Thing #6: Social Networking

Social Networking Basics
Thing #6 would be an easy selection to skip over at first glance since it would be rare at this point to find someone completely unfamiliar with the concept of social networking using Facebook or Myspace–certainly I already have accounts with both. However, upon skimming the 23 Things materials I saw several networks mentioned that I am not familiar with, as well as a description of how Myspace is using a mashup to translate Facebook “likes” into real-time content in a personalized video/audio stream. As I mentioned in my introductory post, there is always something new to learn when you examine a topic through fresh eyes so I decided to see what new social networking knowledge I could build.

Facebook
Facebook is a good place to begin simply because it is the largest network available and thus offers the best chance to connect with the highest number of users or potential users. Forming Facebook event pages can be a good tool to engage users, but it can also be tricky to use this tool effectively. The Educause article presented through the 23 Things website was not particularly useful on this front since it covered Facebook back when it was relegated to students only and functioned much differently than it does today. The CommonCraft video on social networking in general is instructive in detailing the potential that social networks carry. The idea that finding the right people can open doors–to employment, events, new user groups–can be accurate; such social networks carry intense potential. The process of getting there is tricky though, since setting up a page and waiting for exciting interaction definitely does not work.

The GigaOM blog post details ways that Facebook can be used as a professional tool through the addition of apps that tailor content to work networks. This is a good way to view social networking. From a professional standpoint, adding content that engages users through group pages or through timely status updates can be effective. Of course, finding the right mixture of trivia, discussion questions, and announcements can be tricky. Organizations such as the Smithsonian, Museum of Modern Art, and Read/Write Web are among those that seem to have found the best balance to encourage interaction. The Interactive Archivist article provides additional uses of social networks and these align with the best ways to use social networking as a tool. Namely, social networks can encourage collaboration and information seeking and discovery.

Myspace
Although Myspace has undergone a number of changes in recent years, it has still seen a rapid decline in its user base. However, as a social network they have done some unique things to keep afloat. According to the Wikipedia article supplied by the 23 Things website, they have created a “Mashup with Facebook” that allows users to connect with their Facebook and Twitter accounts; really this is just integration with the existing Facebook Connect service. Although Myspace has become more of an entertainment hub, they have managed to incorporate ways to combine information from other sources. For instance, using the Facebook connect option, users can generate personalized content streams based around items they already like.

Gather
I had heard of Gather.com but never looked into it before embarking on this web 2.0 exploration. Reading an interview with the CEO revealed that it is a social network site that attempts to create organized communities around common interests. The idea is that users can write articles and share other content without the brevity that Facebook and other networks seem to demand. Instead, the focus is on developing meaningful conversations that have depth and substance. At least theoretically, this is what the service provides. I found this concept to be exciting and initially thought that for an information literacy class this network could be used to create a community for sharing resources and ideas. This could be a community spread across classes, creating a valuable tool for connecting students in academic communication. The downside, however, is that when the Gather CEO began to talk about profit generation it became clear that advertising was a big distraction on the website. It’s not that I have a problem with profitability, but the “engagement campaigns” they run sound sneaky to me and focus too much on unbridled consumerism. They hold reviews and samplings that are designed to get the reviewers talking about “brands people love.” This is of course all sponsored conversation, held under the guise of unbiased sharing.

Additionally, after actually visiting Gather I found that it seems to be a little light on the depth it promises. For example, the top stories on the home page were genuinely poor writing samples by community members. They were written in the style of news stories, however, and it is possible that many community members are substituting these posts for actual news consumption. This does not further knowledge, nor does it really build a community. I have seen much better exchanges arise on Facebook, Twitter, and professional blog sites that direct users to read up on a story and throw in their thoughts along with the initial poster. Opinion articles are useful, but they need to be presented as what they are…pretending to be a journalist reporting facts is just sad. Needless to say, I was disappointed with the site. Perhaps the promised depth of conversation and information does exist, but the site and structure simply didn’t compel me to look any harder to find it.

