September 28th, 2009
We have an interesting relationship. Every time I want to leave, something pulls me back. Mostly, it’s our shared network of friends, the memories, and the promise of more to come. The truth is, I can’t pull myself away, as much as I’d like to.
Facebook is truly a seductive distraction. Psychologically, it’s interesting. If five years ago, someone said I’d trust a website enough to list most of my friends, announce where I’m traveling, and even post pictures, I wouldn’t have believed them. And yet I do, nearly daily. I’ve watched friends who began with noble resistance get sucked in. When it started out as just a place for college students, I thought it would be a fun diversion while I was in graduate school. Actually, I convinced myself that as someone who studies how people process information on the Internet, that I should really use it for work. I started out carefully trying to maintain professional distance; now, I have to stop myself from posting anything too personal.
Last year, Facebook opened up to everyone, no more need for a .edu address. At first, I didn’t want to friend my offline friends because I didn’t want to mix communities. Plus, Facebook was a place to stay in touch with people doing similar research, a place I could dip into when I wanted inspiration, say, from a few friends who always post interesting articles.
Back in April, I received a friend request from my mother-in-law. I didn’t respond, initially. I’m very close with my mother-in-law and she certainly knows more about my daily life than the majority of my FB friends, but I felt like it would be a violation of my privacy. Privacy? Facebook? It’s almost an oxymoron. People who really believe in privacy aren’t on Facebook. The rest of us are broadcasting the exciting minutae of our daily lives, collecting friends, posting pictures…sure, we have some control, but for the most part, we’re on Facebook to share not protect information. I accepted the friend request and am glad I did.
I know these aren’t new questions, but in what ways does Facebook mediate our friendships? I remember when talking on the phone was my preferred way to stay in touch with friends. It mediated communication, too, limiting the way we communicated (not face-to-face), when we communicated, where we communicated. Facebook seems different, though, because there seems to be more identity construction around the friendship given the very public space and the increase in loose ties (people we would probably never call to discuss our day, or even the weather for that matter) — first, we decide whether or not to friend each other, then we decide to what extent we are friends — full profile, limited? Are we close enough to comment on each other’s status? Do we use chat and e-mail to stay in touch, too, or are we just an extra in the friend count? Are we even interested in the other person’s status updates, or have we hidden them? We have a new way of communicating with each other, “poke” seems to have gone away, but we can “like” and “unlike” what each other posts, like we’re voting, or just supporting.
Do we feel more connected because of Facebook? A few months ago, an article in Adbusters cited Virginie Despentes, author of King Kong Theory, as saying “consuming pornography does not lead to more sex, it leads to more porn.” Is Facebook the same?
Does Facebook lead to more friends/social encounters or more Facebook? I’m still pondering the answer, though I suspect it’s the latter, or maybe that the two have become enmeshed. In the meantime, much as I attempt Facebook fasts, I enjoy keeping in touch with my geographically-dispersed friends too much to leave…for now.
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September 27th, 2009
I was reading the twitter transcripts from a recent conference and it struck me that the most prolific tweeters weren’t necessarily contributing the most meaningful insights to the backchannel conversation. In fact, given the audience, those with the most to contribute seemed to be relatively quiet…perhaps they were participating in a live discussion, or maybe paying attention to the developing argument before posting an opinion. Yet the prolific tweeters were conferred an authority by other tweeters that seemed solely based on their volume of postings. I’m concerned that as we move more quickly toward information on demand, the fastest typist wins. This is not to say that the fastest typist doesn’t have a contribution to make, or that in some cases the fastest typist should win, but I worry, with so much available, we may stop at the fluff before reaching the substantive information.
Is Twitter providing a venue for superficial lamentations, or is it encouraging meaningful dialogue? The brevity of posts suggests the former. In fact, the brevity combined with the instancy of tweets seems to encourage knee-jerk emotional responses. Although I can think of many profound one-liners (Thoreau and Emerson come to mind), most of the Tweets I’ve seen are more of the “I’m bored” or “this speaker is clueless” variety: possibly interesting to a few, but not particularly inspiring. In the case of the recent conference, much of what was posted in the morning felt more like teen angst than provocative comment. Some attendees posed interesting questions that sparked meaningful dialogue, but much of it was dominated by posturing or rants about lacks in the presentations.
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September 17th, 2009
My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Zahn, passed away over the weekend. As I was remembering his class, two things stood out. First, he led our choir and always included Beatles’ songs, even at Christmas. We must have been a sight, a group of 11 year-old girls singing When I’m 64. Thanks to him, I’ve always wondered about the Isle of Wight, but I digress… Second, and actually more importantly, he taught us presentation skills.
The major project of our sixth grade year was a presentation on a European country. Mr. Zahn eschewed the standard pre-Powerpoint presentation format of reading from a ragged notebook page. Instead, he taught us to use notecards, to practice, to incorporate color, visuals, costumes, food, and stories into our presentations. The next year, our school would get their first computers and the following year, my parents purchased our first home computer. Powerpoint would first be released, in black-and-white, a year later. At this point, we had posterboard and our imaginations.
In preparation for our presentations, he first discussed the content. We needed to know our countries backward and forward. We should thoroughly present details of the country following his guidelines (history, traditions, major cities, population, etc.). Then he educated us in the need to engage our audience. Mr. Zahn’s background was in theater and music. He discussed the importance of visuals. At the very least, everyone should include a map, flag, and some representation of traditional costuming of our chosen country. “A” students, he said, wore costumes and transformed the classroom into the country for the day. He said we shouldn’t just rattle off facts about the country, but instead tell its story.
