Cornerstone Skills: Feed Readers and Posting Comments

MyYahoo: Subscribing to feeds doesn’t get any easier than this. Or does it?

In my long and varied experience giving presentations, workshops, and coaching to help people wrap their brains around today’s online media, I’ve noticed a pattern that helps me predict who will really “get it” and use it well, and who doesn’t.

The people who “get it” in a useful way, and who are most likely to benefit from online and conversational media, start experimenting right away with using a feed reader and posting comments (whether to blogs or Web-based forums, not e-mail lists).

I always emphasize these skills in my presentations, and give people clear, basic instructions and resources for taking these steps. The ones who try these out quickly tend to become more able to teach themselves nearly anything they want about online and conversational media, and find ways to use it to be more effective and efficient in their jobs and projects of passion.

Sadly, the people who don’t take those steps generally don’t seem to progress much in their understanding and use of online and conversational media. I worry about this, because it could indicate:

  • A deficiency in my educational approach (always a possibility).
  • Remaining significant usability problems with these tools — which I could see was an issue a year or two ago, but services like MyYahoo have certainly made subscribing to feeds dead easy, and commenting on most blogs generally couldn’t be simpler than it is.
  • A generally passive mindset that will cause most people — even those interested enough in online media to attend a session on it — to be left farther and farther behind as media evolves.

I’d estimate, based on checking back with participants in several of my presentations, that only about 5% of people actually start experimenting with these cornerstone skills within a couple of weeks of my session. That seems disturbingly low to me. (In contrast, for my coaching clients the adoption rate for these skills is 100%, because I basically require them to do it.)

What do you think? Should I be concerned about this apparently low skills adoption rate, or is this somehow normal? Is there some obvious deficiency in how I teach these skills and communicate their importance that I could correct? Am I somehow mistaken about the “cornerstone” significance of these two skills?

Please comment below. This is bugging me, and I’d like to address this issue more constructively if I can. I have a busy speaking gig lineup for the coming months, and I worry that I’m letting my audiences down.

UPDATE: Read my next post on this theme…

13 thoughts on Cornerstone Skills: Feed Readers and Posting Comments

  1. I agree with you entirely about the advantages of “jumping in” to the online world very early after attending a session.

    There does seem to be more interest than actual participation at present and I think a lot of people feel they can remain in their comfort zone, where they now have a warm glow of at least understanding the jargon.

    I’m not clear if they have a chance to have a go in sessions, but rather than just hearing something is easy it helps if you can have a go.

    Alternatively, what about printing cards with say 5 baby steps on what they can do with a tick box next to each – maybe that they can send back to you for a “reward”?

    Or create something like an online treasure hunt they can follow that makes it fun to try these things out.

    I was surprised with my Uni students last year how few were active online and any research didn’t go much further than Google.

    Maybe we also need to accept this is still early adopter territory and we haven’t got to the early majority yet.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this also. What I’ve been thinking is that teaching people these skills is more like teaching quilting or teaching someone to pay the clarinet than it is like teaching subjects that can successfully be conveyed via lecture.

    People don’t go to a standard class to learn how to quilt. They go to the big backroom of the quilting shop where they are seated at a table with scraps of fabric, needles, thread, scissors, templates, and idea books. The teacher talks for awhile and then they experiment using their fingers and eyes with what the teacher just said, in back-and-forth bursts with very short periods of classic instruction followed by practice segments.

    I’m sure that if you had a teaching set-up where everyone was seated at a desktop and you could talk for a few minutes, and then wander around talking to individual students while they experimented, your “catch” rate would be very much higher.

    Over the five year period of about 1998-2003 when pretty much everyone figured out that, yes, they were going to have to start using email, they sought out this instruction on an individual basis–the kind that is like teaching someone to cook or sew.

  3. Your numbers don’t surprise me. I teach graduate level classes via distance learning. The incentive to participate in online discussions is 20% of their grades–and there are still students who don’t post.

    My view is that technical skills tend to be acquired in iterations, much like math. Each time a student is exposed to a concept, they come closer to understanding and acting. We forget that many of us have evolved with the technology, and others are relatively new adopters.

    You aren’t doing anything wrong….it’s just good old human behavior which hasn’t changed!

