October 27, 2010

Wikipedia and Me: It's Kind of a Long Story

When I was in fourth grade I was double-promoted to fifth grade. This practice, commonly known as "skipping a grade," while lauded in some circles, did nothing but exaggerate the social misfittedness of my adolescence (which was later corrected when I went to library school). My first day of fifth grade was October 27, 1986, and every year on this day I reflect on the relative worth of that move.

I don't believe in entering into the dicey calculus of what might have been, but I do believe the whole grade-skipping affair launched me into a life of know-it-all-itude. It didn't take me all the way 'til library school to correct that one, though. That one flew out the window during my Peace Corps experience, and whatever was left after that evaporated when I took on a humbling masters program in linguistics that was my most challenging academic undertaking. (I did finish, but not with flying colors).

At one point during my first graduate school adventure, I attended a meeting of a student environmental group that was using some weird thing called a "wiki" to organize its content and calendars. This was 2003, and to put this in proper historical context, imagine that Arnold Schwarzenegger had just been elected Governor of California---during a World Series playoff game in which the Cubs scored 8 runs. (I was there, and it's one of my favorite memories.) I had not yet heard of Wikipedia, and didn't find out about Arnie on it; I heard someone shout it out in the packed corridors of Wrigley Field as heartbroken fans filed out after 11 dizzying innings.

When the leader of our student group said we'd be using a website that anyone could edit, I put my still-thinking-I-knew-it-all hand up and asked how we would control the website if anyone could edit it. His answer was, "The community will govern." Indeed, he was right.

I've never been a very good hater of Wikipedia. I probably made a half-hearted attempt at some point to be one of those librarians who frowns on folk sources, but it never stuck. It's partly because Wikipedia was not my first exposure to a wiki. I got schooled on the wiki ethos long before I went looking for data about the Dixie Chicks when I first saw Shut Up and Sing. I had no doubt I would get a good estimate when I wanted to find out how old Kirby Dick is, and I fully enjoyed reading along about the history of Paranormal Activity while I was watching it. Suffice it to say that outside of IMDB and the print version of People magazine, Wikipedia is my favorite go-to resource on matters of pop culture.

I trust that the people behind the Dixie Chicks entry were at each other's virtual throats to appropriately document all sides of the controversy. But I'm a librarian. People look to me for guidance on reputable sources, and lurking in every conversation or reference question is the notion that there may be a Wikipedia entry leading the way to a bunch of resources, or providing valuable information itself. What's a girl to do?

In my first semester of library school I heard a panel discussion in which one alum proudly announced that she sported an "I hate Google and Wikipedia" T-shirt at the middle school library where she worked. Surely this is not a solution. Later I had a great class in which the professor said, "Wikipedia is a fact of life," and encouraged us to use our library skills to fact-check and improve its articles. That sounds more like it.

Since the Facts of Life lecture, I have come to embrace Wikipedia as more than just a competing resource that my colleagues are tempted to consult before asking me a reference question. I'm coming around to it, and starting to have more courage to speak out about it. Several experiences have made this possible. One was hearing Cory Doctorow speak at ALA this summer. He said something along the lines of, "How many major newspapers alert you that an article has incomplete citations or contains information that's currently being debated?"

Another turning point for me was reading Daniel Pink's account of Wikipedia's creation in his book Drive, and reflecting on the importance of this in explaining new theories of human motivation. A third experience was reading Chris Guillebeau's manifesto, in which he laments the days of old media: "People would sit in front of the screen and watch 'the news' presented in a hierarchical fashion based on what a small group of media barons and editors thought was important."

In Guillebeau's "alternative graduate school" proposal, one of the things he recommends it to set your internet browser to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Randompage and read the article that comes up each day. I've been doing this for two weeks and it is both more entertaining and possibly more educational than reading a whole GAO report every month.

