Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 5, Number 8: June 2005

Net Media

First, a topic I don’t plan to follow—at least for now: “Folksonomy.” I’ve used the “IANALibrarian” excuse in one email conversation, and that’s partly valid. I don’t have enough background in how thesauri and other taxonomies and controlled vocabularies should work to feel confident in addressing the relative virtues of different systems. So far, I haven’t felt the need or had the time to become involved with tagging or any of the tools that appear to support Folksonomy, and I’m not entirely sure that I really understand the whole area. I am reasonably sure that Folksonomy and professional taxonomy can coexist, just as MARC and XML can coexist, but that’s another discussion.

If you don’t buy the IANAL excuse, here’s another: No single source can cover everything, and this particular area just doesn’t resonate with me. Which is not to imply that it’s worthless or uninteresting or uncontroversial. You haven’t seen a diatribe against Folksonomy in Trends & Quick Takes, as you might if I thought it was just another silly neologism. I mostly think it’s complicated enough, and far enough outside my comfort zone, to leave alone for now.

That’s true for “social software” as well, at least as a general topic. I read Many2many. I print off the occasional Clay Shirky essay: You can find lots of lengthy “writings about the internet” at www.shirky. com/writings/. I have gone through some of those essays marking passages I want to cite or argue with. And I’m going to pass for now.

More Wiki Wackiness

No big roundup or overall perspective this time. Just a few items, not including one response to the McHenry article that—well, I couldn’t provide a coherent comment without mentioning paranoia, so I skipped it.

Meredith at Information wants to be free thinks “2005 will be the year of the Wiki” and discusses them in a good, brief essay posted February 2, 2005 ( Meredith offers a definition of wikis from Ward Cunningham, who started the first one nine years ago, and notes virtues and drawback of the form. (Meredith also compliments my essay on the Wikipedia controversy; that’s not why I’m mentioning this piece.) Meredith notes some of the other uses for wikis—sharing information in a professional environment, workgroup tracking, etc. Ready reference via a controlled-contribution wiki? Seems like a natural. Meredith ends:

If I had to predict anything tech-wise for 2005, it would be that many more libraries are going to start using wikis administratively. I love the concept of the Wiki and I think it has many useful applications in the library and technology world. However, I think the Wiki’s greatest strengths can sometimes be its greatest weakness, and I don’t think it is effective in every setting. I look forward to seeing what develops this year in the wacky Wiki world!

“Mr Ed” at posted a longer, negative piece on February 18, 2005: “Wikiphilia—the new illness.” He defines Wikiphilia as “A mental illness characterized by the irrational conviction that any problem faced by a group can be rendered solvable through installation and use of a Wiki” and goes on to expand that definition. Mr. Ed notes the features/benefits of a wiki, then says, “The downside of the Wiki’s flexibility is that it doesn’t support any particular application very well.” He goes on to note issues in the community aspects of wikis that can lead to problems.

To the extent that some (by no means all) wiki users and advocates treat wikis as universal solutions or are involved in the “hokey spiritualism that has developed around it,” there’s a problem. In unregulated communities where no reasonable editorial control can be maintained, a wiki can take on the nature of the worst discussion lists and sites such as /. For many jobs, a wiki may be a workable tool, but some other tool may be better.

Given all those points, I don’t see the inevitability of Mr. Ed’s conclusion, which is that the whole concept is a “retrograde one.” It seems clear that wikis are effective tools for some jobs in some communities with some budgets. Sure, “it’s in our own interest to choose tools that best facilitate the task at hand, rather than allowing ourselves or others to be drawn towards lesser alternatives simply because of their novelty value.” I don’t believe all wikis exist because of novelty value; I believe that in many cases they represent the most cost-effective, effort-effective way to get something done. (But what do I know? I don’t run any wikis.) Steven Cohen of Library stuff (who pointed me to Mr. Ed’s paper) does not trash the criticisms (in a February 22, 2005 post). “I love working with wikis, but do understand that there are drawbacks. Wikis work well in small, closed environments, with an interactive participatory audience.”

