Personal Learning Networks and the Google Plus "Suggested Users" List

Google Plus launched a "suggested users" list yesterday. I'm not on it, and I bet you aren't either, particularly if you're an educator -- because, well, there aren't any educators on the list. But hey, that's not surprising. Twitter's infamous Suggested User list was also utterly devoid of educational recommendations, and even though the microblogging service has become widely adopted by teachers, education still isn't one of the interests that the site promotes for its new users.

For its part, Google Plus has come up with a rather mundane list of recommendations (and yes I realize these things are always hard to do without pissing off legions of people, and anything I write about it sounds like sour grapes. Whatever). For a new social network, you'll find the fairly old, standard list of celebrities, tech stars, and pundits. More annoying: Google's list includes a number of folks who seem pretty inactive on the site.

There are several interesting discussions ongoing on G+ right now about whether the list itself is good or bad and whether it's a good or bad idea at all to offer new users these sorts of suggestions. Of course, for publishers, a presence on these lists lights up their eyes with dollar signs (because suggestions equal followers equal page-views equal ad revenue and so on). That's why sites like Mashable worked so hard to skirt the "no brands on Google Plus" rule -- in Mashable's case by renaming its G+ account "Pete Cashmore" after the blog's founder so that the account appeared to be a person rather than a publication.

Meh. Popularity contests and such. And honestly, I'm not sure I see Google's list of being very important or very useful right now -- partly due to the composition of the list and partly because of how meaningful social networks actually form.

See that's the thing: when it comes to how people build networks -- particularly personal learning networks (what interests me most) -- most folks are unlikely to have at the nexus people like Dolly Parton or Ashton Kutcher or Snoop Dogg -- all of whom are G+ "picks." Now, that's not to say there's nothing to learn from those 3 individuals. Nor do I mean to imply that there aren't interesting and smart people on Google's list. You'll learn a lot from following Maria Popova, as you will from paying attention to what Jillian York and Limor Fried are up to (all three are suggested users. And all three are pretty damn awesome. Circle them.)

And Google's Bradley Horowitz -- de-facto spokesperson for the new list -- does recognize that there isn't an "extreme knitters" group. (Flippant much, Bradley?) In a post yesterday, he says he wants to assure extreme knitters -- along with everyone else who isn't a tech or pop culture celebrity -- that the fact that Google doesn't recognize your interest group is "a bug."


But even better than relying on some list from Google, I suggest the following: build your own network based on people you know, based on people you want to know, based on people you can learn from. G+ already seems to recommend people based on who you email (well, if you use Gmail). That's probably not a terrible way to form an interest or a social graph. And I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that most teachers would be better served circling their principal, their district tech coordinator, the author of an ed-tech book than they are circling suggested user Sammy Hagar. In other words, choose Larry Cuban over Mark Cuban. Get my drift?

Inspired by Robert Scoble's work to help curate "follow" lists, a number of people have started to make public their Google Plus educator lists. I've done so, as has University of Oklahoma folklore professor and online educator Laura Gibbs. If you look at our profiles, you'll be able to see those we've circled -- and as it stands currently, our public circles are all educators, ed-tech entrepreneurs, and other important folks in the space. That's one way to find folks to follow.

The other -- and the better way, I'd say -- is to participate actively in the community. Find people who interest you. Engage with them. Build your own network. It's never as simple as an autofollow gesture, and it's a far more meaningful and rewarding one.

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