Monday, August 1, 2011

What the Bible can teach us about Personal Learning Networks: Spermalogos & Twitter birds

Yesterday, while reading Acts 17:18, I stumbled upon the rather intriguing term "spermalogos."If you're not up on your New Testament Bible stories, let me briefly set the scene for you. In this verse, the apostle Paul has just arrived in Athens and finds himself in the Greek agora preaching the gospel of Christ to a bunch of philosophers. The reaction from the philosophers? A baffled "What is this spermalogos trying to say?"

The NIV translation says they called him a "babbler" and explains that the term refers to a "bird picking up seeds here and there" and that it eventually "came to refer to the loafer in the marketplace who picked up whatever scraps of learning he could find." A bird picking up scraps of information from others? Maybe it's just me, and I'm ripe for another social media fast, but when I read this, I couldn't strike this picture from my mind of a little blue Twitter bird flying around the social web, occasionally picking up a seed of wisdom from its personal learning network (PLN). Kind of like this:

I love that metaphor! But there's more to it. The NIV study notes further clarify that a spermalogos picks up these scraps of learning and then parades them around without digesting them himself. What a great way to depict the limits of a personal learning network. There is no learning without digestion. Okay, strike that - that didn't sound so good. Let's try again: In order to learn from the seeds of wisdom provided by our PLN, we have to carefully examine them, question them, absorb them. We can't just skim over information in a superficial attempt to digest it.

Unfortunately, the fast paced nature of the social web might be priming us to do just that (see Nicolas Carr's book The Shallows for a very grim view on this issue). Even if you don't quite buy Carr's argument that we are losing our ability to read and think deeply, raise your hand if you have ever retweeted information from your PLN without having (fully) read the information contained in it! As much as I hate to admit it, I know I have. And I know it happens quite a bit - especially when you see a tweet retweeted in your timeline seconds after the original tweet went out. Parading scraps of information around without digesting them first? Sounds a lot like the practice of retweeting without first studying the information contained in a tweeted link, doesn't it?

It also reminds me of the practice of bundling tweets and repackaging them in newspaper style format through services such as or Although these sites refer to themselves as content curation services, I wonder if what they are being used for should really be called curation. Aggregation maybe, but curation? If all we do is bundle undigested pieces of wisdom together to share with others, have we really curated anything? A true curator adds a point of view and contextualizes the scraps of information s/he is culling together thereby framing the message. In order to curate then, we need to provide a frame to hold each precious little piece of wisdom, but in order to develop that frame, we first need to digest the information (for an excellent read on the topic of frames & curation, I suggest Maria Popova's piece on curation as a new kind of authorship). Aggregation may be possible without digestion, but curation sure isn't.

Back to Paul though. So these philosophers who according to Acts spent their time hanging out doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas, just called him a spermalogos (or in my version of the story, a blue Twitter bird). Although this may sound like an insult, some people have pointed out that that's not necessarily the case. These idea hungry philosophers saw him as someone who having picked up bits and pieces of wisdom here and there, could "make a significant contribution to their understanding."And there's a lesson in that as well. As we travel around the social web, we need to remember that we can gather scraps of wisdom from the people we encounter there. In a way we're all spermalogos traveling around the Internet. Or maybe we're Athenians picking up the bits and pieces of wisdom our PLN leaves behind everyday around the market place of ideas which is Twitter. For us to learn from these ideas though, let's not forget to take the time to truly absorb and digest them.