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Waiting for Elijah

In some Jewish traditions, the return of the prophet Elijah will herald the coming of the messiah. To prepare for his arrival, they set aside a chair and a glass of wine at the Passover feast. Some rabbis teach that Elijah might return in the form of a stranger or wanderer, perhaps even someone who, at first glance, you might not want in your home. I was reminded of this story when I read this post from Eric Berlin's blog.

I am not macho. I avoid confrontation with the best of them. Finding someone passed out on my front porch would certainly startle me. But calling the cops on him struck me, both then and now, as an overreaction. A more measured response, it seems to me, would have been at least to discover if the guy was hurt and assess whether someone other than a police officer would be better suited to the situation.

Berlin's post and my reaction stayed with me several days, so much that I asked friends and workmates how they would have responded. To my dismay, every last one agreed with Berlin. They cited largely safety concerns as the prime reason for involving the cops, often saying some variation of, "You never know what that guy could be capable of."

True. But there are people we encounter every day—at work, in the store, at home—who are just as capable of doing harm as any of us. Being disheveled and passed out on another's property is no greater indication of a person's badness than wearing a suit and tie signifies a person's goodness. Of course the guy on the porch's behavior was beyond the norm, but was it really enough to tie up a 911 line and occupy five officers and three police cars? Are certifications and surgical gloves required to deal with unexpected situations, as if some rage virus will exploit human emotion?

Besides the Elijah story, Berlin's post reminded me that librarians—especially public librarians—are on the front lines every day. Sometimes our patrons are disagreeable in temperament or appearance or odor. Sometimes they're even a little batty. The job demands that we constantly assess and react to our environment and the people in it. However, we must always do so with deep thought and even deeper humanity.


Way to Break That Uptight Image

Forget shushing. The Queens Borough Public Library will ruin your credit. For a little more than a decade, the Queens Library has been referring delinquent overdue fine payers to a debt collection agency, according to yesterday's New York Times.

I know public libraries need to protect their resources and ensure access to as many people as possible. I also that know public libraries are strapped for cash. This past year southern Oregon set a record for the largest set of public library closures in American history. And if it can happen in a place as civic-minded as Oregon, it can happen anywhere.

But isn't getting a credit agency involved a little like killing an ant with a mallet? Do public librarians really want to treat patrons, even delinquent ones, like scofflaws or debtors? And what ever happened to protecting patrons' personal information?

Beyond such vexing ethical questions, this eleven-year-old program stinks of laziness and failure on the part of the Queens Library. Two of the things librarians are supposed to be good at is keeping records and devising systems. With accurate records and efficient processing systems, it should be relatively easy for the Queens Library to minimize theft and prevent excessive abuse of borrowing privileges. At the very least, they should be able to set a reasonable limit and suspend an offender's library services before it gets to a point worthy of collection agency intervention.

If librarians don't do the things that we're supposed to be good at—the things that set us apart—why are librarians necessary at all?



More than a year ago I switched from PC to Mac. It wasn't a political move against Microsoft. Nor did I act out of the belief that Justin Long is cooler than John Hodgeman, because really he's not.

My working life, like most people's, has been dominated by PCs. And at the time I had a job in which I was responsible for fifteen library computers that seemed to have been assembled by a chimp and could barely cope with XP processing bloat. I simply got fed up with PCs and decided to emancipate my home computing environment from them.

I won't add another treatise to the Internets about how superior Macs are. Let's just say I've never regretted my choice. However, my choice ruled out another option, for the time being: Linux.

I seriously considered making the switch to one of the Linux flavors, but I was—again, like most people—put off by the relative lack of system support and user manuals. I did not relish the thought of having to become my own self-taught tech support, and the great design and plug-and-play approach of Apple proved too good to pass up.

I think that gate barring my entry into Linux may have just lifted, however, with the introduction of this computer. It seems to be a capable alternative to the OLPC XO, one that could help poor schools and first-time older users learn computing, without the evangelical baggage of One Laptop per Child, which still has not satisfactorily studied the cultural effects of dropping computers among people who need water more than electronics.

The Asus Eee has got my geek flag flying. And at $400, even a Playful Librarian could afford it.


Shut Up, Mormons

Ken Jennings seems like a nice guy. He's certainly a smart guy, what with having set that record for wins on Jeopardy! and all. I'd like to have a beer with Ken Jennings. Except I can't, because he's LDS, as he reminds us when he asks: Politicians & pundits, please stop slandering my Mormon faith.

I can only respond to his op-ed plea: No, Ken Jennings.

Not because I'm a Mormon hater. Not even because I'm a politician & pundit. I'm all for people believing what they want if it gives them comfort, and I'm not here to tell people that their beliefs are wrong. How could I? They are, after all, beliefs—as in, closely held convictions beyond reason. I ask, however, only two things of believers: don't try to convince me that your beliefs are the best, and don't try to restrict my legal rights based on what your god tells you is right.

I say no to Ken Jennings' request because I ask one additional thing of Christians in America: stop complaining that you're being bashed.

I know, I know. The LDSers are considered a little off kilter by most American Christians. But Mormonism is still a Protestant sect, and in America the Protestants won a long time ago. And even though they're not part of mainstream Christianity, Mormons hold a significant amount of wealth, power, and influence, at least in Utah. How else could they afford to build temples that look like a film set for Peter Jackson's next epic?

So, please, forgive me if I don't consider Mormons among this country's oppressed. Just imagine what an atheist, Muslim, or Hindu would have to go through to get elected.

Mormons, who tend to vote overwhelmingly Republican, now have one of their own in the race for that party's presidential nomination. And they're dismayed that Romney's faith is an issue in the race? Aren't they aware that Republicans like their god the way they like their business—big? Of course they know. They've known the party they're in bed with for at least 112 years.

I agree with Jennings that, in principle, a candidate's church shouldn't matter in an election. For what it's worth, I think Huckabee should be forced to choke back down whatever Baptist sputum his god-gag reflex makes him want to expectorate. And such things as belief and faith shouldn't matter in office, after a person is elected, either.

Government and law exist as a baseline to civil conduct. They're about keeping some semblance of order and peace and fairness, while preserving as much personal freedom as possible. Beyond that it's up to us to determine our personal morals and life conduct. Government is meant for the public sphere; morals, for the private. The two should never impinge on each other.


The Serious Side of Play

"The kids are just imitating what they've seen adults doing," he said. "They don't understand . . ."

"They don't have to understand. Even the games they play are preparing them for their future—and that future will come whether they understand it or not."
Octavia Butler, Kindred (p.99)
As this dialog from Butler's novel suggests, child's play can be a serious thing. Play offers clues to a child's past and present and often predicts where that child might head. Of course, Butler's brilliant insight gains resonance in its context, because it describes the children of slaves playing at selling each other at a slave market.

Therefore, we really need to ask ourselves if we want to give this sort of thing to our children to play with. I don't know what creeps me out more: that it's a toy ATM or that its model is named YOUniverse.


Vintage Image

Earlier today, my friend Martin, whose gifts as a photo researcher are legendary, sent me a link to a great site, Square America. It features part of a private collection of vernacular photography from 1900 to 1975. I call the site great because it stimulates so many different aspects of my interest in culture.

