Archive for the 'kids today' category

Reading Diary: Your hate mail will be graded: A decade of Whatever, 1998-2008 by John Scalzi

Sep 28 2010 Published by under blogging, book review, kids today, reading diary

Your Hate Mail Will be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008 is a collection of John Scalzi's favourite posts from the first decade of his blog's existence. And it's quite a collection too -- of course one that is best taken in short doses, one or two posts per day over a longish period of time. Just like you you consume a blog.

Scalzi started Whatever way back in 1998 and since then it's become one of the most popular science fiction author blogs out there. His mixture of humour, politics and just general zaniness is hard to resist. Most of all, Scalzi is passionate, he has a strong sense of fairness and a basic decency that comes through in every post. He's a good guy, a guy you trust, a guy you'd want to have a beer with at a sf convention sometime. He's a guy whose funny stories you constantly repeat to your friends.

Because, oh yes, he can be funny. Even better, he can be viciously funny.

Here's a bit from his epic takedown of the Creation Museum:

Here's how to understand the Creation Museum:

Imagine, if you will, a load of horseshit. And we're not talking just your average load of horseshit; no, we're talking colossal load of horseshit. An epic load of horseshit. The kind of load of horseshit that has accreted over decades and has developed its own sort of ecosystem, from the flyblown chunks at the perimeter, down into the heated and decomposing center, generating explosive levels of methane as bacteria feast merrily on vintage, liquified crap. This is a Herculean load of horseshit, friends, the likes of which has not been seen since the days of Augeas.

Yes, that's John Scalzi at his finest. And this book is full of John Scalzi at his finest. Wthat that devil Scalzi has done, see, is select his favourite blog posts from the first decade and print them on paper and bound the paper up between two covers. And then, oh yes, he then sells the darn thing to you. For money. Selling printed blog posts for money. From a major US science fiction publisher, to boot.


Let's take a step back for a moment.

So, why would I want to even read this stuff in the first place.

Because humour and outrage aren't the only note Scalzi hits. He's passionate in his defense of gay marriage (p. 51, 55 & 189), heartbreaking talking about his wife's miscarriage (p.33), hilarious on Scooby Doo or clones (p. 83 & 49), furious taking down the greedy (125), amazingly satirical when it comes to politics (181), fair but tough-minded on religion (85), scathing on Star Wars (119) and gentle but firm encouraging young writers (213).

A terrific range.

Now, you'll notice that I reference the book's page numbers above rather than linking to the original blog posts. Two reasons, really. First of all, I'm too lazy to look up the blog posts. Second, I think you should buy the book.

After all, why pay to read a book if all the content is available to read for free on the Internet?

  • I'm an idiot. I certainly don't get this "new media" thing, do I. I'm probably one of those people that still buys CDs. Sucker.
  • I would never plow through a long list of links if Scalzi had just posted his "Best Of" list on his blog.
  • There's also a value to reading Scalzi's own curated selection of his favourite posts. It gives me an insight into his though processes and values than a more random slice of his blogging output.
  • I like the idea of sending a chunk of change Mr. Scalzi's way and this is a perfectly good way of doing it. I also get to send a chunk of change to various publishing and bookstore people, whose place in the literary ecosystem I value similarly to the way I value authors.
  • And if I was just reading the original blog posts, I would probably just skim them for the funny bits and skip to the flame wars in the comments.
  • I actually have a signed copy of the book. That's cool. We still haven't figured out how authors to sign their blog posts to individual readers as keepsakes.

In these reviews, I usually make an effort to recommend what kinds of libraries I would suggest acquire the book in question. In this case, it probably won't fit in too many academic collections except perhaps as an example of how a blog can be turned into a book. On the other hand, this book would be a great acquisition for just about any decent sized public library.

Scalzi, John. Your hate mail will be graded: A decade of Whatever, 1998-2008. New York: Tor, 2010. 368pp.

4 responses so far

Music Mondays: David Gilmour on Chopping up Albums

Jun 21 2010 Published by under kids today, music mondays, social media

Yes, that David Gilmour.

Anyways, there was a post on Gilmour's blog a few months ago that provoked quite a little storm: Chopping up albums.