Getting back to Wikipedia itself, Wired ran “The book stops here” in its March 2005 issue ( Daniel H. Pink’s article offers some balance and intriguing details, but at the end does exactly what you’d expect from Wired: New, better. Digital, best. Somehow, Wikipedia being free is “more important” than whether it’s as good an encyclopedia as Britannica. Then there’s this comparison of “traditional” encyclopedias and Wikipedia: “The One Best Way approach creates something finished. The One for All model creates something alive.” But every contemporary encyclopedia goes through a continual updating and editing process; in most cases, certainly including Encarta and Britannica, some or all of the results of that process are available online. Still, an interesting article, once you recognize the source and the set of biases that source implies. (I’m not sure I want to know that one contributor has made “more than 16,000 contributions” to Wikipedia since 2002—or that another, with 40,000 additions and revisions, is the fourth most prolific Wikipedian! I would say “Get a life” but these people clearly have lives: Wikipedia.)

Alain Vaillancourt commented on the Wired article in a Web4Lib posting (March 3, 2005), noting the article makes the “usual absurd” comparison of Britannica’s 80,000 articles and Wikipedia’s half-million “articles” in its English version—and that the article fails to note how skewed Wikipedia’s coverage is.

danah at Many2Many (March 6, 2005) is bothered by the lack of known authorship in Wikipedia entries, and notes that the same problem arises in some other encyclopedias and dictionaries. She’s more bothered by hype around Wikipedia than the project itself—“the assumption that it is the panacea.” She also says, “It has great value, both as a tool for information and as a site of community. But there are limitations and I believe that the incessant hype is damaging to being able to situate it properly and to recognize its strengths and weaknesses.” A few days later (March 9), Clay Shirky offers his thoughts on the subject in “One world, two maps”—and you need to read that one yourself if you’re interested. Shirky starts out with a “two kinds of people” model that immediately puts me on guard: “People with two kinds of maps of the world—radial and Cartesian.” “Radial people assume that any technological change starts from where we are now… Cartesian people assume that any technological change lands you somewhere—reality is just one point of many on the map.” I’ve left out too much, but I find the whole comment befuddling and not particularly enlightening.

Actually, I do think I know what Shirky’s getting at: Some people focus on the journey while others focus on the destination. As you might expect, Shirky says Wikipedia is “better, and sustainably better, than what went before”—not just different but better (and it’s “cool” as well). Maybe I’m just one of those people who is uncomfortable dividing people into two sharply different groups.

Looking at these notes and the rants I chose to omit, I’m struck that much, perhaps most, of the problem with Wikipedia and wikis in general comes from two sources:

Ø    The need to have a zero-sum game: Wikipedia can only win if traditional encyclopedias lose. For those of us who see Wikipedia and “authoritative” encyclopedias as fundamentally different constructs, this is absurd—but not, I suspect, to Wikipedia’s founder and most of its zealots.

Ø    Pure hype, wikis as the best solution to whatever problem you might have. If it turns out badly, you didn’t understand it well enough.

Weblogs and RSS

What really happened at the Blogging, Journalism and Credibility Conference? I’ve read notes and comments from several participants, most of which leave me more confused than ever—particularly regarding the only reasons I care about the question. That is, why was ALA a cosponsor of this conference, how much did it cost ALA, and what did my professional association get out of it?

Jon Garfunkel posted his thoughts at his Civilities weblog on January 28, 2005 and before ( The January 28 posting deals with inclusiveness at the conference (at which Garfunkel was an observer). It’s an interesting post, beginning with Garfunkel’s assumptions:

Ø    “[T]he conference was meant to affect only the people that wanted to be affected by it…”

Ø    “[F]unctional proxies may be more important to diversity than identity proxies. A black woman may not be expected to be able to speak for all black women, but a librarian who speaks for library users should be seen as...credible for that is her job.”

Ø    “[W]hile there are many strands [of] diversity to aim for, some…are more critical than others for [a] given situation.”

Right up front, I wonder about the example given for the second assumption. Only one librarian/weblogger was at the conference—and she no longer works in a library. Is it truly the job of one librarian to “speak for [all] library users”? Does a journalist speak for all newspaper readers? (Garfunkel’s “Gatekeepers” series has concluded; more on that in a future issue.)

