I went to a seminar last night, hosted by CLSIG, which followed a kind of “web 2.0: pros and cons” format. Now, the fact that the first thing I did on leaving the seminar was tweet about it, then head home and start blogging about it, should tell you which side of the fence I fall on! There were some pretty interesting points made – although I didn’t agree with many of the “cons”, I do think there are some points worth discussing.
Phil Duffy went first with the anti-web 2.0 argument. He began by insisting that he is not a Luddite – he understands technology and is comfortable using it; but admitted that he perhaps does not understand the social side. His first point was that he’s not convinced that “web 2.0” is actually anything other than marketing hype. He argued that the web was always about users generating and sharing content, e.g. Usenet groups, so it doesn’t make sense to distinguish between web 1.0 and web 2.0 (my immediate reaction is to disagree with this, but it occurs to me that I don’t have much experience of web 1.0 – I only have the haziest notion of what a Usenet group is/was – so I’m going to give Phil the benefit of the doubt here).
Phil went on to point out that as the effort, skill, cost and time required to publish has gone down, the amount of material published has, obviously, gone up. This has led to the well-documented problems of information overload and filtering – the overall quality of what is published has not risen, so it is much harder to actually sort through what is out there to find out what is worth your attention. He also noted that one of the stated advantages of web 2.0 – collaboration – is not always a good thing, quoting the maxim that “a camel is a horse designed by a committee”.
Now, this was my first major point of disagreement with Phil. I completely accept that it can be much harder to accomplish anything in a group than it often is if you’re just working on your own. However, if that were the only point to the argument then no work would ever be done by committee. Sometimes, collaboration is necessary – there are projects that couldn’t be completed any other way. I wasn’t quite sure which comparison Phil was trying to make: between collaboration and solo working, or between online collaboration and offline? If the former, that’s a pointless comparison – both are necessary for different projects. If the latter, that’s also a pointless comparison – surely the same problems will occur in offline collaboration, but without the benefits of not everyone needing to be in the same place at the same time? I get that face-to-face meetings are still necessary, but I cannot seriously believe that the ability to collaborate online, in real time or asynchronously, is anything but a benefit to collaborative projects.
Phil continued by emphasising the need for information literacy teaching (something I thoroughly agree with) when dealing with the current generation who have grown up with the web, expect everything to be available online, and do not know how to differentiate between authoritative and dubious content.
He then expressed his fears about the current generation of new information professionals (hi there!), and how to find new hires who were actually capable of the job. He said (paraphrased) that he doesn’t want to hire bloggers or social media “experts” – he wants people who know how to “shelve books, understand a query however is it presented to them, do primary and secondary research”. I really don’t understand why he thinks those skills are incompatible – I am a blogger, I use social media (although I wouldn’t describe myself as an “expert”), and having been born in 1984 makes me Gen Y – that’s the one that expects everything to be online, and doesn’t realise that Wikipedia isn’t an authoritative source. However, I also know what those papery things with all the words in are, and am well aware that I can’t do all the research I need to at work online. I do tend to go for the online sources first, because it’s quicker to figure out that what you’re looking for isn’t there with online searching – I don’t see a problem with that approach. I think he’s missing the point – it’s not an either/or situation. If he’s not hiring people on the basis of their engagement with social media, he’s probably missing out on some talented candidates with a broad knowledge of alternative communication platforms and information sources.
Phil wrapped up his section with some familiar warnings about the security of your personal information on social networking sites – this gets brought up in every talk I’ve ever been to on web 2.0 and social media, are there really any information professionals out there who aren’t aware of those issues? Part of me thinks it should really go without saying, rather than spending your limited time pointing it out. I did enjoy the anecdote about an exercise he does with new trainees, where he searches for MySpace profiles containing the phrase “Hammonds trainee” (although was I the only one that thought: MySpace? Seriously?? Just how young are these trainees! Surely a Facebook search would make more sense…). He also showed some rough calculations, working out the amount of money that was lost by employees Facebooking during work hours (came to about £21m, although I didn’t note down how he’d worked that out and I don’t think he’s put his slides online). That also struck me as a pointless thing to say – as someone in the audience pointed out, employees will always find something to waste their time on, regardless of whether or not they use social media. Nobody spends 100% of their work time on work-related activities, and I’m sure that was the case long before the Internet.
Karen Blakeman was up next, discussing the positive side of web 2.0. She began by pointing out that the oft-repeated warnings about the potential for misinformation on the Internet were perhaps exaggerated – people have circulated, knowingly or otherwise, false information for hundreds of years (I would add that the Internet – access to lots of sources at once, coupled with enough judgement to decide which are authoritative – can actually make it easier to fact check).
Having asked the audience for their suggestions of what web 2.0 actually meant (suggestions included collaborating, sharing and serendipity) Karen suggested that a good way to think about web 2.0 was in terms of what you actually wanted to achieve, rather than focusing on the specific tools. Thinking about tasks like sharing knowledge with colleagues, keeping up-to-date, providing information effectively and on multiple platforms, and monitoring your (or your company’s) reputation, can give you a better idea of what can be accomplished using web 2.0 than just talking about blogs, wikis and RSS feeds.
The point about using web 2.0 to monitor what people are saying about your company was one that kept coming up – definitely a good use of the technology, especially if you’re in any kind of customer service role. I won’t go over all the advice that Karen had, as there is plenty of detail on her slides, but she had lots of practical tips on what different web 2.0 services can be used for. She also pointed out that useful technologies aren’t always the newest – her personal favourite professional network is the email discussion lists she subscribes to.
All in all, an interesting session. I’ll be keeping an eye on the blogs for the next few days to see what others thought of the debate – I’d be interested to see if anyone shares my opinions on Phil’s talk in particular, or if I’m just being an over sensitive gen Y-er.