Basically, the point Gilmour makes is that many albums are really meant to be listened to as a whole and shouldn't be split into individual tracks at record companies' whims. Read the whole thing to get the full sense of his argument, but I think the excerpt below gives a good sense:

I'll go first: Blood on the Tracks' frenetic 'Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts' by Bob Dylan. There, I said it. (Forgive me, Bob.) More often than not, it gives me an instant headache. As does Don Henley's 'Man With a Mission' (from Building the Perfect Beast). But I can skip these songs when my head is feeling particularly delicate and they remain part of two of my favourite albums regardless. Granted, when purchased, there was no option to pick and choose each song, nor to preview them freely at leisure. However, I still feel that today's wider choice is mostly irrelevant to me when it comes to downloading music, and surely this should be all the more true when it comes to concept albums.

In fact, of Pink Floyd's more obvious concept albums, you'd be hard pressed to find a track that does not segue at either its beginning or end.

Can you imagine 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' not turning into 'With a Little Help from My Friends'? Or 'Overture' from The Who's Tommy not concluding with the joyous announcement that 'It's a Boy'?

I'd enjoy sharing your examples of the perfect song segue, if you care to.

So, lots of questions to end the week with and perhaps to aggravate you well into the weekend, but I have (almost) managed to refrain from asking whether we should condone public flogging as the only punishment befitting the heinous crime of savagely butchering Dark Side of the Moon.

Now, there's a thought... Dare I suggest that maybe EMI got off lightly?

On the other side, is Cory Doctorow:

No one thinks about albums today. Music is now divisible to the single, as represented by an individual MP3, and then subdivisible into snippets like ringtones and samples. When recording artists demand that their works be considered as a whole -- like when Radiohead insisted that the iTunes Music Store sell their whole album as a single, indivisible file that you would have to listen to all the way through -- they sound like cranky throwbacks.

The idea of a 60-minute album is as weird in the Internet era as the idea of sitting through 15 hours of Der Ring des Nibelungen was 20 years ago. There are some anachronisms who love their long-form opera, but the real action is in the more fluid stuff that can slither around on hot wax -- and now the superfluid droplets of MP3s and samples. Opera survives, but it is a tiny sliver of a much bigger, looser music market. The future composts the past: old operas get mounted for living anachronisms; Andrew Lloyd Webber picks up the rest of the business.

Personally, I still buy CDs, I still like albums that have a unified sound.'d have to pry my iPhone/iTunes out of my cold dead hands.

How about you? Gilmour or Doctorow or can they somehow coexist?

13 responses so far

Friday Fun: Entire Facebook Staff Laughs As Man Tightens Privacy Settings

Jun 11 2010 Published by under Add category, friday fun, kids today, social media

Priceless, just priceless.

PALO ALTO, CA--All 1,472 employees of Facebook, Inc. reportedly burst out in uncontrollable laughter Wednesday following Albuquerque resident Jason Herrick's attempts to protect his personal information from exploitation on the social-networking site. "Look, he's clicking 'Friends Only' for his e-mail address. Like that's going to make a difference!" howled infrastructure manager Evan Hollingsworth, tears streaming down his face, to several of his doubled-over coworkers. "Oh, sure, by all means, Jason, 'delete' that photo. Man, this is so rich." According to internal sources, the entire staff of Facebook was left gasping for air minutes later when the "hilarious" Herrick believed he had actually blocked third-party ads.

My sincere apologies to the Onion for reprinting their entire article here but it was just too damn funny to resist. Please, to show them support and pageviews, click on over there right now!

On a more serious (and hopeful) note, there seems to be some hope for a middle ground: The Tell-All Generation Learns When Not To, at Least Online

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Friday Fun: New First Year Experience Class: How To Not Be An Asshole

Apr 30 2010 Published by under academia, friday fun, kids today

From The Cronk of Higher Education, New First Year Experience Class: How To Not Be An Asshole, this is very funny.

The six-week class is comprised of five modules:

  • So You're Drunk: A Guide To Quietly Stumbling Home
  • Street Signs Are Not Dorm Room Decorations
  • Streaking: A Fast-Track To Suspension
  • Noises Neighbors Hate To Hear After 10 pm
  • Nine Reasons the Police Will Handcuff You

Current students expressed skepticism about the offering.

"I think it's retarded," remarked Marco Miller, a current first year student. "Sometimes, when I'm mad, I just want to pee on a statue or throw bottles at parked cars. No class is going to convince me that those kinds of things aren't fun. The Dean can suck it!"

