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The good that social networks and virtual communities do

By Jean-Claude Elias - Jun 25,2015 - Last updated at Jun 25,2015

It is perhaps time to take a new look, a fresh approach to social networks. The term is used here in its broad meaning and includes all the virtual communities that we have become accustomed to in a few short years; accustomed to as if they’ve been around forever.

Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, WhatsApp, Skype, Google+, Viber, Snapchat and Instagram may be some of the largest and best known. Today, there’s also a plethora of other, often smaller networks, some specialised and others not, that people turn to for activities that have little to do with publishing your child’s last birthday photos, posting a selfie of your esteemed person doing nothing important at all, or checking what your long lost friend did over the weekend.

The fun part, the very element that initiated the trend, is still there of course, but these virtual communities also offer extraordinary opportunities for establishing professional contact and generating mutually beneficial business, finding work, improving communication and exchange of all kinds, and last but not least learning in ways that were absolutely unthinkable only 15 years ago. By the time you analyse and understand how one given application works on a major network there are already 5 new ones out there.

Learning and acquiring knowledge in countless fields through YouTube videos has almost become a “traditional”, “old” way, at least by Internet and information technology time measurement standards!

It is high time social networking and virtual communities are taken seriously by the population, beyond mere entertainment. 

The best recognition comes from schools and educational institutions in general. They do not just allow or encourage going to the networks and communities to learn, they even include them in homework, and this from ages as young as 8 or 9.

I was helping a young schoolboy with an interesting school assignment the other day. He started saying that he was to research, understand and then explain the military strategy that Romans applied when they were occupying Gaul some 2,000 years ago. When I asked him how he was supposed to do that all by himself, and to find the necessary sources of information, given that he is 9 and the subject not that simple or easy, he simply replied “the teacher wants us to do it using the Internet and social networking. Just give me some guidance to start and I’ll take it from there.”

The networks provide great opportunities for adult learning, more particularly, the one they want to get while they have a daytime job and a family and find it hard to go to college. Whereas a plain Google search will provide raw, one-way information, something that does not really qualify as learning or education, virtual communities let you establish a live discussion with other people about the topic you are exploring, with great interaction, an exchange of ideas, of thoughts, get guidance, advice. They let you ask specific questions and receive personalised answers. All the main ingredients that make structured learning and education are there.

 Of course one can always subscribe to formal online learning and even obtain university or university equivalent diplomas this way today. This, however, is different from the above for it is usually paid learning and a rather expensive one. Social networks and virtual communities on the other hand are free, because members help each other freely; they don’t ask you for a fee. Also, the fact that learning though them remains rather informal makes it pleasurable, more enjoyable and less stressful.


 The subject is vast, and some of the United Nations organisations already are recommending using virtual communities to improve learning in most fields.

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