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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Travel, or how I broaden my mind

27 March 2008

There are many reasons why it would be easy for me to hate my journey to and fro work.

(‘Late…again’, from alistair_35’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence)

For starters, as the crow flies I’m less than 30 minutes away from Swinburne, but it takes me almost an hour to get here. Arguably that’s my fault for not having a car or a licence to drive it (whichever order is appropriate), but cars are pollution factories and I have a conscience.

And why would anyone drive when the train stops right in the middle of the campus?

For good reason, as I’ve discovered. Whenever I hear people in other states whinge about their public transport systems, I’m tempted to lose my cool. Since Connex took over the Melbourne train system early this decade, we’ve developed new terms to describe inefficiency. My train was 25 minutes late last night and I missed the first third of the performance I was trying to attend. Of course, Connex apologised for any inconvenience caused, as they did when they cancelled my train again this morning and I stood on the platform for 22 minutes in the cold. Such a sincere, heartfelt recorded message always makes me feel better about being late for appointments.

Last week Connex gave out free sample boxes of cereal, as if to say: ‘sorry for making you late for work again — have breakfast on us’. Which is fine, but I’d rather they spent the money on improving the system (completely aside from the fact that I don’t like Special K). Food and trains don’t mix; I was entirely unreceptive this morning to a woman who thought I should enjoy having her children crawl all over me and rub their potato chip-coated fingers into my work clothes.

To make matters worse, I’m housesitting at the moment in an unfamiliar geographic location with a lovely dog, an affectionate cat and a pool. Melburnian readers of this blog will have noticed that we’ve rediscovered a forgotten concept called ‘rain’ this week. This morning, I woke up to find that the pool water was level with the surrounding tiles and there’s more rain forecast. By the time I get home, I think the dog will be teaching the cat to swim and the house will have floated away.

Such is life. Luckily, there’s one significant benefit to a long and painful train journey — it helps me catch up on my reading.


If Second Life is the answer, what was the question?

28 February 2008

The Library 2.0 proponents believe that we should meet our users in whatever spaces they choose to inhabit. As you know, I only partially agree with that notion at the best of times.

But what about when that space is a notorious haven for violence, perversion, pornography and criminal activity?

Australia’s greatest exponent of Second Life in libraries is without a doubt Kathryn Greenhill, Emerging Technologies Specialist at Murdoch University Library, also known by the alias Emerald Dumont. Task 22 of the 23 Things program salutes her passion for virtual worlds by asking us to investigate Second Life and how libraries are using it.

There are a number of influential library bloggers who push for libraries’ involvement in ‘gaming’, not for play but for learning. I’ll be posting on the Swinburne Library Blog in the near future (so stay tuned!) about how Swinburne internet architecture researchers use gaming technologies to measure our CPU usage. But how many true ‘gamers’ amongst our library user population would be involved in gaming for the sake of learning? Call me old-fashioned, but I imagine most of them just want to escape from the realities of work and study life and be entertained. And that’s perfectly fine.

I love the idea that new technologies can help libraries reach users whose access has previously been limited by distance, time and/or disability. Peter Lor’s inspiring plenary at VALA2008 (PDF) pushed us to think of our libraries as politicised spaces. It’s an angle I’ve always been reluctant to accept, as I believe that our role is to provide an information service with as few barriers as possible, not to push a political agenda. Yet arguably, our anti-censorship, pro-freedom stance already places us in direct opposition to any form of government, no matter how (purportedly) democratic.

The notion of librarian as anarchist is so divorced from the popular culture concept of conservative, tweed-and-pearl-wearing shushers to be laughable. Yet anarchy actually much closer to the reality than the stereotype will ever be. Underneath the calm exterior, we librarians like to stir the pot.

IFLA (in the person of Peter Lor) encourages us to bring our politics to work with us. Lor argues that we need to become skilled manipulators of the information economy to ensure that no-one is excluded or left behind. To that end, Africa-specific table of contents service Africa Journals Online has been created to help journals published in the developing world gain international exposure. Similar projects in Nepal, Vietnam and Bangladesh are also underway. Contributions to the PKP support forums indicate that the development of free, open source journal hosting software allows academics from developing countries to disseminate their research both in local and worldwide spheres, free from the usual barriers of cost, distance, language, and cultural imperialist prejudice.

I’d love to think that we could use Second Life in similar ways, but it’s an unrealistic goal. Firstly, there’s a technology barrier that for the moment remains insurmountable. Dana notes that the technical specifications for Second Life require better-than-average graphics cards and fast internet connections — beyond the capabilities of most middle-class Australian households, let alone the unreliable PC access available to users in developing countries. This barrier may go some of the way towards explaining the remarkably low Second Life adoption rates in Australia (again, thanks to Dana for an excellent interpretation of the stats). On the basis of these statistics, librarians’ usual argument for participating actively in Second Life — because our users are there — is at best misguided.

Secondly, while there are no humans in Second Life — only an endless parade of impossibly beautiful avatars — it is nonetheless run by humans, and sadly we seem as incapable of creating a socialist utopia in virtual space as we are on earth. Virtual worlds have sparked considerable media and legal controversy over cases of virtual rape and paedophilia.

If we’re going to coax people out of their comfort zones and into new and exciting places, we need to be sure that they’ll be safe. With the lack of control in Second Life — which is admittedly its defining characteristic and perhaps its greatest benefit in an entertainment context — we can’t make any such promises.

Thus, I’m inclined to disagree with ‘Priceless‘ that Swinburne Library will eventually need to inhabit Second Life, because I’m (thankfully) not the only one in vehement opposition. I support those of my colleagues who think it would be more beneficial to master the real world libraries first, before trying to expand into virtual ones.

I’m afraid that for me, A Librarian’s Guide to Etiquette has the final word on this:

‘Librarians should think twice before joining Second Life in an attempt to connect with patrons. Your patrons don’t want to be friends with you in real life, so it’s not likely that they’ll be interested in hanging out with your avatar.’

Further links: