Addressing the permanence issue

As I was saving a document in Writely the other day, I thought, I’ve got a lot of stuff in here, I hope they don’t lose it! In fact, I’ve got a lot of content squirreled away in a number of Web 2.0 sites scattered about the net. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but thinking about it made me have a moment or two of anxiety which I allayed by doing a mental audit of everything I have squirreled away. I then thought that I ought to consolidate some of it.

This was around about the same time that Steve Wilson published his Squidoo lens entitled “Library 2.0 in three easy steps” which I thought was a great, comprehensive resource for people interested in Library 2.0. Shortly thereafter, Michael and Jenny‘s lens was published which is truly a great document. A great document indeed, but, legally, who owns the rights to it? Luckily for Steve, Michael and Jenny, they own the copyright for their lenses. It seems that Squidoo, “an old-fashioned corporation, with real employees and investors“, has a workable business model based on truly shared content. Not so with all Web 2.0 companies.

Choose your twos

I mention Squidoo as an example of good 2.0. There are a lot of Web 2.0 services out there with a fair amount of overlap–some good and some not-so-good. In some cases, the choice is clear–for instance, most people use flickr for photo sharing–it’s become the de facto, on-line standard for maintaining photo archives with associated metadata. I use it for a number of images used on my blog (as do others). As mashups become more in-style and their usefulness evolves, we’ll see a lot of cross-pollination between library websites, themselves, and Web 2.0 apps. While I’m all for this type of innovation, my systems-admin side of me sends up some red-flags that make me a little wary of following this trend blindly. Let’s be realistic and acknowledge that the Web 2.0 market will correct itself–some of these companies are not going to be around forever–therefore, we need to be choosy.

Longevity

As libraries, we are far more concerned about longevity of data and content than commercial entities. The major difference being that when a company goes belly-up, they no longer care what happens to their data. They will either destroy it or sell it to the highest bidder where who-knows-what will happen to it. Libraries–or librarians, on the other hand, care very much about information and it’s longevity. Show me a red-blooded librarian who doesn’t want to pass the flame of knowledge on to the next generation and have it burn as brightly–if not brighter–as it did for them. I think a certain amount of reluctance within libraries may be attributed to an uncertainty about the future of Web 2.0 technology. As such, we need to seek out stable, working companies to work with as we integrate with 2.0.

Responsibility

There are a number of key indicators we can use to gauge the level of responsibility a company takes toward it’s content and it’s business process. The first, in my mind, is to examine that company’s relationship with copyright. I think it would be smart to beware of companies that play fast and loose with copyrighted material. Another indicator would be to look at the type of customers the company targets. Try to get a sense of what kind of people use the service. Is their behavior in-line with what you would like to do with your own systems? Some other indicators may be financial standing. How much money does the company have? Are they in serious debt? Are they just starting up? How do they make money? Remember, by incorporating a service into our web sites, we are, for all intents and purposes, endorsing that company. I behooves us to make sure we’re doing the right thing.

Exploitation

I seem to recall a bit of a flap over Google’s decision to apply an algorithm against mail received and sent by Gmail. The issue was that some people who used the service felt it was a violation of their privacy. Google, on the other hand, said that it was just a piece of software scanning through the mail for the purpose of displaying targeted advertisement. At the end of the day, the choice is up to the consumer as to whether they’ll use Gmail or not. Some would call what Google is doing a form of exploitation. Exploitation or not, any commercial Web 2.0 service has got to make money. As consumers of this new medium, it’s sometimes very difficult for us to discern how the money is being made. As libraries, we have a responsibility to know this before we integrate it with our own systems.

Privacy

Several months ago, I mentioned that I thought that a social OPAC and patron privacy were not mutually exclusive. I still believe that. I think we can give our patrons clear choices regarding their privacy. There is no need for us to obfuscate the ramifications of participating in a larger social network. In order to provide that kind of transparency, however, we need to make sure our Web 2.0 partners are compliant with our privacy goals. We can do this by knowing what will happen to all data entered into their systems and disclosing that to our users in plain language. Again, all users need to be given the choice of participating, or not. We need to know, at all times, what information is private and what isn’t.

Stability

Can I just say that I feel terrible for all those poor folks using BlogSpot? Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like their servers are frequently unavailable. At any rate, from what I’ve experience with them, I’d never use the service. The Web 2.0 “API” has given rise to an entirely new distributed computing environment. Unbeknown to most web surfers, when they load a page, they may be querying five or six different servers. Those servers, in turn, may be querying five or six different servers, and so on and so forth. This allows developers to pull together content in new and exciting ways, but the drawback is that the entire system is a house of cards. A single server outage anywhere in the chain can have a significant impact on the entire system. Luckily this doesn’t happen very often because most mission-critical services are bolstered by “high-availability” technologies. Looking at a company’s track record (Netcraft can help) makes sense when choosing a service.

Search-ability

From a practical point-of-view, how good is a service’s search capabilities? Does it’s API do a good job of searching as well? Naturally, we want to be able to access the data we put in. You’ll want to look to see if the data can be scoped to include information for just your organization. Are search results fast enough or clear enough to be useful to you? After all, we are libraries and we’re only as good as our search capabilities.

Portability

What if you want to bail on a service? If you’ve been using a service for several years, you’ve undoubtedly accumulated a fair amount of data during that time. Whatever your reasons for ditching a service, you’re likely going to want to get an export of the data. It would be disheartening to find out that it’s not possible, so it makes sense to make exportability (in any usable format) a stipulation of usage. This could be as simple as spidering the data–as long as you can get at it. You can always massage the data back into something useful. You can’t always get it out.

Legality

Ever notice that whenever you sign up on a Web 2.0 site, you are asked to agree to their terms of service? Well, you might want to print that out and run it under your library lawyer’s eyes if you plan to integrate the service. I doubt most people do this.. we sure don’t here at AADL. I’ve also never seen anything untoward in those agreements, but then again, I’m no lawyer. At AADL, we do not entrust patron-added data to any Web 2.0 company–not because we do not trust any of them–we’ve just got other plans.

There is no escaping the usefulness and the power of this new generation of web-based social software. As libraries, we can take advantage of this model through the judicious application of these services. Better yet, we can start to produce our own software so that we never have to worry about where the data goes. Social software allows us to take “snapshots” in time. It produces a legacy of its users that, as it evolves, will become a resource full of ever-increasing richness. There is no reason why we should treat it any differently than we would our books, movies, and music.


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