The social historian in me applauds the preservation and distribution of such ephemera, which has formed the foundation of the most interesting historical work of the past 30 years.

The digital archivist in me laments that the site has almost no metadata describing the subject or content of the images or the physical condition of the photographic prints they represent.

My inner Web evangelist loves the use of the Internet as a curatorial space. But he also wishes that, in addition to owner-created metadata, the site had social tagging and search functions to allow visitors to sort the images in multiple categories, thus enabling them to "curate" their own experience on the site and find surprising juxtapositions among otherwise unrelated photos.

The head of the media ecologist in me hurts at the remediative implications of visiting a Web site that posts images of photographs of women and the events of November 1963, as they appeared on a TV screen.

The voyeur on my left shoulder gets a cheap thrill looking at pictures of people I don't know getting married, sleeping, enjoying summer, and even taking part in what looks like a key party.

The privacy conscience who sits on my right shoulder wonders if some—even one?—of the people pictured in the photographs are still alive and know that images of their younger selves are posted on the Web?


Dangerous Readers

The November/December 2007 issue of the Boston Review contains an excellent article by Colin Dayan, who discusses the largely overlooked Supreme Court case Beard v. Banks. At issue: do prisoners have the right to read what they want? In the majority opinion of Justices Breyer, Roberts, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, and Scalia, SCOPUS decided against that right for prisoners on June 28, 2006.

This issue needs to be thoroughly considered by librarians because it cuts so cleanly to the heart of our identity and core values as defenders of open intellectual inquiry and free expression. Should only those considered good or worthy be granted such access or is that right inalienable?

Before you answer, let's ponder a thought experiment. There's a fundamentalist who commits a crime against the United States in the name of his god. He is rightly tried and convicted and incarcerated, but remains completely unrepentant. He believes with all the conviction a human can muster that he did what was right and points to passages in his sacred text that support his position. Should he be allowed access in prison to his sacred text, which he clearly believes tells him to do these things? What if that sacred text is the Bible?

I really want to hear what you think about prisoners' right to read what they choose. So, I'm not going to post tomorrow, and perhaps not Monday, to give you time to read, think, and post comments.

I'll prime the pump by saying that I believe prisoners should be allowed to read whatever they want, provided the reading material is not illegal. Ideologically, I oppose censorship. Sociologically, I think that most criminals turn out that way from lack of an education or intellectual stimulation, so how is preventing them from reading in jail if they want to helping them rehabilitate?


O, Canada

Yesterday, my cubicle mate, Peter, introduced me to Prevent-It, a Web information campaign for young workers produced by Ontario's Workplace Safety & Insurance Board.

The great Canadian novelist Robertson Davies once called his homeland "America's Attic," referring to Canada's geographic position and cultural relevance relative to its neighbor to the south. However, his description is also apt if one thinks of an attic as a kind of Wunderkammer. Though Americans and Canadians share many qualities that make us appear indistinguishable, upon closer inspection their sensibility and aesthetic seem just a little skewed from an American perspective. Prevent-It is one small instance of this cultural difference.

As its name, description, and source suggest, Prevent-It offers advice for young workers on workplace safety and handling unsafe conditions. There's nothing particularly innovative in the way the WSIB uses technology on this site. It's split into Flash and text-only versions that seem to serve the standard public-service fare—except that the flash animations feature a severed hand, its former owner, and the many ways in which his life is comically altered by having a bloody stump.

I can't imagine a U.S. government agency producing an information campaign with as much self-mocking cheesiness and cartoonish gore, and I think it's great. I also think Prevent-It is worth a short study by some government docs or E-government specialist.


Internet Beats White House Security

Or, it does with the help of an 16-year-old from a fishing village outside of Reykjavik.

Vífill Atlason somehow got a hold of a private number that bypasses the White House main switchboard. He called and posed as Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, Iceland's president, to have a chat with Bush and ask him to visit his country. He was transferred several times to people who asked him personal questions about Grimsson.

It was like passing through checkpoints. But I had Wikipedia and a few other sites open, so it was not so difficult really.
Atlason got as far as Bush's secretary, who scheduled a call-back appointment. The police showed up at his home shortly thereafter wanting to know where he got the phone number. According to Atlason's mother, Harpa,
He's very resourceful you know. He has become a bit of a hero in Iceland. Bush is very unpopular here.
Thus proving that Iceland is part of the rest of the world, and that their education system produces clever students.


'Roll Review #5: Savage Love

There's little I can say about Dan Savage that he couldn't say better.

I first encountered Savage through This American Life, where his radio essays carry the wit of David Sedaris' pieces and the poignancy of David Rakoff's essays, but without their air of world-weariness. On the contrary, Savage's essays betray a deeply felt engagement with the world—sometimes full of wonder, sometimes full of outrage.

Shortly thereafter I came upon the thing he's probably most famous for: his syndicated sex-advice column Savage Love, which originates from the Seattle alt-weekly he heads, The Stranger. Here we find the rawer side of Savage's pen—in both the uncooked and profane senses—and it's here that his wit truly sparkles.

As a gay man writing about sex, Savage lends a valuable voice to a genre too long dominated by prissy, old, straight women from whom no one would want advice about three-ways. But to say that Savage writes about sex from a gay perspective is to not do justice to what he adds to the long and pathetic history of advice columns. He takes on all comers, women and men, straight and gay, young and old, missionary and deviant. And his advice always looks to burst the bubble of common cultural bias and sex-based prejudice.

Furthermore, Savage is blunt about a topic that Americans too often dance around. He uses such words as cock, fuck, and blowjob not because it's fun to write dirty words (OK, it's a little fun), but because his subject has very real repercussions for the physical and emotional health of his readers, who are best served by clarity and directness. Sometimes you just have to call a cock a cock.

It makes no difference if you read Savage Love for enlightenment or titillation. You're likely to learn something whether you want to or not.


Now I'll Be Famous

In January 2007 the Pew Research Center released their report "A Portrait of 'Generation Next.'" It reveals that among those surveyed between the ages 18 and 25, 81% chose "To get rich" and 51% chose "To be famous" as one of their top two goals in life. This represents a significant split from the previous generation, ages 26 to 40, 62% and 29% of whom, respectively, chose the same goals.

This makes perfect sense to me, one firmly planted in Gen X. I and many of my friends would never have chosen either answer as our top two goals. It's not that we're great humanitarians. We want to be rich and famous as any American would be. But the response lacks a key component that would have stopped me from selecting it: rich from what? and famous for what? That so many Gen Nexters unquestioningly believe wealth and fame to be goals in and of themselves is quite telling.

Therefore, though saddened, I was not surprised to learn that the young man who went on a shooting spree in an Omaha, Nebraska, mall earlier this week wrote "now I'll be famous" in his suicide note. Has a more chillingly concise summation of our time been penned?

Our era values fame to an unprecedented degree. We're given the perception that fame is easier to gain than ever. Too bad reality TV and YouTube and the other tools that enhance that perception of access to fame—that spur our fascination with fame—weren't enough for a troubled teen with equal access to a gun.


King & King

Does anyone else find it strange that public libraries, which stand for freedom and exist solely for the benefit of their communities, get attacked so often?

