The Riddle of Twitter

Tweet!It’s a blog! No, it’s a microblog! No, wait, it’s a cocktail party! No, it’s something for you to be witty or interesting on so you gain followers! Wait, no, it’s the light infantry! But not for conferences! And not for mundane crap!

What I find baffling is that people seem to be hell bent on defining what Twitter is (or, for that mater, is not). Unlike most other social media (Facebook, Myspace, Friendster, Livejournal, Blogger, etc), Twitter comes with the shortest instruction manual and it is phrased in the form of a question: “What are you doing?” The deviously simple interface is a portal into an ongoing real time conversation of your own choosing as you opt in to follow people based on your own taste and criteria. (And, likewise, opt out or unfollow someone when they fall outside of your interest.)

For me, the conversation about Twitter closely resembles the tale of the blind men and the elephant. People are so determined to pin down what Twitter is and is not that they are missing the overall point: that Twitter is everything that people describe it to be. Want to share what you had for breakfast? Go for it. Want to keep tabs on a couple of friends? You got it. Professional networking? It’s there, just do it. Build up an online presence cult of personality? Tweet away, oh future internet trend despot. It is the Web 2.0 Mirror of Erised, a magical looking glass upon which a person can gaze at what they wish to see and input their say in their Twitter feed. How can it possibly be any simpler? While it might not be for everyone, with the proper external tools and some internet elbow grease, it can satisfy the most picky user’s expectations.

For myself, I find that Twitter is the right balance of personal and professional. I can share my joys, woes, observations, and thoughts to a select (reasonably interested) crowd. More importantly for me, it has become a valuable source of professional articles that offer tips and insights that I am certain I would not have found otherwise. My network of library professionals has expanded beyond my library system and granted me access to (what I can only think to call) a people database. These carefully cultivated contacts now exist on the local, national, and international level and put a spectrum of knowledge and expertise a mere tweet away. For me, that kind of raw information potential is captivating and powerful; and it makes me extraordinarily grateful to be in such a supportive profession. That is how Twitter has met and exceeded my expectations and why I continue to happily tweet today.

Personally, I have a very unscientific and suitably unsupported theory about the low retention rates. I base this solely on my unwritten observations of Twitter, people in general, and related postings. I would be willing to bet dollars to donuts that the so called “retention problems” lay with the end user because they come to the service with unreasonable expectations. Whether it is the idea that a Twitter account will somehow magically grant them access to celebrities or consistently give them a specific type of information they are looking for or be the social happening place that it is at any given moment (your mileage with followers may vary), they are let down when the reality doesn’t match the hype. Sure, it looked good on Oprah, but beyond Oprah’s sparse tweets (51 in total, none towards any non-celebrity of her 1.6 million followers), what is there for these new members to do? They have been dropped off at the proverbial Promised Land without a guide or an incentive to stay. Even if they did not ride the mighty coattails of Oprah to the service, they could find the “noise” of uninteresting updates from those they follow to be a deal breaker for the service. Whether it is for personal contacts or professional information, the sheer volume of information that passes through their page feels insurmountable. They flail, they flounder, and then they flee. And it is when Twitter fails to meet a person’s presumed expectations of the service that they toss it aside like a stuffed animal that has fallen out of favor with an angry child.

[Darker consideration: My much (worse) theory is that people approach it like television; specifically, I mean that they look to the service to conform to their whims without any effort on their part. They fall into the trap of being too lazy and treat the service as something that should acquiesce to their preferences right out of the proverbial box. Rather than engage the service, they curse it for not being what they want from the moment they log in. The passiveness of other social media (like the gentle cascade of a Facebook feed page) is a complete juxtaposition to the active nature of Twitter.]

