Friday, December 03, 2004

Personal Knowledge Networks

Brian Alger's writing is always thought provoking and intense on a wide range of topics, some of it focused on learning environments. One of the things I like about his site is how he cross-references concepts across his posts using a variety of tools (MT search, Furl, Google, etc). Unlike blogs which mostly link out to stuff on the web, many of his links reference his own internalized or contextualized views on a concept. So instead of a link to David Suzuki's site, he'll often link to a previous post about the scientist (which is fairly common), or his own page of David Suzuki references from all of his posts, which goes a step beyond the usual categorized archives you see on some blogs. He might also link out to a Google page containing all of the places he's referenced a concept like narrative in his posts.

I must admit that this self-referential style seemed extremely introspective at first (which isn't necessarily bad). He also doesn't have comments on his site, which made it seem like a rich inward-facing network of concepts and ideas, rather than a central node in a larger network (I'm generalizing a bit, because he does include links out as well...just not as much as you'd usually see). But I came to see his site as a sort of representation of how our minds store information, with everything cross-referenced to everything else...much like the web itself, but previously locked inside our heads. I started to see the learning power for Brian himself, and felt thankful that we could share in his process of making connections.

Not that Brian is the first one to organize a personal site this way. I've used as an example of a rich personal knowledge network that provides a blueprint for the direction I think e-portfolios should go. Stephen Downes has most (all) of his years of entries, papers and presentations organized by a huge range of relevant topics, allowing you to slice and dice his personal database. Every post has related categories, although I wonder how much they get used. He also uses the Google engine to search the site, which seems to work well enough. Community functions are all there, too, but I've always been surprised how little activity takes place there considering his stature in the network.

So what? This exploration was triggered again by Beyond the Electronic Portfolio: A Lifetime Personal Web Space, linked to by George and enthused upon by Will. It's a fairly compelling vision, with many of the right questions being asked. It does bring to mind the issue of portability -- instead of believing in the pipe dream of centralized, permanent webspace, I want to be able to upload, download and move my stuff around between different web apps.

Right now I've got credentials, profiles and content in four blogs (Tripod-hosted, Blogger and Livejournal), Flickr (photos), Future Shop (photos), Webjay (mp3s and playlists, sadly currently hacked and broken), MSN (hotmail and messenger), Yahoo (streaming music and groups), elgg, personal webspace through my ISP, two other online mail accounts, Technorati, comments and discussion-forum entries in several online communities, reams of coursework stuck in the black hole of data known as WebCT, piles of work content and communication behind the corporate firewall, everything in my indispensible Bloglines account...and don't even get me started about what must live on the three hard drives of the two computers I use regularly.

Sorry, that got out of hand. I guess I'm seeing that many of us already have too much stuff, and the tools we're using now aren't helping us organize it in any meaningful way at any given time, never mind being able to assemble different views for different audiences with different permissions.

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