Well, it's happened yet again in a suburb between Philadelphia and Allentown, PA, where some mother was shocked and awed to find that the book she was reading her toddler included a scene in which two men kiss.

''I saw them at the altar and I said, 'This can't be what I'm thinking,''' Eileen Issa said, recalling illustrations of the prince holding hands with and kissing his new husband. ''I was sick.''
Judging by the photo, Ms. Issa isn't, um, a reader. She's at least not enough of a reader to have flipped through the book—a children's book weighing in at a massive 32 pages—in advance to see what it's generally about. So kudos to her for visiting a library and trying to read to her kid. But sick? Really? As in vomiting induced by affection between men?

Her husband, who apparently shows no affection to his son for fear of triggering emesis in his wife, chimes in.
''I just want kids to enjoy their innocence and their time of growing up,'' Jeff Issa said, explaining his persistence. ''Let them be kids … and not worry about homosexuality, race, religion. Just let them live freely as kids.''
I'm particularly fond of Mr. Issa's emotional "let them be children" rhetoric.

By this logic, Mr. Issa's veal, I mean, son should also be protected from all those stories that end happily ever after with the prince and princess hooking up, because they're sexual in nature, too. And it goes without saying that tales of princesses kissing frogs should be burned.

Forgive the ad hominem bits of my reaction to Mr. Issa and his mouth-breather wife. I take libraries and attacks on them very seriously. But on a broader scale I'm opposed to censorship of any kind. And this is censorship, because the Issas' actions could limit other parents' ability to expose their children to aspects of life the Issas find distasteful.

That's a deal I suspect the Issas don't really want to make—especially when someone with an even bigger mouth tries to dictate exactly what they can and cannot expose their son to.


Sexy Librarian

No, it's not a Halloween costume. It's a new novel by my colleague, Julia Weist.

The inaugural publication of Ellen Lupton's Slush Editions, Sexy Librarian is an offshoot of a larger art project by Weist and Maayan Pearl, itself well worth checking out. Between its covers, the book follows the love life of Audrey Reed, a young artist/librarian. But on a larger level it acts as an examination of the pulp narratives we as a culture distract ourselves with.

Destined to be the greatest gift since the Nancy Pearl Librarian Action Figure, this novel will stuff your favorite librarian's stockings. Buy it to support an emerging artist and future librarian and maybe learn why librarians are so damn sexy.

Here's a hint: we're playful.


Myths, Urban Legends, & Misinformation

In the September 4 Washington Post, Shankar Vedantam reported on cognitive research into how and why people believe in false information, such as the fairly common belief that the side effects of a flu shot are worse than the flu itself.

"Contrary to the conventional notion that people absorb information in a deliberate manner," Vedantam writes, "the studies show that the brain uses subconscious 'rules of thumb' that can bias it into thinking that false information is true. Clever manipulators can take advantage of this tendency."

These cognitive "rules of thumb" are apparantly quite powerful. Once misinformation is effectively disseminated, it's really difficult to reverse the effect with true information, partly because the rebuttal of a myth requires the repetition of the myth, which in turn reinforces it. "In politics and elsewhere," Vedantam adds, "this means that whoever makes the first assertion about something has a large advantage over everyone who denies it later."

This research is hugely important to the study of media effects. We know now how powerful radio and television have been and continue to be in our perception of the world, political or otherwise. The Web dwarfs both, combined, in its ability to spread truths and falsehoods—and thus asserts its control over us through its context and content.


EBSCO Redesigns Visual Search

In November EBSCO announced their scheduled late-December launch of their redesigned Visual Search, which I've long thought to be poorly named. It's really a visual browse/refine results.

Without actually using the new interfaces, it's hard to tell if this redesign represents an improvement of what's already out there. Functionality goes a long way toward usability.

That said, my initial reaction is that both interfaces are extremely hierarchical. They'll be good for drilling down into a topic—particularly interface shown in the second screen shot. It appears to be much more intuitive than the first, which breaks a cardinal rule of spilling data off the screen. The hierarchical arrangement will play well with librarians, who tend to be generalists. They almost always know a little about many topics and, consequently, need to burrow down into a specific topic it to find an answer for a patron.

I don't think it'll improve general user statistics greatly, though, because its hierarchical structure limits lateral findability and nonlinear discovery, which is what most researchers who know a good deal about a topic need. Furthermore, general-public researchers tend to recoil from highly graphical results displays because they want to go in, fiddle around a bit, and get out with just enough of what they need. Hence the durability of Google's interface, which hasn't changed appreciably since it was launched.

So, I predict, based strictly on my screen shot view, that the redesign will go over really well in pitch meetings with librarians and library directors, but over time it'll prove no more popular than their current interface system with user patrons. In other words, it'll be yet another librarian's tool, not a library tool.

At least it shows EBSCO is trying new things. And, eventually, they might nail it. Until they do, the redesign gives them an excuse to be in touch with their clients and hold their hands through pitches and staff training.


'Roll Review #4: This Is Really Happening

My family is fond of describing me as a child as "4 going on 40." That was a product of my growing up surrounded by adults, I guess. However, I've since grown out of that description, not least of all because I'm rapidly approaching 40.

But one of my friends, Josh, has always seemed sage beyond his years, and his perspective, timeless. He's as comfortable discussing philosophy and Russian literature as he is the Web. The thing is, his opinion on them all is worth hearing.

We worked for a time together in textbook publishing, sharing an office wall between us, and grew disenchanted with its outdated model at about the same time. Common interests in media, technology, and culture keep us in touch. We don't always agree: he'd probably say I put too much stock in technology's hold over humans, while I'd likely say he's a little too optimistic about our ability to control media environments and use them for good. Regardless, I really look forward to our bullshit sessions. His half-full attitude always refreshes my half-empty one.

I encourage you to dip into his personal and professional blogs for similar refreshment. As one who's all too ready to point out a problem, I take comfort knowing someone like Josh is out there looking for solutions.


Art is a Conversation

When Kristin Hersh released her latest solo album in January 2007, some critics and fans took its title, Learn to Sing Like a Star, as ironic. Turns out she may have really meant it.

This artist, who has had a hand in shaping alternative rock for more than 20 years, is now trying to redefine the recording industry. Earlier this week Hersh launched CASH Music, an acronym that stands for Coalition of Artists and Stake Holders. Through this venture, she has committed to writing and recording a new song each month for digital release. A donation is asked for but not required. However, the prospect of cheap or free good music is not the project's most exciting part.

Hersh sees music, both its makers and listeners, as a community with equal shares at stake. Therefore, she's releasing her music files openly under a Creative Commons license. I'll let her tell the best part.

Art is by nature a conversation. I'd like us to make it a community. Think about what you have to offer. Read-only culture is not enough anymore. We'd like you to treat this stuff as read-write. I'd also like to hear your comments on the songs I post each month. I'll read them all and reply too.

What does read-write mean? Maybe as you're listening to "Slippershell", you're inspired to DO something: paint a picture, write an essay, make a video, remix, or even re-record the song. Please do so. And share your work with me and the rest of the CASH community by uploading it somewhere and sending me a link. I'm offering my Pro Tools mix stems to make it easy to work with my recorded material. We will review all the links submitted, I promise. At some point, I'll release the songs I post here in the form of a CD. It's my intention that the CD release should also include lots of the stuff you send me. I think that would be incredible.

