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The Tao of Law Librarianship - Keeping Up With Social Networking Tools

By Connie Crosby, Published on June 25, 2007

You have been reading blogs, and perhaps even commenting on some. You have found an RSS feed reader (aggregator) and monitor your favorite news feeds and blogs on a regular basis. You might have even set up a wiki or two. The question is...is that all there is to Web 2.0?

Well, to be honest, you have only just scratched the surface of the new social network-ing tools. There are quite a number of web tools, applications, and "widgets" that com-prise the new social media, and new ones are being released daily. It is a challenge to keep up with them.

Facebook

Let's have a look at a few other tools that librarians are using to connect, communicate, and stay on top of new developments. Probably one of the best known at the moment is Facebook. It was first created in 2004 by Harvard Uni-versity student Mark Zukerberg as a directory of students on campus. Within two weeks half the students on campus were using the tool, and use quickly spread to other cam-puses. Due to popular demand, university and college students were allowed to invite high school friends in February 2006. The general public (those with valid email ad-dresses) were allowed in as of September 2006. The over-35 crowd, however, seemed to suddenly discover Facebook at the end of April 2007. There has been some specula-tion that one contributing factor to this "tipping point" with the older crowd was the Vir-ginia Tech tragedy in mid-April. Facebook had been in the news as people wrote me-morials on students' Facebook profile "walls", and no doubt attracted many curious on-lookers.

A number of librarians were already exploring the use of Facebook, but recently many more have signed on as invitations have come from colleagues and friends. I would be included in this group of slightly later adopters having avoided Facebook up until this time. Facebook is a somewhat informal space. You have the choice of being fairly pub-lic or private, since you have control over the level of privacy on your profile. There is a lot of focus on groups. And not surprising given its origins, there is the ability to list schools (secondary and post-secondary) ,to allow for networking with others who have attended the same schools. There is also the ability to send private messages between users. One feature I quite like is a way for me to indicate where and when I met the people I am connected with. Facebook even creates a social timeline showing when and where I met various people along with their photographs. Nifty!

Librarians have been quick to set up groups to take advantage of the features such as discussion boards, "walls" (places to post messages directly on the group profile), and photograph sharing. Here are a few library-related groups that currently exist:

There are also groups for individual libraries, individual library schools, and library school alumni groups. And I found these additional groups set up just for fun:

Lawyers have also discovered Facebook in a big way, with a lot of younger lawyers and future lawyers using it as a personal space to connect with friends. Search for "lawyers" and "attorneys" and you pull up a very large list of many different groups arranged by area of law, geography, or special interest. The ability to set the privacy level has likely made this an attractive networking tool.

Overall this tool is a good way to quickly connect with a lot of people and stay con-nected, but does not encourage discussion of any depth. Messages tend to be short and the effect is one of "continuous partial attention" rather than anything of much sub-stance. For this reason some employers do see it as a time-waster and rather than set policies about Internet use during work time, they have instead set up network blocks to the service. Despite this negative view of Facebook, it is a great way to help us stay connected with family, friends and colleagues as well as locate and meet new business connections.

LinkedIn

Known as "the Facebook for business networking", LinkedIn was first used primarily by those in the technology and consulting circles. Use has gradually spread to other industries, but this tool really has yet to reach its tipping point that will see wide-spread use. Similar to Facebook, one creates a profile, but emphasis is on job rather than groups or school. Organizations can pay to set up groups, but overall the focus is on individuals connecting one-to-one.

There is little room for discussion on LinkedIn. There is the ability to send messages to individuals already in your network (with whom you would likely exchange email mes-sages anyway), and you can also post questions to other users which is the closest thing to a discussion board.

The focus of LinkedIn really is for sourcing work, whether it be clients or new positions. There is a job board, and other individuals can post recommendations for work you have done in the past. You can also use LinkedIn to automatically search through your contacts on Outlook, but I have been reluctant to try this feature as it seems rather in-trusive. LinkedIn has both a free and paid level. The free level is quite robust, so I have not yet found the need to explore the paid level.

I have been using LinkedIn as an extension of my business card collection. When I meet someone and obtain his or her business card, I try to send that person an invita-tion to LinkedIn. This way, if the person has a profile or creates one, I can then see more about that person including any company websites or blogs, plus work back-ground.

