Culture and social networking sites

Some of the most interesting conversations I had at Midwinter were about the need for libraries to understand the culture of a social networking website before trying to market services through it. Here’s a couple of great posts on the topic.

I’ve actually been meaning to post about this for a while. At my previous job, I experimented with creating a basic Facebook application that could search the catalog and a few other information silos. It worked great. Just one problem: nobody used it. Not one person installed the application who wasn’t staff or a student worker.

I didn’t take the culture of Facebook into account when creating that app. Why do people go to the site? Not to do scholarly research, that’s for sure. Or even if they did – why clutter up your profile with yet another application when it adds no value at all? Clicking to a similar search page on the library’s website was a far more convenient process than navigating through Facebook’s interface.

So let’s turn it around – instead of lamenting what students don’t like on Facebook, focus on what they do like. One simple response is that they love widgets. Little profile gadgets that show off some aspect of their personality or daily life. They also love updating status messages, telling the world a little about where they are or what they’re doing. So, why not combine these? Create an application which lets users pick a spot on the library floor plan and display that on their profile. “When I’m studying at the library you can find me here!” Students learn a little bit about the library’s layout while finding their spot, and the presence of the widget reminds their friends that the library exists.

Of course, I’d want to put a lot more thought into a project like this before going ahead with it. With social networking site endeavors, there is a fine line to walk. Some things are worth doing regardless of potential impact, just because they’re so simple. For example: Set up a Facebook Page for your library with a Meebo IM widget. (This has the added bonus of preventing someone else from setting up a Page with your library’s name…) That project would take about fifteen minutes for someone reasonably familiar with how Facebook is set up. Even if only one single person ever takes advantage of the service, it is probably still a worthwhile use of time. But I ultimately threw away a lot of time on my Facebook catalog search widget, an end product which has had absolutely zero impact.

We can’t just wade into the middle of a social networking site and proclaim we know what is best for it. I am extremely disturbed that some librarians are actively working to circumvent anti-spam measures in Facebook (as reported on the PLA Blog). This not only annoys users, but also runs the risk of getting the library booted off of Facebook entirely.

Different libraries can have very different user populations walking through their front doors, and libraries put a lot of effort into understanding those populations’ needs. Why should the online world be any different?

Gaming at ALA Midwinter 2008


I wanted to post about this while the conference was ongoing, but couldn’t quite fit it in. Staffing the gaming booth kept me much busier than I expected. Along with Jenny Levine and Matt Roach, we demoed and instructed people on the games countless times and answered even more questions about them. And like Jenny mentioned, Nintendo and Sony are missing out big time by not exhibiting at these events. If I could have sold Wiis, Guitar Hero and DDR setups on commission all weekend I could take the rest of the year off – people were constantly asking to buy them from us.

But yes, it all went very well! Some people were a bit skeptical of the validity of gaming in a library setting, but I think we won most of them over after some conversations. And absolutely nobody was outright hostile to the idea, something that has changed dramatically in the last couple of years.

What really struck me was the diversity of people who played a round or two. We had young children of conference attendees, some retirees, and every age in between. Some were hardcore gamers, others completely new to the concept. Some conference center security guards even stopped by for a while, though we didn’t manage to convince them to play.

Being out in the registration hall this time instead of the crowded exhibit floor was a good move. We still had large crowds of passersby, but didn’t have to worry about annoying neighboring vendors. The same games (and probably more) will also be available to play at Annual in Anaheim this summer, so be sure to check it out!

We also got some great press on gaming in libraries from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s website, including an editorial by ALA President Loriene Roy and some video footage. I’m interviewed a bit in the latter, which is pretty cool but I always hate watching myself on video. I’m just glad they didn’t catch me playing DDR!

Ambient Information

2007 was the year I finally embraced mobile web browsing. I added a text message package to my phone, which let me get a ton of use from services like Google’s txt integration. I experimented with the DS’ Browser, which gave me a taste of real web access on the go. I added a basic data package to my phone, which freed me from the shackles of wi-fi hot spots. Most recently I added an iPod Touch to my collection, the browsing capabilities of which blow everything else out of the water.

(Funny side story – I didn’t even know my previous phone was capable of handling text messages until I’d had it for about three years, and only discovered this when a friend sent me a message. I was so confused at first.)

Stephen Abram recently posted a link to a story titled “Ten Things That Will Change Your Future”. What intrigues me most from the list is an upcoming product called “The Chumby”. It’s an internet-connected device slightly larger than a coffee mug that sits somewhere in your home and runs through a selection of widgets. It’s a weather station, a flickr photo album viewer, an MP3 player, an eBay auction watcher, an e-mail checker, whatever you want it to be.

Mobile computing can provide me with on-demand information, but other than blackberry-style push e-mail that only works when I actively initiate the demand. By contrast I can set up a device like the Chumby to anticipate my needs. I could keep it in my living room, glancing to check on a soon-closing auction whenever I walk by, or have it alert me to breaking traffic tie-ups. Of course, just about any home PC could be customized to do this now. But a PC and monitor tasked as a Chumby-style appliance almost never looks very good, almost always takes up too much space, and is certainly overkill for the job.

