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Tag Archives: social web

I’m going to go ahead and post my paper proposal in its entirety since I’ve had so many hits on my other entry. Again, the thumbnail image at the bottom will link to a larger more readable pic.

American public libraries exist to promote self-initiated lifelong learning and to build an informed democracy. Parks, town squares and public libraries are the only public spaces in the United States; spaces free to everyone provided they adhere to basic rules of socially acceptable conduct. Ample public space promotes a healthy community ecology; it facilitates the cross-pollination of ideas and conversations between individuals. How are public libraries to extend this same community building, conversation-facilitating, discourse-enabling paradigm to the virtual world? How do the rules of engagement differ, and what are the challenges, similarities, and differences associated with community building on the social web?

Successfully transforming a physical public space into a public place requires a leap of faith on the part of the administrators who oversee that space, because place-making is user driven. A public space is built with a specific programmatic projection, but the space only becomes place when the patronage re-enforces the programmatic function of the facility though use. This is the appropriation of space. The appropriation of physical space is an instinctive, intuitive, self-organizing activity, taking place both at an individual level and as a collaborative, intuitive effort on the part of multiple participants.

The social web is not actually space. The social web is a self-organizing metaphor for space, a simulation of space, and while the rules of engagement in this virtual space originate in the established context of physical space, they are embedded in a digital mediation which lacks the complexity and intricacies of interface that our physical body has evolved in order to interact with real space. Social web participants create place via their virtual personalities, profiles, or avatars. They customize their profiles in the way we decorate our apartments in the physical world. Efficient place-making then becomes relative to the usability of the particular social web platform; place-making as a practice is reinvented by the social web medium as personality-making. A public library’s place-making potential on the social web lies in enabling and facilitating the creation of patrons’ personalities, not in trying to recreate itself, the library, as a personality. Personality is regularly re-appropriated on the social web when html code is cut and pasted from one personality to another, much the way a skateboarder re-appropriates a set of stairs as a recreational obstacle in the physical world.

A complete paper will further examine personality-making as a place-making practice in virtual architectures, investigate the ways in which physical public libraries can or cannot support these efforts, and anticipate useful programs for virtual public spaces as community-building enterprises in the future. It will present case studies of successes and failures of attempts at community building via social web architectures in public libraries. It will explore best practices for bridging the gap between digitally mediated virtual space and the real, flesh and blood individuals that make physical communities.



I’ve been doing some research on how public space becomes public place at public libraries, in both physical architectures and virtual architectures.

I just submitted an abstract as a proposal to present a full paper on this topic at a conference. Fingers crossed. I hope to be writing a lot more about this topic in the future. In the meantime, I wanted to share with my readers a graphic that sort of explains my train of thought. Click on the thumbnail to be directed to a larger image.


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.

Andrea says:

“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 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.

I found another 1970s crackpot genius to read about, and I’m pretty excited about it. I got turned on to Stafford Beer through Matt Webb’s blog, which I found through Adam Greenfield’s blog. I’m not even sure who this Matt Webb guy is but he’s clearly a genius and totally worth reading. Right now I have “Platform for Change” via Brooklyn Public Library’s trusty Interlibrary Loan Department, and this book is blowing my mind, particularly in the context of my last post.

I wrote yesterday about Luis Von Ahn’s interest in “’human computation,’ the art of using massive groups of networked human minds to solve problems that computers cannot.” I wrote that it freaked me out that from a media ecology perspective this implies that social computing is building a giant collective superbrain. Stafford Beer had a really interesting way of regarding everyone’s brains as individual computers, and I wonder what his thoughts would be about harvesting their collective power via social computing.

From “Platform for Change”:

“The brain is a computer we begin to understand. Like any computer, it has a blueprint to which it was constructed. For the brain as the ‘family nose’, the blueprint is fixed in the genetic code laid down by mother and father in equal clumps of genes. We all live with this limitation. We cannot hire more storage; we cannot install extra peripheral equipment; we cannot commission a fresh set of initial orders”

The quote really points toward a need for the creation of this superbrain; it anticipates Web 2.0. If you cannot add storage to or edit individual brains, we need to upload them all to one place and create something more powerful. I’m excited to read more of this book; I’ve really only just started it. It is full of off-the-wall ideas. One of Beer’s other accomplishments, or near accomplishments that I have to mention was the creation of Cybersyn, a computer network that was supposed to run the Chilean economy. Check out his “lair”, this control room is amazing. Read more about Cybersyn here. Could this be another example of looking to the past to solve the future’s problems?


Alicia Gibb, an Urban Library Council Scholar spending a semester assisting me at Brooklyn Public Library, sent me this great article from Wired magazine about Luis von Ahn and his unique perspective on humans’ relationship with technology. At first it freaked me out because I thought I’d found an exception to one of McLuhan’s four laws of media (thanks to the Playful Librarian for pointing me to that page), then I realized it doesn’t illustrate an exception as much as a somewhat scary example of the law in action. Von Ahn, for the record, is a total badass. He is responsible for Captcha and more recently ReCaptcha, those squiggly weird little words that you have to type when you log into websites to verify that you are a person and not a spambot. Here is a paragraph from the article that explains, but you REALLY need to read the whole article:

Von Ahn talks about “’human computation,’ the art of using massive groups of networked human minds to solve problems that computers cannot. Ask a machine to point to a picture of a bird or pick out a particular voice in a crowd, and it usually fails. But even the most dim-witted human can do this easily. Von Ahn has realized that our normal view of the human-computer relationship can be inverted. Most of us assume computers make people smarter. He sees people as a way to make computers smarter.”

