Posts Tagged ‘internet’

Facebook and the neocons

January 18, 2008

First off, apologies for blogging again about Facebook, but the recent Guardian article on the politics of the people behind the site is well worth reading, arguing as it does that there is something of an agenda behind the bland exterior of social networking.

Whether you buy this is, of course, a matter of opinion, and the always-interesting Potlatch has taken the article to task for the sloppy use of the term “neoconservative” as a descriptor for Facebook’s political philosophy. On the other hand, little things discusses Facebook in the light of the likes of John Gray and Aubrey De Grey, and comes to the conclusion that Facebook should probably be steered clear of.

Interesting stuff. I was sounding off in the pub last night, as I do, about wanting to shut down my Facebook account, the only drawback being the lack of online Scrabble, although it looks like that option may soon be gone anyway!


Web 2.0 and the surveillance society

January 8, 2008

This post brings together a number of themes that I have been thinking about recently. It was prompted by Privacy International‘s recent report on Leading surveillance societies in the EU and the World 2007. In it, the organisation gave Britain a damning write-up, stating that Britain is an “endemic surveillance society”, on a par with China, Russia, and the USA in its lack respect for individual privacy. This came as something of a surprise to me, even though I keep up with data protection and privacy law to a certain extent, and that it’s fairly well known in these circles that Britain has the most comprehensive CCTV network of any nation on earth. I assumed that the UK’s democratic process was robust enough to cope with these challenges, but apparently this shouldn’t be taken for granted.

So far, so depressing, but what might this have to do with the giddy world of Web 2.0? Well, it occurred to me during one of the sessions during day 3 of Online Information conference (on the future of web 2.0) that web 2.0 actually allows us, and perhaps even forces us, into colluding with this surveillance or even into surveying ourselves. I’m not making any great claims for the originality of this thought (see for example ideas on “digital Maoism”), but there did seem to me to be a useful way of thinking about the effects of certain web 2.0 services, and in particular social networks such as Facebook or Bebo.

This is to consider the way in which Facebook and the like ask us to display a public persona, and the way in which we then regulate this persona. It occurred to me that, in this way, social networks become a Foucauldian Panopticon, in which behaviour is subject to regimes of discipline that determine and condition the ways in which we act. In this way, the personal not only becomes the political, but also the public- everything is “on show”. To put it another way, you had better not let your boss/ teacher/ lecturer/ mum know what you got up to at the weekend via those pictures posted on Facebook, or else.

One of the speakers at the conference above mentioned the interesting idea of “declarative living” as a remedy to this problem, or that apart from very personal matters, you should be willing to put information about yourself online, and then let others use this data as long as this data use is acceptable. This is an interesting idea, but also seems to me to be willing participation in the very surveillance society which we might otherwise object to, for example in the case of Britain’s CCTV network mentioned above.

Does all this actually matter, or am I just going on about some fairly dry theoretical issues with little real-world relevance? I would argue that this stuff does matter, and that these issues are thrown into sharp relief by events such as the recent Facebook Beacon debacle. Essentially, organisations like Facebook and Google make their money out of information about our lives, through advertising, data mining, selling demographic information and the like- should we then be so forthcoming with this information? And if we accept that we can give away our personal information in exchange for the undoubted benefits of social networking, should we be declarative, or should we be differentiating between our web personas and (as it were) real life?

Anyway, enough rambling, I hope this post is at least semi-coherent, and I’d be very interested to hear what people think about all this, I think it’s a very interesting topic.

Online Information 2007, day 3, Thurs 6 Dec

December 14, 2007

So, the final day of Online Information 2007 (you can read about day 1 here, and day 2 here). As is the way with conferences, by day 3 I was suffering from information overload a little bit. Luckily, there were some really interesting sessions that proved very relevant to my work.

The first session was on “The Facebook generation”, and was once again moderated by Ewan McIntosh. Sadly, I missed Roo Reynolds talking about Second Life, and most of Ewan’s presentation. The little I did see of the latter presentation seemed very interesting, and included some good examples of young people creating their own media, including a Bebo campaign to prevent the closure of a local school. The third speaker of the session was Mary Ellen Bates, who gave a fairly standard presentation on the opportunities presented by web 2.0.

Session number two was on marketing libraries in a web 2.0 world, and proved very interesting. The first speaker was Jane Dysart, who talked about using Youtube to promote library services. She recommended the service very strongly as a way to connect with users through semi-formal channels. Despite this air of informality, she emphasised the importance of ensuring that any video posted looks professional, with sound quality being a particular issue. She also flagged up a few useful resources, including the Infotubey awards, and LibVlogs, a good example of self-produced videos that reach out to users.

