A bit of recent serendipity motivates me to address a point I made during my and Chris Guder’s ACRL presentation on Ohio University’s 2008 student environmental scanning project. Based on our findings, I made a joke along the lines of “librarians are the only Twitter users,” citing its extremely low student adoption relative to other tools:
Ah, the things I do for humor’s sake. The usage data on Twitter seemed so absurdly negligible compared to more established social tools that I was compelled to poke public fun. While I remain committed to finding whatever levity I can in the bleak sea of technostatistical exposition, I fully admit that I’ve been appropriately schooled for my statement, and by more than one source.
Yesterday Ubiquitous Librarian Brian Mathews pointed out (quite graciously, it must be noted – without pointing the finger) that this type of dismissiveness is a rather glib generalization of a growing and potentially multidimensional technology. He states that general interest in Twitter has recently surged, and that rather than talking about student adoption rates of emerging media we must consider local communication contexts and potential library participation in campus conversations about social tools, outreach, and workflow.
How right he is, and here’s where the serendipity comes in. I’m in the process of putting the finishing touches on a large research report of OU’s survey findings that will be published next month via ACRL. My eternally insightful editors, Joan Lippincott and Kathryn Deiss, not two days ago raised the same concerns about Twitter, noting that recent political and popular media use of the tool seems to have raised its profile considerably. While Twitter may still be inordinately well known within the librarian community of practice, it does seem to be experiencing a general upsurge – I’ve definitely been noticing this myself. (On a somewhat different but interesting note, Jenny Levine posted a few days ago on Twitter’s apparent “ephemeraliness” in terms of archiving conference communication).
In light of the above conversations, I’m in the process of revisiting my discussion of Twitter in the ACRL report. At the conference Chris and I referred to findings of research conducted in early 2008, when Twitter was still in its relative infancy. If the OU study was replicated today and supplemented with the type of granular investigation Brian advocates, the picture would likely look quite different.
In closing his post, Brian makes the point that “it’s good to step back sometimes and not just look at what other libraries are doing, but what your community is as well.” I couldn’t agree more. Benchmarking library applications of emerging technologies such as Twitter is a dangerous game, based on the essential diversity/uniqueness of campus and library cultures and the fundamentally dynamic nature of social media itself.
I’d also like to note that my precipitous past dismissal of Twitter highlights another important reality of library technology development (not to mention an interesting side effect I’ve long observed among “early adopters,” for lack of a better descriptor – preemptive writeoff syndrome). Rejecting a tool based on low apparent use – without fully investigating its other implications, behind the scenes applications, or future potential – can be just as unfortunate as developing a new public service technology without adequate needs assessment and project planning. It pays to keep our collective and respective eyes on a constantly shifting landscape, and to actively resist assuming that we can predict the direction a tool or trend might take.