a difficult time, a difficult task

I work occasionally as a fill-in librarian at a local public library that serves a community of about 5,000 people. This is the community I am moving to next month, up the road from where I live now, and while technically it puts me out of the “rural” designation, it’s still pretty rural. Last week and the week before there was a horrible tragedy that rocked the whole community. Short form: a local girl Brooke Bennett, went missing and her body was discovered a few days ago. The most likely suspect at this point is an uncle who is on the state sex offender list.

First off let me say that I’m quoting from news stories only. Our official staff position is “no comment” and I’m sticking to that. Here is why this is a library issue.

  • The initial reports, when the girl was simply missing, was that she had met a sexual predator online via her MySpace page. That garnered the predictable media outcry as well as some very good stories about safety online.
  • It also resulted in law enforcement coming to the library to take the public PCs. You can read the library director’s statements about this in this article in the Burlington Free Press. The librarians waited for a court order, and gave the computers to the police once they received one. The computers have since been returned. The library had an internet policy in place to guide their actions in this situation.
  • As more details emerged it became clear that the MySpace angle was not just untrue, it was the opposite of what people had thought. The person who abducted Brooke had actually logged in to her MySpace page to try to create a fake scenario where she was meeting a “predator” when in reality she was meeting him. IP addresses from these interactions were given to law enforcement by MySpace and were, as near as I can tell, instrumental in helping them determine the sequence of events of this crime and narrow down the suspect list considerably. The older articles still reflect the “internet predator” angle when, like most abductions, the criminal was someone from the victim’s own family.
  • And as far as data goes, danah boyd has a very good article about MySpace when DOPA was more on the table in 2006. One of her useful facts “Statistically speaking, kids are more at risk at a church picnic or a boy scout outing than they are when they go on MySpace. Less than .01% of all youth abductions nationwide are stranger abductions and as far as we know, no stranger abduction has occurred because of social network services.”
  • The accused man is being charged, as of this writing, with kidnaping. This is because kidnaping at a federal level carries a possible death penalty sentence and is, I assume, a bargaining chip. The law regarding this is one that I wasn’t totally aware of “the 2006 Adam Walsh law — named for another abducted child — allowed federal prosecution of such crimes when they are facilitated by the Internet.” Worth knowing for any of us who provide Internet access to the public, I think.
  • The library has set up a book display dealing with this very difficult topic — books on MySpace, the death of a child, dealing with grief — and encouraging conversations.

So, this is all incredibly upsetting and destabilizing to the community here. While I hope that you never have to deal with something like this at your library, there may be some instructive or useful pieces of information here that I felt might be worthwhile to pass on.

The Network in the Garden – how social media is different in rural communities

So, I think I’ve solved my “I dislike WordPress” problem by using ScribeFire which I got working after a lot of back and forth with my techie people at ibiblio and some help from Ask MetaFilter. Can you imagine your librarian helping you get your blog software working?

Speaking of, I’ve been reading an old but great paper about social networking stuff and how its used differently in rural communities. This is science stuff not just “here’s what we think people are doing on facebook…” and I think you’ll like it. It’s called The Network in the Garden: An Empirical Analysis of Social Media in Rural Life and it’s a numbers analysis of how people are using MySpace in urban versus rural areas. You can also see it as slides prepared for the CHI conference. The slides are quite good at getting some basic points across.

The conclusions are a little surprising to me and I live in a rural area [interesting side note, when I move up the street next month I will no longer be living in a rural area because Randolph has a slightly higher population than Bethel] and social media is still not on the radar of a lot of novice computers users. I think this information will help me help people understand what it’s all about.

Rural and urban people use social media very differently: four of our five hypotheses were confirmed. Rural people articulate far fewer friends, and those friends are located much closer to home. Women occupy a much greater segment of the rural user base than the urban user base. Rural users, particularly rural women, also set their profiles to private at higher rates than urban users. However, both rural and urban users seem to communicate with roughly the same proportions of strong and weak ties.

Side note: I’m going to talk to the principal of the high school today to talk about the dissolution of my job for next year. Not expecting any big changes but maybe at least a little more understanding about what happened and focus on what to do next.

Why should libraries be socially networking?

For some reason, writing the talk about tech support in libraries has been making me think about libraries on social networks again. Maybe it’s the little push of friends I get on Facebook after I give a talk to a new group of people. Maybe it’s because I had to explain yet again that I think it’s worth powering through bad design and usability in order to have presence in a place where your users are or might be. Maybe it’s because social software seems like a free and easy way to give your library a human face on the larger Internet. Maybe it’s because after being at SXSW I just see social software as the default way to be on the web and so libraries that are moving forward with blogging and other web tools may as well expand into using social tools as well. This has nothing to do with 2.0 anything, although I guess you could see it that way.

So, to that end, I’m making a small list of ways that I think libraries and librarians can use thse tools to further the existing missions of their institutions. It’s nothing new, but I’ve been pondering it lately and I think specifics, and links to examples can he helpful. Feel free to add more in the comments.