  4. Heather wrote earlier:

    >There does seem to be more interest than actual participation at present and I think a lot of people feel they can remain in their comfort zone, where they now have a warm glow of at least understanding the jargon.< Yes, I agree -- and while understanding the jargon is helpful in an academic sense, online media is not a spectator sport -- especially when you need to understand the significance of findability, connectedness, and conversations. >I’m not clear if they have a chance to have a go in sessions, but rather than just hearing something is easy it helps if you can have a go.< Agreed, but that depends on the nature of the session. Most of the time, people don't bring their laptops, unless they're paying for a real hands-on workshop >Alternatively, what about printing cards with say 5 baby steps on what they can do with a tick box next to each – maybe that they can send back to you for a “reward”?< Excellent idea, thanks! - Amy Gahran

  5. Leslie wrote above:

    >I’m sure that if you had a teaching set-up where everyone was seated at a desktop and you could talk for a few minutes, and then wander around talking to individual students while they experimented, your “catch” rate would be very much higher.< That would be ideal -- trouble is, how do you organize something like that? When people look to catch up on online skills, they often try to find web sites, books, conference sessions, or workshops to do it. What you describe is less formal, but would probably be more effective. And the in-person aspect of it would help. Hmmm, will have to think about it more... Thanks for the suggestion. If you can help me flesh this concept out, I'd be grateful. - Amy Gahran

  6. Jean wrote: “My view is that technical skills tend to be acquired in iterations, much like math. Each time a student is exposed to a concept, they come closer to understanding and acting. We forget that many of us have evolved with the technology, and others are relatively new adopters.”

    Fair point. What concerns me, though, is people who keep exposing themselves to learning about online media, understand the concepts — but yet fall short of actually taking any action toward using the keystone skills I mentioned. Knowing how to use a search engine or join an e-mail list just isn’t enough to allow you to make that quantum leap toward experiencing online media as a connected ongoing conversation. This isn’t a spectator sport.

    I see this again and again — I go to the same conferences, a lot of the same people show up at my sessions. They’re obviously interested, and they talk a good game about understandig online media and wanting to learn to use it better, but they don’t actually do it.

    Yes, it’s an iterative process, and ultimately people are responsible for their own learning and actions, but still I think there has got to be a better way to get it across to people how valuable — no, crucial — actually learning and using these cornerstone skills are.

    – Amy Gahran

  7. Pingback: contentious.com - Why Feed Readers and Public Comments are Cornerstone Skills

  8. Amy,

    You can lead a horse to water…
    OK, it’s a cliche, but cliches are often true. You’re impatient. I’m impatient. But we’re in the midst of this cultural change that is lightning fast for the leaders and an agonizing adjustment for everyone else. I think you have to just keep putting the water in front of them until finally they get thirsty just from watching the other horses drink.
    But I agree with your observations. I used to be intimidated talking to college students about this stuff because I had an automatic assumption that they knew so much more. They don’t. They can play with myspace and order off of ebay but when it comes to thinking about how to creatively employ new media – not so much.
    Sorry I don’t have more useful advice. But I like the quilting bee suggestion.

    Dave

  9. Thanks, Dave

    You wrote: >I used to be intimidated talking to college students about this stuff because I had an automatic assumption that they knew so much more. They don’t. They can play with myspace and order off of ebay but when it comes to thinking about how to creatively employ new media – not so much.< I too have been amazed at the limited online skills of many college students -- especially journalism students. (i get asked to address their classes a lot.) What's up with that? - Amy Gahran

  10. Good post and good comments – I have made the same observations…

    Cards as a basis for conversation really do work well – David Wilcox over at Designing for Civil society has pioneered this – check out his ‘demystifying Web 2.0’ deck here: http://www.designingforcivilsociety.org/2007/01/next_game_demys.html

    Also, starting with some PC 101 skills that simply speed up the inevitably slow laggard laptops … and then gently moving over into Web 2.0 without making the transition too obvious … works remarkably well. We have thrown together a handbook for this purpose which can be found here: http://e-intelligence.weebly.com/beginnersiniciantes.html

    Feel free to use it/distribute.

  11. Thanks for the tips, Michael. Actually, I’m a big fan of card decks — but more for helping myself arrange ideas and think creatively. I haven’t tried it as a conversational media tool. Hmmmm…

    – Amy Gahran

  12. Generally, you are right in your conclusions about people who will use the info and who will not. However, some people may not post comments because they don’t want to be involved in a conversation… they just get necessary info, and I bet they are grateful 🙂 and I’m sure they will benefit from it. I can also think of other cases, but I agree with you that those are exceptional. Normally, if you are interested, you show this and try to find out more.

  13. I am one of the guilty who has never posted to a blog. I don’t do enough with online media because so much of it seems to be graphics and I have no useful vision. So…I use a screen reader which speaks. I don’t know how to create tags and wonder how or where to find resources for developing my blogging skills and knowledge. I’m so far out of college, I’m not even sure I understand the lingo.

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