Neophilia, Diversion, Networking, Sharing, and Discussion

Recently a couple of people have asked why I haven’t joined some of the social networking services they find interesting or useful, particularly Twitter and Friendfeed, but the question could probably apply to more of them. The simple reason is, I don’t see any way I would benefit from these services. Some people would consider that statement an incentive to either persuade me that I would benefit or dismiss me as a Luddite who just doesn’t "get it." But I do get it. I know some of the ways people benefit from these services. It’s just that I don’t want those benefits. Partly, it’s a personality issue. I’m not very social, and I don’t have interests in common with many people. For example, I have almost no interest in: television, pop music, celebrities, fashion, food, cooking, new movies, sports, contemporary fiction, cars, gardening, crafts, diets, scandals, or the weather.

However, just in case it’s true I don’t get it, I’ll discuss some of the things it seems to me people get out of Twitter or Friendfeed or even Facebook, and why I’m not especially interested in them. Maybe there’s something I am missing, and if so, feel free to point it out.

As a caveat before I begin, I want to add that I’m not ridiculing or dismissing any of these motives. I only say that because I’ve noticed in many discussions that if you don’t find value in something someone else does, they tend to think you’re criticizing or attacking them. For example, in my life those assumptions often come up around commercial television and meat, neither of which I consume. It’s amazing how many carnivores and television devotees get offended if you don’t share their values. So, if I don’t share your values, don’t get offended. If your values are worthwhile, it shouldn’t matter if other people share them. And so, some motivations for social networking.

Neophilia

Neophilia, or love of the new. I understand this desire, and am as susceptible to it as anyone, just with a different focus than many people. What "new" I track is often for professional reasons. Most days I skim a handful of news sites, especially the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the BBC, but even these very selectively. Mostly I do this because I consider it a professional obligation. A reference librarian should keep up with current events. My interest in politics and political philosophy also requires some basic understanding of what’s going on in the world. However, there have been years of my life, and some of the happier years, in which I read almost no news. The pre-Internet days weren’t a burden on me. Some of my happiest memories are sitting in cafes reading and deliberately not keeping up with what’s going on. My sympathy was, and to a great extent still is, with Thoreau, who had little time for newspapers because so little new ever happened. If I’ve read of one fire or murder, will I find out anything significant reading about another one?

Say, for example, some new techie tool comes along. I pick it up and examine it, classify it, query it. What are you good for, I ask of it. If it does something good for me, I use it. I keep up with these things for the same reason I keep up with some current events. It behooves me as a professional librarian to know about these things, but to know isn’t to champion. Recently I gave a workshop on emerging search tools, and one participant said at the end that she’d expected a "best of" list, as in, "Here are the 5 best new tools!" What she got instead was an examination of several of these new tools and a final critical discussion in which we all talked about what would be useful about them for our jobs or why we would want to know about them even if they weren’t useful. There are new things I should know about, even if I don’t particularly care about them. However, this is merely pragmatic professionalism, not neophilia.

The new things I am interested in are often not new, but only new to me, usually some book or article that I haven’t read before but that develops something I’ve been thinking about. I have no interest in the new trends in pop culture or the latest celebrity scandal or happy hours near me or what people think of the new Star Trek movie or the latest Zen koan on techno issues. Often I thoroughly enjoy footnote chasing and the discovery involved, but the joy I get there doesn’t translate well to most social networking tools.

Diversion

Some people approach these social networking tools seeking diversion. They seek to distract themselves from their daily routine, pop in somewhere for a chat, read a few posts by someone to kill some time. I understand this desire, and indulge it myself occasionally. In those rare moments where I want to be mindlessly diverted, I turn to Stumbleupon, for example. Less mindlessly diverted I turn to A & L Daily or Bookforum. I am on Facebook and occasionally read the feed of postings or status updates. Often I wonder why anyone would bother posting some of the things they do, and sometimes this is from people who are my actual friends, and not just my Facebook friends. On a daily basis, I really don’t care what they had for lunch or if they’re tired right now. The best ones are those who consider their audience and post items they think will be of interest, and occasionally the things are interesting, but it’s seldom worth reading through a lot for the occasional gem. I see the value in this, and understand why people find this interesting, only I’m not one of those people. Because of other projects in my life and the sustained attention they require, constant diversions–far from being valuable–are instead a burden in my life.