Two things missing that would help with this use of the service: the ability for people to post photographs to help me remember what they look like, and a space for me to post notes that only I can see about the person to remind me of things we have discussed or that I have promised to that person, similar to what I might write on the back of a busi-ness card. And there is no way to indicate how I met the person, as Facebook does, unless I send a recommendation to that person giving that information. Ah, but theoreti-cally we are only supposed to invite people who we know very well to link to us. Really, though, the system works best if we link to anyone and everyone.

There are a number of law librarians and attorneys using LinkedIn, but it has not seen wide adoption by this group yet. They might be surprised how many of their friends and business contacts are already using it.

Ning

Ning is a build-it-yourself network tool. You create your own net-work, give it the features of interest to your group, and invite them in. The intention is largely that users are part of one Ning network. Librarians, as "super-users" quickly moved onto Ning earlier this year and set up a number of networks, playing with the various features. Network features that can be added include discussion boards, blogs, photographs, video and display of RSS feeds from outside sources.

Library 2.0 was the first library-related group to be created of which I am aware. There have been a number of additional networks created. A num-ber of off-shoots from Library 2.0 have sprung up, including Law Library 2.0.

Compared with slick tools such as Facebook and LinkedIn, Ning does seem a bit clunky. While it is meant for setting up networks quickly, and they do encourage people to set up and play with this feature, it can be a bit frustrating for someone who is a member of several networks and wants to jump from one to the other. As well, there are a great number of "dead" networks to weed through if you are searching for a net-work on a particular topic.

Still, the creators of Ning are responsive when there is a problem and are looking to constantly improve this tool. Right now there are over 1700 librarians from around the world on the Library 2.0 network, which shows this is a relatively focussed, intimate network for sharing and comparing stories about new social media tools and their use for our clients.

Twitter

Twitter is a funny little application. It is not really a full-blown network like these others. It is more of just a little tool to tell your current status to oth-ers, similar to the status feature on Facebook (for those of you familiar with that). It is basically an instant message (IM) that you can send to a group of people. Twitter asks you one question: "What are you doing?" and you have 140 characters in which to re-spond. Other than my mother, I wondered when I first signed up, who else would really care what I am doing all the time, night or day?

Well, apparently 78 other people would. Twitter is, actually, a lot more than it seems. Many uses for Twitter have been created. Well-known law librarian blogger Steven Cohen, for example, posts links to information he finds on the Internet to another web application, Tumblr (a kind of link blog), and he has it set up to automatically send the links from Tumblr to Twitter. So, we can follow along whatever Steven is reading at any given time pretty much as he reads it and posts it.

Law blogger and marketer Rob Robinson uses Twitter to send links to his latest blog posts over at Information Governance Engagement Area, a blog covering the latest compliance and electronic discovery news. I find that, throughout the day, he links to some very inter-esting information on these topics and on law generally. I have tried to emulate this, not just posting little comments to connect with friends, but also posting valuable links to information and my blog posts.

Each person or profile has its own RSS feed attached to it. So, it allows me to do things such as post a widget to my blog that shows what my latest Twitter message is. Other products from third parties can do other things. For example, I have Twitterrific installed on my Macbook at home and every time someone in my contact list posts a message to Twitter, it pops up on my screen. Other applications include TwitterEarth which shows random messages from Twitter on a Google Earth map based on their geographic locations. Cool--as I was viewing TwitterEarth I just saw my own message posted a moment ago come up. There is also a new Twitter application in Facebook, which means anything you post to Twitter shows up on your Facebook profile. Follow the many uses of Twitter on its blog.

What next?

These are just a few of the applications rising in popularity. As you become engaged in groups within these networks, you will learn of the next "latest and greatest" tool. If you are like me, you will have a quick look, play with each a bit, and decide which you find the most useful for your work or play. One caution I give you: take care to only play with these at work if they are directly related to what you are doing. They can really fill in all your time--since talking with people from around the world is really a fun thing--and can easily distract you from important tasks at hand. At the Computers in Libraries conference this past April, Steven Cohen dubbed social networking tools "Time Suck 2.0", and he is actually a pro-ponent of these tools.

With that warning in hand, I encourage you to try these out, see which you like or don't like, and invite your colleagues and other contacts in to those you find useful.