Information Discovery and Design: Will We Be Laggards, Leaders, or Leapfroggers?
It is always hard to tell whether something is a fad or a trend. However, if we piece together some developments in the popular press over the past few weeks, it would seem that we are on the threshold of (finally) bidding goodbye to Web 2.0 and making the at leap into the next beyond. While there are no killer apps right now, shifts in the approach to web presence seem to portend important changes. While the most extreme viewpoint is are that the Internet is dead [see, for example, Wired’s discussion at http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/08/ff_webrip/all/1], the less dire predictions still show major changes in how information providers are approaching the web. Below are some of the trends worth watching.
• Friends Only Information Sources. Information providers are no longer trying just to leverage the power of social networks to create the worldwide wisdom of crowds, but rather to focus only on the opinion of your own crowd, i.e., you individual trusted friends and colleagues. An article in the New York Times dubbed this the “friend trend.” It is no secret that Facebook – the ultimate in friending -- is working hard to ensure to supplant the general search engine’s traditional role as the primary portal for information access for individuals. And corporate America may aid in that effort. For example, Amazon, the breakout commercial venture to exploit crowdsourcing to create a knowledgebase of customer reviews, now links out to Facebook so you can get the opinions of your friends.
• Walled Gardens. The open platform of the internet may become increasingly closed. As Jonathan L. Zittrain noted in The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It, “It is a mistake to think of the Web browser as the apex of the PC’s evolution.” The Economist labeled the coming age a “virtual counter-revolution” in which companies are erecting “walled gardens” of applications to ensure that customers can do everything within their virtual walls. At its simplest, this concept means that the open web browser is giving way to thousands or millions of specialized applications designed to keep the eyes of the user. This development is not necessarily new – in the mobile world, dedicated apps exploded three years ago based upon the premise that an single function app could be tuned to the specific needs of customers, but with the real motive of ensuring that the network and discovery traffic stayed within their own walls. This concept is now being retrofitted from phones to the web. Twitter, for example, designed an entirely new web site so that people can stay within Twitter and still link out to URLs.
Within the academic and library world, a good example of a walled garden is being cultivated by Elsevier as part of their new SciVerse service. The Economist notes that “It is still too early to say that the internet has fragmented into ‘internets’, but there is a danger that it might splinter along geographical and commercial boundaries.” The question for libraries is whether it is possible or desirable to build such a walled garden for library information.
The best-known example of bridging the “friends only” and “walled gardens” concepts is the corporate direction of Facebook. As noted in a profile in The New Yorker about Facebook’s inventor and owner Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook expects that it will become “a layer underneath almost every electronic device,” and “[a]ll your friends… will be right there.”
• Browser Re-invention. Depending upon whom you believe, browsers are either about to wither and die because of the onslaught of apps, or explode in importance because of dramatic improvements in the way they enable the visual design and display of information. Beginning with IE9, the new generation of browsers will, in the words of one article in the Wall Street Journal, “deliver pages with richer, more fluid animations and video. Browser makers say the changes could lead to everything from websites with 3D games rivaling console games to new interfaces for searching a huge library of images.” These changes are described as the “most significant technology shifts in years, which industry executives say could have a major impact on the creation and appearance of many websites.”
While proponents of these technologies argue that they improve the traditional discovery experience, the important question for academic libraries is how we propose to respond to these changes. Will we (as we have in the past) embrace and exploit them fully, or will we be overwhelmed by the changes and the resource consumption that they require? What steps will we take to ensure that the global academic social network remains a democratic and open structure and not become controlled by commercial interests? How can we move away from largely static web sites to incorporate and exploit the dynamic animation, video and gaming technologies that the next generation of web browsers will make possible?
All of this should matter greatly to academic libraries. As social networking matures and moves to the next level, we cannot afford to be laggards. One path to leadership is leapfrogging. Regardless of whether we were able to exploit these technologies in the past, each major technology shift causes the clock essentially to start over, giving even the laggards the opportunity to leapfrog. If we embrace these opportunities we can help the many users who feel as if they are drowning in the Internet ocean of information. If we fail to do so, we too may be caught in the undertow. How best to start? First, we need to assess the learning and research not only the habits but the aspirations of our faculty and students because we can harness the power of the technology only if we understand the desires of the community.
• Jose Antonio Vargas. “The Face of Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg Opens Up.” The New Yorker(September 20, 2010: 54-64; quote at p. 63)
• Nick Wingfield and Don Clark. “Browsers Get a Face-Lift” Wall Street Journal (September 15, 2010)
• Jenna Wortham. “Search Takes a Social Turn.” The New York Times (September 12, 2010). http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/13/technology/13search.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=%22search%20takes%20a%20social%20turn%22&st=cse
• Clair Cain Miller. “Google’s Chief on Social, Mobile and Conflict.” The New York Times (September 17, 2010)
• “The Web’s New Walls.” The Economist (September 4, 2010: 11)
• “A Virtual-Counter-Revolution.” The Economist (September 4, 2010: 75-77)