One last memory: it was unsettling to say the least when, on the morning of April 16, 2007, I first heard of the Virginia Tech Massacre by reading its Wikipedia page. The page was a single scroll at that point, with a rudimentary timeline and no links. It was set up before major news outlets had picked up the story and was sent to me by a coworker. This was a revealing moment in our history. The lesson here is less technical than sociological: more people are creating and sharing information. And, even though I learned in library school that, "90% of anything is crap," I think having a mass historical record created by many minds is inherently a good thing (especially when it's so well organized).
We should go forward and evaluate Wikipedia articles with the same rigor we would any other resource--no more, no less.

October 20, 2010

Information in Context

Last week after SMUG, I attended the DC meet-up of Chris Guillebeau's Unconventional Book Tour. (There's Chris in the picture to the right, which I took with my phone. While it is not of great quality, I actually own the rights to it, unlike most of the images in this blog.) It was a great chance to hear more about the Art of Non-Conformity project and meet some of Chris' 'small army of remarkable people' in DC who are leading non-traditional lives. One remarkable attendee shouted out "#AONCDC" and, Presto, we had ourselves a list of remarkable people to follow-up with after the reading.

I about made a fool of myself when I met Chris, what with being starstruck and wanting to tell him my Guinea story and all, but I managed to recover enough to answer his "What do you do?" with "I'm an embedded librarian." From there, though, things unraveled a bit and I almost left him with the impression that embedded librarians are like embedded reporters, which they are not. Chris said it sounded like I worked for the CIA or something, which led me to say, "No, think of it more as a librarian without a library," to which he replied, "So you're the Book Lady," to which I replied (re-establishing my credibility as one who can think on her feet), "No, more like the Tag Lady."

The main idea of Chris' blog and book is that you don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to. When I wrote him a fan letter, one of the things I said was that, "This book came to me at just the right time, or maybe it's just that good." Truthfully though, the reason I got so much out of the book and started following Chris is that the information was put in context for me just the way I like it: in the form of a book review, by someone I admire and whose recommendations I trust (that person is the inimitable JD Roth).

Flash sideways, Lost-style, to a big database project I was working on during the time I read Guillebeau's book. Not only do you not have to live your life the way other people expect you to (although we sometimes need reminders and encouragement to embrace this), you also do not have to organize information the way other librarians expect you to, especially if your guiding principle is always to put information in context.

I was tasked with taking a richly structured federal interagency database designed for public input, figuring out why it was impoverished in terms of records, and then writing a "concept paper" for a new design. I did it. (Not that I didn't procrastinate as per my standard practice, but I did it and it was even, dare I say, fun!) The new design is about as far as you could get from anything I learned in library school about how to organize information (except that HTML is involved and it helps me organize thoughts). However, my guiding principles for it were to put the information in context (I am sure that came up once or twice in library school) and to put users' needs in front of my own, knowing I will be the one to implement the design I proposed.

Instead of records in a database, we will have individual web pages for each case study included. Instead of a fancy interface with scroll upon scroll of drop-down criteria for searches, we will have three simple gateways that list all records by one organizing principle (chronology, geography, topic). I will have to code all the pages, and I will have to list each record three times to ensure that they all end up in the appropriate place on each gateway, but this design will provide a better user experience by scaling back all the architecture that scared away the original users. We will favor browsing over search, since known-item searching is not a high priority for users of this database (rather, it's more of a serendipitous user experience as people will be using it to find out what is going on in this area in general, and not looking for specific program data).

It took me a while to embrace the new database concept because voices from library school were telling me to use some complex code or machinery that really wasn't necessary for this particular project. Many things here are like that, and may not even seem like library tasks to the outside world (or the inside world, for that matter). But I will approach each project as a librarian, and each project will be better for it.

