Thursday, December 7, 2006

Metacognition: Helping People be Stupid in Public Forums

As of this entry, I’ll be kicking off posts by summarizing any new vocab words up front for newbies; other folks can scan past them.
  • Newbie (or n00b): a newcomer to a field. Internet lingo term used sometimes amiably, sometimes as a pejorative. : )
  • Meta: a tricky concept. A “meta” idea is, roughly, an idea that is about a subset of itself. For example, “How Joe writes blogs” is meta to its subset, which is “how Joe’s Dec 11, 2006 blog entry is written.” The first sentence in this entry (about putting term definitions in blog entries) is meta to this list.
  • Metacognition: the study of how we think (i.e. thinking about how you think about things). When you take classes on how to study, or meditate to observe and silence your thoughts, that’s a metacognitive process.

Metacognition is particularly interesting to social systems folks, because we treat crowds as a kind of semi-thinking organism which may be influenced and eventually trained. When an individual learns how to learn (i.e. gets meta to learning), he greatly magnifies his operational intelligence. When an individual learns how people learn, or how they reason or make decisions, she becomes able to create very influential (even Machiavellian) political policy, for example, or social software.

I recently stumbled on an excellent, highly intelligible blog called Creating Passionate Users. It focuses on metacognition, with an emphasis on using metacognitive tools to achieve goals in various computer/network applications.

Last week (Dec 3) featured an interesting post is called How to Build a User Community (pt 1) by Kathy Sierra. Sierra proposes a way to encourage participants to stay active, learn, and feel needed in online user forums as those people move slowly up the ranks of expertise. It could, though, just as easily be applied in a number of other organizational situations.

Her suggestions focus around encouraging late-beginner-to-intermediate users to try to answer (the inevitable flood of) newbie questions in public forums, without fear of being looked at as foolish if their answers are wrong. I like this: it’s an approach that encourages smooth and circular information flow, while capitalizing on some inherent human drives (to not look stupid or be irritating, to participate, to be useful.)

Here are her main points; see the blog for a full explanation. There’s also a lengthy scroll of reader discussion at the bottom.

  1. Encourage newer users–especially those who’ve been active askers–to start trying to answer questions
  2. Give tips on how to answer questions
  3. Tell them it’s OK to guess a little, as long as they ADMIT they’re guessing
  4. Adopt a near-zero-tolerance “Be Nice” policy when people answer questions
  5. Teach and encourage the more advanced users (including moderators) how to correct a wrong answer while maintaining the original answerer’s dignity.
  6. Re-examine your reward/levels strategy for your community

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