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What’s this blog for?

What’s this blog for?

As online writing moves to other places, why on earth do I still have a blog?

I experience work as constant learning, about what librarians and librarianship are becoming, and also about management and leadership and how people interact with both. I am forever a work in progress. This blog is a place where I capture my observations and learning in a longer form. It’s primarily an archive for myself, but I’m happy to share it with others.

Twitter and Libraries

Twitter and Libraries

In preparation for our new library website, I have been working on some social media policies. I’ve never really been much of a policy person before, but I recognize that because I am bringing in some standard social media tools, I’m going to have to define some best practices. I got my first blog in 2001 and had many conversations back then and ever since about what is and is not appropriate content; I’ve had many years to think about it and get comfortable with my own boundaries. As I prepare to give each content creator in our library a blog, I realize that a policy might be the best way to share some of that experience. No need for everyone to stub their toes and scrape their knees via a professional medium.

Blogging policies are actually pretty easy to generate these days. There are tons of them around, since many industries encourage corporate/professional blogging, and most have developed policies for them. Maybe it’s also easier to do because we have, I think, determined the distinction between a personal blog (like this one) and a professional one. It’s not a foreign concept.

The hard part comes when trying to come up with a Twitter policy.

I posted both my draft blogging policy and my draft twitter policy on twitter to get some feedback from people who use these services. Here there are for your information. The Blogging policy starts with the legal and then moves into guidelines; the Twitter one doesn’t have as much legal, I think the general TOS of Twitter covers that.

These two are actually contained in one document on my side; I split them up because at first I wasn’t going to post the Twitter policy. I thought it would be…controversial, not helpful to anyone else, not useful outside our very specific context. I expected it to be widely disliked. I think what people are expecting is something more like this; some friendly guidelines that help a librarian engage with her patrons by treating Twitter as a personal, interactive communication medium. My guidelines are very nearly the opposite of that.

Now: as a librarian who uses Twitter a lot, follows a lot of librarians, and gets into a lot of discussions on Twitter about library issues, I understand where people are going with their personal guidelines. I suppose I think I’m the last person in the world who should tell another librarian how to use Twitter personally. As a person. As themselves. For themselves. For their own development. Reading through those guidelines, I can almost hear the chorus coming from all the non-Twitter, non-social media librarians of the world: “When am I supposed to find the time for that?!” I love using Twitter to share and question and communicate, but I’m not sure it’s the best use of an institution’s time. Which is why my policy runs counter to what I do personally.

So I guess my policy isn’t so much for the people who want to use Twitter the way I do. It’s for people who don’t, who have no interest in social media, but who still need to communicate with their patrons in the widest possible way.

Here are the reasons why I want to use Twitter for our library website and for our digital signage:

  • It’s easier/less intimidating to post to Twitter than to write a professional, thoughtful blog post
  • Because it’s so easy, I’m hoping I can convince the uncertain to make easy updates via Twitter that I can distribute throughout the website in key, relevant places
  • Twitter updates are the perfect size to feed onto our brand new digital signage, which is mounted in front of every elevator and pointing at every angle in our Information Commons
  • I can get many updates a day from library staff to the digital signage without having a login to the digital signage software
  • I can invite many people to update a single Twitter feed without opening the website up to risk by having many people update one node
  • I can get student staff input on a Twitter feed without giving them content creator status on the website
  • Unlike our website, Twitter can be updated from a phone, which means we are more likely to get rapid updates from our campus partners and IT staff
  • My current means of communicating things like “Blackboard is down! It’s not just you! We’re working on it!” is to write it on a white board and roll it out in front of the main doors.

I’m not planning to use Twitter for Twitter’s sake. I am advocating the use of Twitter as a broadcast medium, as unpopular as that might be. I’m not sure Twitter is really at its best when it’s conversational, though I may be in the minority on that. There are so many better conversational media, and we’re using those too. We’ll have mulitple meebo widgets scattered throughout the site; some staff want a personal one. If you want to have a conversation, we will ensure that you can. Twitter actually is a broadcast medium, as far as I can tell.

Maybe this is a redefinition of the term “broadcast”. On Twitter, I broadcast my thoughts, my ideas. When I’m at a conference, I broadcast a lot. My use in that case isn’t dependent on anyone reading my broadcast or responding to it. If someone broadcasts their own response to what I’m saying, I can broadcast a response back. Blogs are a broadcast medium as well, in very much the same way, in spite of all the hype about the conversationality of blogging. Just because it’s a broadcast medium doesn’t mean we’re not paying attention to its context or responding to questions or comments around it. Not using Twitter to @reply to singular users in public doesn’t make it less useful, in my opinion. Or even less personal, less engaging, or less a good use of the medium.

The great thing about Twitter is that I can use it this way and it won’t affect anyone else at all; in fact, I don’t really care how many other Twitter users follow our broadcast Twitter account. I don’t anticipate that our students will; almost none of them (statistically) are on Twitter to start with, or have any interest in using it. I don’t want to exclude them by using Twitter-specific conventions or lingo. My goal is not to draw them into Twitter or increase their use of social media (not with this initiative, at least). Our use of Twitter in this way serves our needs first; we have vital information to distribute to students in our own building and campus, and currently have very limited means of doing so. We’re going to use Twitter to distribute it in a way we’ve never been able to do before. If it happens to serve a Twitter community at the same time, I’m delighted.

In short: I wrote a couple of social media policies for libraries as institutions rather than for librarians as individuals. They may or may not be useful, interesting, or appropriate to your situation. I’m still not sure how I feel about them myself. But I will certainly be tracking how it works this year.

Any feedback or comments on the policies is gratefully accepted, and will probably spawn more navel-gazing and fussing on my part.

Best. Era. Ever.

Best. Era. Ever.

I was thinking, while reading various articles about twitter, and interactive learning, and participatory culture, and fandoms, that I’m so glad I live when I do. I’m glad I was able to be around to see the birth of things like blogs and virtual worlds and all kinds of interactive applications of the internet. So much is still unformed, undefined; the blessing and curse of the early days of the social internet is that we get to do the defining. We don’t have buck a trend, we get to try out the new stuff and give them meaning to the wider culture. We get to be as imaginative as we can.

That’s so cool.



I wanted to follow up on and extend a recent tweet:

At what point does online sharing become performance? Is it always performance from the start, or does it morph as people start to watch?
11:21 PM Feb 21st from web

I was thinking about the fact that I’m flying out to Drupal4Lib unconference/camp at the Darien Public Library in Connecticut today, and each time I go to a conference where lots of ideas are flying around me, I try to capture the ones that really resonate with me on Twitter. I also use Twitter to respond to speakers when I can’t interrupt them. I use it particularly when I think my opinions will be unpopular or not particularly well accepted. Now that there are a few more people following me on twitter, many of whom I respect a great deal, I’m a bit hesitant to tweet as freely as I want to. As often as I want to. And that hesitation bothers me.

Sure, perhaps I need a little hesitation before I go publishing my ideas and responses and thoughts to the world, right? But I don’t like it. I like sharing, but I’m ambivalent about the general concept of an audience.

I guess deep down I don’t think about online sharing as sharing with an audience until I’m sharing with X number of people. That number isn’t something I’m aware of, I just sense that there is a tipping point in there somewhere.

I have permanent status now (i.e., tenure) , so I’m happier to share this fact: back during the process of dropping out of a phd program in history, I got deeply involved in a fandom community. I wrote a lot. I wrote somewhere around 400K words of fanfiction in the space of about 9 months. It was escapist, particularly to a world where the characters were all generated by someone else, and thus has nothing to do with the devastating and identity-altering reality of my existence. It was nice to inhabit a space where I didn’t exist. Call it a coping mechanism, but I learned more about social networks and technology in aid of collaboration and creativity in that space than I did anywhere else. I have a deep affection for fandom communities and I still try to follow their meanderings. One of the things I learned as part of a fandom community was the power of an audience.

When I started writing in fandom, I did so in total obscurity. I threw myself into writing, something I hadn’t done in years and I really enjoyed. It was like coming out of the darkness into the sunshine. It was incredibly therapeutic. I had been through some difficult times; a terrible break-up, heartbreak, depression, hatred of my program, loneliness, loss of identity. A lot of old feelings resurfaced. Writing was excellent therapy. I had a blog in my own name at the time, but I started a new one with my fandom identity on Livejournal, which was (and still is) the place where fandom congregated. I loved my livejournal. I loved talking about writing process, about ideas, scenes, character motivations; I loved writing about writing. It was profoundly internal, profoundly navel-gazing, and so much fun. I needed to be inside and outside at the same time; I needed to sort out so much but I didn’t want to face in myself. I can’t express how useful this process was; not just writing the fanfiction, but processing the whys and hows and sharing ideas. I had no idea how much of myself I was processing with it. (Easier to see in hindsight.)

My lengthy and frequent blog musings were okay at first. Not at all abnormal in a fandom community. But then I started to attract an audience. I was writing slash (gay romance) fiction revolving around a very popular pairing of characters, so there was a wide audience of readers for what I was so feverishly producing. Fanfiction writers tend to attract an audience, and they generally want to. It’s great to get feedback on what you’re writing. And that feedback is instantaneous. When I finished and posted a story, I would have responses to it within 10 minutes, and 60 or 70 responses within a half hour. (This is not a record: people writing more mainstream fanfiction with heterosexual pairings got far, far more responses than I would.) Many people in fandom have no interest in writing, but write to be a part of the community. Sharing writing is, I would argue, a form of gift exchange. Those of us who wrote a lot were presumably owed a lot in return; the return is feedback, recommendations, reviews, and attention in general. For people like me, noses stuck firmly in their own navels and there just for the sheer therapy/fun of it, this economy completely evaded my notice. I was getting more and more attention for my writing, albeit only from a segment of the fandom itself. I wasn’t at the top of the food chain when it comes to attention-getters, but the attention I received was certainly nothing to sneeze at. By this I mean a registered audience of a few thousand, and an unregistered audience of many more thousands. Not the millions people get with a viral youtube video in 2009, but a few thousand (8 or 9) is quite a bit for any normal individual, particularly back in 2001.

With a fairly large audience, the nature of my livejournal changed. While I still wanted to talk about process and ideas and all this internality that brought me to the community in the first place, somehow it wasn’t okay to do so anymore. With the podium I had, it was understood as incredibly selfish of me to only talk about myself and my own ideas. Suddenly it became important for me to talk about other people’s work at least as often as my own (ideally more often). Now that I think of it, maybe I’ve got this gift economy thing all backwards; what if the economy has nothing to do with the writing and everything to do with the attention? Increasingly I felt pressure to give back; more comments, more reviews, more shout-outs and recommendations; my livejounal couldn’t be my private writing space anymore. It now had to be more outward-looking. I had to give back to my audience, I had to give them the attention they were giving me. I didn’t have the space to just have fun with it anymore. Fun had to benefit others now, I had already got my share. Others, who didn’t have the attention I had, could do what I used to do, writing down their thoughts and sharing ideas with their friends. It was silencing and sad.

A friend of mine had many times the amount of attention that I got, and I saw how it crippled her public posting. Her livejournal had gone from, like mine, being a place to natter on about what she was thinking about and turned more into a means through which to inform her audience of something (updates, teasers for her next chapter, etc.), to discuss other people’s work, the larger themes of the community, and to weigh in on the “right” side of any debate. It became public property.

Perhaps fandom is a unique entity when it comes to relationships with online audiences, but I don’t think it is. This is why I objected to ranking librarian blogs when Walt proposed it. My reaction is over-heated, but this is where I’m coming from. I’m not a high-profile librarian blogger, and I’m planning to keep it that way. I like to be able to muse about whatever I feel like musing about, be that Second Life, or cancer, or the book I’m currently reading, or random conversations with my friends. I want to be able to use twitter in the way that fits best with my personality, too.

So in response to my own question posted above: I think there is a difference between sharing online and having an audience. Sharing online is fun and productive; I love using twitter to record my reactions to things and my epiphanies, because I like to share them with friends and family, and I like to get feedback from people with similiar or radically different opinions. I like their perspectives to shape my epiphanies as they’re being formed. I find that brings my thinking to a higher level. But somehow there’s a line in the sand there, and I’m not sure where it is, between sharing with a group and having an audience. I find the audience gratifying, but oppressive after a certain point. I don’t have the wherewithall to rise above the expectations of a full, demanding audience. Good thing I can twitter and blog in gentle near-obscurity. That’s just how I like it.

