Archive for the 'web 2.0' category

From the Archives: Everything is miscellaneous: The power of the new digital disorder by David Weinberger

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, is from August 14, 2007. (Weinberger left a detailed comment at the original post, for those that are interested.)


David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous is one of 2007's big buzz books. You know, the book all the big pundits read and obsess over. Slightly older examples include books like Wikinomics or Everything Bad Is Good for You. People read them and mostly write glowing, fairly uncritical reviews. Like I said, Weinberger is the latest incarnation of the buzz book in the libraryish world. So, is the book as praiseworthy as the buzz would indicate or is it overrated? Well, both, actually. This is really and truly a thought provoking book, one that bursts with ideas on every page, a book I really found myself engaging and arguing with constantly, literally on every page many times. In that sense, it is a completely, wildly successful book: it got me thinking, and thinking deeply, about many of the most important issues in the profession, at times arguing every point on every page. On the other hand, there were times when it seemed a bit misguided and superficial in its coverage of the library world, almost gloatingly dismissive in a way.

So, I think I'll take a bit of a grumpy, devil's advocate point of view in this review. I am usually not shy pointing out flaws in the books I review, but this will probably be the first time I'm really giving what may seem to be a very negative review.

Before I get going, I should talk a little about what the book is actually about. Weinberger's main idea is that the new digital world has revolutionized the way that we are able to organize our stuff. In the physical world, physical stuff needs to be organized in an orderly, concrete way. Each thing in it's one, singular place. Now, however, digital stuff can be ordered in a million different ways. Each person can order their digital stuff anyway they want, and stuff can be placed in infinite different locations as needed. This paradigm shift is, according to Weinberger, a great thing because it's so much more useful to be able to find what we need if we're not limited in how we organize in in the physical world. In other words, our shelves are infinite and changeable rather than limited and static. Think rather than books on a bookstore shelf.

Weinberger is sort of the anti-Michael Gorman (or perhaps Gorman is the anti-Weinberger?) in that the former sees all change brought about by the "new digital disorder" as almost by definition a good thing. Whereas Gorman sees any challenge to older notions of publishing, authority and scholarship as heresy, with the heretics to be quickly burnt at the stake. Now, I'm not that fond of either extreme but I am generally much more sympathetic to Weinberger's position; the idea that we need to adjust to and take advantage of the change that is happening, to resist trying to bend it to our old-fogey conceptions and to go with the flow.

So, what are my complaints? I think I'm more or less going to take the book as it unfolds and make the internal debates I had with Weinberger external and see where that takes us. Hopefully, they're not all just a cranky old guy pining for the good old days but that we can all learn something from talking about some of the spots where I felt he could have used better explanations or substituted real comparisons for the setting up and demolishing of straw men.

The first thing that bothers me is when he compares bookstores to the Web/Amazon (starting p. 8). Bookstores are cripplingly limited because books can only be on one shelf at a time while Amazon can assign as many subjects as they need plus they have amazing data mining algorithms that drive their recommendation engines, feeding you stuff you might want to read based on what you've bought in the past and/or are looking at now. First of all, most bookstores these days have tables with selected books (based on subject, award winning, whatever) scattered all over the place, highlighting books that they think deserve (or publishers pay) to be singled out. On the other hand, who hasn't clicked on one of Amazon's subject links only to be overwhelmed by zillions of irrelevant items. It works both ways -- physical and miscellaneous are different; both have advantages and disadvantages. After all, the online booksellers only get about 20% of the total business, so people must find that there's a compelling reason to go to physical bookstores.

