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Students and Twitter: Preliminaries

Students and Twitter: Preliminaries

I’m on the record of not being particularly in favour of using Twitter as a form of online reference, but that’s not to say that I’m not interested in seeing how students use Twitter. I feel like a bit of a hypocrite doing it, but I follow a Twitter search of people mentioning my place of work. I do this mostly out of curiosity, but I find that I can’t see us mentioned and not respond, or answer a question, or assure someone that I’ll pass on their complaint to the right person. I don’t consider it reference, and I do it on my own time, and I don’t think it’s something particularly sustainable or broad-spectrum, but it’s interesting nevertheless. I think of it as more of a zeitgeist, and a means of reminding myself why I do what I do. I let Twitter remind me about what’s important, and where my efforts should be directed. It’s humbling and grounding in that way.

So as I’ve been monitoring this one singular little Twitter search (mentions of my place of work), I’ve noticed some interesting trends. I’m starting to consider the possibility of being able to form an answer to the question “what do students use Twitter for?” Of course, these preliminary answers are biased, since they must contain a location in the tweet. But even so.

What I’ve seen so far falls into two broad categories: complaints, and shout outs. The complaints are things I expect; students who can’t find a place to sit, grumbling about wireless problems, outlets not working, complaints about workload, etc. I’ve seen exactly one tweet from a lecture, but I suspect there are more that I’m just not finding with my search term. In short: students appear to use Twitter as a way to vent about things when they’re stressed out. Since I find myself doing the same thing more often than I’d like, this doesn’t surprise me. It’s this behaviour that I think makes it worth my while to keep an eye on it. I saw a marked uptick in complaints once the exam period began last term. Twitter complaints may have more to do with the stress level of the student body than with specific issues, but it’s a nice reminder to be extra sympathetic at those times.

The shout outs: these are sort of fun. More often than not, the stuff that comes up on my search fits into this category. Students use Twitter to tell their friends where they are; it’s the foursquare use, even without the use of foursquare! They announce which part of the library they’re in, who they’re with, and what they’re working on. They shout out how many words they’ve written in their essays. This is really cool, and it would be neat to incorporate this kind of presence awareness status update with the course itself. It could certainly help students find classmates to study with. It could fit into some kind of meta courseware, nebulous social layer to the university.

At this point, I don’t think there are very many students at my campus using Twitter. I’m not sure there will ever be very many of them. But it provides an interesting view of student life.

Teaching Twitter

Teaching Twitter

Last Friday I did two sessions with library staff around Twitter. We’ve explored Twitter before, but it was two years ago, before the explosion of use. What I wanted to demonstrate was how people use Twitter in a conference setting. I find it so engaging to listen to something and process it through and with Twitter and my amazing collection of Twittering friends and professionals, I wanted to share that aspect of its use.

So I set up accounts for everyone, set them up on Seesmic for the autorefresh, and prepared a presentation. It was October 30th, so I presented about ghoulish things; ideas about death and dead bodies in early modern Europe, ideas that are precursors to zombies and vampires and all other kinds of post-dead creatures.

The first presentation went fine, but I felt very weird about the whole thing. I didn’t really know what the experience was like for them, and it was certainly a new and weird experience for them. Listening and responding is a difficult skill. I think this is one of the skills we don’t directly teach, but expect people to just know. It’s like reading a novel versus reading an academic article; you read them very differently. You go into it with a different mindset. Your goals are different. We got into a good conversation afterwards about the whys and wheretofores, which made me feel like I might have had a shot of getting my general point across. I got lots of nice feedback about it, but something felt off about it to me. It was more off-putting for me than I expected; as my supervisor Susan says, you have to lean into what makes you uncomfortable. I think I was experiencing the loss of control that a presenter/teacher usually feels that they have. I deliberately set it up so that I was only part of the experience in the room; they were also talking to each other, playing with it, experimenting. So by the end of the presentation I really only had half the story (if that).

I had set up tags on each computer with the username so that they would know who was saying what; too often they were spending time looking around for a name and I think that was distracting for them. We talked about how comments about sessions at conferences leads people to leave one session they’re not enjoying and move to one that sounds more interesting; about gaining background. the content presentation contained two falsehoods and ten truths; they were to determine which was which. Gut instincts appeared, agreements and disagreements, etc. So I think it worked, they did what it is we do at conferences, but I think it was uncomfortable all around.

