by Tig Wartluft
The other morning during breakfast I watched this Vox video about satirists versus more traditional media coverage and noticed that some of the clips were by a professor at my university (Sophia McClennen, School of International Affairs (SIA)). This caught my attention because SIA shares a building with the law school. So this professor, who didn’t look familiar to me, was included in a video receiving national attention and I hadn’t heard any buzz about it. It’s not that I think that I should know everything that’s going on in the University, but this professor’s office is in the same building and on the same floor as mine… maybe 100-150 feet further down the hall! No idea.
Additionally, this past weekend I was invited to participate in a one-day ‘summer bootcamp’ for our students, hosted by our school’s career services office. As this occurred over the weekend, I’m certain that without the invitation, I would have not known that the event even existed.
These two events have made me start to think about digital communication and personalization.
But probably from the other side of what we’re used to. We’re accustomed to seeing news stories and papers about the benefits of personalization: Amazon’s shopping suggestions, Facebook’s targeted ads, etc. We can personalize our musical listening experience (Spotify, Pandora), our consumed media (Feedly, YouTube, Netflix), our shopping (Amazon), and even our digital social interactions (Facebook, LinkedIn). Each of these services has been marketed as a way for us, individually, to deal with information overload. We only have to pay attention to the music we want to hear, the items we want to buy, and even the news we want to see. Personalization and individualization have been touted as ways that empower each of us to attempt to control the overwhelming torrents of information available to us in digital form.
There are definite benefits like how these digital resources have allowed individuals who are not geographically near each other to create social networks and groups. I am able to keep in touch with, and interact with, friends around the globe because of the power of these digital services. I can interact with people who I’ve never met in real life and consider them friends. But there’s a flip side.
How do we create community and form a society when all our tools promote individuality and the supreme importance of the personality? I remember events from my childhood that entered the society’s memory, as a collective: the final episode of MASH, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and President Reagan being shot. These events were incorporated into our society’s memory because nearly everyone was exposed to them. Probably because there were fewer TV networks and no internet. More recent disasters have also entered societal memory; however, I feel that those memories aren’t as pervasive nor did they (in my opinion) build as forceful of a societal memory because of the various ways people interacted with the story – more networks, more spin, more choices in coverage, and additional choices (cable TV channels, the internet) to avoid the news coverage entirely.
With the constant information overload and deepening personalization, how do we develop smaller societies and communities, like the community of my University, or even of my building? If only the biggest news stories are able to blanket the multitude of ways we individually consume information, how do we create a shared society, a shared sense of identity for our school, our campus, our institution?
When I was in library school, the graduate student government was dealing with a form of this question. At issue was how to disseminate all the information of which students needed to be cognizant, without overloading them. The school at the time had moved all communication to email – an efficient format over the older route of information dissemination via posting fliers to a bulletin board. However, the school had found that if students received too many emails, they simply dealt with the overload by ignoring all emails from the school. So there was a limit put in place that all announcements and information were to be bundled together into only two emails per week. This meant that each of those emails could be very, very long. Most students didn’t scroll though those emails, only glancing at the top few items before determining that the entire email didn’t pertain to them and ignoring the rest of the, probably important, announcements. The grad student government was investigating what communication styles might work – too many individual emails didn’t work, fewer longer emails also didn’t work.
My recent experiences have brought this issue back into my thoughts. It used to be that a society’s memory and personality came from shared experiences. Whether that society was the entire country, a town, or an individual school, there was a culture unique to that community. As it becomes easier for each individual to find and participate in personalized groups, it gets increasingly more difficult to develop and create societies based solely upon geographically localized populations. Career Services was able to email only the students and individuals they thought would be interested in their event; last month I did the same thing when I only emailed our 2Ls and 3Ls about the Library’s “prepare to practice” seminar series. Targeted marketing likely prevented students from being overloaded with emails and may have led to more students actually reading these emails. But at the same time, it seems that we’ve made working together as a school even harder because it is increasing difficult to serendipitously discover information outside of our well-curated, personalized-information streams.
As a graduate student government, we failed to find a solution; I’m not sure that anyone has found a good solution to balance the desire for consumption of personalized information with the need for some information to be blanketed across an entire group. So how do we create a chance for a group to create shared memory based on a shared experience or knowledge base? How can we harness the individuality of personalized information streams to build community within a group (like the students at a school) whose main similarity isn’t any one specific interest, but rather a temporary geographical proximity? I don’t have that answer, but it is an issue that we as librarians have to think about as we serve our community. Please leave a comment with any thoughts on topic.