Networking

"Networking" is a word that’s always bothered me. I am definitely not a networker, which is probably pretty obvious to people who know me. I’m a sociable enough person, and I have friends, but making friends is different from networking. Networking involves making contacts with people whom I think might benefit me in some way, whether I like or respect or value the person at all. To me this violates the categorical imperative to treat people as ends in themselves and not merely as means to your ends. This is not to say that I have no "network," or that many librarians around the country haven’t benefited me over the years, but I’ve never gone out of my way to cultivate any of them as members of my "network." They are people I’ve met through the profession and whom I happen to like, and if they benefit me, fine. If not, fine. I’ll still like them. A lot of these people I’ve met through RUSA, and one reason I keep participating in RUSA is that I like a lot of the people there. But people I don’t like or respect, I just avoid, even if cultivating them might benefit my career. And generally, I have no interest in building up a "network" merely to have people know my name. I don’t have anything to sell or a brand to promote, including myself.

A colleague of mine tried to contradict this sentiment by saying this blog was an example of networking, that I was one of "those people."  However, I don’t think that’s what I’m doing in this blog, and frankly can’t see many ways this blog has benefited me professionally or created a network of people who can help me. I started this blog both to participate in what I thought were some valuable online discussions, and also because I had views or perspectives that I didn’t see represented in those discussions. I thought it might be worthwhile to put forward some of those perspectives. Lately, I’ve been less sure of that, but that’s another story. For example, as far as I know, I’m the only library blogger who works in collection development at a large research library or who regularly teaches a non-library school course that nevertheless has something to do with libraries and library research. (And if that’s not the case and I’ve overlooked someone, then light a candle and don’t curse my darkness.) I started writing because I k
new there were other people interested in some of these issues, but I wasn’t seeing any discussion of them. Which brings me to….

Sharing

Some people benefit from these services because they either enjoy sharing their thoughts or what they’re doing at the moment, or they are curious about what other people have to share. I’m sympathetic to this motivation, too. Considering this blog again, part of the motivation was to share. When I was in library school, I thought I wanted to do pretty much what I’m doing now. It would have been great to get inside the head of someone actually doing it, to find out what they thought about, the issues they faced, the concerns they had. In library school I was the self which I was not, in the mode of not being it, and would have loved more guidance. There were hardly any blogs back then, but now, of the library blogs that have anything to do with my job, almost all are focused on either public services or technology or some combination of the two, and those aren’t necessarily the most important parts of my job. In addition, many of the most prominent ones of these are written by non-academic librarians who have a different take on many issues than academic librarians do, or at least different than this academic librarian does.

The sharing that other librarians do benefits me, and it’s possible some people have benefited from my own sharing, but it’s difficult to think of anything worth sharing for me that can be reduced to 140 or 160 characters. I’m not really interested in what you’re doing at the moment, and can’t figure out why you’d be interested in what I’m doing. What would it be? Here’s what I’m reading? I spend most of my free time reading philosophy or writing in my journal. Would any of you really care that I’m currently reading Brighouse, Barry, Anderson, and Cohen on justice? What would I have to say in 140 characters that would matter for those subjects? I’ve searched Twitter for any tweets on topics of interest and found nothing I’m interested in. Nor am I interested in "trending topics" or "nifty queries." One reason I’m writing here less is that I’m reading so little to do with librarianship, and I hesitate to inflict upon readers some of my thoughts on topics that don’t have to do with education or librarianship.

