Sunday, March 28, 2010

Why information professionals should join social networks

It is easy to demonize the kinds of relationships found in online social networks. Like shooting fish in a barrel-easy. There’s the acquaintance-stalker, the voyeur-friend, the I’ll-follow-you-if-you-follow-me status-seeker, and many others ranging from the hilarious to the pathetic to the criminal. Lisanova mocks one of them with pinpoint accuracy in this 2-minute video.

But we are indulging in mental laziness and conduct unbecoming to an information professional when we reject online social networks on this basis. They can be incredibly useful and subtle information streams. Over the last two years they have shifted from being just a social venue to being both sources of and filters for the oceans of information available to us.

The foundation of their usefulness lies in the fact that they are composed of millions of the best information sources/filters known to science: people. For example, in Twitter I follow a librarian in Calgary because he posts good tweets about ILL; in fact he went to the ILLiad conference recently and posted from each session. I found him serendipitously through the network of another person I found serendipitously, etc. “Serendipity” here really means that we have an intuitive grasp of people and networks of people that helps us simplify the selection process.

The challenge for us and our customers is shaping our personal interaction with the millions of people and entities that participate in social networking so we get what we need and don’t get overwhelmed in the process. Fortunately, the evolution of technology and its accompanying business models are working in our favor.

My wife and I elected not to bring a TV into our house when we got married, not because we objected to the concept of images projected on a screen, but for two interlocking reasons: because the content produced by that business model/technology was soul-destroyingly awful; and because we knew that personal and social dynamics would lead us to watch that content if we put that technology in our living room.

But 25 years later, when a new technology came along with a new business model, I started “watching TV.” The new technology was the DVD; the new business model was packaging and selling complete TV series sans advertising. That new approach was itself fostered by other business-technology phenomena, like the ubiquity of DVD drives and the way cable technology and its business model (occasionally) produces great content.

The technology evolved and allowed me to refine my information stream, in this case my entertainment. This is what is happening micro-incrementally and at a much more rapid pace in social networks today. The evolution of social networks is so blindingly rapid, in fact, that it is not useful in an article like this to make prescriptions like “Your library should be on Facebook” or “You should teach your users to manage their RSS feeds in the cloud with Google Reader.”

The best way to know what to teach our customers is to become adept at navigating those information streams ourselves, and the best way to do that is to actively craft our own personal product. Before we decide whether our library should be on Facebook, we need to know how Facebook fits into our own information strategy.

Without going into the details in this post, I can say that crafting my own information strategy has been a messy process over the years, and it is time-consuming. Sometimes I spend 8 hours a week shaping, consuming, and re-shaping my information flow. Sometimes I just cruise and consume.

But this is, after all, my profession. We can no more ignore social networks today because they have a reputation of being “flaky” than we could ignore MARC records 30 years ago because they had a reputation of being “complicated.” As professionals, we have a responsibility to figure it out and pass it along to our customers.