Edited to add: Hmmm. This is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about.

Not Everyone Lives Like Me

Not Everyone Lives Like Me

What a relevation.

When I first started this blog, back when it was on blogspot and it was pseudonymous, no one had the rules about what you should and shouldn’t put online. It was still early days. We experimented, we reflected, we discussed. I remember being told that I shouldn’t mention that my doctor had put me on an anti-depressant when I found myself unable to get excited about the phd program I was in. You can talk about a broken leg, but not a set of broken synapses. At the time I thought: why shouldn’t I write about things I don’t mind others knowing? Each person needs to determine their comfort level.

Time went on. Everyone was still talking about it (and, I suppose, they still are, aren’t they). Yes, anything you publish online can be seen by in-laws, employers, potential employers, potential dates, etc. But if you take that into account and think, yes, well, I struggled, I survived; why not talk about it? Isn’t it okay? If you accept that someone might take issue with you one day? Or if you know, if anyone WERE to take issue with you because of it, they aren’t someone you’d want to date/spend time with/work for?

I have deliberately held things back from this blog, many times, with those things in mind. Anything I wasn’t sure I really wanted my real name associated with, I didn’t put here. And when I was having biopsies and was scared out of my skull about my health, I shut up on here. That was purely out of fear and denial.

I’ve been blogging for 9 years now, and I’m fairly comfortable with what I’m willing to put on my blog. When I started working, I wondered about what was appropriate, but nearly four years in, I think I’ve mostly got a grip on that as well.

I’m not used to people being uncomfortable with it.

Most of the people I’m close to have had blogs for years and think nothing of it. When I meet up with people, they are often “my kind”, and are hip to the blog thing. I mean, so hip it’s square. Blogs are dead. Me and Jason finally agree: yes, blogs are dead, because blogs are everywhere. Everyone has one, so yeah, their novelty is gone.

But not everyone is in the same place as me. Not everyone is comfortable looking at people’s lives online. I remember once in a while someone used to tell me that they feel like voyeurs when reading blogs, but I’ve never understood that. Anyone with a blog knows someone might read it. There’s no reason to feel secretive about it.

But that’s my realization today: not everyone has gotten immune to the fact that everyone can create content at the drop of a hat with the internet. Inner dialogues now have a platform on places like twitter and facebook. Our insides are coming out.

I’m used to it. I love it. I’m comfortable with it. I like to engage with the world around me on a deep level. I don’t particularly do well having casual friends; I have intense friendships, or nothing. So this user-generated web is absolutely up my alley. Why only know the surface when you can dig deeper?

But that’s not everyone’s perspective. I know, not a revelation to you. It’s just a reminder to me. My way is not the only way, nor is it the default, or probably even that common.

So I shouldn’t be surprised if my web presence makes people uncomfortable. No one needs to consume my productions if they don’t want. I’m so used to being half online all the time that I think of my web presence as being half my identity. It feels completely natural to me.



Based on the previous post, I am seriously considering a day of lifecasting with Jason and Alex. Not sure about the logistics at all let alone a date (Jason prefers summer), but I think it would be an interesting challenge. In sum: we record as much as possible of our lives throughout a single day, in as many media as possible.

Current thoughts: photographs documenting where we are, what we look like; video documenting us interacting with our environments, pets, spouses, children, and possbly some video updates of us describing what we’re doing and what we’re thinking about; uploaded documents that we’re working on, email we’re sending (where feasible); playlists of what we’re listening to, lists of any movies/tv we watch; IM conversations; snippets of audio of things like our alarms going off, breakfast being cooked, etc.; descriptions and photos of any food we eat or drinks we drink; descriptions and data of basic things like maps of the area and weather reports. If we really want to get serious, we could add in things like body temperature and whatnot too. Full documentation.

At the the moment I think we should set up some separate place for all this information too be stored. The first thing that comes to mind is that we set up a blog with a lot of bells and whistles, and everyone who’s participating gets their own category. So you could see it all at once, or by person. I’d want to use twitter, but I’d want tweets to show up on the blog as well, in between the blog posts, ideally in a different colour. Marked off, so to speak. Also, I wouldn’t want to use my normal twitte account for all this. I bet that would just annoy the hell out of people. No sure if a blog will work as the basic platform, though. We still need to think that through. Jason may have a point about waiting a bit.

The general point of this exercise, as I currently understand it, is to demonstrate how much “information” we can create on a regular basis, turn it into digital, archivable material, and to force the question about how useful it really is. I’d also like to see for myself just what is and is not comfortable to reveal. Some obvious elements immediately spring to mind; can I ethically copy my email to the project? (As long as someone else’e email doesn’t show up as well? Can I ethically, or legally, make someone else’s email, addressed to me, publicly available? I suspect that would fall outside the scope of the project.) Will I modulate my behaviour because of how I want to be seen? Will I alter my behaviour because I know everything is being recorded? Is the concept of perpetual web archiving an influencing factor in what I’m prepared to share online? Does it stifle my communication? Does it inherently alter the nature of the information online? Traditional media certainly is shaped by its storage medium; I can’t imagine this would be any different. More than anything I’d worry that I’m being boring; will I spend all my time trying to be as witty and entertaining as possible? How does archiving actually become the material? I’m sure there are many more questions, these are just top of mind for me.

I think before we really get started I’ll have a look at lifecasting as it currently exists and see what I can learn from it. I don’t really want to do a life stream of video for archive, because the sheer size of the file such a video would have to be when it’s running the whole day makes me queasy. We could do ephemeral live streaming (I have no problem with that), but that sort of defeats the purpose. More investigation on this matter is required.

Anyone else interested in participating in this warped little experiment? It’s just one day. I think the reflection on the experience will be worthwhile. We might even have to write it up. We have lots of time to prepare. I think we have a lot of sorting out to do before we can really go forward. We can get together and develop some basic policy around how we’ll manage it. Jason’s probably right about the summer. It will probably take that long to sort out the details.

You in? Come on, it will be fun.

The Plight of Future Historians

The Plight of Future Historians

Today, the Guardian warns:

“Too many of us suffer from a condition that is going to leave our grandchildren bereft,” Brindley states. “I call it personal digital disorder. Think of those thousands of digital photographs that lie hidden on our computers. Few store them, so those who come after us will not be able to look at them. It’s tragic.”

She believes similar gaps could appear in the national memory, pointing out that, contrary to popular assumption, internet companies such as Google are not collecting and archiving material of this type. It is left instead to the libraries and archives which have been gathering books, periodicals, newspapers and recordings for centuries. With an interim report from communications minister Lord Carter on the future of digital Britain imminent, Brindley makes the case for the British Library as the repository that will ensure emails and websites are preserved as reliably as manuscripts and books.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this imaginary plight of future historians, in spite of being a librarian. And it’s not because I don’t see the value in content that’s on the web. There are two sides of the question that I take issue with.

First: “everything should be archived”. This is simply impossible, and is actually misunderstanding what the internet is. If you understand it as a vast publication domain, where things are published every day that just don’t happen to be books, then this desire to archive it all makes sense. But is the stuff of the internet really published? Well, what does “published” really mean?

To be honest, I think the term has no meaning anymore. At one point, “published” meant that a whole team of people thought what you wrote was worth producing, selling, and storing. It comes with a sense of authority, a kind of title. It’s a way we divide the masses into those we want to listen to and those we don’t, in many different arenas. It connotes a sense of value (to someone, at least). Many people object to the idea that there’s value of any kind of the wild open internet, because just anyone can “publish”. I learned in my reference class at library school that one should always check the author of a book to see who they are and what institution they’re associated with before taking them seriously; if you fall outside our institutions, why, surely you have nothing of value to say, and you’re probably lying! Wikipedia: case in point. We have our ways to determine whether we ought to consider what you’re saying not based on the content, but on who and what you are. Apparently this protects us from ever having to have critical reading skills. We are afraid of being duped, so we cling to our social structures.

So many people just turn that “publish” definition on its head and say everything on the internet is “published”, everyone has a pulpit, everyone can be heard in the same way. I object to this as well. Turning an ineffective idea upside down doesn’t get us any closer to a useful definition of a term, or a practice.

Currently, this is how I define “publication”: blocks of text that are published by a company have been vetted and determined to be sellable to whatever audience the company serves. This holds for fiction, for academic work, etc.

Is content on the web “published”? What does that even mean? I think we start shifting to turn that meaning into “available”. If I write something and post it online, it’s available to anyone who wants to see it, but it’s not “published” in any traditional sense. If I take it down, does it become unpublished? Can I only unpublish if I get to it before it gets cached by anyone’s browsers, before Google gets to it? What if I post something online, but no search engine ever finds it and no one ever visits the page? Was it published then? If I put something online but lock it up and let no one see it, is it published?

I think we need a more sophisticated conception of publication to fully incorporate the way we use and interact with the web. I don’t think the traditional notion is helpful, and I think it presumes a kind of static life for web content that just isn’t there. Web content is read/write. It’s editable, it’s alterable. Rather than dislike that about the content, we should encourage and celebrate that. That’s what’s great about it.

There has always been ephemera. Most of it has been lost. Is that sad? I suppose so. As a (former) historian-in-training, I would have loved to get my hands on the ephemera of early modern women’s lives. I would love to know more about them, more about what drove them, what they’re lives were like. But I don’t feel like I’m owed that information. Ephemera is what fills our lives; when that ephemera becomes digital, we need to come to terms with our own privacy. Just because you can record and store things doesn’t mean you should.

And this comes to the heart of the matter, the second element of the desire to archive everything that irks me. The common statement is that we are producing more information now than ever before, and this information needs archiving. The reality is this: we are not producing “more information” per capita. We simply are not, I refuse to believe that. Medieval people swam in seas of information much as we do, it’s just that the vast majority of it was oral, or otherwise unstorable (for them). These are people who believed that reading itself was a group event, they couldn’t read without speaking aloud. (Don’t be so shy if you move your lips while reading; it’s a noble tradition!) Reading and listening were a pair. In our history we just stored more of that information in our brains and less of it in portable media. If you think surviving in a medieval village required no information, consider how many things you’d need to know how to do, how many separate “trades” a medieval woman would need to be an expert in just to feed, clothe, and sustain her family. Did she have “less” information? She certainly knew her neighbours better. She knew the details of other people’s lives, from start to finish. She knew her bible without ever having looked at one. Her wikipedia was inside her own head.

Today we have stopped using our brains for storage and using them for processing power instead. Not better or worse, just different. We use media to store our knowledge and information rather than remembering it. So of course there appears to be more information. Because we keep dumping it outside ourselves, and everyone’s doing it.

Not to say that a complete archive of everyone’s ephemera, every thought, detail, bit of reference material ever produced by a person throughout their life wouldn’t make interesting history. I think it would, but that’s not what we think libraries are really for. We do generally respect a certain level of privacy. It would be a neat project for someone out there to decide to archive absolutely everything about themselves for a year of their lives and submit that to an archive. Temperature, diet, thoughts, recordings of conversations, television programs watched, books read, everything. We you want to harvest everything on the web, then you might as well use all those security cameras out there to literally record everything that goes on, for ever, and store that in the library for future historians. Set up microphones on the street corners, in homes, in classrooms, submit recordings to the library. A complete record of food bought and consumed. Everything. That’s not what we consider “published”, no matter how public any of it is. We draw the line. Somehow if it’s in writing it’s fair game.

But that’s not what people are generally talking about when they talk about “archiving information”. I know this is true because the article ends with this:

“On the other hand, we’re producing much more information these days than we used to, and not all of it is necessary. Do we want to keep the Twitter account of Stephen Fry or some of the marginalia around the edges of the Sydney Olympics? I don’t think we necessarily do.”

There’s “good” information and then this other, random ephemera. I will bet you that Stephen Fry’s twitter feed will be of more interest to these future historians than a record of the official Sydney Olympics webpage. And that’s the other side of this argument.

