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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > April 2008

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Vol. 28 No. 4 — April 2008
LIBRARIES IN COMPUTERS
The Doppler Effect of Online Communities
by Daniel Chudnov

Every day we all take part in different communities. Home, family, neighborhood, social, religious, regional, political, and professional communities are the most prominent for many of us, and many people identify themselves according to the roles they play in one community or another. Online communities are no different—sometimes you’re a leader, a founder, or an elected head. Sometimes you’re a follower, a joiner, or a dues-payer. Online you can observe a community without being a part of it much more easily than you can in real life, but the word “lurker” fits into online lingo so well because it evokes the image of “lurking” in “real life,” which we’ve been living long before we had Second Life.

Since this column started last year, I’ve written a lot about two communities that really interest me. One, code4lib (http://code4lib.org) is a community I’ve been a part of since its inception, before we had a conference, before we had an internet relay chart (IRC) channel, and before we had a quarterly journal. Another, Facebook (www.facebook.com) is a community I’ve tried to avoid, despite sticking in a few tepid toes. I don’t want to participate in Facebook for reasons I wrote about a few months back. One of these reasons is that my participation in the Facebook community and all of the seemingly personal connections of that participation are fodder for profit-making activities by Facebook itself and its business partners, salesmen, and marketing agencies alike. That Facebook turned on a service called Beacon that blatantly exploited user activities in service to this objective (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beacon_(Facebook)) shortly after my column about this ran is coincidental. I wasn’t trying to predict that it would happen, I just wanted to highlight that this is what these online communities are ultimately for when they’re run by people with a primary motive of making a profit.

I’m not against profit making. If I knew how to do it myself, I’d be doing that instead of working in a library. I know enough about running a business to know that I shouldn’t do it. That doesn’t make me bitter, though—it just makes me leery of the harsh reality that commercial ventures must serve commerce, and commerce is fickle. Watch the mortgage industry’s recent meltdown to see how a sharp turn in growth or spending can shift trade winds. Not even corporate behemoths are immune to business cycles. As I write this, in early 2008, the business press is abuzz with whether Microsoft will take over Yahoo!, or whether News Corp. will, and whether Google will ride in to save the day for its Silicon Valley neighbor. One analysis recently suggested that Microsoft wants to own Yahoo! to help it become the next General Electric (www.pbs.org/cringely/pulpit/2008/pulpit_20080208_004240.html). Maybe so. At this moment, the advertising industry, which correlates strongly with ups and downs in business cycles, has probably long since peaked and seems likely to take a hard turn downward. If you want to know which other behemoth to worry about that, look no further than Google, which still earns most of its revenues from advertising. Surely it’s known to expect this all along, and it has alternate plans in place. But if you ask me where Google will be in 5 years, I’d guess that you might see Google itself taken over, and maybe by the actual General Electric, which has been dominating numerous industries for many decades and through many boom and bust cycles.

Business Cycles and Community Cycles

I’m confident in predicting changes like that because these are the kinds of changes we know happen. Few companies last very long; those that do last change as they adapt to the changing landscape around them. Last year, my family moved from New Haven, Conn., where we’d lived for more than 10 years, to Washington, D.C. When I moved to New Haven to start my first library job, friends warned me that the early 1990s had seen New Haven going through a deep down cycle in its own vitality, but when I arrived in 1997, it was on its way back up. While we were there, the national and local economies did well, and many excellent restaurants, shops, and clubs opened up, making “a night downtown” something to look forward to. Now that the economy has turned downward again, at least a half-dozen shops and restaurants that I used to frequent closed down in just the past 2 years.

I don’t mean to drone on about businesses and cities, but I do mean to emphasize that any sustained human endeavor is subject to twists and turns and ups and downs, whether it’s a business, a political candidate’s popularity, an urban region or the services (such as libraries) that support it, and all of the various communities in which we each take part. Browse 10 years of bound issues of a popular tech industry magazine in your library and you’ll see the issues go from ridiculously thick in the late 1990s to super skinny immediately after 2001. Your library’s annual budget might grow and shrink in similar waves. Depending on the dynamics of the community your library serves, you might see a big increase in foot traffic at the very moment your budget is the leanest. As technologies come and go, circulation of certain formats and service usage patterns fluctuate wildly too. Over time, you grow to recognize how the changes tend to correlate with good economic times and bad economic times or with the start of a school year or a holiday season.