  • Get your library a Flickr account. These accounts are now nearly free through a collaboration between Flickr and TechSoup. TechSoup has an article about how nonprofits can use Flickr. My advice: free image hosting and easy image uploading for staff. Consider uploading some historical photos that you can share with the people in you community. Check out what the Library of Congress has been doing and how much tagging and commenting is happening on their photos. It’s like a Letters to the Editor section for you archival photos. I use this photo quite a lot on my photoshop class, teaching people how to edit pictures.
  • Anyone can get an account on Facebook. Facebook now has the ability for businesses and organizations to create “pages” (as opposed to profiles) where you can put information about your organization. You can see a few library pages here: NASA Glenn Technical Library, Iowa City Public Library, The National Library of Scotland. You can click here to create your own organization page. For people who are already on Facebook, which includes a huge percentage of high school and college age people, they can become “fan” of your organization which means they will get your updates. If you already have a blog, you can set your Facebook page to automatically read and republish your RSS feed inside Facebook. I do this with my personal blog so people who are my friends on Facebook can read my blog updates. The same way Google really let us get information out of the web, people are searching their networks on Facebook sometimes before Google.
  • If you’re a librarian, think about getting on Twitter. You can read this post for background information about Twitter or this Library Journal article for more information about messaging services generally. This is not so much, as I see it, to communicate with patrons but to do two things. 1. create a short pithy easy to update RSS feed of news or information or links that you can repurpose to put on your blog, website, Facebook profile or elsewhere. 2. communicate with librarians who are on twitter in droves. When I was creating my talk I asked a question, literally hurled it out there into the aether, and got back seven or either useful responses within about an hour. That’s ready reference.
  • Added later: think about a 23 Things type project. Vermont is doing this. It’s an easy way to give staff a casual fun exposture to a lot of social tools and let them see for themselves what they’re good for. Offer continuing ed credits or other fun incentives. The set-up costs and investments are nearly nothing and the ongoing investment is mostly time. One of the things I hear all the time is that staff are interested in new technologies generally but lack the time to explore and so get technostressed because they feel that they’re jumping in to some very public online activities without feeling competent in what they’re doing or what they’re there for. a 23 Things project can help that immensely.

The reason I think it’s important to show good examples and best paractices is because we’re still dealing with libraries like Mishawaka Library which thinks that blocking social software sites in their library because they can’t manage unruly teens is some sort of solution to a problem. I’m not saying there aren’t problems surrounding public computer and internet use in libraries generally, maybe there are even sometimes problems with teens, but really responding to the problem by blocking wide swaths of the Internet is not really going to help anyone understand the problem better. It just makes libraries look hostile and librarians look reactive. I’m sure there’s a larger post here about dealing with teens + comptuers + internet + understaffing + the fear factor of unknown online socializing, but I feel that it’s all of our responsbility as online community members of various stripes, to provide positive examples of social software online. This is mine.

(not so) SWIFT – a look at a new conference tool

Before I even came home from SXSW, the library folks on Twitter were talking about SWIFT. Since I’m not going to Computers in Libraries (I was previously engaged, I’ll be sad to miss it) I missed out on all the initial reports, but did notice that I can sign up for SWIFT via Facebook so I did. It’s in beta, so all or some of the things I am talking about may have been fixed by now. Here are my initial impressions.

In short SWIFT is supposed to be a 2.0 conference manager tool, nominally “social.” I signed up via Facebook and was a little chagrined to realize that my Facebook profile photo was imported into SWIFT without any specific assent on my part. The Edit link doesn’t work in the MySwift section of the site, so I guess I’m stuck with it. SWIFT also seems to know who my “friends” are which I’m assuming is information Facebook gave them. I have since blocked the application from Facebook — and let’s be clear, the application has no utility that I can discern on Facebook, it just mines Facebook data to deliver to its own site — and still my friend relationships are all over SWIFT. Not surprising, but still. I set up another non-Facebook-linked account and can’t edit that profile either.

I’m currently viewing “podcasts” (screencasts? vodcasts?) about how to use the tool. I went to the About page to see if I could figure out exactly what SWIFT is for, and the first paragraph is all marketingspeak

While conferences and trade shows remain highly lucrative and successful businesses, it is increasingly expensive and inefficient to capture and retain attendees. Today’s marketing investments do not take advantage of new social networks and peer influence in buying decisions. Exhibitors also face diminishing returns on their investments as they compete for buyer attention on the show floor.

Not super helpful. Do you know what this tool does yet? People seem to be indicating that the usefulness of the “platform” as the Computers in Libraries team calls it will become more apparent once there is actual content on the site. Others point out that the whole point of 2.0 technologies is more openness, not hiding content behind passwords and locking it up in your own silos. A few more comments in this direction are over at the CiL wiki.

