Is Online Oversharing *Really* That Bad?

There is a common lament about online oversharing and, quite frankly, I don’t completely understand the complaint. If a person was standing in front of you prattling on about their personal life, you’d be stuck there till you got an opportunity to politely excuse yourself, make an attempt to change the subject, or have someone come and rescue from their overly personal self involved monologue (unless you happen to be someone who doesn’t mind being overtly rude, in which case more power to you). If someone is oversharing online, you can either ignore, mute, or hide their post; if they are a repeat offender, you can hide them from your newsfeed or circle or even unfriend or block them. Your escape from their TMI posting is just a mouse click away without having to thoughtfully consider your drink glass or trying to make “HELP ME” eye contact with a friend across the room. One mouse click and the offending material is removed from sight, never to be seen again.

Perhaps the reason people get upset is that it acts as an intrusion to a social circle that we have created. In surrounding myself online with friends, acquaintances, and professional contacts, I’ve created a personalized experience that allows me to keep informed of the daily doings and goings-on. When someone breaks that by posting something that falls into the realm of Too Much Information, it creates a fracture in the social mosaic. For all the time that you have spent making connecting, there is no button or filter for that stray unwanted content.

Alternatively, it could be that there is a disconnect between what people would say in person versus what they say online. Without the face to face component, people feel more at ease sharing details of their life that they might not. The computer interface does not judge the information, it just passes the posting along. There is certainly excellent anecdotal evidence of “keyboard courage” that people get when making anonymous blog postings or comments on websites; the only difference in this case would be that it is not anonymous. Or, also a possibility, without the face to face component, people do not see the immediate reaction to their comments or posts. In a conversation, they might alter or stop what they are saying on the basis of the other person.

There are some additional explanations worth noting. There are people out there who just plain overshare. For them, they don’t have a personal or a private side; everything about them is out there for the world to see. Whether it is purposeful, obliviousness, or narcissism, they feel the need to not hold back. (Whether that is a good or bad thing is another debate.) Another possible explanation is to the ignorance of the social ramifications of their oversharing. Again, without the physically present listener, they might not understand how their words, link, and pictures affect other people. In an age of society which has text, chat, and other word based means of communication, there may be a lack of socializing.

Or socializing might just be evolving with the variety of communication mediums that are now offered in the technological society. The physical playgrounds of my youth are being slowly replaced by the digital connections that children and teens can now create. How will social norms look in twenty years as the digital generations come to adulthood and maturity?

Getting back to my point, I cannot help but think that some of the laments about online oversharing are the result of filter failure. It may be a failure of the original poster to consider what may or may not be appropriate, but it is also the failure of the reader to not exercise their powers to mute, hide, block, and otherwise unfriend people who cross their boundaries. The social media sites have given us the power to control what we see, who we follow, and what we read. It’s up to us to use those tools.

What do you think? How much liability does the original poster share with the reader? Can we achieve our comfort levels? Or is it a constant battle to find the right level of sharing?

Library Day in the Life Round 7

This week wraps up another round of the Library Day in the Life project. During this time, my peers have been writing about their days, their struggles and triumphs that make up the work week. Through blog posts and tweets (#libday7), the sheer multitude of job duties that span the range of library types, sizes, and purpose emerges. One can scroll through the listing of participants from this round or previous rounds and see what a day is like for a library director, an assistant, a student, or intern. For anyone is who considering the field, a move within positions, or just curious about what it is like for our librarians, this wiki is a treasure trove of information.

For my part, I opted to be a cheerleader this time around on Twitter. For each day of the week, I tweeted a single simple statement of support for people to retweet to their followers.

Feel free to retweet any of these if you missed them the first time. I repeated the Tuesday tweet to give it another go round, but afterward just let them be. It’s hard to tell how many times these were passed to other people since retweeting is not a static thing, but I was impressed to see that the Monday tweet got over one hundred retweets through the Twitter interface. It also seemed to reach the furthest outside of libraryland, much to my delight.

During this week, I wrote a couple of blog posts about filtering, a quick post about the Library Day in the Life project, and (for good measure) my Sunday post about kindness in customer service. In comparison to previous months of writing, it feels like a slow news week even with the Aaron Swartz/JSTOR arrest and the closing of Borders bookstores and what that means for libraries (if it actually means anything). I dutifully combed my extensive Google Reader blogs for other things of interest, but nothing shouted for anything beyond sharing it on Twitter, Google Plus, or Facebook. Perhaps it was just an off week.