What we're doing today is just the beginning. It is in the nature of a share and share alike community to grow. Gradually, over the next weeks and months CASH Music will be revealing it's "real" self. Other artists will be involved, the final and fully-capable site will be launched and new features will be added—all incorporating your input and creativity. CASH is a community that in the end will be defined by itself.
Check out the rest of her statement here—it's worth reading.

She gets a little Web 2.0 with the read-write rhetoric, but the most important—the most beautiful—part of her statement is "Art is by nature a conversation." That is what makes this venture so human and, consequently, so sustainable. CASH Music is a great example of how technology used well can put control back where it matters. It's about people, not product. It's about community, not consumption.

Congratulations on your vision, Kristin. And the rest of you take her up on her offer: download, donate, create, and share.


Kindling, part 3

The third reason Kindle will fail is because it's not paper.

According to research covered by William Powers in "Hamlet's Blackberry: Why Paper Is Eternal," paper holds "intrinsic properties," or affordances, that enable us to perform certain tasks better. He acknowledges that electronic media are much more powerful in specific ways: digital text, for example, is fully searchable and enables more efficient nonlinear cross-referencing. But what's most intriguing about paper is its power lies in its limitations.

It seems we are cognitively wired to interact with paper. Because paper is a three-dimensional physical object with limited space for text and images, it encourages cognitive immersion. It simply focuses our minds better than a screen can, which should be no surprise to anyone whose attention has been eroded by email. Furthermore, the physical presence of papers or a book communicates with us spatially. By holding a book in our hands and turning pages with our fingers we engage our brains with an input other than our eyes and enact fine motors skills—neither of which digital text and hypertext can do. We hold in our hands a physical representation of what's going on in our minds.

Apple has had a flurry of patents over the past two years for such things as multi-touch screens, two-sided dual-screen devices, and motion sensors. It's conceivable these functions could potentially replace a book's three-dimensional advantage by, for instance, being combined in a device that scrolled text or turned a page every time the user flipped the device to the screen on the other side. However, no such device yet exists.

Meanwhile, the focus seems to be on creating "digital ink" and "e-paper." As Powers writes on page 62 of his report:

Paper is all around us, quietly doing the same work it's been doing for centuries. Indeed, what's most remarkable about the quest for e-paper is the standard by which we measure its progress. Paper itself is the inescapable metaphor, the paradigm, the tantalizing goal. The new medium will be deemed a success if and when it is no longer just an imitation of paper, but the real thing—when it becomes paper.
Perhaps the new medium will actually succeed when it is truly conceived of as new and not simply the best representation of the old medium. Perhaps when someone dreams and designs an object that focuses our attention like paper, enhances our need to engage in three-dimensions like a book, and delivers the functional promise of digital interactivity—perhaps then books will become kindling.


Kindling, part 2

Though it's more ideological than consumerist, the second reason Kindle will fail is environmental.

Since the dawn of electronic document technology, futurists have been touting the positive environmental impact of the paperless office. Think of all the trees we'll save! Can we please kill that fallacy once and for all?

First, trees are a renewable resource. At issue is whether we renew that resource at a rate that meets our consumption, not the resource itself. Second, paper is recyclable. Reuse what's already been manufactured. Third, paper is biodegradable. True, as it rots it releases methane, a greenhouse gas several times more potent than carbon dioxide. But such emissions can easily be mitigated by recycling and offset by planting trees to replace the ones we've pulped. Besides, despite methane's potency, the declining number of readers compared to the increasing number of cars in the U.S. suggests that carbon dioxide is the real problem.

Now imagine the tens or hundreds of thousands (we don't know because Amazon won't release sales figures) of Kindles out there that we'll break or get bored of and throw out in a few years. Think of that petroleum-based plastic breaking down and leaching into the soil. Imagine the lead and silicon used in its chips oozing into the ground water.

Better yet, imagine all those discarded Kindles being shipped to our real Island of Misfit Toys. Do we still wonder why our pet food is poisoned and our babies' toys are full of lead?


Kindling, part 1

Amazon made a lot of noise lately with the release of their wireless reading device, Kindle. Is its name intended to evoke book burning? Doesn't matter. There are three reasons I know it'll fail, without ever picking up the device. Today let's look at the first and most practical: price.

We know that the Kindle currently costs $400. We then must purchase each title for $10. We also know that, on average, a digital device's useful life is two years, after which it either breaks or the owner trades it in for a new device.

Most readers get books from several sources, including used book stores and libraries, and in several forms, ranging from mass market paperbacks to trade paperbacks to hardcover books. The average per-read cost is probably $15—and that's being generous. Therefore, a Kindle owner would have to read 80 books within the device's probable two-year lifespan to break even. That's a substantial number for all but the most avid reader. Furthermore, the Kindle currently rules out all consumer cost-saving options, such as second-hand book buying, library lending, or borrowing a book from a friend.

The Kindle seems to have addressed many issues that earlier generation digital reading devices suffered from, such as the light on v. light through reading experience problem. And it will probably sell fairly well at first just for its novelty. However, it costs too much and offers the consumer too little flexibility when compared with the thing it's trying to replace.


More Angsty Bits

Elsewhere on yesterday's New York Times op-ed page, Jaron Lanier demands, Pay Me for My Content.


No because context is king.

No because the whole is nearly always greater than the parts, and I wouldn't have paid for your parts.

No because for the dollar yesterday's edition of the New York Times cost me, I get to chide you and David Brooks and bone up on my cocktail-party current events in time for Thanksgiving dinner.

No because subscription plans on the Internet have failed spectacularly.

No because the online edition of the very publication you ranted in yesterday decided on September 19 that the subscription model didn't work.

No because—though the timing of your, um, essay suggests you are weirdly but touchingly trying to align yourself with truly creative people—I can think of no better way to destroy what's left of art and culture on the Internet than to slap a subscription fee on it, after which it'll be relegated to that thing called The Dark Web, which I've heard of, never seen, and frankly makes me paranoid.

No because you are a code monkey who has worked for Microsoft, Linden Labs, and a Google acquisition, where you probably had a foosball table in your office and were falsely convinced that your every utterance is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

No because, contrary to what you say, people do not happily pay for virtual art and clothing on Second Life. They pay for large avatar penises with which to have virtual sex. Much like real people do in the real world, actually.

No because your I've-seen-the-light screed ends with, "We need to grow up," which is always written by those who think they know better and never do.


The Fragments Are Coming!

Today's New York Times op-ed pages are filled with cultural angst.

Columnist David Brooks tells us about a new curriculum, drawn by Bruce Springsteen's own Little Steven, to teach high schoolers American history through music. It seems that Van Zandt, like Brooks, is anxious about the fragmentation of American culture, particularly rock and/or roll. We are creating, apparently, a generation of new musicians who have no sense of musical history.

I have three initial reactions to Van Zandt's proposal. First, there is no quicker way to kill rock than to codify it in a high school classroom. Kids listen to music to get away from school, their parents, and any other authority figure who tells them what's good for them.

