Posts tagged ‘Jeff Jarvis’

Blazing Trails, pt. 2: Preoccupied with survival

This is the second post in the “Blazing Trails” series. Part 1 is “The Lay of the Land.”

Libraries are not the only institutions struggling to survive in the face of change. There have been a lot of interesting discussions coming out of the field of journalism in recent years, and much of that discussion is relevant to libraries. A little over a year ago, Clay Shirky analyzed the problems of the newspaper industry on his blog. The problem, he said, wasn’t that newspapers were blindsided by the Internet, it was that all their solutions were built on an erroneous assumption:

The curious thing about all the plans hatched in the ‘90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes…was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift.

This is one of my great concerns for libraries: are we merely giving ourselves a “digital facelift” rather than facing the hard truth about how technological and societal change is affecting our core services?

The FTC recently posted a working draft of potential policies to “support the reinvention of journalism.” Sounds promising, doesn’t it? Well, don’t get too excited. Jeff Jarvis posted his review of the document, and in essence, what it portrays is an attempt to save the existing models and institutions of journalism without honestly or critically evaluating them. True reinvention is nowhere to be seen. Jarvis says:

If the FTC truly wanted to rethink journalism and its new opportunities and new value in our democracy, it would have written this document from the perspective of the people it is supposed to represent: the citizens, examining how we can benefit from news that is newly opened to the opportunity of collaboration and greater relevance. Instead, the document is written wholly from the perspective of the companies and institutions of the industry.

The unstated but evident premise of the FTC’s approach is that new technology is a threat to be mitigated, not an opportunity to explore or exploit. Fear dominates the thinking and prevents the possibility for insight and innovation. This is valuable insight for libraries. If we are too preoccupied with our survival, we are likely to miss the best chances to ensure it. And I think we have to find ways to approach these possibilities from the perspective of our customers. As Clay Shirky points out:

We can’t ask people running traditional systems to evaluate a new technology for its radical benefits; people committed to keeping the current system will tend, as a group, to have trouble seeing value in anything disruptive. – Cognitive Surplus, p. 210

Survival is the goal, but more than that, it’s survival with a minimum of discomfort and change. Sound familiar? As anthropologist Jennifer James says, “You can choose deep change or slow death. Most people prefer slow death.”


We can circle our wagons and survive for a time, but in doing so we stop moving forward. Focusing only on survival is a short-term solution which, ironically, will probably hasten our demise. We have to recognize that we are living in revolutionary times, and act accordingly.

Stay tuned for part 3…


July 14, 2010 at 10:12 pm 4 comments

Public and Private

I’m reading Clay Shirky’s new book Cognitive Surplus. Terrible title – makes it sound like a boring textbook – but the book is fantastic. I’ll write about it in more detail when I’m finished, but I came across a blog post that dovetails nicely with some of Shirky’s points as well as recent events, so I thought I’d mention it now.

Author Jeff Jarvis writes a blog called BuzzMachine. He writes about news and media and new media, but he’s also written about his battle with cancer. In this post he writes about the value of sharing information:

Yes, I believe we have a right and need to protect our privacy – to control our information and identities – but I also want the conversation and our decisions to include consideration of the value of sharing and linking. I also want to protect what’s public as a public good; that includes our internet. We have plenty of privacy advocates. I want to be a publicness advocate.

Libraries have always been great advocates of privacy, and I think that’s important. But in the wake of all the recent Facebook privacy controversy, I think this is a really valid point to make. Do I think that Facebook (or any other site) ought to make clear what’s public and what’s private, and not change those settings for people without their knowledge or permission? Absolutely! But people also have the ability to trade a measure of privacy for greater connection online, and the potential benefits of sharing are tremendous.

One of Shirky’s big points is that there is a great deal of social value, and often even civic value, in what people share online, and to denigrate social media tools as time-wasters or navel-gazing is to miss the point. Jarvis is opinionated and outspoken and has been blasted for oversharing the details of his health problems, but he is quick to point out the support, encouragement and valuable information he wouldn’t have received any other way than through responses to what he puts out in public. As a general rule, I think free-flowing information is good, and that it’s the responsibility of each person to determine for themselves what they do or don’t want to read, watch or experience.

As librarians, what’s our role? A lot of these decisions and transactions happen outside of our purview and without our input, but we can be vocal within our spheres of influence, advocating for more transparency in privacy controls and for keeping information free and accessible. And we can certainly help educate our customers so that they are well-informed when it comes time to make those decisions for themselves.

June 21, 2010 at 9:12 pm

"To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong." - Pearce