Home > Future focussed issues > Look, I drew a picture of you!

Look, I drew a picture of you!

July 17th, 2009

(Yes, that’s right…I’m talking to you!)
Actually, I should say I drew a picture of us.

See? You, and me, and everyone else – we’re all represented in my diagram of the shiftingthinking community.

The Power Law Distribution

I drew this after reading Here Comes Everybody: The power of organizing without organizations by Clay Shirky. The book has influenced my thinking A LOT recently and I reckon I’ll probably write a few more blogpostings based on its ideas. In this posting I just want to share just one of these ideas, because I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately (No, don’t look over your shoulder, I’m still talking to Y-O-U ), and I want to show you exactly how you fit into this shiftingthinking community.

The curve in this diagram represents something called a “Power Law Distribution”, which I learned about in Here Comes Everybody. The vertical axis represents the number of comments posted on shiftingthinking, and the horizontal axis represents all of us, lined up in left to right order from the highest frequency to the lowest frequency of postings. What this curve shows is that the most frequent contributor (in this case, me) posts many times more often than the next most frequent contributors, and those people post many times more often than the next most frequent, and so on, and then we have this l-o-o-o-oong tail of people who contribute just a tiny little bit – let’s say, one comment or posting.  (Then there’s the folks who we sometimes call “lurkers”, who read shiftingthinking but haven’t posted comments – I’ll get back to them later…)

So what, I hear you ask? Is there a point to all this? Well I’m glad you asked, because there is, and here is the EXCITING bit. According to Shirky, this same distribution pattern is found in all kinds of social media. Wikipedia is a good example: Although anyone can edit wikipedia pages, it turns out that there are a tiny percentage of people who make hundreds or thousands of edits each, and thousands and millions of people who only ever make say, one or two edits (and millions more who simply read wikipedia entries without ever making a single edit). So if you graph wikipedia contributions, you’ll get an even more extreme version of this same curve.

The power law distribution is also called The Pareto principle or the “80-20 rule” which basically says that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. So this distribution shape isn’t just limited to social media – it appears in all kinds of social phenomenon.

The cool thing – and the point of this posting -  is when we start to ask ourselves what value we get out of the collective contributions of all 100 percent of the contributors. In the business world, the 80-20 principle suggests that organisations should focus on the 20 percent (of people, activities, projects etc) that contribute 80 percent of the “productivity”. The “costs” of carrying that long tail, which tends to generate proportionally less, can be hard for an organisation to carry. But if you lop off the long tail, you lose out on all those potential contributions that, when added to the collective, could add up to something really great.

Is this youThe nice thing about social media is that there is really no “cost” involved in encouraging as many people as possible to contribute. By opening up wikipedia to everyone to edit, “we” (the users of Wikipedia) benefit from everyone’s contribution. Whether someone contributes thousands of edits, or only one, each adds value to the collective whole. It’s the same thing with shiftingthinking!

I’d like to end this posting with a couple of shout-outs. First to the members of our “long tail”. Guys, thank you. We love that you’ve stopped by and taken a moment to add your contribution to the shiftingthinking community.

Or is THIS you? (CC) http://www.flickr.com/photos/madflowr/3346345770/

Or is THIS you? (CC) www.flickr.com/photos/madflowr/3346345770

Second, to the “lurkers” – you know who you are. I want you to know that you’re welcome here too. I think I’m going to call you “foragers” from now on though. (I like to picture you as adorable little hedgehogs – shyly nosing around the edges of our community, nibbling surreptitiously from the cat’s dish, drinking water from the puddles of our drain-pipes, but leaving no trace of your presence). We promise not to shine a bright spotlight on you – but maybe just think about joining our long tail every once in a while? We’ll be here waiting, with a nice cup of tea and a gingernut biscuit.

**PS. I know time is a big factor making it hard to add comments. We’re still looking into other ways you can signal your presence without having to think too long and hard or compose the “perfect” comment – watch this space!

Shirky, C. (2008) Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. Penguin: New York.

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  1. | #1

    Hi Ruth, given the nature of your queries I think the Community page might be the best place to post comments – I’ve just enabled the comments function on that page! Other registered members of the community might have similar navigation questions and would probably like to hear the answers to your questions too!

  2. Ruth Fearnley
    | #2

    Wow that was quick! Awesome webmaster :-)

    I have been absent for a few days mostly due to recovering from assignment time, I pop in again and there’s the shiny new buttons!

    Where is a good place to make comments about the functionality of the website (I’m having some navigation troubles from Dashboard)?

    (still learning my way around)

  3. | #3

    Ruth – you asked for it and we did it. We’ve now got a thumbs-up rating system on our blogpostings – care to take it for a road test?

  4. | #4

    Hi Ruth, brilliant to have you here :)
    We’ve definitely thought about the “I like” button idea, in fact our webmaster was going to look into it when he had time – if anyone out there is an expert in wordpress and knows of a plugin we could use, we would love to hear about it!
    In the meantime what if we go Old-Skool – people could just type this in their comments:

    “I LIKE THIS!” [Thumbs up]

    What do you think?

