Reflection on Social Networking for IST511

In The Atlas of New Librarianship, David Lankes shares three conditions that caused social networking to thrive: One, that “[p]eople want to participate;” two, that they want “shape the services they use;” and three, to avoid “inactively absorb[ing] information." (1) I intend to use that last, most vital condition as a lens for this brief point about social networking in general and my experience with it. Bidirectional, rapid communication is extraordinarily empowering for all parties involved in a conversation and its importance cannot be overstated. The bidirectional nature of social networks like Twitter and Facebook permitted protesters in Iran to quickly organize, communicate with the world, and generate support for their cause in 2009. The bidirectional nature of social networks fueled the development of world-altering tools like Ushahidi, which promise to visualize and permit responses to worldwide crises more rapidly than ever before. I am not suggesting that websites, blogs, and traditional media--whose nature permits, at best, limited and slow bidirectional communication--were unimportant entities in the examples I gave above. What I claim is that social networking is a communication paradigm that is functionally and conceptually different from the others I just listed; unique in its ability to create conversations, facilitate access, disseminate knowledge, and motivate and empower members and those that collaborate with them.

Allow me to deconstruct my perspective on social networks (e.g. Twitter, multi-person chats, Facebook, Google+) in a concise, praxis-oriented way: Bidirectional, many-to-many communication means that members can receive and transmit information to and from multiple users. Conversation facilitators (e.g. librarians or other members) can submit enquiries to other members, be asked enquiries in return, receive content, send content, promote ideas, share links to content, advocate, advise, and much more. The power of an enquiry to intrinsically motivate members, to generate ideas, shape outreach, and to serve as a gateway to knowledge created by many other members is just one example of that which is permitted by social networks: “Where would you like to use service X?” “In what spaces would you like to/have you collaborated with librarians or members?” “Why doesn’t service Y exist?” “Did you know that project T was created here? Learn more at <URL>!”). Social networks can also be the communications backbone for a variety of endeavours--e.g. location-based activities, augmented-reality environments, impromptu gatherings of people--only possible in a real-time, agile, bidirectional environment. The ability of members other than librarians to address a large group or individual members quickly and easily is also highly desirable. I see social networking between members as analogous to the coffee houses that fuelled the Age of Enlightenment (2): groups of people congregating, sharing information, debating, networking, and responding to the contributions of others. processes that are fundamental to the process of knowledge creation.

The only way for members and librarians to become empowered via social networks is to develop a literacy with them. This is made especially difficult because services can differ dramatically. I believe it will be helpful to develop an abstract rather than a functional literacy, which may be derived by deconstructing as I have above. Like other literacies, members can learn to use social networks in an informal fashion and derive value from it. But librarians are uniquely qualified to educate members of their community and themselves about the networks and their best uses. At Hamilton College and other institutions of higher education, I also believe all other academic support units (including Instructional Technologists!) that tend to be divorced from pedagogical efforts on campus can collaborate with librarians in this effort. For example, staff from writing centers and oral communications centers can help teach members how to most effectively express themselves on social networks. I believe teaching this literacy and coordinating the contribution of expertise from other academic support units is a unique opportunity for advocacy and leadership by librarians.

Social networking has quite literally changed the world. It also has the potential to permit librarians and members to build their own effective, empowered world (wheresoever and howsoever large it may be, and hopefully also connected to the world outside members’ nominal boundaries) democratically; collaboratively; and without being limited to a location or by stifling social normatives.

1. Lankes (2011), p. 89

Lankes, R. D. (2011).  The Atlas of New Librarianship.  Cambridge, M.A.: The MIT Press.