The popular countries — England, Ireland, Scotland, and France — got picked quickly. I chose the USSR — in the late 80′s a controversial choice, but my grandmother had just traveled there, so I knew I’d have plenty of visual aids. It was rumored impossible to receive a 100 percent score on the country presentation — Mr. Zahn didn’t even give one out each year, so the bar was set high. In addition to using an entire red posterboard for the flag (some kids brought in homemade flags and costumes), I borrowed some of my grandma’s photos and created a collage. We ordered pumpernickel bread with honey butter from a local bakery (not quite borscht, but more palatable to 6th graders!). As I was preparing, Julie Phillips delivered her presentation on Ireland. She arrived dressed in costume, with a wand-like pointer. She was well-practiced and delivered a highly polished presentation. Her posters were impeccably designed and featured cut-out pictures from travel magazines. Julie received the coveted perfect score.
As we watched the presentations, Mr. Zahn would point out what made the use of visuals strong — how color maps were more effective than black and white, how labeling the capital helped us see it better. He commented on students’ use of notecards or memorization. He used Julie as an example of memorizing her presentation, but practicing it enough that it sounded natural and not like a recitation.
My dad and I kept brainstorming about ways to make my presentation unique. We wanted to show the richness of Russian culture despite the Cold War tensions. We decided we should play music in the background — something none of the other students had done (my presentation was last, since I’d chosen such a large country). So, on the day of my presentation, I passed around food and brought in Russian dolls and wooden cart-type toys for my classmates to check out. When I started discussing the Russian Revolution, I played music softly on the record player and discussed, as students were avoiding eating the pumpernickel, the lack of food, the cold winters, etc. In hindsight, it was my first multi-media presentation!
Before Powerpoint, Mr. Zahn taught our sixth grade class the importance of presentations, with an emphasis on engagement. He said that presentations were mostly informed performance…we needed to know our content and thoroughly prepare, but also engage our audience through story and visuals. Mr. Zahn followed a social constructivist method of teaching; empowering us to own our content by teaching it to others. We actively participated in the subject matter of the class in nearly every subject. He modeled for me what good teaching is: engaging students and empowering them to take control of their learning experience. Without realizing it, I’ve carried those lessons into my academic career and shared them with colleagues and students.
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September 14th, 2009
Yesterday, while waiting for a flight in the Denver airport, I picked up a Barron’s article, but didn’t get a chance to finish it. This morning, I figured I’d quickly access it through the UCSB Library and finish reading it. I want to share my convoluted journey of information access and suggest solutions.
The article, “Glad Men,” appeared in Barron’s Magazine. My first problem was that I didn’t know the actual title of the publication, so for searching, I tried “Barron’s,” with and without the apostrophe, and “Barron’s Magazine.” I think there’s more to the title, but going to their website for a quick check didn’t help…the image of the magazine cover is small enough to not be able to read the masthead and clicking on the picture of the cover just links to text, text that you need a subscription to read.
So, first I tried our “Electronic Journals” catalog, then Melvyl, then Pegasus. I did this loop a few times, trying different publication titles. Then, I went into our “Electronic Indexes & Databases” catalog to access Proquest, where I spent about five minutes with no luck. As a last resort, I signed onto an online chat with a librarian, who did the same loop with no luck — my hope was that with her extensive knowledge of library cataloguing, that she would wave a magic wand and then explain to me what I missed. After five minutes, no luck. I was starting to think that the article wasn’t worth the time to retrieve it, but now it was more of a quest.
Frustrated that the librarian couldn’t help me, I switched tactics and searched on the article title, starting in Melvyl and moving to Pegasus. This search brought me to that magic page in the library search where you can enter all of the information you know about the article and it searches for you. Why can’t this page be our start page? It found the article in one of the Dow Jones…something…databases and after a few more clicks, I had my article.
Granted, the entire process took about 25 minutes, which is still exponentially faster than pre-Internet, but why was it so convoluted? Part of the problem, of course, rests with me, the user. I could have started with the article title instead of trying to track down the publication. A larger problem, however, is that none of the library catalogs talk to each other. This isn’t just a UCSB problem, this lack of communication seems pervasive [...those of you with more experience in library databases please weigh in]. Each time I changed my search term, I had to re-visit the individual catalogs that may hold my data. More concerning, is that the librarian who tried to help me seemed limited by the basic search attempts that they teach us in those excessively boring library skills workshops.
So, in the end, why did I find it when the librarian couldn’t? I think because I spend more time confused in the stacks than she does. Throughout my academic career, I’ve spent a lot of time trying and re-trying searches, checking different databases, and basically experiencing many failed attempts before finally locating my information target. I’ve always felt as though I’m missing some crucial training or logical understanding of the library information access system, but the truth is, it really doesn’t make sense. Why, for example, do I need to conduct separate searches for books than newspapers, and another one for journal articles? What if I’m not sure if Barron’s, though titled as a magazine, is actually categorized as a newspaper?
I realize that part of the problem with privately held content is that many different groups own it, which is why access is limited to whatever database has permissions/subscription, but there needs to be a better way. We know that filtering the massive amounts of information available is our next grand technological challenge, so how are the libraries addressing it? Although I’m accustomed to the lightning-fast search results Google delivers, in the case of library research, I wouldn’t mind if the results took more time [say, 5 minutes], if they streamlined my search. What if, on the main page of the library website, we could enter all of the information we knew about a given article and bots could hit all of the possible catalogs to which the library subscribed? I don’t know if this would violate subscription permissions or if it’s technically possible given the different databases involved, but it would certainly improve access to research.
Reflecting on my process this morning, I couldn’t help wondering, if I’m having trouble finding information, and my research focus is literacy and online information processing, how do our undergraduates fare, who have much less experience? I wonder how many students abandon their searches in frustration after unsuccessfully grappling with the library’s convoluted search system? Is it possible to streamline our library’s search system, combining all databases under a single search umbrella?
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