Meeting on the ledge

(or why I don't get out much…..)

Secrecy and the Internet

I’ve been following the recent furore about THAT footballer with a wry interest. I’m not particularly interested in the details of his love life, or indeed in football generally, but the way that Twitter has made a nonsense of the Superinjunction does demonstrate that the Internet is not good for secrecy. Another example would be WikiLeaks. Some of the motives behind publication are different: my impression is that WikiLeaks was initially motivated by a combination of anti-US sentiment and idealism, while the footballer furore is celebrity gossip, but  in both cases the Internet has been used to make  information public which other people strived to keep silent. Of course, a common feature in both cases was human nature: the possession of secrets makes us feel privileged, while gossip about them creates insider and outsider groups which promotes belonging and self-worth. Moreover the way that the Internet fosters conspiracy theories demonstrates that information (whether true or false) is made much more available that it once was, so there is much more opportunity for these feelings.

Maybe then, this demonstrates the way that the Internet is changing society. Information literacy – the ability to understand and manipulate information – is becoming more important, and this skill is becoming more widely important across society. Secrecy isn’t going to go away but its promotion and techniques will get cleverer.

May 24, 2011 Posted by | General | , | Leave a comment

Perceptions of Libraries

Just read an excellent post from Carl Grant of Ex Libris about OCLC’s ‘Perceptions of libraries 2010‘ report. Academic libraries need to change, and that change needs to come fast.  Although the report is based on US data and Carl’s view is from the Ex Libris perspective, this lesson applies as much in the UK as the US. He talks of a revolution not evolution being needed in libraries today. There is a growing disconnect between libraries and users, and librarians are failing to realise this.

So what should we be doing? This is less clear, as is inevitable, but he does say:

We must meet the end-user on their terms, delivering information to the interface of their choice, at the place, time and format of their choosing.

For me as a systems manager this means things like single search boxes covering all library resources, smartphone interfaces and external availability of data.

But we must also be recognised as delivering this information: too often users don’t realise that the library has made available the database from which they have just skimmed an article – the information is just ‘out there’ and the user found it via Google. Even worse, our funders don’t understand this. Hence there’s a difficult job there of both branding information and making it easy to find and use. It isn’t just a challenge for the systems managers but for the subject librarians (student and faculty facing) and the library managers (university management facing)  so demands fundamental change at all levels.

February 10, 2011 Posted by | Libraries | , , , , | Leave a comment

Twitter and pointless babble

There’s a wonderful story on the BBC news website about a survey by Pear Analytics indicating that 40% of messages on Twitter are ‘pointless babble’, 37% of messages are conversational ( ie they might be more easily conducted by email or instant messaging) and only 9% is of ‘pass-along’ value (ie it might be more effectively transmitted as a blog). As a Twitter sceptic  I’m surprised the babble figure is as low as that…..  Admittedly surveys have shown that blogs are not without their faults, but for me the fact that there are several long-standing blogs I monitor via Bloglines indicates that the medium works for me.  It may be my age, but even as a self-proclaimed  Internet-native I’m still to find any reason to use Twitter…..

Possibly the added value of Twitter is that the 140 character word limit fits nicely onto a mobile phone screen – a new form of texting, in other words. That would explain why it doesn’t attract me as much as others, as I discovered the Internet long before I got my first mobile.  In which case, as mobile phones grown more sophisticated and get larger screens, will Twitter move to longer messages or will the ‘Twitterati’ move on?

August 17, 2009 Posted by | General | , | Leave a comment

Tim Berners Lee and the World Wide Web Foundation

Tim Berners Lee has announced the creation of what he’s calling the World Wide Web Foundation. There’s a briefing note about the concept here. Basically it seems to be a reaction towards the exponential growth of the web and an attempt to guide it in the right direction. The mission is to

  • advance one web that is free and open
  • expand the web’s capability and robustness
  • extend the web’s benefits to all people on the planet

All are entirely laudable aims and go some way towards guiding the chaos we all deal with daily.

What is also interesting however is the initial reaction from the press. Both the Guardian and the BBC (my main sources of news!) have focussed on his comments on the ease of finding information and the reliability of information once you’ve found it. Berners Lee has highlighted the amount of poor-quality, misleading or even dangerous information that is out there, and suggested a mixture of methods of quality-labelling. It’s good that these messages seem to be at last getting through, at least to the ‘chattering classes’, but also not surprising that they’ve immediately recognised one of the less practical of his suggestions. The manual quality-labelling of websites is both time-intensive and culture-specific, as Yahoo has found, and machine methods are still in their infancy.

Not surprisingly the media are paying attention towards the aspects of the web that they are most aware of – most of us only come up against infrastructure issues when downloads don’t come down as quickly as we’d like. Similarly our media largely only pays attention to a small part of the world’s population, therefore the 20% or so who have web access largely aren’t aware of the other 80% who don’t. However I hope that the bulk of Berners-Lee’s message isn’t overshadowed by a small portion of what he has actually said. The Web is already out of control and all of us who use it daily should be aware that some guidance is needed to turn it into an instrument for freedom and equality.

September 15, 2008 Posted by | General | | 2 Comments

We think

I’ve been reading the latest book which has the blogs all a-twitter, We-think by Charles Leadbetter. Leadbetter is a management guru who looks primarily at innovation, and here he examines the impact of the Internet on society as a whole. He points out the way the Internet facilitates the sharing of information, and how this less competitive attitude is already changing society. In his view people primarily want recognition for their ideas, and the easy sharing of these ideas that the Internet can give is leading to a more egalitarian and cooperative way of doing things: being creative en-masse. Linux, created by the then-student Linus Torvalds and developed initially by volunteers is one example. The book itself is another: he points out that 257 other people contributed ideas for it and edited the drafts on his wiki.

It is well worth reading, and quite inspiring at points, but I don’t fully share Leadbetter’s optimism. The last chapter talks about how ‘we-think’ could co-exist with the private ownership of ideas for financial gain, and I think this is where his theories have their weaknesses. I’d like to say that people are prepared to share for the common good, but I don’t always see this in my workplace or in the world around me. Perhaps the power hierarchies and fierce protection of copyright are the signs of a system under threat, but the recent government statistics indicating that in the UK we’re rapidly becoming a more diversified society are not evidence that we are becoming more inclined to share and cooperate for the greater good.

Perhaps this is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in operation, and simply means that some people’s lower-level needs are greater than others, or maybe it is just Darwinian survival of the fittest?  It does reflect that the Internet is changing society in ways we can only speculate upon. My hope is that the world of 2050 is closer to that of We-think than a cyberpunk dystopia, but it is good that influential thinkers like Leadbetter are raising possibilities – both in the minds of our powerful decision-makers and those of us who influence them through We-think.

August 1, 2008 Posted by | General | , , | Leave a comment