There has been much press about Twitter’s retention numbers and active accounts. I find the numbers being waved around to be rather uncompelling because they simply do not go far enough in their analysis. It does not account for lurkers (people who sign up for accounts simply to be able to read a list of who they follow), those who use it for marketing & research (read: data mining) purposes, and the spammers who constantly on the move within the service creating accounts (nevermind what counts as an ‘active’ account or the fact that you can be active on an account without followers). Find me in a year or two and then I’ll take a look at the charts again. Perhaps it is our ever increasingly small technology cycles, but I don’t believe that all businesses on the internet need to follow the explosive growth of Google, Amazon, or Facebook to prove long term success. More people are coming online, more people are embracing social media to maintain their relationships for different aspects of their lives, and the world is becoming more socially connected. Even if it’s only 10% of the people generating 90% of the content, that’s still a fair number of people generating a massive amounts of information. On Twitter, that is roughly 450,000 people based on the estimated 4.5 million accounts; it would be equivalent to the population of Luxembourg. (Or, for a much larger number to think about, 10% of active Facebook users would be approximately 20 million people worldwide. For comparison, that is just a little shy of the population of Australia).

And it’s only going to get bigger. You can bet the cocktail party on that.

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This Blog Post Is Not Yet Rated

Tonight, I went to the movies with the wife and friends to see the new Star Trek movie. I haven’t been a movie fan for a long time. And it’s not the rising ticket prices, the unhealthy concessions, the cell phone/PDA interruptions, or general lack of creativity in most Hollywood efforts over the last decade. No, I can actually tell you the exact moment when I stopped going to movies.

For some background, I had been a fan of films for a long time. I got back into them when I attended the release of the first Batman movie back in 1989. I was blown away by Tim Burton’s presentation of the Dark Knight from the cast to the effects to the overall feel of the movie. Throughout high school and parts of college, I loved going to the movies. And I would try to see them all: the latest blockbusters, the action flicks, melodramas, everything. (Everything except horror, since I’m a bit of a wimp.) I would make the effort to try to see the movies that were nominated for the Best Picture by the Academy Awards. From there, I would make my picks for the categories based on what I had or heard about the nominees. The award event itself was always a bit dull, but I would find something to do while they wound their way through the categories to the ones I had some interest in.

This all changed during the 1998 Academy Awards. I can see myself sitting in my college buddy’s dorm room watching it with his girlfriend and a couple of other friends. The night had gone on and we were chatting about the winners and whatnot when it came time to give out the highest award of the night, Best Picture. We watched the usual pomp and circumstance as they flash to the producers in the audience as their movies and names were called. The envelope came out, opened, and the presenter excitedly announced the title, “Shakespeare in Love!” The room went into a stunned silence. We stared as the television audience clapped and cheered as people in tuxedos made their way onto the stage. At this point, I leapt up and informed the unsympathetic television what my opinion of this choice was using many words and terms that made it R rated within seconds.

How could this be? Elizabeth? Saving Private Ryan? Life is Beautiful? The Thin Red Line? Ok, the last one was more pedantic than I really cared for and I had a hard time concentrating to get through, but are you fucking kidding me? I was disgusted, an instant cinema atheist, and swore off movies for awhile. Now, I go to a handful a year and am very picky. Especially since I have read how Academy Award voting works (and you think our elections are screwy) and seen the revealing documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated (which explores the MPAA and their rating shenanigans), my tolerance for Hollywood tripe is next to zero. All of which have made only the most compelling of trailers and reviews as an reason to see a movie.

So, as the wife wants me to go see movies with her, I will usually oblige. I was interested in seeing this after reading and hearing some excellent press on it and as a person who was a fan of the The Next Generation. I embraced Star Trek initially for the gadgetry and sci-fi science, but now for the ideal that we as a species can work together to explore the vast universe that exists beyond our clouds. We had lined up early for the sold out showing at a theater a few towns over. When the line moved to start seating, I was first into the theater out of our group. A quick on-the-move consultation with the group created a swift agreement for optimal seating. The five of us sat down with me in the middle of the row. As a tall person, I generally try to get an aisle seat so as to give myself room to cross or stretch my legs. However, this theater actually had comfy seats and marginally ample legroom, so I was not going to press the point. Shortly thereafter, I was asked if the three seat to my right (this was a middle row) were taken. I replied that they were not and the row was soon filled with a mother in her sixties and two adults who I presume were her children, a mid to late term pregnant woman and a man who looked to be either the pregnant woman’s brother or boyfriend.