People do not now how to allocate attention. We don’t train people to do that either. I can sort of understand that, as I guess I’ve had moments of struggling with that as well. I don’t find using Twitter and listening to a conference presentation to be multi-tasking, as they are about the same thing. I am merely giving digital voice to the thoughts in my head. For me, the response on Twitter rarely distracts me because I look down for response only in a pause or segue, or when the speaker is reiterating something I already understand. So they flow together well; one enriches the other. But that’s not a skill you’re born with. Both of those pieces (the speaker’s content, the @replies on Twitter or other conference goers opinions) need to be important enough to you to weigh them effectively. I often look at tweets from a conference when I really agree with something being said or a disagree dramatically; I want to see what the room thinks. I want to know if someone says, “that’s not true because…” For me that’s enriching the actual talk. It also emboldens me to pose a question or make a comment outloud, because I know I’m not the only person thinking it.

But that’s a carefully honed skill. It’s even a bit of a technological issue; lately I’ve been using seesmic for conference sessions, and I shut off my main timeline. I only look at direct replies and people posting using a conference hashtag. That helps keeps me focused solely on the matter at hand.

I don’t know that it’s necessarily a different skillset, really; just an old one on steroids. But I definitely found that that was the hardest part for the staff; how to listen to me and read tweets at the same time. (It’s NOT at the same time. That’s the trick.)

One of the most interesting things about the experience was the initial tweets by the participants. Some of them were things like “what do you mean by X?” or “Can you give us a definition of X?” Questions that should have been asked in person, at the time. I said from the start that I would not be following the tweets, but we’re so stuck in the idea of presenter/audience that the most obvious ways to start were merely to ask me questions. To me that showed how very much presentations are still about the presenter, with the audience meant to be only open and absorbing (and only from the presenter, not from each other). But as we proceeded, we got more responses that went farther than just me; to each other, to self, to the world.

Critical listening isn’t really a web 2.0 type skill, but it seems to me that maybe some tools require it. What people call multi-tasking, that IS a web 2.0 skill. And I think it’s far more varied and complex than people presume. It’s less about multi-tasking and more about identifying where you must pay attention and where you have a moment to catch a breath and jot down some ideas and reactions. It’s like learning to read for academics: you need to hear the introduction, you need to hear the opening of each section, and you need to pay attention to the first example in each section so that you understand it well. Then you can skim until you come to the concluding sentences, and the general conclusion. There are all kinds of little nooks and crannies in there where you can insert yourself and others.

But how do you teach that?

Laptops in the Classroom: A Dialogue

Laptops in the Classroom: A Dialogue

Below is an email exchange about laptops in the classroomI had recently with a friend of mine who teaches undergraduates in a university setting. I wanted to share it because I don’t know that we’re addressing these issues with faculty as effectively as we might; people like me, who work with collaborative applications and the internet, aren’t always invited into the spaces where these conversations occur. I’m aware that there is a vocal and adamant contingent of faculty at most if not all Canadian and American universities who are seriously distressed by the way students use laptops in class; I also know that there is another contingent, perhaps less powerful, perhaps less vocal, who are uncomfortable with the arguments in play and don’t necessarily want to ban laptops from class.

I’d like to engage in this conversation more often.

To: Rochelle Mazar
Subject: Lament for the iGeneration

You may have seen this, but I thought of you. I just CANNOT DECIDE if banning laptops in the classroom is the answer. It feels like a hostile, uncooperative, fatalistic, pessimistic move when laptops are only going to become MORE pervasive and part of our daily lives, not less. However, even my best students are often giggling away on IM’s instead of participating in a classroom discussion. I am really torn. I know some universities have tried to ‘unwire’ just lecture halls, but now students can use iPhones or other devices for WiFi, so it really is moot. However, even if they claim to just use their laptops for notetaking, how can they resist surfing? I couldn’t! I need to figure out how to simultaneously embrace the information age and keep my students tuned in at the same time!

From: Rochelle Mazar
Subject: re: Lament for the iGeneration

It’s not exactly a zero sum game. I think we’ve been teaching the same way for so long, and isn’t really terribly effective. So students have been finding other ways to entertain themselves in lecture since…well, probably since the beginning. There are really good ways to use even things like IM as part of the experience…better to be active while listening than passive. So one way to deal with it is to accept that it’s there and use it. Twitter could be really good for that; collective note taking. (There’s a variety of collaborative note-taking applications out there now, too.) Another is to target the people who are using their computers a lot during class and get them to look things up and report back to you. The OED is aweesome for this. Yet another; send someone to the library’s website and ask whatever vital infomation questions you have ongoing on virtual reference. Get the library into your classroom in every possible way.