The one thing that this project makes me wonder about is how the librarian profession can share these experiences with our communities. A little insight into what it takes to build and maintain the library that some so casually dismiss might be some of the best advocacy we can get.

Filtering is for Coffee Makers, Not Libraries (Part II)

(I started to write a reply to a comment from my last post, but part of the reply turned into a full length post.)

Allow me to illustrate why I find internet filtering odious in public libraries.

***

Imagine you are at a restaurant. You pay on a yearly basis to eat there in exchange for having a wide variety of culinary options available to you. When you enter the restaurant, you are seated and given a menu. Upon opening the menu and flipping through the pages, you notice that some of the selections have been blackened out. You call the waiter over.

“Excuse me, but why are some of these selections blackened out?”

“Ah, those are entrees that have been judged to be unhealthy for you by the Health Board. They have possibly bad ingredients that are thought to be detrimental for a healthy lifestyle.”

“What do you mean, possibly full of bad ingredients?”

“Some of the dishes have been judged to be not good for a healthy lifestyle whatsoever. Other dishes might not be good for you so we are erring on the side of caution to exclude them. And then there are entrees that are good for you but since they share some of the same ingredients as the bad dishes, we have excluded them as well.”

“So, some of these entrees could be perfectly fine for me?”

“Yes sir. When we find a good dish that has been mistakenly marked as bad, we remove the blackening material.”

“That’s good! But what about the dishes that might not be good for me?”

“We’ve found that we get different reactions. Some people are outraged to find it on the regular menu, saying they cannot believe we would allow that to be served here. Others are outraged to find it on the complete menu, saying how dare we exclude it from the regular menu. It’s a tough call because it is a rather subjective assessment.”

“I see.”

“If you’d like, I can bring you a full menu without the retractions…”

“Yes, please, I’d like that.”

“…But there are some caveats.”

“Like what?”

“For me to bring out the complete menu, you have to assure me that you are someone who believes in a healthy lifestyle. Also, that it will be frowned upon by the other diners to consume the entrees that are loaded with bad ingredients. In addition, you will not share your meal with other people. Especially if you do end up ordering something that has been previously judged as unhealthy and especially if that person is a child. Can you agree to such terms?”

“I can understand and abide by that last part, but I don’t get the first two.”

“The Health Board wants to promote a healthy lifestyle for all the diners. While as an adult you are free to eat what you please, just know that eating so freely may not be held in the highest of esteems by the other diners. Even though it will be your food and being consumed by you, it may be upsetting to them.”

“Why should they care about what I eat?”

“Because they don’t eat it themselves and feel that no one else should either. Nor do they even want to catch sight of someone who could possibly be eating something they find repulsive.”

“So, why do I have to promise you that I lead a healthy lifestyle just so I can get a complete menu even though I’m an adult?”

“That’s correct, sir.”

“But that’s absurd!”

“It’s the rules of the Health Board. Take it or leave it.”

***

I will admit that the restaurant menu illustration is far from perfect. It doesn’t address the sexual harassment that library workers can experience from someone viewing pornography at the library, nor does it address the idea keeping kids from being exposed to pornography. Those are certainly important issues that need to be handled as well. But it is the best way for me to explain how I feel about filtering.

People tend to confuse anti-filtering arguments with being pro-porn. They are not the same. If someone was to show me a filtering software that could prevent people from viewing pornography while allowing all non-pornographic sites through, I’d speak in its favor for libraries that want filtering to use it. However, there isn’t such a thing; it doesn’t exist. Instead, it is much like a fishing net trawling the ocean, pulling up anything in its path. To me, that ‘s an unreasonable imposition.

What is also unreasonable to me is that underlying notion of filtering software; it is based on a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ concept. You cannot be trusted with unfiltered internet access, even if you have no history of deviant web browsing. And if you ask for unfiltered access, you are subject to be judged for having ulterior motives. It turns our American notion of due process on its head.

For myself, it is a lack of trust based out of fear-mongering; every person with unfiltered internet access is a potential offender, a sleeper cell agent waiting to act upon illicit information desires (porn or drugs or otherwise). From this fear mongering, the common refrain of how there is the potential for harm, that this potential is omnipresent and always certain to happen if we lower our guard for one second.

