Phil Bradley’s website

Making the internet, search and social media easy

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Phil Bradley's website
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Social Media as a search resource

I've already hinted at this, but it's time to be more specific. My online contacts are now the way in which I get my information. They (or probably you) are constantly sending me a stream of useful stuff, which is personalized to my interests, based on my choices of who to follow, and who to pay attention to. So this isn't 'social' in the way that we're used to thinking of it, it's a hugely influential stream of data. If I follow you, you influence me, and if you follow me, I'm influencing you. It may be simply because the tweets or links are funny or interesting, or they match my personal interests. I have a dear friend who sends me links to and photographs of abandoned buildings. (Not a professional interest, but you never know.) If Hazel thinks I'll be interested in it, she's pretty much absolutely right. If a colleague on Twitter points something out to me, I'll go and look at it. I would be less likely to do that if I saw a link in a magazine or a newspaper.

My RSS feeds are similarly hugely important to me. My feeds and the information there, drawn from blogs, searches, profile pages and the like are not there for me to read every single one - that way would lie insanity. They are there to alert me to news that I'm likely to find important. Any one of those blogs or posts or tweets are saying 'this is happening, go check it out' with the important link. I don't need to read everything that each of my contacts has said (although sometimes I do, if I want lots of different views and opinions), because they're all pointing me to the source, and I can go off there and read what I need. There's a great blog post on this subject from Woodsie Girl called '... How I learned to stop worrying and love the "mark all as read" button.' There isn't too much information all of a sudden; there's no such thing as information overload, because there's always been too much information. Clay Shirky said it best when he said "It's not information overload, it's filter failure." The amount of data that's flooding out is truly daunting, and if I didn't have a social network - or rather, several of them, I simply wouldn't be able to cope. My filters are no longer based on the magazines that I read, or the evening news, they're based on the people that I follow. Now, this is really important I think, because what it does is links me into particular communities. The data I am served is important, but the community is increasingly valuable.

This is why - as librarians - we need to be involved in as many social networks as we possibly can. By doing this we're absolutely doing our professional job - we're helping to create and maintain communities - and it doesn't matter if that's a workplace community, a community based on geography or one that's based on specific content. We have to consider how to curate data within this social media environment, and I'll look at that in more detail later.

Secondly, we're acting as authority filters. I know that when I get a tweet about a subject it's going to be good quality. I don't have the same trust with something like Google, or pretty much any other search engine. There are exceptions to this rule, since search engines are beginning to inject Facebook data into the SERPs, but in general, I'll trust people a lot more than I'll trust a computer. And - when it comes down to it, I'm going to trust a librarian more than just about anyone else.

Thirdly, we're able to back each other up through the concept of 'swarm intelligence', a term coined by Gerardo Beni. ("Swarm intelligence". Ashley J. W. Ward, David J.T. Sumpter, Iain D. Couzin, et al. "Quorum decision making facilitates information transfer in Fish shoals". Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences no 105.19 (2008) 6948-953) By using social media it's much easier to get the information that you need quickly and effectively by asking a question in the right format. I couldn't remember who wrote the piece which I've now attributed to Woodsiegirl, but I had the answer within seconds from several different sources by tweeting the question.

Fourthly, there's the 'rule of 5%', which also comes out of the research mentioned in the previous paragraph. If 5% of people move in the same direction (the research was physically moving towards a specific destination) the whole group will reach the target if that 5% knowingly or unknowingly lead the way. While I wouldn't want to push the concept of studies on fish too far, I don't think it's too much of a stretch to extrapolate to the point that if a small group of people within a larger group (such as an organization or a community) have, or can share the same information they can become highly influential within their social network - quite possibly without even knowing it. If you can, it's worth taking a look at 'The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference' by Malcolm Gladwell which also makes this point in some detail. In a librarianship context, the research done as part of the RiLIES project, looking at the ways in which LIS professionals found about research project findings demonstrated "The importance of a small number of individuals as information sources, in particular Andrew Booth, Alison Brettle, Phil Bradley, and the LIS Research Coalition’s Hazel Hall." I was rather surprised to find myself on such a list (as well as being pleased and flattered) since I wouldn't have put myself into that particular sphere of professionals. The point however is that often we don't know we're in specific groups, but we can nonetheless play very important roles. Just because you don't think you're important doesn't actually mean that you're not. I really want to push this point once more before moving on. In my experience librarians do not often think they are that important, and they don't value their skills as highly as they should. Please do consider the value that you can give to others within your social networks - even when you're doubtful that you do give value!