But in the end: it’s not your job to make sure they pay attention. You can only do your best. If they choose to check out, whether with IM, facebook, crossword puzzles, etc., that’s their decision. Teachers generally have a lot of control/power issues around “what’s done in my classroom”, and I understand that there’s a certain policing role involved. But a long as someone isn’t actively distracting others, I think they’ve made a personal decision that you just can’t hold yourself accountable for. They’re adults, after all.

That said: I’m someone who can’t attend a lecture without communicating what I’m hearing and thinking about it in some way while listening. If I have an internet connection, it will be via Twitter, IM, or both. Sometimes also IRC as well. If I don’t have an internet connection, I will whisper to the person next to me. I don’t know if people think I’m not paying attention, but I surely am. In fact, if I’m completely silent, I’m probably not paying attention or didn’t learn anything that interested or inspired me. Engaging in some way with others online is actually the best way for me to learn. It took a long time for me to figure that out!

Not that most undergrads are as engaged as I am. But they could be. And the internet connection in the room could be the thing that helps foster that engagement just as much as it could be the thing to distract from it.

To: Rochelle Mazar
Subject: re: Lament for the iGeneration

Ah, I wish you could come into our faculty meetings! There is a huge faction now who literally view laptops as devil that are luring their otherwise interested students away from their brilliant and riveting lectures. They whine, “What are we going to dooooo about this laptop PROBLEM!” About half the department now has BANNED laptops in class. They stroll in, drop the briefcase and announce, “Hello class, laptops away, let’s start!” It’s ridiculous.

As for me, I have never commented on people using laptops during class, because I have NEVER had a situation in which someone was disruptive or bothered anyone! A lot of them take notes, others chat/facebook, etc. I would be thrilled if they tweeted ideas, but for some reason I think this is rare in my cohort here — I mentioned twitter once last term and asked for a show of hands and 1/80 used it. They seem more into facebook — they are still quite young (most 2nd year). I really do like the idea of asking someone to look up a definition or check a statistic for us — I think I may do this tonight! I also show video clips online and look up things on my own laptop during class, and we’re all in the same boat. I’m definitely looking into the collective notetaking — I think many of the students would be very interested in this, and i like the idea of a backbone of ideas flowing around and holding the class together during lecture! I also like the image of someone tweeting thoughts quietly instead of poking their neighbour — after all — engagement with the subject matter IS supposed to be the goal!

Perhaps soon I’ll try to allow a sort of alternate assignment were students could keep a little blog of thoughts built during lectures and earn some marks for that… though I wouldn’t want it to keep them from participating out loud! That’s the hardest part. For the ones who are genuinely engaging and tweeting thoughts, I need to get them to share them with the class!

So much to think about, but I think banning laptops is ridiculous and will not bring about instant engagement with the same ol’ lecture format… πŸ™‚

Thanks so much for your thoughts!

From: Rochelle Mazar
Subject: re: Lament for the iGeneration

It’s a huge sea change that involves bringing students into the process, and that’s really threatening. I understand that.

Yeah, people 30+ are into twitter, not really the 25 and under set. They don’t really get the idea of sharing your big ideas to make them better…yet. Things to remember: just because they don’t do it in their personal life doesn’t mean it can’t be something they can do for class. πŸ™‚ In my dream world I have a twitter install with a school login I could use just for classes. I don’t care if the behaviour translates into regular twittering (I’m not really into pimping any particular applications), but it would be great if it helps them to learn to listen and read critically and actively.

Oh also: I find writing the ideas out makes me more likely to contribute them in person, especially if I’ve “tested” them online and gotten good response first. It’s kind of a confidence-builder.

Most undergrads don’t develop the kinds of online networks that are particularly interested in revelations from class, which is a tragedy. Would be a great project to help them build some.

I guess that might be my job. πŸ˜‰

I really love the idea that it might be my job to help students create and nurture useful networks. That would be wicked.

It’s not Multi-Tasking: The Conversation

It’s not Multi-Tasking: The Conversation

I was going to write up a post about this, but the conversation may have summed it up best for now:

me: I read a dana boyd post today
me: I am brewing a post now
me: it was about people getting offended when you’re online during a presentation
Jason: ya, I heard about that one
me: she was expressing frustration at the misunderstanding
Jason: people talk too slow and over explain too much and never listen to each other so they make the wrong assumptions over and over…
me: I think I’ll have to fight it from a learning angle
me: I was thinking about writing about why it works
me: like…why you can be hyper focused on something
me: and look like you’re not
me: in most situations
Jason: πŸ™‚
me: the only ones I think it doesn’t work in are fictional
me: like, movies
me: not all movies
me: but a good movie
me: or a book
Jason: you mean cause there’s a real narrative flow that must be sequential?
me: maybe!
me: I don’t know why…that’s a good reason
Jason: zactly
me: I know I have no desire to tweet anything in the middle of a good movie
me: sometimes I want to snark in a bad one though
Jason: usually I can plot out a movie by the time the credits are done
Jason: of course there will be some inconsitencies, but still
me: lol
Jason: with a conference presentation you can do it from the title
me: yeah, pretty much
Jason: unless osmeone’s one of those great process story teller conference paper givers
me: but also…the valuable parts are usually spaced out
me: a speaker is never giving sterling bits of info every second
me: because we breathe
me: and shuffle papers
me: and use connecting phrases
me: and reiterate
me: mostly because we reiterate
me: I should write this up when I get home
Jason: so, if you want all my attention all the time, give me something to attend to
me: yep
me: like, in a good talk
me: you make your point and then prove it three times
me: that’s how we’re trained
me: so it’s kind of easy to get the point the first time, and then let your brain work for the rest of that section
me: you come up with your own proofs or counter evidence
me: and then you transition
me: and then you make another point
me: and prove it three times
me: intellectually, a talk is like lace
me: filled with space
Jason: ya ya. weaving an argument
me: the only time I’d need to pay as much attention as they think I do
me: is if I decided to count your use of the word “the”

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.

Twitter Follow Fail/Win

Twitter Follow Fail/Win

In response to Mashable’s Twitter Follow Fail, my own 10 Reasons why I won’t follow you on Twitter:

1. You’re trying to sell me something. This goes for all entrepreneurs of all varieties, particularly the “social media” ones. Now, if you’re a social media entrepreneur but not directly using Twitter to market yourself and your company, but instead using Twitter like everyone else, that’s cool.

2. You follow a zillion people. By a zillion I mean something near or over a thousand, because it’s unlikely that you’re even able to follow all those people. So why are you following me? It’s not like you’re really going to read what I’m saying right? Now, as an exception: if your tweets are awesome and I want to follow you for the content, I don’t care how many people you follow, and if you follow me I will follow you back.

3. You follow a zillion people, hardly anyone follows you, and you have no posts. It’s work to follow a zillion people, so I’m suspicious. Are you using twitter as a feed reader? I sometimes post links, but that’s not really what I use twitter for. Are you just trying to gather followers?

4. You post pretty much nothing but RTs and memes. I’d rather follow people with original ideas rather than rerouters.

5. You post about your follower count. “Three more followers and I’ll be at X00!” “Yay, just hit 500 followers!” Anything like that. Even if I know you, this calls for an immediate unfollow. Sorry. I don’t want to be a notch in anyone’s belt. Clarification: posting about wondering why a bunch of people recently unfollowed you, and wondering if you’ve been offensive, doesn’t make me unfollow. It’s only if you’re demonstrating that you’re using twitter only partly to do anything other than gather enough followers to feel good about yourself.

6. Your archives consist largely of @replies. Some people say this is a display of engaging with your community, but I have my twitter set to not show me any @replies to people I don’t follow. So: if all you do is use twitter as a public chatroom, I’m not going to see your updates anyway. And I don’t think that’s a very effective use of the medium.

7. You post about specific topics that don’t interest me. I sometimes get followed by people who post mostly about life with kids kids, or entertaining kids. I don’t dislike kids, but I have no interest in reading about them on twitter. Sorry. edit: unless I know you and/or your kids. I want to hear about @halavais‘s baby, of course. just not generic stuff for kids. Well, unless it’s YA fiction, which is a whole other topic. Maybe I should think this one through some more.

8. You’re a “life coach”. Just…no.

9. All your posts appear to be automated. I don’t really understand the phenomenon, and I already use a greasemonkey script to remove them from my feed. If all your updates are just links, I’m unlikely to follow you.

10. You are arguing against gay marriage, posting about your love of the Republicans or of Stephen Harper. So not interested.

Now: 10 reasons I WILL follow you on Twitter:

1. You’re a librarian. I love following librarians. All kinds of librarians. I like to use Twitter as part of my work, so I love seeing what librarians are thinking about.

2. You work in a library. I love hearing from everyone in the library world.

3. You’re in library school. I miss being in school, so I’d be very very happy to read updates about your classes and things that interest you. I think of it as a way to listen in on classes.

4. You’re interested in social media/emerging technologies from an educational/community perspective. I’m not interested in the “social media for profit” crowd, but am very interested in the “social media for fun and learning” crowd.

5. You make me laugh. Hello, @StephenFry.

6. I know you, or I should know you. You live in Toronto, you work at the same school as me, we move in the same circles, you’re my husband, my best friend, or my dad. We’ve had dinner together. We hang out on the same IRC channel or other online community. Something like that.