Filtering software is another form of security theater in which people have to be treated like potential threats based on the tiny number of cases. It is the antithesis of dialogue and education, for it sets aside logic in favor of the cheap emotional reaction. When we treat our neighbors with suspicion of potential wrongdoing as part of “the price of doing business”, it does not build a society that brings us together as a nation. It merely reinforces that the ‘other’ is something that should be feared, shunned, and eliminated.

To me, that is not what the library is about. In creating the environment for understanding, there has to be trust given. While a person’s words and actions may erode that away, it won’t be because of a lower starting point on my part. It’s the eternal optimist in me; I want to believe that people are good until proven otherwise. Some might pounce on this statement as evidence of being naiveté, that the world is a cruel place full of evils in around every corner. I am acutely aware of the unfeeling indifference of universe as acted out by nature and society. I am an optimist in spite of it.

In writing this all out, I wonder as to whether it actually advances a dialogue or just adds to the noise. A dialogue would mean that the two sides are actually conversing and listening to one another; the noise is when they are just shouting past each other. There really isn’t a perfect solution, but I think it’s better to examine the people involved in the transaction than focusing on the software.

Filtering is for Coffee Makers, Not Libraries

slp-1

The picture above is the splash page for a website called the Safe Library Project. It’s supported by the group Morality in Media, “the leading national organization opposing pornography and indecency through public education and the application of the law”. Here’s the blurb from the About page on the site:

This site was begun by Morality in Media, in conjunction with the War on Illegal Pornography, to help restore sanity in public libraries. All public, taxpayer-funded libraries should refuse to allow pornography on public computers – that is common sense.

We are not in a fight with your local public librarians. They are good public servants. Rather we are at war with those, like the American Library Association (ALA), the ACLU and others, who have advocated access to porn in public libraries. The ALA has been the driving force behind pornography on library computers. ALA and the ACLU fought a losing battle all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court against the Children’s Internet Protection Act, a federal act that requires public libraries that take certain federal funds to block pictures that are (a) obscene; (b) child pornography; or  (c) harmful to minors (for computers that are accessed by minors). Imagine! Shouldn’t the American Library Association be on the side of protecting children from pornography?

This passage is followed by a couple more paragraphs full of argument fallacies (most prominently the appeal to emotion). The short version is that it advocates for the enforcement of obscenity laws (using possibly the narrowest interpretation of the Miller test, though it is not mentioned) against free or commercial pornography sites and because all of these sites are obscene (in their opinion) that libraries should be mandated to use filtering software whether they take the federal e-rate money or not. It’s a nicely packaged bundle; all but softest core porn is obscene, therefore it should be prosecuted and also all libraries should be filtered to prevent people from reaching material (because it is obscene) even if it is not an issue (but it could be). Everyone with me so far?

There isn’t much in the way of supporting evidence or documentation on the website for this stance. No research showing how unfiltered libraries have higher sexual crimes in their surrounding areas than filtered libraries, no studies or reports on the effectiveness of filters and filtering software, not even one fancy chart to make the case. (There are reports on the PornHarms site, but nothing specific to libraries.) I would presume that support is supposed to be derived from the myriad of links offered on the site to news stories (some of which actually don’t actually apply since correlation does not equal causation) and a couple of scraped articles from Library Journal (an Annoyed Librarian column and the Dean Marney BackTalk piece). The website seems more like a contest to see how many times the words “porn”, “harm”, and “libraries” can be mentioned in a single sentence.

Two parts of the website caught my attention (and are my reasons for blogging about it). One is the tab marked “Report on Your Library”. It’s a web form that asks people to check with their local library for these specific questions:

  • What is the library policy regarding explicit material?
  • Do they have a filter in place? Are they willing to install one?
  • How do they keep children from viewing explicit material?
  • Have the librarians witnessed or been the victim of sexual assault on library grounds?

It seems like a case “which one of these things just isn’t like the other?”. There seems to be quite a leap from the third question to the fourth, a jump from asking about the possibility of filtering to whether an actual crime has been committed. I would presume that this is being asked because of the underlying Safe Library Project theory of ‘porn causes sexual assaults’, which if true would be more of a compelling reason to filter the entire Internet rather than just the public access ones. Alternatively, it is fishing for a reason to bring forth a lawsuit and/or manufacture a public outcry in order to compel the library to filter their computers, even if the actual context or frequency of occurrence would indicate otherwise. I find it to be an interesting glimpse in the tactics that the Safe Libraries Project seeks to use to leverage against libraries.

