Me-too-isms, Social Movements and Libraries

One of my favorite Monty Python skits is the one where German and Greek philosophers are pitted against each other in a soccer match. They all line up for the competition, yet when the whistle blows, instead of kicking the ball they engage in a “philosopher pose” making for a hilarious, yet definitively inactive sports match.

What I take from this satire is that values that may appear wholesome and good in one piece of space and time, looks absolutely ridiculous in another.

In my view, this is the subtext underlying the discussion at Information Wants to Be Free , Tinfoil + Raccoon and other places.

To quote a few things being said, here is Meredith:

It’s great to see people criticizing things and coming up with new ideas (and there were some terrific posts on the woeful state of the OPAC). But then the groupthink takes over and people just echo the same ideas over and over again, without adding anything new or productive. What’s the point of that? I don’t need to read the same exact thing on 50 blogs.

And Rochelle says this:

In response to the lively, honest discussion happening at Information Wants to Be Free about “groupthink” and me-tooism, I’m going to offer an amendment to my politeness post. In my post, I wrote

There are a lot of people blogging about library issues, and I’ve tried to resist the pull of me-tooism.

Here’s my amended statement: There are a lot of people blogging about library issues, and I’ve tried to resist the pull of uncritical me-tooism.

In this discussion, I have defended Groupthink and “me-tooism.” I may even find myself defending “uncritical me-tooism,” not because I am a me-tooist or uncritical, but because I think uncritical me-tooism achieves great things when it has the right checks and balances coming from critical thinkers like [ahem] myself, Meredith and Rochelle.

Let’s go back to philosopher soccer match. The reason why philosophers suck at soccer is because they are critical. To the philosopher, kicking a goal has no purpose, and certainly preferring to kick a goal in two apparently equal soccer nets makes no sense.

To the soccer player, scoring a goal helps to achieve a commitment she made to the people on her team. Somewhere along the lines, the soccer player understood that she is playing soccer to score goals and keep the opposing team from scoring goals of their own. After a good deal of critical thought [or maybe not], this person has decided this is what he/she wants. It is meaningful to her to win soccer games and, better yet, to be the best soccer player she can be. And being critical about why she is scoring a goal is not the way to be a good soccer player.

Because soccer is a team sport, this commitment to goal scoring is a sort of [even uncritical] groupthink. When I think about the “OPACs Suck” and Library 2.0 memes, that is the way I see them. Sure, Nazi Germany had groupthink, but so did the Human Rights Movement under MLK and so did Indian anti-colonial movements under Ghandi.

So, while I am a critical thinker, I think having Group-thinkers is a good thing. The “OPACs suck” drumming will bring us better OPACs faster than a “while there are some things about the opac that are still passable, I think we ought to tweak . . .” introspective post. And I desperately want the “OPACs suck” crowd to win this battle, even if they go too far and bring us some things that are broken with it. That’s because I believe this is the right thing to do.

Oh — it is also wrong to suggest that philosophers have no business on the soccer field. Philosophers make good referees. Referees recommend the rules of engagement, pass judgement on deadlock situations, and let the players know when they’ve gone too far. And do referees get attacked for their critical behavior from the Groupthinkers? You bet. Everyone at the soccer game hates the referee. But they also know that the game is apt to suck if there are no rules enforced.

That means referees have to be brave, forthright, diplomatic in some cases and decisive. Sometimes they have to ignore the soccer players that disagree with their calls, in the understanding that once the emotions have blown over, there is still a soccer game going on and harping on a bad call is not going to score goals for the team. And just because a player yells at you doesn’t mean you have to stop making good calls.

And for the people who feel threatened by all this, well — I guess I see you as an arm-chair referee. You can always criticize where it’s safe to do so, but you’re not going to change much unless you get behind a player, team or referee.

So that’s why I defend “Groupthink” despite all the negative connotations placed on it by the Wikipedia article. The “OPAC sucks” groupthink may not be very precise to critical thinkers like me — nor is it very compelling reading — but it may just get better OPACs for my users. And if it does that, then I am in the stands singing “go go go!”

