Why should we talk about (international) social networking?

There’s been an ongoing discussion about whether social networking is a passing fad or a form of connection that is here to stay – and if it is here to stay, how pervasive or inconsequential it will be, and what it will look like as social networking applications continue to develop and reinvent themselves.

The single most significant expression I’ve seen of this outstanding question comes from a discussion on the ACRLog, the blog of the Association of College and Research Libraries. In discussing David Bickford’s assertion in this thread that the 1970s notion of library service done over CB radio was a passing fad, Marc Meola asks if Web 2.0 services such as social networking are a fad or something that is here to stay. Two people responded that certain aspects of Web 2.0 are fads while other aspects will stick around. But a recently minted librarian named Michael C. Habib commented that

MySpace and Facebook are 2.0 as it gets and it would be hard to argue that they have only been picked up by tech geeks. Those services also incorporate blogging, commenting, and photo sharing. Wikipedia, E-Bay, and Craigslist are also 2.0 as it gets. These are just a couple of examples, but the idea is that 2.0 is already mainstream and well entrenched in peoples daily use of the internet. Sites like Flickr might point to a newer breed of 2.0 technologies, but 2.0 is here to stay.

Agreeing with Habib, I wrote that

As the introduction of the Internet to a mass audience in the 1990s showed, it is in a library’s interest to pay attention to disruptive technologies. I would rather be guilty of paying attention to a fad than missing out on the “next big thing” — and 2.0 continues to demonstrate day by day that it is anything but a passing fad.

Other voices have echoed this thought when discussing social networking services explicitly. Forrester Research’s Vice President and Principal Analyst Charlene Li famously described social networking as being “like air.” Jenny Levine at the Shifted Librarian wrote in March of this year that

Hopefully it is becoming clearer that we [as LIS professionals] need to pay attention to virtual worlds because they are going to be a part of our collective, professional future. It's up to each of us individually how much of a role it will play in our personal lives, just as we make decisions about books, television, the internet, parties, movies, parties, etc. are, but between Sony's plans, the BBC's forthcoming online children's world, Second Life, There, and other virtual spaces, we're seeing further illustrations of why librarians need to understand how cultures and interactions work in these spaces for our professional lives.

I believe the same to be true about blogs and networking services like FaceBook as well. These applications are affecting and will continue to affect the world of information in new and significant ways, thereby impacting the work we do as library and information professionals. And given that Internet-based information is borderless (with the exception of certain countries where a national government seeks to censor Internet information, a topic I will discuss in a later post), the different forms of social networking services are taking root all over the world.

Writing from Bangladesh, Mahfuz Sadique produced one of the best introductions to the global blogosphere I’ve ever read. He touches on the most significant themes I have seen discussed in foreign blogs, particularly blogs in the developing world. These themes include Internet access, instruction in using a blog platform to generate content, the size of the blogosphere in a given nation compared to the total population of the country, the socioeconomic backgrounds of blog readers in the country, issues of local language and blogging in local languages and non-latin scripts, and localized content such as citizen journalism (and how this content affects traditional journalistic reporting and potentially invokes censorship on the part of a national government. Sadique paints a picture in which many challenges remain in terms of growing the Bangla blogosphere and using it to produce useful content that can inform Bangladeshis and foreigners alike about life in Bangladesh. But he also notes the blogosphere growth that has occurred in Bangladesh, and such successes as opening up the blogosphere to the Bangla language:

Only around one per cent of people in Bangladesh currently have access to the internet. As a result, before the blogging boom, the national presence on the web… had been sparse… However, since blogging has become a popular pastime, the entire Bangladeshi presence on the landscape of the internet has changed. In the beginning Bangladeshi bloggers had to write in English because of technological barriers. But with the incorporation of Unicode (which is an acronym for a standardization of symbols, Universal Code, which recognizes Bengali characters) into various blog-hosting sites, the number of Bangla blogs has risen exponentially. This was best demonstrated by a blog hosted by a Danish-Bangladeshi site, Somewhere in, when it launched an exclusively Bengali blog platform site — ‘Badh Bhangar Aawaj’. According to Hasin Hayder of Somewhere in, ‘there are around 5000 bloggers continuously writing’. The figures are staggering; since it started, a little over a year back, more than 31,000 articles and 350,000 comments have been posted. The ability to blog in Bangla seems to have liberated Bangladesh from its initial online inhibitions.

Because of thoughts like this in the blogosphere, and the fact that the blogosphere continues to foster active participation and discussion around the world, I believe it is important for us in the library profession to have an understanding of how people use these services, and what types of information they use the services to communicate. Certainly there exist considerable challenges for bloggers and social networkers in many countries, such as those Mahfuz Sadique touched upon. But given that people around the world are using social networking services to connect, network, communicate, and share information on global issues and events, library and information professionals have an interest in examining this trend towards internationalization, and considering where and how they may play a role in this international conversation. Given that social networking services will continue to become a prominent means by which people around the world exchanging information, library and information professionals have an interest in monitoring and understanding this global trend.

Posted by Aaron Bowen

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