Starting on page 16, he begins a comparison of the Dewey decimal system libraries use to physically order their books with the subject approach Amazon and other online systems use. I find this comparison more than a bit misleading, almost to the point where I think Weinberger is setting up a straw man to be knocked down. Now, I'm not even a cataloguer and I know that Dewey is a classification system, a way to order books physically on shelves. It has abundant limitations (which Weinberger is more than happy to point out ad nauseum) but it mostly satisfies basic needs. One weakness is, of course, that it uses a hopelessly out of date subject classification system as a basis for ordering. Comparing it to the ability to tag and search in a system like Amazon or is, however, comparing apples to oranges. Those systems aren't really classification systems but subject analysis systems. The real comparison, to be fair, to compare apples to apples, should have been Amazon to the Library of Congress Subject Headings. While LCSH and the way it is implemented are far from perfect, I think that if you compare the use of subject headings in most OPACs to Amazon, you will definitely find that libraries don't fare as poorly as comparing Amazon to Dewey and card catalogues. And page 16 isn't the only place he get the Dewey/card catalogue out for a tussle. He goes after Dewey again starting on page 47; on 55-56 he talks as if the card catalogue is the ultimate in library systems; on 57 he refers to Dewey as a "law of physical geography;" on page 58 he again compares a classification system to subject analysis. And on page 60 he doesn't even seem to understand that even card catalogues are able to have subject catalogues. The constant apples/oranges comparison continued for a number of pages, with another outbreak on page 61-2, as he once again complains that Dewey can only represent an item in one place while digital can represent in many places; really the fact that Weinberger doesn't realize that libraries use subject headings as well as classification and that an item can have more than one subject heading, well I find that a bit embarrassing for him, especially at the length he does on about it. Really, David, we get it. Digital good, physical bad. Tagging good, Dewey bad. Amazon good, libraries & bookstores bad.

It was at this point that I thought to myself that in reality, even Amazon has a classification system like Dewey, in fact they probably have a lot of them. For example, the hard drives on their servers have file allocation tables which point to the physical location of their data files. At a higher level, their relational databases have primary keys which point to various data records. Even their warehouses have classification systems, as their databases must be able to locate items on physical shelves. Compare using a subject card catalogue to find books on WWII with being dropped in the middle of a Amazon warehouse! He sets up the card catalogue as a straw man and he just keeps knocking it down and it get tiresome that way he just keeps on taking easy shots.

Weinberger also misunderstands the way people use cookbooks (p.44). Sure, if people only used cookbooks as a way of slavishly copying recipes for making dinner, then, yeah, the web would put them out of business. But, people use cookbooks for a lot of reasons: to learn techniques, to get insight into a culture and way of life, to get a quick overview of a cuisine or a style of cooking, as a source basic information for improvising, to read for fun, to get a insight into the personality and style of a chef, to get an insight into another historical period. The richness of a good cookbook isn't limited by just recipes.

I have to admit that at this point I was tempted to abandon the book altogether, to brand it as all hype and no real substance, a hoax of a popular business book perpetrated on an unexpecting librarian audience. Fortunately, I didn't. There were more annoyances, but the book got a lot stronger as it went along, more insightful and more penetrating in it's analysis. However, I think I'll stay grumpy. (hehe.)

One of the more annoying arguments (p. 144) that I often encounter in techy sources is that the nature of learning and the evaluation of learning has changed so radically that we will no longer want to bother evaluating students on what they actually know and can do themselves, but rather will only test them on what they can do in teams or can use the web to find out. In other words, not testing without cell phones and the Internet at the ready. Now, I'm not one to say that we should only test students on memorized facts and regurgitated application of rote formulas; and I think you'd be hard-pressed to find many schools that only do that. From my experience, collaboration and group work, research and consultation are all encouraged at all levels of schooling and make up a significant part of most students' evaluation. Students have plenty of opportunity to prove they can work in teams and can find the information they need in a networked environment. But, I still think that it's important for students to actually know something themselves, without consultation, and to be able to perform important tasks themselves, without collaboration. Certainly, the level of knowledge and tasks will vary with the age/grade of the students and the course of study they are pursuing. If someone is to contribute to the social construction of knowledge they, well, need to already have something to contribute. In fact, if everyone always only relied on someone else to know something, then the pool of knowledge would dry up. The book asks some important questions: what is the nature of expertise, what is an expert, how do you become an expert, are these terms defined socially or individually, how is expert knowledge advanced, how is expert knowledge communicated? A scientist who pushes the frontiers of knowledge must actually know where they are to begin with. At some level, an engineer must be able to do engineering, not just facilitate team building exercises.

And little bits of innumeracy bug me too. On page 217 he's trying to make the point that the online arXiv has way more readers than the print Nature. ArXiv has "40,000 new papers every year read by 35,000 people" and "Nature has a circulation of 67,500 and claims 660,000 readers -- about 19 days of arxiv's readers." Comparing these two sets of numbers is a totally false comparison. What you really need to do is compare the total download figures for arXiv to the total download figures for Nature PLUS an estimate for the total paper readership. For arXiv does he think all 40K papers are read by each of the 35K readers for a potential 1.4 billion article reads? The true article readership is probably much, much smaller than that. As for the print, the most recent Nature (v744i7148) has 14 articles and letters; for a guestimate for a whole year print, multiply by 52 weeks and 660,000 readers equals a potential 480 million article reads; probably not everyone reads each article, but at least most probably at least glance at each article. For the print only. He doesn't even seem to realize that Nature, like virtually every scientific journal, has an online version with a potentially huge readership, which Weinberg in no way takes into account. It's clear to me that, at least based on the numbers he gives, what I can actually say about the comparison between the readerships for Nature and arXiv is limited but that they may not be too dissimilar. Not the point he wants to make, though. Again, the real numbers he should have dug up, but did not seem to want to use, was the total article downloads for each source.

