[Published in the OSALL newsletter of December 2007]
After spending more than two years with our noses pressed up against the sweetshop window, the time has come to conquer the pane, walk inside and start tasting the chocolate.
But firstly, a quick explanation of the context in which this article refers to Web 2.0 and social networking.
There is an abundance of online definitions of these terms ; I have chosen three that best describe the way in which this column suggests we harness their potential.
“a term introduced in 2004 to characterize design patterns in a constellation of new generation Web applications which may provide an infrastructure for more dynamic user participation, social interaction and collaboration” – www.csa.com/discoveryguides/scholarship/gloss.php
“a perceived second generation of web-based communities and hosted services – such as social-networking sites, wikis, and folksonomies – which aim to facilitate creativity, collaboration, and sharing between users” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_2.0
A social network service focuses on the building and verifying of online social networks for communities of people who share interests and activities, or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others, and which necessitates the use of software. Most social network services are primarily web based and provide a collection of various ways for users to interact, such as chat, messaging, email, video, voice chat, file sharing, blogging, discussion groups, and so on” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_network_service
The advent of Web 2.0 has permanently changed the profile of the Web as we have known it over the last decade, with the biggest impact still ahead. David Wallace in 5 ways small business can benefit from social media/networking sites (http://www.searchengineguide.com/david-wallace/5-ways-small-business-can-benef-t-from-s.php) notes that “it probably won’t be too long before every site has some sort of social media or networking aspect built into it”.
Most of our employers are already well aware of the benefits of having a dynamic online presence in the form of a company website. The prestige of the company is enhanced, communication is improved and clients’ expectations of being able to access much, if not all, the information they need over the Internet are met. One of the remaining pitfalls with this type of resource is that the maintenance is often outsourced, resulting in delays in updating material.
This is a massive drawback when it comes to the legal information sector as much of the value of the documentation we either require or wish to disseminate depends on it being current.
How much time do we spend trying to convince colleagues and/or clients of the value of the service we offer? They often miss the point simply because of a lack of exposure to the benefits. Now we have an excellent bargaining chip that has the ability to allow us to update information from minute to minute, if we so wish, at no cost. Not only that, we could be in a position to facilitate the development of common-interest groups within our organisation, be they work-related or incidental interests.
Many of us have been introduced to social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, if not directly, at least through our teenagers or by hearsay. One’s first perception is most likely to be that these are purely social and recreational utilities. However, small businesses are making full use of the networking aspect to create and develop business contacts, to market products and to enhance their profiles. David Wallace, referred to earlier in this article, describes this as “taking advantage of social media to bring further attention to products, services, company news or even put a personal face on the company”.
We generally expend a fair amount of effort trying to make our clients feel comfortable about utilising our information resources and encouraging them to interact, ask questions and give us feedback. Is there any reason why this shouldn’t be accomplished just as effectively in a virtual environment? The value of comments, suggestions or reviews to our internal community is in no way diminished because a particular client is unable to share them in person. Why should they not be made available to all other interested clients and colleagues in a virtual environment like a blog or social networking forum?
The value of social networking is that it personalises whatever cause it is advancing and the relative informality of this approach is likely to attract a growing group of active online supporters for our individual organisations. In fact, it is frequently easier to comment via electronic media than face to face.
A point that is frequently drawn to the attention of SMEs when considering this type of venture, is that one should aim to be very visible in search results, not being content with just one mention in the first page of results. Try entering a company name in Google and quickly analyse the first ten results. How many of these are for the same company? Google searches the traditional web, blogs and many other spheres of the Web. Although a company may have purchased the rights to a particular domain (eg ourcompany.co.za), consider the advantages of also having (free) rights to http://ourcompany/blogspot.com, www.myspace.com/ourcompany and an active community in Facebook, just as examples. It is immediately obvious that single searches for the company name are going to return a lot more results for the same entity, hopefully focusing on different aspects of the company.
If one’s employer is agreeable to the company’s library or knowledge centre developing a profile on at least one of these platforms, there is no reason reciprocal links could not be set up to facilitate browsing between the company’s ‘main’ website and the less formal face/s of other department/s.
Have you noticed how news sites link to the blogs of their regular columnists? Just as columnists are able to immediately update the section of the web resource for which they are responsible, so too could those responsible for a firm’s information resources.
The profile could introduce readers’ to the available facilities and services, and include photos, videoclips and other interactive media. One of the characteristic features of this type of site, even those set up using a preconfigured template, is the flexibility of the layout. If a videoclip seems overly ambitious to start with (apart from the not-broad-enough-band challenge), a static image accompanied by a brief introduction, placed prominently on the page, would more than suffice.
As an example, have a look at the Copenhagen University Library’s Facebook entry (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=5795493107).
The layout is simple and offers numerous links, from online discussions to news items. In fact, the discussion that is current at the time of writing this column, is remarkably pertinent : “Should libraries “do” virtual communities (why)?”. Jan Henrik Hansen’s contribution sums it up : “Obvious answer is “yes because our users do!”. The Internet changed the library world 15 years ago. The knowledge base in peoples lives is no longer a building placed around a school or a university. It became virtual with the Internet – encyclopedias went to the study and living rooms of our users and escaped from the library shelves. We have to go the same way. In first hand to explore and learn. Next to make a better library – futuristic and virtual or not… well! And I must admit – places like Facebook is quite fun!”
One of the keys to hosting a vibrant virtual library is having a definite game plan but being prepared to adapt when necessary.
Why not experiment by encouraging the more adventurous of your clients to submit a book review or two for the benefit of others? (Just remember to allow comments if you decide to use a blog).
Another possible application would be to ask members of your organisation to contribute a link to an interesting news item when they arrive at the office. It’s very likely that attorneys engaged in a particular matter would be aware of related items and it would take a minute or two to add these to the interactive site. This kind of pooled resource would be an up-to-the-minute newsletter customised to the interests of your community.
We are approaching what may be a quieter time of year for some of us. Employers willing, why not use this period to set up a resource with which to impress your clients on their return in the new year? Please let us have feedback on your project/s for inclusion in the next issue of the OSALL newsletter.
To end, a few links to some destinations in Facebook that may interest you as a starting point:
Librarians and Facebook
Library 2.0 Interest Group
Libraries and Librarians
Mini Library : (Mini searchbox of The European Library, central access point to Europe’s national libraries)
Nellmapius Primary School Library Project,Mamelodi
Bookshare (list your favourite books, show off what you’re currently reading, write book reviews and rate your friends’ libraries)
Opinions expressed in this column are my own and not necessarily those of my employer