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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.

Audience

Audience

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.

Lifecasting

Lifecasting

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.