The next speaker was Marie Madeleine Salmon, talking about using advertising and branding techniques to promote library services. The final speaker for this session was Dave Pattern, of he University of Huddersfield.  Huddersfield have been at the forefront of creating a truly web 2.0 OPAC- you can see the results here. All sorts of things have been done with it, including RSS feeds for searches and other aspects of updated information, suggestions of similar reading materials on running a search, spelling suggestions on entering incorrectly spelt terms, and a plethora of other features. Huddersfield is definitely at the cutting edge for this kind of stuff, but it was a real indication of what can be done with sufficient will and the imagination.

The final session was an open discussion on the future of web 2.0, between Richard Dennison, Roo Reynolds, and Matt Locke. As such, it was all pretty discursive, but raised some very interesting points. I’ll flag up a couple of these here, both of which are in relation to the politics of web 2.0. The first was the idea of open standards and transparency as an antidote (but not a cure-all) for possible accusations of bias, and accusations of web 2.0 as mob rule. Essentially, the argument is along the lines of “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” (attribution), but this begs the question who are those providing the vigilance?

The second interesting idea was that of “declarative living“, or making all those aspects of one’s life, except those one holds to be strictly private, available via the web. This is a form of personal transparency, and a statement of intention (to quote the site linked to above) “this is what I am interested in, and if you want to play nice with the data then you can use the data.” Very interesting, but this brought to mind for me Foucault‘s ideas on the Panopticon, a prison in which prisoner behaviour is regulated by the mere fact that all prisoners know they are being monitored. The only difference here is that, with declarative living, one arguably becomes a willing prisoner of the Panopticon.

A philosophical way to end the conference. This was appropriate, since overall it was an interesting mix of fairly vague speculation on the meanings of web 2.0, along with some very practical hints and tips on exactly how web 2.0 can be harnessed.

Online Information 2007, Day 2, Weds 5 Dec

December 12, 2007

So, after once again slogging my way across London (sorry to go on, but it really was a bit much!), I found myself back at Online Information, for day 2 of the conference (you can read about the previous day here).

The first session I attended was on the hot topic that is e-books, what with the recent announcements from Amazon about their not-so-good looking, but potentially market-creating Kindle product. I’m going to blog at some length about this session for work reasons, so please skip the next few paragraphs if you’re not interested!

The session started with an overview of the current state of play, which made it very clear that e-books are the coming thing. This was backed up by David Nicholas , the director of SLAIS at University College, London, one of my old university departments. His usage statistics at UCL demonstrated a trend of growth in the use of e-books, but from a low base.

The final speaker at this session was Jill Taylor Roe, from Newcastle University library. She highlighted some of the key problem, from an academic librarians perspective. They were:

  • Lack of availability of textbook content.
  • Difficult and/or wildly excessive pricing models.
  • Lack of standardised usage data.
  • A number of different platforms on which e-books are provided.

She noted that both students and academics are now driving demand, which wasn’t the case a few years ago. She also noted a couple of useful resources: the JISC national e-books observatory project, and the COUNTER project, which monitors the usage of e-books. She went on to say that the next step was for publishers to provide more materials via e-books, and to experiment further with pricing models that were currently dampening demand. This seemed to me the fundamental issue- that until publishers make their pricing models more reasonable, and see e-books an opportunity rather than a threat, growth will continue to be more sluggish than it might otherwise be.

The next session, on Tools and Eresources for librarians, was something of a misnomer. The session was actually looking at usage statistics, a worthy subject in its own right perhaps, but not strictly what was advertised. The first two speakers had done some incredibly detailed research on accessing journal articles, which, while a worthy endeavour, wasn’t that relevant to my line of work.

The third speaker was Ian Rowlands, another SLAIS person. He presented on research he had done into the so-called “Google Generation”, i.e. those young people born around 1990, who essentially do not know a world prior to the internet. His findings were revealing. Contrary to much popular belief, and indeed some of the stuff talked about during the conference, these young people are not necessarily the intuitive internet users they are often assumed to be. Rowlands noted a sense of continuity between generations, and no radical break. He noted that many so-called “silver surfers” were in fact more tech-savvy than teenagers, that many teenagers were “digital dissidents” in actively choosing not to use the internet, and that teenagers conceptions of the web were essentially “horizontal”, insofar as they saw the internet as basically Google and all the stuff “contained” by Google. His conclusion was that there was generally an over-estimation of the effect on the internet on teenagers, and an under-estimation on other demographics. All this was a welcome corrective to a lot of the stuff that web 2.0 evangelists like to tell you.

The last session I attended was on services innovation in libraries. The first speaker, David Clay of the University of Liverpool library, gave an interesting talk on bibliometrics, and the way they can be used to provide support for academic staff and faculties, and to provide another area in which the library can prove its expertise. Bibliometrics seems to be the coming thing in certain library circles.