As for diversity, Garfunkel says the conference was weak on “people of color” in general and was roughly three-quarters male—and only one of the “dozen or so dominant voices” was a woman. Most attendees were “professional knowledge workers”—people who inherently have some time to blog—whereas, unsurprisingly given the tenor of big-name blogs, conservatives were (shall we say) not left out in the cold. Mostly, the conference was dominated by bloggers: “What was missing mostly was outsiders—skeptics of blogs, cultural critics, community activists—who could consistently and reliably respond to some of the myths and assertions being made.” That’s the sense I’ve picked up from all the coverage I’ve seen. Thus Seth Finkelstein: “I think the issue which some critics are exploring is that the speaker’s list, overall, doesn’t seem to have anyone who has to struggle for credibility.”

The “dominant woman,” Rebecca Mackinnon, excerpted some comments for a piece in The Nation on March 17, 2005 ( Reading those comments, I see little to intrigue or interest me, with the possible exception of Karen Schneider’s sensible note that many people can’t be expected to “recalibrate their BS detectors” for the blog world, as Dan Gillmor presumes they should. Summing up—I don’t know what really happened; ALA hasn’t told me why it was worth their sponsorship or money; but I’m sure the privileged few who were invited enjoyed themselves. Good for them.

Blogging and RSS miscellany

A handful of brief metablogs (blogging about blogging) and other commentaries about blogging and RSS struck me as particularly worth noting (chronologically). Rushton Brandis posted “Blog the web with RSS: Is it really simple syndication?” at WebJunction ( on February 1, 2005, as part of WebJunction’s ongoing “emerging technology” theme. It’s a fast set of items to consider for reading and writing blogs, specifically library blogging—although once you follow all the links that flesh out what’s here, it isn’t that fast. I’d take some of it with a grain of salt, for example one claim for the death of an alternative medium in the fifth “reading blogs” point. Still, worth reading as a quick introduction for a total newbie.

If you want a truly quick and painless introduction, not to blogging but to easy syndication, go no further than Joy Weese Moll’s February 10, 2005 essay “Bloglines for librarians in three (and a half) easy steps,” html. “These three easy steps offer no choices, no background, and no reasons why. Just a fast way to get in the game.” She’s not kidding: If I’d had this handout earlier, I might have signed up for Bloglines earlier. Great stuff, with or without the “QuickLibrarianSetUp” link to populate Bloglines.

Meredith at Information wants to be free ( posted “Good tips for beginning bloggers” on February 20, 2005. Meredith starts out with refreshing candor: “Starting a blog can be intimidating.” Meredith goes on to suggest that you figure out why you’re blogging, which may help you narrow the focus of your blog (or broaden it, if that’s appropriate). The post points to one list of “don’ts” from Dennis Kennedy and a list of “dos” from B.L. Ochman—the latter a list that I printed for commentary, but chose to ignore because its advice stresses marketing over content. Meredith also quotes Jessamyn West and offers a good wrapup. Worth reading.

Jane at A wandering eyre ( has “Blogs: Defined and discussed” on February 21, 2005. After offering a caveat that these are strictly her opinions, she offers her own definition of blogs, excluding those that offer hyperlinks without commentary. She’s most interested in “why I think blogs are a new form of discussion, especially in regards to the library profession.” She considers blogs with comments as “glorified discussion boards” (but with one person initiating all the discussions)—but also considers blogs without comments to play “a key role in discourse” because other bloggers will discuss the posts. What starts out as a single post may become a discussion across many blogs. I’ve pontificated on this subject at more length than a weblog should support (C&I 5:4, p. 8), but I found new insights from Jane’s comments.

Steven Cohen doesn’t believe in information overload and that flavors his response to another weblogger in the March 7, 2005 Library stuff post “Are you becoming a slave to your RSS reader?” ( Cohen reads 400+ feeds. It takes him about 2 hours to get through it all. “I then spend 1 and a half hours writing to my blog (if I don’t have other work to do…”) I’m impressed that anyone has that much time to spend on weblogs, but for Cohen it’s become a profitable avocation (check out the rate card for the blog—I’m impressed and a little envious). He also offers excellent advice on keeping your aggregator under control so it’s serving you, not vice-versa. “You know which feeds aren’t working for you. It’s a feeling, not a science.” I know. Two key unsubscribes in early April (neither from the library portion of my Bloglines list) made all the difference for me during a period when I could ill afford even 15 minutes twice a day to check postings. In a related April 12, 2005 post, Cohen notes the only plausible solution to “information anxiety”—that is, feeling that you should deal with more information than you can deal with comfortably:

Last week, someone told me that they feel they can’t keep up with all of the trends on the web. Geez, what an impossible task. Nobody can do that. I told her to pick a few trends that she was interested in and follow those.