Big Tent
The idea of this social network piqued my interest, but I was somewhat surprised to find that the suggested Wikipedia article had been deleted. The reason was cited as a failure to find sufficient references in reliable sources–in other words, Big Tent is just not important enough to warrant an article. This got me thinking that if it hasn’t gotten enough media attention to this point, it may not last; social networks are, after all, dependent on a solid user base. Even so, I decided to check it out. Big Tent is actually different than the other networks in that has a decidedly local feel. It is set up so that clubs can manage memberships and post announcements, arrange volunteer schedules, chat, and so forth. The featured groups include a lot of charter schools and parenting groups. Searching on different keywords also revealed community garden clubs, local fitness groups, and so forth. This site would probably be useful for hosting a book club online presence, or other similar library outreach programs. There are broader groups as well, which I discovered because of a feature banner on the home page that listed 51,000 members in a group called “no excuses workout group.” When I actually searched for this group, however, I found a lot of mother’s network local fitness groups; the search feature leaves a lot to be desired. Despite the problems with navigation, this could be a good source for local groups. I suspect that they do not attract many members that are simply searching for groups in the area, however, because of the poor retrieval. It seems like this is more of a way for groups to easily set up a web presence and get existing club members to join the site.

Applications for Information Literacy Instruction
Use of social networks in an information literacy context can be either a great tool or an example of trying too hard to be trendy. It depends on the group and the manner in which participation is encouraged. Groups can be set up in Facebook to facilitate information exchange and this could be somewhat successful. Resources such as Quora could be used to link classmates within a community where questions can be posed and answered, which can be a valuable learning resource. To me, however, the most potential lies in using social networks as a tool to locate additional resources. Rather than viewing the networked community as the ultimate information source, viewing it as a discovery tool might be more useful. Following quality sources (institutional and individual) increases the number of links populating inboxes and news feeds on social networks. It would be worth showing students how to track people that consistently post valuable resources, such as links to news articles or blogs. These links in turn can lead to deeper levels of information sources. Information literacy is in part about seeking timely and credible information and utilizing a social network to deliver a constant stream of (often) relevant content is a great tool. The investment in tailoring the network and sorting the posts is well worth the time savings and connectivity that will occur.

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Thing #5: Online Presentation Sharing

Slideshare Basics
Slideshare is one of those ubiquitous networks that has permeated social media. It seems that every time I turn around I see that the slides from a presentation I attended will be posted there, or a web resource like Mashable or Smashing Magazine is reviewing the next big feature Slideshare has added. It is widely lauded as an indispensable tool for business and academia alike. Despite all the hype, however, I realized I have never actually visited the website; this made Thing #5: Online Presentation Sharing, a perfect second step in the program. 

I started out with a quick review of the suggested resources, including a YouTube tutorial on using Slideshare, a video highlighting how it can be aligned with a LinkedIn account, and slideshows placed on Slideshare by the Smithsonian, New York Public Library, and Drexel University. The slideshows all covered some aspect of social media outreach, with the underlying message that simply putting files on the web and waiting for people to discover the fantastic treasure trove of resources is highly ineffective. I absolutely concur with this idea; the Smithsonian and NYPL, in particular, exhibited an in-depth knowledge of how to use social networking effectively as evidenced by the level and sophistication of use as well as the linking together of different tools. Inspired by the quality of the PowerPoint presentations they had shared, I signed up for a free account so I could try out some of the features.