The other comes from the “Do Something” section. There’s too much to simply quote here; you’ll have to take a look yourself. It provides two paths to action. The first is contacting your library and demanding that filters be installed. (Actual quote: “Many librarians will agree with you on this subject and will do all they can to install filters on their systems. We just need to ask!”) The other is organizing and pressuring the library to install filters. Not an unusual tactic, but it does make me chuckle that a group of people would be so unfortunate as to not get one of the “many” librarians that should agree and do all that they can to help. Unlike the previous section I mentioned, this page spells out what a person should do or say while they are at the library gathering information.

Overall, with the exception of those two sections I did not find anything truly concerning about the website. The issue of filtering is akin to a flu strain in the realm of library science ailments; we can do a lot to take steps against it, but it will never truly be eradicated. Libraries are one of the many fronts in the balance between constitutionally protected speech and obscenity; a privileged headache to have compared to free speech restrictions in the rest of the world and one that has been given to us by the writers and subsequent interpreters of the First Amendment.

Personally, I find filters odious, the equivalent of locking up a state park because one person littered. In my opinion, it punishes the innocent more than it prevents the offenders from acting as it is a ham-fisted solution to a niche problem. In essence, it is an ineloquent solution to a complex social, psychological, and anthropological problem.

And so, here the issue remains: those who want filtering and those who oppose it. The Safe Libraries Project is a site created for the purpose of mandating filtering software to every public library in the United States. If this website was a seasonal outlook, it looks like there is a flu season in our future. So be on the lookout for the symptoms.

Library Day in the Life Round 7

libday7

This week is another turn at Library Day in the Life, the semi-annual event in which librarians and library workers share their workday in the form of pictures, video, and blog entries. It’s a project that my good friend Bobbi Newman has been running since 2008 (you can see the other instances of it on the front page of the wiki). I have some ideas to tweet during the week under the #libday7 hashtag, so keep an eye for them.

Here are my previous contributions to Library Day in the Life project:

My personal favorite is from Round 4, which I was honored to have another good friend Pete Bromberg mention at the RUSA President’s Program at ALA 2011. When I think back on that, it still makes me smile.

In any event, take a moment to check out the project, see what other people are doing, and maybe even add your own. I look forward to reading about how my peers get along during the week at their library.

Kinder Words

It’s the quote above that has inspired this Sunday’s blog entry. When I read it, I immediately thought of a Michael Stephen presentation slide featuring a quote from Kate Sheehan, “Kindness is our chief export” (or something along those lines since I can’t find the slide again). In reading Kate’s post that invokes the statement from two years ago, she wrote at the time:

At Computers in Libraries, I closed my portion of Darien Library’s presentation by saying that “kindness is our chief export.” Of course, information is sort of important too, but I think for many of us, the two are irrevocably intertwined. This is how we know how to help people. Without the kindness, we lose much of our value to our community. When I am in need of a break from public facing time, I often say that I am “out of nice” for the day. I’m not out of the ability to find information, but on its own, it doesn’t do much for my organization or our users.

And what of kindness to each other? When we step back to look at the big picture of libraryland, do we forget the incredible amount of effort put forth by legions of dedicated library workers? Are we forgetting to encourage each other’s hearts? Darien Library has seen a huge number of librarians come through lately. Granted, they are a self-selecting group, but they are all people with the right intentions.

Intentions are too frequently overlooked. When we photograph bad signage or criticize seemingly outdated policies, are we encouraging self-awareness amongst librarians? I think that is the intention- to encourage discussion and to work together to figure out how to best serve our patrons, but it’s easy to slide into finger-pointing without looking at motivation. We’re all going to have bad policies or make foolish decisions at some point, but our intentions have to count somewhere. The tremendous amount of hard work and huge number of good hearts on the front lines of every library in the world have to count.

When I was sitting in the jury deliberation room waiting with my fellow jurors to be called into court, I realized that what I was about to hear was the culmination of hundreds of hours of work and effort. The accident was five years ago, the depositions that were referenced were from two years ago, and the people attached to the case (lawyers and litigants alike) were about to present that to eight strangers. From all of that, we would hear and base our decision that would make a difference in the lives of everyone involved on about eight to ten hours of testimony and evidence presentation. That’s an awful long time to work towards something, and it impressed upon me the seriousness of the civic duty. While some of my fellow jurors made jokes (some that I would find cruel), I found myself moving in the other direction toward the somber decorum of the court. The ‘kindness’ here would be to refrain from being dismissive as there was very real money involved in the suit. (As it went, it ended in a mistrial so I didn’t get to see or hear everything. But that’s another story.)

