About This Post

In this rather long post I describe some personal stories of benefits I have gained from my social networking communities. And rather than the focus on the professional benefits of such services which I have described in previous posts in my final post before Christmas I suggest that the main benefits of the Social Web can be gained from its use in a personal context.

A Mini-Adventure In Lucca

After travelling to Florence to present a paper on “Empowering Users and Institutions: A Risks and Opportunities Framework for Exploiting the Social Web” at the Cultural Heritage Online 2009 conference I felt this provided an ideal opportunity for a well-deserved and belated holiday.

So I’m spending a week travelling around the well-known tourist highlights of Tuscancy including Lucca, Siena and Pisa.

My holiday began, however, with a visit to Danny Ayers, who lives in the Tuscan Hills, about an hour from Lucca I met Danny at the WWW 2007 conference in Banff, although I’d come across his name prior to that and was aware of his interests in the Semantic Web. After getting to know Danny better over a few drinks in Banff, and knowing from his Twitter profile that he lived near Lucca I tweeted Danny asking if he fancied meeting up. In response Danny invited me so stay over at his, an invitation I was happy to accept.

Unfortunately I hadn’t realised that Danny lived with two large (but friendly) dogs and two cats. And as I have been free from asthma attacks for a few years I had failed to bring along my inhaler. So although I enjoyed my visit to Garfagnana and eating and drinking in Danny’s local bar, as I felt slightly short of breath, I left the next day, to travel to Lucca.

The trip to my B&B in Lucca as uneventful – apart from the difficulty I had crossing the town walls – the path down was covered in ice and despite holding on to the rail I slipped trying to walk down and again trying to stand up (and I was carrying a rucksack and bag containing my netbook at the time). I eventually found some ice-free steps and made it to my accommodation or the next two days.

That first night, however, was difficult. My breathing had unexpectedly got worse – I had thought that the mild asthma attack I had when the dogs were licking me would be as bad as it would get. This was not the case. And when I found that I had ifficulty walking downstairs the next morning and was breathless speakeing to the receptionist I knew I needed to see a doctor.

Within 15 minutes the paramedics arrived and shortly after that an ambulance arrived which took me to the local hospital. Over the next few hours blood samples were taken, my chest was xrayed and I was discharged with a prescription (for the Ventolin I should have taken with me). I was also given a CD containing a copy of my Xray (is that normal practice thse days?)

After getting back to my B&B I sent a tweet containing a brief summary of my adventures:

Ambulance took me to Lucca Hospital, after suffering from asthma attack. Still haven’t seen much of town 🙁

And in response I received a number of supportive tweets, some from people I know and others from people I’ve never met. And this made me reflect on the benefits of the personal online network.

My Personal Online Network

I had given some thoughts to the possible benefits of a personal online network over a year ago, during a holiday in Malaysia and Thailand. I used Twitter to provide an update of my travels, as a high-tech version of the postcard. But the interactive aspect provided benefits not possible with the postcard – and Frank Norman’s suggestion of a temple to visit when I announced my arrival in Penang took me to an impressive temple which I might have missed otherwise (this story only slightly spoilt by Frank responding to my Facebook status update rather than my tweet!)

But it was when I arrived in Bangkok when I started to think about the possible benefits which Twitter can provide to one’s personal safety. This was another reason for my tweets – to provide a public audit trail of my travels, so if anything untoward happened there would be public awareness of my whereabouts. Incidentally I also kept a record of places I stayed at and had booked on Tripit and gave read access to the account to some trusted friends for similar reasons.

But it was on my penultimate day of my holiday that I became aware of possible personal risks. I vaguely wondered why the traffic down a previously busy main road had disappeared and hen I took the opportunity to cross the road I was told to stop walking and remain still, Moments later a motorcade passed by with police outriders and a large limousine – but none of the locals would respond when I asked who the dignitary was. The following day, while waiting for a taxi to the airport the same thing happened. This time I was prepared, and had my camera ready to take a surreptitious photograph – and noticed the concerned reaction from those nearby. Yes a week befoe “Thai Protesters Force Airport Closure, Bomb Injures 4” I was possibly taking a photograph of the Thai prime minister.

Yes I know I was probably being foolish (I’ve read the story of the British train spotters who were imprisoned for pursuing their hobby in countries with harsh regimes). But I was also somewhat foolish in not taking my inhaler with me to Italy. So what I feel I need is a support network I can call on in case of difficulties -but which is also valuable at other times.

Real World Networks

Of course the value of networks is nothing new. But rather than an old school network or networks identified by protocols such as knowing which way to pass the port around the table or a secret handshake I’m interested in open and democratic networks. And I’m also interested in social networks which exploit the potential of online technologies.

Open and Online Social Networks

I don’t have a name for such networks. I’ve heard people use the term Personal Learning Network, Personal Learning Environment and Personal Research Environment. And although this may describe my professional use of tools such as Twitter I think such terms will be misleading for those who don’t work in the educational sector.

I also think such networks should be technologically neutral – alhough Twitter works for me, many or my non-professional contacts don’t use Twitter and are happy to make use of Facebook.

I should also add that I don;t think such networks need be trusted networks. As the networks are open, newcomers can join – and I need to make my own risk assessment in judging how I respond to their comments. After all I’m familiar with this in the context of email when friendly souls are willing to share millions of pounds they have unexpectedly been beneficiaries of 🙂

There are also dangers in misunderstandings arising in such open social networks – as Paul Boag’s story of how his “Help” tweet was misinterpretted a year ago.

But although there can be risks in using such social networks, perhaps the risks of not having a thriving and sustainable social network may be greater. And perhaps traveling abroad without having such a network to provide support in case of problems will be regarded in the same light as travelling without insurance – although you could do this, it wouldn’t be regarded as a sensible decision.

Finally I’d like to wish everyone in my social network a happy Christmas and all the best for the New Year.