Why did no one tell me of this Cronk before?

(Via the blog.)

3 responses so far

What are the Potential Social and Ethical Implications of the $100 Laptop?

That's the topic for the most recent Schubmehl-Prein Prize for Best Essay on Social Impact of Computing.

The Schubmehl-Prein Prize for best analysis of the social impact of a particular aspect of computing technology will be awarded to a student who is a high school junior in academic year 2009-2010. The first-place award is $1,000, the second-place award is $500, and the third-place award is $250. Winning entries are traditionally published in the Association for Computing Machinery's Computers and Society online magazine.

The winners of the 2009 contest are published in the most recent ACM SIGCAS Computers and Society, volume 40, issue 1. (Subscription needed.)

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What do students want from their libraries?

There's a massive libraryland industry organized around figuring out what students want from us in terms of space, collections, services, etc. We survey, observe and focus group them to death. And that's great and incredibly valuable. But sometimes I think we might have a tendency to see what we want when we're observing and they might have a tendency to tell us what they think we want to hear when we survey or focus group.

Personally, I like to do Twitter searches. It's an interesting way to find out what they're saying and thinking about us when they're being candid and brutal and don't think we're paying attention. So I do searches on Steacie, Scott Library, YorkU, YorkU Library and others to gather some intelligence.

I like this one I saw today:

i will never understand how people misread the sign scott library and somehow see student centre instead. HUSH UP!

Or this one (TH refers to the Tim Horton's coffee shops):

I swear that Yorku has implemented a "must have XL TH coffee" as 90% of students here are complying. Ah early mornings at the library.

Of course, we're in our exam period right now, so that really skews the results towards quiet and caffeine, but it's still very interesting and enlightening. Most of the time they bitch and moan, saying nice things and bad things, calling us out, pointing out where we fall down and where we could do things differently. They also reveal some of their own unrealistic expectations, a bit of a sense of entitlement, some student-to-student nastiness, some purposefully naughty behaviour.

Try some searches on your library -- I'd love to hear what students are saying in other places too!

15 responses so far

Blogs as a Knowledge Management Tool in the Classroom

Nice article by Delaney J. Kirk and Timothy L. Johnson on Blogs As A Knowledge Management Tool In The Classroom (via).

Based on their experiences in a combined 22 business courses over the past three years, the authors believe that weblogs (blogs) can be used as an effective pedagogical tool to increase efficiency by the professor, enhance participation and engagement in the course by the students, and create a learning community both within and outside the classroom. In this paper they discuss their decision to use blogs as an integral part of their course design to contribute to both explicit and tacit knowledge. In addition, suggestions and cautions for using this new technology are presented.

The article definitely repays a close reading. I'll hit a few of the high points here.

Reasons to use a class blog:

  • "using a class blog allowed us to be more effective and efficient in communicating with our students"
  • "We also believed it important for all of our students to participate in class discussions but, despite our best efforts, on many days only a small percentage of the students ever had anything to say."
  • "And finally, and most importantly, we wanted to see our students take greater ownership of their own learning, not only for our classes but in their future lives."

The three main types of blogs they highlight were instructor focused, student focused and community focused:

  • Instructor-focused blogs. "The simplest way to use a blog is as a one-stop source where the professor posts syllabi, announcements, assignments, and links to articles and websites for the students to read. Faculty retain ownership of the site and students are expected to access the blog on a regular basis to obtain class information."
  • Learner-focused blogs. "In this approach, the professor would expect the students to be more active participants in the blog. Learning can occur peer-to-peer in addition to teacher-to-student."
  • Community-focused blogs. "A third approach to using blogs is to involve participants from outside the class itself. Students could be required to find, read, and evaluate blogs from "experts" outside class on assigned topics and then to share this information with their classmates."

The section on nettiquette for students is very good:

Another consideration is respect and privacy for others. In one of our classes, students were assigned a consulting project with local small businesses and not-for-profits. If a student writes disparaging comments on his or her blog, it can have an adverse impact on that organization. In addition, it makes it difficult for the professor to convince other businesses to be involved with projects for future classes. This instructor now advises students to speak of these companies (and their management) in general terms which would not specifically identify them.