7. You go to the same conferences I do. I will definitely follow you if I see you tweeting about the same conferences I’m at. I love to hear the thoughts of other conference attendees.

8. You’re at a conference I wish I were at. It’s great to hear what’s going on at a conference I can’t attend. If you’re there, I might want to keep following you after the conference too.

9. I admire your work. Academics, start-up owners, Googlers, etc.

10. You respond to me in an interesting way. I might not have noticed you before, but you responded to something I said in a way that piqued my interest. I’m a sucker for intelligence and thoughtfulness.

I bet this says a lot about what I use twitter for.



So: new job title (“Emerging Technologies Librarian”). Definitely something that I wanted to see happen. I feel like it reflects what I actually do a lot better. Though I have pangs of regret when I think about instructional technology, but the lines are still blurry. Now I deliberately look at emerging technologies in teaching and learning, or maybe ones that haven’t quite emerged at all yet. Also emerging technologies as they apply to libraries in general, and our library in particular.

It’s exciting to have a job title that reflects what I’m already doing anyway, but it’s also kind of intimidating. I mean, keeping up with the trends was something I did as a bonus. Suddenly it’s in my job title.

So I was thinking about what trends I’m currently tracking, and I wonder how they fit into the whole “emerging” thing.

Second Life/Virtual Worlds. I’ve been on this one for a while, but I still think it’s emerging. Mostly because I think no one’s popularized the one true way to use virtual worlds in teaching and learning yet. In fact, there are so many wrong ways in practice currently that many people are getting turned off using Second Life in teaching. I’m still interested in it. I’m a builder, I’m interested in what you could use the environment for to build things and have students build things. A giant collaborative place filled with student-created expression of course content would be awesome. So I’m holding on to this one.

Twitter. I can’t believe I’m putting it on the list, but I am. Mostly because I’ve been talking about how great it is at a conference for some time now and I’m starting to see the argument come back to me from much larger places. People complain about what people twitter during events (“Too critical! Too snarky! The audience is the new keynote!”), but that’s pretty much exactly what would make things interesting in a classroom. I want to install the open source version and try it out with a willing instructor. I’m also interested in it for easy website updates, but most people would tell me that that’s a total misuse of the application. (Too bad!)

Ubiquitous Computing. I’ll say that instead of mobile devices. The hardware will come and go, but the concept of ubiquity for computing is fascinating. It’s coming in fits and starts; I want to see how I can push this one in small ways in the library. Computing without the computer. Ideally without a cell phone either. This is something I’m going to track for a good long while. I have this ubiquitous future in my head that seems like a perfect setting for a cyberpunk novel. (I might get around to writing it one of these days.)

Cheap Storage. As a rule hardware isn’t my area, but I’m interested to see what it means that storage capacity is getting so crazily cheap. If I can carry 120 gb in my pocket without even noticing it, what does that mean for computing in general?

Cloud Computing. This goes along with the cheap storage. Jeremy tells me we will never be affected by the cloud because we are a locked down environment for the most part, but I think he might be wrong. Even if we can’t fully employ the cloud because of security and legal limitations, I think the concept of cloud computing will sink into the consciousnesses of our users. We will need to be prepared to offer services as easily as the cloud can.

Netbooks. This fits in with cloud computing and cheap storage; if we can have tiny little computers with us at all times, massive amounts of physical storage and powerful applications coming down from the cloud, what does the world end up looking like?

Social Networks. Embracing the networks you have, on facebook, on IRC, on Twitter, on IM, wherever. Accepting that we are no longer a culture that uses its brain for information storage; we are processors, connectors. We store our knowledge in machines and in our networks. While social software may look like too much fun to be productive, those social networks are what’s going to scaffold us through most of the rest of our lives. Learning how to respectfully and usefully employ our networks as part of our learning (and teaching, for that matter) is an important skill.

There are some other pieces that are just never going to go away: blogging (for librarians!), wikis for everyone, IM: I think we’ve finally reached a point where we can intelligently choose the best tool for the task at hand from an incredible range of options. So I think part of the emerging trend is to use what’s best, not necessarily what’s most powerful, most expensive, or most popular. Things like twitter and netbooks are evidence of that: sometimes you don’t need all the bells and whistles.

So that’s my emerging update of the moment.

Twitter and the Library

Twitter and the Library

My latest all-consuming project is working to redesign/rework/completely renew our library’s website. It’s still early days, but there are certain lessons I’ve learned from my last all-consuming project (introducing coureware to the campus); you can never communicate too much. Even when you think you’re communicating enough, you probably aren’t.