Now, I'm not implying that print is a better format for science communication than online -- I've predicted in my My Job in 10 Years series that print will more or less disappear within the next 10 years -- but please, know what you're talking about when you explore these issues. Know the landscape, compare apples to apples.

I find it frustrating that in a book Weinberg dedicates "To the Librarians" he doesn't take a bit more time to find out what librarians actually do, how libraries work in the 2007 rather than 1950. (See p. 132 for some cheap shots) But in the end, I have to say it was worth reading. If I disagreed violently with something on virtually every page, well, at least it got me thinking; I also found many brilliant insights and much solid analysis. A good book demands a dialogue of it's readers, and this one certainly demanded that I sit up and pay attention and think deeply about my own ideas. This is an interesting, engaging, important book that explores some extremely timely information trends and ideas, one that I'm sure that I haven't done justice to in my grumpiness, one that at times I find myself willfully misunderstanding and misrepresenting (misunderestimating?). I fault myself for being unable to get past it's shortcomings in this review; I also fault myself for being unable to see the forest for the trees, for being overly annoyed at what are probably trivial straw men. Read this book for yourself.

(And apologies for what must be my longest, ramblingest, most disorganized, crankiest, least objective review. I'm sure there's an alternate aspect of the quantum multiverse where I've written a completely different review.)

Weinberger, David. Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. New York: Times Books, 2007. 277pp.

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From the Archives: Sharing, Privacy and Trust in a Networked World by OCLC

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of Sharing, Privacy and Trust in a Networked World, is from November 19, 2011.


OCLC's newest state of the library world/environmental scan report was published a few months ago: Sharing, Privacy and Trust in a Networked World. This one focuses on the potential roles of social networks for libraries and the implications they might have on our practices and norms.

It's an extremely interesting and provocative report, one that inspires us to move forward with new initiatives while at the same time setting some pretty daunting challenges before us.

The practice of using a social network to establish and enhance relationships based on some common ground--shared interests, related skills, or a common geographic location--is as old as human societies, but social networking has flourished due to the ease of connecting on the Web. This OCLC membership report explores this web of social participation and cooperation on the Internet and how it may impact the library's role, including:

  • The use of social networking, social media, commercial and library services on the Web
  • How and what users and librarians share on the Web and their attitudes toward related privacy issues
  • Opinions on privacy online
  • Libraries' current and future roles in social networking

The report is based on a survey (by Harris Interactive on behalf of OCLC) of the general public from six countries--Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States--and of library directors from the U.S. The research provides insights into the values and social-networking habits of library users.

As it happens, I was lucky enough to receive a print copy in the mail a month or so ago without even asking, no doubt with the idea that I'm some sort of opinion leader in these things. Be that as it may, as with most of the free books (and there's not many) that come through here I feel compelled to comment.

In this particular case, I do have some overall ideas about the implications of the report but I'll get to those later. First off, I think I'll tackle some of the statistics that are presented, highlighting what struck me as interesting, surprising or unusual. I'll also comment on some of the interviews with their librarian panel of experts: a good list, rounding up some of the usual suspects but also quite a few voices that were unfamiliar to me.

The sections include the survey responses (sections 1-3), interviews with US library directors (4), libraries and social networking survey responses (5), interviews with the panel of expert librarians (6), report highlights (7) and conclusion (8).


  • Page 1-6: Interesting that 20% of those surveyed had created content online. A bit larger than I would have thought, but if you include flickr, commenting on blogs, etc., not that surprising.

  • 1-20, 21. People are reading more but increasingly online. Exactly what I would have thought. The web is still largely a text medium and reading text will remain an important part of an increasingly diverse online experience.

  • 2-12 to 2-15. Combining the various language/national groups on the reporting of the favourite social networking site is probably not useful. Comparing the raw percentages for Mixi and MySpace is like comparing apples to oranges.

