Monday, 1st October 2007
We all have different identities that change depending on where we are
and who we are with. There is fluidity to our identity in different
contexts; identity is a complex construct. Certain people and
situations bring out different aspects of our identities. As a
result, different people will perceive us differently as they have
experienced the constructs of our identity in different situations.
Now many have started to build an online identity, again changing the
idea of identity. People have different online identities; flickr
<http://www.flickr.com/> identities, Facebook
<http://www.facebook.com/> identities, FreePint Bar
<http://www.freepint.com/bar/> identities and even identities with
secret pseudonyms. As social networking tools become more prevalent,
the concept of online identity becomes more important. This article
looks at libraries building an online identity using MySpace
<http://www.myspace.com/> and information professionals using social
networking tools to build an online identity.
Making MySpace work for libraries
The influence of (mostly free) social networking tools is changing the
way libraries interact with their users. This is especially true for
institutions such as university libraries, whose core users are part
of the demographic most likely to use tools such as MySpace. In August
2006 The Financial Times called the UK's 16-24s the 'networked
generation'. This was in response to an Ofcom report that concluded
young people were moving away from 'traditional media' such as
newspapers, television and radio to online communities. According to
the survey, more than 70% of 16-24 year olds visited social networking
sites and 54% used them at least weekly.
Traditionally, libraries have communicated using one-way messages. The
message is created by the library and directed at the user. With
MySpace, the messages are delivered using a peer-to-peer pyramid
model. For example, the Brooklyn College Library (BCL) MySpace page
<http://www.myspace.com/brooklyncollegelibrary> delivers messages and
targets its audience organically. At the time of writing BCL has
3,257 MySpace 'friends'. These are people who wish to be associated
and networked with the BCL. The peer to peer pyramid model means that
'friends' of 'friends' will visit BCL's MySpace page.
By simply ensuring that the content on their page is current and
useful, MySpace's networking model ensures that BCL's message is
distributed to a wide audience, as their MySpace popularity increases
by virtue of peers reviewing one another's friends and interests.
Information from peers is becoming more trusted and influential. The
2007 Edelman Annual Trust Barometer study found that in the US trust
in a 'person like me' was 68%, compared to 20% in 2003. This is why
organisations like BCL are using MySpace - it is a powerful tool,
especially amongst young people.
If librarians use tools such as MySpace, they cannot be 'tourists'. It
is not enough for libraries to use the basic functionality of social
networking tools to project a credible online identity, by dressing up
tired messages with pictures and MP3s. A library's use of any social
networking tool must be purposeful. A MySpace page can be used as a
portal to push users towards resources such as online libraries or
Other MySpace profiles can be good sources or gatekeepers of
information. For example, a library that is particularly concerned
with Californian history can link to the Californian Historical
Society profile. Libraries can help users by making more information
rich profiles their 'top friends' and hence more prominent.
The functionality of MySpace allows libraries to deliver targeted
messages. The profiles of friends allow libraries to find out more
about users than they might in traditional interactions. This gives
libraries the ability to deliver more personalised, informal messages.
In a university setting, for instance, if a biology student becomes a
friend, a welcome note can be sent recommending that the student
contact the science librarian with any subject-specific questions or
giving instructions on how to access a subject-related database.
Announcements can be sent out to groups of friends according to a
particular demographic or interest. For example, a pubic library
hosting a Teen Reading Week can send out a bulletin to all teenage
A MySpace page must be kept current. Social networking tools allow an
online identity to grow, but only if there is content that people feel
is worth sharing with their peers. As well as timeliness of content,
libraries should treat personal messages via MySpace as they would
emails. According to an AP-AOL Instant Messaging Trends Survey
published in early 2006, nearly three in four (72%) teens who use
instant messaging (IM) say they send more IMs than emails, as do one
in four (26%) adults. If libraries are to build relationships with
their users, they will have to embrace instant messaging as it becomes
Building an online identity using social networking tools
As individuals, information professionals can build up an online
identity to present themselves and their profession. On his blog
<http://www.benhammersley.com/>, Ben Hammersley (currently a BBC
journalist, who amongst other things, coined the term 'podcasting')
presents his online identity via links to Wikipedia
<http://www.wikipedia.org>, Facebook, Twitter <http://twitter.com>,
YouTube <http://www.youtube.com>, del.icio.us <http://del.icio.us> and
Flickr, rather than having a biography or About Me section. Hammersley
allows us to explore his online identity, find out what he has done in
the past, what he is currently doing and his plans for the future. We
can even delve further into his online identity to find out a little
about his personality. Ultimately, we can decide if he is a person
that interests us or not.
Via blogs and pages such as Facebook, information professionals can
declare who they are, and where they can be found. Services and value
are demonstrated via these facets of online identity. Online
identities should allow people to interact with one another and
explore shared interests. Most obviously, this is accomplished through
things like becoming friends on sites like Bebo <http://www.bebo.com>
or through social bookmarking. Social bookmarking sites such as
del.icio.us and Furl <http://www.furl.com> provide a powerful tool for
people to find out about one another's interests by looking at their
bookmarks. This can be taken a step further by looking at profiles of
users who share the same bookmarks. As well as providing peer
reviewed content, social bookmarking sites allow online identities to
be built. On top of this, content created can be easily shared;
therefore it is important that your websites and blog posts can be
Information professionals have the ability to build specific,
personalised networks using tools such as Ning <http://www.ning.com>
or me.com's Snapp network <http://www.me.com>.
Ning allows anyone to create their own functional and customised
social networks quickly and easily. Social networks created on Ning
are personal and tailored to specific interests. At the time of
writing, there are over 76,000 Ning networks, nearly 200 of which turn
up in a search on the word 'Librarian'.
Ning differs from tools such as Facebook and MySpace in that it is
less proprietary and more specialised. As social networking becomes
more popular and people begin to build a more robust online identity,
they will become more interested in creating their own worlds, their
own social networks, around different needs and niches. As such,
pliable applications such as Ning will become more powerful. Don't
know where to find statistics on a certain topic? Join a Ning group
and discuss this and other issues with people who have a definitive
interest. The Ning group doesn't exist? Build one and wait for like-
minded individuals to join (no matter how small the niche). Gaps in
knowledge can be bridged by looking outside of comfort zones, as Ning
allows networking amongst practitioners of many disciplines.
Finding and being found
The importance of building a viable online identity by those who want
to be found is reflected in the number of people search engines such
as Peek You <http://www.peekyou.com> and wink <http://www.wink.com>.
As well as people search, more profile aggregators such as claimID
<http://www.claimid.com>, Lijit <http://www.lijit.com> and Ziki
<http://www.ziki.com> are being created. Profile aggregators allow
various profiles to be accessed in one place. Tools such as Ziki allow
a more complete online identity to be built by enabling users to
aggregate identities, post contact information, interests, tags and
photos. Other features include a blogging facility and related Zikis,
a network of users who share similar interests; these networks are
built up around the tags attached to profiles.
Building and managing a consistent online identity will help to
project an image of an active, well-informed, progressive individual
or organisation. As well as building a reputation to promote
themselves, libraries and information professionals can build an
online identity to push and pull rich information. Online identities
should be accessible and frank, but most of all, interesting.
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