This isn’t about preserving information for those sacred future historians. This is about making sure the future sees us the way we want to be seen; not mired in debates about Survivor, or writing stacks and stacks of Harry Potter slash fanfiction, or coming up with captions for LOLcats. Not twitter, because that is too silly, but serious websites, like the whitehouse’s. We’re trying to shape the way the future sees us, and we want to be seen in a particular light.

I object to that process.

Gift Economies and Librarian Blogs

Gift Economies and Librarian Blogs

I’ve been turning over the idea of gift economies and the internet for some time now. For me it started with Henry Jenkins’ keynote at Internet Research 8 in Vancouver, when he suggested that fans who produce popular product should be paid by the company that owns the copyright. My gut turned sideways and I nearly shouted it, NO. NO NO NO. It registered at the top of the horribly wrong meter.

The more I thought about it, and examined my violent gut reaction, I started to think that adding money to the equation goes against the natural economy of fandom cultures. I’m pretty firmly convinced that fandoms revolve around gift economies, where fans create product that other fans consume, and the consumers are required to pay back the gift by providing feedback, linking others to the product, engaging in commentary about the product, or other fandom behaviours. I hesitate to say it, but another payback activity is deference. I shouldn’t shy away from it. It’s true. There are some fans who are seen to give more to the community than any individual can properly pay back, and thus resentments and frustrations are born. This is exactly gift economy theory, so I’m fairly certain it fits.

So my own reaction at the idea of adding money to the mix is justified; it’s the wrong kind of economy. It would swing the balance. It would increase resentment a million fold, because the people who get paid for their fandom production would become completely unpayable by fandom standards, and would be seen as a stooge of the original producer. I sell out. No longer fully part of the community. Untrustable. No spreading the wealth; any fandom creation is a product of the community, with inspiration and ideas from the community, build on the scaffold of commentary and conversation, beta readers, donations of art, video, songs, fandom trends and ideas, and communal construction of character interpretation. How can one person gain reward from something that is, at its heart, entirely dependent on the community?

So that said, I think I’m seeing the same thing happening in the librarian blogosphere, and I find it interesting. The Annoyed Librarian kept an anonymous blog ranting about librarianship. It was funny and wry and I don’t remember it being too terribly controversial in its blogspot form. People might have disagreed with her approach, but it was just one anonymous blog. There are many more named blogs to read.

But then Library Journal moved the Annoyed Librarian over to their website, and paid her to write her rants. Now she’s official, she’s part of the machine, and getting paid to do it. Perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention to the blogspot blog and its comments, but I think there’s a marked difference in the kind of comments she gets.

A Selection:
Since I am an Annoyed Librarian too, do I get a cut of the profits?
Rehashing old posts is the best you can do? Couldn’t you have just said this in a comment on the original post? How about some original material? I guess the AL cheerleaders are happy so that’s all that matters.
If you like light and fluffy posts, you’re in the right place. Not much substance here so far.

Generally speaking, librarians don’t comment like this on non-profit blogs. Now that the Annoyed Librarian is being paid for her trouble, that changes things. Comments that won’t help: when her attempt at humour is criticized, the Annoyed Librarian says this:

I don’t need Comedy Central, I’ve got LJ paying me to write this stuff.

And, the post that prompted me to write this post:

Set a date, tell your overlordier, plan a big finale, whatever you like, but give it up. Soon. Because the joke’s been played, we’ve all been had, you’ve picked up a few pennies, and now the joke’s just going to get old. Fast. And you know I know you know that.

I want you to hit it and quit. Can you hit it and quit?

In a world where librarians get book deals and we actually do get paid to do the work we write about, I was a bit surprised to see what I’m used to seeing in fandoms happening in the librarian blog world. But maybe it’s not fandom that generates a gift economy; maybe it’s something inherent in online communities generally. (Could that be so?) Apparently, we librarian bloggers also understand our blogs to be gifts to the community rather than something that aught to be remunerated financially. People are feeling skimmed off for cash. The understanding seems to be: you wouldn’t exist without us. If you get paid for what you do, you’re using us for your own profit. And you will pay our price for that.

I wanted to think about it in terms of fandoms and fandom culture, but maybe it’s much broader than that.

Blogging in Education

Blogging in Education

In August, I was invited to come do a quick (about 15 minutes!) talk for new faculty about using blogging as part of teaching. Apparently the feedback was good, so I was invited to come back and do a longer piece on it. There are 40 people signed up, and the talk is today.

Normally talks don’t scare me particularly, because I do love to natter on about topics I’m interested in. (And really, a talk is very much like a blog post…I talk for a while, and then it’s open for others to comment, right?) But for some reason I’m anxious about this talk. Maybe because people signed up for it. They will be expecting things. Can I live up to their expectations? I don’t know.

I have things to say. I think they’re somewhat important things. Somewhat. I even have powerpoint! (Some cited CC flickr images and some power statements, but it’s in ppt!) But still.

The main gist of what I want to get across is something like…well first of, you have to match your tools to your content, your expectations, and your personality. There is no magic bullet technology that will work for everyone, and there’s no point using blogging if you’re not going to use it in a way that suits both the content, the syllabus, and your own style. A given?

I think the other thing I want to get across is the difference between formality and informality. If you want students to do more formal writing, I’m not sure this is the way to do it. Mostly because, in the case of undergrads, formal writing is not a comfortable form. It’s a way of distancing themselves from the material. It’s not honest for them. As they learn to use the tool of formal essay-writing better, it can become more honest, but…for most, not so much. If you want real thinking, really interest and passion and engagement, you have to toss formal essay-writing in blog form out the window. It’s too easy to plagiarize. And writing is good, and you can think of this writing as creating a portfolio of primary sources that can be drawn on later to create formal writing. I’ve been thinking of it in terms of honesty; allow students to be honest. If they don’t understand something and mention it, that will help them later, because they’ll be able to show how they come to understand something in a formal report.

Which leads me to something that bonked me on the head yesterday while reviewing for Learning Inquiry. I read this fantastic article that used some extremely bang-on terminology: productive failure, and unproductive success.

Here’s what I’m currently considering: we tend to reward unproductive success more than anything. If a student walks into a class knowing the subject material, that student will probably do extremely well. If a student spends 3/4ths of the class struggling with the material and getting things wrong, not understanding, struggling with concepts, and then really gets it, that student will probably not do as well. But that student is actually learning, and demonstrating learning. We don’t have an effective way of rewarding real learning.

Which is the key reason why I object to switching out the word “student” with the word “learner”, though I know it’s trying to get at the same idea. We don’t know whether we have “learners” or not, on a grand scale. Often we have a group of already-knowledgeable students who will unproductively get As and we feel good about it the learning experience. How do we measure learning? Real learning? Going from confusion to understanding? How do we even see it when undergrads often don’t even open their mouths in class? Do we really have a “Learning Management System”? Really? How do we really support and reward learning rather than merely unproductive success?

So I think blogging done well, set up with good expectations and with a fostered honesty, can reveal the actual learning going on, and can give students the option of displaying the learning they’re doing. And we can reward it that way. If a student struggles for the first half of the course and demonstrates that struggle, and then suddenly GETS IT, you’ll have evidence of their learning. You can reward that, you can grade them according to how they learned and how articulate they can be about the way in which they learned and why. At the moment we grade them based on whether or not they get it fast enough, for the most part. So you can use these tools to support and encourage productive failure as a means toward productive success. I’m not saying it’s enough to just try. Unproductive failure isn’t the goal either. Failure that builds into understanding is productive.

But the key part, it seems to me, is finding a way to get through to a class about how to use a blog. I’ve been thinking about this. I’m getting better at giving motivational speeches, and this one would be a challenge. I think you have to drop the formality, and encourage honesty. Perhaps a discussion about the wonders of productive failure is important. Or even to explain that formal writing isn’t objective, it’s just a tool for people to channel their confusion and passion in a culturally acceptable way. So let’s screw with what’s culturally expectable. Tell us what you really think. Have you ever heard of these ideas or concepts before? If so, where? Do you think it’s relevant? Why do you think you’re learning this? Do you understand the article? Was it too difficult to understand, the sentences too long and filled with jargon? Say so. Do you find this subject boring? Why? (Do you think political history is boring? Why? Because it seems too distant and filled with names and numbers, and not enough about juicy things like the real details of people’s lives? Valid comment!)

Undergraduate students are doing two things at university (among others): 1) learning content, and 2) learning to speak to faculty in the “right” way through their work, ie, learning formal scholarly communication methods. The second one is the harder one. Students sort of put on a voice they think faculty want to hear (which is where that dreaded word “utilize” comes in; it makes the student sound more formal, more serious; hahaha no it doesn’t). Students are often avoiding the learning part by trying to put on a show with the formal structure and language. So for get it for a second, for the blog part; let them just be honest about what they think. They can shape that into formal communication later.

As I’ve been writing this, Jeremy sent me this article about how students expect a better grade because they “tried really hard”. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying: let productive failure be okay in your class. Trying really hard and getting nowhere doesn’t deserve a better grade. You need to succeed to get a good grade, definitely. You have to end up at point B from point A. But how you get there might be different. I’m just saying: let students have a shot at getting there in their own way.

Using blogging to track productive failure isn’t changing the whole structure, after all. It’s just giving students one assignment, just one, where being confused about the subject is okay. If they can build on their failures and come to understand, to turn it into a productive success, just for one assignment, isn’t that a valid part of a well-rounded education?

How to keep a Good Blog

How to keep a Good Blog

I’m listening to Nora Young talking about how to keep a good blog (as opposed to a crappy one) on Spark. They say her own blog is pretty crappy. The advice she got was to pick a topic that’s unique and that she’s passionate about; that thing that everyone tells you to shut up about should be the topic of your blog.

I think this is a very male geek perspective. Perhaps male nerd perspective. That’s about branding yourself with your own singular idiosyncrasies; you always post about the intersection between WoW and Freud? Sure, you can be the WoW Freud guy to your tiny wedge audience, but I’m not sure that gives you an awesome blog.

I don’t think you need to have one topic to have a good blog. In fact, I think I’d get bored of your blog if you only have one topic. (It’s like allowing your blog to be dominated by, ahem, cancer or something.) The only advice she got that I think is any good is this: find your own voice. Any blog, and any topic, can be interesting if it’s really coming from you, if the ideas and feelings and observations are genuine. I don’t even think your voice, your perspective, has to be radically unique, either, and I don’t think you have to go out of your way to make yourself unique. I think you just have to be passionate. There’s no point writing about something you’re not passionate about, and I’d hope that you’re passionate about a lot of things.

Nora Young is, apparently, interested in both technology and philosophy, so her adviser told her to write about the intersection of those things. That could be interesting. Equally, I think her interests would naturally create that, when appropriate. The better advice would be: write about what really grabs you.

I think the point is to talk back to popular culture, to hegemony, to media, to teachers or authority or peers. Make yourself an active participant rather than a passive absorber of information, regardless of your situation. It’s more of a way to reorient your vision of yourself and your importance in your own grand scheme. To remind you that you have a voice in your world, and your blog can be your platform. I don’t think the point of that is to get more readers, or to have a more entertaining blog, so perhaps I’m a bad adviser on that front. I think the idea is to train yourself to speak out, no matter what the topic is. To think critically about what’s going on, read/listen/think carefully and add your opinion. Not just absorbing what you’re hearing, what you’re experiencing, but responding to it. To be political, I think that activity can make you a better citizen and a better person.

As a side effect, I think it gives you a better blog, too. Because your passion is obvious. You are a speaker in the world rather than a listener. You have something to add. That makes you interesting.



I heard a bit on the radio about the internet and microcelebrity, but I only caught the tail end of it. I found an article about the idea here, written by Clive Thompson of Wired, and found that it really resonated with me as a tip-of-the-iceberg kind of idea. I wish this concept were more widespread in online discussion, and it’s implications more carefully considered. Even for those who know about it, few really take it seriously. I mean, Tay Zonday doesn’t really need serious deconstruction, does he? We watch him, we talk about him. So what?

I’m disturbed by our tendency to create and worship at the altar of alternative authority figures in online communities, and then to scoff about the whole thing because it doesn’t matter.