Two of the overriding themes that students need to understand when expressing themselves on blogs (or other social media) are common sense and common courtesy. One of our students wrote about a variety of psychological disorders and personal problems which she was experiencing. While this information put into context some of her other classroom performance issues, it was not relevant to the assignment and was certainly more information than she needed to provide.

Some of the things they learned:

  • Blogging invites more students into the conversation
  • Blogging extends the conversation
  • Classroom blogging provides a "safe" mechanism for introducing students to social media
  • Blogging makes the students into subject matter experts
  • Blogging helps students take ownership of their own learning

Some selected advantages:

  • Allows "quiet" students a forum for expressing themselves
  • Promotes learning community between and among students and gives them a feeling of ownership
  • Students may put more effort toward their writing knowing it will be read by their peers as well as the professor

And selected disadvantages:

  • Can create more work for the instructor (developing content, reading student blogs and comments)
  • Students may be uncomfortable sharing information through this medium
  • Student writing might be more casual and sloppy compared to turning in hard copies

4 responses so far

From the Archives: If you don't have a blog you don't have a resume (Part I)

I'm away for a couple of days, so I thought I'd fill in a bit with an oldy-buy-goody from February 4, 2009. It ended up being the first of three parts, with the other two being here and here. As usual, the first part got the most readers and comments, with the two after that being decidedly less popular. Go figure.


I was just going to call this post "On Blogging" but I decided I like Robert Scoble's rather provocative statement better. This is not to say that I agree with his rather extreme stance, because I definitely don't, but I think it's an interesting way to frame this rather long list of links I've collected over the last little while.

The point here is to make the case that blogging is good for your career. It's been good for me and it's been good for a lot of other people and I think it has potential for everyone.

Now, is everyone a blogger-in-waiting? Of course not. Would absolutely everyone actually benefit from blogging? Probably not. And if absolutely everyone did take up blogging, would the massive amount of noise generated actually cancel itself out and end up hardly benefiting anyone at all? Probably.

That being said, let's take a look at what's been making me think about blogging lately.

First of all, let's take a look at the Wired article that started all the fuss:

Thinking about launching your own blog? Here's some friendly advice: Don't. And if you've already got one, pull the plug.

Writing a weblog today isn't the bright idea it was four years ago. The blogosphere, once a freshwater oasis of folksy self-expression and clever thought, has been flooded by a tsunami of paid bilge. Cut-rate journalists and underground marketing campaigns now drown out the authentic voices of amateur wordsmiths. It's almost impossible to get noticed, except by hecklers. And why bother? The time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is better spent expressing yourself on Flickr, Facebook, or Twitter.

As Walt Crawford said during his recent OLA presentation, you know for sure that blogs have entered the useful tools stage of the technology life cycle when Wired says that they're dead, buried and useless because it's no longer possible to become a famous blogger overnight.

Well, I don't know about you, but I long ago gave up on being an A-list blog. So, does blogging actually offer anything to the average person? Is it possible to use a blog to build a reputation in a niche area?

Let's see what the blogosphere is telling us about these questions:

What's the motivation for any user-generated content on the web anyways? Why toil away in obscurity, commenting on YouTube videos or gaming sites or anywhere? Because there truly is a reputation economy out there that is divorced from money. And if you can build reputation that way, it's often possible to leverage that for real-world benefit (or just egoboo): Will Work for Praise: The Web's Free-Labor Economy

Beyond brand-hungry strivers, masses of free laborers continue to toil without ever seeing a payday, or even angling for one. Many find compensation in currencies that predate the market economy. These include winning praise from peers, earning an exalted place within a community, scoring thrills from winning, and finding satisfaction in helping others.

Of course, a lot of what happens is merely attention seeking, shouting "me me me" into the void. What's the point of attracting attention?

Attention is easy to measure:

  • You can record the number of people subscribing to your blog.
  • You can count the number of people citing your research papers.
  • You can point to your number of followers on Twitter or your number of friends on Facebook.

However, I do not blog or write research papers merely to grab attention. Instead, I seek to increase my reputation. While attention fluctuates depending on your current actions, reputation builds up over time based on your reliability, your honesty, and your transparency. To build a good reputation, you do not need to do anything extraordinary: you just need to be consistent over a long time.

So, blogging can build your reputation.

