Saturday, February 26, 2005

Michael Gormon vs. The Blog People

Back in December, Michael Gormon griped about Google and its ambitions. More recently, he tore into blogs and the people who keep them. Since the Prexy-elect of the A.L.A. is weighing in with comments that fall somewhere between professional criticism and open mockery, and since they've in turn been picked up on the ultimate tech-salon, Slashdot, this debate has turned into a Whole Big Thing. (875 Slashdot comments and counting!)

For those of us who have been in the information services arena for any length of time, I think we can hear overtones of the classic (and pointless) I.T. vs. Library culture wars of a previous era. Before I comment directly on Gormon's incendiary remarks in the Library Journal, I'm putting on the record that I fervently love and admire librarians. (Let's give a shout out to all my friends at the reference desk.) I've spent many years promoting (successful) (they tell me) partnerships between I.T. workers, librarians, and other academic tribes; I'll continue to do so until they pry my meeting schedule from my cold, dead fingers.

Gormon's remarks in both pieces, are, of course, generally true. And yet, they're embarrassingly unsophisticated, in ways that my hipster librarian friends who can fluidly navigate traditional librarianship and the roster of expanding digital forms of expression could immediately spot. Is Google's PageRank algorithm the ideal way to store and retrieve information? Does the ideal exist? Do libraries have the market cornered on optimal finding and access to information? Are most blogs good? Are all blogs bad? Are the "Blog People" uniformly illiterate Neanderthals? (Answer key: no, no, no, no, no, and no.) Gormon confesses to not knowing much about the blogosphere until December. This statement suggests to me that, for a person involved in the information services field, he'd been living under a rock. Not that he's a raging Luddite or "antidigitalist." Just moldy as all get-out. As I was reading his piece in the LJ, I had the vague impression that he was speaking about blogs the way my pappy would have spoken about the newfangled rock music in the 1950's. For better and for worse, rock-and-roll is here to stay.

I believe that we will be well-served to be critical of what Google does (up-to-date ready reference) and doesn't (in-depth, scholarly inquiry) do well. Likewise, the best blogs are enormously useful in aggregating news, providing well-written opinion, and building learning/interest communities. In fact, the best "Blog People" (we call them "bloggers") read. A lot. Whole books, even. Without even hesitating, I could name two dozen blogs that are more interesting, informed, and informative in an average post than Gormon's piece in the LJ.

Here are some other takes on the Gormon piece, not all of which I agree with:
Steven Cohen
David Winer
Mark VandeWettering
David Rothman

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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Speed Bumps (on the Road of Application Migration)

From the category of little things making a big difference...

Enthused by my successful transition to Firefox on all my machines over the last few months, I thought I'd give email client Thunderbird a try. I've been using Eudora since the dawn of time, but have been increasingly noticing its creakiness. (I'll still gladly take the power of full-fledged client like Eudora over any web mail interface, though. I don't get how so many people tolerate using web mail as a primary mail interface.) As for Thunderbird, I was enticed to see how well its professed anti-spam functionality performed. If it could do for my email what SpamAssassin has not been able to do thus far, it would be a lifesaver.

In the last twenty-four hours I ran the installer on both Windows XP and Mac OS X. For now, I'm using it quite happily on the XP machine, but quickly aborted on the Mac. The XP installation was drool-proof. It converted all my Eudora settings, filters, and address book entries without a hitch as far as I can tell. Within a few minutes I was up and running. There were only a few minor settings changes that I needed to make, and figuring out how to configure the preferences was easy to interpret.

When I tried the installation on the Mac, though, I was not offered an option to convert my Eudora stuff. The only migration I was offered was from Netscape. (Somebody actually used Netscape as a mail client? Poor schmuck.) That was that. I don't have the time to recreate my address book and complex filtering rules. I'm sure somebody's already built the Eudora migration tool, but it wasn't part of the basic install. Let's face it, I'm too governed by inertia to play the hunt and peck game to replace something that was generally working fine anyway. When it comes to bread-n-butter apps like browsers and mail clients, auto-pilot migrations are essential. Maybe I'll try again at the dot-one release.

The verdict is still out on the spam filtering, by the way. It requires training, which takes a little bit of time at the outset. I've had a number of false positives on messages from mailing lists, but otherwise, it seems to be getting better.

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Friday, February 11, 2005

Tipping Point Existentialism

Partially inspired by my participation in a study circle of Tricollege IT and library staff that I helped to start, I've been doing a lot of reading of books like the Malcolm Gladwell's most recent stuff and Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice. It has been fascinating reading, but so much thinking about spreading ideas and making decisions is starting to give me a case of the existential manager heebie jeebies.

So maybe we can learn to spread ideas by manipulating the environment and exploiting special talents of people in our organizations, just as Gladwell suggests in The Tipping Point.

Million dollar questions: what ideas are worth trying to tip? Are there any big ideas that I.T. in higher education is (or should be) trying to tip right now? Or is our job just to make the trains run on time and keep everybody more or less out of harm's way?

Million dollar questions, continued: how much mindspace should we legitimately occupy for the people we serve? Do we add complexity to people's lives by constantly trying to spread new ideas, features, services, practices, versions, tips, etc.?

Million dollar questions, also: how much behavior can we reasonably hope to shape? Given the effort involved in just trying to modify very basic behaviors (like practicing good password security or backing up files regularly), is there enough mindspace that an I.T. organization (or library) can occupy to spark more interesting epidemics? See also: opportunity costs.

Million dollar questions, they just keep on coming: are I.T. organizations populated by innovators and early adopters, or are they agents of the conservative mainstream culture, seeking to minimize risk and protect the status quo?

I keep coming back to the thought that these issues are really about organizational leadership. Connecting workers' daily to-do lists to broader organizational goals. I wonder if collegiate information services organizations generally have our eyes on the ball, or if we're mostly just getting through semesters putting out fires and trying to stay on the good side of a demanding clientele. Are we a "maven" culture that truly helps to translate good ideas into something that broader constituencies can use?

I think I need some less thought-provoking reading for a few weeks! Congratulations to you on your interpretive powers if any of this puzzled rambling made sense.

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Monday, February 07, 2005

Firefox conversion survival kit, tip #1

Back from a week of flu. Hackity-hackity, cough-cough-cough!

A faculty friend just got the rundown on why he should switch his browser from I.E. to Firefox. Then he asked how he sets up Firefox to be his default browser. I had to do this myself only weeks ago, but I'd already forgotten.

If you're running Panther, you set the default browser for your whole system by configuring the default browser setting in Safari's preferences. Brilliant! (Blech.)

If you have a Mac, you already knew this, but I've recorded it here as both an example of horrible, counter-intuitive U.I. design and a reminder to myself of how to do this the next time I'm asked. (It's so non-intuitive, that I'll have to go looking it up. I find it really hard to remember things that defy logic.)

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