Discussion

Another worthwhile motivation, at least for some of these services. The thing is, I already have an active online life with several friends of mine scattered around the country. I don’t have enough time even for them sometimes.  Most of the people I might ordinarily have virtual conversations with are librarians, but only selectively am I interested in library subjects. Gossiping about the latest trend or scandal can be fun, but it’s just not something that motivates me most of the time. When I discovered that I myself was the subject of at least one librarian gossip fest in a chat room, my only thought was, what a complete waste of time. If this is the kind of thing people are discussing, I’ll stick to my books, thanks. There’s a great quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people." I don’t know if I have a great mind, but I do know the further discussion moves from ideas and fundamentals to chit-chat and gossip the less I have to say and the less time I devote to it.

Because of the Roosevelt quote, this is probably the most judgmental of my comments here, but nevertheless it’s the level of discussion that keeps me away. The discussions I find the most interesting and useful are those that develop through thoughtful pieces of writing (and occasionally thoughtful talks), some responding to each other. Sometimes these are blog posts and comments, sometimes blog posts and blog posts, sometimes books and reviews. Whatever the format, the value comes from the depth of the exchange when there’s something substantive to discuss. There are a lot of these conversations in the library literature (broadly conceived), but I don’t tend to get  much personally from oneliners or rapid exchanges. As for discussing problems or seeking help, I rarely have anything practical or immediate I need help or guidance with. Professionally, I benefit from discussions of fundamentals or techniques, but immediate problem-solving from someone not in my library at the moment isn’t something I need.

It’s very possible that I’m missing some great reward that’s out there to be discovered, but after a lot of thought I just don’t see it. The level and immediacy of engagement that most of these tools offer just doesn’t provide much value for me. Again, I see the value for people, but what I need the most they rarely offer. The more brief and immediate the service, the less it appeals to me.

 

9 thoughts on “Neophilia, Diversion, Networking, Sharing, and Discussion

  1. Wayne,
    Great post. By the way, I really appreciate your blog – it is a real breath of fresh air, in an atmosphere relentlessly charged with the new, the novel… It gets old, you know? :)
    ~Nathan

  2. I find nothing to disagree with in your commentary. A great deal of what other people find appealing in these social sites is exactly what puts me off. I’m too much of an introvert to find much of that chitchat interesting in the online format. I especially agree with your comments on networking. When I’ve read some of those advice books that say something like — keep in touch with such-and-such a person on a regular basis, just to remind them of your existence — I’ve always felt like that devalues the whole idea of relationship. And the comments that people have made about blogs dying because twitter is replacing them, which actually seems to lead to longer, more thoughtful posts because the short stuff is on twitter, well, I rather like that result. Because I like to read the long, thoughtful stuff, and the chitchat often bores me.
    I would just add — don’t feel that your readings and thoughts on non-library topics are not useful. Look at your own subtitle. Your blog, your topics, and if people aren’t interested, they don’t have to read. I would rather appreciate some of that kind of commentary.
    Hmm, you’re the religion librarian? I might have a reference question for you.

  3. Thanks, Nathan. And I think I’m like bibliotecaria, too much of an introvert to find it interesting. I’ve also read the stuff on twitter replacing blogs, but that’s only if we consider a blog to be that thing it started as: a quick link with minimal commentary. I don’t have much use for those. But if we consider a blog just s platform, then it’s different. Twitter could no more replace the opinion essay than a bullet list could replace a novel. They’re just different things.
    Maybe I’ll blog about other stuff, but lately my spare time has been devoted to planning a new writing seminar, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the best sort of reading for a course in academic argument, what narrative about justice I plan to tell, that sort of thing.

  4. Whether or not you think you’ll be interested isn’t really important: why haven’t you at least tried these services? How can you truly make an objective judgement unless you’ve given it a shot?
    I’ve used several services for just a few days before realizing it wasn’t worth my time. On the other hand, I’ve found enormous value in other services that I’ve spent more time exploring and finally had the “a ha!” moment.
    It’s far too easy to dismiss things with the logic, “I know some of the ways people benefit from these services. It’s just that I don’t want those benefits.” Twitter, for instance, has the famous catchphrase, “the communications system we didn’t know we needed until we had it.”
    I will agree with you that the majority of the converted will take offense if you tell them you aren’t interested in their favorite services, and will use it as an opportunity to convert you (I know I’m guilty of it myself), but I’ve taken to using this simple phrase instead: “try it, you might just like it.”