There’s a beta testers’ group over at Google Groups which is closed to new users without admin approval. When I joined a support/testers group for the Twitter client Spaz, I just signed up. This is a choice someone made, the approval requirement. I’m getting a chunk of this information from the as-yet-unpublished FAQ which I received over email. It has photos of some of our favorite library celebs, at least one two of whom had no idea their photo was being published in SWIFT documentation. The FAQ also references the location of CIL2007 “media assets” which are in this directory, go look (note: now fixed). As near as I can tell, that’s all the recorded talks from last year’s CiL, just hanging out there on the open web. Mine’s D102 if you want to hear about Firefox.

I’m also a little confused by what I see as an essential conflict between the Terms of Service and the Privacy Policy. Both of them are your standard “we own the stuff you put online here” boilerplate, but the ToS specifically says “You further understand and agree that the Services may include certain communications from Company (such as administrative messages and certain newsletters), and that these communications are considered part of the Service and you may not be able to opt out of receiving them.” while the Privacy Policy says “Users who do not wish to receive email notifications or email newsletters may opt out at any time by following the links contained within the emails to Unsubscribe.” I’m not super surprised that “opt out” is a confusing topic for people new to the social software game, but I’d love to know what the skinny on this is.

Questions about the SWIFT privacy policy are referred to the Otter Group website without the benefit of a hyperlink to get you there. You may remember the Otter Group as the people who brought you ALA Bootcamp. Read their announcement about SWIFT which they call “a podcast directory for conference organizers.” A few buzzphrases about SWIFT make me pretty leery about the assertion that this creates any value at all for conference attendees.

  • Otter: “Publishers can also use Swift to dynamically insert advertising messages from conference sponsors or other advertisers.
  • Otter: “Users can also register with Swift (providing lead generation to organizers) in order to add their own content”
  • SWIFT about: “As users join your community and add content to your pages, your natural search results improve.”

SWIFT apparently makes use of social software sites’ APIs but doesn’t really have one of its own as near as I can tell. It has RSS feeds for “subsets of information inside Swift.” but I’m not sure what that means specifically and I don’t see them yet. Maybe someone going to CiL can explain? I also notice that they have a blog but that the blog itself is at a different URL from the rest of the site. Nitpicky detail perhaps, but there is a certain trust that people give to companies that “eat their own dog food” so to speak and I’m not feeling it here. The blog itself runs on WordPress. Being logged in to the imswift website does not actually log you in to comment on the blog. Too bad, I was going to tell tham that their link is broken in this post. Also, since I now know they’re using WP, how about nice URLs with words not numbers? Better for SEO, at the very least.

I was googling for some more information about what the Otter Group is doing with SWIFT and found this blog. Its URL seems to imply that it’s an Otter Group product, but while it’s in a SWIFT template, none of the links are live. You may notice that instead of the “252 people are attending 2 conferences in 2 states” line in the header, you see “32,834 people are attending 97 conferences in 23 states this month” It also says I’m logged in as Kathleen (I’m not really). Oh my. I assume this is an alpha site design which previously served some purpose. It probably needs to go away or needs a big disclaimer.

Upshot: At first glance, I’m not impressed. However, as with most social tools, utility really is the proving ground for these applications. A quick scan of the user interface and the policies leaves me scratching my head. While I’m happy that they’re integrating popular tools like Twitter, del.icio.us, Flickr and the like, my question remains: why do we need an aggregator for these tools, tools that we’re already using and already aggregating? I like the idea of librarians and information worker people having their own social tools, but we’ve seen them doing great things with the tools that already exist, tools that are well-designed and serve purposes. Tools that solve problems. I’m not convinced that this is anything other than a marketing tool shined up to look like a social tool to end users. I hope I’m proven wrong.

Social Software in Libraries, a presentation

Yesterday I was down in Lakeville Massachusetts talking about social software in libraries. It was a longish timeslot and I split it up into a small talk about software, some examples of what New England libraries have been doing and less time than I would have wanted, discussing the difference between tools and brands in the social software world.

What I mean is, a wiki is a tool. Mediawiki is a brand or type of wiki. Wikipedia is an example of a Mediawiki wiki. I decided that part of really getting the idea of social software or technology generally is that many people confuse tools and brands and examples and I think people will feel more in charge of technology if they know how to explain it. From working with novice users, I know they use turns of phrases like “My Yahoo s broken” and don’t even realize that they’re not really speaking sensically to someone who understands the terms. On the other hand, I can understand how the idea of “a browser” can be pretty transparent and ethereal to someone who only knows that you click the blue E and you get the Internet. I had an Internet before web browsing, many people haven’t.

In any case, I met a lot of neat librarians, had less time than I wanted to — a perpetual problem for me and one that I work on constantly — and made some useful handouts and slides that you should feel free to adapt to your needs. They are here

I only have screenshots for the examples page but they are linked from the main page. I live in fear that I’ll set up a lot of excellent links and then I’ll have no Internet access to show them off so I try to prepare a zillion different ways. I think this can sometimes lead to a less-than-awesome experience because part of what’s great about social software is the sheer aliveness of it “Oh look, my friend is doing that right now” “Hey I can add this tag and see who else has used it right now” but hopefully I gave people enough to chew on and an enthusiasm to seek out more.