One of Marshall McLuhan’s four laws of media is the law of Extension and Enhancement. This law states that every technology extends or amplifies some organ or faculty of the user. So, when Von Ahn is using the visual literacy skills or voice recognition capabilities of humans to teach machines to do the same, the technology he creates attempts to extend or amplify collective human minds themselves. Yikes! That is when it hit me: from a media ecology perspective, social computing is really a group extension of human minds, with the goal being the creation of one massive networked human brain! Its one thing when McLuhan’s law speaks of a tool like a hammer being an extension of the arm, or a telephone being an extension of your voice and hearing. A new technology that exists as a collective extension of human minds is a powerful tool, and I don’t think it is too far out there in sci-fi land to say that success in this arena would drive evolution.

This post only touches on one tiny little part of what made this article so intriguing. I strongly recommend reading it.

Has easy, democratized access to “factual” information on the Internet bolstered late 20th century and early 21st century mythmaking under the guise of true science? A couple of nights ago I went to the 92nd St. Y to hear Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Botany of Desire) and Dan Barber (chef and creative director of the Blue Hills restaurants / agricultural complex). Pollan’s description of “nutritionalism” certainly supported this supposition and runs a parallel course with other contemporary mythmaking enterprises.

Pollan spoke about nutritionalism as ideology rather than science, and I found myself in total agreement with him. We are constantly demonizing one nutritional attribute (trans-fat) and lauding another for its benefits (antioxidants). He also spoke about the “everyone is an expert” phenomenon consistent with other ideologies. There is simply so much information out there, that one can justify an argument that we should never eat carbohydrates with a slew of facts, figures, studies, and statistics supporting their case. Likewise, there is no shortage of data suggesting that those very same carbohydrates are absolutely essential to a healthy diet.

The proliferation of information readily available on the Internet definitely is responsible for the misleading “everyone is an expert” phenomenon: anybody who has ever gotten a minor headache and diagnosed themselves with a brain tumor on Web MD can tell you that. Large scale, consensus driven, socially constructed mythmaking enabled by this empowered “expert” phenomenon is another thing to ponder though. When truth becomes a matter of consensus, rather than the result of specialized expertise, there is no safeguard against mass delusion: consider the scare tactics surrounding aluminum cookware. This is the downfall of Wikipedia as a reliable information source. Worse yet, myth is open to manipulation in a way true, pure, expert vetted science is not: consider how easy it is now for a corporate giant to preach the virtues of antioxidants so that you are apt to buy pomegranates. This is the downfall of Google as a reliable information source.

What does this mean? Is the public doomed to be misled by its collectively impressionable tendencies (Wikipedia), by top-of-the-pile capitalist search engine giants (Google), both, or is there an alternative? How can the government step in and have a positive role in all this? Where do public libraries, their resources, and their expertise in information science come into play?

A shoutout to the Playful Librarian, who picked up on a great article about impression management on the social web in the New York Times the other day.  Here is his post, here is the Times article.

The Playful Librarian says he wants “to understand how social networking technologies are blurring the lines between public and private behavior”.  This question takes it out of the realm of virtual space and into that of public spaces- physical public spaces.  How does activity on the social web bleed into the physical world?

Right now I’d say the social web exists as a major conversation piece in our daily lives.  Its not enough for me to just play Scrabulous with my Facebook peers, it is not even enough for me to IM with them during the game.  Without fail, when I see those people “in human” we talk trash about the Scrabulous game, about Facebook in general, about the apps we use, why its way better than MySpace, etc, etc.  This may seem like minutia, but it is absolutely not.  It important to note that however intricate the social web phenomena are, they are ALWAYS tied to real world experience, if only through conversation.  For example, successful online dating leads to real dating, “in human”.  Put simply: most social web tools at this point lack the complexity of interface to actually redefine space.

Where does the line between public and private behavior begin to really get hazy?  I suspect this happens in the more robust online environments, places like Second Life or other gaming environments.  I’d suggest that the greatest blurring of public and private behavior happens in these virtual environments, between avatars.  Just as a tool like a hammer becomes an extension of your physical self when you use it, an online environment becomes an extension of your space when you greet and interact with other characters there.

In the physical world we are beginning to see the same extension of space into the virtual world, but it is a little different.  Mark Shepard writes in “Urban Computing and its Discontents” about observing a person in a bar in Brooklyn:

“The guy was constantly shifting his attention between his conversation partner and his new iPhone…. Mr. iPhones attention is constantly shifting between the virtual and actual modes of presence… What happens when the virtual and the actual are not understood in terms of a strict dichotomy but rather a continuity or gradient? How might we design for scenarios like this?”

I’m guessing we’ll see these two scenarios meld not-so-seamlessly into one in the coming years, like the heads side and the tails side of a coin somehow meeting in the middle yet retaining distinct opposite sides.  Admittedly that’s cryptic, but it’s the best I can give for now.  I’m going to be interested in designing our public libraries to operate in both of these spaces, on both sides of this coin and in the murky area in between.  I’m excited to create access to information for patrons coming from virtual or physical spaces.  The definition of space is changing.  These are exciting times.