What does a library school student have to say about the benefits. These ideas are certainly applicable to anyone starting out in a new career or even faced with a potential job hunt mid-career:

A list of reasons why every library school student should become a blogger:

  1. Self-promotion.
    Let's face it: when you apply for your first full-time gig after graduation, your potential employer will be going through a stack of CVs from people just like you, and every single candidate will have an MLIS, and the vast majority of them will have some experience working in the field. If you don't make your CV stand out, it will never make it to the top of the pile, so you need something to show how special you are. Blogging shows that you're interested in the field and have ideas to contribute, so when you include your blog's URL on your CV, employers will take notice...

  2. Becoming part of the community
    As students, we're already part of a community; library programs tend to be small enough that we get to know most of our classmates, and this is important since we will likely work with many of these people in the future. But wouldn't it be great to have a network of contacts outside of school, made up of people who share your interests and are able to provide advice and support?...

  3. The opportunity to put your thoughts into writing
    If you're like me and enjoy writing, then keeping a blog is a fun way to organize your thoughts. If you're not like me, then keeping a blog is a way to encourage yourself to practice your writing.

There also seem to be a lot of caveats to the whole blogging thing in academia, though. Are the downsides real or just myths?

Blogging is dangerous for non-tenured faculty: Blogging will not get you tenure. Neither will giving talks worldwide. Tenure is usually granted because you were able to hold a decent research program, and you showed respect for the students. However, if blogging prevents you from getting tenure, something is very wrong with your blogging or your school...

Serious researchers have no time for blogging: Indeed, there is always another paper to write and more time to spend at the library, isn't there? Let me quote Downes on this: If you are spending time in meetings, spending time traveling or commuting to work, spending time reading books and magazines, spending time telephoning people (or worse, on hold, or playing phone tag) then you are wasting time that you could be spending connecting to people online.

Blogging distracts you away from the research: bloggers do not tend to write about their latest research results. We tend to write about ideas that will not make it into our research papers. Is it a distraction? It might be, but does blogging cause you to lose focus in your research? I doubt it...

That's it for now. Next time we'll have four more posts that take a look at the concrete benefits of blogging.

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Joel, Mitch. Six pixels of separation: Everyone is connected. Connect your business to everyone. New York: Business Plus, 2009. 288pp.

I was chatting with a colleague during the long commute home the other day and he noticed I was reading this book. "What's it like?" he asked.

"Clay Shirky lite," I replied.

And that's about right. In Six Pixels of Separation, Mitch Joel comes to grips with the effects of social media on marketing, media, sales and promotions, he covers a lot of the same ground as in Clay Shirky's classic Here Comes Everybody (review). Glib, conversational, fast-paced bite-sized -- an easy read for sure -- Joel does a solid job of translating Shirky's more scholarly approach to a business audience.

Which is more or less the message I tried to convey to my commuting colleague above -- that Joel really doesn't cover much new ground for anybody that's more than passing familiar with the highways and byways of social media. If you even have a couple of vaguely similar books under your belt, most of the material in this one will be familiar.

But, that's not entirely the point here. While mostly not original, this book does a terrific job of bringing it all together in a readable, fun package, a package that really focused on concrete strategies and shorter-term tactics that can really make a difference in an entrepreneur's or organization's efforts to promote itself and it's message in the modern marketing context. And by organization or entrepreneur, I mean libraries and librarians too. While you have to be careful in translating strategies for the commercial world into the non-commercial, there's a lot here that's interesting and relevant.

On the down side, Joel doesn't quite manage to avoid the worst pitfalls of most business books -- relentless self-promotion, over-hyping or over-selling ideas and constant repetition of ideas in every chapter as if the author expects readers to only catch the occasional paragraph in between Tweets. Even though Joel emphasizes authenticity so much, there are a few places where he gets kind of carried away with congratulating himself and his friends for doing such a good job that he sounds a bit fake at times. These points are largely quibbles.

However, If you've read more than a couple social media books or if you follow a lot of blogs on the topic, this book might not be for you. As I said, it covers a lot of ground well and does a good job of bringing a lot of ideas together, but you might not find it original enough. For those that haven't dipped more than a toe or two into the social media world, this would be a good place to start.

As for library collections, this would fit well in any collection supporting a business or entrepreneurial community, be it an academic or public library. There's not enough technology content per se to make it that appropriate for scitech libraries, although it wouldn't be too out of place and may be interesting reading for the more IT oriented.