For starters, I decided to test out the search feature. I typed information literacy just to get a baseline for how many presentations would be returned using very basic terminology. At 12 results per page, it returned 1581 pages–information overload for sure. Fortunately, the information is ranked, so on page one the results are related to information literacy as a complete term. By the time you get to the last page the results are highlighting information and informant as keywords, which is obviously less relevant. The advanced search helps a little bit by narrowing by time frame, file type, exact phrase matching, and popularity settings. It is clear from the volume of results, however, that Slideshare is a widely-used product. I clicked through several presentations, including a pretty fantastic mind map, and found a lot of good information. Certainly a library could create an account to post all kinds of informational presentations, all linked to the organization. This would be a good addition to other social sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and so forth; Slideshare accounts can be linked to these other resources so sharing the contents is much less cumbersome than having to manually embed a link to new content. Linking all these social networks is smart for two reasons: first, in an age when employees are already stretched thin, updating numerous social networks can seem like a huge chore. Consequently, it either goes undone or gets handled poorly. Linking the tools, however, makes the content do double, triple, or even quadruple duty. Second, sending the information out to multiple sources will ensure that it reaches different audiences. People may find a presentation on the Slideshare website, or they may visit it after their interest is peaked by a Facebook or Twitter update.

I also decided to upload a presentation, which was quite easy. Once logged in, you simply hit the large button at the top of the screen, select a file, and assign descriptions and tags. Upon uploading, embedding the file and sharing to social networks are options available right on the screen (see embedded presentation below):

If you invest in an upgrade (for $19, $49, or $249 per month) you can actually create a channel, similar to what you can do in YouTube; this might  be a good option for a library, budget allowing, because the files can be organized to a single page. Files can also be uploaded to a group, so it is possible to align a presentation with others that display similar topics. This could be a good way to network and attract individuals with similar interests to your organization’s online resources. Since I am just exploring right now, I chose the single upload option and a tag of museum outreach.    

One thing I did note was that it is possible to add audio to a presentation file. I did not, however, come across any of these in my search. This would be a great option for creating a webinar with this resource, or adding valuable information to the presentation without cluttering the slides with bullet points and text. In fact, the latter is sometimes a problem when presenters have been asked to make slides available later. They create the entire talk using horribly cluttered and distracting slides, with the excuse that the slides need to make sense on Slideshare later–not a good way to approach a presentation.

Beyond Slideshare
I also decided to check out Prezi, which was not part of the 23 Things description but seemed to fit the topic nicely. I saw a presentation using Prezi instead of PowerPoint, and it made the latter look absolutely antiquated. The beauty of Prezi, as I discovered, is that it can be stored online or downloaded (in case your presentation venue doesn’t have Internet access). You can zoom in and out and embed small images or words within larger sections of text. The zoom feature allows for focus on a particular item; it also allows the presenter to pull back and easily return to former topics without clicking through scores of slides, fumbling for the correct place. A slideshow on using Prezi as a teaching tools helps to illustrate that using a structure that can depart from linear motion helps people to see the bigger picture as well as focus on details.

Since this 23 Things module is focused not simply on creating, but also on sharing presentations, I took a look at the search feature on Prezi. I used the same search term, information literacy, expecting to find few if any Prezis, as compared with searching Slideshare. To my surprise, I got 100 pages of search results indicating that Prezi is indeed an excellent slide sharing tool as well.

Applications for Information Literacy Instruction
Sharing slides online has obvious benefits in an academic setting. Making presentations available after class can allow students to review concepts, can serve as notes for students that have missed class, and can provide information for students and faculty seeking information on a particular topic. An instructor looking to incorporate information literacy into a general class could benefit from resources provided by librarians and might very well look to a resource like Slideshare for information. The social aspects are significant as well, because that same instructor might find a good presentation and go on to contact the presenter, thus creating an even deeper information exchange.

For student projects, Slideshare and Prezi would be great places for students to upload assigned presentations. The benefit of using such a service over having students upload to a space like Blackboard is that the social interaction is greater. For example, if students were required to create a presentation on library and online resources related to their major, they could upload a presentation and then other students could leave comments. This would create an active discussion right at the site of the presentation. In fact, comments can be left on individual slides which would help further direct the discussion and remove uncertainty about what the comment was about. Slideshare also allows individual file uploads of up to 100 mb, a size that might exceed course environment limitations.             

