It’s the Network Stupid

Technology Review: How Obama Really Did It

In 1992, Carville said, ‘It’s the economy, stupid,'” Trippi says, recalling the exhortation of Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, James Carville. “This year, it was the network, stupid!

You have an entire generation of folks under age 25 no longer using
e-mails, not even using Facebook; a majority are using text messaging,”
All says. “I get Obama’s text messages, and every one is exactly what
it should be. It is never pointless, it is always worth reading, and it
has an action for you to take. You can have hundreds of recipients on a
text message. You have hundreds of people trying to change the world in
160 characters or less. What’s the SMS strategy for John McCain? None.”

One of the ongoing questions that I have about Web 2.0 applications is the extent to which they can contribute to solving real problems.   I wonder if our students understand that Facebook, mySpace, and the other sites that they use so effectively in their social lives have such enormous potential in the real world.  This article in the MIT Technology Review provides an extended treatment of how the basic tools of social networking can be tailored to meet the specific goals of a political campain–fundraising, canvassing, and communication.  “MyBo”, the Barack Obama networking site enrolled over a million members and is credited with raising record amounts of cash and delivering key primary wins that were essential to gaining the nomination.

MyBo offered a pretty amazing set of specific campaigning tools.  Powerful database queries allowed members to “slice and dice the geographic microdata” in ways that were previously only accessible to technically sophisticated political consultants.  The site, developed by Blue State Digital with the assistance of Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, represented “the ultimate online political machine.”  The power of the site comes from the integration of a suite of individual tools that had been tested in the earlier campaign of Howard Dean, into a coherent whole.

It’s long article, but well worth reading.  Like so many of the others, it challenges us to wonder how we might tap into this same kind of communicative power in ways that quickly leave our bloated CMS software behind.  It also challenges us to rethink what it means to be liberally educated in the 21st century–can a person being truly literate without understanding the potential impact on our culture of these commuity building and activiation tools?

Architectures for Collaboration

Architectures for Collaboration: Roles and Expectations for Digital Libraries

The new issue of the Educause Review contains an article that is right on point for our joint planning meeting between staff from IT and the Swem Library next week. Peter Brantley, executive director of the Digital Library Federation, acknowledges that libraries–and librarians–have been in the leadership of the digital revolution. In an 2003 Review article, Ed Ayers also highlights the role of libraries:

The real heroes of the digital revolution in higher education are librarians; they are the people who have seen the farthest, done the most, accepted the hardest challenges, and demonstrated most clearly the benefits of digital information. In the process, they have turned their own field upside down and have revolutionized their own professional training. It is a testimony to their success that we take their achievement for granted.

In his article, Brantley focuses on the areas where libraries haven’t addressed major problems–or at least where they have failed to address them quickly or well enough. Librarians, he asserts, need to do more to understand and support student learning, to engage in key campus and national debates, and to collaborate more broadly with IT organizations and other providers of digital information. Some of these failures are substantial, such as the failure to develop clear strategies around large-scale digitalization efforts like the Google Book Search.

The bulk of the article is organized around a series of mantras, most of which are valuable primarily as discussion starters for institutions trying to make sense of the impact of new technologies on teaching and learning in their own contexts:

  • Libraries Must Know Where They Are.
  • Libraries Must Be Tools of Change.
  • Libraries Must Be Designed to Get Better through Use.
  • Libraries Must Be Available Everywhere.
  • Libraries Must Study the Art of War.

Information Technology, Information Discovery

One of the most important components in this “architecture of collaboration” is effective sharing of expertise, experience and ideas between the library and the Campus IT organization. As he notes, these collaborations have not always been successful, often focusing on very specific problems like providing storage for data repositories or “haggling over who manages software implementations.” What’s more important than the solution of individual problems is the development of a shared, communal technology paradigm that bridges the differences between organizational cultures.

Frustrations in building collaborations between IT groups and libraries often come about because there has been a dearth of collaboration in the past and because the communities historically come from very different cultures. The two groups are trained with different sets of expectations. Stereotypically, librarians focus more on the long haul, more on thoroughness, more on well-described and studied approaches to data and systems development. IT organizations, again stereotypically, focus more on trying to get something delivered as quickly as possible while achieving reasonable success in order to move on to the next task. I think we’re seeing a meld of those values—as we should.

While the cultural problems are substantial, there are other issues that keep institutions from achieving the vision that Brantley lays out. In the current fiscal environment, neither organization has much access to new money for innovation. Pressures for critical institutional requirements for expanded security measures, requirements for business continuity, disaster recovery, bandwidth upgrades and a seemly insatiable need for storage leave IT organizations with very little discretionary money for collaborative initiatives. The amount of operational work and the number of current projects required of both IT and library staff required someone to stop delivering some service or doing something that they currently doing now. That’s no easy task without strong leadership and vision on an institutional level.

One of the key points of the article is that libraries face big-picture problems, but they are not library problems alone. They cut across libraries, publishers, IT communities, search engine providers, content providers of all types, but someone has to take the lead in getting them solved. Framed the following way, it seems as though that “someone” pretty much has to be a library/IT consortium would be required to address the following kinds of institutional needs.

  • Massively distributed information; rich data that is often not very well described
  • The necessity for building new indexing architectures both at the engineering and the discovery levels
  • The necessity for mining and mapping data to build linkages that are interactive and that encourage further building
  • The challenge of providing ubiquitous access to information from a wide variety of places
  • Shifting access points and variable persistence, since content shifts in location and is described with shifting names

Like so many of these Educause think-pieces, this article is much better at raising questions than it is at offering solutions. It certainly does reinforce our believe that time spent building communications and shared community within the IT/library worlds is worth taking on.

The success of libraries is not to be counted by the number of books, either digital or paper, held by libraries or the number of pretty pictures that libraries can put online. Libraries are successful to the extent that they can bridge communities and can leverage the diversity of the quest, the research, and the discovery. Libraries are successful when they offer new services and when they help others discover services provided by others. By building bridges among these various sectors, libraries will be able to define themselves in the next generation. They will become the architects of collaboration.

Very timely.

Twittering My Way to ELI

I’ve been a Twitter lurker ever since the University of Mary Washington Faculty Academy this last summer. Lately I’ve been watching Laura and Barbara and a few others chronicle their progress in preparing for the ELI Annual Meeting and my anticipation has grown every day that I’ve seen how hard they’ve worked to get ready. (Obviously bonding is more important than sleeping–ala Chris Dede–when it comes to sharing with their ELI colleagues.)

I’d been watching my Twitter friends largely through the widget on my Netvibes page, but I decided this might be the time to enable Tweets the SMS on the Treo. When the plane landed in Atlanta, the phone started buzzing right away–I had updates from a whole host of folks all traveling to San Antonio. I couldn’t help but think that even a few years ago this kind of real time, automatic updates would be the stuff of a Mission Impossible or Delta Force movie. (The impression is highlighted by the screen names–TechFoot, CogDog, GeekyMom.) Here we a group of academics heading off to the southwest to figure out how to use the technology to fire up students’ imaginations rather than blow up a bridge or assassinate some terrorist.

Now that we’re here the Twitter community is back in full swing, adding a new dimension to the already rich networking of the event.