Second, when has anyone liked being told what they should know and should like? The only difference is now musicians and listeners don't have to rely on Top 40 radio and record labels to hear what they want. Technology has reasserted consumer control—at least until some company, probably one that names all its products beginning with a lower case i, figures out how to push their taste on them. Of course our tastes are more fragmented than ever as a result. Why is that bad?

Third, music is as near a primal force as humanity can create. We react viscerally to it. Just because a history of some style might be lost does not mean we will ever stop creating the music we want to play and hear. Besides, every new tradition emerges out of a break from an old one.

But what really got my anger-crank turning were the idiocies tossed off by Brooks. In one choice moment, he drivels, "there are almost no new groups with the broad following or longevity of the Rolling Stones, Springsteen or U2." That's because it's temporally impossible, Dave. New bands are, well, new. Posterity hasn't weighed in yet. We simply don't know which ones will survive fame, overdoses, and the ravages of age.

A few paragraphs later, Brooks states, "It's considered inappropriate or even immoral for white musicians to appropriate African-American styles." One: Eminem. Two: if you check with your good friend and rock historian, Little Steven, he might tell you that a lot of early 20th century black musicians died penniless, while others, mostly white guys, claimed copyright and profited from their songs. That's at least inappropriate, or even immoral, so black musicians might be excused for being a little touchy about their contribution to American culture.

Brooks pinpoints the "pivot moment" in musical history to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when "the era of integration gave way to the era of fragmentation." I think the real cultural pivot is his essay, in which the always buttoned-down Brooks aligns himself with an aging rocker who dresses like a gypsy.


Entrepreneurs, Entertainers, & Outlaws

On the Media replayed a great radio documentary this weekend on the Mexican border blaster radio stations.

Also known as X stations, because their call letters began with X, they skirted American law from the 1930s to the 1960s by broadcasting from south of the Mexican border, often at wattages exceeding ten times the legal U.S. federal limit of 50,000 watts. There are stories of birds being electrocuted while flying too close to the towers and of sailors in the South Pacific tuning in.

Infamous for selling goat-gonad implants to erectilely challenged men and other types of snake oil, the border blasters also launched many a bluegrass and country music legend. It's said that Johnny Cash first heard his future wife's act for the first time on an X station. We also have border blasters to thank for Wolfman Jack.

What's best about the border blaster story, though, is the living reminder it presents of how feeble laws are in the face of media. Just as businessmen back then used the Mexican government's willingness to look the other way to their radio broadcasting advantage, they now use offshore laws to launch gambling and porn Web sites.

There will always be someone who'll figure out some way to make money, and technology will always be several steps ahead of the law.


'Roll Review #3: The Hub

YouTube has shown conclusively how powerfully user-generated video can operate within a culture. Low-production values, limited bandwidth, and small screens have proven to be no obstacles, as user participation has sent traditional media scrambling to figure out what this new broadcast method is and whether it's a threat.

Now the Hub is exploring a new aspect of that power. The Hub is a media-sharing site that focuses on human rights issues. It was launched by WITNESS, an activist group, founded in 1992 by Peter Gabriel and the Reebok Human Rights Foundation, that "uses video and online technologies to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations." By opening a participatory channel for human rights stories, WITNESS makes good on the second part of their mission: to "empower people to transform personal stories of abuse into powerful tools for justice, promoting public engagement and policy change."

The opportunity the Hub provides for investigative, activist, or amateur journalism is limitless. Just think of all the missionary, Peace Corps, and AmeriCorps workers who now have an immediate link to the overdeveloped world and can affect change as it's needed. If we're lucky, major news outlets will begin monitoring the Hub for international leads, further increasing the site's impact. And I thought the Rodney King video was transformative.

Thanks to the GOOD Magazine blog for bringing the Hub to my attention.


The Empire Strikes Back

Looks as though the first and second most popular sites in America are trying to beat back the third and fifth ranked sites. If they're going to succeed, this is the plan to do it.

At least for now and the foreseeable future, people are comfortable communicating textually. Email is the most universally accepted online function. Text messaging remains the largest growth area in mobile phones. Both are widely accepted in business and social situations, and both are technologically appealing, because they don't demand a lot of memory or bandwidth.

Add in the vast repositories of personal data both Yahoo and Google have collected from their registered email users and you've got the foundations for an active digital social network. Plus, from their perspective, it's not an all-or-nothing game. MySpace and Facebook users will likely also use Google's and/or Yahoo's social functions, simply because they're available and attached to their email. MySpace and Facebook, however, do not yet have a native email component, so first-time social site users who start on Google or Yahoo are not likely to migrate to MySpace or Facebook.

If I had to place a bet on this fight, I'd put my money on Google. Not because they're the biggest and baddest right now, but because their stripped-down interfaces make them more conducive to textual communication and more portable to mobile devices. Yahoo's latest email redesign is an interactive disaster that takes far longer to get used to than most people have the patience for—and as limited as people's patience is for digital devices in general, it's even less for email. Also, Yahoo mail runs a lot slower than Google's, especially on older computers.

Favoring Yahoo is a general opt-in consumer approach. Yahoo tends to build tools that their users can either choose to use and integrate or not. Google tends to produce ready-made services that the user must discover how to opt out of. And that's Yahoo's wild card, because as we all know, people want to participate and they want to at least think they're in control.


Serendipity, or Is It Synchronicity?

In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.
—Louis Pasteur
No sooner did yesterday's intern spark bloggerous debates about privacy and the Internet than OCLC released its latest report, Sharing, Privacy and Trust in Our Networked World, which is available as a free PDF download.

The report is based on responses from a little more than 6,500 people from six countries—Canada, US, Japan, France, Germany, and UK—who completed online surveys between December 7, 2006 and February 7, 2007. I'll leave you to parse it in greater detail, but there are two passages I'd like to share. The first is quite relevant to yesterday's post.
The builders of the social Web are comfortable and open. The Internet is now an everyday activity like making a phone call or watching TV. Internet activities are familiar and comfortable and, perhaps as a consequence, are not seen as particularly private. . . . [T]he more users participate on their favorite social and commercial sites, the more trust develops between the users and the sites. (p. 8-3)
Two things worth noting before I give the second passage: 382 respondents were identified as library directors; among all respondents, 28% had not visited a library building or library Web site in the previous year.
We see the social Web developing in an environment where users and librarians have dissimilar, perhaps conflicting, views on sharing and privacy. There is an imbalance. Librarians view their role as protectors of privacy; it is their professional obligation. They believe their users expect this of them. Users want privacy protection, but not for all services. They want the ability to control the protection, but not at the expense of participation. (p. 8-4)
That last sentence is so key. Librarians are trained to control. It's in the profession's terminology: access, distribution, controlled vocabulary, authority record. But in the current creator/consumer digital climate, the user wants to be in the driver seat.


Nice Wand

Whether this guy's actions were right or wrong is irrelevant. The appropriateness of his boss's reaction likewise is beside the point.

What matters is that the intern clearly did not think there would be any repercussions from his Facebook post. What matters is that his views about privacy are either skewed or nonexistent. What matters is that he is of voting age and, therefore, has some say in what my privacy rights are.

There's no doubt digital media alter our perception of the world, including our concept of privacy. It's the end of privacy as we know it. The best part? We're all compliant.


The Librarian's Dilemma

The recent buzz about the Google Phone, which is scheduled for release in the middle of next year, suggests that the evolution has begun. More pertinent to that argument, however, are the advancements in interactive design introduced by the Blackberry Pearl and iPhone and—most important—how the public has reacted to them. We are rapidly moving past the stage of early adopters and into the first phase of mainstream adoption. Before long, the chains binding us to our desktops and laptops will be severed.

This presents a whole new set of questions for librarians, many of whom still don't quite know what to make of changing desktop technology.

  • Do we integrate our existing digital services to accommodate mobile technology?
  • Do we build or buy new digital services that are made specifically to maximize mobile technology?
  • How will mobile technology affect our contracts with data vendors?
  • Do we allow patrons free use of their mobiles—including the its phone—in the library, or do we separate and police our spaces by function rather than content? (That context v. content question keeps coming up.)
  • Do we choose to ignore mobile technology entirely and define ourselves in other ways?
The technology is here. We have to deal with it. The way to deal with it is to decide precisely who we are, what we do, and what our role is in society.


The Sea Change in Scholarly Communication

As seminal as science and medicine have been to the advancement of digital publishing, the benefits of their efforts are largely confined to publishing in their disciplines. This makes sense when you consider that their approach to digital publishing has been process oriented. They are savvy technologists who collaborate on research that is well funded. The early incarnations of the Internet, for which their communities were primarily responsible, naturally fed into their behaviors.

That humanities and social science researchers were not a part of the vanguard is no surprise. Their work is driven by argument and interpretation, not empirical evidence. They tend to be more tribal and solitary in their research and operate within a field, rather than focus on a discipline. Above all, their research is, at best, sparsely funded, making initial outlays for technological infrastructures nearly impossible.

But an interesting thing is happening on the Internet: it's fundamental model is becoming more social and friendlier to the creator/consumer. It's also becoming cheaper and less dependent on a specific platform. And as I've discussed before, serious researchers—many of them humanities and social science specialists—are adopting the same information consumption behaviors on the Internet the rest of us are.

One key behavior change is that fewer of them are going directly to the library to conduct research, choosing instead to search and download from their homes and offices. The true change will come when they realize they can access information between the office and home—and get recommendations on new research from far-flung but like-minded academics. Then humanities and social science scholars will insist less on the bound volume and become eager participants in digital publishing.


The Narrative of Taxonomy

Taxonomies are organizational schemes. For that matter, so are folksonomies and even referral systems, such as's "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" feature. The difference between them is in degree: strict imposed taxonomies are exact organizational schemes, while more bottom-up systems are ambiguous organizational schemes.

What makes either type of scheme useful, however, is the same: they must be iterative and interactive. We don't always know precisely what we're looking for all of the time. A good organizational scheme teaches us how to use it as we use it, because what we find now always influences how we search later. Good organizational schemes promote associative learning.

Associative learning is a kind of journey. Every journey has a tale—a narrative. Therefore, if we predict, uncover, or intuit the users' journeys, even if we're imposing the strictest taxonomy on them, we serve them well. There are narratives in every organizational scheme and in those narratives, meaning.


Taxonomy v. Folksonomy

A lot of ink has been spilled over the value of social tagging versus controlled vocabularies. Much of it has been couched in terms of cultural dominance, because taxonomies are imposed on a culture from the top-down by people somehow deemed experts, while folksonomies are created by the users of a system, thus emerging out of a culture from the bottom-up.

Proponents of taxonomies sometimes liken folksonomies to mob rule: chaotic, dangerous, and ultimately ineffective. Folksonomy evangelists counter that taxonomists exert cultural control by dictating how culture is labeled. Fair enough. How we name and organize information certainly affects the way in which it is understood. For proof, just notice my use of "proponents" and "evangelists."

The truth is that both methods taken to an extreme have serious shortcomings. Cultural stuff aside, taxonomies become sclerotic very quickly, because they require huge investments of labor to create and change. Meanwhile, pure folksonomies do tend to chaos unless they form around narrow topics. Most people are not exact enough in their use of language to recognize that a word with seven meanings might not make the best subject tag.

Therefore, taxonomies and folksonomies have much to learn from each other, and some blend of the two generally produce the most useful results. And it should always be about usefulness. That said, I think taxonomies will be more dominant than folksonomies, strictly from a practical perspective. Because when a folksonomy emerges that is so perfect that it gets wide use, what does it become at that moment if not a taxonomy?


'Roll Review #2: Planet Ham

Images correctly employed can evoke powerful emotion and communicate deep meaning. No blog features images better than Matt Phelan's Planet Ham.

Phelan received widespread attention as the illustrator of the "scrotum book," Susan Patron's The Higher Power of Lucky. He didn't actually draw a scrotum, but was merely caught in the outrage of some parents afraid that if their children read the word, they'd have to have that talk.

Judging by his pictures, Phelan is far wiser and more in touch with what makes us human than those offended adults. To describe his illustrations is to wrestle with seeming contradictions. They are at once spare and emotive. They suggest great motion yet are calming. Bending the same basic strokes to his purpose, Phelan can evoke whimsy, innocence, or menace.

I would love one day to write a book for him to illustrate. I'd use powerful words like "scrotum," words capable of raising ire. And I'd rely on Phelan's drawings to soften my words and to show readers that they're only words—to show readers that what they're really outraged by and afraid of is themselves.


Rebellion Is Dead, Long Live Rebellion

Doing an Internet startup is like having a band—that's my basic theory. Everyone will have them because more than anything, it's fun.
Zaid Farooqui, founder & CEO of Cyquester Technologies,
as quoted in The Boston Globe
In a radio essay broadcast October 30 on NPR, Andrei Codrescu used the first sentence of Farooqui's quote as the launching point for a meditation on youthful rebellion in contemporary society. Codrescu notes that back in the day, poetry was the chosen vehicle for his and his friends' disdain for adults. He goes on to point out that later generations have turned to bands and stand-up comedy, respectively, as their forms of rebellion.

Today, he states, it's the Internet: "And it makes sense also that the Internet should follow both poetry and band because it envelops all media and returns rebellion to its source, pure information, unencumbered either by poetry's referentiality or comedy's complex messages."

But Codrescu sees a dark side to this latest manifestation of rebellion, because the Internet is not just a vehicle of pure information. It's not just free expression or an informed public sphere. It's also an engine of commerce, which makes it a tool of conformity.

And who wouldn't want to conform? At one end of the Net you've got Farooqui, who's 20, already at the helm of his own business, and likely to be a billionaire one day. At the other, you've got Internet-based shows that tell us the life of a blogger is cool and full of drama and meaning (thanks for the link, Vik). Both want your attention, because your attention makes them money.

Proving it's always good to have around an old guy who's survived an Eastern European communist dictatorship, Codrescu concludes: "We have come full circle: Poetry has become money. Rebellion is dead, but power has passed on to the children. It's up to the old to rebel now. Poetry is a pretty good tool."