  • 2-17. No surprise. We use the social networks our friends use. It's like hanging out at the same mall that our friends hang out at.

  • 2-38. In the last two years, it seems only a small percentage of people have actually stopped using a particular social networking site after initially joining in the last two years. Somehow I thought that people would be trying out a bunch of different sites and only sticking with the ones they liked or where they discovered most of their friends.

  • 3-6. It seems that most people use the same password on all the sites they inhabit. There is a significant number (16%) that always use different passwords. I use a small number of configurable passwords over and over and find that the best for me. For example, I never have to write a password down anywhere, I can just remember them all.

  • 3-11. Most people are more comfortable showing their true personality in person while a significant minority are more comfortable showing their true personality online. But what does it mean to share your true personality online. Does it mean that the trolls are totally liberated to be the idiots they truly are? Do they feel constrained by civilized society in person? On the other hand, do shy or awkward people find a healthy and constructive freedom to express things online that they don't in person?

  • 3-36 to 3-38. Really interesting numbers here about how people feel about disclosing their personal information to the library and the trade-offs between privacy and personalized services.

  • 4-13. Interesting. Most people join social networks because they are fun or because that's where their friends are. Library directors join them because they are useful; fun and friends come later.

  • 5-3. Although the population expresses a low level of interest in participating in library hosted social networking activities, I'm not too concerned. After all, a small percentage of a large population can be quite a few people. If only 10% of the 55,000+ population of York publishes creative work or contributes to a discussion group, well, that's 5-6000 people.

  • 5-4 to 5-7. Only 10-20% think the library should build social networking sites. We should be learning or information centres. As if there can be no learning or information in social networking sites...

  • Section 6. Lots of interesting commentary here by the panel of librarian experts. Mostly about how libraries have no choice but to engage students in social networks, that if we don't find a role in the 2.0 world we will lose a generation. Also about the conflicts between security and access. Good, thoughtful stuff here, a nice range of opinion, some dissenting voices to what otherwise might have been groupthink.

  • 7-8. Both users and library directors are skeptical about libraries' role in social networks. Not surprising. We're in the middle.

  • 8-2 to 8-3. I like that concept that they mention here, messy participation. Social networks are diverse and chaotic, not interoperable in any meaningful way. But they are also incredibly compelling and engaging, almost as a function of their messiness. Privacy and security are evolving concepts, perhaps even in opposition to the messiness.

  • 8-6 to 8-8. The message? We have a challenge facing us.

The twin challenges we face:

  • My core assumption is that libraries can have something compelling to offer our patrons in social network spaces. Unfortunately, any entry into social networks won't be exploiting a need that that our patrons are clamouring for. We'll be ahead of them here, and that's always a challenge. We need to find a way to make the library messier and looser, to encourage participation, to open the doors and engage these new spaces in a way that our patrons will find compelling. There's nothing sadder than an empty social network. We'll need ingenuity and patience, a willingness to try things, a tolerance for failure. The idea nurture a lot of different ideas, some of which grow into successful programs. We'll need a willingness to find partners on our campuses and within our broader communities. We need to work with those partners to build the social spaces that our students will need and use.

  • The second challenge is privacy. We need to reconcile the clean, secure, private library with the web of messy participation and customized services. We've always seen patron privacy as one of our core, bedrock values but we're going to need to think about putting more of the privacy decisions into the hands of our patrons. If we want them to trust us, to open up to our spaces, we going to need to trust them a little bit too. And we'll probably need to make the first move on this one too.

From page vii of the report:

What is it that motivates, even inspires, millions of users to spend hours online, not searching for information, but creating information, building content and establishing online communities? What drives users to not only contribute information, but to contribute "themselves," creating detailed personal profiles on social sites and sharing that information to establish new relationships with hundreds of new virtual friends?

It's the same thing that motivates people to contribute to open sources software projects. It's fun. They (we) enjoy the "work" we do on the web. We find actively contributing and participating more enjoyable than most TV or films or books or newspaper or magazines that are out there so that's what we choose to spend our time on. How do we make contributing to our social spaces that much fun?

So, read the report. Think about it, engage with it very closely and carefully. There's lots of information to digest and ideas to ponder. The path to the future may or may not be in the report but it certainly has a lot of food for thought about one path forward: making libraries socially networked teaching and learning spaces where students can share and discover. Actually, I don't think that strays too far from what we've always seen as our core mission.

(Review copy of report supplied by the publisher)

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Why bother having a resume?

