Here’s to the Gray Areas

These days, a popular way to make a splash in the media is by making some drastic proclamation on the future of libraries. These edicts usually start by citing the explosion of ‘free’ information, readily accessible to ‘everyone’ and go on to declare the death of the book or the librarian or the library itself. They spend little time discussing the facts, like accessibility issues, the backlog of digitization, the quality of the cataloguing/indexing of large-scale digitization projects, the false sense of technological confidence and poor assessment skills of younger generations or the history of the integration of new technologies.

As an academic librarian in love with books and technology – and the places where they intersect – I sometimes take these attacks to heart. After all, these declarations are not only assaults on my livelihood and the future of my profession, but indictments of my worldview and vision of our collective, democratic future.

image for 5 myths about the 'Information Age'

from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Bob McGrath

Which is why it was so refreshing to see the article “5 Myths About the ‘Information Age’” by Harvard professor Robert Darnton in The Chronicle of Higher Education today. There are no difficult, futurespeak concepts here. The article lays out the five simple myths and grounds them in plain good sense and a healthy dose of media history. Not only does Darnton point out the issues listed above that are so often missed by the library-slayers, he includes fascinating tidbits like our potential misunderstanding of the nature of reading in past centuries and underlines the current popularity of libraries both on and off campuses.

Darnton is no luddite ivory tower dweller. He’s been at the centre of recent discussions on creating a US national digital public library and sees the endeavor as a step in fulfillment of the democratic potential of his nation. Instead, however, of grabbing a attention with radical rationalizations cheaply achieved, Darnton argues against the sound-bite specialists with a few well-researched statements which pointedly avoid hyperbole.

The most intriguing aspect of this article, for me, is its example as an antithesis which both refutes the end-of-the-library manifesto and shows how a truly considered opinion can be arrived at and constructed. In this guise, it underlines a trend I’ve been noticing develop in social media, one that came up recently in – of all places – an episode of a favourite podcast, WTF with Marc Maron. It was during a very thoughtful and intelligent conversation between Maron and Conan O’Brien that the latter observed that there had been a drift in the North American cultural conversation towards extremism and intolerance on matters of opinion. As the late-night comedian saw it, there was no longer room in the public discourse for nuanced viewpoints or seeing value in things that you’re not passionately in like with. You LOVE it or HATE it, there’s no room for sort-of-liking-the-character-and-attitude-but-not-connecting-with-the-message-so-much-but-it’s-easy-to-see-how-it-connects-with-people-who-had-that-experience…

O’Brien placed the blame for this squarely on the current extremist attitude in US politics and the ongoing fight for national identity, but I think a case can be made that Twitter and Facebook, with their limited-character status updates and tacit encouragement of attention-grabbing declarations (what’s lonelier than a FB status update with no likes or comments?), seem to foster all-or-nothing opinions. Taking over where the TV soundbite left off, the overwhelming interactiveness and content-generation of social media mean the opinions have to get even more extreme to be heard.

Don’t get me wrong – I love social media. There are so many new and exciting ways I can interact with friends, colleagues and strangers. However, more than once, I have stopped myself from commenting or liking a post because I felt I wouldn’t be able to approach the subject honestly or with enough justice to the range of my thoughts and I was reluctant to be misinterpreted by enforced brevity. There are plenty of tools that allow for this deeper interaction, it’s just a matter of promoting the right ones for the right tasks.

The ways in which new technologies play out in our shared and individual lives are never right or wrong – they always contribute in both positive and negative ways to society. Like Darnton, we need to be interested in yesterday, today and tomorrow, as well as in understanding the full and multi-layered trajectory of the path technologies take in our lives. While the extremists are declaring the imminent demise of my livelihood, I’ll be looking for ways to use social media to deepen the discussion and make my chosen career an integral, viable one for many years to come.

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The right balance of personality and information

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker has a nice, brief post today about the impersonality of Twitter and the nice fit that makes for using it as a teaching tool.

This has been something I’ve been thinking about since I started using social media for my work a few years ago. Getting into the social for “business” purposes is tricky, and the potential to become creepy, unwanted intruder is high. This is especially true in FB, where it can feel like you’re wandering univited into a party or someone’s bedroom.

I like Jones’ view that Twitter seems ultra-personal – and has been used in a confessional mode by more than one user (hello @CourtneyLove), but its brevity and simplicity allows for a friendly but professional distance. There are no personal pictures or expectations of a closed “friends only” setting – just the feeds and 140 characters at a time. That isn’t to say libraries shouldn’t be on FB and other social spaces, but navigating those areas is much trickier, especially with undergrads.

