Blogging is innate to the human psyche and I’ll devour my own tail if I want to

22 April 2008

I wish I could remember where I read that blogging about blogging is the refuge of the truly desperate blogger. It has a terrible snake swallowing its own tail feel, like books about books, sitcoms about sitcoms, mirrors reflecting mirrors reflecting mirrors …

Nevertheless, today I am blogging about the process of blogging. Why, at what seems the embryonic stage of this blog rather than its death knell, do I choose to write about the process of writing? Am I determined to alienate my small but devoted band of readers? (I wouldn’t actually have thought I had any until I chatted with them over morning tea and hot cross buns at Easter, and there’s a good chance that not posting for almost a month might have disillusioned even that loyal following).

(‘Ouroboros’, from MShades’ Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence)

Readers of this blog — if there are still any left — are probably aware that a significant amount of what I do at work consists of monitoring the publication habits of Swinburne University researchers. This is mostly done automatically; I subscribe to table of contents alerting services for the major bibliographic citation databases like Web of Science and Scopus, and I have a Google Alert on the search term ‘Swinburne University‘. Google’s alert service notifies me when Google indexes a page containing my search term, while the citation databases notify me when someone affiliated with Swinburne University publishes in a journal indexed by that service.

Naturally, this method isn’t foolproof. As my colleague Sara mentioned some time ago now, Google Alerts are not always perfectly accurate. On average, I receive one or two unrelated alerts every day. One of the problems with my particular search terms is the existence of the philosopher Richard ‘Swinburne‘, and the fact that he works at a ‘university’. But if I just need a quick overview of who’s talking about us, it’s a good start.

Over the last few months, I’ve received well over 40 unique alerts for blog posts, newspaper articles and media contributions referring to a single piece of research published by two Swinburne researchers. Usually it’s our astronomers who attract the most attention here and overseas; our research centre is world class, and the stellar subject matter inspires an amateur cult following. It’s such a delightfully romantic Enlightenment Era profession, being a stargazer …

Yet it’s the humanities researchers who’ve been making waves of late (I hope the oceanographers will forgive me for that one). The Brain Sciences Institute researchers have recently discovered that Pycnogenol can have a significant impact on the cognitive ability of the elderly. Earlier in the year, a study conducted by Swinburne psychology researchers caused controversy in the international media as the preliminary results were (no doubt wrongly) interpreted as a third of Australians aged 18 to 25 cheat on their partners.

And the single most popular piece of research? An article published in the February issue of CyberPsychology & Behavior, which has generated a collossal amount of traffic on the Web (and in my inbox), the results of which have appeared in posts from bloggers as diverse as Welsh MPs, American cataloguing librarians, creative writing groups, marketers and the writers of the popular technology news blog TechCrunch.

So what do librarians and members of parliament have in common? What research discovery could have the power to create so much interest in the blogging world across such a variety of topics?

The answer is simple. Susan Moore and James Baker have given us all a reason to keep blogging. The study suggests that like keeping a diary, blogging can help those who feel alienated, lonely and distressed to vent their frustrations and build a support network through comments and feedback. Pseudonyms (increasingly called ‘netonyms‘ in an online context … shudder), allow bloggers to communicate thoughts and emotions that they may be too afraid to put forward under their own name.

It doesn’t sound like a revolutionary notion. In fact, it makes perfect sense. Many introverts like to write, and some of the world’s greatest writers use(d) pseudonyms when really they had no reason to be ashamed of their work. I suspect the reason that the meme (dare I use that word without fully understanding its meaning?) has appeared to reach such plague proportions in the blogging world is that for many bloggers, it gives a sense of validation to what might otherwise have been considered pointless vanity publication.

For that, I think bloggers can thank Swinburne.

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The end is the beginning is the end

2 March 2008

Well, I never said it wasn’t going to take a while. In fact, I’m pretty sure I said I’d be at the back of the fleet, ambling along at my own pace. Many of my fellow travellers crossed the finish line well before Christmas, whereas I only just got around to enjoying my movie tickets. Nevertheless, here I am at Task 23, which asks me to reflect on the 23 Things experience.

I’ll admit, I made some careful decisions about this project at the outset. As one of the younger and most recently qualified staff members, I’m already familiar with many of the tools included in the program. I could easily have elected not to participate, but frankly I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I’m still fresh and enthusiastic enough about my profession to believe ‘I don’t get paid to do this’, ‘I’m not going to get anything out of this’, and my personal favourite, I didn’t get a masters degree to do this will never be valid arguments for non-participation.

In fact, I’ve gained a lot from 23 Things. It has given me the chance to get to know my colleagues better. I tend to be tied to my desk most of the time, so the chance to meet others, even virtually, has been fantastic. I didn’t expect the level of camaraderie that grew across campuses, floors, units and levels, but I think even if that were the only outcome of the program, it would be an excellent one. Writing a blog can be a bit like staring into an abyss; it’s difficult to know what the target audience is, or indeed if anyone is reading the blog at all. So thank you very much to those who left comments on my posts or stopped for a chat. Like most of you, there are times when I wondered if this project really deserved the hours I devoted to it, but your feedback has motivated me to continue when I felt like giving up.