I'm not usually a big fan of Seth Godin's guruish pronouncements, but I thought this one was a pretty good encapsulation of what it means to be a public professional or a public academic in the 21st century.

In other words, Why bother having a resume?

If you don't have a resume, what do you have?

How about three extraordinary letters of recommendation from people the employer knows or respects?

Or a sophisticated project they can see or touch?

Or a reputation that precedes you?

Or a blog that is so compelling and insightful that they have no choice but to follow

And we shouldn't kid ourselves that we aren't all public professionals these days. Even if the public we're focusing on isn't the whole world but rather the public of our communities or our institutions.

Sure, you still really do have to have a resume of some sort, but online reputation and presence more important than ever -- and that includes things like project portfolios, blogs, Twitter feeds and all the rest.

And no, this isn't a call to "watch what you say."

It's a call to authenticity.

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Interview with The Tweeting Chancellor, Holden Thorp of the University of North Carolina

Welcome to the latest instalment in my occasional series of interviews with people in the world of higher education and scholarly publishing.

This time around it's a bit different with the circumstances being a little unusual. Last week I did a back-of-the-envelope tweet about the Twitter habits of senior academic administrators and my experiences creating a list of those administrators. The uses of social networks in education is an area that really interests me and the habits of those senior administrators was something I'd been wondering about.

Well, my old blogging buddy Stephanie Willen Brown saw the post and tweeted it in her capacity as the head of the UNC Journalism and Mass Communications Library, copying the Twitter handle of Holden Thorp, the chancellor of UNC. Well, to make a long story short, Chancellor Thorp saw the tweet and he and I ended up connecting for a short interview.

I'd like to thank Chancellor Thorp for agreeing to this interview and also props to Stephanie for making the connection.



Q1. When did you start tweeting?

In December of 2010. Here's a blog entry that explains a lot of my interest and approach to Twitter.

(JD: Here's Chancellor Thorp's handle: @chanthorp.)

Q2. What was your initial rationale for getting into the whole social media arena, Twitter especially?

We have a few students who are very interested in higher education - @elizakern, @kkiley, and @cryanbarber. They were putting a lot of interesting student perspectives about events in higher ed on Twitter. I was lurking reading their stuff, because it was less formal than what would end up in the student newspaper, and I thought very insightful. I got tired of typing their names in all the time and decided to set up an account for myself. As described in the blog post mentioned above, I didn't want to set up a phony account.

Q3. How do you decide what to tweet? How do you balance promoting your institution and it's activities with the kind of authentic, personal touch that this kind of platform really requires?

I try to create a balance. Certainly sending out links of positive news about the university or the students is a winner. Innovation is my area so I send out stuff about that and follow a lot of people who write in the area like Steven Johnson, Atul Gawande, Steve Case, Lesa Mitchell, Rick Florida, Dan Pink, Maureen Farrell. I retweet a lot of their stuff. I retweet stuff from the students, but only if I have time to go through the links that are in the tweet carefully. I send out things about our sports teams, but try to stay positive (see below). If I'm at a non-revenue sporting event and there is no other person tweeting, I will live-tweet the game. On the personal side, I send a little bit of stuff about my kids out and a few family events from time to time.

Q4. The Internet can be a bit of a rough and tumble place at times. Have you had any less than wonderful experiences and what's your theory on how to handle such things?

Sports offers a lot of possibilities for getting in trouble on the internet in general, and on Twitter in particular. I sent out a tweet on the day of the Duke-Carolina game that was over the line in kidding Duke students. I shouldn't have done it and I apologized, although I did get a lot of new followers that day. Unfortunately, controversy gets you a lot of attention online and that is a big danger that everyone should be aware of.

Q5. Finally, would you recommend getting on Twitter to other senior academic administrators?

Yes. I cannot think of a better way to stay in touch with the students and understand their perspective. @kstate_pres and @ are both doing a really good job.

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From the Archives: Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, is from May 18, 2008.


It seems that at least half the time I mention this book to someone interested in the way the web is changing social patterns the response is, "Oh, I tried to read it but just couldn't finish." It's an interesting response in many ways, one that tells us a lot about this book. Mostly it tells us that we're dealing with a seriously flawed book, one that has a lot of very interesting ideas in it, but that the presentation leaves a bit to be desired.

Personally, it did indeed take me a long time to read this book, at least a couple of months, reading a chapter here and there and putting it down for weeks at a time before taking it up again. It also took me a long time to get around to writing this review; I finished the book in the fall and I'm only just writing this now in May.