Halloween: The First Mediated Holiday

I no longer celebrate Halloween. The holiday is for me wrapped in so many memories of my mother, and she's dead.

Just kidding. It's true that I don't celebrate Halloween. It's also true my mom is dead. But they're not related. I don't celebrate Halloween anymore because I like growing older and think maturity has some much-underrated benefits.

Halloween is for adolescents. Many have argued that it's also a holiday for the young at heart. But in its current manifestation, Halloween—with its cartoonish representations of the supernatural and costumes that have as much to do with wish-fulfillment as anything else—actually feeds an adolescent mindset, one that sees the world as a field of options in which anyone at any time can be a superhero or a sexy nurse or offensive.

I won't bore you with yet another history of Halloween. The Dauphin County Library System has a perfectly serviceable narrative of the the holiday's origins, if you're interested. But I will ask you to consider Halloween the first mediated holiday in recorded memory.

All tools are media. Anything that enhances our native human abilities or performs a job that we're otherwise incapable of is media. That includes the hammer, which enhances our hands' ability to pound things, and the airplane, which enhances our legs' ability to propel us, not to mention giving us the ability to fly. It also includes things we traditionally call media, such as painting, television, and the Internet, which enable us to be in several places and times at once through representation.

Therefore, when our ancestors painted themselves, built bonfires to dance around, and did similar things that we now refer to as wild and primitive, they were practicing mediation. They were surrounded by death, and with autumn they knew they'd be surrounded by darkness for months to come. They had few options. They had only some paint and fire to keep winter and death at arm's length.


Evolution of Machines

Just as humans adapt to new tools, machines evolve—or, rather, their manufacturers adapt to technological advances, changing behaviors, and market conditions. Howard Rheingold explained this dance five years ago in his book Smart Mobs.

That the effects of text messaging on Japanese and Scandinavian societies have not appeared fully in the U.S. shows the impact money and policy have on technological behaviors. Business and government are very much part of the information ecology. Laboring under a hard-wired legacy telephone system, U.S. telecommunication carriers are loathe to write off their 20th century investments, while competition has made them reluctant to share or standardize their technologies.

But I have to wonder what will happen if our nation's mobile technology and practices ever sync with the rest of the world. Because, the example of the metric system aside, we can't afford to sit this one out indefinitely, can we?

My guess is that even as the devices get more powerful, information packets will get smaller, akin to SMS. If well-tagged and linked according to an open descriptive system, such as XML or RDF, even the smallest bits of information could be powerful because of their connection to others, creating a mass of accessible data. Furthermore, the information could be easier to code accurately and maintained, because they are small, and might not required traditional inputs, such as a keyboard.

It's all speculation, of course, and it'd require a major adaptation to the technology from us. We'd have to accept a model in which information is constantly flowing through and communicating with our mobile device, rather than existing natively on it—not an easy proposition for a society still struggling with intellectual property and the concept of ownership.


Evolutionary Information Behavior

The notion that the Internet is changing people's relationship to information is not new. The principle of good enough is now well document as applying to both design and consumption on the Web. And reams of deep-log analysis conducted by the Centre for Publishing at University College London's School of Library, Archive and Information Studies show clearly that even serious academic researchers are not immune to the frenetic skimming and jumping-around behaviors the rest of us exhibit on the Internet.

What excites me, though, is the potential next evolutionary stage in our relationship with digital information: from the hunter-gatherer behaviors described above to a sower-reaper model. We have only begun to exploit the potential uses of XML-based technologies, such as RSS feeds, which push only the information we want to us. And we are approaching a critical mass on social networking sites, which have built-in trust metrics for referral—likewise a way to harvest information without having to search blindly.

Just as Google harnessed and exploited the Web's linked structure to improve search, XML and social media harness and exploit the human desire to save time in the face of mass information and connect with like-minded people. What impact might these tools have, both good and bad, if refined?


'Roll Review #1: Neil Gaiman

Back in his heyday, before moving to that retirement home for DJs, satellite radio, Howard Stern proved that you could give yourself a nickname and make it stick. It didn't hurt that he was the titular focus of a syndicated radio show that held huge shares in most major media markets. But still, he managed to persuade nearly every person who uttered his name to preface it with "King of All Media," virtually willing a mildly entertaining book and follow-up film into best-sellerdom. Did anyone else find that annoying? We should thank him, though, for launching the career of Paul Giamatti.

In stark contrast is Neil Gaiman, who really could lay a legitimate claim to media monarchy and who's done it without the advantage of a mic plugged into millions of ears. He started as a freelance journalist before raising the bar, and profile, of comic book writing with the Sandman series. He has since written popular and award-winning books, short stories, screenplays, and stage and radio plays in a logorrheic display of almost Asimovian proportions.

What enables him to move so effortlessly between media can be described only as intuition. Many have thought about and successfully described the subtle differences between media—what makes a good book vs. a good film vs. a good TV show. In fact, the bad-books-make-good-movies paradigm has been explored to death. But Gaiman is one of the few who's done it, who's consistently produced artistically and popularly successful works in multiple media. And nothing highlights his intuition more than his blog.

Gaiman was in the vanguard of blogging and continues it, almost daily, as a labor of love and outreach to his fans. The blog now reportedly registers more than a million unique hits each month. It's got the typical bloggy elements—brief news items, recommendations, links to neat sites, travel photos—but where it succeeds most, and puts Gaiman's media intuition on display, is in its tone. His blog is friendly and intimate. It's completely devoid of the creepy or salacious feeling of reading someone's journal on the sly. Rather, reading his blog feels like reading a letter from a friend.

Through his blog Gaiman gives his readers a glimpse of a successful but hard-working writer's life, complete with undoctored photos of his dark and baggy eyes. We cheer for him because of those circles and don't begrudge him success because of those bags. And we are charmed by him when he asks his precocious adolescent daughter to guest-blog in his absence. Above all, we feel while reading his blog as if we're in on a joke or a gentle secret—even if it's with a million other people.


The Facebook Generation

They are media queens. They are familiar with everything it has to offer by way of example, insight, and reflection. . . . They are not just an audience of passive consumers. They are not even merely judges—though, Lord knows, they are that too.
They can do it themselves. They are performers.

Now that I am 36, I know I would have hated myself at 21. I was opinionated and cocksure and full of a sense of the promise that life holds. Not that I've lost those qualities over time. I've just toned it down a bit, having recognized that not everyone wants or cares to know what I think.

As a result, I can forgive 2007 Dartmouth grad Alice Mathias, who tells us in her October 6 New York Times op-ed that people who treat Facebook as anything but a lark are wrong. It is and always was intended to be, she tells us, "a circus ring" and any attempt to turn it into "a legitimate social reference guide" threatens it.

There is a huge aspect to Facebook that entails play—and far be it from a Playful Librarian to discourage play. But the point of play is that it can be both fun and useful. Elements of play should infuse our home and work lives, especially since digital tools now enable us to blur the lines between work and home.

As of May 2007, 39% of unique Facebook users are over 35—the largest and seemingly most unlikely demographic. They didn't grow up with it and didn't use it in college. But they are using it now and in growing numbers, and it's likely they're using it to keep in touch with friends, family, and business contacts, all at the same time.