From the worst days to the best days rolling out software to faculty and students, no one ever accused me of giving them too much information. While the internet is a very social medium, it can also be a very isolating one at the same time. When people are trying to get from point A to point B using some software that you answer for (even if you don’t control it), there’s really no way you can get too far into their personal space. They want to know that you’re there, that you’re anticipating their questions, that you’re aware of the problems they’re encountering. I never, ever want to go into downtime or unexpected system backfires without the ability to send out a message saying, “I feel your pain; here’s what I’m doing to help solve the problem. I’ll keep you in the loop.” It’s a lot easier to cope with problems online when you know someone somewhere is working on it.

And this is primarily where I have a problem with the static library website. The first page always stays the same; it’s generally got all the same information on it. This is good when you’re trying to teach people where to find stuff, if you think of your website as a static structure that should be learned. But it’s terrible if you consider your website your library’s (non-expressive) face.

I think there are two ways to think about a library website: it’s either a published document (heavily planned and edited before it’s published, published, then referred to), or it’s your communication tool. As a communication tool, it’s not published in the same way that books are published. It’s available, it’s public, it’s indexable, but it’s not static, it’s not finished. I kind of wonder if we should get rid of the term “publish” from these kinds of online tools. Sure, you put stuff online and it’s in wet cement (as Larry put it best), ie, likely to be around forever, but our concept of publishing suggests a kind of frozen quality, a finished quality. To me one of the best things about the web is our ability to leave nothing untouched. A communication tool, rather than a published document, should never look the same twice. It should always be telling you something new, informing you, reflecting the real people behind it.

So as we start laying down the foundations for a new library website, I keep thinking of ways to pierce it through with holes through which the real workings of the library, the real voices of the people who work there, can come through. I want students to get a sense that the library isn’t a solid object; it’s a place filled with people, people who work very hard to make things better for them, at that. People working to make sure the collections match the needs of their instructors and their course expectations, helping them with assignments, helping them find the resources they need, helping them use the software they need to use to succeed. I’d like to see if we can use social software to help make that work more transparent to students and faculty alike. Librarians do good work; everyone should see that work.

The first most obvious way I thought about making sure this transparency and easy communication was possible was through blogs. In my dreamworld, these long thought-pieces about technology and libraries would go on a library blog, not my personal one. But I’m not the only one thinking about things like collections blogs with discipline-specific categories, or reference blogs. Once this information is shared and online in an RSS-able format, we can shoot it in all kinds of useful directions. And then I started thinking about the things students know right now that they’d like to know: busted printers, software problems, unavailable computer labs, courseware downtime. How busy the library is. (Ours is more often packed to the gills than not.) The obvious things. We know about them before the students do: isn’t there some quick way we can tell them?

So then I got to thinking about twitter. Twitter for immediate messages. It doesn’t take up that much space, embedded on a page. And it keeps everyone to 140 characters. Like facebook status messages, but about the systems you’re trying to use. You can find out if they’re having a bad day or not before even trying to wrestle with them. I like it. Transparency, a little personality, a little humanness, and lots of communication.

We’ll see how it goes.

The Value of Networks

The Value of Networks

To say that networks are important is to state the blindingly obvious. Networks have always been important, from the medieval European confraternity to 20th century golf courses. Now, most people I know go to conferences partly because of the conference program, but mostly because of the extra-conference networking. The conversation that you have between speakers is often more valuable than whatever the speaker is saying. The best thing the speaker can do for you, as a conference attendee, is to provide the common ground, topic, and language to allow a networking conversation to open up around you; even a terrible speaker, one who says things with which everyone in the room vehemently disagrees, can have this effect.

Is this a radical statement? Not to say that there isn’t value in hearing about the status of someone’s research, but that’s what journal articles and even blog posts are for. I don’t go to a conference specifically to hear about that sort of content; there are cheaper means to do so. I go to meet you, to engage with you, and to hear about what others think about what you’re doing while you talk about it. I’m there to meet with others over the common ground of our interest in what you have to say. A gathering of like minds: I’m there to get the whole collection of ideas. This may be why unconferences and camps are gaining popularity; they, at least, at upfront about where the value in a conference lies. Sure, the speakers are important, but so are the conference-goers. Everyone has something to contribute, and there are many, many means of doing so.

