09 October 2012

Social Media

Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 36.3, December 2011

Facebook.  Google+.  LinkedIn.  Martindale-Hubble Connected.  Blogger, Flickr, Twitter.

Arrgh, enough already.  This is as bad as choosing a new telephone, but at least a phone lets us make meaningful contact with someone.  A social network, though?  While they make it easy to  make ‘connections’, meaning is entirely dependent upon us as users.

By now, all of us are probably using at least one of the above-listed websites, and many will have accounts on several.  These sites provide platforms for establishing links between their members, with the goal of facilitating sharing and communication among them, and they are extremely popular: Facebook has over six hundred million users and Twitter, over one hundred million.  But what do we, as information professionals, get from these services?

The primary, most obvious, value is that each service acts as a combination personal electronic Rolodex and phone book.  Making a LinkedIn connection with a colleague or client provides an easy way to keep track of and stay in touch with acquaintances, even if one of the parties moves or changes jobs.

This leads to the second major use for us: research.  Not only does having our contacts handy make it easy to reach out to the college friend who is now practicing in another jurisdiction about a judge there, it also lets us look for information about the judge himself.  Or a prospective client, or opposing council.  With so many networks available, it seems that everyone is on one.  Yet this also leads to the first problem with social networking: information overload.

With so many people on so many sites, each sharing what she feels appropriate for that site’s collection of connections, social network research can be very time consuming.  Worse, the sites are designed to be ‘sticky’, so we spend more time on them than planned, just reading about what friends had for lunch.  And this is the second problem: too much information.  Over-sharing is a real problem, because honestly, no one cares what someone else had for lunch.

And a final warning: these sites rely on our over-sharing.  They are really nothing but advertising platforms; they sell our information to advertisers, who in turn use it to target ads at us.  Not only is our information online, available to anyone looking for it—it is actively being used against us by the very services asking us to share, to separate us from our money.  This may be an exchange worth making—each of us needs to make that decision, in consultation with each site’s privacy policy—but it is something we cannot forget.

That caveat aside, feel free to make connections with your author on LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, Flickr, Blogger, LibraryThing, or Martindale-Hubble Connected.  I promise never to post an update about my lunch.

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