My library still has no social media presence (slap my wrist…I’m working on it!) but when I used Twitter (and FB status) to push information in the past, I tried to maintain a friendly-yet-impersonal tone, the same one I’d use for in-person encounters with the students who asked for help. I’m wondering how or if that barrier can be slightly pushed to really maximize student engagement.

Clay Shirky’s Social Media View of the World

One complaint about the idea of new media as a political force is that most people simply use these tools for commerce, social life, or self-distraction, but this is common to all forms of media. Far more people in the 1500s were reading erotic novels than Martin Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses,” and far more people before the American Revolution were reading Poor Richard’s Almanack than the work of the Committees of Correspondence. But those political works still had an enormous political effect. (Shirky, Foreign Affairs, 2011)

Clay Shirky has finally made it.  Often championed as one of the modern thinkers of technology and society, but also maligned as a mere naval-gazing pop intellectual who talks the talk, Shirky’s recent article The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change in the long-renowned journal, Foreign Affairs, has penned some thought provoking gems about the changing political order thanks the effects of ordinary citizens’ use of social media technologies.

Social media have become coordinating tools for nearly all of the world’s political movements, just as most of the world’s authoritarian governments (and, alarmingly, an increasing number of democratic ones) are trying to limit access to it.In response,the U.S. State Department has committed itself to “Internet freedom” as a specific policy aim. Arguing for the right of people to use the Internet freely is an appropriate policy for the United States, both because it aligns with the strategic goal of strengthening civil society worldwide and because it resonates with American beliefs about freedom of expression. But attempts to yoke the idea of Internet freedom to short-term goals-particularly ones that are country-specific or are intended to help particular dissident groups or encourage regime change-are likely to be ineffective on average. And when they fail, the consequences can be serious.

1.  A New Political Science? – What social media has done is essentially re-write the rules of political science and even the social sciences.  It would be impossible to describe the recent political crises in Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Moldova, or Thailand (among the many) without discussing the use of mobile media and online tools by those resisting against authoritarian governments.  Such social technologies have mobilized grassroots citizenry and civic grassroots journalism to not only effecting change in the political landscapes in countries, but ultimately bringing down regimes.

2.   What Is Civil Society? – What social media has down is ultimately breaking down the state’s ability to use violence and oppression, truly allowing for a degree of civil society unheard of before the age of the internet.   Shirky views this as a shift in the balance of power between the state and civil society that has ultimately led to a largely peaceful collapse of communist control.  As such, when civil society triumphs, many of the people who had articulated opposition to the communist regimes-such as Tadeusz Mazowiecki in Poland and Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia- became the new political leaders of those countries.  Communications tools during the Cold War did not cause governments to collapse, but they helped the people take power from the state when it was weak. The same should be seen from the power of social media — perhaps even in a more intensified process.  And we’re witnessing that as we speak.

3.  The “New” Public Sphere – The famed social philosopher Jurgen Haberman’s concept of the public sphere is being challenged and perhaps will soon be thrown right out the window in this age of intensive social media.   Developed during the Renaissance in Western Europe and the United States, Habermas viewed a vibrant public sphere acting as a positive force keeping authorities within bounds lest their rulings be ridiculed.  As such, the public sphere is a place between private individuals and government authorities in which people could meet and have debates about public matters.  With such critical discussions taking place, they anchor as a counterweight to political authority.  The “public spheres” more importantly, happened physically in face-to-face meetings in coffee houses and cafes and public squares as well as in the media in letters, books, drama, and art.  Forward three hundred years, and we’re seeing the physical public sphere turn digital: in the blogosphere, twittersphere, Facebook, and viral video sharing sites.

4.  Communications – Although mass media alone do not change people’s minds, the process does.  As Opinions and ideas are first transmitted by the media, and then they get echoed by friends, family members, and colleagues. Eventually, it is the social network that influences and forms political opinions.  This is the step in which the internet in general, and social media in particular, effects change. As with the printing press, the internet spreads not only media aconsumption, but also media production.  As Shirky argues, “It ultimately allows people to privately and publicly articulate and debate a welter of conflicting views.”  How’s that for social change?

Beyond the Nation-State and Social Media


It’s a recent phenomenon: social media is altering world history.  As the recent Iranian resistance from twittosphere has shown, as well as the recent events in China, Burma, Russia, Tunisia and Egypt resistance, not even the tightly drawn cloak of authoritarian regimes can regulate what seeps through the social web.  Just look at what Wikileaks is doing to open up once tightly withheld information, and ultimately, the political order.

Don Tapscott argues in Macrowikinomics, that we have entered the age of “beyond the nation state.”    Microfinancing, virtual activism, and global agenda partnerships via the social web are but a few developments that are breaking down the nation-state’s grip, and challenging the very notion of its importance to its citizens.  Non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) are clearly gaining legitimacy and relevance, even by nation-states.   NGO’s have become effective change agents. And social media is only intensifying this change.

