Go first to your old plant and watch carefully the watercourse made by the rain. By now the rain must have carried the seeds far away. Watch the crevices made by the runoff, and from them determine the direction of the flow. Then find the plant that is growing at the farthest point from your plant. All the devil's weed plants that are growing in between are yours. Later … you can extend the size of your territory by following the watercourse from each point along the way. (88)
This is the best practical advice I have seen for navigating the Net, and it graphically captures my own sense of how I explore my own personal learning network: watch the crevices, determine the direction of the flow, follow the watercourse from each point along the way. It fits nicely with what Cheun-Ferng Koh says about mapping the rhizome: a process of active construction based on flexible and functional experimentation, requiring and capitalizing on feedback. Follow this crevice, often to a dead-end, back up, float further downstream, follow another crevice, find something interesting, and link it to my blog, reader, social bookmarking tool, or all three. Gradually, over time, my PLN has emerged with some well-worn pathways between me and others, and with a wealth of offshoots still to explore.
I want to stop for a quick aside. I started this exploration of how to build a PLN with Step One: Create an Online Identity and Presence. Well, I had to start somewhere, but I must note that I could as easily have started here, with Step One: Connect to Others. In some ways, it makes more sense to start here, but either way, it really doesn't matter. Indeed, you might as well start with both steps, doing both simultaneously. Writing demands something of a linear progression in describing a process, and most of us want a clearly delineated Step One, Step Two process, but that strict linear progression does not really capture the dynamic, experimental approach required of navigation in the rhizome. Strict, classically arranged process papers do not allow for asides, such as this one, but descriptions of the rhizome demand it. So start with whatever step makes sense at the time.
Actually, our decision early on to emphasize either creating an identity or connecting to others depends a great deal on our own status. If we are already professionals with a firm professional identity and a grasp of the scope of our professional conversation, then we may begin our PLN with establishing our own online identity. If on the other hand, we are students with an embryonic professional identity and only a shaky grasp of the profession's conversation, then we may begin our PLN with an emphasis on connecting to others more experienced than ourselves. And in true rhizomatic fashion, we will sometimes emphasize one approach and sometimes the other, depending on the PLN we are creating. When I started both my professional and my personal PLNs, I initially emphasized my own identity, having a fairly strong sense of what I already thought about connecting and collaborating in online environments on the one hand and my role in my network of friends and family on the other. I was confident that I already had value to add to both those networks, so I emphasized my stuff. However, when I began to develop a network about creating online videos, I emphasized connecting to others who knew much more about video cams, storyboarding, filming, editing, and YouTube. I had no identity as a videographer, so I wisely kept my mouth shut and read and watched until I was familiar with the conversation.
And this brings me nicely to what could be a separate point about creating PLNs, but I'll include it here as an aside to an aside: Step One: Learn the Conversation.
When you find an interesting conversation on the Net, spend some time learning the scope and tone of the conversation before you butt in. This is obviously important for newbies and students, but it is just as important for professionals, who can assume that they know where the conversation is going when they really don't. Nothing will annoy an existing group more than having a new person speak in a loud voice either about something they don't understand as well as the group does or about something that the group has already discussed and closed. If you don't want to get a curt RTFM or an annoyed bugger off message, then read the freaking manual before you talk. Review the group's FAQ, scan the blog's archives, google the people in the conversation, look at the group's video channels, attend to the group's tone of conversation. Form some idea of who you're talking to and what they're talking about and how they want to relate to each other. Then jump in if the conversation still interests you.
Well, let's return to connecting to others. How do you find interesting sites to begin with? Lots of ways. Make note of sites that you hear about in the actual world from your colleagues and other experts—at this conference, for instance. Net links are a ubiquitous and common aspect of professional life, and if you are attentive, then you will have no problem picking up the addresses of more interesting sites than you will have time to visit.
Then, conduct your own network search. Google your favorite passion, something such as massively multiplayer online role-playing games to connect to more than you will ever want to know about Second Life and World of Warcraft. Google a noted scholar or personality. Use more than one search engine. As fine a tool as it is, Google is not the only way to search the Net. Want to find music files? Try MP3Realm and TuneFind. Want to find videos? Use ClipBlast and Blinkx. And don't overlook the other general purpose search engines: Yahoo!, Bing, and WolframAlpha. Each of them can do something that Google doesn't. Study the advanced search techniques for the various search engines, and become more adept at extending and refining your searches. Trust me: with more than one hundred terabytes of information on the public Net, you'll have no problem finding something about anything.
While using the search engines are wonderful, they have one shared problem: they too often lead you down unproductive paths. A more focused method for finding new connections is following the connections your connections follow. Most every blog that I read avidly has links to other blogs that share similar interests and orientations, or often better, to blogs that provide a rich and fertile access point to an entirely different conversation that can still contribute to the current conversation. These cross-boundary links are often the most productive for me.