An exploration of using social tagging to guide information searches could also be a good topic to explore with students. Many websites allow users to either perform initial searches or view similar results by clicking an assigned tag. Sometimes this leads to better resources while other times the tags seem inaccurate. An exercise in evaluating information resources discovered using a network of tags within Slideshare could be informative; this is particularly true as some digital libraries are now exploring incorporating user generated tags into the metadata they assign to resources.

The usefulness of online slide sharing is undeniable. It functions as yet another social networking tool that librarians can use for outreach and seems to have some quality applications in the classroom. Of the two slide sharing and presentation tools discussed, Prezi seems to have the greatest potential for creating resources that could engage students.

Thing #1: Online Chat using Meebo

Meebo Basics
I decided to begin my journey, appropriately, at the beginning. Thing #1: Online Chat seems simple enough and would be easy to skip, but since Meebo is specified as the tool of choice I decided to jump in and give it a try. I use other chat services but am only familiar with Meebo because I have heard it mentioned in other circles. “Meebo me” has become a common expression in certain web communities that feature chat rooms, and frankly, whenever a service name transitions to a verb it is probably pretty widespread.

After reviewing the 23 Things suggested resources, including a YouTube video, two wikis, and Wikipedia and Educause articles, I had a pretty good handle on how Meebo extended the functions of instant messaging services. A trip to the website About page, however, gave an even clearer picture of how Meebo can be used to streamline existing social networks, function as a check-in service, and make embedded live chats possible. I was actually quite impressed because even in this current age of diverse applications that combine digital services, this one packs a lot of functionality into a pretty small package. The most obvious convenience feature that I took advantage of was linking several of my current IM clients to my new Meebo account. This feature is a bit like the concept of RSS feeds, in the sense that it allows for the collection of items in one place. Here, instead of collecting web content, I simply collected all my IM contacts into a central place. This is actually more than just an organizational feature, however, since it allows me to take my desktop IM client contacts with me wherever I log in. This is a huge advantage to using a web-based IM service over desktop clients. Also, I realized that even on my own computer I could reduce the number of stand-alone applications running in the background simply by chatting through Meebo; this equates to less clutter and faster performance.

Beyond Basics
Some of the features that really elevate Meebo to the status of a multifunctional tool are the social features. For starters, you can install a minibar in your browser that allows you to check in at websites and chat right from the bottom of the screen. To date, this feature is only available for Firefox and Opera browsers, although a 2010 copyright-dated web page promised Internet Explorer (IE) and Safari browsers would be supported next; it is unclear, however, when exactly “soon” will be. This is significant because to date most people still use IE as a primary browser and thus the check-in feature is limited to only a fraction of the viewers of any particular page. For this to become a great tool for business use (or even a widespread social tool) it will need to be supported in most browsers, and certainly in IE.

The useful part about checking in is that it functions as a rating of sorts. I can check in at sites that I deem exceptionally useful and I am able to view other users that have recently checked in as well. I can also see an overall number of check-ins (5, 23, 14,000, etc.). This could function as a quick way to gauge the popularity of a website; I could also look for whether people with whom I share similar tastes have visited the site. This latter task can be accomplished by viewing the public profile of users I follow, which includes a full list of places where they have checked in. Checking in acts as a quick filtering system that, while certainly not a replacement for browsing, could in a pinch give a quick idea of whether it seems worthwhile to proceed deeper into a website. As for libraries, it is probably worth noting that people are engaging in this type of activity because a library website reputation could be diminished in the eyes of users that believe it should have a greater number of check-ins. Also, since users can check in at both main and sub pages a librarian could use the minibar as a quick website analytics tool. It would not replace all the statistical data generated by a tool like Google Analytics, but it would allow a librarian to quickly see how many people were deeming certain pages worthy of a check-in. This might indicate that content or design on one page was more or less appealing than others, and tweaks could be made if appropriate. 