  5. Ah, the old “try it, you might like it” ploy! This assumes I haven’t tried something at least analogous. Let’s take Facebook as an example. I have never, ever posted my status on Facebook, and that’s after 2 years of being on Facebook. Why? Because I think it’s a waste of time and I have no interest in telling people anything I’m doing or thinking at the moment. I’ve also read plenty of updates on Facebook, and plenty of tweets when thinking about Twitter, and most of them seem like a waste of time for the person to write and for me to read. I know for a fact I would never post anything to Twitter, just as I’ve never posted anything to Facebook and these days rarely even read what my friends post. I also know from my sampling that I have no interest in reading 99.9% of anything anyone posts on Twitter, and am not going to waste my time scrolling through junk I have no interest in for the one nugget worth reading. Thoughts I find interesting can rarely be condensed to 140 characters.

  6. One could spend an entire lifetime trying every single Web 2.0 venture to see if it’s useful. I have never tried cannibalism or genital piercing, but am pretty sure I would not enjoy those either.
    Nice post. I think the corollary is that Web 2.0 is not the solution to every problem. Some things are done better by individuals working in isolation than by crowdsourcing.

  7. I’ve tried lots of Web 2.0–or whatever we’re up to now–type tools, and I know what I find useful and what I don’t. When it comes to the crowd, maybe I’m too much influenced by Kierkegaard: the crowd is untruth.

  8. In the case of any new media, there are two questions that should be asked, and unfortunately, only one of them usually gets asked.
    The often asked question is “how do people use this”? And the answer, in most cases is “it’s been saturated by a bunch of neophilic teenagers and all I can find is Brangelina gossip”. The other, harder to answer question is “how CAN people use this”?
    I in no way criticize you for opting out of Twitter. Most of my friends, for instance, prove to be hopelessly inane when confined to 160 characters. I have no interest in where they are having dinner, or the random blurry airport photo they just took. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that there are no redeeming applications for the medium, only that given a random sampling, we are bound by Sturgeon’s law (unless we have nothing but truly amazing friends). It’s important to look at the highest potential as well as the lowest. Getting status updates on emergencies at the university where I work, for instance, is a valid, useful application of the medium, and it’s one that’s only starting to emerge. There will no doubt be others I can’t visualize. Those only emerge when people thoughtfully, mindfully, enter the media and experiment with it. Do I have a Twitter account? Yes, certainly, against the day when I, or someone else more clever, comes up with a good way to use it. I don’t expect to ever find deep thoughts on it (maybe spread across a series of posts), but perhaps I will find poetry, important broadcast information, or Fermat’s last theorem stuffed in the interstices, once it matures.
    In short, blaming the medium is cheap and easy, but there is no medium good or bad but usage makes it so.

  9. Interesting comment, anonymouse, and I agree completely with your last statement. I’m still not sure how I’ve blamed any medium, though, if that’s the implication. I’ve gone out of my way to note that I understand why people value such tools, and have merely tried to dispel the argument that one doesn’t use certain tools because one doesn’t know what they do. I know what they do, and I also give thought to what they CAN do. I use the tools that are useful to me and ignore the rest.
    You mention safety alerts at work. We have those. They come in emails and text messages now, both of which show up on my phone. I don’t need another service to be connected to things I need or want, and I know better than anyone else what I need or want.
    I’m not blaming the medium. I’m merely pointing out that one particular medium–and here I’m talking specifically about Twitter–can’t support the level of discourse that I require before paying attention to it. I understand it’s uses and possibilities, but so far it does nothing for me that I can’t get just as easily from some other service.

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