As of today, there are a number of free online applications that can be used in different combinations to build an online knowledge network. One of the key factors in determining where to begin is the question “who are my (hoped for) participants”. Understanding who you want to contribute and collaborate will help establish some important factors you will use to select your applications. Issues such as the general level of technical proficiency of your participants and the need for secure storage of works in progress (or research) will help set the initial boundaries for selection.
For broad public access, with a low barrier for entry, Facebook offers a good starting point. Creating a Facebook group will allow you to connect with your initial network while facilitating its growth. The nearly ubiquitous penetration of Facebook across a broad spectrum of the population will help in reaching out to your hoped for participants.
In combination with Facebook, a blog can provide a valuable repository for documents and longer form articles and updates. Authorship on a blog can (and likely should be) more strictly controlled and monitored. This is a necessity to manage spam and unwanted posts. This can also create a tiered membership – with trusted sources given access to the blog for posting. Framed correctly this can act as an aspiration for motivated participants of a more open forum (Facebook). Framed incorrectly this can easily replicate a dynamic of power that devalues contributions from your larger network.
With these two elements you can build the foundations of an online knowledge network. Both components can feed into each other, so that awareness of activity is maintained in both ‘locations’. Additional elements can be integrated to grow the capabilities of the network in a staged and thoughtful manner to either expand the capabilities of your network, or publicize its work. These elements are discussed below.
Twitter – is a micro-blogging platform, and the case could be made that it should comprise one of the foundational elements of your network. Twitter is a network, in and of itself, with a user group that can overlap with Facebook. But Twitter has some unique features and benefits that recommend it as an important expansion of your network.
Twitter allows you to connect with other users and organizations that may not be direct members of your knowledge network, but who work in related organizations or fields. You can use Twitter to maintain awareness of their activities and inform them (if they are following you) of your activity. Many times new resources are shared on Twitter that can be of value to you and your network. This shared discovery of new resources is one of the strengths of twitter and is especially effective if you take time to follow users who are relevant to your knowledge domain.
Twitter also allows you to broadcast updates from your blog. For example, every time one of your blog users posts a new update or article, the blog can send a message to twitter that will then be broadcast to your followers.
Google Drive, or Dropbox can provide secure or private collaborative space and document storage. This can be useful if you are developing new materials, or sharing resources that may have restrictions on them (copy write issues, works in progress). The use of this type of tool demands a bit more technological skill, but is likely well within the ability range of your network members.
Youtube is for video. If and when you are generating video (captured talks, narrated powerpoints, documentation of community activity) uploading them to youtube offers many benefits. Youtube can be integrated into many blogging platforms, provides free storage and bandwidth and can help grow awareness of your activities and intent.