Thank you to Andrea Mercado for the kind words she wrote about Catch and Release in her blog. Heads up: her entry “Librarians: practice social networking anthropology” has in it one of the most important concepts associated with participatory librarianship and social networking that I’ve considered. Andrea, as a matter of reciprocated respect, I am going to dive into this issue at length because I believe it is of the utmost importance, and hats-off to you for identifying it so clearly.
“I find that even librarians who get the idea of social networking sites, social media creation, mashups, sharing, gadgetry, don’t quite have the cultural understanding behind the technologies in discussion.”
I believe that what librarians hope to achieve as we blunder around and clumsily attempt to apply social computing tools to random aspects of patron experiences is a new type of not-home, not-work, not-Third Place, but a new virtual space in which the cultural rules are differently defined. In “The Great Good Place” Ray Oldenburg describes the “’Third Place’: a place that is neither work nor home where people can spend time together.” Home, work, and Third Places are physical, concrete, tactile architectures. Social networks are not. Social networks are the Second Life libraries, the online book discussion groups, the MySpace groups: and the rules of etiquette and discourse are unique to these virtual environments. I’d like to call these environments the Fourth Space, space rather than place because it is a matter of a metaphorically specific, dimensional environment. The rules and the laws within the Fourth Space are defined by the users or participants, just as they are in physical spaces.
The standards of interpersonal communication in a physical space are determined by architecture and the participants in the architecture as well as long established, cultural context. The rules of engagement in a virtual space originate in the established context of physical space, but they are embedded in the mediation and a metaphor for physical space. The two are drastically different scenarios. Marshall McLuhan, in his most famous and overquoted quote, says the “medium is the message”; when the medium is actually a metaphor for space, interaction itself, conversation, discourse, knowledge sharing: they are all determined by the medium, by the context. To treat other people in a social web environment the way you would treat them in a physical, architectural space is laughable, yet a natural mistake. If you ever sit and look at a radio while listening to a broadcast or talk back at your television you are doing the same thing. You are applying a social standard associated with a different mediation to your current mediation. It can make you look pretty stupid.
In “Better Together: Restoring the American Community”, Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein set out to address the state of the American community through a series of anecdotes. The book was published in 2004, and the social web was in a very different state back then, but Putnam & Feldstein did have one vignette about the craigslist.org community. Here’s an important excerpt from the book that addresses the media ecology issue I just laid out:
“these discussions (on craigslist) are like conversations with friends at the local café, but of course they are different, too, and different in ways that are important to community and social capital. Written messages lack the physical expressions and gestures that are such an important part of face-to-face conversation, clarifying and deepening the meanings of the words while adding their own unspoken meaning and providing instantaneous response to what is being said. That combination of spoken language and body language helps us understand the tone and substance of what is being communicated and also helps us to judge whether we should trust the person we are speaking to, and to what degree.”
Gesture and expression, for now, are lost in the spatial metaphor provided by the web, be it 1.0, 2.0, or 8.6. The plea for trust-building physical, gestural interactions is just the icing on the cake, just one example of you sitting around talking back to your television. If librarians are going to build or promote these Fourth Spaces responsibly, just as Andrea quotes from David Lankes, don’t “define your mission by cool features, do it by core principles”. Don’t find nifty new technology tools and look to apply them to a need. Determine a need and choose the appropriate tool to address it. If you innovate using this model, you will never misunderstand cultural context in creating a Fourth Space because the culture determined, requested, and created the need in the first place.