The topic? The affects of the sharing and collaboration promoted by web 2.0 technologies and how they will affect mainly businesses, but also other parts of society. Blogs, wikis, recommendation systems, user-generated comments, copyright, intellectual property, all the regular stuff. Interestingly, though, this was one of the first books to really tackle these issues and bring them to wide attention in the business community.

The issues? Typically of hype-oriented business strategy books, many of the claims seem wildly over-inflated and unsupported by facts or reality. The book is also incredibly repetitive, seemingly so that each paragraph, page or chapter could stand on its own. It's a strategy I see in a lot of business books: assuming that the reader has an incredibly short attention span and wants to get the main point just from reading a few pages or a chapter or two. At the same time, of course, no one's going to pay hardcover prices for a couple of chapters. So, just repeat and rephrase the main points constantly in each chapter. I find it kind of scary that there's a new expanded edition that's just gone on sale.

The book also overplays a lot of its points -- a lot of times I thought there was a bit of almost naivete involved, that the authors couldn't see the downside of some of the ideas they promoted. Globalization, deskilling, "race to the bottom," glorification of CEOs and top executives, the 100:10:1 phenomenon in online communities, a certain disdain for anything not new, hip or cool. An unawareness of the potential for tragedies of the commons in some of the areas. The idea that what are currently fringe activities are inevitably going to become dominant in the mainstream. The authors only spent very scant and almost dismissive attention to the human cost of economic paradigm shifts.

Frustrating, yes. On the other hand, there are a lot of good reasons to stick it out and read the whole book. It does make a lot of very good points about the benefits of openness and sharing for businesses and organizations of all types and sizes. There were actually many times while reading the book that I thought that if I could give one single book to every faculty member at my institution, this would be it. It so completely encompasses what is best about the web's ability to break down barriers and promote sharing and collaboration (not necessarily primary virtues in academia) that it would be interesting to see the effects of 1200+ faculty members all reading it together. This book is really a call to action for sharing and collaboration.

Read this book, the chapter on sharing and collaboration in eScience/Science 2.0 is very good. Be persistent and you'll make it all the way through. Read it, argue, engage and debate.

Tapscott, Don and Anthony D. Williams. Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. New York: Portfolio, 2006. 295pp. ISBN-10: 1591843677

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From the Archives: The big switch: Rewiring the world, from Edison to Google by Nicholas Carr

Mar 20 2011 Published by under book review, science books, social media, web 2.0

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, is from June 22, 2008.


This is a book with a profoundly split personality. It's like two books warring in the bosom of one volume. It's a bit hopeful and visionary but it's also cranky and complaining.

And it's not like the author Nicholas Carr is any stranger to controversy. He's famous for stirring up a hornets nest in the business IT community with the article IT Doesn't Matter in the May 2003 Harvard Business Review, followed up by the book Does IT Matter? Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage. More recently, he's quite infamous for the Atlantic Monthly article Is Google Making Us Stupid?

So, he's a guy that doesn't pull any punches.

So, what's The Big Switch all about? Ostensibly, it a book that compares the rise of utility computing with the development of the delivery of electric power to the USA as a mass utility. In other words, during the late 19th century, electricity went from something that mostly industrial plants provided for themselves in dedicated generators to something that a centralized utility provided for everyone, for a price. And so computing power has evolved as well. Once upon a time, computing power was chained to a single organization via a mainframe computer or to a single desktop via a PC. Carr's book describes the incredible recent developments where so many companies are now outsourcing their IT and raw computing needs to utility-like providers with vast server farms. Cloud computing, it's often called. Computing power and processes are commoditized the same way electricity was a century or more earlier. Amazon Web Services, a lot of what Google does with products like Docs. This was a very interesting part of the book. I knew a bit about utility computing but not that much and I certainly didn't know a lot about the electrification of the continent.

That's the first half of the book.

The second half is a darker look at the world of Web 2.0. Carr takes a very hard look a the wide-eyed optimism so prevalent among web-heads. What about the job losses and dislocations coming from new business models and paradigm shifts? The fallout from the shift in marketing and media production for news and cultural products. The balkanization and narrowing of taste due to ultra-narrowcasting media and the amplification of negativity and trolling. The potential for terrorists and others to use the web for attacks and violence. The tension between privacy and control on the net, particularly the corporatization of virtually every last web space and censorship and control by totalitarian governments. Carr makes a lot of very good cautionary points in this part of the book. However, I didn't find all of it very convincing. As well, in a lot of cases, he's really complaining about something where the horse has already left the barn. There's no going back. It's certainly an interesting counterpart to Shirky's Here Comes Everybody or to Wikinomics, and would make an interesting book to read with those as part of a Web culture course.

