Who Do We Belong To?

Posted by on Dec 18, 2009

I have to establish from the outset, I’m not yet determined in my thinking on this topic. I’m also not sure that the conversation will get us any further than what Mr. Jakes likes to call a “taffy pull.” But it might. Might not, either. We’ll see.

Many of us are moving in and out of a very large space that extends well beyond us. We move through the space with great fluidity, and each movement we make creates waves that extend outward and touch the movements of others. Our ideas make connections, and the connections form a web of interconnected knowledge and thought that soon can’t be separated one from another. Many call this a network.

I really like George Siemens’ explanation of our connections and the networks they create.

Thinking of it as the way we identify and arrange the inputs, or nodes as Siemens calls them, creates in interesting point of discussion. Because we arrange the nodes the way we desire and the way we think best meet our needs, does that mean the network belongs to us? Should it? Can it?

The creation of a network is an inherently personal experience. We are innately involved in the process. However, does our involvement ultimately yield a network that belongs to us individually? Many are prone to calling this concept a “personal learning network.” I wonder if that’s accurate.

I keep returning to what Dave Cormier said in a recent “Not EdTechWeekly“. He maintains that it isn’t a personal network as the network doesn’t belong to us. We belong to it.

This is where the taffy pull pundits enter and say it doesn’t matter and the conversation is circular and recursive and won’t really get us anywhere. I’m not so sure I agree.

Because if we started looking at the network as something we belong to, rather than the possessive way we tend to describe it, we begin to realize just how much of what takes place in our lives, and our thinking, and our relationships don’t really belong to us personally, they belong to all of us collectively.

I’m writing this post. I can easily say it’s mine, and grow possessive of the content, or general lack thereof, and chide anyone who I think is using it unjustly. I can place my personal value in this network on what I’ve produced, and expect others to see my value in the same way.

Personally, I think that’s an awfully dangerous place to be. Because I have no idea how much of this post is really mine. In fact, I’d say most of it came from my interactions in a learning network at some point in time and that really makes it yours as much as it is mine.

And that’s why I think the personal might matter. I am personally part of the network, but my ideas and thoughts, and my learning are also part of the network. They aren’t entirely mine. Yes, I shaped my specific nook of the network to fit my needs, but it still remains a part of the whole. If I go away, the network remains. My arrangement of the nodes may disintegrate, but the nodes themselves will still exist.

And knowing that frees me to learn and contribute collectively in the network and rid myself of any potential conflict I might have about gaining value in the network by what part of it all I own. Or how I’ve assembled my part. Or how important I think I am based on what I’ve created, which is probably influenced by the network far more than I could ever realize.

I don’t know. Maybe I have this all wrong. Maybe the conversation doesn’t really matter.

But I’ve a sneaking suspicion that it does. That it matters quite a bit.

Thanks to eskimoblood for the use of the Flickr image.


  1. Judith Epcke
    December 19, 2009

    To me, it is not a matter of semantics (is it a “personal” learning network or not?) but a matter or definition: What is meant by the term “personal”? In my opinion, the network is “personal” because I have chosen to network and learn in this manner. I have connected to certain people of my own choosing. Of course these people are connected to others I did not choose. I do not have total control over who is in the network due to the infinite connections to my “nodes”, but I do have my personal filter of the information: Do I agree or disagree? Is this information of value? I certainly don’t “own my network”, but I do decide when I will participate in the give and take of its learning. I guess this term has never been an issue for me; although I have taken to calling it a “professional learning network” of late, but that’s fodder for another blog post.

  2. Lisa Read
    December 19, 2009

    Talk about a recursive argument–now I’m going to add rhetorical. You suggest that it’s possible none of ‘this’ *makes swirly-includes-all-surrounding-area motion* belongs to any of us, we all belong to the Network. Hmmm. I really like to think of it as a sum vs its parts problem, with a Creative Commons stamp-o-approval. This is your blog, I’m a guest, you can eject/reject my comment (wouldn’t be the first time someone tossed me out on my ear), you can ask me not to link to your site, you could even try slapping a restraining order on me (wow, I sound real scary, huh?) but the thing is, as long as you publish, you can’t stop me reading or thinking about the ideas you share, you can’t stop me sharing them with others, heck, you can barely stop me linking to your site (this just gets more stalkerish, doesn’t it?).

    My point, and I do have one, is in the “Does it really matter?” camp. You wouldn’t know my name if it weren’t for “the Network”, but the Network would be nothing without us. Maybe we belong to it….but in the way a parasite belongs to its host .

