Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How I stopped worrying and learned to love the social web

I have had this blogspot URL for almost three years now, but have failed to do much with it. I inevitably delete the whole of whatever I use it for after a few months. I love my privacy, and in January 2008 I got the email I had been dreading, "I googled your name and found your article..."

My maiden name had been included in a byline for a breezy little article about technology. I am not sure exactly why that terrified me so. It was lightweight stuff, granted, but was it really something I wanted my high school classmates to see?

I had never wanted to be findable. It's not that I'm scared of online predators. I really side with Nancy Willard on that one. Hiding online had been one of the unexpected advantages in marrying someone with a relatively anonymous last name. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Wendy Stephens, even some connected with libraries. It was the same reason I'd always submit out-of-focus photographs, snapped from a distance, whenever required for online purposes. I liked to fool myself into thinking that, if stumbling upon these, no one idly searching would have enough information to confirm my identity.

In reality, anyone who was a half-decent searcher could have turned all my personal details pretty easily anyway, so I had to think long and hard about what exactly it was that scared me. And then I had to go about establishing some sort of digital identity, better later than never.

I wonder about my students. Will they be better people because their every crush, favorite pop songs, and passing political persuasion were captured electronically? I do think they might be better able to reconcile their awkward, gawky teen selves with the subsequent adult incarnations, stay in touch over time and distance. I hope the social web is teaching them to appreciate the weight of their own decisions. I do think students can learn from teachers and from peers, in their own environment.

The social web is like Pandora's box. It's open, there's no putting this stuff back in, and it's changed our society. I don't feel I've thrown out my cherished privacy expectations, altogether, but I do think we as librarians are going to have to negotiate that.

When I worked for an automation vendor almost a decade ago, we introduced an OPAC feature that, by default, tracked checkouts for future recommendations. The librarians were up in arms about the data retention, but haven't spent a lot of the intervening period trying to ape the online bookstores that do just that? I can delete old circulation transactions to protect my patrons' privacy, but if they post everything they're reading to the facebook Shelfari app, it's all for naught.

Buy the URL, homestead the blogspot and wikispace. We are all online. There's no pretending we aren't.

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