Overall, this is a book I would recommend quite highly. The first part has a lot of interesting information and history that leads into some interesting ideas about the future of computing power as a utility. The second part, covering the dark side of the Web 2.0/Web revolution is less convincing but still makes many compelling cases that cannot be easily or lightly dismissed.

Carr, Nicholas. The big switch: Rewiring the world, from Edison to Google. New York: Norton, 2008. 276pp. ISBN-13: 978-0393333947

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From the Archives: Groundswell: Winning in a world transformed by social media by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, is from January 23, 2009.


The first wave of social media books, like Wikinomics or even Here Comes Everybody, were of the "what the heck is this all about" variety. They focused on getting people up to speed on what social media is and what it could be used for, not so much on concrete strategies for implementing social media for a particular organization or community. The second wave of social media books is starting to hit now, books about the nuts and bolts of online community building, and Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff's Groundswell: Winning in a world transformed by social media is an excellent example.

I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book to anyone who actually wants to implement social networking or media software in their organization or for their community. Yes, library and science 2.0 communities, this means you. Want to engage your patrons in online library spaces? Want to build a "Facebook for scientists" that will actually be more than a barren windswept wasteland? This book is for you.

Trying to summarize or explain all the lists of suggestions and strategies the authors give us is probably not that practical, especially since their top to bottom, beginning to end treatment of implementing social media will mean that some chapters are more relevant to some people and other chapters to other people.

A brief outline of the sections will probably give a better feeling for what the book is about. The first part explains what the social media groundswell is and why it's suddenly become important for organizations to engage their communities directly. Part two is about tapping into the groundswell: listening, talking, energizing, helping and embracing. Part three is about transforming your organization internally so that it can embrace the customer groundswell.

One like I did like, at the very end of the book, does give us an idea of how the authors see organizations transforming their attitudes to allow them to embrace the groundswell.

So, we'll finish with some advice, not on what to do, but on how to be. This is the essence of groundswell thinking we've been describing...developing the right attitude. Here are some lessons we learned from groundswell thinkers, lessons that will help you make this amazing transition.

First, never forget that the groundswell is about person-to-person activity...

Second, be a good listener...

Third, be patient...

Fourth, be opportunistic....

Fifth, be flexible...

Sixth, be collaborative...

Seventh, and last, be humble...

These are the principles of groundswell thinking. Aspire t these qualities, and you can use the strategies we've laid out to your advantage -- or invent your own. You'll be able to build on you successes, both with customers and within you company. And then, as the groundswell rises and becomes ubiquitous, you will be ready.

I'm often critical of business hype books and their shallowness and repetition. This book just isn't like those others. It's actually pretty down to earth and practical. It has certainly changed the way I think about library web presences and how we can work to engage our patron communities. It also shapes my thinking and research directions every day.

This book is suitable and recommended for any collection that supports entrepreneurship and online community building, be it in a business, social science, technology or industrial setting. As well, public libraries that reach out to local business communities could do with this book, both for their patrons and for figuring out how to reach out to their communities.

And has there ever been a better time in recent memory to be a community organizer?

Li, Charlene and Josh Bernoff. Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies. Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2008. 286pp. ISBN-13: 978-1422125007

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Open Access Week: Explore Open Science with me at Brock University on Wednesday

The kind librarians at Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario have invited me to help them celebrate Open Access Week!

Their rather impressive lineup of OA Week events (and I'm not just saying this because I'm involved, believe me) is here.

My part is a talk I'm giving on Wednesday:

Wednesday, October 20 2-3:30

Exploring Open Science

Join John Dupuis, Head of the Steacie Science & Engineering Library, York University, for a discussion of how Science and Technology academics and publishers are responding to the growing open access movement and the changing nature of research in their fields by becoming more innovative in the services and features they offer.

(all events will be held in the e-classroom, TH 253 - no need to register!)

The talk is somewhat inspired by the Web 2.0 Community Building Strategies: The World of Science 2.0 session I gave at the Ontario Library Association conference in 2009 but I think will also be significantly different as well.

