Whenever I talk about knowledge work and the role of social software in doing knowledge work in complex environments I always say that the key to social software is it’s emphasis on relationships above information. Whatever you do with social tools, always it will be clear who is the source of information and what your relationship is to that person. It is also the relationships, the social context that allows you to judge information and put it to work for yourself. It’s the social context, through its multi-subjectivity and feedback loops that allow me to detect patterns and filter information.

When you tell me something it is therefore different to me than when I read the same information in the newspaper. You are that difference. The fact that you care enough about something to tell it to me, gives a different perspective on that information, adds context to it and thus increases the relevance of that information to me. The relational context of the information is more important than the information actually shared. Social software supports that.

In my presentations I always give an example to underline this point, that I never actually shared here in the same way. Last Tuesday over dinner with Lilia and Robert, Lilia asked me to blog it. So here it is.

Anjo Anjewierden created this picture a while back, that depicts the relationships visible from analyzing a number of blogs, not on links but on content. It depicts rather nicely the mental picture I have of part of my network of relations that emerged from my blogging in the past three years. In my presentations I always show this picture and say that I am no longer worried to loose my blogpostings and comments of the past 3 years, as long as I am able to keep this mental picture of who is in my social network. Yes I would be sad to loose all that texts, thoughts and conversation, but as long as the relationships survive it never is really lost. It has become part of our shared context, experiences and consciousness.

It usually makes those in the audience still hooked on information as neutral and objective entities gasp.

To me this is the strongest personal proof that blogging indeed breeds community:
I can loose my blog, as long as I can keep in touch with my relationships it’s ok.

10 reactions on “Relationships Above Information Exchange

  1. People before information

    Ton Zijlstra writes his viewpoint that relationships are more valuable than information exchange. And that social software helps build the relationships, overlaid with the transitory exchange of information.

  2. Hello Ton, now that we have met again after about 15 years of being out of contact, I like to read your blog. Which proves your point that relationship goes before content.
    But do you think that blogging really *breeds* community or is it supporting one that exists already? Does anybody start reading a blog produced by someone they do not know and are not referred to by a relation? Maybe in other words, is a blog medium rich enough start a ‘relation’ or are fuller means of communication needed.

  3. Hi Koos
    Good questions. Yes blogs breed community, and also support existing ones. When I started this site in 2002 I knew almost none of the people that now form my community of practice around the topics discussed here. The effects are described in this posting from last november.
    A weblog is leaving traces, like footsteps on the beach of Google. People stumble across those traces and follow it to me, and some of those get into conversation with me, building a relationship. So it does generate new relationships. It also sustains them once formed. This site is like an entrance into my world. I’ve called it a personal presence portal before.
    Some new blogs you stumble upon through referral by someone you know (hyperlinking) other you find googling or surfing randomly. Finding by referral often works better. It is like being introduced to somebody new, by a friend or an acquiantance.
    Usually when a relationships has first started through the blog, other channels are then added. IM, e-mail, phone, and face to face. Some relationships never leave the comment section of a blog, other turn into collaboration.

  4. “When you tell me something it is therefore different to me than when I read the same information in the newspaper. You are that difference.”
    Could this explain the general lack of interest in printed news? Do we only listen to people we care about (whether based on affection or reputation)? Are journalists too anonimous for the majority of people to listen to?
    (Sorry for raising the journalism topic 😉 )

  5. I prefer conversation, but you need process

    A conversation about Information as Scaffolding makes me realise some of the contradictions in my approach to things, and leads to speculation about how to make out-sourced services work in a wirearchical way…

  6. Hi Ton,
    Just to say I very much liked this post, and the follow-ups! We’ll talk about who is the geek over a beer :-).
    As to tools. I think the notion of “social software” is currently extremely weak. What do you measure? The central notion appears to be “impact”, and as you rightly state the impact is difficult to measure it sensibly (I would write objectively in a paper).

  7. Ton,
    I came across your site, and this blog, for the first time today.
    I wanted to take this opportunity to echo your sentiments. Perhaps being a litte pedantic I believe that relationships may have value on their own but arguably not tangible. True tangible knowledge has value through an individuals network. Knowledge is only of value if others know that you have it.
    Kind regards

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