This is primarily why I hestitate over studies like Walt’s which seek to quantify popularity in the world of librarian blogs; I fear the creation of a hierarchy within this online community. Creating a list of popular bloggers creates more visible, more defined, and authoritative list of our community’s microcelebrities, encouraging others to vie for the top spot and pay closer attention to these community leaders. In reality this happens anyway, regardless of whether you quantify it, so I suppose I shouldn’t be so skittish about lists. But I feel like we don’t consider the implications of this microcelebrity enough, that we don’t stop to deconstruct the process enough and see what kinds of behaviours we unthinkingly adopt in its presence.

I’m interested in what it means to be a microcelebrity in any community, because I’ve seen in turn destructive and counterproductive so many times online. Why does this happen? Most people start doing what they do, putting themselves online, for a set of self-defined and often unique purposes: they enjoy writing out loud, they enjoy participating in a community of like-minded people with similar interests, they enjoy the challenge of alternative perspectives, they want a place to react and respond to the things that go on in their daily lives. They like to record their own growth and be urged on in that growth by people they do and don’t know. They want to get some feedback on something they’re doing, get some reaction and attention, perhaps. They want to create an online presence. Most people (I imagine) don’t enter into an online community with the goal of becoming one of that community’s celebrities; most people don’t realize that all online communities have their own homegrown celebrities. We don’t conceive of celebrity that way, and we don’t, as a rule, know the internet and it communities well enough to know that this is what happens. But I have never seen an online community that didn’t have them. It’s rarely a positive experience for anyone, even though “it’s not real” and “it doesn’t matter” and “who is it really hurting”. It hurts us. It reflects the way we build our communities, and being conscious of it will hopefully create a richer, more diverse environment.

What does it mean to be a microcelebrity, known in other circles as a BNF? It means that everything the microcelebrity writes about or focuses on gains more attention than it would otherwise; microcelebrities set the topics for discussion within the community, because everyone is reading what they say and wants in on the conversation. If the microcelebrity develops an interest in something relatively ignored to that point, that interest becomes a new fad. The microcelebrity coins terms that have currency in the community. The ideas, rough drafts, or work of the microcelebrity gets lots of feedback and response in the form of comments, forum posts, tweets, or blog posts; the work of the microcelebrity is more often cited and built upon than that of others. The ideas or work of microcelebrities become goalposts of the community, and everyone else is often compared against them. It’s a powerful position, but that power is often invisible to the microcelebrity, who is often just trying to do what everyone else is doing without recognizing the influence they’re having on the community at large. This definition of celebrity is so absurd to people that the power that comes with it is difficult for them to comprehend. It often feels like microcelebrities “run” the community, when in reality they do not and cannot. Their interests and activities just consistently receive more attention than that of others in the community.

It all sounds pretty positive, but there are downsides, and I think those downsides are dangerous for a healthy online community. Being under a microscope constantly by one’s own community of peers means that the microcelebrity is required to be increasingly careful about what kinds of ideas they espouse lest they inadvertently quash someone else’s project or cause drama. Clive Thompson writes: “Some pundits fret that microcelebrity will soon force everyone to write blog posts and even talk in the bland, focus-grouped cadences of Hillary Clinton (minus the cackle).” He doesn’t believe this is likely, but I’ve never been involved in a community where I haven’t seen it happen. As soon as everyone is staring at you all the time, and the slightest negative opinion sends some part of your community into a tailspin and your inbox to fill up with hate mail, things do get pretty bland. We talk about celebrities (micro or otherwise) as if they are not flesh and blood people; we can talk about them negatively without imagining that they would ever find and read our words about them. We curtail the people we read the most, in the end. The microcelebrity’s views and interests become more mainstream because mainstream is what we want from them; we want them to pet our egos, support our projects, and not stomp on any emerging subcultures or fledgling ideas, and we want to be able to eviscerate them for everything they say and do, as well. Why do we do this to each other? Why is this necessary? (Ask Jessamyn if she gets any hatemail. I bet she does. Do you?)

People approach microcelebrities to pimp their project or their posts, because the approval of a microcelebrity has such great weight; people post comments on these people’s posts just to get their names out there and visible within the community. People put microcelebrities in their feedreaders just to keep track of what they’re paying attention to, either to repost and respond to it, or possibly just to mock it. People get scornful of microcelebrities and everything they say and do, just because there is always a group of people who want to define themselves against what’s popular and shaping public discussion. Microcelebrities will always be judged as not as smart, interesting, or up-to-date as whoever is trying to build themselves up in their shadows. (“Why does she get all that attention? She doesn’t deserve it.“) They become heroes and an anti-heroes at the same time. It’s junior high all over again, and what disturbs me the most is that we don’t ruminate often on the nature of our interaction with microcelebrity at all. We don’t get metacritical about the way we build people up and use them as community signposts. We don’t question the way we adopt authority even when such authority is entirely fictional. We naturally shape our online communities that way and then chafe under them without investigating what underpins the construction of a community.

Being careful about what you post online is no great tragedy, but deliberately creating a hierarchy as a collective where a small subset of a community are expected to control topics and opinions, set trends, and give blessing to emerging subcultures, is self-limiting on all sides.

And this is why I object to creating “top 10 lists” of librarian bloggers; I know what ends up happening. People troll these lists for the ones to watch rather than exclusively following the people they would naturally gravitate toward or find interesting. We create a canon. Without the top 10 list, at least the people getting attention at any one time would shift and change a bit more; as soon as we publicly acknowledge those who get most of our attention, we’re starting to build up those hierarchies and cement them.

Microcelebrity is a real thing, and it can have a negative impact on an online community. I’d love to see a community structured to allow everyone to get the feedback and attention they want without any small subset becoming the de facto class presidents. Maybe we’re just not wired that way.

Edit: Seems I’m not the only one feeling uncomfortable with blogs and their communities today.

10 Questions Every Blogger Should Ask

10 Questions Every Blogger Should Ask

Ahhhh here we go again. Someone, this time someone named Damien Van Vroenhoven, has not only decided that he understands what a blog is across the board (a form is not a genre, as a general rule), but he knows what 10 questions any blogger should be asking his or herself before posting on the interblag. Though I’d say the first question any blogger should ask is whether he or she wants to take advice from an online marketing blog, but that’s not on the list of questions.

“If you want your ideas and opinions to spread across the Internet, you need to make sure that your readers can understand what you’re saying as quickly as possible,” writes Damien. “Make sure you have the right content, links, images or titles in place to communicate your blog post’s purpose as concisely as possible.” I never write concisely on my blog. My blog isn’t about being concise. And I’m not particularly interested in my ideas and opinions being spread across the internet, either. Sharing ideas and musings with a tiny handful of far-flung, like-minded souls is more satisfying than playing the internet attention game.

“Will it entice readers and bookmarkers?” If the only way you can be novel, unexpected, or thought-provoking is by reading the blogosphere and finding a combination of keywords that hasn’t been put together before (as suggested in the 10 Questions post), I’m afraid you’re sitting on a blog I wouldn’t be terribly interested in reading. I probably wouldn’t be to interested in inviting you over for dinner, either.

I find the “fill a need” bloggers an interesting, though not new, development. I understand the logic. If you’re filling a need, your traffic will go up; write to the audience and give them what they want and watch your popularity soar! I’ve seen this done hundreds of times, I’ve even gotten caught up in it myself to some degree in other contexts. It’s an easy trap to fall into; we seem wired to respond to positive attention. Because you can easily quantify the numbers of readers, it’s easy to feel that progress means making that number go up, even if you’re not in it for the money or the marketing. We tend to make an economy out of everything, even when it doesn’t really serve us that well. Is blogging about getting more positive attention, or is it about something else? I blog to connect with people, to mark my own thought process, and to push myself to articulate and build on ideas rather than just letting them fall by the wayside. My blog serves me far more than it serves anyone else. And that’s the way I like it.

For the kind of blogging I do, and the kind I like to read, I prefer to focus to be on the needs of the writer rather than mine as a reader. I know how to get information that’s well-cited and researched. When I’m reading blogs, I’m looking for a personal spin on a topic, a personal epiphany from which I can derive inspiration and motivation. I’d rather see someone work through a thorny issue hundreds of others have already sorted out in their own unique way, using their own unique experiences, than watch people constantly try to anticipate my needs in order to keep me interested in reading. I find that attitude distasteful, as it is both servile and self-serving at the same time, and inherently, in my opinion, dishonest. I like honesty in a blog, a sense of the genuine. That’s what a lot of online marketers have failed to understand in the past about online cultures; real people thinking out loud is more consistently sought-after in the long history of blogging than journalism and marketing has been. And as Aleks noted not too long ago, I’m not the only one who hates a fake.

“Conduct polls on your blog if you are uncertain about how to establish your personal blogging style. If you openly ask for user input, chances are good that you will receive it. Act on their responses openly and honestly.” I have actually seen personal bloggers do this, bloggers not working within the IT industry or representing a corporate face. Your personal blogging style should not be dictated by your audience anymore than your fashion sense should be dictated by your neighbours’ tastes. Real trail-blazing is never done by people trying to appease an audience; truly unique art and ideas are always shattering, painful, and shocking for human beings until the idea makes its way into our larger collective consciousness and we can make sense of it. Think of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which moved from a shattering experience that caused riots to making it into Disney’s Fantasia within a few decades. The novelty of his creation was so confusing to people that they hated it at first, and then came to love it. Now his music doesn’t seem so shocking anymore. We have a collective intelligence, and it cannibalizes the newest of the new in order to refine our sense of order. You can listen to this very thesis expounded by the bright folks at Radio Lab:

New things are hard for people to comprehend; exploring them in public might not make you popular. Popular ideas are rarely truly novel and unique (though they sometimes are!). If you keep a blog about brave new concepts in a world that doesn’t particularly enjoy new concepts, brave or otherwise, does that make you a bad blogger? Does unpopularity always indicate uninterestingness? Were Edward Said and Michel Foucault ever best-selling authors?

This advice isn’t for “every blogger”; this advice is for corporate, IT-based bloggers hoping to use blogging as a form of viral marketing. I think the questions every blogger should ask him or herself instead are these:

1. What role do I want my blog to play in my life? This question should be revisited on a regular basis.
2. What kinds of things do I want to blog about, and what kinds of things do I not want to blog about? Another question that should be revisited at regular intervals. Is it wise to blog about your husband’s annoying habits? Should you be going on at length about your son’s therapy? Are you going to hurt the ones you love with your random and permanent online etchings?
3. Am I okay with everyone I’ve ever known/met/loved/hated reading everything I write on this blog? Because it’s hanging out there in public (unless I make sure it’s not).
4. Do I need to blog under an assumed name? This is especially important for anyone under the age of 25. You never know when you’re going to change careers and have something you wrote online when you were 15 come back to haunt you. Unless you really trust that you know what you’re doing, the answer to this question is probably yes.
5. What kind of impact does blogging have on me? Do I like it? Some people find blogging boring and/or stressful, but do it because it appears to be the norm in the communities they move within. Some people blog for the sole purpose of collecting comments from readers, and are constantly disappointed when they don’t get what they feel they deserve. Personally, I think blogging is best when it pushes you to think more deeply, make more connections between ideas, and revisit issues more regularly than you would otherwise. If blogging isn’t enriching your life, why do it?

Edit: Since a couple of people have asked for clarification, I’ll repost a comment I left elsewhere regarding why many people should consider blogging under an assumed name:

That comment wasn’t really directed at the library world, where named blogging is more normal. I was thinking instead of folks like Bitch PhD, who use their blogs to talk about professional, political, and personal matters, and don’t feel that the blog would really enhance their professional profile.

It’s not really a matter of someone working out who you might be, though. If someone is a big fan of a pseudononymous blog, they can often work out at least roughly who and where the author is. It’s more about protecting your googleability, and controlling what your parents, friends, exes, and future (possible) employers find out about you (and when). The moment your real name is on a blog, it will come up (close to) first on Google when someone searches for your name. That’s got to be a very deliberate decision on your part.

There are some interests and hobbies you might not want your patrons and colleagues to know about, but you might want to put on the internet anyway. A dear friend of mine, a faculty member in Vancouver specializing in literature, also happens to write bawdy fanfiction about television show characters, and is extremely popular in that subculture. She does not attach her real name to that blog, and while those of us who know her well know about it and can see her real self through that persona’s blog, her students and parents and colleagues can’t google her and read about her television musings. She was profiled in a national newspaper a couple of years ago, a full page spread about her hobby and issues around copyright/intellectual property. But still, no real name. She thought about what it might mean, and hedged her bets. Lots of people have been fired for the contents of their blogs, rightly or wrongly.