Joel, Mitch. Six pixels of separation: Everyone is connected. Connect your business to everyone. New York: Business Plus, 2009. 288pp.


Ok, now that the main part of the review is done, for those that are interested I'm going to list in point form a lot of the main ideas in the book. Think of this as notes for the My Job in 10 Years book that I'm sharing with you. And apologies for the great length.

  • In terms of using social media channels for self-promotion: "if I can do this, so can you" p11
  • Online channels focus most on self-actualization. p19
  • "how you build trust in your brand, your business, and yourself is going to be an important part of how your [organization] is going to adapt and evolve"
  • Participate to build your brand. p23 Patience is a virtue when building trust. p32
  • Add value to the conversation with an authentic voice. p39, 43
  • Ask why you really want to participate in the global, social conversation, what do you want to get out of it p50
  • 5 C's of online engagement: connecting/creating/conversations/community/commerce (er, ok, not so relevant)
  • Blogging (and being involved in a blogging community or community of bloggers, commenters and readers) is a great way to connect to customers, connect customers to each other (p77, 80, 84)
  • You don't control your brand. (p93)
  • Our job as organizers of online communities can be to facililtate real-world meet-ups (ch. 6)
  • Create your personal brand, your organization's brand (the library brand), create reputation both within the profession and within your organization. Building our personal brands as professionals within the library organization also builds the brand of the library organization. (p126, 132)
  • build a brand: give abundantly, help others, build relationships. (p135)
  • Online presense needs to evolve and add more aspects, evolution favours the content creator. Offer a holistic brand experience (p163-64)
  • Build community: be sincere, be helpful, be credible (p168-72)
  • Take advantage of the wisdom of the crowds of your patrons (p190-91)
  • We are going from mass media to "me" media. (ch 10)
  • Find your niche -- what do you do best. p194
  • Embrace the digital, there's no going back. (p200)
  • Strategies to embrace the digital (p208-): centralize all your information, there are multiple sides to every story, connecting in not engaging, be responsive and fast, let people steal your ideas, go out on the fringe
  • Engagement is almost as tough to create and nurture online as trust. (p210)
  • What works? Not advertising, but content. Content is everything. (p216-218, 232)
  • Everything is mobile now, we are digital nomads. The key thing is to deliver content and engagement, targeted, to mobile devices. Think how we need to be less intrusive in mobile marketing, not more so. New device = new rules. (p236-8, 249-52)
  • The only thing that we really know about the value of digital content is that it's not the same as traditional. Can't charge the same. (p256, 259)
  • "the problem is that all new business models look weird and act weird because they are weird" (p.260)
  • Pushing out the horizons, ten trends: personal brands rise, attention crash, micro social networks, levels of connections, analytics and research, content as media, consumer generated brands, virtual worlds, web and mobile connect, openness ...will make us very private. (p264-272)
  • "Six Pixels of Separation is not about how you can connect your [organization] more efficiently in these online channels to be successful. It's too late for that. In this world of interconnectedness, the bigger question is, how are you going to spread your story, connect, and add value to your life and the people whose lives you touch" (p273)

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The future of bookstores is the...

...present of public and academic libraries?

What got me thinking along these lines most recently was the recent Clay Shirky blog post,
Local Bookstores, Social Hubs, and Mutualization. It's a pretty good post that puts a particular kind of physical retail into the context of current online retail and media shift realities.

In the first section of the post, Shirky basically outlines the trouble that physical bookstores are in, caught between the rock of the competition of online/big box store and the hard place of the coming media singularity.

Like record stores and video rental places, physical bookstores simply can't compete for breadth of offering and, also like the social changes around music and moving images, the internet is strengthening rather than weakening the ability of niches and sub-cultures to see themselves reflected in long-form writing.


This sort of commitment to bookstores is a normative argument, an argument about how things ought to be. It is also an argument that might succeed, as long as it re-imagines what bookstores are for and how they are supported, rather than merely hoping that if enough nice people seem really concerned, the flow of time will reverse.

In the next section, he talks about the social aspects of good bookstores that the stores are currently unable to monetize. This is really the core of the piece -- that physical space offers something that virtual space cannot and is therefore worth supporting and preserving.

The local bookstore creates all kinds of value for its community, whether its providing community bulletin boards, putting rocking chairs in the kids section, hosting book readings, or putting benches out in front of the store. Local writers, harried parents, couples on dates, all get value from a store's existence as a inviting physical location, value separate from its existence as a transactional warehouse for books.

