Libraries and social networking

This is a comment on one of the museum 2.0 blogs on social networking sites as sources of information.

I give it below as, in my opinion it hits the heart of the matter regarding cultural institutions and social networks. The person talks of networks in context of museums, but its true for libraries as well.

Comments by a person called Sibley:

I actually disagree with much of this article. There is an essential point behind this that is probably right, but I think that unless it is presented correctly it is unlikely to be truly convincing to many, especially “social media outsiders.” I think that that essential point is obfuscated here. I could be wrong, but perhaps this view will help people tighten up your own arguments or use Nina’s more effectively – in case that is so…

1. You lost me at the main graphic right up front – the Web has never been “about” search. That may seem pedantic, but it’s the sort of sweeping statement that makes people sound like glassy-eyed, hand waving social media sales people. Search is just one way that we find what we want on the Web – it’s one of many tools. Nor is the whole Web becoming “about social context.” Nor is the one a direct replacement of the other. Which leads into…

2. “atomized search will take a back seat to socially networked information sources” Really? If I want to know what the Spy Museum’s hours are this weekend I’m going to ask my friends, hoping that their memory and responsiveness are better/faster than finding the museum’s Web site? That may seem like the counter example that proves the rule, but I would argue that many types of searches are for information that are most effectively done via general searching – maybe eventually with tools better than Google, but searching nonetheless. You say yourself that you use Google to follow up on leads generated from your social network. That indicates that there’s a new complimentary tool (your social network access tools) that makes the existing tool of Google even more useful to you, not that it’s being replaced. At the very least I think you’ll have an unnecessarily hard time convincing people of the replacement argument.

Rather, why not limit the point to what Eric is saying? That social media has already for many people, and will for most people, replace search engines as a way to answer the open-ended question “What shall I do this weekend?” That, I think, is more defensible. If your institutions comes up as an answer there, then search is even more likely to be used to answer some of the “how” & “when” or “which of these good three suggestions will I follow up on – i.e. convince me” type questions.

And that’s what usually happens with technology – a new tool comes along that is better for a subset or an overlapping set of situations, and is used for that, the old tool is still best for a set of tasks. Movies haven’t completely replaced books, or I would argue even made them “take a back seat”.

3. Google didn’t replace AOL. It was just a modest incremental advancement over very similar tools – Alta Vista, Lycos, Northern Lights, Yahoo!’s search. Enough of one that it became dominant over 10 years, but not at all a paradigm shift in terms of search (for advertising, that’s a different story). If your central argument is a metaphor, then I think that will only be highly successful if the metaphor is with something that is true.

4. The reason that I replaced the New York Times as my homepage with Google at some point – and this may be the case for you too, Nina – was not search. I have a Google search box built into my browser, as do most people. It was RSS. I.e. the “feed” of titles from blogs and news sources and widgets that fill up one’s Google home page. That’s one part of what switching to Facebook is replacing. One could just as easily conclude with your reasoning that blogs will now take second fiddle to Twitter feeds.

Which I think would again be mixing metaphors. Blogs are content; how they’re accessed or “found” may be changing in some cases via social media. But RSS won’t be totally replaced by Twitter or Facebook feeds any more than search will. It will just be used only for what it’s really good for.

5. I would contend that what is happening is that
a) a new set of content is being added to and made accessible through the Web and the Internet. That is grass-roots content from individuals; content each of us generates from our lives.
b) that content is being published in a way that saves and makes use of its social content.
c) this has enabled tools that are already doing a better job for many people of things that other tools, like search and RSS, have never done well at – like answering very open-ended or highly personalized questions.

6. I don’t think that whether institutions “need” to have a social media presence, whatever that means, is the right question. What is “need”? That sounds literally like “Would we go out of business if we didn’t do this?” I think the better question is one of opportunity “Is having a social media presence a particularly inexpensive and low risk way to boost attendance or better meet some other goal core to our mission?” If the answer is yes, then it’s probably worth doing. If not, it probably isn’t.

At some point having a Web site crossed that threshold.

I think you could probably make a very good argument that the threshold has already been crossed for social media for most institutions. With my line of thinking, I’d actually argue a fully different conclusion than you reach.

I would not say: social media will overtake search at some point, but it isn’t at a relevant “action point” for most institutions today.

I’d argue that social media is totally different than search, performing a few relevant functions much better, and that where it is today in regards to those functions is important for museums and HAS just reached a time of positive and low-risk ROI for museums.

You could go on to argue that something more like “need” may approach in the future, but that would require making the argument that eventually almost everyone coming to your institution will start their time-spent decisions with input from social media tools. That may be true, but I don’t see you making that point explicitly.

If you want to use an analogy of moving from AOL to the Web or the Web gaining sufficient popularity that museums “needed” Web sites, that could be useful. But I wouldn’t muddy the waters with saying that what made that transition true is now being replaced. That may be true in smaller ways, but it isn’t the point.

The point is – A) if you want more visitors today, do the right simple social media outreach and B) someday in the near future (2-3 years?) you’ll have to do that just to keep the same level of visitors that you already have. In light of B you might as well start going on A today!

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