Web 2.0 in libraries should be more than social media

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The huge popularity of social media today has led us to lose sight of the bigger Web 2.0 picture, argues David Stuart

Over recent years, an increasing number of library and information professionals have integrated social media sites and services into their professional offerings. Whereas making use of social network sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, or having an organisational blog would once have been perceived as cutting edge, such services are increasingly becoming an expected part of a library’s online presence.

Today, users expect to be able to discover the latest updates about a library’s service in their Twitter stream; they expect to be able to ask questions of the library and information professional without resorting to email or the telephone; and, where the library has made content available online, users increasingly expect to be able to share it simply among their friends and colleagues.

By and large, many library and information professionals have met these expectations; they consider themselves to have successfully adjusted to the new Web 2.0 world, and are ready to look forward to Web 3.0 and whatever changes that may bring.

But Web 2.0 and social media are not synonyms. There was meant to be more to Web 2.0 than merely signing up to Twitter, Google+, and Pinterest. Examining the differences between social media and Web 2.0 can give some clues to other avenues that still need to be explored by the library and information professional.

In recent years, interest in Web 2.0 has fallen as interest in social media has risen. Google Insights for Search (www.google.com/insights/search/#q=social%20media%2Cweb%202.0) reveals that searches for ‘Web 2.0’ have fallen away from a peak in mid 2007, while at the same time there has been a surge in searches for ‘social media’. By the beginning of 2010 ‘social media’ had become a more popular search term than ‘Web 2.0’, and it is now more popular than ‘Web 2.0’ ever was. This change in terminology represents the success of a soft, user-friendly, and narrow version of Web 2.0, at the expense of a harder, more technical, broader vision.

In Tim O’Reilly’s seminal 2005 paper, What is Web 2.0?, he identified a list of features that distinguished those websites and services that survived the dot-com boom from those that didn’t. These features included the ability to harness collective intelligence, using the web as a platform, data as the next ‘Intel inside’, the end of the software release cycle, lightweight programming models, software above the level of a single device, and a rich user experience.

As a list of features rather than an explicit definition, Web 2.0 has often been a difficult concept to pin down, and as such has been accused of being adopted to represent whatever the person wants it to mean at the time of giving a speech or writing an article. In comparison ‘social media’ may be explicitly defined, referring to those sites and services that enable the web to be used for sharing and interacting with user-generated content. However, while social media services often include the features that fall under the term of Web 2.0, they are often softer and more restrictive, at least from the perspective of the average user.

What the vision has become

‘Web as a platform’ has increasing become a ‘social network site as a platform’ as we all contribute to, and build upon, social network sites. While the content is being placed on the web, these social network sites can act as walled gardens that limit the extent that content can flow freely between different social media services.

With social media, the concept of harnessing collective intelligence is generally restricted to those explicit contributions that are aimed at a user rather than useful information that may be implied from user behaviour or be deduced from other actors’ social networks.

Data is still the next ‘Intel inside’, although it has not been widely embraced by the community of library and information professionals. Whereas an image or video can have an immediate visual impact, sharing tables of data may not only seem dry and without immediate use, but it can require the use of software that the library and information professional has less experience of. The data that is created as a by-product of using social media is generally of use to those who created the platforms rather than those making use of the platforms; much of the data gathered by the social networks is restricted, even regarding how a user’s own content is used.

Lightweight programming models have done little to help users to take control of their data, but rather have enabled the tentacles of the social network site behemoths to expand their control of the web. Services such as Facebook Connect enable users to log into third-party websites, meaning a Facebook account may be necessary even for those not wanting to use Facebook. A host of developers are creating additional software and applications for popular networks such as Twitter and Facebook as they help us feed to feed the networks.

Missing the wood for the trees

Of course, social networking services have been and are useful. However, too often the focus has been on the soft front-end of web services and we have failed to see the wood for the trees.

When we see Facebook we see its 845 million users, the engaging applications that have been downloaded tens of millions of times, and the opportunity to merge the networks of our professional and private lives. We tend to overlook concerns we may have about its privacy policies, a user’s right to determine what is or isn’t inappropriate content, and the difficulty we may have in extracting our content.

When we see Twitter we see a platform for simply engaging with colleagues and following celebrity gossip. But we miss the opportunity for a distributed network that could better deal with the spikes in interest as big news stories break, and we miss the potential to more effectively harness collective intelligence by having a search facility that goes back further than a couple of weeks. This is not to say that the current generation of social media should not be used; indeed these tools undoubtedly have much to offer the library and information professional. It is simply time for the conversation to move on from discussions stating ‘you should be using Tumblr’ or asking ‘have you tried Pinterest?’, and start considering the impact of these services in the wider web ecosystem.

Taking control of content

This means taking steps to have more control over the content we create, using the web as an open platform so that our collective intelligence can be harnessed, and useful data shared. If the library and information professional doesn’t pay more attention to such matters, then who will?

Taking control of our content means paying more attention to those terms and conditions we too often automatically click through as we sign-up to a new service. It means balancing the size and the glitz of a site with the openness of its content. This may mean an increased duplication of content as a library uses a popular site to make its content available to the majority of its users, and a more open site to share their content with everybody, including those who don’t want to sign up to another social networking site.

This is an area where the much-maligned blog continues to have an important role. While the ‘the death of the blog’ is often declared in the face of the latest fashionable site or service, it allows the owner to retain control of the content that they publish and allows them to make it available to everyone.

When appraising social media services, the library and information professional should consider how the content is being made more widely available.

This not only includes the potential of lightweight APIs for automatically interacting with their services, but also how content is published within web pages. Where a site makes use of additional markup standards, such as microformats, microdata, or RDFa, the text can not only be indexed by other services, but the meaning of the text can be understood.

Adding semantics

Adding a semantic level to data is not something that has to be restricted to large-scale web services, but is something the library can incorporate into information it publishes on its own site. When semantics are applied across the web then we will be able to harness collective intelligence on a web scale, rather than just using the term to refer to a few comments on a blog. Even if library and information professionals do not feel they have the skills to add additional mark-up to their data, they can nonetheless make it available through services such as Google’s Fusion Tables.

The web provides a constantly-evolving landscape of sites and services that the library and information professional needs to survey regularly. Does the latest site offer a new way to share content? Is it likely to be a flash in the pan – here today, gone tomorrow? What are the implications of not joining a particular site now? Too often these decisions are being made at the soft, user-friendly end of the spectrum, when the library and information professional should be paying more attention to the technical aspects. How open is the service? How easily can other services be integrated into it? Is it making use of open standards?

There are still libraries and information services within some organisations where even the established social media services are avoided due to concerns about the opening up of potentially sensitive information, and for those organisations there is still a need to emphasise the potential of the current social media to aid communication within an organisation. For the rest, it is important to move beyond the limited perspective that is encapsulated under social media and embrace other aspects of Web 2.0 whatever banner they emerge under in the future.

David Stuart is a research associate at the Centre for e-Research, King’s College London