Just like you recognize the ups and downs in usage patterns and how they correlate with those of your local community, you can learn to sense when online communities are on their way up or down and what that means for your participation in that community. Now that the code4lib conference is having its third annual event, we’ll have 200 attendees, three internationally known keynote speakers, more funding from sponsors than ever before, and, correspondingly, higher expectations from everybody involved. Responding to and meeting those expectations takes more coordination and planning than ever. To some extent, the people working together on it are struggling to find the best ways to ensure that we do meet expectations. The loose structure that worked so well the first years doesn’t fit as well when so much more money is changing hands. How to manage future events together is a planned talk and topic of discussion this year, and I’m sure we’ll find good solutions. But the online code4lib community has changed—it has grown, it’s become known, and it’s not only online anymore. If you’ve been watching code4lib or any other nascent online community closely, you can see this coming from miles away.

The Community Doppler Effect

When you’re walking alongside a busy road and the cars zoom past you making that “vroooOOOooom” sound, you’re hearing the Doppler effect, an easy-to-remember name for the way sound frequencies seem to change as the sound source and its observer move toward or apart from each other. Because I grew up in Indianapolis, the sound of the Doppler effect to me is the sound of the Indy 500 as race cars speed past at more than 200 miles per hour every 40 seconds or so. Maybe I’m mixing up the five senses too much here, but I “hear” that sound when I see online communities come and go. When I initially explore sites (like Facebook a few years ago, or whatever its newest competitors might be), they seem to emit a low rumble. But then my relationship with the site starts to change—maybe I see a lot of friends joining up and getting a lot of use out of a new site or maybe the site receives a friendly write-up in the press. The low rumble then gears up a notch. Maybe I start to use it myself, and the rumble turns into a “vroom” of its own. Usually, then, my interest fades for whatever reason, and I can practically hear it “revving down” as I visit the site less and less. Once in a great while a new site or the community it has spawned will sustain a high interest for me for a long time—I still read freshmeat.net and slashdot.org after nearly 10 years, for example.

When cars zoom past on a busy street and you hear the Doppler effect in action, you’re accustomed to it. You know the direction the road goes, so you only notice this shifting of sound patterns subconsciously unless something out of the ordinary happens—a car speeds by too fast, for example, and you stop and turn to make sure you’re not in danger. As a species, we depend on this kind of pattern recognition for our survival. We’re biologically attuned to notice even the subtlest deviations from what we expect to observe. It’s almost the same with our professional roles—we become attuned to the ups and downs of the communities we serve, and, with more experience, we notice the subtle changes more readily, and (hopefully!) we adjust accordingly.

My initial comments about General Electric and Google are like this too. Churn is high with new industries and new technologies, right up to the point where they mature and some companies win out, chewing up and sometimes spitting out their competitors. When you’ve seen it before, you know to expect it again. Similarly, when you’re at an auto race, the action is incredibly fast, but you take comfort in knowing that those cars are going to stay on the racetrack. You’re rarely in immediate danger despite their outrageous speed.

When you become active in a new online community, all of these patterns and factors come into play sooner than you expect. When you’ve done it a few times, you begin to know what questions to ask yourself. How long has it been around? What is its relationship to its surrounding communities, whether online or in the physical world? Is it just an online extension of a local community or is it a niche interest group connected by great distance only because of an unusual shared interest? Who’s hosting it and why? Do their motives match your own, and, if not, what does that mean? Upon which external factors does this particular community depend?

How you answer these questions is going to tell you a lot about how much time to spend in an online community, how much hope and trust to place in it, and what you can do to fill gaps in supporting it. When you notice that how you feel about one or more of these answers changes subtly, you might find yourself re-evaluating the situation and arriving at new conclusions. When you’re delivering services to your library’s community, you want to be sure you find and sustain a balanced relationship with the online surroundings and infrastructure. You never can tell when that next speeding car is going to zoom past, and you don’t want the communities you care about most to end up as roadkill.


Daniel Chudnov is a librarian working as an information technology specialist in the Office of Strategic Initiatives at the Library of Congress and a frequent speaker, writer, and consultant in the area of software and service innovation in libraries. Previously, he worked on the Dspace project at MIT Libraries and the jake metadata service at the Yale Medical Library. His email address is daniel.chudnov@gmail.com, and his blog is at http://onebiglibrary.net.

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