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The Critical Pastafarian: My Article in IMSA’s Information Fluency Project

IMSA, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, has published an article of mine that I called
The Critical Pastafarian: Evaluation by Authority in a Web 2.0 World (You may asked to create an account to access the article). Broadly, I try to tackle the issue of understanding authorship when you look at social software.

Check it out and please let me know what you think!

Web 2.0 and Judgement — are we losing Science in all this tech?

I was working with a family member and I had the opportunity to be a librarian next to him/her.

The good or bad thing about being a librarian to a family member is that all that professional stuff goes out the window. This person did not enjoy a great reference interview, nor did they get a non-judgemental view of their information need. They got “Ryan” who is close to them and who has rights to tell them straight what he thinks about their reading. It’s not being a good librarian, but it is being a good family member.

So, this family member bragged to me about a tome that the scientist in me just couldn’t let go without a swipe. I want to be fair here, but let’s just say that the resource purports to have a scientific basis, but a closer inspection gives you the idea that the source is questionable at best.

And Ryan the librarian went to demonstrate the sketchyness of the source to said family member. The first strategy, though, was to find a half-decent review. The first weed-through were sources from URLs that would suggest bias in favor of the book. Kind of like if I was searching for a review of a book on the nutritional benefits of apples and could only find reviews from URLs like “applelovers.com” or “musteatapples.org.” These resources were predictably positive and not rigorous at all.

The second weed-through was the Web 2.0 level: basically, Amazon-ish type reviews. And my librarian alarm bells went off yet again. The reviews were also predictably positive, probably because the tome is the sort that would be read only by the community that accepts it. So, this led me to a primary concern about Web 2.0-ish stuff in general.

Web 2.0 means an emphasis on how one expresses the things that a community of practice already accepts or believes to be true.

Clearly, Web 2.0 wasn’t helping my family member in evaluating a resource that he/she was prepared to take quite seriously. All I had left was an analysis of the book itself. So, I searched for a bibliography. Yes! There was one! The book listed some pretty serious resources that could be found in PubMed for instance. That’s pretty impressive.

The author had a PhD as well. So there was something else in the credibility factor that raised the level of acceptance. Sort of.

But there were none. . . zero. . . nada clear references tying the information in the book to the bibliography in the back. I mean, if you are going through the trouble of research, it might be nice to state your articles in context, don’t you think? Or even just of few of them. A PhD should know this fairly well, too. The bibliography articles were also the sort that required context: they were generally esoteric, and the average reader would not be able to map through the bibliography for a clear understanding of what was going on.

An even further route, of course, would be to hit the hardcore databases for citations to the book, but that’s expensive and time consuming and not a very happy thing for a late night visit to a family member’s house.

So, in the end, I had a fairly difficult time warning my family member that he/she could be about to take a bunch of tripe at face value, when maybe — just maybe — I should have been able to find an honest and measured review of the book from a reasonably reliable third-party source. Not happening via Google that’s for sure.

But the big picture from my perspective — and admittedly, this may not be that different from the Web 1.0 scenario — is that we have a huge information source that targets the sources that agree with them. As a general rule, I find that blogs, and other web 2.0 technologies do tend to support rather than challenge views from peers. I also find that those who do challenge others’ views receive a level of ostracism in the online culture.

Blogging appears like dialog, but isn’t exactly. In many ways it is like a rigorous form of bathroom graffiti. The rewards and punishments are there, but they are diffuse compared to real in-person conversations. And the collaborations that occur are not the same. You can correct, even contradict yourself in a conversation as you and your co-speakers attempt to synthesize or negotiate your views. The blog doesn’t have that synthesizing quality. The contradictions are formal, and need to be declared outright.

On the other side of the coin, blogging lacks the kind of personal introspection that the writer of a full-scale book or journal article produces. And the blogger trend is not as scientific either. There are few bloggers out there making clearly falsifiable declarations and testing them out in the real world. Instinct and intuition are the rule, not systematic analysis.

All in all, these are serious questions about the consequences of Web 2.0. The answer, of course, is critical thinking. As I used to tell my Music 1000 students “Don’t tell me what you know. Tell me what you learned.” That is the blogger’s challenge. If bloggers are to be effective, we must fight through all that knowledge in our heads to come up with something we did not know, or would like to learn more about.

There’s a role here for librarians to support this challenge, I am sure.