After installing the minibar, I considered linking to my Facebook and Twitter accounts in order to provide my network of contacts with information about my Meebo activities. I stopped short, however, because I felt that inundating everyone with my web activities in the form of little “Rebecca Fitzsimmons has checked in at www…” messages was less useful in a social context than simply providing links and short comments about worthwhile web content in my posts. Used judiciously, however, I could see this “share” feature as a useful tool for organizations. For example, if a librarian checked in daily at a few well-chosen websites and had that data automatically delivered to a Facebook and Twitter account it would provide a daily update of resources for followers; this would function a little like posting a daily links list, but would be more interactive. The activities could be spread throughout the day and it would have a feeling of spontaneity (whether actual or not) that users tend to relate to–kind of like a trusted friend saying they just found something interesting and had to share it. This builds a level of excitement that, to many users, a “curated” list can’t match. Sharing great web content can also build a more solid following. I tend to pay close attention to the postings of people that have shared great content in the past and I frequently follow their stories and links. This is a sophisticated use of social media tools and one that use of the Meebo sharing feature could enhance.

Last, Meebo allows for several useful features to connect with people through the web. For starters, a Meebo chat box can be embedded in a web site that allows the site manager to chat with visitors in real time. This is a noteworthy feature because the website visitors are not required to have Meebo accounts in order to chat. This eliminates the issue of having to add an individual or organization to an IM list in order to connect, and undoubtedly increases the number of users willing to interact. This is a useful feature for library websites wishing to offer chat reference services. The danger with this feature, however, is that it needs to be reasonably staffed in order to be effective. In fact, if the chat feature is repeatedly closed at reasonable hours a visitor may conclude that the website is abandoned (a huge red flag, just like outdated or unchanging content). For example, I have yet to find an active Meebo chat session open on the 23 Things for Archivists website, regardless of the day and time of my visits; this is actually a little bit annoying since the feature is billed as way to connect with a 23 Things mentor. This is a good example of a well-intentioned incorporation of social media that can’t be maintained and is actually resulting in a negative reaction to the site. In fact, while the “beginning” set of 23 Things is operational, I wonder if the entire “intermediate” list will ever be put in place; given that the chat feature is abandoned, it seems possible that the rest of the site is no longer being updated either. However, if the chat feature of a website can be staffed, at minimum, during the hours a library is open it is a great tool for connecting with users. Also, Meebo offers a group feature that allows a user to create an online room in which to chat with a group of other users.

Information Literacy Instruction Applications
The basic chat features of Meebo would be a good way to keep in touch with students that preferred real-time online interactions to phone calls, face to face meetings, or email–in fact, there are so many good messaging tools out there that email as a communication tool is beginning to feel a little outdated. Chat could be used in the context of both semester-long classes and as a follow-up to one-shot IL sessions. Beyond one-to-one chat sessions, the group chat feature could be used to convene a follow-up, especially after a one-shot session, for students wishing to learn more about information resources.

The embedded chat box would be a great addition to a dedicated course website, but only if it is manned. I feel that logging into a chat session and having it open in the background while doing other things is a pretty standard practice, however, and it would be an easy way to stay connected. In addition to students that might need to visit a course website to view required resources, etc., this could be a good opportunity to connect with librarians or other faculty that might be combing the Internet in search of ILI resources. For classes offered online, a supplemental web site with embedded Meebo chat could offer a more interactive interface than many of the Blackboard and other course management resources seem to be.

In terms of the check-in feature, it could be used to create assignments or extra credit opportunities. The class members could be asked to follow one another on Meebo in order to view each other’s check-in activity. They could be directed to check in to valuable websites at certain intervals, or to accumulate check-ins at leisure over the length of the course. This activity could be tailored to meet the needs of specific courses, such as in IL instruction for a group of engineering freshman it could be required that all the check-in sites are related to that field. A broader approach could involve incorporating general resource sites; the activity could also require students to locate information literacy websites instead of subject-related resources. At the end of the activity a link list could be compiled of the most useful and/or frequently visited resources. By viewing the check-ins of classmates, students may discover useful resources that they would have otherwise missed.