But as noted by the age thing, I mostly recommend pseudonyms for teenagers and undergrads. I’m sure you’ve heard about the issues around facebook, where young folks think that no one will ever find their drunken party pictures or their jealous break-up musings. The librarian blogosphere doesn’t really contain these things, but the blogosphere in general is stuffed of those kinds of mostly-personal blogs. Stopping to think about these issues is pretty key to information literacy in 2008; not the literacy skills needed to necessary find information (though it surely relates to understanding how information is found), but the ones needed when creating information.

Write what you Know

Write what you Know

Eventually I will get back to interesting posts, the ones about information and educational technology and fun internet things, but I’m currently working on my dad’s 10 year old win98 machine, as my ibook is in the shop, and he’s got dial up. So I’m not using the fun internet things to their fullest. (He at least upped his “one hour per day” plan to “unlimited”, so now I can wait an indefinite amount of time for things to load.) My world is largely dominated by health-related matters at the moment, and since I don’t plan to experience this cancer business again (and, for the record, there’s no reason why I should fear I might; there’s no direct correlation between thyroid cancer and any other kind), so I’m being self-indulgent and recording my experiences and reflections here.

There was a kerfuffle some time ago when a more serious librarian blogger looked down his nose at those of us who don’t post exclusively about librarianship on our blogs within the “biblioblogosphere”, and as I recall a few of us rallied around the idea that our lives are not exclusively about librarianship, and we are healthier people for having multiple interests and experiences to share and ponder. And I will stand by my contention that I primarily keep this blog for me, and I will post as I feel compelled to. In the end, I think it makes me a better professional to see fodder to ponder in all aspects of my life rather than confining it to a tiny strip of “acceptable” material. I don’t get paid to keep a blog. I blog because writing is how I process information, and I like to share.

I’ll get back to the info tech soon enough.

Quechup Quandry: Today, we’re all Spammers

Quechup Quandry: Today, we’re all Spammers

I like to think that the blogosphere in general has a certain amount of power. One blog out of milions may not, but when something happens that runs counter to expectations and a good chunk of bloggers complain publicly, the results seem to be pretty dramatic.

Case in point: social networking site Quechup created a splash in the last few days by asking users to enter their email addresses and passwords so that the system could check to see if any of their friends were already members. (Personally, I don’t see why anyone would do this in the first place. While I guess there’s some email from my closest friends and family in my inbox somewhere, I don’t really use email to communicate with the people I see on, say, Facebook, or in Second Life or on IRC. Email is too formal for that, and I’d rather search for my friends some other way. I’d rather look up one and see who they have friended already, etc. I found a lot of people I know on Facebook through the groups. Anyway.) So the system does what one would expect; it looks up the email addresses in your contacts lists and checks to see if those people have accounts yet. Then it shows you the ones it found. Do you want to add these people are friends? Sure! Who wouldn’t push that button? Why not. Add them. What Quechup does next: it emails out an invitation, from you, to everyone you’ve ever corresponded with, personally inviting them to join this rockin’ new site you found. Without warning you that it was going to do it.

This is really not what email is for, and it’s a real abuse to use it that way.

In what universe is this okay? In what universe, seriously, is it okay for a system to prompt you to send out mass email to people who have not signed up for it? It’s one thing to send a message to people in a facebook group; they’re there on purpose. People in your contacts in email? Didn’t sign up for squat.

It’s a trust issue, certainly. You see an invite from someone you know (heck, there are a handful of people whose mere name in email would get me to click a button somewhere, sure!), follow through, and suddenly…you’re in the same boat! You’ve just spammed every living soul you know! So Quechup was certainly taking advantage of that trust, but is in return eroding people’s trust not only in social networking systems, but also in us. (Will people think twice when you ask them to have a look at something? Sure they will.)

So now if you run a google search on “quetchup” (like this one) you see a zillion posts by angry bloggers who are incredibly sorry to those they accidentally emailed, and incredibly angry at Quetchup. I’d love to see what happens. Will that mistake, and the widespread reaction to it, destroy Quetchup? Or is any publicity good publicity, and will this be the making of them?

Moral of the story: don’t give anyone or any website your email password. Ever!

Ephemera, Dignity, and Control: Should Libraries collect Blogs?

Ephemera, Dignity, and Control: Should Libraries collect Blogs?

This morning my friend Jeremy blessed us with a post about a project at the library school at UNC Chapel Hill entitled Blogger Perceptions on Digital Preservation. Not only is my comment on Jeremy’s post 5 times longer than everything he had to say about it, I still have more rant left in me that’s going to have to spill out here. (One can only abuse other people’s blogs so much.)

From their project website:

This research study grew out of calls in the literature of information and library science to regard these new vehicles for communication and information dissemination as valuable additions to the human record. The purpose of this research is to survey bloggers’ own perceptions on digital preservation. It is hoped that the results of this study will inform development of recommendations for impacting stewardship of weblogs at the level of creation, and the development of strategies for capturing the content of blogs for perpetuity.

I’ve heard about this kind of thing before. There are many librarians who think collecting blogs is the right thing to do. These are usually the pro-internet ones, the one who like blogs, use the term “web 2.0” with some fluency, know what a wiki is, have a profile on facebook, and maybe even use an RSS reader. They think it would be progressive for libraries to archive blogs in the same way they archive academic journals and Time Magazine. There’s a cultural currency at play there; as librarians, we underscore the value of one form of publishing when we opt to collect one variety of publication and exclude others. In selecting the American Historical Review and not The Inquirer for our permanent collection, we privilege one form of expression over the other; we say, this is worthy of your attention and a portion of our funds; this other thing is not. So I understand why so many digitally hip librarians are trying to widen the net and start scooping up blog posts as well as academic serial publications. It would be a act of friendliness toward us, of certain kind of regard; it would be, on one level, an act offering us a level of dignity that we so often fail to engender among the general population.

The first time I heard a librarian suggest that libraries start collecting blogs, it was like a punch in the stomach. I had a very irrational, visceral reaction to it that went like this: absolutely not, no, no way, stop now, please leave me alone. It was only later I stopped to think about it and tried to deconstruct why I had such a strong reaction to the idea.

The first issue is control. My blog is mine, and I can go back at any time and edit bits and pieces of it as I see fit. I’m particularly sensitive to the control issues around blogging, because I’ve been a blogger for many years and have been through many life-changing experiences throughout my time as a blogger. Not only have I dropped out of one graduate program and completed another, I’ve completely changed careers, moved many times, picked up and dropped hobbies, and thus I’ve changed the based focus of my blog multiple times. I’ve also grown up a lot since the beginning, and I learned through trial and error what is and is not appropriate to put on line. Actually, no, that’s not entirely a fair way to phrase that: it’s not nearly that simple. The things that were appropriate for me to put online in 2001 when I started blogging are no longer appropriate for me now that I’m a professional with a professional online presence. There are things I used to talk about on my blog back in 2001 and 2002 that I wouldn’t dream of posting now; it’s less a matter of cut-and-dried internet privacy and more a matter of direction. I’ve changed my direction, I’ve changed the purpose of my blogging, and so I’ve edited and pruned my blog as I went along. What if my blog had been archived back in 2001, and at intervals thereafter? What if someone had felt that I was part of creating a permanent public record?

I did say it in public, after all. Do we give up our rights to edit our work once it’s in the public sphere? Historically, yes; hard copies would be distributed, and the sheer logistics of it make that editing impossible. But we aren’t talking about a hard copy world, here. Why are we suggesting that the hard copy rules need to follow us into the digital sphere?

When I merged the first iteration of my blog (blogspot) into this one (wordpress), I brought it all over, the picked through it and locked a whole ton of posts. It wasn’t entirely a matter of being ashamed or having something to hide; they just weren’t in keeping with my current perspective on this blog. They didn’t fit into the open portfolio I’m keeping here. At some point, should those posts become relevant, I may re-release them minus the lock and refer to them. I deleted a bunch of stuff that just struck me as trite and boring, too. This is my archive, built and maintained primarily for myself and my friends, but others are welcome to visit and have a look through it as well. Does this openness strip me of my right to tweak my work?

There’s part of my objection: I felt that, should libraries collect my blog, keep a permanent archive for the public record, I would be losing something that’s important to me. I would be losing some ability to control my own work.

Most of the issue here seems based on a difference between old and new media, or old and new publication methods. We have ideas about works in progress, and we have a definite idea about what it means to be “finished”. We freeze things when they’re finished. We take a picture and say, there it is, it’s done now, and we mass produce the result. Novelists write and write, edit and edit, and finally finish their novels and hand them over. They’re published and, for the most part, that’s the end of the story. There are rarely revisions to published work; it’s gone out into the wild, it’s over now. There are millions of copies out there and there’s no taking them back. I know many writers who cringe when they look at their own published books, because they can still see errors that they can’t edit anymore. We take these fixed iterations of their work and put it in the library, because they’re done now. The stone tablet has been carved. This version of archiving is based entirely on the idea that the master copy is finite and complete, it’s the movable type all set in order, it’s the means of production rather than the product. The end user doesn’t have access to the master copy; once they have their version, they don’t look back at the master. But in the world of blogs, the master copy is the product. Sure, everyone takes their own copy; technically, every time you look at a website, you take a copy of it. In theory it’s the same master copy/copy world. But in practice, that copy is so ephemeral people often fail to understand that it even exists. They can fish a copy out of their browser caches, they can save copies down to their hard drives, but the vast majority of people believe that there is a single version of, say, a website, and in order to view it, they need to go to it and look. And when they do, their old copy is replaced by the new copy.

So why are we talking about taking still versions of blogs and sticking them in archives? Why are we taking a living document, killing it, and taking a picture? Where putting novels in libriaries provides the author with a distribution network, putting archived copies of blogs in repositories doesn’t increase distribution for the blogger. It merely creates a new master copy that the blogger has no control over. It takes away from the blogger.

However: libraries could always respect the rights of the blogger to constantly change their master copy simply by collecting their RSS feeds rather than the blog proper. If their parser checks back with the original document and syncs it, much like a browser does when a user goes back to a website and sees that something has changed, I could accept that. We could filter what goes to the library, and be very clear that some things are okay from that perspective and some things we keep just for us. That requires librarians to accept that we don’t have a complete or permanent record, however. We only have access to that information the blogger allows us to see, when they allow us to see it. And there’s no guarantee it will be the same the next time we go to look at it.

And that raises the question of the historical record. As a former historian-in-training I suppose I should be more sympathetic to this argument; someday some poor graduate student will do a dissertation about phd dropouts who become librarians and will want access to my blog. Well, that’s too bad for him, I’m afraid. He’ll have to hope that people like me will put something into the permanent historical record and not hope that someone someday will see the joy in archiving my digital voice, because I have no intention of ensuring that my blog stays around for centuries after my death. I’m not writing this for that future graduate student; I’m writing it as part of the dialogue that exists right now, a sort of extended public square conversation. It doesn’t exist in a vaccum, and is so dependent on the digital swirls of dialogue around it that I’m not sure it would make sense on its own. In fact, I’m not sure we should understand blogs as singular, decontextualized entities in the first place. (Though: can we even consider books as singular decontextualized entities, and am I inching toward complete nihilism here?)

I recently had a drink with a faculty member at my place of work who told me that his father destroyed all of his personal correspondence prior to his death. What right did he have to do this? Every right in the world, I have to say. Every right. There’s dignity in radio silence. Those letters weren’t written with the understanding of permanence. When we ask students to write something that won’t be seen by others and won’t be attached to their names, we can’t change streams weeks later and decide to make them public. We should have some respect for the boundaries in which a work was created.