  5. Ruth Fearnley
    | #5

    Rachel – you said: “We’re still looking into other ways you can signal your presence without having to think too long and hard or compose the “perfect” comment – watch this space!”

    Can I vote for a “like” button (as on facebook).

    (brand new here)

  6. | #6

    @Carmen Kenton
    Hi Carmen, yes so it’s probably apt that this site is called shiftING thinking, rather than shiftED thinking :) You’re right though, we all shift and change and adapt in subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) ways as the world around us changes. These shifts are most seamless when we can comfortably accommodate a new idea or way of thinking or doing things alongside our current ideas, ways of thinking, or doing things. However, sometimes a new idea or way of thinking or doing things “jars” so sharply with what we already know or do that we can’t just easily patch it on as just another variation to our current patterns and systems. Like a belligerent guest on a daytime talk show, it gets in our face and demands that we face it, explore it, unpack it, discuss it. What do we do with ideas like these? Reject them? Seek to weave them back into our existing frameworks? These are the kind of ideas that I’m most interested in exploring on shiftingthinking. A lot of the most interesting/provocative ideas actually originate from the world outside the education system – so in one sense they are ideas that most teachers and students don’t necessarily encounter as part of the everyday routines of schooling. (In fact, I’d suggest that schools are likely to be more insulated from the influence of these ideas than many other sectors). But like Jane Gilbert argued in Catching the knowledge wave, these ideas could have powerful implications for education and schooling.

  7. Carmen Kenton
    | #7

    I have been thinking some more about this shift and does it really exist? Surely as teachers we gently evolve as we naturally experience our own world and change with it. We gently make slight changes on a daily, yearly basis. I haven’t woken up and suddenly stuff has changed, my students haven’t changed we have all altered our perspective slightly on a daily basis based on the experiences we have in our world on a daily basis.

  8. | #8

    Kia ora Carmen and a huge welcome to shiftingthinking! Re: the graph in the post above – the x axis is not showing TIME, rather it represents each PERSON who is part of the shiftingthinking community (for example I could have labelled the x-axis as Person 1, Person 2, Person 3 etc up to Person N where N is the total number of people who’ve visited shiftingthinking). The crucial thing to note is that the “Persons” have been numbered in a particular order – i.e. person 1 is whoever has made the most posts/comments, and Person N is whoever has made the least posts/comments. What this graph shows is that in shiftingthinking (as in any group) you tend to have a few people who are very active contributors, and a lot of people who just contribute a little. The point of the posting above is that we ALL benefit from EVERYONE’s contribution – no matter whether it’s a lot of comments or postings, or just one! For example, your one comment (so far) might get dozens of other people thinking – or it might generate a whole lot of further comments and discussion. (By the way, of course I am not-so-secretly hoping that this won’t be your last comment on the site:))

    As for your question of where to start, and what “we want to change in readers”, I can only offer you my own ideas about this.
    Where to start?
    Read some of the other blog postings on the site, and see what different people are saying. My personal take is that shiftingthinking is a space where we are going to get together and figure out, collaboratively, where we need to start shifting our ideas or, as I recently wrote about, to generate wisdom. But having said that, we (at NZCER) have been thinking about some of these ideas for quite a while, and we’ve tried to build up some theory pages to explain where some of our ideas come from, and some thinking objects designed to get people thinking about these ideas in a specific and particular context. Perhaps you are also interested in registering for our conference in November, where we plan to take this shared thinking-shifting even further? (see the home page).

    What are we wanting to change in readers?
    That probably depends who you ask! For me, I’m wanting to prod and provoke readers into having discussions with us and with one another, around ideas and questions that we need to be talking about in order to make education relevant for the 21st century world (the world we’re in now, and the world we want to build/create/shape for the future). I want to get readers thinking – “what do I know?” “What am I aware that I don’t know?” and (most importantly, a question I’ve learned from Jennifer Garvey Berger) “What don’t I know, that I’m not even aware I don’t know?”

    What I want to “change” in readers (change is probably the wrong word) is that I want them to think about, wonder about, try to find out about, what they don’t know they don’t know when it comes to 21st century learning and education! It seems as though the only way to find out what lies in that invisible unknown space is to find out what other people might know by reading what they write, listening to what they say, and most of all, engaging in a conversation where you work your ideas out together.

    Ha, does that make any sense?

  9. Carmen Kenton
    | #9

    Shift-thinking – Do you recommend where to start? Rosemary came to our school today and started me thinking along this shift-thinking. I was looking at your picture, specifically that the x-axis has no scale, I assume it is decreasing from left to right…a shift from the norm…made me think. A little more reading is needed to gather my thoughts together about shift-thinking. As a newcomer to your blog today, I am not sure what you want to change in readers…yet.

  10. | #10

    Thanks Muzz – your last sentence will be fairly cryptic to some of our readers!(If the “140 characters” means nothing to you, here’s a hint, check out our shiny new twitter feed).

  11. Muzz
    | #11


    I’ll gladly add something to get my posting count “above the mode”, and BTW I’ve had similar reflections since reading “Here comes everybody”. Now feeling uncomfortable, as character count creeps past 140…

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