You can’t follow everything. You probably can’t follow everything even within one area—for example, I don’t even pretend to follow all copyright-related happenings. It’s useful to be reminded of that now and then. Most of us need to find comfort levels and trim our information flow to fit within those levels.

Here’s one I’d approach with some caution: “It’s not dangerous,” posted at on March 8, 2005. The brief essay notes people who have been fired for blogging and says, “[I]t’s all a bunch of BS. For most people, blogging is a career-booster, both in your current job and when you’re looking for your next one.” The essay goes on to offer “Ten reasons why blogging is good for your career.” Some of them may be fine. Some are questionable generalizations: “Bloggers are better-informed than non-bloggers.” One I find particularly bothersome: “It’s a lot harder to fire someone who has a public voice, because it will be noticed.” That smacks of “You wouldn’t dare fire me,” which is a bad basis for a healthy work life.

I’d also be a little cautious about “How to blog safely (about work or anything else),” posted April 6, 2005 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation ( php). The URL offers half of EFF’s advice: Blog anonymously, which the essay spells out: Use a pseudonym and avoid identifying details; use anonymizing technologies; limit your audience (e.g., by using a service such as LiveJournal where you can require passwords for readers); and “don’t be Googleable.” But if you follow all those steps in order to “blog about your terrible work environment” safely—which requires hiding the identity of your employer as well—why bother to blog at all? Why not just write your rants, print them out and shred them? You’ll have just as much impact and you won’t have to go to all that trouble. I can’t imagine much drearier pastimes than reading complaints from an unknown person about an unknown work or other situation. What’s the point? The second half, “Blog without getting fired,” points out that the First Amendment protects your right to speak—but doesn’t shield you from consequences of speaking. The section notes five areas where you may have some protection: political opinions, unionizing activity, whistleblowing (if you follow the proper channels), reporting on government work—and, in some states, maybe, writing about off-duty activities.

Blake Carver posted a stunning series of essays in his LISNews journal (, including “What Gorman got right,” posted March 22, 2005. He offers several bullets—good points Gorman made “that might help us be better writers.” I can’t resist quoting the phrases—but you need to read the whole thing: “1. Bloggers ain’t editors… 2. Blogging is not always scholarly… 3. We are boosters and hopeful… 4. We do move too fast… 5. Some of us are fanatical digitalists… 4. We are quick to judge and criticize… 5. Our writing tends to be short and emotional… 6. Sometimes we only need random facts and paragraphs…”

A longer piece: “Delivering the news with blogs: The Georgia State University Library experience” by Teri Vogel and Doug Goans, which either has been or soon will be published in Internet Reference Services Quarterly. I read a preprint (boldly splashed across every page), 31 double-spaced pages. It’s a charming, well-written, interesting article. Georgia State is using weblogs as an alternative to library newsletters, and seems to be doing it well. Worth reading.

Audio Blogging

Call it “podcasting” if you must. “Podcasting” with its use of MP3 as a delivery mechanism is different from audio blogging, which can use streaming audio. In his March 3, 2005 “Let’s write about audio,” Greg Schwartz at Open stacks—one of librarydom’s premier podcasters—offers some of his opinions on podcasting ( He defines it narrowly: “An audioblog is just an audioblog until I provide a RSS 2.0 feed that handles enclosures. Then and only then do I have a podcast, or as I prefer to say, I have an audioblog that I make available via podcast.”

He finds lots of possibilities inherent in podcast delivery, from one-minute posts recorded over cell phones to “two-hour slick production[s] with commentary, live performances, and interviews.” He started doing podcasts partly because he’s a perfect audience for them (long commute, iPod, ready to listen to something other than radio) and didn’t find much library-related audio content. So he started doing it himself. I haven’t heard his podcasts, because I don’t have a long commute or an iPod, and I don’t have attention time to listen to podcasts in general: You can’t skim audio the way you can skim weblogs. What I love about this post, besides some down-to-earth history of how he got going with his shows, is its ending—a “distillation of my opinions…in the ever-popular guideline format.” To quote in full, because it’s all good:

Ø    “If you provide regularly-updated textual content, provide an RSS feed.