The check-in feature could also be used to track whether students have visited assigned websites, although that type of tracking could be questionable. Instead, it might be better to offer extra credit for visiting certain valuable resources, and assign points based on the student checking in there. In any way it is used, however, the check in feature could help students to see how classmates are finding and evaluating web resources (evaluating in as far as a check-in equating to a judgment that a web site has value). This seems like a great way to build consensus about resources through peer networks–perhaps a more powerful tool than simply handing students a list.  

In short, Meebo is a tool with a lot of possibilities for teaching information literacy, for librarians engaged in public outreach, and for use as a social networking mechanism. I was genuinely surprised by the versatility and by the sleek look of the minibar interface. Meebo truly does offer a good way to manage and streamline IM communications and to connect with other social networks in meaningful ways. Surprisingly, I learned much more than I expected about the new possibilities that IM service can provide far beyond simple chat reference.

Embarking on a journey of discovery and rediscovery

The beauty of the original 23 Things project created by Helene Blowers, technology director at the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, is that it both teaches and reinforces many popular (and at this point widespread) social media outlets in addition to introducing some that are less well-known to many people. As a training exercise it is quite effective in bringing people up to speed on using social media technology by providing a concrete list of 23 must-try social media tools that have uses within a business, library, or academic context. As a personal exercise it is just plain fun to go into exploratory mode. As with all technologies, however, some of the items will or have already become a little passé. One needs only to think of the imminent shutdown of Delicious at the hands of Yahoo for a good example. Interestingly, the 2006 Delicious list of other libraries employing the 23 Things program rests prominently on the original webpage–a testament to how quickly pages or links on the Internet can become fragmented or irrelevant. This list is an export from a dying service and soon the headline will announce active links kept via a defunct social technology. Interesting reminder about how fast progress (or at least change) happens in a digital age.

The original 23 Things project, however, still holds purpose as an outreach tool. Of course, since technology marches forward the original list has some serious omissions. The use of virtual worlds, location-based services like Foursquare, mobil technology, and augmented reality are all elements that have taken greater hold in the time since the list was established. Even so, a surprising number of people are still unaware of many of the original social media trends covered. As a living document, it still holds considerable weight and purpose.

I have completed many of the original 23 Things items in the past. Others I have accomplished simply by virtue of being a tech savvy person. I follow blogs and keep one of my own; I actively use Twitter and Facebook, RSS feeds, contribute to YouTube, edit and share photos and videos, and so forth. Many of these same items appear in revamped lists by other organizations. However, the spirit of any of the 23 Things projects is about more than simply completing and checking off scripted exercises. It is about playfulness, adventure, learning, and exploration. It encourages growth and reflection. So in that spirit I am going to work through a new 23 Things with fresh eyes. I am going to explore the suggested resources of the 23 Things for Archivists and will probably add some of my own. I am going to approach this as an opportunity to learn new things about each and every one of the tools. The beauty of social media, after all, is that it changes and forces us to adapt and, sometimes, to reinvent.

I have taken my first step in creating a dedicated blog for this journey. I will pull items from the 23 Things and the Expanded Things for Archivists. I will learn and reflect-both on myself and on the applications of the technologies in a professional context-and I invite you to join me through discussion. This is, after all, a reflection on the use of social media tools, and what better way to put these to use than connecting right here.  

23 Things for Archivists is a new program by the Reference, Access, and Outreach Section of the Society of American Archivists. It includes many of the original 23 Things, but expands them to include intermediate items, 24-46, and advanced things, 47-∞. It is still under development, so some of the advanced and intermediate items are not yet fully implemented. Still, it is a fresh take on the classic, and can be found here:

http://23thingsforarchivists.wordpress.com/advanced-things-47/