It was a pleasant surprise to discover that several of the tools I hadn’t used before could actually help me manage my online life. LibraryThing will help me keep track of the books I want to read, and share my love of reading with others. While I might not use it directly in a work context, it will certainly make my journey to and from Swinburne much more enjoyable. If someone finally invents a day with more than 24 hours in it, I may even be able to take advantage of the recommended reading other LibraryThing users provide.

A little time between drinks and a change of web browser has helped me to appreciate the storage and sharing capabilities of del.icio.us (though remembering where to put the dots is still a challenge). I was really glad when one of my colleagues found something useful in my shared bookmarks. Ironically it wasn’t one of the many hundreds of library– or institutional repository-related resources I’ve been collecting for over a year, but a chilli chocolate cupcake recipe I hadn’t even meant to share. (Who would have thought it — I’m a person as well as a librarian!) Actually, I also recommend the rose white chocolate mousse and baklava recipe, though that’s a lot of work for a 5cm x 5cm snack.

I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t appreciate the need for authority in research works, but depending on the style of writing needed, its formality, purpose and target audience, I would consider using Technorati as a quick background research tool. While fun blogs like I can has cheezburger will always slip through on the basis of their popularity, the ranking scale of Technorati blogs should act as a basic mark of quality in areas of serious research. Blogs like Information wants to be free have a high Technorati ranking because other blogging librarians have linked to them; this alone points to their reliability. After all, some researchers have discovered that blogging is a good means of disseminating their research quickly and widely before their articles reach the scholarly press. Blogging is also a good means of creating and controlling an online profile — something that most employers will now look for in a candidate.

These are all wonderful outcomes, and in each blog post I’ve discussed the possible applications of these tools to a library setting. Hopefully anyone who enjoyed blogging for 23 Things will consider writing for the Swinburne Library Blog, as I will when I get my life back.

While 23 Things is a resounding success (on buy-in alone) when measured against most staff development programs, unfortunately not everyone has enjoyed the experience. Many of my colleagues evidently found it a trial. I’m not going to link to any of their posts for their own privacy, but I want it to be clear that I’ve read and appreciated them.

As a result, I have some suggestions for why the program almost failed:

  • The time factor: Right back at the launch of the program, someone suggested that the tasks would take fifteen minutes each. Hardly. I’ve been assured by one of the committee members that this was never the case, but several of us remember hearing it so I doubt we all dreamed it. Even people who wrote the bare minimum in their posts (as opposed to my excessively long essays) spent several hours on each task. One of my colleagues noted that staff in customer service areas were made to feel guilty for wasting time if they sat down to complete a 23 Things task. The same colleague observed that on this basis, the only way for many staff to complete the program was to perform the tasks outside work hours. One staff member wrote her final task after her contract ended. I know I lost many weeks at work trying to cram in all the tasks, and since I tried not to let the program interfere too much with my (real) work, that meant sacrificing a lot of time outside work as well.
  • People felt out of their comfort zone and abandoned: Some of the tasks (particularly the wiki task) were very challenging for people with limited technological experience. The digg task left many people wondering how porn, silly videos and other offensive material related to libraries, and they didn’t feel that the 23 Things committee supported them in finding out. A blog post, and an audio recording of someone reading out the blog post, is not terribly helpful when you’re confused. This was felt especially strongly over Christmas, when many of the support staff were on leave.
  • The schedule for tasks was questionable: Why did we set up a blog, then abandon it to play with image generators and other ephemeral tools, then come back later to subscribe to a feed reader? It seems illogical to me. Blog and feed reader tasks should all have been together. Splitting them up over several weeks meant that many of my colleagues wrote off blogging as a pointless method of communication; they thought they had to keep visiting a blog to find out if anything new had been posted. I didn’t feel it was my place to encourage them to skip ahead to discover why this wasn’t the case, but I can understand their frustration.
  • The participation progress chart damaged morale: 23 Things was touted as a ‘self-paced’ program that would stretch on for months to allow full time, part time and part year staff all to have a chance to complete the tasks. This was a relief for those of us who don’t really have a quiet period over the summer, and those who aren’t at work at all. Yet round about the halfway mark, a wiki page cropped up that documented our progress for all to see. It was an invasion of privacy — suddenly everyone knew how well or how poorly we were doing — and for those who were struggling, seeing themselves at the back of the pack was frankly demoralising. One colleague was very disappointed to be ‘cast into the ranks of the “tardies“‘, and I agree that it hurt me at the time too. The star chart meant that people who had actually put some time and effort into the program could see that those who wrote ‘I did the task’ were credited with the same number of points as they were. Next time, keep it private.

I’m sorry that this all sounds so negative, but for the sake of any future programs I’ve chosen to be very honest. This blog is a product of 23 Things, and for me it is both the best outcome and the ultimate test. Can I keep it going? It has been a great forum for me to spell out my thoughts  on information and the future of libraries, and to invite other professional colleagues to comment or debate with me. Most of my traffic so far has come through the 23 Things website, but my WordPress statistics indicate that I’ve had at least one click from an Australian blog register I joined several weeks ago. Plus now that there is actually some content on this blog, I’m going to take the plunge and join the Libraries Interact Australian library blogroll.

And perhaps I might expand my audience even further now, since I just discovered that I’ve had Google indexing turned off for the last six months (which might explain why no-one can find me … least of all me).

Best of luck, everyone!