November 19, 2007

Sharing, Privacy and Trust in a Networked World

OCLC's newest state of the library world/environmental scan report was published a few months ago: Sharing, Privacy and Trust in a Networked World. This one focuses on the potential roles of social networks for libraries and the implications they might have on our practices and norms.

It's an extremely interesting and provocative report, one that inspires us to move forward with new initiatives while at the same time setting some pretty daunting challenges before us.

The practice of using a social network to establish and enhance relationships based on some common ground—shared interests, related skills, or a common geographic location—is as old as human societies, but social networking has flourished due to the ease of connecting on the Web. This OCLC membership report explores this web of social participation and cooperation on the Internet and how it may impact the library’s role, including:

  • The use of social networking, social media, commercial and library services on the Web
  • How and what users and librarians share on the Web and their attitudes toward related privacy issues
  • Opinions on privacy online
  • Libraries’ current and future roles in social networking

The report is based on a survey (by Harris Interactive on behalf of OCLC) of the general public from six countries—Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States—and of library directors from the U.S. The research provides insights into the values and social-networking habits of library users.

As it happens, I was lucky enough to receive a print copy in the mail a month or so ago without even asking, no doubt with the idea that I'm some sort of opinion leader in these things. Be that as it may, as with most of the free books (and there's not many) that come through here I feel compelled to comment.

In this particular case, I do have some overall ideas about the implications of the report but I'll get to those later. First off, I think I'll tackle some of the statistics that are presented, highlighting what struck me as interesting, surprising or unusual. I'll also comment on some of the interviews with their librarian panel of experts: a good list, rounding up some of the usual suspects but also quite a few voices that were unfamiliar to me.

The sections include the survey responses (sections 1-3), interviews with US library directors (4), libraries and social networking survey responses (5), interviews with the panel of expert librarians (6), report highlights (7) and conclusion (8).


  • Page 1-6: Interesting that 20% of those surveyed had created content online. A bit larger than I would have thought, but if you include flickr, commenting on blogs, etc., not that surprising.

  • 1-20, 21. People are reading more but increasingly online. Exactly what I would have thought. The web is still largely a text medium and reading text will remain an important part of an increasingly diverse online experience.

  • 2-12 to 2-15. Combining the various language/national groups on the reporting of the favourite social networking site is probably not useful. Comparing the raw percentages for Mixi and MySpace is like comparing apples to oranges.

  • 2-17. No surprise. We use the social networks our friends use. It's like hanging out at the same mall that our friends hang out at.

  • 2-38. In the last two years, it seems only a small percentage of people have actually stopped using a particular social networking site after intially joining in the last two years. Somehow I thought that people would be trying out a bunch of different sites and only sticking with the ones they liked or where they discovered most of their friends.

  • 3-6. It seems that most people use the same password on all the sites they inhabit. There is a significant number (16%) that always use different passwords. I use a small number of configurable passwords over and over and find that the best for me. For example, I never have to write a password down anywhere, I can just remember them all.

  • 3-11. Most people are more comfortable showing their true personality in person while a significant minority are more comfortable showing their true personality online. But what does it mean to share your true personality online. Does it mean that the trolls are totally liberated to be the idiots they truly are? Do they feel constrained by civilized society in person? On the other hand, do shy or awkward people find a healthy and constructive freedom to express things online that they don't in person?

  • 3-36 to 3-38. Really interesting numbers here about how people feel about disclosing their personal information to the library and the trade-offs between privacy and personalized services.

  • 4-13. Interesting. Most people join social networks because they are fun or because that's where their friends are. Library directors join them because they are useful; fun and friends come later.

  • 5-3. Although the population expresses a low level of interest in participating in library hosted social networking activities, I'm not too concerned. After all, a small percentage of a large population can be quite a few people. If only 10% of the 55,000+ population of York publishes creative work or contributes to a discussion group, well, that's 5-6000 people.

  • 5-4 to 5-7. Only 10-20% think the library should build social networking sites. We should be learning or information centres. As if there can be no learning or information in social networking sites...

  • Section 6. Lots of interesting commentary here by the panel of librarian experts. Mostly about how libraries have no choice but to engage students in social networks, that if we don't find a role in the 2.0 world we will lose a generation. Also about the conflicts between security and access. Good, thoughtful stuff here, a nice range of opinion, some dissenting voices to what otherwise might have been groupthink.

  • 7-8. Both users and library directors are skeptical about libraries' role in social networks. Not surprising. We're in the middle.

  • 8-2 to 8-3. I like that concept that they mention here, messy participation. Social networks are diverse and chaotic, not interoperable in any meaningful way. But they are also incredibly compelling and engaging, almost as a function of their messiness. Privacy and security are evolving concepts, perhaps even in opposition to the messiness.

  • 8-6 to 8-8. The message? We have a challenge facing us.

The twin challenges we face:

  • My core assumption is that libraries can something compelling to offer our patrons in social network spaces. Unfortunately, any entry into social networks won't be exploiting a need that that our patrons are clamoring for. We'll be ahead of them here, and that's always a challenge. We need to find a way to make the library messier and looser, to encourage participation, to open the doors and engage these new spaces in a way that our patrons will find compelling. There's nothing sadder than an empty social network. We'll need ingenuity and patience, a willingness to try things, a tolerance for failure. The idea nurture a lot of different ideas, some of which grow into successful programs. We'll need a willingness to find partners on our campuses and within our broader communities. We need to work with those partners to build the social spaces that our students will need and use.

  • The second challenge is privacy. We need to reconcile the clean, secure, private library with the web of messy participation and customized services. We've always seen patron privacy as one of our core, bedrock values but we're going to need to think about putting more of the privacy decisions into the hands of our patrons. If we want them to trust us, to open up to our spaces, we going to need to trust them a little bit too. And we'll probably need to make the first move on this one too.

From page vii of the report:
What is it that motivates, even inspires, millions of users to spend hours online, not searching for information, but creating information, building content and establishing online communities? What drives users to not only contribute information, but to contribute "themselves," creating detailed personal profiles on social sites and sharing that information to establish new relationships with hundreds of new virtual friends?

It's the same thing that motivates people to contribute to open sources software projects. It's fun. They (we) enjoy the "work" we do on the web. We find actively contributing and participating more enjoyable than most tv or films or books or newspaper or magazines that are out there so that's what we choose to spend our time on. How do we make contributing to our social spaces that much fun?

So, read the report. Think about it, engage with it very closely and carefully. There's lots of information to digest and ideas to ponder. The path to the future may or may not be in the report but it certainly has a lot of food for thought about one path forward: making libraries socially networked teaching and learning spaces where students can share and discover. Actually, I don't think that strays too far from what we've always seen as our core mission.

(Review copy of report supplied by the publisher)

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