October 13, 2010

Feeling SMUG

Today was the first meeting of our Social Media Users Group (SMUG). We had about eight people there out of about 14 who had been identified as using or preparing to use blogs or Twitter for official business. The meeting was structured around my colleague Kendra's wise words, "There is no exact recipe for success, but there are known ways to fail." While we enjoyed my not-so-original recipe for rainbow chip cake, we brainstormed known ways to fail, and here are some we came up with:
  • Tweeting without a picture, or changing the picture too often (in my opinion you should never change your Twitter picture);
  • Tweeting without a bio or with a bio that is not sufficiently descriptive of what people should expect from your feed;
  • The "Do-Not-Tweet" List: a need for proscriptions from above on specific content (such as ballot measures) that we are forbidden to Tweet or ReTweet;
  • Using automated share tools without knowing how they work (lest you inadvertently Tweet that you are "Currently Browsing.....");
  • Duplicating another program's feed;
  • Proliferating or initiating negative content about a partner, sponsor, funder or federal agency;
  • Using irony, sarcasm, provocative questions or ambiguous language that could be misinterpreted;
  • Accidentally ReTweeting your favorite off-color comedian;
  • ReTweeting a link without knowing what it leads to;
  • Having an ill-defined scope or voice for your blog (or none at all);
  • Having too much voice, or using an organizational blog for personal purposes;
  • Duplicating everything from your website on your blog;
  • Blogging negatively;
  • Posting infrequently or abandoning the blog altogether.

We made a list of all the current or proposed blogs and Twitter feeds that we know of and talked about the next steps for an approved social media policy. We also discussed the power of the hashtag and my top ten tips for building a following. The two best rules of thumb that I heard mentioned, for both blogging and microblogging were these: "Assume the whole world is watching," and "Be interesting." I felt these were great guidelines to get the most out of the tools and avoid most of the common pitfalls. It was a great first meeting and I hope to have more of them to blog about!

October 6, 2010

Greatest Hits

It's time to talk about hits--great ones if you'd like--but more importantly, the kind generated by Google bots and the ones oft' overestimated by your staff as genuine human interest in your web content. Lately, everyone's favorite word seems to be "hits." I keep finding myself in meetings where someone asks breathlessly, "How many hits are we getting on that page? Have our hits gone up? Are you tracking?" If you hear one of these questions, take a deep breath, put your enlightened librarian face on, and calmly explain the following:
  • A 'hit' is not as easy to define as some might think. Your own web system may define it differently from services such as Google Analytics, and you may have to wade through your server logs and crunch the numbers yourself to get an accurate count. (I'd say more, but I obviously don't know any more than this; I rely on our webmaster to interpret the server logs.)
  • Your own hits may be included in the numbers you are looking at. I don't know about you, but every time I am building a page, I check it several times in several browsers because I don't trust the preview screens. All those hits and refreshes (to fix apostrophes that are turning up as question mark diamonds) may be counted as veritable web traffic to a page. Which brings me to the next point...
  • You need to create a baseline to make sense of the numbers. You may choose to start tracking hits or growth after a certain date to filter out some of the set-up hits, especially if the page in question is brand-new. If the page is not a brand new URL but you have changed or added content, then it becomes even more important to think carefully about the date ranges you want to look at.
  • Don't track hits on pages you do nothing to promote. Marketing may not be in your job description, but if someone is asking you how a page is doing, and that page is not either (a) linked very prominently on your site, or (b) being actively promoted through some other method, do not spend time looking at the numbers until you've made some effort to drive web traffic to that page.
  • Be clear on what you are looking for in the numbers. Have you ever heard that HITS stands for 'How Idiots Track Success'? (I originally heard this attributed to Gerry McGovern, and it has also been attributed to Google's Avinash Kaushik, but I'd like to think it was first coined by Toby Ward.) I don't know if I truly believe that, but I think the extreme point of view occasionally helps move us to a more reasoned middle ground. Yes, you want to know if people are using your site, but hits could be bots not people, and even if the hitmakers are human, do you know how satisfied they were with your content? As JD Roth says, "Do you know the best way to get search engine traffic? Get linked from other sites. Do you know the best way to get linked from other sites? Write content that people want to share with others, content that makes people go, “Wow. I’m glad I found that.” That’s only SEO trick you need to know."
A website is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If you throw out some numbers that indicate page traffic is up, the temptation may be to think everyone is doing his or her job. Other forms of feedback and evaluation may be more effective unless your goal is just to generate hits. Let's leave that to the great songwriters of the world.