I feel like we acknowledge the importance of networking, but do our best to pretend it’s not true at the same time. A very dichotomous relationship to the concept of the social network: networking is everything, but to speak its name is anathema. A colleague of mine at the library tells me that as a Computer Science undergraduate student, the word they used for cheating was “collaborating”. There’s lots being said about networked intelligence, but if someone is looking at facebook or using MSN or AIM at work, they’re being unproductive. (Not to say they’re de facto being productive just because they’re using a social networking tool; that’s unclear without more information.) Networking is supposed to be a quiet activity that you do on your own time. It’s too fun to be work.

I got to thinking about networks a lot lately when I quizzed a bunch of friends on a favourite IRC channel about the differences between various CMS platforms, and then arranged to bring in an old friend to consult with us via AIM. While many people feel they need to hide their networking efforts professionally, I’ve always opted to embrace mine, and I intend to do so even more in future. My network, constructed out of the people that I know whose knowledge and experience I trust, is smarter than I am. As with all information, I must evaluate what I get from my network, but I have the context available to do so; my friend at Google knows lots about web search, but not so much about Google docs, and while one of my friends in California is always on to the new thing, his quick dismissal of popular applications things means his predictions aren’t necessarily on target. This is angle on an old concept. Social networking applications give us the ability to dig for context on our contacts when using our networks to help us form opinions and make decisions; how we know these people, what do we know about them, where does their experience lie, and who do they know: these things can have an impact on the way we interpret information gleaned from them. You can actually be on facebook and not wasting your employer’s time! (Who knew!)

It’s a give and take, of course. I’m not just talking about quizzing my networks when I have a question (though I mean that as well). My networks give me things to think about all the time; they shape my thinking, point me in new directions, give me a sense of where things are moving. They show me where the trends are, what I should be paying attention to. The network imparts knowledge not only in the direct sense, but also through ongoing participation. We are a participatory culture online: web 2.0 is pretty well ingrained into us at this point. We talk back. It’s the talkback that turns around and alters my brain chemistry.

I’ve been cultivating my networks for years. Because my personal life and my professional life cross at so many points, it’s serendipity that my social network can be so valuable to me in a professional capacity. One of the most exciting things to discover is that an old connection from another community is bringing a new vision and new interpretation to my wider network.

In short: I’m starting to think seriously that it’s part of my professional responsibility to read twitter, my feed reader, Facebook, etc. in order to be shaped by my network.

Meanwhile, the professional speaker circuit doesn’t like this. Attending a talk, as I’ve outlined, has a two-fold impact: the obvious one, gaining insight from the speaker, and the hidden one, where I am further inspired, provoked, and shaped by my network in light of what the speaker is saying, and my intrepretation of it. That’s my true professional development, in the crossroads of all those things.

In probably 80-90% of most business and conference settings speakers have a message to give Γ’β‚¬β€œ at keynote speeches and large company events – the large audience venues. It is not a groupthink or collaboration.

If this is what the speakers of the world think, that most of the time we are there only to absorb their message without interpreting it and reinterpreting it on our own, that the bigger the event the more we should shut up and absorb, I’m afraid they’re talking out of both sides of their mouths and supporting an educational system that just doesn’t work.

In this post, Bert Decker suggests that it’s rude to IM during a conference, but presumably it’s not rude to jot down notes. In fact, isn’t jotting down notes the best sign in our culture that you’re paying attention? If you walk into a meeting with no paper to jot down notes on, people tend to presume that you don’t think anything of value is going on. This is considered unprofessional, and you will be pulled aside and given a talking to about it. Always come prepared; always carry something to write down notes on. That’s how you demonsrate respect! Rudeness is in the eye of the beholder on this one; if people are tweeting during your talk, perhaps you should take it as a compliment. They feel there is something in the talk to record and share with their network.

The way we create and feed our networks is to participate in them. We share our thoughts on the ideas that come to us; we build systems of thought and method based on the interplay between primary, secondary, and tertiary information. The tweets of the guy next to me during a big keynote is my secondary source, the thing that provides more voices and opinions to the information I’m gleaning.

Constant networking is impossible, and it’s important to know when it will help you and when it will distract you. But while most traditional folks like to take notes when they attend keynotes, I like my notes to talk back to me at the same time. If you’re not ready for the rich dialogue that it allows me to enter into with you based not only on my own experience and ideas, but also those of my network, I’m not sure you’re the right person to be giving that keynote in the first place.

My network is valuable; I bet yours is too.

Thick Tweets

Thick Tweets

Another follow-up to a tweet, posted in response to David Silver’s attempt to use a Geertzian theory on twitter: bizarre categorization of tweets. With a link, this is “thick”
2:45 PM Feb 25th

I appreciate someone trying to apply thick description to tweets, but I’m not certain David Silver hasn’t missed the mark a bit here.

