Thursday, December 6, 2007

OCLC NextSpace: Libraries and Social Networking

NextSpace (The OCLC Newsletter) asked nine experts to explore and comment on the trends and behaviors of users of the social Web.

{Lori Bell (Alliance Library Systems, Second Life Librarian and Director of Innovation), Edward Castronova (Indiana University, Associate Professor of Telecommunications),
Paul Jones (, Director), Hemanshu Nigam (MySpace, Chief Security Offfice), Kitty Pope (Alliance Library System, Second Life Librarian and Executive Director), Fred Stutzman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ph. D. Student), Stuart L. Weibel, Ph. D. (OCLC, Consulting Research Scientist)}

The challenge is how to apply social networking in a digital age to enhance and extend the public service mission of libraries, museums and archives.

How do you define online social networking? Examples of how it’s working well and not so well?

Fred Stutzman: For research purposes, we define social networking sites as those that explicitly enable transversable, persistent social connections in a public sphere. However, as the Web inevitably gets more social, the boundaries between “social networking” and everything else out there becomes less tangible.

Other people are the killer app on the Web, and designers realize this. As a result, I believe we’re going to see everything go social. In fact, I believe that sites where explicit social connections are the primary vector sort of represent version 1 off “social networking”—in the future there’s tremendous opportunity for social connections oriented around objects. for example—people build social connections around something as simple as a hyperlink.

There are so many diverse communities and interests out there, I believe that there’s really limitless opportunity in the “social object” area—I think its an area that leverages “social networking” very well.

What are the impacts, overall, do you think on industry, education and cultural institutions?

Hemanshu Nigam: The Internet is an integral part of people’s lives today, and it offers unprecedented opportunities for knowledge and entertainment. [snip] The line between the online and offline world is fading as social networking sites, e-mail and instant messenger become the new communication tools.

Paul Jones: As with the advent of writing, telegraph, TV and radio, we are seeing reconfigurations of power and of structures for social capital exchange. [snip] Additionally there will be strong reactions, including moral panic, to this change. As the tensions resolve, we may have a new period of enlightenment or a new dark ages. We can count on change, reorder and reconfigurations of institutions and of the powers that they represent.

Fred Stutzman: On one hand, I think these technologies can have tremendous impact, particularly in the breaking down of communication barriers created by cost or distance. At the same time, I wonder if the changes aren’t all that tremendous after all, but rather a natural inclination of social beings to continue to express and communicate with each other in increasingly robust/present/active modes.

However, as natural as these changes may be, we will still need to evolve our institutions toward them, and be reflexive to these changes. I believe the major change will be that individuals will expect the ability to communicate at any time .... .

Edward Castronova Avatar: Furthermore, with the multiple forms and states through which we can communicate, we’re going to find ourselves increasingly aware of each other at times we may not expect. This ubiquitous presence will generate a different understanding of our social interaction. We’re going to immerse ourselves in others—that’s the lasting change—and we’re going to do it in many ways. Virtual sociality is/will be quite real, and that will be an interesting lasting impact.

Castronova: On industry, the impact of online social networks is that they cost much less sustain than offline physical networks do. [snip] In education, online social networks providing a new model of learning that is away from the classroom. Culture, online social networks mean that there is no role for talent promoters. These are all dramatic changes.

Kitty Pope/Lori Bell: The impacts are huge. Every day it seems a new virtual world, or social networking tool is introduced. [snip]. Librarians need to collaborate to explore these tools and share knowledge about what works and does not to help others choose what they want to invest money and time in.

Stuart L. Weibel: In industry, social networking applications will take their place among other tools for connecting people with job and consulting opportunities and sharing business intelligence about best practices, new technologies and projects. Traditional boundaries between organizations will likely be somewhat more porous. [snip]
In education, our first sources have always been our social network… only when that fails us are we willing to go to a library or professor. Social networking applications will sit next to our search engines. [snip]

Specifically, how do you see it affecting libraries/museums? Right now, and in the future?

Hemanshu Nigam: Online social networking has really broken down boundaries and brought together people from all over the world with similar interests. Social networking is an opportunity for libraries and museums to do the same—bring together their patrons, raise funds, and even have their core audience have a say in what exhibits they’d like to see, or what improvements need to be made.

