Learn More: Social Networks, pt 1

[This is one in a series of self-paced discovery exercises for library staff venturing into the social web.]

This is a big topic, so we’ll start today and wrap it up tomorrow.

So far in this series, we’ve opened accounts on several niche social web sites, uploaded content (photos, book titles, bookmarks, etc.), and mingled a bit with other people. This week, we’ll look at a few giants of social networking: MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. What do people do on social networks?

Post. A few hundred million people around the world house their online identities on these sites. Some people stick to the basics on their profiles, but others get comfortable and let their personalities shine through. Publishing (or posting) to the web can become a creative outlet. Users fill their pages with thoughts, interests, desires, photos, music, videos, and online discoveries. The pages they create often become the web addresses they most often give to friends and family.

Interact. The most amazing phenomenon social sites make possible, of course, surrounds the networking. You (and your page) become “friends” with another person (and her page). The software makes it easy to jump from your page to hers. Many sites even send you a “feed”– a kind of news ticker — that tells you what new things she has added to their page. Making a friend is just the start. You might collect more friends over time, building a network of family, friends, and acquaintances who can stay in touch quite easily. Each new connection is a like a direct link to a friend’s world that you may visit any time you’d like.

Communicate. Because it belongs to you, your page can become your message board. You can post photos and comments to your own page instead of sending email (and clunky attachments) to all of your friends and family. They can check in (at their convenience) and find out what you’re up to and what’s on your mind. You can say things publicly or privately, visit their pages (to see what they’re up to), and even meet your friend’s friends.

As a recent article in Slate explained, there is a trend toward communicating within networks instead of standard email. Email is incredibly convenient, but networking sites share so much more than an email could. They are multi-dimensional. An email from an acquaintance, for instance, might tell you only relevant facts. A social site, on the other hand, could reveal a common love of U2 music or scuba diving — things that could foster a better appreciation of each other but would have never otherwise come up.

Think of it this way: An email is like a short phone call. A social site is like sitting down in your friend’s front room and seeing all the pictures and knick-knacks they like to surround themselves with.

Caveat: I’m speaking glowingly of these sites because of their potential. You could easily misuse a social site as well. Those are the cases that end up in the news. Posting too much information might be unwise, unsafe, or embarrassing. Comfort levels vary from person to person. The rule I generally advocate: Don’t post anything you’d regret if your loved ones, your boss, or a creepy stranger stumbled upon your page.

Meaning for libraries

  • Cultural awareness. This is, increasingly, how people interact. Understand it. Better yet, join in.
  • Professionally. Librarians and library staff can use social networking sites to stay in touch with colleagues anywhere in the world. In fact, they can expand their social circle by connecting with fellow conference-goers and collaborators.
  • Patron interaction. Many libraries have social network pages. If patrons spend so much time in these networks, it makes sense for libraries to be available to them there, too. Library social sites can tout services, share photos, advertise upcoming programs, and connect readers with bookclubs and authors. Perhaps more importantly, the informal nature of social sites may help the library appear more approachable and friendly. Make friends with your patrons. Have fun on the page. Speak casually. Leave the formal language on the official website.
  • Personal librarians. In addition to a social networking page for the organziation, many librarians set up individual pages to become “that friend at the library”. Such an arrangement might give your patrons the comfort in knowing that they can simply pop over to their librarian’s page to ask a question or get help with something. It’s personal service. They’ll know someone who knows stuff. Cool.

Learn more by participating

  • Watch Social Networking in Plain English, a short introductory video from the folks at Common Craft.
  • That’s Part 1. In Part 2, we’ll look at three big social networks, pick one, and set up shop.

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