On Social and Technological Networking

As an amateur linguist, I find L0-level and L1-level language fascinating. The IT department in which I work is redesigning its website and we are particularly vexed by the issue of vocabulary. Here is an illustrative example: We, the experts, understand that our campus email solution is (simply put!) Gmail, a service that is included with the Google Apps for Education package, a cloud-based service. But to successfully facilitate our members’ access to information about the email system, we have to assume that they operate with L0 OR L1 level language or--more often--somewhere in between. For a member, they may want to search with terms like “email,” “webmail,” “Thunderbird (The most popular client used to access email on campus),” or even “Mozilla (Firefox, the most popular browser on campus and most often used to check email in the web interface.)” Thankfully, we have embraced conversation as a solution to this problem: like a reference interview, we had dialogues with our members about the terminology they use in interacting with our system so we can a) build a system that will adapt to and compensate for the L-level of the member in question and b) gain insight into other disconnects in communication between IT and the members we serve. Conversations with conversants can be incredibly illuminating, lengthy, and productive when the agreement you are trying to reach is to synchronize needs, wants, and levels of language as best as possible.

But how can we ensure that the system evolves to match changes in levels of language in the community? We absolutely want the language levels of our members to change--how can we create enough flexibility in the system to evolve as the community does? We pursued the idea of developing a “folksonomy”-like, emergent solution wherein users could tag individual items in the database as they saw fit, creating a system that I thought would reflect and adapt to the community’s level of language. After reading The Atlas, I realize now that tagging the relationships between items is much more interesting and profitable to pursue than tagging the items together. By labeling the relationships between items, we can divine insight into how our members navigate to find answers to their questions. By aggregating the results of many interactions, these interactions can be weighted, which permits us to make community-informed (and this is just one mechanism for having a conversation with our community!) adjustments to how our site functions. Using this approach, we could obtain a clearer picture of how people navigate through our often-esoteric, jargon-laden concepts so we can precisely intervene with training and outreach.

I also love the idea of applying Lankes’ Scapes concept in its entirety on our website. Here is one issue I can see Scapes contributing to solving: we constantly struggle with keeping our documentation up to date and accurate, an increasingly-difficult task in our change-rich reality. Members in our community are as or more passionate and facile with technology as we are. Chances are they can create or assemble documentation as well or better than we can. We could create a Scape-friendly environment wherein these users (and others) can be asked to identify and add content from a variety of sources to a Scape that could eventually, with some manipulation, become a piece of documentation (an “agreement”) that other members could use and update as necessary.  The community would be given an opportunity to create knowledge; experiment with entailment mesh making (which is a REALLY cool approach); be empowered to help themselves and their classmates; and we would have more dynamic, rich documentation. And this is just one of many ways that the IT department could facilitate knowledge creation on campus in a radical, empowering way.

By the way, I highly recommend reading Marianne Aldrich’s (a fellow LIS student) post about Conversation Theory: it’s a difficult act to follow. Perhaps my best contribution to this conversation will simply be to increase the number of links to her blog post.