When I was an undergrad I did some work in the National Archives of Canada on a project using letters written to the Prime Minister during the depression. As it turns out, if you really want to get into the permanent public record, send it to the Prime Minister’s office; they microfilm everything. EVERYTHING. The letters were private pleas from the desperately poor to the millionaire businessman prime minister at the time, R. B. Bennett. There were letters from children asking for skates, or for shoes so they could walk to school, or for pencils and paper. There were letters from men who couldn’t get jobs, and from women who were so distraught about their husbands’ financial emasculation that they sent secret letters to the PM asking for help. One of these letters had a note at the bottom: please destroy this letter once you’ve read it. That was from a woman so ashamed of the details she was writing about, so scared for her family, that she didn’t want a permanent record of it. And there I was, sitting in the archives in front of the microfilm reader, sixty years later, reading it. I felt sick. They should have destroyed that letter, and I couldn’t stomach the idea of taking notes on it and using it in my paper. I scrolled past it instead. Why did they film it? Did the person who took the shot of it cringe the way I did? But she did send it, didn’t she. She put it into the public record, with a postage stamp attached. It wasn’t intended for my eyes. At the time I knew I’d rather preserve her dignity than get one more source for a paper with hundreds and hundreds of sources already. There were other letters I could draw from to write that paper, there are other ways to get at that information without breaking a sort of historical trust. She had been wronged.

Some things were created to be, and should remain, ephemeral.



I’m at a workshop today, and so far all my notes on the first presentation revolve around various concepts of ownership. This something I’ve been chewing over for some time, and trying to find ways to express. My experience thus far in educational technology (and education in general, honestly) is that when the learner is granted a measure of owernship over the site of their learning, they are dramatically more engaged in the material. Owernship seems to be one of the important elements that bridges the gap between working toward a grade and working toward a greater, more personal goal. (And, inevitably, the grades sky-rocket when student engagement is that much higher.)

This is the argument I’ve tried to use in describing the difference between a discussion board and a blog; you get a different kind of content on a blog, at least in part because a blog belongs to the student, while a discussion board belongs to the instructor. On a discussion board, a single person can dominate the dicussion, because while the space is not finite, there is a single, shared location for input; on a blog, you naturally dominate it, because it’s yours. And everyone has their own space to dominate. The sense of space is completely different.

I keep trying to make this argument, but I always feel on shaky ground. It’s just my gut talking. Ownership: why is that so significant? My experience is that it’s true, but I feel like I’m not expressing it well or describing it completely enough. I feel as though I don’t entirely understand it myself.

But other words are coming out of this presentation that address the same issue: the presenter (Clare Brett) talks about the importance of student agency, of student control. Is this all part and parcel of the same niggling thing I’ve been feeing?

I’m also pushed toward thinking about what agency and ownership means very personally, in my own work; since I know that applications can be (and should be!) routinely improved and expanded, I feel very empowered by the introduction of systems like Blackboard to our world. Sure, it has its problems, but we can edit this thing, we can add to it, we can make it what we need. I feel my own agency in relation to it. So I can see what it means to feel your own agency, primarily because when I look around me I see a lot of people feeling oppressed by it, feeling boxed in, constrained by a piece of technology.

Deep Learning

Deep Learning


I’m gratified to see an emphasis on “deep learning” or reflective learning from faculty members; mostly because I have a tendency to work from my gut rather than theory (I’m working on that), and my gut reacts well to the idea that students need to reflect on what they’re learning. It’s nice to see that other people, who work from something more citeable than their guts, are thinking along the same lines.

I’ve never been that jazzed about the idea of an “e-portfolio”, because it seems a little basic. But I’m getting the idea now; it’s not all that different from where we’re trying to go with institutional blogging. We want blogs that stick around throughout a student’s academic life; not something that’s tied to the course, but to the student. This way, a student can go back over their own process, and as you get farther along, you could conceivably reflect on your entire academic career, tracing the growth of an idea or a concept over multiple classes and multiple years. So I guess I need to stop thinking about e-portfolios as a set item or piece of technology and more as a concept. Obviously I’m already behind the concept.

From a personal perspective, I finally went through and revisited my own archives, and found a post I wrote in 2001 about blogging in higher ed. I read this segment of the post during the presentation yesterday, because I’m surprised that I still agree with my younger self so much:

I’m getting more and more firmly convinced that blogs are tantamount to essential in humanities classes. I believe this to be true because a) it allows students to speak in a ‘public’ forum about their readings and the lectures in a course, no matter what format the class takes, no matter how shy the student is, and no matter how many students are in the class, b) it allows the instructor/TA to read, respond to, and evaluate students critical thinking skills, understanding of the course material, and if they’re paying attention at all, c) it allows students to read and respond to each other’s opinions in a ‘democratic’ space, d) unlike reflection papers or other forms of journaling for class, the responses are not static documents that are handed from student to evaluator, but exist as individual archives of thoughts and information that are permanently available to both the student and the teacher. Blogs as Educational Tools? April 5, 2001.

La plus ca change!

In the session I’m in right now, we’re talking about reflection in learning, and the conversation is really interesting. So much interest on the process! Someone just suggested that if you want to use reflection in class, don’t use the word “reflection”. The questions she suggested asking instead are What? So What? Now what? I like this; there’s a delgate here who’s an undergraduate student from Calgary who tells us that she’s been writing reflection papers for years and only just got it this last term. Students have an idea of what “reflection” means, and they can tell you that they’re doing it while not doing what we’re looking for. This reminds me of so many of the problems we hit in librarianship; the terms get in the way of getting the job done.

This conference is very good; of course, when most of the delegates are faculty, you end up with a roomful of very critical listeners who ask very pertinent and challenging questions.

Long Live the Fangirl!

Long Live the Fangirl!

Dorothea hits all the right notes as she talks about blogging while employed, and also something else I never thought I’d see: apparently she’s been accused of being too fangirly. So, there’s two important points I want to touch on; blogging and having a job, and this idea of the perils of fangirlism (shall we say).

Blogging while employed isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. First, there’s the question; how much of your job do you want to put on your blog? My employer has been extremely supportive of me keeping a blog (we have academic freedom and all that), and my co-workers let me know when they think I’ve said something interesting. My blog has been a great learning experience for me over the years, and it’s a good archive of the things I’ve felt passionate enough about to tap out some words about. On that score, it’s a little bit like an extension of my research interests, and for my purposes that’s very helpful. After almost a year on the job, I’m less conflicted about what to say, and more challenged by finding the time to say it. What’s happened to me is this: the energy I have about my profession is going into my day job; the energy I have to write on a daily basis is going into my manuscript. That leaves precious little for this space some days. I feel, however, that this is a temporary blip; I put some effort into a redesign recently, and I that’s prompted me to take the time to throw some words on its crisp new pages.

Where do those words come from? Enthusiasm. No one sits down in their spare time to write about something they don’t feel something about. Enthusiasm is what keeps us going, it’s what keeps us interesting and interested. What, we should take the enthusiasm out, but keep the daily grind in?

I applaud Dorothea’s call to take the starch out of librarian blogging. This is the same conversation we’ve been having since the whole “there are no academic librarians blogging” fiasco from the summer. It seems some folks want our personal blogs to be 100% professional. (“Professional”, as Dorothea would have it.) Let’s not fall into this trap. We don’t owe the world a purely professional blog on our own time. What makes our profession is the people; our personalities, our aspirations, our goals and dreams. Those things are going to shine through. And I think that’s a good thing. If you want wholly professional posts from us, just grab the feeds from those categories, bub. Let us keep the personal in the loop here.

And about this idea of fangirling. I think Dorothea and I are on exactly the same track about this one. You have to have the space to be jubiliant about other people. It’s mission critical. Family Man Librarian appears to have been looking for “subjective” reports from the Computers in Libraries conference, and encountered Dorothea’s joy at meeting other librarians instead. (Note to the profession: subjectivity is dead, and blogs are not newspapers.) Is fangirling a problem?

You know, if you do it when you mean it, and not when you’re a) trying to get something, b) trying to rub elbows with “famous” people, c) doing it because you feel you should, I think it’s exactly the right thing. And if it’s not, my modus operandi has to change, because my entire world is shaped around when and where I feel the need to fangirl.

Last summer, we had a guest speaker come up from the downtown campus to speak to us about a web project that was about start going live. I had never heard of this speaker before, and in fact didn’t catch his name at the beginning of the talk, but I was so spellbound throughout that I absolutely had to corner him after the fact and gush at him about what he was saying, and how much I agreed, and how inspired I was by his words. That single conversation has lead to a chain of events I could never have strung together back then; showing enthusiasm, real, true, honest enthusiasm, is one way to develop lasting professional and personal connections. In sum: fangirling can be good for the profession, your institution and your career.

Long live the fangirl!

Blogging: The Podcast

Blogging: The Podcast

A couple of weeks ago, my buddy Jason Nolan, Assistant Professor in Early Childhood Ed at Ryerson, came up to my place of work to do a talk with me about blogging.

There were a lot of ways we could go with this talk. Jason and I have been talking about blogging since 2000, so we have a lot of years of natter and thought to distill down into 50 minutes. We opted to go with the conceptual rather than the practical. This talk involved no powerpoint slides, no how-tos, no demos. We talked about why we thought blogging was good for higher education, but from the point of view of good pedogogical practice and the quality of the student experience. There were millions of things we wanted to spend more time talking about but couldn’t.

That talk has now been turned into a podcast by Jason; it’s a 44 meg file, however. But if you’re interested in hearing us blather on and hopefully make a point here and there, you can download the podcast here: Blogging: It’s good for you.

If you do, please let us know what you think! It’s the beginning of a lot more talking we want to do on this subject, so stay tuned!

An Open Letter of Complaint

An Open Letter of Complaint

Dear CBC,

I heard a recounting of weblog history on the radio this morning, and it’s completely wrong. If it were just once I would ignore it, but I hear this history repeated on the CBC over and over. Even a tiny bit of research on the matter would have avoided this problem. It seems that someone at the CBC would rather go with their gut on the history of the weblog than actually look it up.

Weblogs did not begin as “diaries”. This is like saying radio began in 1981 with the launch of MTV. Weblogs in fact began as change logs for websites. At the time, it was standard practice to post a line with a date attached to indicate that change had been made to a website. With time, those change logs morphed into sites dedicated not to posting diary-like reflections but annotated links. The first incarnation of weblogs was as an annotated bibliography of the web, since searching wasn’t quite as easy and efficient as it is now, and this was a way to make sure people saw the cool parts of the web.

Blogging didn’t get conflated with personal online diaries until well after 1999 with the creation of Blogger, and when I started blogging in earnest in 2000, blogs were still largely expected to be link-heavy rather than diary-like. As blogging got easier and the broadband revolution took over (with more and more parents getting home connections and more and more teenagers getting online as a matter of course), blogs were increasingly expected to be personal accounts of daily life. At that time, blogging platforms like Livejournal, Xanga, MySpace, etc. started being used more frequently for personal purposes. With increased access to the internet, the userbase of the internet changed; new users were more interested in sharing their personal stories and less interested in geeking out about the web. While blogging was intially a sort of meta-internet (creating websites about other websites), with time users of all stripes started using the web as a means of communication rather than as a tool to remark on the medium itself.

Today, there are blogs of all varieties; political, professional, corporate, personal, fictional, etc. Highlighting one element of the blog world (the personal, diary-like weblog or the political journals alone) does a great disservice to the medium, and encourages the general perception of weblogs as simply diaries or pulpits of political opinion. They are so much more than that.



Finding the Right Metaphor

Finding the Right Metaphor

If you ever wondered if blogs and blogging were controversial in academia, you’d only need to look at the extremely diverse range of opinions on the topic in higher ed publications to get the idea. The Chronicle has published a story called The Blogosphere as a Carnival of Ideas, clearly written by a blogger in defense of the medium in light of all the attacks it’s endured recently.

Properly considered, the blogosphere represents the closest equivalent to the Republic of Letters that we have today. Academic blogs, like their 18th-century equivalent, are rife with feuds, displays of spleen, crotchets, fads, and nonsenses. As in the blogosphere more generally, there is a lot of dross. However, academic blogs also provide a carnival of ideas, a lively and exciting interchange of argument and debate that makes many scholarly conversations seem drab and desiccated in comparison. Over the next 10 years, blogs and bloglike forms of exchange are likely to transform how we think of ourselves as scholars. While blogging won’t replace academic publishing, it builds a space for serious conversation around and between the more considered articles and monographs that we write.