Now, we’re approaching a point where form and function will meet. I’m not saying the Chumby is the be-all/end-all device, but I’m really excited to see what comes next.

Gaming at Midwinter

I’ll be at Midwinter this weekend, helping to staff ALA’s gaming pavilion. We’ll have Guitar Hero, DDR, and a Wii with assorted games – all out to play! We’ll be near the internet cafe which I’m told will be in the registration hall. Gaming will be running Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 9-5, and my shift is from 9-1 each of those days.

Stop by and say hi! If you need an extra incentive: we’ll be raffling off a DS!

Best of 2007 – Movies

I really don’t feel entirely comfortable proclaiming a single movie as the best of 2007, because I really just didn’t see very many.

That said, here’s my (revised) favorites of what I did see:

  • 300
  • Stardust
  • I Am Legend
  • Hot Fuzz
  • Ratatouille
  • Transformers

300 is a visual feast, but I really can’t recommend it to everybody. As a rule I tend to enjoy highly stylized art, and this more than fit the bill. But I can understand if the violence puts off a lot of people. I Am Legend almost took the top spot, until the ending… it is completely different from (and inferior to) the book, and even negates the entire reason for the title. I will not say more to avoid spoilers, but really… I was extremely disappointed. Hot Fuzz, a sendup of action movies by the guys who brought us Shaun of the Dead, was the funniest movie I saw all year. But again I don’t think it’s for everybody. Ratatouille is not Pixar’s best effort, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t excellent. I had a smile on my face the whole way through. Same thing with Transformers – if you want a Big Dumb Action Movie, look no further.

In the end, Stardust tops this list. I don’t think a lot of people caught this fantasy film in theaters, but now it’s on DVD so go catch up! It’s relatively lighthearted, and reminded me of a slightly less comic version of The Princess Bride. It stays pretty faithful to the original Neil Gaiman book, and the changes it does make really enhance the film. Stardust really has something for everyone: Comedy, romance, action, adventure, and strong characterizations. Walking out of the theater, my friends and I agreed: this is a rare movie, one that we can see ourselves watching over and over again and never tiring of.

Best of 2007 – Video Game

And the nominees are:

  • Super Mario Galaxy
  • Portal
  • Halo 3
  • Rock Band
  • Picross
  • Bioshock

A few words about each:

As with other categories, each and every one of these games is worth your time. Super Mario Galaxy is the best Wii game I have played, bar none. The level designers have done amazing, mind-bending things, and unlike many other wii games the motion-sensing controls manage to not feel tacked on. Portal is a work of art, another example of brilliant level design, but also coaxes an in-depth plot out of minimalist surroundings. Halo 3, while still fun, somehow didn’t quite live up to my expectations. While the gameplay was fun, ultimately no sequel can live up to the original Halo’s story. Rock Band is an amazing party game, and once you get over the fear of looking (or sounding) silly it provides a brilliant gaming experience. Picross was a surprise, an addicting DS puzzle game that I’ve played almost every single day since I got it, for at least a few minutes. Bioshock’s art direction and storyline are excellent, bringing vivid life to a decaying underwater city. Unfortunately the storyline falls apart a bit near the end, but up until then it is one of the most genuinely mature and deep stories I’ve seen in a game. The much-hyped moral choices that a player supposedly gets to make in the game really don’t amount to as much as I expected, but how those choices are handled is brilliant. No game has ever managed to make me think about the very nature of choice in a video game before.

So, I really wanted to give the honor to Bioshock. It truly is a work of art. And, I admit, I am a sucker for anything with such a heavy art-deco visual style. But the ultimate whimper of the plot’s resolution gave me pause. Couple that with somewhat limited replayability, and I have to regretfully pass it over. Still, I don’t want to downplay the game too much. Go play it, I doubt you’ll be disappointed with the purchase.

Now on to the winner:

Rock Band

Almost two years ago, my friend Matt and I sat in his living room, playing the first Guitar Hero game and idly speculating how awesome it would be to have a game just like it, but with drums. And a microphone. And online play. Sure, brilliant idea, but naaaaah! It’d never happen! I was glad to be proven wrong: Now I own that game, and Matt and I played it together over Thanksgiving.

The day Rock Band was released, some friends and I played it for almost seven hours straight. And we’ve had a number of sessions almost that long since then. If that can’t justify a selection as game of the year, then I’m not sure what does. All other games have been pushed aside for us, and this is pretty much all we play right now. The track list is near-perfect, and the addition of downloadable content provides near endless replay value as new songs are added. I’m not sure I can fully describe why i love the game so much, largely because so much of that justification is based on intangibles. After finishing a song next to my friends, we all feel amazing, like we just accomplished something awesome. Sure, we aren’t really playing the music. But I will never be able to play these songs on ‘real’ instruments, not without more time than I have to put into practicing. Rock Band captures what I imagine is the full feel of being in a band, and concentrates it down into something the rest of us can experience.
I’m going to cut myself off before I over-gush about this game, (what’s that? Too late?) but I think this XKCD comic sums it up quite well:

If you can get over your fear of looking a bit silly, many hours of quality entertainment await.