Immediately upon sitting down, the mother informed me that they had gone to an artisan convention the previous weekend that was full of amazing bits of, uh, artisan-ship. She gestured to the advertisement in the tiny movie guide book that they give out in the lobby for this past event and proclaimed that it had the most amazing glass she had ever seen. The first sign should have been how quickly the pregnant woman dove into the games of her cell phone, ignoring her mother next to her. Being the fool that I am and seeing that I still had time to kill before the film, I actually continued the conversation. It went something like this:

Me: Are you a fan of Star Trek?

Her: Yes, I’ve seen them all.

Me: My dad saw the original series. I was a fan of The Next Generation and watched parts of Deep Space Nine, but I couldn’t get into all of the other series.

Her: (more impassioned) I’ve seen them all.

Me: (slightly ignoring her) I didn’t really care for Voyager or Enterprise. I didn’t really see all of the movies. I think I saw the eight and ninth one…

Her: (most impassioned) I’ve seen all the movies. I loved them all. You know the director of this movies does Lost. Do you watch Lost?

Me: Nah, I couldn’t get into it. I watched some of the first season.

Her: You should watch it. You would like it. You have to pay attention. It’s very detail oriented. My husband blah blah blah blah my daugher blah blah blah blah I’m going to be a grandmother blah blah blah blah.

I can actually hear the whistling of the thought shells as she was launching them towards my position. It was after this exchange that I realized she was compelled by some unseen force to inform me of all of the amazing facts and details of her life which included (it most certainly included) her love of Star Trek. And rather than simply letting this slide, I decided to engage her in this battle of passive one-upmanship. She would say something (“My son is the manager of Borders in Cherry Hill”), I would counter (“I’m a librarian in Burlington County. It’s a county job so the benefits are completely awesome”), and the duel that she was not aware of would go on. It was very pleasant, a very good way for a jerk like myself to pass the time till the trailers (mercifully) came on. After which, we ceased our conversation.

Or so I thought. The movie had started when I realized that my secret verbal dueling partner has no inner monologue. None whatsoever.  She identified the appearance of every significant character with their name much in the way that a three year old would identify animals, colors, numbers, and food. When the word “Iowa” came up on the screen, she would say “Iowa”. If it was simply too much to identify in one word, they became Twitter length sentences. When they took off from the recruit center, she commented on how much it looks like a brewery (“It looks like a brewery!”). This went on for the length of the movie, these under-the-breath words escaping her lips just loud enough for me to hear but faint enough to tune them out. In the back of my mind, the Lewis Black part of me is cackling at her saying “Iowa” over and over again (the movie went there a couple of times) while the rest of me is just trying to keep it together till the end. Of course, at the end, she announced that she needed to see the movie again because she missed “the singularity” (which she had not since they actually explained it in a brief exchange composed of three sentences of two words, three words, and one word: “A singularity!” “A black hole?” “Yes!”).

I managed to get to the end since the movie was ultimately more entertaining than she was. I really enjoyed the plot, the pacing, subtle yet powerful effects, and the how they wove the original series into the movie. A good movie, all and all, with a fresh feel of Hollywood to it. You have my word on that. My seatmate told me so before she left.

the search for the next big thing, ctd

Awhile back, I had written about trying to figure out the next big thing for libraries and library science. This past week, I had the fun privilege of attending the 2009 NJLA conference. I would not say that the conference provided an answer about what the next big thing is as that would suggest a conclusion to the search. I did feel that the conferences I attended indicated a new direction worthy of following. Well, a “new to me” direction, for I don’t think I had a true original revelation for my profession, but the concepts presented have consumed my thought processes for the couple of days afterward.

There is a saying in library circles that goes like this: “a good library should have something to offend everyone”. I’d like to add a corollary to this well known collection development mantra: “a good library should have a feature for everyone.” The advent of the internet and other information transmission technologies have displaced libraries as the information monopolies that they enjoyed since the days of Alexandria. Much in the way that the United States have switched from a manufacturing to a service economy, libraries are still experiencing the postpartum pains of transforming from information gatekeepers to guides. Knowledge and learning are the old buzz words that get thrown around when people talk about the library; enrichment and service should be the new ones. Our academic credentials are well established, but we need to aggressively break that mold and show patrons that we have more to offer that can enhance their lives. We need present ourselves as having features and services available that compliment their interests and desires.