Vancouver-based HootSuite is one example of how social media is challenging the stronghold of the notion of the state.  In particular, social media  helping people in Egypt circumvent the government’s shutdown of the Internet.  Hootsuite, which offers social media portal feed for cross-posting to Twitter and Facebook, is reporting that signups are up sevenfold this month in Egypt, with the most from this past week of January — mostly from mobile devices.

The company, which offers users a social media dashboard for posting to Twitter, Facebook and other social networks, reports that signups are up sevenfold this month in Egypt, with most in the past week and most from mobile devices.   Blocking Internet access and text messaging as well as Twitter and Facebook, the Egyptian government hasn’t deterred its people from going through proxy servers or using third-party applications like HootSuite and TweetDeck to voice their dissent.

Here’s something interesting: although HootSuite users who had already signed up before the Internet are being shut down in Egypt, they are still able to use the service as new users who must register a new account online at twitter.com.   Moreover, iPhone users can sign up for new HootSuite accounts through the mobile app.  From all the developments we’re witnessing about the transformational change social media has afforded us, it’s changing the course of history as well.   We’ll see more in the upcoming years ahead.

Social Media and Information Retrieval

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how information is retrieved from social media applications. Given the sheer volume of information that’s being produced even as I type this post, it can feel overwhelming even to keep up with the relatively small number of blogs and feeds I follow daily. One of the issues is that, while I might find something interesting, I may not have a context or need for that particular piece of information at the moment, and it quickly disappears from view. Given the explosion of search tools for managing social media, I suspect I’m not the only one with this problem. Being able to retrieve things at point of need is becoming increasingly essential, and increasingly difficult. I recently took a more in-depth look at the search engine Social Mention, but there are tons of these tools out there, like Who’s Talkin, Technorati, and Samepoint. Do you use any of these tools? What are your favourites?

What’s your library’s digital influence score?

The major finding of the 2010 Digital Influence Index — released by Fleishman-Hillard International this week — emphasizes the Internet and its importance for consumers worldwide. The study measures the degree of use of digital goods, services and behaviors including social media. The DII now includes ~50% of the global online population in France, Germany, Canada, China, Japan, the UK and the United States.

The Digital Influence Index sheds some light on the global influence of the ‘Net on our lives along these themes:

  1. Lack of funding: Globally, the digital dominates in influence. The ‘Net is the most important medium in the lives of consumers everywhere but many countries continue to underinvest in it.
  2. On the edge: Asian users are early adopters. The ‘Net is the most important medium in all countries, especially in China, home to the world’s largest and fastest-growing population of online users.
  3. Canadians are social: Sixty-nine per cent of Canadian consumers have a Facebook account, compared with 47 per cent across the seven countries. While Canadians use social media, they are cautious about how much they reveal online. 
  4. Beyond mainstream: The digital is core to decisions worldwide for research, the economy and peer influence. The Internet plays an integral role in decision-making.
  5. Information overload: More users are trying social media, sharing everything and generating content — alot of personal information is shared and too little of it (in raw form) is useful.
  6. Trust: some users trust the most when they have access to multiple sources — and their networks are important sources.
  7. Contracted bloggers are not trusted: Net users report low trust in content produced by sponsored or paid bloggers.
  8. Real-time channels: microbloggers trust those that engage in real time, and who monitor online activities. They view online listening as a sign that organizations care about them. ~75% percent of survey respondents say companies that microblog — sending short, frequent messages via Twitter or status updates on Facebook — are more deserving of their trust than others.
  9. Mobility gap: As services and speed accelerate in uptake, mobile users are buying smartphones in droves — but realize only a fraction of their potential. While the mobile Internet is growing, a gap exists between what mobiles can do and what individuals use them for…
  10. Where now?: Will the Net grow or flatten out in years to come? Will users influence its growth? Answers vary in various parts of the world but in China it is a resounding “yes!” 24 per cent of Canadians believe that the Net will have an influence on their decisions in the next two years.

References

Here comes “The Social Network” [Film]

David Fincher’s new film The Social Network arrives in movie theatres in October. Columbia Pictures has put out a poster with the Mark Zuckerberg character on the cover with the caption “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” The Social Network stars Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake and Andrew Garfield. It is based on the book The Accidental Billionaires and Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook.

Fincher says:

“What did it feel like for someone like him to be 17 to 21 and have all these venture capitalists tapping him on the shoulder and saying, ‘Come over here’? If success accelerates the process of you becoming who you really are, how does that work when success happens so rapidly? How we feel about Zuckerberg is not how I see the story. The way I see drama, the context is the story.