Ø    “If you provide regularly-updated media content, audio/video/whatever, provide a podcast feed.

Ø    “Don’t provide regularly-updated textual content if it doesn’t work for you or your organization.

Ø    “Don’t provide regularly-updated audio content if it doesn’t work for you or your organization.

Ø    “Only consume as much regularly-updated textual and/or media content as works for you.

Ø    “And most importantly, don’t let a crazy, non-sensical, rambling librarian tell you what works (or doesn’t) for you.”

With the caveat that there are other kinds of “regularly-updated textual content” than weblogs—one of which you’re reading right now—I can only add that I suspect I’m missing something by not listening to Schwartz’ podcasts. Maybe I’ll find the time one of these days.

Schwartz’ post is in part a response to Michael Stephens’ “TTW on podcasting,” posted March 3, 2005 at Tame the web ( ttwblog/). Stephens seems to have mixed feelings—not about the technology itself but about its universal desirability. “Frankly I see the application of syndicated audio content as more useful to libraries than to individual librarians who blog”—going on to recognize the niche represented by Schwartz and one or two others. He also says podcasting is “not blogging…it’s broadcasting.” That’s tricky: Assuming podcasts are offered in reverse chronological order, they’re as much blogging as any weblog that doesn’t allow comments (otherwise known as “serial publishing”). Stephens hopes all his favorite bloggers don’t convert solely to audio content. I doubt that’s a danger.

“I would rather see libraries make promotional and information audio content available when the format suits the content.” What a notion: Use audio when it’s appropriate—and don’t sign up for podcasting just because it’s the Technology of the Week.

Going outside the library sphere, we have “Why I’m not smoking the podcasting dope,” posted by Darren Barefoot on March 30, 2005 on (prepend a www.) and some of the reactions to that relatively brief entry. Barefoot is skeptical about podcasting. “I’m skeptical about who’s doing it, who’s going to do it, and who’s going to listen to it. In short, I don’t think podcasting is going to get very far into the mainstream.” He offers his reasoning in a “kind of rhetorical discussion” with headings offering his version of the pro-podcasting themes, followed by his responses. To “It’s still early days” he says it’s not: Mainstream radio is busily packaging radio content for portable-player consumption. That’s certainly true; alone offers (I’m told) a wide variety of radio-based content. “It’s just like blogging—we’re adding a zillion voices to the long tail.”

Barefot thinks podcasting has a short tail because you can’t compress the experience (you can’t skim a half-hour podcast in three minutes), less than half of North America has broadband access (and the fraction with portable digital players is smaller than the hype suggests), and lots of people don’t have commute time for podcast listening. “Anybody can do it.” Wrong—you need equipment, knowhow, and preferably a good voice. “There’s a large willing audience.” But radio listening appears to be declining. “Podcasting is revolutionary.” Yeah, right. “That’s what people said about FM radio in the sixties and seventies.”

Barefoot just doesn’t think podcasting “is going to have the legs that blogs have had”—but “I’d be glad to be proven wrong.” I don’t have a horse in this race—but when libraries are being encouraged (urged?) to produce podcasts, I wonder if they’re also being encouraged to track whether those podcasts find real audiences. Maybe they will, and maybe those audiences will include potential library supporters. I don’t know. To be sure, podcasting can still be relevant and useful even if it never becomes mainstream or revolutionary—and it’s clear that Barefoot is not opposed to podcasting when it makes sense.

I’m in an odd position here. As some who’ve met me can attest, I do have the voice for podcasting. For a long time in my youth I wanted to be a DJ, since ethics prevented me from becoming a revival preacher. What I don’t have: The equipment, the chops to put together a coherent show, or the belief that I could communicate as well aurally as I do in text.