The store doesn't get paid for this value. It gets paid for selling books. That ecosystem works -- when it works -- as long as the people sitting in those rocking chairs buy enough books, on average, to cover the added cost of having the chairs in the first place. The blows to that model have been coming for some time, from big box retailers stocking best sellers to online sales (especially second-hand sales) to the spread of ebooks to, now, price wars.


If the money from selling books falls below a certain threshold, the stores will cut back on something -- hours, staff, rocking chairs -- and their overall value will fall, meaning marginally fewer patrons and sales, threatening still more cutbacks. There may be a future in which they offer less value and make less money in some new and stable equilibrium, but beneath a certain threshold, the only remaining equilibrium is Everything Must Go. Given the margins, many local bookstores are near that threshold today.

All of this makes it clear what those bookstores will have to do if the profits or revenues of the core transaction fall too far: collect revenue for the side-effects.


The core idea is to appeal to that small subset of customers who think of bookstores as their "third place", alongside home and work. These people care about the store's existence in physical (and therefore social) space; the goal would be to generate enough revenue from them to make the difference between red and black ink, and to make the new bargain not just acceptable but desirable for all parties. A small collection of patron saints who helped keep a local bookstore open could be cheaply smothered in appreciation by the culture they help support.

Now comes the interesting part for our purposes -- what should the owners of physical bookstores do about the problem and what role does the larger community play in that transformation.

Treating the old side-effects as the new core value would in many cases require non-profit status. This would push small stores who tried it towards the NPR model, with a mix of endowment, sponsorship, and donations, a choice that might be anathema to the current owners. However, the history of businesses that traffic in physical delivery of media has been grim these last few years. (This is the story of your local record store, RIP.)


Even when the current recession ends, it's hard to imagine vibrant re-population of most of the empty commercial spaces, and it's easy to imagine scenarios in which commercial districts suffer more: consolidation among pharmacy chains, an uptick in electronic banking, the end of our love affair with frozen yogurt, any of these could keep many street level spaces empty, whatever happens to the larger economy.

If commercial space does follow the warehouse-and-loft pattern, then we'll need to find ways to re-purpose those spaces. Unlike lofts, however, street level living has never been a big draw, but turning those spaces into mixed commercial-and-communal use may offer a viable alternative.


All of which is to say that trying to save local bookstores from otherwise predictably fatal competition by turning some customers into members, patrons, or donors is an observably crazy idea. However, if the sober-minded alternative is waiting for the Justice Department to anoint the American Booksellers Association as a kind of OPEC for ink, even crazy ideas may be worth a try.

So, the idea is that bookstores are basically dead in the water, with competition and change on all sides. I largely agree with Shirky here, that most people will tend toward lower prices and greater convenience (ie. see Walmart & Amazon) and that this will influence a long term trend that will be difficult for physical retail outlets to combat. What he outlines is a classic case of the tragedy of the commons, where pursuing one aspect of self-interest actually harms a resource for the whole community, including of course, the set of people who began the cycle by acting in their own interest.

What I find curious is that much of what Shirky suggests as the future of bookstores is actually the past, the present and the future of libraries. Pretty well everything he suggests from cafes to hosting community events to providing relaxed social spaces are already what libraries do in their communities, whether those communities are towns and cities or academic institutions. Libraries already provide content (such as books, magazines/journals and music) to their communities at no direct cost to their patrons.

Most communities also have community centres which also provide a lot of the services that he's talking about.

Public and academic libraries are mutualized resources -- they literally belong to their communities already. If we as a society want to expand the realm of public spaces, to reclaim previously commercialized spaces and integrate them into the public sphere, there's already a template in place for those public spaces. Building and investing in our libraries and community centres seems like a great place to start.

I've always thought that Shirky was one of the smartest and most sensible commentators out there so I find it unfortunate that he has such a library blindspot. It's also unfortunate that he hasn't really engaged in conversation about the post, either at the blog (where the post doesn't allow comments although most others do) or on his Twitter account.

(A personal note here: I almost never shop online. I choose to live in a big city, so if I can buy something in person from a local business I do, even if it costs a bit more in time or money. I have an interest in the economic health of my local community, in the supply of a wide range of employment and the availability of a variety of goods and services.)

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