Paul Jones: The question might be rephrased as how will the online affect the offline and vice versa. We’ve seen vividly how the frictionless movement of information and goods is affecting world economies. [snip] How publishing and reading has been changed in what seems for the near term to be irreversible ways. Ask the encyclopedia folks. [snip]

If libraries and museum act on their heritage as places for intellectual improvement and social interaction and cultural cohesion, there is a great future for them. If they act as warehouses for cultural treasures as interpreted by the dominant culture, their days are numbered.

Academic libraries lead public libraries in the transition since more and more academic knowledge is shared digitally more quickly than popular knowledge. But this is only for the moment.


Online, whether social or no, distributes access to the treasures widely and without much friction. The online social networks can, if wisely participated in, increase the value of the institution ... [snip]

Fred Stutzman: I see it affecting institutions in two ways. First, I see institutions deploying social networking functionality in their Web presence; this will provide customers a richer experience, while driving better analytics and more interesting ways of sorting/ranking/filtering content for users.

Second, I see tremendous amounts of opportunities for the objects these institutions posses to become “social objects.” A book, or a piece of art—clearly people would like to share their opinions/experiences of these objects. Look at Amazon—they have tremendous “social object” data around their books (reviews, etc.). Well, what if this data could be freed, or placed into a transportable directory? If we could overlay a meta-architecture that enabled conversation around social objects in any places (i.e. the conversation about a book would be at a multi-library level, not a single library level), I could see this benefiting patrons substantially.

Edward Castronova: Elite cultural institutions no longer have a monopoly on the power to broadcast judgments of quality. There are three roles in online social culture: the creator, the consumer and the critic. The consumers will turn to critics in their hunt for cultural items that interest them. Today, consumers will turn to libraries and museums, since these institutions have reputations of expertise. However, those reputations have largely been self confirming. Great art is at the Met because great artists wanted their art to be known, and the Met is where you went to get your art known. That was in the past. Today, great art can become known through any of millions of channels. It will spread virally. Rather, notice will accrue to individual works of art as they persuade individual consumers of their merits.

Lori Bell Avatar: Critics will play an important role in this, by assessing the flood of artistic work that will come. Simply by rank ordering and commenting on the items in this flood, the critics will give clues to art lovers where to begin their searches. While that is an important role, it is not the dominant role that museums have had in the past. ... [T]he leaped cultural institutions must focus on their talents in assessing art and expressing those judgments to the public.

Kitty Pope/Lori Bell: Public library use is up. Bricks and mortar libraries in communities are a place where people still gather to get books, attend programs, and take kids to story hour. Academic library use is down. Students do not go to the physical library unless they absolutely have to. One academic librarian told me that their book circulation is down so much that they could go totally virtual and serve students just as well with electronic books and journals and interactive services and training. Libraries of all types need to be evaluating and trying these tools as more and more people participate in virtual worlds and other social networking tools. [snip] Libraries need to be where their users are and reinvent some of what they do to meet the information needs people have.

How can libraries best work to shape the next wave? Should they?
Hemanshu Nigam:[snip] Librarians are in a unique position to educate young people about the role the Internet and MySpace should play in their lives, teach them what is and isn’t appropriate online behavior, and give them the tools they need to responsibly handle situations, involving a parent or adult when necessary.

Paul Jones: First “Yes” to part two of the question, then:

Let’s start with online social network systems (SNSes) instead of starting with libraries. SNSes are not so much about building networks as about managing existing social relationships as numerous studies point out. Not a life on the Internet or a life in Second Life so much as, as Wellman puts it, Internet in Everyday Life.

SNSes and other technologies are good for libraries, if libraries can use them to increase and strengthen social ties between the institution and to those using and supporting the institution, to provide services seamlessly or at least more conveniently. In short to become more of a part of our Everyday Lives. SNSes are very good at this or so much better than what we’ve had before that their use and potentials are immediately visible.