The post drew loads of comments: 14 pages on a 2.5-page post when I printed it off, and they may still be coming in. Some agreed—and in some cases noted that podcasting still fills niche needs, particularly for public-transportation commuters. (One comment, noted only by the first name “Greg,” has to be from Schwartz: He “misquotes” Ranganathan, something very few non-librarians would do!) One good comment, which doesn’t denigrate podcasting: “Podcasting is essentially ham radio for the 21st century.”

One commenter, Charles, offered an interesting new insight: “Podcasting is for control freaks… Podcasters are basically laying down a linear stream of words that you cannot skim, you must take it in exactly the linear order that it is presented, or not at all.” By comparison, he goes on, writing and reading are nonlinear activities. “Podcasting goes against everything the Web stands for. It demands that the user take things exactly as the podcaster presents it…” Naturally, one commenter said, “You need to stop looking at this with ‘I don’t like this technology so it is no good’ mentality.” That’s not what Barefoot did: He posited that podcasting would not be revolutionary or as important as blogging, not that it was “no good.” Other commenters accused Barefoot of saying that “It’s all crap,” which he didn’t.

Shel Holtz wrote an April 4, 2005 rejoinder to Barefoot’s essay that’s twice as long as the original ( “Is podcasting for real?” Holtz addresses each of Barefoot’s major arguments—sort of. Mostly, he makes fun of Barefoot. The real-time issue isn’t an issue because “people will prioritize.” The audience limitations don’t matter because things will change. Holtz listens to “about 15 podcasts” despite no commute—but he listens “on flights” and “when driving to clients” (like a commute, but different—and, of course, all of us fly frequently and spend lots of time driving to clients). The linear stream response is “So what?” And, Gaia help us, there’s another neologism: “podcatching software” to get podcasts on your player. Need I mention that Holtz does podcasts—and runs an operation that “focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications”?

Dave Slusher at Evil genius chronicles also responded with “Smoking the blog crack” ( on April 5, 2005. He’s surprised that the “blog drum-beaters” aren’t pushing podcasting as hard as they push blogging, particularly because of their reasons (which boil down to the impossibility of skimming audio content). He concludes that some “hardcore blog purists” really believe only in “citizen created typing” rather than “citizen created media.” He says these purists consider podcasting “heresy”—which, again, is reading an awful lot into Barefoot’s mild-mannered skepticism. (Hmm: Mild skepticism regarded as outright bias and antagonism. Where have I heard that before?) Slusher sees “closed mindedness and complete absurd literalness.” And, apparently, his extreme interpretation of what Barefoot actually wrote caused him to call Barefoot a name I can’t repeat in this family publication. Can’t we all just get along?

My bottom line: I don’t currently listen to podcasts because I don’t have much of a commute, I watch old movies while I’m on my treadmill, and I don’t listen to audio—specifically not spoken word—while I’m writing or reading. The medium just doesn’t work for me, for now. I believe it has some significant shortcomings as compared to text blogging for many people. On the other hand, it’s clearly a good way for some people to express themselves, it clearly works for some people, and I applaud both sides of that equation. I saw nothing in Barefoot’s essay (admittedly extreme in some areas) that says “Nobody should podcast, and nothing good can ever come of it.” I saw skepticism. There is nothing wrong with skepticism, except to zealots.

A Few Words from Pew

The Pew Internet & American Life Project continues to issue new reports ( This is a good thing as long as you filter for their cheerleading attitude and take survey results with a grain of salt.

I looked through Artists, musicians and the internet (December 5, 2004). It’s an interesting study, but the “random” portion for artists is relatively small—and the definition of “artists” fairly broad (as it probably should be). 67% of Paid Artists think copyright owners should have “complete control over the use of that work”—but only 30% of Paid Artists think that file-sharing is a major threat and half of artists recognize that “purveyors” benefit more from copyright than creators do. Only 5% of artists say downloading has hurt them. There’s lots more. The Recording Artists Coalition immediately condemned the methodology and results, since their members are certainly deeply concerned about file sharing.

Another survey on Search engine users (January 23, 2005) finds a surprising lack of ability to distinguish between paid search results and others, and an unsurprising finding that half of searchers say they could go back to other ways of finding information. (Some will find that surprising. I don’t.) Roughly half of those who say they use search engines—surprisingly, only 84% of internet users—use them no more than once or twice a week: That sounds about right for casual internet users.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 5, Number 8, Whole Issue 64, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

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