And what sort of services and features should we offer? In my opinion, it is to meet the patron on the communication medium of their choice (a.k.a. “where the rubber meets the road”). Whether it is in person, phone, email, or text, we need to be able to act and converse on all of those levels. With the glut of information in various forms out there, we need to provide guidance for people to get to the right information, to find the proper resources, and sage advice on how to navigate the barrage of potential sources. In exchange, we learn from our patrons (directly or indirectly) what communication tools they use in their lives and what they prefer. I think we are in another case of trying to catch up with technology, only with much worse timing than the internet during the business boom of the 1990′s. It is falling right in the midst of an economic recession and government interested in trimming budgets where libraries are viewed as cost centers rather than valued citizen resources.

Right now, I know how the budget at my branch is fairing. I know that if I want to do something with text service, I’m going to have to get pretty damn creative and look for free and/or open source solutions to add that to my branch’s services. It frustrates me since I know some of the solutions are within “easy” reach save for the fact that I lack the technical knowledge to fully understand them. I’ll have to get someone smarter than myself (not a real stretch) to be able to explain whether or not it can be implemented to me.  As our system blocks Myspace and Facebook, I am less inclined to start a presence on either site. But I am eager to learn more about Facebook opening up its API to developers, so any sort of foot dragging may be rewarded after all. Twitter, which has caught my fancy these days, presents a mixed bag as there are user retention issues for this microblogging/micromessaging social site. The limitation of the 160 character box for both Twitter and text works well in focusing a message, but it does poorly for presenting larger concepts, instruction, library news, or issues. Yes, there are url shortening services out there that are coming into heavier use, but this would rely on the end user clicking on the link rather than having the sum total of the message presented in the text or Tweet. Beyond that, we get into library philosophy debates as to whether we are able to provide all the answers for a patron on such a short format, regardless as to whether it is the patron’s preferred method of communication or not.

The one concept from the conference that most intrigued me was mobile reference. It’s very simple deal, really: take a librarian, add a smartphone with a data plan, and cut them loose into the wild. I’m not necessarily talking about a door to door salesman approach, but the purpose of mobile reference would be engage people outside the physical setting of the library and provide a sampling of library services. For more information, a mobile reference librarian would say as they handed over the library pamphlet, you can visit, call, or check us out on the web. Ok, perhaps there is some salesmanship, but that is no different than when a person is seated behind a desk talking about a new program, service, or event. It also establishes a presence outside of the library and creates a new way for the patrons to use the library.

I can see what the arguments against mobile reference might say. Where is the patron need for this service? How do we target an audience? Is this is a good use of staff time? I don’t have those answers at this time. What I do know is this: whether we like it or not, the internet has blown the walls off the libraries as a knowledge center, yet our single focus remains on what we can do within the confines of the building. Mobile technology has liberated us from the land line and given us the potential to do library service anywhere there is a viable internet connection, yet we are content to sit at the reference desk window and watch the world go by. It is hard enough to compete with the convenience of the personal computer versus driving, walking, or even phoning or emailing the library; we should not limit the ways in which we offer ourselves to our patron community. This is more passion than facts, for certain, but I do feel strongly enough about it to do more research into the subject.

Is all this talk pie in the sky? Maybe. But I do think we run a constant danger of putting ourselves in a perpetual catchup situation for adding emerging and/or established technologies. We need to become better at identifying technology trends, budget for it in due time, and make it connect with what we have to offer while it is still a popular technology. We won’t be able to sit on our duffs as much anymore, but that reference desk chair is not as comfortable as it once was for me. Not after the conference. We see how our patrons use technology everyday. We need to pay closer attention, see what it is, and then start looking where it is going. That will put us back on the forefront of the information age.

State of the Blog Address

So, I’ve been plugging away at this blog for a month. I know, what a noob, right? Well, it’s not my first stab at blogging and I’ve maintained a personal journal over at LiveJournal for a couple of years now. I guess that’s technically a blog, but since it has the word “journal” in it, it gets me all caught up in semantics. At any rate, this is my second attempt at having a completely public blog (my LJ is private and limited to family and friends).

In looking back at the past month of entries, they started off very serious, very link laden, and a mix of fact and opinion. As time moved on, I got away from that format. As much as I like trying to provide a complete picture of some of the issues that I support, it can be very draining. More draining than I thought it would be since it doubles the writing time as I collect and paste links and edit heavily. Don’t get me wrong, I like being able to provide the whole picture and cite my sources; it’s the right way to present the underlying facts that support a position. But, as the month went on, I have found that my interest was waning due to the high standards I had set for myself.

And hell, this is not supposed to be work, this is supposed to be something that I want to contribute to on multiple levels. So, the course has now changed (or, as I like to imagine it, “I am not lost, it is that path that has wandered”). I’ve always had the impulse to write, but not always the willpower to follow through. Right now, I have the willpower so I might as well take it where it is going and not stifle it by setting an unreasonable standard. I like writing about library science, religion, politics, goofy stuff in my life, and stuff that just pops in my head and demands to be recorded online.

More importantly to me, I like telling a story. I come from a long line of storytellers who savor the experience (much to the chagrin of my wife who hates waiting for joke punchlines and/or anything long winded).  I have many happy family memories involving people gathered around a dining room table or scattered in the family room or patio telling tales of their life experiences. More often than not it was something funny, but there would be stories of the somber times of World War II, Depression, and the intervening years of personal tragedies and other close calls. I’ve always known I was a storyteller. And though I prefer the spoken word to the written one, this is as good a medium as any for sharing most stories.

And so, I will see in another few months whether or not I stuck with the current format. It’s nice to see how certain things evolve over time. I’m looking forward to where I’m going, wherever that may be.

And so it begins

I read a lot of blogs. It started as a work assignment at the library. I was collecting political websites to gear up for the presidential election. And, naturally, no actual questions actually materialized. In fact, I don’t think I had any patrons even remotely come close.

In any event, I got to collecting blogs in my Google Reader. These were the best of the bunch, the links that when I clicked on that didn’t make my head explode in one way or the other. I’ve added a few since, taken out a couple, but they have mostly stayed the same.

The political blogs are the widest collection that I read. They run the whole gambit from conservative to liberal to progressive to whatever other political stance buzzword they have out there. I like them all, even when they are posting or saying things that I don’t agree with. In fact, I might like them more in that case since it puts me outside my comfort zone. I get to mull over the points, digest the meaning, and come out with a new or refined belief. I think the questioning is what makes the arguments stronger, what makes it so I can argue both ways, and what makes me really think about what is going on.

Of course, there is an insane amount of “white noise” in political blogs. The petty issues can stymie any sort of actual conversation with the petty bullshit that prevents us from truly moving forward as a people. And while there is some blame to sling around, the real blame falls to everyone: those who partake, those who allow, those who abstain, and all who don’t call shenanigans on it. But sometimes, sometimes, you get lucky and find something that you didn’t know, whether it is about yourself or the world around you.

The second largest contingent of blogs are all library based. Being a librarian (or, the technical term for a male librarian, a “guybrarian”), I like to keep up with the news and trends. A news feed from Google News and LISNews along with some other smaller blogs covers the territory nicely for me.

Beyond that, it’s all the light stuff. Cartoon strips (Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield without Garfield) and World of Warcraft blogs make up the true time wasting end. Well, ok, they aren’t complete time wasters, but fun stuff after all the dreary political crap.

And so, here I am. I started a public blog before and then just let it die. I maintain a LiveJournal because all my friends are there. But with the advent of Facebook and Myspace, there is just too much social networking crap. This is a public journal, a soapbox, a place where I can jam my note into a bottle and toss it out into the sea of the internet. For, in my experience, people just want to be heard by other people. It is less about trying to bring someone over to your side as it is tryng to get your viewpoint out there.

And so it begins.