[snip] But realistically, folks ask their friends first—every study shows that. Libraries need to be part of the Everyday Lives and of the friend relationships managed by SNSes. The nature of those SNSes may be 3D virtual, text, image, IM, Facebook, MySpace or something still in the garage or coffee shop just down the road. Libraries need to use technology to help shape the information seeking, interpreting and usages of the future. These technologies can help libraries be our better friends—and dare I say it, our better angels.


Fred Stutzman: I believe we need to develop schemas to enable meta-conversation around objects. This conversation must be social and transportable, so that institutions anywhere can leverage its value. Decentralization and breaking down walled gardens is a very important part of enabling conversation, and we can start by building the technical architecture of such contexts. There’s so much that humans can contribute to make the experience around a curated object more rich—we need to break down some boundaries and start enabling that potential.

Kitty Pope/Lori Bell: Libraries need to shape the next wave. They need to be in on the beginning of these technologies to remain viable. Even in Second Life, we are promoting the local library and books and information resources. We have a number of monthly book discussion groups, talks by authors, and exhibits based around literature and the printed word. Libraries should collaborate to work on these because no one has the staff to do and keep up with everything. The more collaboration and partnerships libraries have in shaping the wave, the more successful we will be.


Stuart L. Weibel: This is a hard question to answer. As a community, we are seldom competitive with the flexibility and speed of the entrepreneurial milieu of the Web. Further, we’re undercapitalized, risk averse, and lacking in the incentives that motivate rapid technological revolution. Our ability to lead the way in these developments is doubtful. Without question, however, we can (we must!) deliver content and applications into these emerging platforms, for it is there we will find our patrons.

In the longer run, our steady commitment to fixity will benefit us and our users. We’re trusted and we have a public business model based on adding long-term value to the community. [snip]

Do you see social networking as a serious, long-term cultural and business phenomenon?

Hemanshu Nigam: Absolutely. Social networking sites have become part of the fabric of communication and are overwhelmingly positive channels for people to meet, talk, learn and share ideas. We’re only seeing the beginning of the possibilities this new medium will open up.


Paul Jones: We are in a time not of no tribes but of multiple tribes, not of a single family but of multiple families, not in a time of a single social network but of multiple networks—each of the highly and loosely connected social structures more easy to manage in terms of time shifting, commitment, and in selection. How to make the support of these networks sustainable and flexible is the challenge be it in the form of a business, a government or a group of volunteers.

Fred Stutzman: I see it as a core fabric of the net. The net is social—it has always been, since the first e-mail. Social networking ala Myspace and Facebook are just a new way of looking at how we connect. While I’m quite certain will look at these technologies as dated in a few years, we will always be “social networking” with each other. In five or ten years, it may be more elegant or more refined. We will likely look back on the “friending” process as archaic, we’ll likely think the technology is clunky, and I bet that MySpace’s aesthetic will be an exemplar for what not to do.

Regardless, our course has been set. There’s no turning back from this phenomenon—it has created expectations for mediated social maintenance, and that will continue going forward. I’d wager that “social networking” will be a defining cultural phenomenon of a generation. [snip]

Kitty Pope/Lori Bell: Social networking is a serious, long-term cultural and business phenomenon, but it is not new. People talk about library 2.0, Web 2.0, etc. but I think this is actually just a name for the technology tools used to create local and international communities in the 21st century. As I mentioned before, social networking has been with humans since the beginning of time and as technology is developed, the tools change. Social networks affect everyone because they shape the communities people participate in and how they participate.

Edward Castronova: Yes. Humans are networking animals. They are built to communicate. They have destroyed the tribe, and now the family, in their zealous pursuit of broader social networks. I do not see this trend stopping anytime soon.

Nicole Caruth/Shelley Bernstein: Listening to our visitors is a big part of our mission and central to what we’ve been doing for many years. Web 2.0 and social networking is an extension of that and gives visitors a platform to easily communicate with us. As Ed Dilworth from Wired Magazine said, “The era of control is over: You can either stay in the bunker, or you can try to participate. [snip]

Stuart L. Weibel: Are social networking applications a long-term phenomenon? Returning to an earlier point, they already ARE a long-term phenomenon. Connecting to others, at many levels, is what most people want, privately and professionally. It is a happy irony that we are witnessing the steady transition of computing technology from an alienating presence in our lives towards an enabling technology for better communication and connection.


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