If you're in the neighbourhood, please do drop by and say hi. I'll be posting my presentation a bit later in the week for all to see. After all, it is Open Access Week!

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Anderson, Chris. Free: The future of a radical price. New York: Hyperion, 2009. 274pp.

This is one of those books that I just seemed to argue with constantly while I was reading it. You know, "Hey, you, book, you're just plain wrong about this!"

But, as much as I argued with it, as much as I wanted all of the main points to be wrong, as much as I disagreed with many of the details, by the end I grudgingly accepted that Chris Anderson's Free: The Future of a Radical Price might just have a few very valid things to say about the way the economics of online content is evolving.

This is the Google generation, and they're grown up online simply assuming that everythng digital is free. They have internalized the subtle market dynamics of near-zero marginal cost economics in the same way that we internalize Newtonian mechanics when we learn to catch a ball. The fact that we are now creating a global economy economy around the price of zero seem[s] too self-evident to even notice. (p. 5)

Briefly, Anderson's premise is that it will get increasingly difficult to get anyone to directly pay for online content. It's just too easy to copy it and get around any kind of copy protection or paywall scheme. This applies to newspapers, books, music, stock information, anything. Digital information wants to be free. On the other hand, people who create digital information still want to be able to pay their bills. Anderson goes into great detail outlining how all the different Free business models work, some seem more sensible than others.

The key idea: get over selling content directly. Sell things around the content, like swag or premium services or experiences. The content is basically about building reputation to sell other things.

Of course, he's too glib and even arrogant about it. After all, he's editor of Wired and that's part of his job description. He assumes that everything, every market sector, will follow one rule.

Personally, I don't think the transition to Free digital business models is going to be smooth at all. Take the music business. Sure CD sales are sagging with iTunes and other digital channels not quite taking up the slack. Sure, the big beneficiaries of touring dollars are the dinosaur acts that became famous and built their reputation under the old music business models. But, something new is emerging. It's just won't be as profitable for artists. It'll probably be a flatter system, with fewer Rolling Stones-scale acts but more that are able to make at least a decent living from constant touring and t-shirt sales. The whole music industry will become more like the Jazz scene has been for the last few decades. Is that good news or bad news?

It's good news for music consumers as we will most likely pay an awful lot less real money over time to feed our addictions, even when you factor in what we're willing to dish out for swag, concerts, etc. After all, it's not like we weren't going to buy those things anyways.

But, it's likely indifferent to bad news for music producers. If consumers are spending less, then there's less flowing around in the ecosystem. More acts making steady but not spectacular money sounds great, but not so much when you consider the average career length in the music business.

And I guess that's ok. It'll happen to the book business too, as publishers and bookstores get disintermediated and authors have to chase scarce dollars on their own.

It'll even happen to scholarly publishing. But that's another post another time.

The business model in the digital age is essentially about scarcity. Scarcity sells. Who ever controls the access to scarce information can make money selling that information. In the past, publishers controled the scarcity and profited from it. In the digital economy, where's the scarcity? There's no shortage of music on the web. There's also no shortage of text to read. There's currently a scarcity of the best science information (or at least, what we all assume is the best) because the big publishers and societies control access. But how long can that last? As soon as the real producers (ie. scientists) realize that they're the ones who really control the scarcity of information, the old edifice will start to crumble. At that point, the scarcity will start to become more explicitly the time of editors and reviewers.

Anyways, I'm going on way too long here. Buy the book, argue with it, deny it, challenge it, find stuff that doesn't make sense or is overblown, because it's all there.

Another quote:

Commodity information(everybody gets the same version) wants to be free. Customized information (you get something unique and meaningful to you) wants to be expensive.


Abundant information wants to be free. Scarce information wants to be expensive. (p. 97)

And another, about how his company kept on trying to get people to delete old emails:

The answer is simple: Somehow we got stuck thinking that storage was expensive when in fact it had become dirt cheap. We treated the abundant thing -- hard drive capactiy -- as if it were scarce, and the scarce thing -- people's time -- as if it were abundant. We got the equation backward.


This is a lesson about embracing's innovator's are the one's who spot the new abundances and figure out how to squander them. In a good way! (p. 191)

As for who I think should acquire the book, library-wise. It's a no-brainer for business collections and any collection that supports study of the culture or economics of the online world. Most public libraries would probably also benefit from having it, particularly in downtown, bedroom community or business district branches.

Anderson, Chris. Free: The Future of a Radical Price. New York: Hyperion, 2009. 274pp.

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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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