Of course I think he’s bang on, and I’m thrilled to see such a glowing, positive article about blogging academics in light of a the rantings of a particular (ahem) soon-to-be-past ALA president. But I wouldn’t have made the leap to the Republic of Letters. While classy and romantic, and appealing because of it’s historical conotations, I would have backed away from that particular metaphor.

It’s something of a crisis of imagination; when we see something written down, we can’t help but link it to books, articles, letters, publications in general. We see the written word and link it in our minds to other written words. They are of a kind, in our minds, and we can’t seem to get past the medium. We see blogs and think of diaries, which is true, but also not; we see online discussions and think of letters to the editor, but also not. The reality is that blogs and back and forth that comes with them are not comparable to articles and monographs, or to letters, or to any other form of traditional written communication, not really; blogs and the blogosophere is more like conversation. If everything we said were recorded and transcribed for our later use, how would we classify it? Would we correct our own grammar? Would we make comparisons between our transcripts and the Republic of Letters? Would we have transmogrified ourselves into speakers of text, or would we acknowledge that this is merely conversation turned into readable form?

I’m always a little surprised when people mention that blogging is not academic publishing. Well, of course it’s not. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any academic value. There’s a lot of value in going to conferences, listening to what other people in your field have to say, and engaging them in discussion. There’s lots of value in sitting back and listening to a variety of viewpoints, going to listen to other, completely unrelated talks, and finding commonalities between the discussions. Finding links, thinking outloud, interacting with others and refining our ideas. Telling people what we think as we’re reading, getting their feedback on our thoughts. We accept that students learn best when asked to present their ideas to their peers, elaborate on them, and defend those ideas against questions and doubt. We seem to have a harder time imagining that professionals might be able to do the same thing using online technologies. Somehow, the moment we move to a keyboard, our ideas about how our communication functions completely reverts.

It’s a cardinal rule of cataloguing that a change in medium marks a completely new item, but the history of technology is also littered with imaginative failures. We are so stunned and awed by new advances in communication technology that we keep putting them in special boxes of their own. Sure, DVDs are fancy, but they’re still just movies in a new format. IM reference is nifty and cool, but it’s still just a new way to conduct reference interviews. Blogs likes the ones we’re keeping, the ones we prize in our fields, need to find their metaphor. I hope it’s not the Republic of Letters, though I’m sure it would indeed be a wonderful thing to resurrect. The blogosphere’s focus on connection, communication, feedback, and community-creation speaks more to what we get from verbal dialogue than any number of letters to the editor.

You know you blog too much when…

You know you blog too much when…

I had to walk through one of our local malls today on the way to the health card office, and for the first time I noticed something odd. I walked past one particular store and it struck me, all of a sudden, that it was exactly like a blog. Yes, a store. It had a blue header in just the same shade as a default blog template. A big blue header, small white print, and then variable content underneath it. (I mean the clothes and such that they sell. Sure, it’s not text, but it’s variable and text-like, if you sort of squint and think really metaphorically.) It even had a smaller portion of the whitespace under the header on one side for navigation (the door) and then the rest of the content on the other side.

Surely it’s a sign of something when Smart Set and wordpress default seem like about the same thing.

More Mazars and a Coleman

More Mazars and a Coleman

I would like to take this time to announce the creation of my sister’s blog, which has been created because she has just started library school at FIS, and one of her instructors is using blogs for class. So mark down one more student-librarian blogger; I can’t wait to see what she has to say.

Also, apparently in conjunction with the creation of my sister’s blog, my nephew has a blog now too. This one has nothing to do with FIS, but is entertaining nonetheless.

The Revolution Will Be Podcast

The Revolution Will Be Podcast

To me, the power of blogging is obvious. It was obvious the first time I started a blog back in the old days, back before comments and tracebacks and technorati. The simple act of public reflection seemed so revolutionary then, and the surprising thing to me is that it keeps being revolutionary now, six years later.

I thought all the people who were going to be got on the bandwagon back when the first blogathon kept us posting through the night. It felt then like we had hit market saturation, but clearly I had no idea. Because today I feel like we’re in a totally new blogworld.

There are lots of things that should have clued me in to this along the way. Podcasting, for instance. The sheer rise in the numbers of blogs. The fact that the word gets mentioned in the mainstream media so often you’d think we’re in their employ. But what really drove it home for me was the explosion of weblogs around the CBC lock out.

The background: The CBC is Canada’s national broadcaster. It is, essentially, a government service, with a mandate to provide news and programming to every region in the country. In spite of the government funding (and perhaps because of it), the CBC provides famously good, critical news and commentary. The CBC is our insurance that we won’t be swamped with American programming and news, which, if you look at the film industry, is perilously close to being a reality otherwise.

So the CBC management has locked out the union. The staff is all on the picket lines. In other times, what we would know would be only what the official CBC brass want us to know. But the time is now, and the CBC staff understands the power that the internet represents.

CBC Unplugged is another voice on the whole experience, and tonight (on my nice long walk out along the credit river), I listened to their first long podcast, created out of Vancouver. (I highly recommend it: you can download it here, or subscribe to the feed via itunes. I recommend it if you’re Canadian, or if you’re interested in labour politics in any way.) This is amazing; I’m learning things about this dispute I don’t think I would ever have had access to otherwise. Management has shut down staff email addresses. They talk about a “labour disruption” when it’s actually a lock out, they barred their employees from entering the building. They forced them out on strike. I got to think about this experience from their point of view; Bill Richardson talks about what it’s like to hear his own voice from the archives filling air time, as if he himself (his former self, the part already paid for by the CBC) is a scab. This is amazing.

They can bar access to one means of production, but the world is a slightly different shape these days. People can’t be silenced anymore.

Partly I feel like the right audience for these stories and rants and political outpourings, and partly I feel like a spectator. Part of what these blogs and these podcasts are doing is tying together a diverse and disparate staff. One of the podcasters says that it’s nice to see what’s going on in other cities through the photo blogs; she gets tired of walking around the same block over and over in Vancouver, but she can see that they’re doing that very same thing in Toronto. This is a new kind of solidarity, and I can only applaud the CBC staff’s thoughtful and conscious use of technology. The blogs give them up to the minute communication (audio, visual, text, emotion, politics, ideas, words, slogans) with each other as well as with their audience. The podcasts allow them to derail the “official” line on what’s going on, to put their voices back out there after they’ve been forcibly removed. They are speaking directly to us through every means they can, and they are showcasing not only their own resourcefulness, but also the power of the technologies their using to change the nature of every form of communication, including the managerial one. They even suggest that the blogs are even one way of communicating across the sides of this lock out: staff are reading the blogs of managers, managers are reading the blogs of staff. I don’t know that there’s any kind of precedent for something like this.

All of this has made at least one thing very clear to me; we’re not talking about information technology. We’re talking about communication technology. And that can make all the difference in the world.

Historicity, E-Persistence, and Blogs as E-Portfolios

Historicity, E-Persistence, and Blogs as E-Portfolios

From Ida takes Tea: why not to use blogs as e-portfolios:

The persistence of blogs (via permalinks, trackbacks etc, to say nothing of the recently-sued Wayback Machine) is at odds with the desire to create a personal repository that can be selectively shared and edited, over time.

Catherine has more to say that this snippet, but this snippet sums up an important piece of her issueswith the idea of blogs as portfolios. Put it out there and it’s out there for good. All data is ahistorical, existing right now even though it may have been created 6 years before. Students are not ahistorical; we need a system that respects the chronological growth of the student’s learning.

I actually found this argument really hard to wrap my brain around. I don’t know why the internet would seem more ahistorical than any other document. Manuscripts from the 14th century still exist, and I’ve even seen and held a few of them. The fact that they exist in the now, that I can pull them out and flip through them, does not convince me that they are of the now. Serial literature is the same way; sure, it might have just come into my hands, but I still look at the date on it. It makes a difference to me if the paper is today’s or one from last week. I see absolutely no difference between that and online publication.

This critcism feels as if it comes from a place without any online information literacy. The internet is full of documents, some of them old and some of the new. There are ways to date an online document, from clues as hazy as the design and layout of the page to as concrete as how many dead links a page contains, or the copyright or ‘last edited’ date. The same skills we teach students about information literacy apply here; does the content tell us anything about the age of the document? Is it full of references to something terrible that happened to the World Trade Center yesterday? “Yesterday” is a subjective term, and in a world where every post is written in the now, maybe this is just something you get used to over time. Diaries tend not to be retrospective of themselves; they are forever reflecting on now as if, well, it’s going on right now.

And actually, the fact that this criticism is being leveled at blogs in particular strikes me as odd. If anything goes out of its way to historicize web documents, blogs do. They are archived by day month and year, they are signed and timestamped. Most blogging software allows for some context for blogs, showing you a calendar and links to the post that came before and after the post you’re reading. Additionally, posts on blogs that are a part of a larger community also come with comments affixed, also time- and date-stamped. So, were I to pull up some posts from 1999, I would see, constantly, that it’s 1999. The comments may give me a sense even of how long that particular conversation went on. The post may be written with a sense of immediacy, but I have every chance to witness its context, its datedness. No document exists in a vacuum, and that’s just as true of online documents as of any other.

To turn this debate around a bit: were it possible for students to submit work to a journal and have it published, should we discourage that as well? After all:

persistence creates the illusion of fixed identity, whereas higher education explicitly conceptualises its mission as formative and processual: we believe that students are shaped, and we want them to be so shaped, by their experience of participating in a learning community.

If persistence disrupts that important process, should we disallow publication altogether? Does the requirement of faculty to publish diminish their ability to be formed by their work, to engage in a process of learning? Does hard paper publication prevent us from being shaped by the experience of participating in any learning community?

Or does publication (in any context) allow students the opportunity to engage in participatory learning? Doesn’t putting something out there allow us to grow while at the same time reflecting the benchmarks of our learning process? Why would a persistent record of that process necessarily be bad? To drag this out to an illogical conclusion, should we suggest that students not speak in class, for fear that they would express an idea that, in a few weeks time, they might think better of? Does student participation in any context limit who a student is by putting unformed pieces of them before the eyes of others?

The key to all of this is context. Something a bit newer in the blog world is the possibility of tagging and categories, and I think that this simple classification method bears mentioning in this debate. While Catherine sees no value in the persistence of blogs to education, doesn’t one old blogged idea now sit within a category of similar ideas, organized chronologically, so that the history of that idea can now be easily traced, with the emphasis placed on the most recent addition? Isn’t that even a better and easier historicity than, say, a paper publication? Or a conference contibution?

All that aside, I get the general argument. At its heart it’s an ethical question: should we be asking students to create a web presence that will be with them for life? This may not be their finest hour. Perhaps at some point later on in life they will want to create a new web presence, and they will have to be dodging the one we forced them to create.

Of course, this is a purely intellectual debate, based entirely on one assumption: blogs must be public. Blogs must be googled, tracebacked, ranked on Technorati, traded on blogshares, and tracked on the way back machine.

There is nothing about the structure or features of blogs that require them to be public. In fact, many of livejournal‘s 8 million blogs are entirely locked to the public. The posts are never found on the wayback machine, Google never peeks in; the posts exist only to the people allowed to see it.

As far as I’m concerned, educational blogs should follow Livejournal’s lead. I know there are educational blogging projects in the UK following that precise route. For an educational blog mandated by schoolwork, there should be multiple options: visible only to you; visible only to your instructor/TAs; visible only to your instructor, guest lecturers, librarians, and your classmates; visible to your friends at the school as you choose them, but to no one else; visible to anyone at the school; and visible to the whole world.

There is absolutely no technical reason why a student shouldn’t have complete control over how their e-presence is created. None of this precludes the use of blogs as educational tools or as e-portfolios. Google and the way back machine should not be figuring into the use of blogs in the classroom anymore than Old Navy and the Gap should. They exist, they’re out there, they’re ubiquitous; but we don’t need to invite them in.

The argument is often made that the public nature of blogs is an educational bonus. Putting your ideas out there for the wild internet to see means you may attract the interest of just about anyone, and you may benefit from their comments and questions. I know lots of people who will make the argument that class work should be available to all and sundry for pedagogical reasons. Since students own the copyright to their own work (including everything they create at the request of the professor and hand in), I think they shouldn’t be asked to put that work in the public eye, but that’s a conversation to have in class #1. There’s no reason why we can’t moderate the degree of “public” that students have to deal with, let them decide what they want to add to the public record and what they want to keep ephemeral.

