Libraries as Social Machines

By Jenny Levine |

I realized that last month I promised to write about how many of the pieces of the social software movement came together this year, so here are some thoughts to help you survey the landscape.

In my mind, the big players at the moment are the small startups (even if they've since been bought out by larger companies). While there are many, the two leaders are clearly, a social bookmarking site, and Flickr, a social photo sharing site. Technorati comes into play when you want to aggregate bits and pieces from blogs, RSS feeds,, and Flickr in one place (example). All of these sites very clearly illustrate the power of tagging (folksonomies) for information we wouldn't otherwise spend time classifying. As I say in my presentations, who ever thought users would add such granular metadata to their photos!

While I could go on and on about all three of these sites (and if you get locked in a room with me, I will!), what I really want to do is point you to the August 2005 issue of Technology Review, which has a cover story called "Social Machines." It's a fascinating article that looks at these sites and others and surveys how all of this is affecting the online world. It's an excellent primer, especially if you don't understand why some of us think this movement is so important. Once you understand what's going on (and has been for a few years now), you can start making connections to why this is important for libraries.

Here's just one quote from that issue that I like to read to the audience. It's not in the main article, but on page 17 of the print issue. It's from readme: Putting the Fun Back in Technology, and it really resonated with me.

"Traditionally, Technology Review hasn't written that much about society. Our subject matter is emerging technologies, and they have historically been purchased by corporations, universities, and governments. That's because emerging technologies used to require an extraordinary capital investment, one well beyond the means of most people in their private capacities. Nor did most people see the need to experiment with really novel technologies. Thus the personal computer, the local-area network, the Internet itself were all first used in commercial, government, or academic settings.

But this is changing. The spread of cheap laptops, handheld devices, affordable Internet access, Wi-Fi, and a dozen other consumer technologies has led to a wonderful explosion of new social applications for them. But here's the really interesting thing: most of these social technologies have simple editing and programming tools that let ordinary folks do innovative things that risk-averse corporations and government agencies would be hesitant to try. We suspect that Technology Review will be writing about the impact of new technologies on society much more frequently. Besides, social technologies are more fun."

I feel this way about libraries, too. We've figured out the hardware issues, and I don't anticipate we're going to face any major, unforeseen challenges in this area over the next decade (more cell phones, more smartphones, more wireless, faster computers, we get it). The key is no longer the hardware, but the software, and in particular, what people do with the software. This year was a pretty good indication of where all of this is headed, and I truly believe we'll look back on this time as a pivotal one when this new software put us on a different path.

My goal is to have libraries recognize what's going on, join in, and be part of this revolution. Please be sure to read this article to understand where your users are headed so that you can begin to understand how to meet them there and help them.