Networks and Webs – inspired by a metaphor

I love reading the work of Jenny Mackness. She is an independent researcher, who blogs about many topics that aligned with areas that are of great interest to me. Her most recent post was called “New Metaphors for Learning“, and it got me thinking about how much we rely on metaphors for understanding, and how the metaphor has come particularly alive now that we are all able to create and share visual and multimedia to express ourselves online. Jenny observes that once you begin thinking about metaphors for learning, you realise they are everywhere. She points to this fantastic presentation by another guru, Caroline Haythornthwaite, who suggests that we need new metaphors for networked learning, as we try to “explain new and abstract experiences through established and concrete experiences”.

new metaphors
Click image to access presentation

This got me thinking about my recent reading about networked learning and the internet – and of course, the first metaphor that popped into my head was the spider’s web. Not particularly innovative or surprising, I suppose, but one that is capable of lots of flexibility and depth.

There were a number of reasons the spider’s web appealed to me as a metaphor for networked learning. The first, is that in my research, I am taking an egocentric view of networks, seeing the network from the perspective of the individual who created it. Therefore, the spider, sitting in the middle of the web it has created is a great way to visualise this approach.

Imageslicenced under Creative Commons CC0
Image licenced under Creative Commons CC0

The web is constructed of some very strong threads that stabilise it, and also has lighter threads, reaching out in different directions. These are the strong and weak ties of a learning network. Strong ties are typified by frequent relations which are reciprocated, and where there may be a level of self-disclosure and trust (Haythornthwaite & De Laat, 2010). Strong ties are seen within the whole network when two connected nodes are also tied to others in the same network (Granovetter, 1973).Weak ties are characterised by incidental, serendipitous or infrequent relations, that provide diffusion, fresh contributions and a rich source of perspectives (Dron & Anderson, 2007; Haythornthwaite & De Laat, 2010; Jones, 2004; Wenger et al., 2011). Weak ties may link clusters of otherwise unrelated networks, acting as a “bridge”, and introducing a new channel for information (Granovetter, 1973, p. 1364).  We use both when we navigate our networks, just as a spider uses both to provide stability and yet to extend their web as far as they can to ensure the greatest chance of catching that prey.

Image licenced under Creative Commons CC0

Every web is unique; and each web a spider creates is also different, depending upon a number of different factors. So too are our learning networks. We create them how and when we need them. Unlike spiders webs however, our learning networks are borderless (Dron & Anderson, 2015) – they are not independent entities that exist separately from each other. Our networks connect us in ways that we may not even realise. This is a key part of a learning network – and allows for the serendipity and element of chaos that enables the most amazing learning to take place.

So when the insect finds itself entangled in the sticky web, its frantic struggles signal to the spider, no matter where it currently is located on the web, that there is a meal awaiting. How often have you unexpectedly discovered a learning when traversing your network, one that you had never even considered previously? Is it the random tweet that alerts you to its presence, or the email from the RSS feed you subscribe to that tells you a great article has been written? What are the signals that great learning is available to you on your network?

I believe that this is one of the reasons so many play with networked learning and then give up – their networks lack the stickiness and the ability to convey vibrations right to where they are located. Setting up a learning network takes time, but one of the most important aspects is to nurture both strong and weak ties, and to have tools set to alert you to when those ties have captured something wonderful. I use lists in Twitter, I curate resources using Pinterest and Pocket, subscribe to RSS feeds within Outlook and have a few alerts on Google for keywords such as “networked learning” and “personal learning networks”. I use these strategies to ensure that when something rich is shared within my network, I have a greater chance of feeling the vibes it sends out (so to speak) and seeing this within the stream of information that my network creates.

So next time you see a spider’s web, check it out a little more closely! It may inspire you to begin your networked learning journey. If it does, include me on the ride!

4 thoughts on “Networks and Webs – inspired by a metaphor”

  1. Kay – I have enjoyed reading this. Thanks so much for the mention. What we found in our research into the rhizome metaphor was that whilst it worked very well for some ways of thinking, it didn’t work well for other ways of thinking – it didn’t tell the whole story and could even ‘hide’ some of the story.

    This has made me wonder what the spider’s web as a metaphor might hide. How does the metaphor constrain our thinking?

    You mentioned that unlike spider’s webs our networks are borderless. For me our networks have the potential to be borderless and theoretically speaking they are, but in reality there’s probably a point beyond which we don’t go in our networked connections, although that doesn’t mean that our networked connections aren’t themselves extending further. I am reminded here of six degrees of separation –

    And your reference to stickiness made me think of community. As Wenger says not all networks are communities, but all communities are networks and I suspect that sticky networks are more like communities? Thinking aloud here.

    And just one final thought. The spider at the centre of a web suggests that some networked nodes are going to be more centralised, dominant, important? Would you agree? Do you think this is problematic for networks?

    Lots to think about with your metaphor – which is what they are supposed to do. Thanks for making me think 🙂

    1. Thank you for your comments and observations! I definitely agree that a metaphor is fantastic for prompting deep thinking, but also may have the potential to hide parts of the concept.
      I’m going to spend some time thinking about your suggestions, mulling them over. It is terrific to have this type of discussion, and this is where I think the learning opportunities of networks really show their strength. I cannot imagine how we could have made a connection and be having this dialogue before social technologies allowed us all to have a voice that travels. For me, based in Australia, and just beginning my research journey, I am thrilled and honoured to have people such as yourself and Caroline being part of my learning and my network.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, so very appreciated :).

  2. Kay (and Jenny : )), this was such an interesting post (and conversation). I find myself skipping over these as a raindrop might scamper over a flurry of spider webs since I cannot pause and ponder them in the depth they deserve at this moment but I will be back !! : ) That is June for you !! Already this intensive #blogjuning has resulted in the most amazing array of overlapping webs and networks — something perhaps akin to a window full of dream catchers !! I love your infographic approach; that whole vibe really strikes a chord with me.

    One additional thing that occurred to me with your web metaphor is that as ‘spiders’ (or librarians), it’s in our DNA to want to and to know how to build these webs, and also that wherever we live (Australia, UK, the US), we are all very unified in this skill and this device. Like, we already have compatible ‘technologies’ which things like blogging just make so much more apparent … and inspiring and joyful : )

    1. Thank you Cherie! I love the idea of ‘librarian as spider’ zipping all over the web! I never can get over how wonderful it is to live in a time when we can develop these networks, ‘meet’ and discuss concepts and ideas with others from all over the world, and learn from each other from the comfort of our own homes. Maybe if everyone could develop their network literacies they’d share the joy we have discovered!

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