First: isn’t it frustrating that every time we experiment with web applications, there’s someone somewhere trying to tell us how to do it right? Case in point, back from 2005: “I just spent fifteen minutes clicking through about 20 Xanga sites and I CANÒ€ℒT FIND ANY BLOGGING GOING ON! Is it me?” (my response). We like these applications to fulfill a pedagogical role, often to improve the profile of the use of the application to other academics and departmental chairs. Current case in point: some researchers/educators using Second Life don’t want to be associated with the “debauchery” of the Second Life Community Conference, and want to break out on their own in order to set the “right” tone.

So now we get to the “right” and “wrong” kinds of tweets. This is a challenging thing, since a tweet is only 140 characters long. Silver encourages students to “pack multiple layers of information within 140 characters or less,” and those layers are defined by links, primarily. Also by shout outs. And mentioning names.

I don’t think thick description is a good way to evaluate a tweet. A tweet’s value isn’t in how much information it’s conveying, it’s in the basic value of the information itself. Personally I quite like funny tweets, regardless of whether they’ve got links in them or not. The context of tweets doesn’t come from the tweet itself, it comes from the environment around the tweet, the news of the day, the location of the user, the user’s other tweets, the user’s blog, flickr stream, employment history, and the live events the user it attending. Tweets are ultimately snippets that don’t necessarily make sense in isolation. I’d suggest that to evaluate them individually is to miss a great deal of their “thickness”.

Some of my favourite tweets:

“Great design comes from an artistic or cultural impulse, not a focus group.”
11:06 PM Jan 24th from web cloudforest

Is there anything more newbish than using Internet Explorer? Question still valid after 12+ years of asking it.
2:31 PM Feb 27th from TweetDeck, BeCircle

Overheard this week: “Lent? That’s the musical with all the AIDS, right?”
3:58 PM Feb 27th from TweetDeck, RJToronto

Still ignoring Facebook 25 things requests, but copying my wife’s idea: I’ll gladly go for coffee/beer and answer them in person instead.
4:03 AM Feb 27th from web, oninformation

These tweets don’t really fulfill Silver’s “thick” requirements, but I find them interesting and valuable. They give me things to think about. How do you quantify the pithiness of 140 characters?



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.

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.

Interesting things about Twitter

Interesting things about Twitter

I’m heading out to Internet Research 9, the annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers, in Copenhagen today. My flight leaves tonight, so I’m still in my pjs, going over my packing, counting pairs of underpants, looking for socks, and filling up my toiletry bag. Since my list of friends on Twitter is largely people like me, interested in the internet from a professional as well as personal perspective, many of them are also attending the conference. With each update, I see more and more of them heading to the airport, reporting on line ups and airport staff, giving their final hurrahs as the plane door shuts. Seeing people already on their way makes me question whether I got the time right for my flight, and I’ve already checked my ticket twice.

While many people can’t work out what the point of twitter is for, and I might not be the right person to explain it to them, I can’t really think of another medium that gives you that kind of glimpse into other people’s lives as pieces of a puzzle that occasionally all fits together. For me, right now, it’s a look at the zeitgeist, a sense of shifting from one place to the next that we, as a group of professionals, are in the process of taking.

Jeremy is already there; he left yesterday and is stumbling around Copenhagen right now trying to stay awake and enjoy the sunshine. I wish we were traveling together; I don’t much like overnight flights and I’m anxious about getting there and going through all the minutae to get myself to the hotel while feeling groggy, exhausted and uncomfortable. I find it strangely comforting to see so many other people, just like me, so unlike me, going through the exact same process.

How do you quantify the feeling of comfort?

Conference Blogging and Twitter

Conference Blogging and Twitter

Normally at conferences I can’t find enough time to blog all the things I want to blog about; there’s never a blogging break at these things, though this conference (AoIR Internet Research conference) would be the one to do it if anyone did. At this conference I decided to give Twitter a try instead, since that was about what my brain could handle trying yesterday; short ideas, 140 characters in length. I figured I could go back later and glean from it what I wanted in order to write a more processed, thoughtful blog post or 5. I have to say, I think i found Twitter’s calling doing that. What a great way to capture those fly-away ideas that come to you while listening to a presentation or participating in a group discussion. (My tweets are on the side of my blog, for reference.)

In perusing Twitter, I discovered that Howard Rheingold tried to use Twitter with his class during class, as a way to get observations and questions up on the screen while he was teaching. It didn’t work so well. He says: Multitasking to the point of paralysis. Maybe having tweets projected on screen not as coolly manageable as private chat channel? Too bad, eh? I thought that was a pretty stellar idea.