Finally, search is moving into the social arena. Having watched internet search develop over the last 20 or so years there is a clear movement away from websites towards social, and by implication, to people. Librarians and other information folk are perfectly positioned to make a real difference to the way that results are going to be returned in the future. I've talked about this in more detail in my blog post 'Librarians as an influence on search results' but briefly, the more social media takes over, the more search engines are going to use different criteria to enhance and personalise results. Rather than using web pages and websites as the final criteria for providing a result, search engines will - indeed already are - using social in entirely different ways. Then of course we have Facebook's 'likes' and Google's '+1' options.

In my blog post I said "OK, let's swing this back to librarians. There's no reason why our new social search engine cannot use as an algorythm occupation. After all, if it can identify that someone is an expert in physics and pay really close attention to what they're doing if should be able to identify a librarian without problems. The more that librarians do - NOW - with social media, the more that we're going to already be embedded into the social medium. The more contacts, friends, links, tweets, photographs, likes, +1's that we have, the more influential we can become. The more influential we are, the more people will link to what we're doing, the more we'll be working in networks of influence and the more useful we can be to people."

This can all be neatly summarized with the phrase that I use all the time 'go to where the conversations are'. We all know that users of library services are physically using them less, so we need to really utilise social to keep in contact with them. But it's more than that. We need to show them - by using social media how valuable contact with us can be. The more value we can provide, the more likely our work is going to filter up and down the information chain. People are increasingly taking the view that if news is important, it will find them. For many people - particularly younger users, 'checking the news' means looking on Facebook because for them, the 'news' is what they see, read have shared with them, and share with others. Similiarly, I share my information via Facebook, Twitter, Google+, my blog, LinkedIn and so on. It doesn't just get posted onto my site. We can't do that any longer. At the end of this article I've put up a quick poll - I'm really interested to see how YOU found this article. It's one question, and will take about 5 seconds to answer.

This new way of providing content and added value is not going to sit happily with traditional users of media - even if they think that they have made the leap into the internet. The traditional CEO, publishers of books, magazines and other print material, traditional authors, advertisers, press and publicity directors are not going to flourish. If we, as librarians think that we've got it bad, it's as nothing in comparison to those folks. The main difference is that we know we have to change and adapt or we'll die. They haven't quite got that far. The danger that we, as a profession face is that we're not able to always influence the people in our organisations or communities that we should. They don't understand, they panic and seek reassurances. They're going to go to exactly the group of people that they shouldn't do - other groups who are also under threat, such as the technical support, IT teams and PR departments. It is not in these groups interests to rock the boat, and it's far easier for them - at least in the short term - to deny and contradict what the information person is telling them. This is a cynical viewpoint, but I think it's an accurate one as well. This is where 'social' and 'friends' becomes a hinderance, not a help. The easiest way to deal with a problem is to pretend that it doesn't exist - this is why 48% of Britain's businesses have banned Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites from the workplace, and it's why the other 52% will thrive.

Yes, but I still need to concentrate on working, not on social media!

I can understand that completely. We both know that part of your job is finding out information, and keeping yourself professionally up to speed with what's going on. And I'm still aware that I've not properly answered the question of which social networks to use. I'll try my best to answer the question over the page.


What are the solutions to social network overload?

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Which social network should I use as a librarian?