    OK, this is possibly the most morbid and scary comment I have ever left a stranger. Aren’t you glad you asked for my opinion? 🙂

  3. Frank (Metaweb20)
    December 19, 2009

    Semantics can be played with all day, just like statistics. For me, I don’t own the network (nor does it own me), but am a part of it (like Indian spirituality where the Earth and resources are not personally owned). My nodes intersect with fringe disciplines and individuals that I don’t always personally choose, but which enrich the collective intelligence. So is it “personal or shared?” Heck we can move on down to the “learning” part of PLN and say that it isn’t always about learning either. Sometimes it’s purely empathy, understanding, joy, sorrow, pain, laughter, etc. being pumped through and beyond the nodes. I don’t necessarily label connecting along the lines of our human traits as learning, but it is powerful. I see my PLN, PLE, network, connectivity .. or insert your own word here _________ more in terms of abundance verses and scarcity model. There is great abundance all around us … but like a radio receiver, we have to be open and ambiguous enough to truly “see” the abundance. My network is but one path to the abundance. But it also exists in nature, face-2-face relationships, various energy forms, etc. It doesn’t reside only in computer technology. Abundance is everywhere.

  4. Glen Westbroek
    December 19, 2009

    The importance of such a PLN (IMHO) is that growth is happening. Growth for you and how you are networking with others, growth for me and how I interact with peers and my students.I also firmly believe that much of the growth for me and others in my PLN is due to the interactive nature of our PLN. I found when I first began using Twitter that I was a sponge and looked for how I could gain from using it. The more I “lurked” the more I wanted to see how I might be able to share thoughts and ideas with others. I’ve worked hard to try and share my ideas. I appreciate how often others challenge my thinking and/or propose ideas that help me consider ways I can help students become more prepared as 21st Century citizens.

  5. Chris Ludwig
    December 19, 2009

    I read an article a while back about how apes are able to project their consciousness into a particular tool that they were using, say the end of a stick, as they were manipulating it such that they perceived the stick as an extension of themselves. We human educators work the same way, I suspect, as we manipulate information pulled from our social networks. We find useful sites/links/handouts/tools/people/tech through our contacts “out there on the web” (the equivalent of the ape’s stick) and manipulate it as if it were our own. We borrow and steal the best ideas from anyone and everyone we come into contact with. As we do this we often lose track of where the ideas came from in the first place, remembering only that they came “from my PLN.” So in that sense, yes, the individual is losing ownership of their created content, but that is certainly no reason to stop creating content. Where else am I going to find my next new idea for a lesson plan?

  6. Ann
    December 19, 2009

    I love the way you describe the network as fluid. We create our personal nodes within the network and they become comfortable to us, and then a ripple occurs. Someone outside the node causes a ripple and we have the choice to go with the flow or disconnect and keep our nodes in that comfortable place. The beauty of the ripples- they remind us of the open nature of the larger network. They reminds us that we joined the network to connect to others. We learn a little more about ourselves and others with each connection we make, and that is intensely personal. So I welcome the ripples, those small connections that afford personal growth.

  7. JenW
    December 19, 2009

    Your blog post alone shows the influence of the PLN over your thoughts….the names you drop, the references you make (both subtle and blatant)……it shows the the PLN has begun to have an influence……

    and that demonstrates the power the PLN can have….and it also frightens me a bit.

    I keep returning to your last 2 paragraphs and agree……the network would go on if any of us were to leave….but the notches would remain but perhaps get smoothed out over time, hmmm, I don’t know.

    When the PLN though becomes so important that anything and everything you do for IT to give warrant to your work — that is when i start to worry. I see people twitter just so someone will take notice of them (heck, I admit, I have done that). I see people rework their entire presentation style just to get approval. The list could go on………

    That is when I see the the PLN owns you rather than you contributing to the PLN. And when you lose yourself to fit into a group—–that is when it is time to move from the group.


  8. Kris Jacobson
    December 19, 2009

    I think this is an important discussion. Getting proprietary about the PLN and thinking of it as a possession *is* counterproductive. Long before I used the intrenet, I realized that my ideas were formed by my experiences & my reading. I am not an especially creative person, but I do love throwing ideas around & trying to make sense of the world.

    I suspect everyone realizes that their ideas are informed by the word around them & what they read (assuming they read anything). If we are driven to take that a step further & collaborate with others online in this fashion, we have an obligation to recognize their influence in our professional lives. Obviously, we may not *always* remember that our good idea #1 came from something Joyce Valenza tweeted about or that good idea #2 was a modification of something that Buffy J. Hamilton mentioned in a blog post last year, but we need to recognize the significance of those in our social & professional lives & networks in helping us to develop our ideas and opinions.

    I think that the previous poster is right that you shouldn’t lose yourself to “fit in” to a group, but I personally haven’t found that to be an issue. I make a distinction between my professional life & my personal life…my “life” on twitter, etc. is about becoming a more informed, better learner & thinker. I am a better school librarian because of my PLN. And if it weren’t for the fact that I work for David Jakes, I probably would have been happy just using delicious & reading a handful of blogs. So what I’m trying to say is that if you’re open to learning new ideas & exploring new resources, you are going to *have* to get ideas from outside yourself. And that means being open to having your mind changed and influenced by others.

  9. Russ Goerend
    December 19, 2009

    I’ve never consciously thought of the “personal” in an ownership sense. So this is a “do we own it?” or “are we part of it?” conversation? This is beyond me, I think.

    I’m left looking for more, Ben. You said you’re left thinking it matters quite a bit. What is it about it that you think matters?

