a community, which offers the community opportunities to learn. Peripheral members can become full members gradually by interacting and participating on an ongoing basis. This is what Wenger (1998) calls boundary trajectories.

Current social software services, as social networking sites mainly focus on the initial creation of relations among people and information and only shows the stream of published information (Alexander, 2006; Roll, 2004). In a sense social software currently primarily facilitates the spread of knowledge or information among and communication with an audience (Kelleher and Miller, 2006). Social networking for instance, functions primarily as a phone book, where people can be found based on names or interests. The services are often unable to suggest truly interesting people, except for rather static recommendations, based on one’s personal profile, behaviour or interests. Thus, to support the dynamic concept of sociality, social software should offer insight in the communality people share and it should proactively suggest interesting people and sources continually, after which participants can act accordingly. Furthermore, social relationships mark themselves by their evolving nature. Social software is rather limited in this respect, in that it does not truly support the dynamics of connecting with people whom you do not know and it does not truly support the various gradual stages of membership and relations that go along with engagement. For instance, in social networking someone often must be introduced to a person through a shared connection. In real life, relations and bonds between people arise much more gradually. Social software in other words, should offer facilities to contact people directly, it should facilitate initial contact among people, and it should distinguish among various levels of interaction and depths of relations. Also, social software should indicate the strength of a connection between two people based on their overlapping profiles, shared interests, level of interaction, mutual communication, and consultations. This way, social software can visualize the strength or weakness of a relation between people based on their behaviour whereby it shows nourishing or diluting relations. Hereby, social software surpasses the initial level of separate relations and adheres more fully to the potential of the concept of sociality.


Next to engagement, also imagination contributes to a more object centered sociality that is needed to foster a social approach to learning. Current social software advance learning in a linear fashion, while design principles of imagination could aim for more explorative learning.

Imagination feeds learning, because learning entails constructing new understandings to guide actions by using information (Dixon, 1997). Imagination is defined by Wenger (1998, p.173) as “creating images of the world and seeing connections through time and space by extrapolating from one’s own experience, to orient ourselves and our communities, to reflect on our situation and to explore possibilities”. Imagination thus is seeing connections across current areas of information, by relating its content to other information that is available via the web. It is important to understand that imagination is a reactive and situated process on previously unexplored connections. Thus social software services should facilitate visually attractive site-seeings through their information-bases, to incite imagination of its users.

Current social software is rather flat and static, and doesn’t take its users through its richness of information and knowledge. One of the early, rather limited, seeds for this idea are the popular tag clouds on social software websites (Kolbitsch and Maurer, 2006). Tag clouds are based on the popularity of certain tags and strong-ties between tags. Making these tag clouds more media-rich by offering forms of codified (like webpages) and less codified (like video or podcasts) and more interactive further enhances object sociality. The one-dimensionality of social software also limits exploration; imagination is boundaryless thinking and thus which can be pursued by three-dimensional information tunnel that is plastered with information on the inside that is exclusively composed for a specific user-question. However, current tag-clouds lack a transient character that make their explorations rather stale. Thus, tag clouds or three-dimensional information tunnels should integrate and disintegrate real-time, arising from user clicks at information posters on its walls or by the provision of fresh information. This could also avoid another a-social flaw, in that current social software offer content-driven exploration, instead of question-based. Accompanying user profiles filled with interests and histories don’t actively serve advanced contextualization of user questions to ensure more accurate results. By offering a wide variety of apparently weakly linked information, social software could offer users a view across boundaries that actively stimulate exploration, imagination and learning. Finally, current forms of imagination are rather individual exercises, while imagination is successfully achieved electronically through the act of social brainstorming (Furnham, 2000). Thus social software further approximate true sociality by facilitating engagements and collaborate quests between explorers.


In order to achieve for learning also structures are needed to guide learning. Social software offers structures to align contributions and facilitate discussions, but it can further advance learning by aligning individual contributions to global enterprises.

Alignment is defined as “coordinating your energy and activities in order to fit within broader structures and to contribute to broader enterprises” (Wenger, 1998, p.174). In order to successfully and efficiently coordinate human activities methods and techniques gained considerable attention within the IS-discipline over the years, however that same alignment remains one of the biggest challenges in social software. Social software should be able to place information within a broader perspective, by converging new and historical information to a common purpose. Convergence of information is the “double process by which information artefacts and social worlds are fitted to each other and come together” (Neumann, Bowker and Star, 1997, p.4). However, this process of convergence that drives alignment, is often very personal because it is related to “the connectedness that some people and not others experience and the memberships that some have and not others” (Neumann, Bowker and Star, 1997, p.22).

Current social software services are not very capable convergers, in that information appears to be aggregated and organized in a rather narrow sense. In order for social software to realize convergence, it should offer an interface that evolves around a certain enterprise and the pieces needed to fulfil this enterprise. In this case the enterprise can be seen as relevant to the social world, which should be embarked upon by aggregating information, and conversely, individual information should direct an enterprise. The latter respects the double process as mentioned by Neumann, Bowker and Star (1997). Convergence can be reified by means of a virtual fishbone diagram. Social software could offer a virtual Iskikawa or fishbone diagram to define objectives that can be reached by decomposing this objective in various sub-objectives, which are in turn connected with pieces of information (like blog posts or media files). The social interface should also make it possible to work bottom-up, so scattered information can be arranged to fit subsidiary objectives situated higher in the fishbone diagram. Also this fishbone should be dynamically recreated by adding new interrelated information. Also it should be possible to add multiple layers to achieve higher objectives. In order to fit to organizational practices, the design space for these virtual fish bones can be guided by organizational values, jurisdictions, procedures, legislation or user profiles (Wenger, 1998).

Our discourse explored the design principles of learning to pursue social learning around objects. After theorizing about the extent in which these principles are supported, we come to the conclusion that this support is rather poor within current social software manifestations. In order for social software to stimulate truly social learning, these objects should address all three modes of belonging, engagement, imagination and alignment.

5. Conclusion
This article attempted to provide social software with an underpinning social learning to derive design principles that could help social software obtain a truly social nature. In order to reflect learning and interaction from our complex reality within social software, we postulated two criticisms on how current social services support learning. The first originated from the market-bias of social software, and the second from the lack of a underpinning social learning theory.

The market-biased limited social software to achieve object-centered sociality that was needed to support learning. We described how social software should open itself for more chaotic and ambiguous knowledge explorations, to live up their alleged network-based nature. In order to do this we suggested boundary trajectories that emphasized a more practice-based approach to learning. This required a shift from the transaction as centre of attention to the practice and the person.

The lack of a social theory of learning hampered the organization of social learning around objects. Therefore we introduced a learning architecture and assessed its three modes of belonging in current social software services and provided alternatives. Although we acknowledged that present social software manifestations covered aspects of the learning architecture, it was rather limited.

To conclude, we admit that current web2.0 tools are very useful facilities in learning, however a more social approach can even make the tool even part of the practice of learning. And we fully endorse that social software is still in its infancy, however our article provide guidance on how social software can extend their service in gaining these challenging learning objectives


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