Sunday, November 26, 2006

Consuming Libraries with MySpace

A few days ago I bought the latest issue of the MIT Technology Review, a magazine I discovered a few month ago and have been enamored with ever since. I have for some time been a fan of Wired, as regular readers know, in part because of its content and in part because of its connection with the late great UofT professor Marshal McLuhan. For the benefit of those who haven't had the opportunity to browse the publication, I would describe the Technology Review as presenting a slightly more technical take on many of the issues often addressed by Wired.

My general strategy for reading both publications is to peruse the table of contents and cherry pick a few of the more interesting articles, returning later to read the publication from cover to cover. As it happens, this time round my attention was drawn to an article featured on the front cover under the title "What's Wrong With MySpace".

Now I'm no fan of MySpace, and there are many, I'm sure, who would be more than happy to list their grievances with the site. The article's author, however, has a rather unique perspective, and one quite relevant to libraries. The gist of the argument is that social networks are, or should be, fundamentally about people not products. Their function, or what one would expect it to be, is to facilitate things like communication, and relationship building. MySpace, however, is populated by a growing number of artificial profiles. These artificial profiles are for movies, companies, products, and fictional characters, none of which can participate in or contribute to the communication and relationship activities for which social networking is often lauded. Ultimately, this bastardization of the community building functionality of the site has lead to a system that encourages its members to increasingly define themselves by the products and services they consume, manifested in their "friendship" with a multitude of inhuman profiles. To add an analogy of my own, MySpace is much like high school, in theory a place for the transmission of knowledge and betterment of one's person, but has devolved into nothing more then a convenient forum for competitive consumption.

If one resists the urge to place values on the various goods and services that MySpace users choose to define themselves with and instead focus exclusively on the broader issue of personal definition through consumption, one cannot help but lump those libraries with profiles in as part of the problem. This is quite close to the point I was inarticulately attempting to make a few weeks ago. Libraries are not members of communities; in the physical or virtual world, they are fundamentally platforms for community. The physical communities that allow for the transmission of culture and facilitate research have many aspects, an important one of which is the library, but one would never expect to see the name of a library listed as the author of a paper or on the cover of a best selling novel. For the same reason one could contest that the name of a library doesn't belong on a social network user's list of friends. In moving to the digital realm, libraries should be looking for ways to continue to act as facilitators and spend less time attempting to be participants.

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