Ms. Mathias ignores these statistics, probably because they don't fit within her experience. That's the danger of social media: it convinces those who use it uncritically that they are at the center of everything, it's about them. And with the publication of Ms. Mathias's op-ed we can pinpoint the coming of age of the Facebook generation.


Blogging ≠ Creativity

Blogging is not a creative act. Neither, for that matter, is the use of any social media, such as videocasting on YouTube. They require no more inherent creative talent than the ability to read, write, and fiddle with a bit of machinery. A post might exhibit creativity or exist for a creative purpose. But its existence might just as easily be instructive or persuasive in nature.

The true quality common to all social media is that it is expressive—it's an act of outreach, of communication. And for all my talk of content as king—which I still firmly believe—it's in that act of communication that the human interest lies. For it's in the content that we sense the personality and glimpse the person behind the machine.

We as readers or viewers intuit the risk and reward of that outreach. Sometimes we are moved to laugh or cry at a particular blog post, or we cringe at a misguided attempt to evoke a reaction. Often we just roll our eyes at yet another video or a dad getting hit in the balls by his toddler. But we're always intrigued and we imagine ourselves alongside that person reaching out to us.

And it's those who keep that illusion alive the longest—who convince us that we're center stage with them, that we're an essential part of the experience—who know how to use and manipulate social media.


How Libraries Misuse MySpace

MySpace, Facebook, and other similar sites are social networking tools. That "social" is key. It implies individuals communicating, making connections for work or recreation. But libraries are not individuals; they are institutions. Institutional networking makes me think of conferences. So why have so many libraries built institutional pages on MySpace?

I use Facebook myself. A friend who's in a similar line of work convinced me to join, and I'm haltingly incorporating it into my daily digital experience. When I visit Facebook, it's usually to check up on that friend—he's far more active than I at updating his page—and the handful of other people who've accumulated in my friend network. I would never think to see what my local library is up to, nor would I add it to my network. Making a building my Facebook friend would lend a little too much surreality to an already artificial act.

And social computing is artificial. It's a form of disembodied communication, in which there's no corporeal proof of each person's presence, such as touch or a voice. This quality strains our communicative faculties, as evinced, for instance, by how oddly self-revealing some people are online. People need to believe that there's a person at the other end. By baldly creating institutional pages on social networking sites, libraries signal to a computing public already weary of Internet marketing that they are one more thing to ignore.

If libraries were really serious about using social computing tools, they would encourage their librarians to create individual MySpace profiles and set aside time each day at work to maintain their pages. It would make the librarians—and, by extension, their libraries—active and relevant members of the Internet ecology. While I might not add my library to my network, I would digitally befriend my local librarian.


Context Is King

The current digital information environment emphasizes context over content. As Google has shown, a critical mass of content and user data will overcome quality, producing search results that are, if not the best, at least good enough. Plus the results come fast. And social computing brings trust into the equation through such tools as Digg and, making referrals again relevant, making the individual again relevant.

Within this digital environment, function and behavior become the two main components of context. Once a tool meets—or transforms—behavior patterns through its functionality, the tool becomes commonplace and dominant. How do people want to find, access, capture, use, and reuse information? The organization and tool that answers this question wins.

Context has always been king, though. Consider, for instance, academic journal publishing. Publishers have long thrived by providing a context for scholarly communication. The content itself was not the commodity; after all, academic authors have rarely been paid for their academic articles. How the content was delivered and what future content it spawned were what were valuable. Content without context really never has been enough.


The Flaw in Social Climbing Networking Sites

There is an inherent logical flaw built into the concept of such business networking sites as LinkedIn. The typical person most likely to actively populate the service—to take the time to construct and fully maintain a profile—is the social/professional climber.

In other words, the most active members of professional networking sites are likely to be those not satisfied with their current places in the pecking order: climbers. Therefore, they are most likely to reach others of their ilk, rather than those they should be reaching: the people above them in the professional pecking order. While there may be some incentives for those who've reached the summit of their careers to participate in networking sites, none of them involve climbing. Such sites then risk becoming a flat social structure populated by a self-selecting group, none of whom are influential enough to form a chain to the summit.

I am not suggesting, however, that professional networking sites are pointless. Rather, you should consider this flat structure in how you use them. Build your strategy around it and use it to advantage. Flat networks benefit contractors and consultants, who use them as information conduits to find more work, better work, or new work. And in the current information- and service-based economy, it benefits all workers to think of themselves as consultants, even if they have full-time salaried positions.


Is It about What's Inside the Box?

Cereal commercials made a big impact on me as a kid. I don't remember craving one brand. I don't even remember a single commercial—though the Mikey commercials stand out as a genre unto themselves.

What I remember most about cereal commercials then was that the cereal was depicted as pouring directly from the box into a bowl. No plastic lining, no sealed inner package, just a cardboard box spouting dry cereal.

I must have driven my mother nuts arguing for the 400th time—as only children can—that she was supposed to empty the contents of the sealed bag into box before putting it in the cupboard. This after dealing with me for a few hours in a crowded supermarket.

I don't remember how she responded each time. No doubt she replied reasonably about keeping the cereal fresh and bugs out. Still, my insistence and persistence must have confused her.

So, the cereal's relationship to the box mattered more to me than the cereal itself. Context over content. But what purpose did representing the cereal being poured directly from the box serve the advertisers and cereal company, if any?


How the War over Copyright Is Akin to the War on Terror

"They've got their radical factions, like the Ruby Ridge or Waco types."
Association of American Publishers spokesperson Judith Platt discussing librarians, as quoted in 2001 in ZDNet News.


fundamentalism, freedomIDEOLOGYopen access, ownership
terroristsBOGEYMANfile sharers
US governmentPOLICEUS government, copyright holders
Saddam, Bin LadenENEMYNapster, librarians

In this scenario, the "enemy" category is the worst place to be. Get a file sharer and ten more will spring up in their place. File sharers are a phantom menace. But librarians have a real role. We are real people with jobs and organizations. We have real things to lose, which is what makes us real targets. Publishers think: get one of us and the rest might back off.

Librarians need to be prepared to defend our right to offer information access for the common good. And what we are armed with is what we are best at: information, a sense of history, and the good will of a public that sees that our interest is theirs.


Designing Librarians

For more views on the role design should play in librarianship, see the current issue of Library Journal.


Design ≠ Benign

I love design. I love its principles, and I love the impact it has on the world. In order to use it effectively, consider it thoughtfully, and pull meaning from its principles, however, we need to understand what it is.

The primary objective of design is to inspire action, evoke thought, or provoke emotion. Sometimes design wants your money. Sometimes it wants your vote. Often it wants you to feel strongly in favor or against something. Usually, it wants some combination of all of the above—and more.

Most of all design wants to affect action, and to do so effectively it focuses on context rather than content. Design principles are about creating an environment through which action can be induced. The content is another matter altogether.

Therefore, design itself has little to do with ethics. Design can be put to good uses and bad uses. But design itself is only good or bad based on how effective it is.


Playful Librarian Design Award #1

To Albert Arnold Gore, Jr., for creating a PowerPoint presentation—of all things—compelling enough to form the basis of an award-winning film that got the attention of some guys in Sweden.