CLSIG Seminar: Web 2.0 – the truth behind the hype

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.

13 comments on “CLSIG Seminar: Web 2.0 – the truth behind the hype

  1. Web 2.0 is (or was) a marketing term, but I’m not sure that’s relevant. It’s really worth looking at Tim O’Reilly’s initial writing about what he was expressing with the term http://oreilly.com/web2/archive/what-is-web-20.html. It wasn’t just about social web or user generated content.

    Even focussing on user generated content Phil is guilty of thinking that unchanging principles mean unchanging practice. Arguing there is no difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 in terms of user generated content is to assume that scale makes no difference. I don’t know if there is aa record of the number people involved in Usenet but the number with a Facebook account is going to be many many times more. Not understanding this different seems to me akin to thinking that the move from scriptoriums to printing presses wasn’t such a big deal – afterall, the output was still somekind of book.

    Anyway, what’s he got against camels? If they were designed by committee, they are a brilliant counter example to the argument he’s making – remarkably well adapted to their environment.

    • Interesting that you say that – there was a paragraph in my post originally (I cut it because I thought it made the post too long and ranty) about that saying about the camel. It’s always bugged me – a camel is very well “designed”, dammit!

      Thanks for the comments on web 1.0 vs web 2.0 as well – that’s pretty much the direction my thoughts were heading in, but I didn’t think I had enough information to hand to make a coherent point. I agree that it’s a bit disingenuous to claim that Usenet is the same as Facebook, for example.

  2. Hey Laura thanks for the blog post – really interesting and you make some good points about Phil’s presentation which I thought wasn’t particularly well argued and the points that he did make seemed to miss the point of Web 2.0/Social Media entirely.

    One of the things I wanted to ask but wasn’t able to (as I wasn’t there) was whether Hammonds were looking at how they could use Social Software/Web 2.0 tools – on the basis of this presentation I’d say probably not. Yes these tools aren’t for everybody but as Information Professionals we should be supportive of them even if we don’t use them outside of work.

    I did agree with Phil’s point about the term Web 2.0 I do think this term is overused and can actually be confusing when you’re trying to explain what these tools are. It becomes even more confusing when you throw in the term Enterprise 2.0.

    You mention one of Phil’s early points about Web 1.0 v Web 2.0 like you I disagree with this, yes the web then was about sharing and making content available…but it was sooo difficult. The tools that we have available now mean that anyone can become a publisher in their own right, yes this means we have issues with Information Overload but think of the things we wouldn’t have seen or read if some of these tools hadn’t been available. Anothe rone of Phil’s points was around creativity and how there are so many clones of the same style of WordPress blog. Yes this is true but to say you cant change the format or look and feel of a blog is just wrong – look at your blog or my blog for instance – also isn’t this one of the benefits of these tools that you can just start using them without having to worry too much about what they look like, at least in the first instance.

    Overall I thought the seminar was interesting, there wasn’t much new from Karen Blakeman though.

    • Oh, I knew I’d forgotten to mention something – absolutely agree with you about the creativity thing, I meant to put that in my post (is probably a bit long as it is though, so maybe for the best…)! I’m using one of WordPress’ templates for this blog, mainly because I think the content is more important than the design at this stage – I know that for most of the blogs I follow, I never see the actual design, as I read them in Google Reader. I do intend to make my own design for this at some point, but if I’d had to do that at the start, I’d never have got this blog off the ground.

  3. I was at the seminar last night too, and i have to say i’d tend to agree with your comments about Phil Duffy’s presentation.

    While he made some valid points i wasn’t at all convinced by his calculation about the amount of money that was lost by employees Facebooking during work hours. Perhaps it was meant to be lighthearted, but ‘evidence’ like that can be used by employers to justify blocking the use of these technologies – a problem that was raised in the Q & A session afterwards.

    Overall though i can see where Phil was coming from. I think that we do need to keep our feet on the ground with regard to web 2.0 and being reminded of some of the less positive aspects is not a bad thing at all.

    I think the event overall was a good one and the different approaches to the subject from the two speakers meant that the whole evening struck a nice balance between Web 2.0 enthusiasm and caution.

    • Cheers for the comment Richard. I do agree that it’s good to exercise a little caution when it comes to these technologies, but I felt that Phil’s approach was more like burying your head in the sand. I get that information overload is a serious problem, and that the proliferation of material available online makes it exponentially harder to sort the wheat from the chaff – but turning your back on these developments isn’t going to make them go away. I think that as information professionals it’s important to engage with new technologies, if only so we can make sense of them and help our users navigate this environment.

      • I agree with you. I think that the lack of coherency in some of Phil’s arguments illustrates the fact that he probably hasn’t explored the benefits to be gained from using web 2 enough.

  4. Great write-up, thank you.
    I was most interested by the comments about being put off by new information professionals who can use Web 2.0 tools but don’t know how to shelve and answer enquiries.
    I have worked in libraries on and off for about 15 years now, and am perfectly capable of shelving and answering enquiries.
    However, I have also worked in the e-learning field, am interested in new technologies, and find Twitter, blogs, etc very useful for keeping up with relevant news and developments, liasing with librarians (and other people doing interesting work) and also recording some of my own activites.
    I don’t think that an interest in Web 2.0 really suggests a lack of ability to shelve and deal with enquiries, in fact I once answered an enquiry which I really coudn’t respond to (even librarians don’t know everything) using Twitter!

  5. […] CLSIG Seminar: Web 2.0 – the truth behind the hype « Organising Chaos […]

  6. Wow, this is a great post – I am glad I’m not Phil Duffy, though…

    The idea of NOT hiring someone because of the skills they DO possess is faintly ridiculous in all but a small handful of situations, and you’d have to wonder what kind of young professional these days would actually fit his bill. Who isn’t in some way 2.0 savvy? It is bonkers to think that someone who tries to engage with contemporary media and working methods would therefore be unable to shelve etc.

    On a related (and slightly mean) note, if anyone mentions MySpace to me as an example of *anything* (except possibly ‘rubbish things from the mid-90s’) I instantly switch-off and assume they don’t know what they’re talking about. It just screams ‘the reason I fear user-generated content / social networking is because I was put off by the early versions and haven’t really made the effort to keep up since’.

    Rant over. 🙂

    • I think we’re all glad we’re not Phil Duffy… 😉

      Not feeling too guilty about saying mean things about his talk though – given his opinion of blogging, I suspect it’s pretty unlikely that he’ll ever read this!

      And yes, when someone searching for examples of this modern social networking thing they’ve heard so much about comes up with MySpace, that’s a pretty clear indication to me that they don’t really know what they’re talking about 🙂

  7. I am old enough to remember Web 1.0 (and before). I would compare Usenet (which I happily used) to computer printouts from the 1980’s, and blogs, twitter etc to desk top publishing of the 1990’s. I know which I prefer.

    Web 2.0 (Social Media is a much better term as it moves away the focus from the technology) is not a marketing term, but a convenient but inevitably an oversimplification of the explosion in user generated content of the last ten years.

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