Mar 01 2006

Interactive Online Community Participation

Published by rachel at 12:50 pm under keeping up, networking

by John Hubbard

In the Beginning…

First, there were books. (Well, not really, but we’ll get back to cave paintings later!) To comment on a book, you could write one of your own. The age of journals shortened this rejoinder process, but it took the Internet to give us an instant mass publishing system. As any netLibrary user could tell you, though, there are trade-offs with switching information formats. Furthermore, when it’s so easy to publish, a lot of dubious and frivolous stuff gets into the mix.

Unfortunately, many people respond to these (sometimes merely conceptual) possibilities by making a priori judgments about the value of web-based information - and by sticking with tried-and-true communication methods, no matter how restricted and untimely they may be. Admittedly, there are some things, such as authority files and creative works, which are not very suitable for free-for-all community production. I sure wouldn’t want my surgeon getting operating instructions from a wiki.

Yet it can be just as dangerous to over-value the rigor of peer review and the quality of other sources, all the while discounting the benefits of direct and open publishing. By retreating to a more one-sided format, you can be relaxed about ignoring or prohibiting responses. There is also a sense of finality to printed books and articles, which cannot be easily corrected or updated.

Reinventing the Wheel

Free and open systems allow content to be developed cooperatively and rapidly, although they do come with potential vulnerabilities. Vandalism, spam, and trolls do exist online, but any actively responsible community can control them. A far more tangible threat to the signal-to-noise ratio of online knowledge is redundancy. In the past few years, we have seen an explosion of “The XYZ Librarian” blogs, for example. Each of these, of course, has its own flavor and appeal, but there is an enormous amount of what Rory Litwin, in his Library Juice Farewell Message, called “too much speech.”

Thinking of creating a repository of library science essays? There are at least four already! A cacophony of resources is not always the best thing for readers. There is nothing wrong with a variety of voices, interests, perspectives, or formats. But, when even librarians get overloaded by the hundreds of blogs out there, it’s time to consider making unique contributions through collaborating with established projects. Some examples of existing online library communities are:

  • LISNews - The most popular librarian and information science news blog has dozens of authors, hundreds of active users, and tens of thousands of readers. Anyone can submit headlines, add information to story discussions, view comments, and write in their own user journal.
  • Library Wikis - LISWiki and a handful of other library-themed wikis have cropped up over the past year. These are specialized versions of the software which powers Wikipedia. If you have any library-related encyclopedic knowledge, these sites are great places to share and enhance it.
  • Discussion groups - Electronic mail is alive and well, as evidenced by the heavy traffic on dozens of targeted library forums. Though not a replacement for the professional literature, you can get a lot out of monitoring (and making useful contributions to) groups in your field.

These projects’ contributors come from a wide variety of personalities and backgrounds. Some communities may even seem overwhelming and closed-off to newcomers. However, observation of the practiced conventions can be a great acclimation aid. As a general rule of engagement, it’s usually best to err on the side of acting stoic and genteel — instead of risking coming across as rude. But in the end, if you have something to say, just say it! A lot of librarians seem stuck in “lurker” mode, ignoring the imperative to contribute in their community categories.

Campfire Scholarship (2.0)

Technology can be a great tool. Custom RSS feeds, e-mail alerts, and better search engine results, for instance, are already helping with information overload. But above all the gizmos and gadgets, interactive communities give us something very special. Think about the excitement you feel attending a library conference: does this come from reading PowerPoint slides and listening to lectures, or contributing to question-and-answer sessions and participating in discussions and debates?

Long before Sir Tim’s dreams of a read/write web, Vannevar’s musings on how we hyperlink, Johann’s presswork, and even Socrates’ rhetorical learning style, there was our old friend, the cave painting. The ancient acts of etching images and hieroglyphs into stone set the stage for many wonderful innovations. But, even then, there were trade-offs. When the printed word overtook oral histories, something was lost - something that communal blogs and wikis now return to us: the act of giving us all a voice.

Just as generations of storytellers added their own twists, ideas, and conclusions to the tales that they inherited, today’s online communities provide a stage where scholars from around the globe can engage in debate and discourse, adding new elements to long-standing ideas. These collaborative benefits make it more productive to directly interact with others, both on a small scale as in cooperatively writing articles, and on a larger scale by contributing to established projects. (Moreover, in our information- based economy, when authors offer open access to their work, they help to build a more affluent society.)

Consider for a moment what we can achieve when we freely share our ideas and knowledge with others, and when these ideas in turn are consumed, and built upon, by our peers. There is no real reason for anyone serious about our field to refrain from participating in these online interactive communities. While collaboration will always have its critics, the fact remains that open collectives are extremely exciting; they are places where the sharing of information matters far more than the name of the individual who shares it. As the saying goes: “It’s amazing how much you can accomplish, if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

John Hubbard is the Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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