Iris Jastram: When in Rome…

When in Rome, Be Your Roman Self (handout .pdf)

Iris Jastram

Living online
Cultural norms appear out of nowhere in online communities.  Part of living online is learning to adapt to the culture of spaces so that people care about what you say — when you’re out of sync with local culture, you remain an outsider, and are therefore less valued.

A story about her library.  Director asks, “So, Iris, what are we doing with web 2.0?”  That’s a hard question to answer, because web 2.0 is not a program or systematic approach, just and attitude about trying to solve problems with collaborative technology.  And to some, that can be intimidating — there are so many options!  But those tools are part of the “collection” of resources just as our reference books are part of our collection.  You don’t need to know every book in the reference stacks, just that you probably have something on Topic Q.  Equivalently, you don’t need to know every tool, just that there is probably a tool that will serve the need you’ve identified — that there is a genre of resources which you need to know generally about, but not know in an elaborated and specific way.  Just as you hunt opportunistically for information to answer a reference question, you can hunt opportunistically for technology tools within the genre using hallmarks and criteria (is it online?  Does it need hosting? Can I share it widely?) that are equivalent to the selection criteria we use for information.  Teaching this skill to students is just an expansion on information literacy, a “literacy of practice”.

Everyone starts using social technology with a need, and then they find a tool to meet that need.  And, then… either they explore the rest of the genre of tools, or they expand the tool to serve different audiences.  And sometimes the community moves and shifts to different tools, or to a different audience, and each of those shifts affects the community built on them.  For example, Twitter vs FriendFeed.  Twitter forces a certain creative use of language, due to its 140 character limit, and so it emphasizes use of active verbs, creative nouns, accurate modifiers — there’s no room for spare adverbs.  When the Fail Whale Incident of ’08 caused a mass exodus of Iris’s Twitter community, and FriendFeed became the tool of choice, the need to draft pithy summaries of thoughts fell to the wayside, because while FF is a microblogging tool like Twitter, it is not Twitter, and does not have the same character restrictions.  The tone and mood and expressive features of the community changed with the functionality.  Thus, in online communities, depending on the audience and the tool, users modulate their tones and content to match the community norms.

In practice, that fragments a life and a personality from one face into many faces.  Iris highlights four voices that come forward for most academic librarians:  The Outreach Voice, which does marketing work.  The Service Voice, which is focused on meeting user needs.  The Professional Voice, which is a personal expression aimed at a professional audience, and The Personal Voice, which avoids library land as best it can.  🙂  Sometimes tools demand that these audiences and voices overlap (Facebook is a prime example for academic librarians; we’re reaching out to users an to high school friends on the same account!), and this forces us to examine our community value set — which audience takes precedence?

The only universal value in online communities is “Don’t be a spambot”.  Instead, be uniquely you, regardless of audience.  You have something unique to offer no matter which community, tool, value set, or audience you’re facing, so be that person.  Share content that is appropriate for the site you inhabit and the audience you face, and don’t be a spambot.  Don’t try to impersonally sell your services — believe in them and share them, because that’s something that’s of personal value.  When you divorce the You from the service, you lose your audience and your voice.

Personality modulation is necessary online to not be a spambot, and in the fragmented world of online communities, that can seem like a challenge. But we’ve been doing it forever In Real Life.  Social conventions about IRL spaces are second nature to us — “we know what to wear, down to the shoes, when meeting with a Dean rather than having Saturday brunch with friends” — and should and can also be second nature online.

(And what does this mean for academic libraries?  The discussion following Iris’s talk roved about, but circled back around to Facebook as a strong example of a place in which “being the library” is far less effective in reaching out to students and faculty than “being a librarian that represents the library”.  A librarian who is passionate and service-oriented is a far stronger draw than a library Facebook page that has no soul…  We must be our authentic selves if we want to entice our audience to follow us.  If our authentic selves are not good enough for our audience, then they weren’t our audience to begin with…)

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