I can appreciate the “out of nice” sentiment that Kate references in her post; I too have had days where I would just like to hide in the office and focus on my off-public desk work. This week certainly tested it when I returned to work on Thursday and Friday. I had a modest pile of messages from patrons who insisted that they could only talk to me about their issue or concern, a decent amount of emails (we usually forgo email in favor of face to face, being a small branch and all), and a pile of time sensitive publicity that needed to go out. That’s only what existed on my desk; I needed to catch up on the various goings-on at the library, especially with a particular problem patron who had been creating disturbances. Toss in some interruptions and it creates an excellent recipe for frustration. (And as the air went out on Friday, add in an unmitigated building temperature rise.)

But, as the entertainment saying announces, the show must go on.

What I’ve learned over the last couple of years is a couple of tricks to put me in a nice mood when I’m having trouble summoning up the energy to do so. First, smile at everyone. By activating those smile muscles, you can actually trick the brain into switching to a better mood as the mind reacts to the actions of the body. It is a matter of actually smiling, not just setting your teeth and opening your lips. There are other muscles in the face that get involved in a honest smile.

Second, in smiling at everyone, people will tend to smile back at you. Our brains are trained to mimic the facial expressions we see in other people. It’s why when you think of a parent or sibling or special person in your life smiling you will involuntarily smile at the thought. Even for a fleeting moment, it will be there. You’ve now taken your mind trick on the road in improving the moods of the people you are smiling at. Combined with a “good day/morning/afternoon/ evening” and it can make that first contact with a patron start on an up note.

Third, and some may disagree with me on this, but I believe that I am in fact paid to be nice to people. As customer service is part of the whole librarian deal, I think that good customer service requires kindness, compassion, and understanding. This is not an invitation to be used as a doormat, but just a recognition that those qualities work in our favor as well to diffuse some anxieties and tensions people may be harboring. I also fully realize that it is not easy to be nice to people who are ornery, angry, or downright obnoxious; I would not tolerate such disrespect either. It’s a fine balance but I believe starting with kindness is the best opening to a conversation with patrons.

And it is possibly the best way to start a conversation with a peer as well on an issue, policy, or position. It starts by asking simply, “Why?” It no longer surprises me when I hear or read someone going off on their own tangent as to why they think something has been done, put into place, or otherwise established when it is clear they have not asked for further clarification. In the rush to offer their own opinion, they have forsaken the basic inquiries to explore the underlying reasons and rationale for a decision or policy. I’m fairly certain I’m guilty of it myself, but I keep working on it as an ongoing process. A little more exploration and a little less pontificating might do some good for unraveling the bad signs and policies that our professional peers end up creating.

Will being kind solve the issues of libraries of all types? No, but it sure won’t hurt it either. In the end, it won’t matter how many questions you answered or how many books or DVDs or database articles you found; it will be how the person felt during the transaction. The reputation economy is alive and growing; it doesn’t hurt for the library to be part of it as a leader in the kindness commodity.

(Note: While I was writing this blog post, Jenny Reiswig pointed out that I had a typo in the original graphic; I had uploaded it to my blog and Flickr as I was writing this. Thanks Jenny!)

The Enchantment of Libraries

kawasaki

I know what some of you are probably thinking right now.

“Ebooks? If only he knew what kind of Byzantine arrangement eBooks are for libraries! Between the publishers and the content providers and the restrictions and whatnot, it’s just a giant tangled mess.”

But, even perhaps without that knowledge, Guy’s point still has some legs. Reinvention is not necessarily a clean process and it is something that libraries are undergoing right now at an imperfect, inconsistent pace. The advent of eBooks is undeniable; it will change how people perceive and access books when they have the option of getting one from wherever they are.

In looking towards that evolution of libraries, the demise of Borders should be a powerful lesson for libraries. Take a look at their business plan in the last ten years. They widened their movie and music selection, added a café, and then struggled onto the eBook market and eBook reader platforms. I’m not saying that this is something that will happen to libraries, but that kind of change should sound a bit familiar.

(Yes, I concede that they had a profit motive that libraries don’t, but their course of action to change their strategy does have parallels.)

If anything, at least someone outside of libraryland is pulling for us. We could use all the library champions we can get.