I get frustrated by criticisms that are hinged on the limitations of one particular version of a technology. One of the best things that can happen to anyone is to learn enough about technology to realize that no interface is unchangeable. Everything can be changed, fixed, transmuted. If something is getting in your way, well just change it.

That’s what I love about the internet. Infinite possibility.

The A-List and the Z-List

The A-List and the Z-List

I saw the Cites and Insight thing this morning and laughed a little nervously. It’s sort of amusing to watch people get all wrapped up about blog popularity (in this case called ‘reach’), but sort of depressing at the same time. Since it’s at least marginally possibly to quantify it, I know that it’s tempting to do it. I even understand that looked like a good idea at the time.

I’ve been involved in a variety of online communities, and at some point this sort of ranking always comes up. And it universally causes hurt feelings, conflict, and disappointment, and even results in some undue criticism being levelled at the chosen ones. While blogs really exist for the good of their authors more than for their readers, lots of people start up blogs in the hope of getting some limelight thrown their way, and it’s decidedly dark and dim to be among the unwashed in these things if that’s your goal. Is this a sign that no one really cares about what you have to say? Should you just stop now, since no one’s reading you? Have you failed in some way?

And then the chosen few get this moment in the sun, which is nice. But it also means that they get scrutinized a little more than they used to, because everyone’s trying to see what they’re doing that the rest of us aren’t. Nine times out of ten, people come away from such a search shrugging, saying “not such hot stuff, really”. And once those tokens of popularity are handed out, some people, the outer fringe types, the ones who are too cool to be mainstream, too edgy to be with the popular crowd, will start avoiding the big names to underscore their radical otherness. Divisions are made, cliques etched out, lines drawn. And over what? A few numbers that don’t give the whole picture? A snapshot in time that, over a few days, weeks, months, will look entirely different?

Ranking people cheapens the whole process. It creates and fortifies the depths of anonymity and creates the perch from which the chosen will fall.

Popularity is like the little girl with the little curl right in the middle of her forehead. When it’s good, it’s very good indeed. But when it’s bad, oh yes, it’s horrid.

I can say without reservation that I’m certain Walt did not intend to belittle anyone by doing this research. And yet, I can also say without reservation that someone somewhere felt hurt by being left off his ranking, and some librarian somewhere is looking at her blog tonight with a little less delight than she did yesterday. Is the value of this inevitably ephermeral research worth that loss of delight?

For me, the point of blogging, and the joy of blogging, is in having a place to write things down. For me writing is thinking, and I love to be able to share my thoughts with anyone who’s interested. Rankings therefore don’t bother me much, because my goal has never been to please other people. The only way for me to do something like this for as long as I have is to do it for myself. But still, I’m more than honoured that Meredith has called me “the Dorothy Parker of the biblioblogosphere”.

The best thing that can come of Walt’s research, as far as I’m concerned, is that we remember how many of us there are and support each other, reach out more often and engage each other in communication. And the next time someone goes to look at the statistics of the library blog world, he will see a large, interconnected web of full of people, opinions, stories, and delight. Not an exclusive A-list.

Bloggers Need Not Apply

Bloggers Need Not Apply

Via my curmudgeony friend Jeremy: Bloggers need not apply: how job seekers with blogs eliminate themselves from contention by keeping a weblog.

Job seekers who are also bloggers may have a tough road ahead, if our committee’s experience is any indication.

You may think your blog is a harmless outlet. You may use the faulty logic of the blogger, “Oh, no one will see it anyway.” Don’t count on it. Even if you take your blog offline while job applications are active, Google and other search engines store cached data of their prior contents. So that cranky rant might still turn up.

The content of the blog may be less worrisome than the fact of the blog itself. Several committee members expressed concern that a blogger who joined our staff might air departmental dirty laundry (real or imagined) on the cyber clothesline for the world to see. Past good behavior is no guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum.

I have two opinions about this article. On one hand, I am cringing at the behaviour of some of the blogging candidates the author mentions. These people appear to be keeping named, public blogs wherein they talk about things as if the search committee (or their students, parents, and exes) will never see it. This is one of the issues I wish bloggers would be more conscious about; there is no hiding on the internet, there is no difference between a formal conversation and kitchen table banter on the internet. This isn’t a matter of “dance as if nobody was watching”. Dance as if the world’s eyes are on you.

However, the author of this opinion piece is expressing more about the toxic environment of his own department than he is about any of the bloggers he interviewed. One of the bloggers he nixed has a phd in the humanities, but also has a passion for computer hardware and software. Rather than be pleased about this well-rounded candidate who would be a valuable addition and support in the areas of personal computing and instructional technology, this department chose to see his technological hobby as threatening. The “technogeek” is not a true academic, because he has other interests beyond his (apparently solid) research. The ideal candidate for this department is one who will not even potentially share interests with any other department in the university. Note to applicants: while you may have other interests, it’s best to keep those a secret. While interdisciplinarity is interesting in principle, in general it’s best not to rock the boat and do anything vaguely different. Additionally, while universities are heading in a technological direction for teaching and learning, those who abhor computers and prefer a pencil and paper for communication are preferred.

The author of this article is also seriously concerned that the bloggers are using this self-publishing platform to air opinions about current events. This, also, is apparently a bad idea. While every academic search committee must know that people with phds are prone to thinking, arguing, and expressing their views, this committee apparently prefers to imagine that each candidate has no opinions; at least, none that anyone will ever find out about. A blank slate candidate is better than a known quantity, apparently. This part of the article begs the question: what’s the point of academics in society? In the grand scheme of things, aren’t the learned supposed to be guiding society, presenting views, correcting misinformation in the mass media and in our culture in general, and adding to the collective knowledge and understanding of a society? Apparently, when it comes to getting a job, it would be best if candidates appear meek, mild, and without opinions, ready to be inoffensive to everyone she meets. Again, I realize full well that there are inappropriate rants that get published on blogs, and I’m the first to cringe at them and work on writing up the blogging policy, but doesn’t it seems odd to disqualify a candidate because s/he is prepared to express opinions in any forum? It would be nice if the concept of academic freedom actually meant that academics generally respected and supported the idea of free thought and expression for everyone, but apparently this doesn’t work everywhere.

Finally, the author notes that merely having a blog is a negative for a candidate, because his department is concerned that such a public individual would air dirty laundry. If anything is revealing about the author’s department, this is. Rather than be afraid of an outspoken new hire, wouldn’t it be best to actually clean that dirty laundry? Make the department one that no one would want to air dirty laundry about? Re-invent it as a positive, non-toxic place to work?

I’m glad these blogging candidates didn’t get the job in the department described in this article. It seems to me that they (any of them) could do better.

Mainstream Media Vs. Web 2.0

Mainstream Media Vs. Web 2.0

Moments like the ones we endured this morning, watching the tragedy of the London transit bombings, remind me over and over of the power of the internet. These moments of crisis act as a kind of case in point in the argument between the mainstream media and the forms of media developing online. I remember in the days following September 11th, 2001 that articles were appearing announcing that the internet failed us in the crisis; major news sites were bombarded and being dragged down into uselessly slow loading; while the internet was supposed to be rapid-fire, it wasn’t providing the news fast enough for its hungry audience. Live television, with it’s ability to quickly interrupt itself with the latest news, was faster at getting the news out. There was an air of “I told you so” about the articles, a sort of finger-waggling, reminding us that we still need the wire stories and our tvs. I read these articles and shook my head in disbelief. These people accusing the internet of failure were not looking for information in the right places. The internet did not fail us on 9/11, and it didn’t fail us this time, either.

The mainstream media cannot do what the internet does; it can’t connect us to each other. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was getting my reports from a friend of mine living in Manhattan, feverishly taking pictures from her rooftop and sending them to me, and waiting for her daughter appear on the street below, her shoes covered in ash. I called her friends in Toronto for her to let them know that she was okay, because the phone lines were down, but her broadband internet connection was still working. She could talk to me, and a whole slew of us who had gathered together in a multi-user synchronous space, but not anyone who was offline. While the anchors on my tv were scanning the latest news release, I was hearing the same information from my earphones, as live streaming radio from the US and from the people in the same virtual room as me, living the events as they occured. I was following this thread (warning: slow loading, as it is a huge, fascinating page) on metafilter, which is a moment by moment group blog detailing each excruciating detail, partly by people at the site itself, in and around New York City, and partly by those around the world watching and listening to the news. Mainstream media can show me the official video and hand me the official stories, but they can’t be hundreds of people on the scene, reporting directly back to me. They can’t be my friends, and I don’t feel for the mainstream media what I felt about the people there that I knew and loved.

Today was a bit different, but not that much; I started my day by hearing the story on the radio and being completely without an internet connection. I felt helpless, my hands tied. I didn’t know what was going on, I was blind and deaf because I didn’t have my contacts at my fingertips. I got into work early and checked on my friends. Someone created a group blogdedicated to check-ins from Londoners; people were desperately logging on, trying to find out if their friends were okay. The phone lines might have been down, but if you were online and had a blog, you could contact your friends and family and fill them in on what’s going on. The comments to these blog posts are filled with comfort, concern, and offers of help.

I talked to a couple of Londoners over YM and AIM; they told me about their empty offices, the long walk home, the eerie calm. We listened to radio streams together, and a friend of mine corrected some misinformation in the cbc radio broadcast. (“It’s not a tourist bus, it’s just a regular one.”) As was the case four years ago, a metafilter thread stands as a historical record of information as it appeared.

When it comes to big events, big tragedies, the internet has not failed us. Expecting the internet to act as if it’s just another version of the mainstream media is setting it up for failure. When it comes to connecting us to each other in ways we were never able to connect before, the internet has provided us with a whole new view of world events. By connecting us with each other, the internet brings the news so close to our hearts it hurts.

Keeping a Blog and Keeping your Job: Not a Guide

Keeping a Blog and Keeping your Job: Not a Guide

To start, the reason I have not been updating as much lately has nothing to do with the issues I’m about to peruse; I currently have no internet connection at home, and writing lengthy blog posts while at work seems inappropriate.

But my questions have changed now that I’m seriously on the job and completely open abou the existence of my blog while at work; how do you manage the line between being honest, tackling the issues, and not ruffling the feathers of the people you work with? Not just your boss, not just the chief librarian or the head of your department, but your colleagues, the faculty you work with, and the people you argue with in meetings? A blog should not be a ranty response to these people. A blog should not be the place where you post the things you wish you could say, but might have gotten lynched for. The last thing I want is for someone to return from a meeting, check out my blog, and see that I’ve responded negatively in public to an idea she presented in private.

Maybe this is why some people think there are no academic librarians with blogs. Is that what they’re waiting for? For us to dish about the dark corners of our institutions, to pillory those among us who are standing in our way? To reply in a forum like this against the vendors who want our budget dollars, the faculty members who don’t want to replace their overhead projectors with document cameras, the librarians who can’t move past the practices established twenty or thirty years ago? The hotshot new IT folks who think they have a clue and start pushing for changes that will not solve a thing?

I still intend to keep my blog, and to keep it in the same fashion I have been. But I am very aware of the changes to my own perspective on it. I embrace those changes in many ways; being careful about other people is never something I’m going to back away from. But I need to underscore that this blog does not reflect the inner workings of the library where I am employed; it does not uncover the dark sides of meetings I attend, and it does not even cast too much light on the directions my own library will take. How do you distill what is entirely of yourself when you spend most of your day in the midst of the issues you also want to talk about, among incredibly knowledgable, thoughtful, and optimistic people? Take everyone else out, let your voice only be your own? Let your opinions on issues be only yours? Not easy. Is it even possible?

My new struggle with this blog is to remain as honest as ever, as optimistic as ever, and to speak with a voice that stands a step away from my job. Not that my job won’t affect what I think or what I say, but I want my voice to remain purely mine, and with an audience that is not only external and not only internal. This may be more of a struggle about retaining a sense of independence than one of toeing the party line.

I can understand why lots of professionals feel unable to keep a blog. No one wants to keep a journal that’s so institutionally correct that they can’t express what they think; but no one wants to make enemies because of their hobbies, either.