The next speaker was David Ball from the University of Bournemouth, who explained how that institution’s virtual learning environment (VLE), called eRes, was allowing the library to innovate in terms of service provision.  This was nothing new to me, having been involved in the development of a new VLE for student use last summer. Finally, a similar presentation from Niels Jorgen Blaabjerg, from Aalborg University Library in Denmark, explained a similar VLE implementation at his institution.

Wednesday’s sessions were drier than some of the more speculative stuff of the previous day, but contained some really useful, practical material that will be food for thought.

Online Information 2007, Day 1, Tues 4 Dec

December 10, 2007

After battling the elements and the formidable forces of central London’s public transport system during the rush hour, I made it to Olympia for the Online Information 2007 conference.

The keynote address was made by Jimmy Wales, of Wikipedia fame. He used the session as an opportunity to promote Wikipedia, and his new project, Wikia. I suppose this was fair enough as it was what he had been asked to do. I did feel that I was being given the hard sell a little bit, though. Anyway, the stuff on Wikia was probably the most interesting, with Wales characterising this project as a long tail database, as opposed to the collaborative encyclopaedia that is Wikipedia. The example he used of this was the difference between Wikipedia and Wikia when looking for information on the Muppets; the former throws up some 120 articles on this subject, whereas the latter throws up more than 15,000.

He also outlined the starts of a collaborative search engine, getting round Google’s editorialising search algorithm, and not relying on advertising for revenue, since it is a charitable foundation. It’s called wikiasearch, and looks extremely interesting. The most amusing part of the presentation was seeing Wales’ laptop background, which was a photo of him and Bono arm in arm, thumbs aloft.

The next session was entitled Library 2.0: Fact or Fiction? Unsurprisingly, the answer was a big fat FACT! The first speaker, Stephen Abraham, is very much a web 2.0 evangelist, and his presentation reflected this. It was full of “evolve or die” type stuff, as well as some rather dubious stuff about the supposed proclivities of the “Google generation”, a concept about which I am extremely sceptical (more on this in later posts). It also featured possibly the cheesiest Youtube video I’ve ever seen, a clip on web 2.0 set to the backing of Billy Joe’s dire “We Didn’t Start the Fire”- view it here, you have been warned. To be honest, I’m a bit sick of being told that librarians need to evolve or die because of the big web 2.0 paradigm shift – surely members of the profession have always evolved their skills? And surely this applies to all professions using information, not just librarians? And aren’t librarians generally very up to speed with all this stuff anyway? Whatever the answer to these questions, please don’t patronise me!

The second two presenters in this session were a lot more practical and useful, and less irksome. The first, Lars Eriksson, talked about an interesting Swedish project, called, designed to be a web 2.0 OPAC, creating communities around mutual interest in books or genres. The second was Philippa Levy from the University of Sheffield, talking about Sheffield’s new Information Commons building. She illustrated well the way in which new learning styles, new methods of collaborative learning and changing user expectations will have an impact on the way in which the traditional library evolves into something different.

After lunch, more sessions beckoned. The first was Tools, Technologies & Costs of Web 2.0. It was moderated by Ewan McIntosh, who asked for feedback live during the session via Twitter (my feed is here) or his blog. The first presentation was by Karen Blakeman, and seemed extremely basic. It was on web 2.0 services, i.e. blogs, RSS, Wikis and the like. Maybe I’m being presumptuous, but I would assume that anyone present at the conference would at least have a grasp of these basics. Some of the Twitter posts confirmed that I wasn’t the only delegate thinking this. The second presentation was on Newsgator‘s use of RSS, and was essentially a sales pitch, although it did cover the nuts and bolts of Newsgator pretty well (although I’ve never really been a fan of the service).

The final session of the day was on Web 2.0 In Action. The first presentation was an extremely prosaic examination of the way in which Vodaofone has implemented some web 2.0 functionality into its services. This might be useful for anyone looking to do the same for their multinational corporation, but wasn’t really useful for me. Next up was a presentation on the implemenation of a social network within an environmental consultancy, including introducing a blog from the CEO. This was interesting with regards to corporate culture, and the way in which something like a social network can democratise (or even disrupt) corporate culture by allowing feedback, dissent and critical self-examination.

The final presentation was from fellow law librarian Anne Welsh, talking about the uses made of web 2.o services, and the lessons learned from her previous position as an information officer for DrugScope. She very much emphasised that web 2.0 is not some mystical force, but provides some practical solutions to real-life problems, such as lack of time or funds, two pressing problems for anyone working in the third sector. Her Slideshare slides, with some very handy tips, can be found here.

So, the end of day one. The sessions were a mixed bag. All were competently delivered, but some were more useful than others, to put it mildly. Day 2 write-up to come soon.