  10. Steve J. Moore
    December 19, 2009

    This is an important question you’ve asked, “who owns this knowledge?” I fundamentally believe that all knowledge is socially constructed and not owned by any one person. Learning can be defined as taking from someone else what they have come to understand. Tell me an idea that you can really say is solely your own? There is always an experience drawn from others.

  11. Chad Lehman
    December 19, 2009

    Ben, as always, you made me think. I want to make a comparison here and see what you think. Do players belong to their team or does the team belong to them? I’m wondering if this sports analogy can be compared to the PLN idea. The members of a team certainly feel like it is “their” team, just like I consider it “my network.”

  12. Glen Westbroek
    December 20, 2009

    Chad & Ben,

    I like the concept of members of a sports team wondering if the team belongs to them. How many teachers claim those in their classes are “my students?” I think this philosophy causes many teachers to truly engage students because the class becomes a PLN – including the teacher!

  13. Deon
    December 21, 2009

    Think team.

    In 2007, my rugby team won the premiership cup.

    What does that tell you?

    Did I play on the team? Am I merely a supporter of the team? Am I the managing director of the company that owns it?

    Does it matter?

    _MY_ team won!!!

    To me it matters.

    Because it’s mine.

  14. dave cormier
    December 21, 2009

    dude. That notedtechweekly show will only do bad things for you.

    Re: semantics. I always get frustrated with the expression ‘just semantics’. Semantics is the study of meaning… and I really want that conversation to be important. I am constantly of the opinion that most senseless debate happens when people don’t take the time to establish what they mean by a given thing. Words like good, true, personal, right, justice… these things are the lifeblood of our societies… we don’t really have ‘definitions’ for them… we have debates. We have a living discussion about what these things mean to us, and those discussions define us as a society. Presuming that we know what someone else means by a word is the height of arrogance.

    In this particular case all the words are out there for challenge. Personal. learning. network. The definition of the latter, for instance, has very strong bearing on what you can say about the first. If a network is something that exists in the ether, disconnected and ephemeral, then, really, it’s pretty tough for it to be personal. If we define learning as something that only happens in a network (say, a connectivist) the conversation is moot, as it can’t really be personal, it can only be networky (or so i would claim…)

    But, and heres the important part, if you’re going to disagree with my claim about whether connectivism can be personal, in the sense of learning environments, its critical that we stay having that particular conversation. A sport metaphor (however much i’m guilty of using them) is not going to include the premises of connectivism.

    Belonging is likely going ot be different in a learning community as its different in a church or a rugby team. What we might mean by “my church, my team and my learning community” might be entirely different usages of ‘my’.

    There are no end games in this, i think. One cannot say “there is no personal in learning environments”. The purpose in challenging the idea of Personal in learning network is to strengthen the debate, to add subtlety to our understandings, to point to the warning against assuming to much ownership. That helps the discussion… it helps that deep down subtle understanding of what we mean by our networks… it can’t settle the issue. A good idea is never settled.

  15. Hadass
    December 21, 2009

    Main thing that comes to mind (sorry, Ben, it is late): RESISTANCE IS FUTILE. YOU WILL BE ASSIMILATED.

    So yes, we belong to our PLN. The Internet is a form of the Borg. But as members of the network, we contribute to it and shape it to our own unique wants and needs. So in that sense, it belongs to us.

    Reciprocity …

    G’night, Hadass (lionsima).

  16. The 6 Degrees of Your Network « Constructing Meaning
    December 22, 2009

    […] “Who Do We Belong To?” posted by Ben Grey (Blog, Twitter) […]

  17. Erin Murphy
    January 4, 2010

    Nicely put!! I think about the idea of ownership of information a lot as well. This is what I concluded recently although it’s much more abstract than your post:

    We think in terms of what we know – all the while knowing that what we know is merely a fraction of what is known and what is known is only a nano-particle of the truth. The moment I perceive something as truth, I no longer own it because truth is free from ownership but knowing truth doesn’t set us free. It is the moment of becoming a truth that sets everything free.

    How does a person become a truth? We become a truth when we make peace with all that is within us – accepting our limitations and embracing our gifts. Acceptance frees us from the binds of self-doubt and provides a center around which we can expand infinitely.

  18. Judith Epcke
    January 4, 2010

    Erin’s reply made me think of this quote:

    Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it. ~ Samuel Johnson

    Where did I originally see this quote? I have no idea. I’m not even sure I know who Samuel Johnson is, quite frankly. (Didn’t he write a dictionary or something?) But I think it speaks to Erin’s point about ownership of information.

    I also like Hadass’ comments about assimilation.

    I am owning this comment, but feel free to use it. 🙂

  19. Erin Murphy
    January 4, 2010

    On a second read, this reminds me a lot of Urie Bronfenbrenners Bio-ecological model in which he postulates that everything is sort of a system within a system within a system and the interactions amongst all systems are bi-directional. Systems research is really fascinating and pertinent to network research since the network is itself a system.

    Check it out:

    I suppose this would go along with what everyone is saying that we affect the system and the system affects us. I’m still uncertain of how I feel about ownership, though.


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