The Great Change Agent
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
Sometimes, as I watch the parade of digital life march past, I begin to wonder whether I could be wrong about the direction the parade is taking. Then, I look a little closer and — guess what? — I was right all along.
Case in point: For some time, I have held that the single greatest force driving current developments in information technology and services has been the switch from a Second Millennium information economy of scarcity to a Third Millennium information economy of affluence. The traditional information industry continues to trip over this reality when it tries to sell access to people drowning in free data. People want less information these days, not more. They dream of a day when they will not have to plow through more and more to get to the best, the truest, or — at least — some useful information. They would still like it to be free, however. So far, the traditional information industry’s primary response to this consumer need seems to consist of trying to persuade consumers that they shouldn’t bother with content from the free services, but just continue to use the expensive ones. This is sort of like telling someone who doesn’t like the view to close their eyes. It might work sometimes, but not if the viewer is in motion — driving a car, walking down a busy street, etc. — or finds blindness, no matter how temporary, inconvenient.
Less, not more. That’s what people want. So I thought and still think. But then comes user-generated content and RSS and social networking and Second Life and you name it to fog up my crystal ball. The other day I read about a new service that looked like the last nail in the coffin for my predictive powers. An outfit called Obvious has created an award-winning, fast-growing communication service called Twitter. Its users (aka Twitterers) send messages (aka Tweets) to networks of people they know (aka Friends) or even people they don’t know (aka Followers). You can get a head count for each category for individual Twitterers, including celebrity users including John Kerry. Text messages go flowing out through instant messaging software or mobile phones. Want to see what kind of messages are sent? Go to Twitter.com and read some. Maybe you can find someone you’d like to stalk … scratch that … “follow.”
I’m shaking my head in wonder. What would possess someone to immerse themselves in this level of connectedness? Who would want to have his or her every moment just a ping away from dozens, hundreds, even thousands of messagers? The loneliest man on Earth? Humans who have had their biological taxonomic designation changed to the more piscatorial “Born to be Phish”? People who have found a super-discount outlet for cell phone batteries?
So does this kind of development (and all the others) disprove my contention that people want less, not more, information? You underestimate the ability of my predictions to maneuver laterally. I believe that these developments often represent a reaction to the failure of information services to provide the winnowed down, spot-on accurate information people long for. Instead of continuing the battle to get to the best through some effective, organized approach, some users seem to have thrown in the towel and turned to sources that feel friendly in the hope that they’ll get lucky.
Getting people what they need quickly and effectively remains the great goal for information professionals. The same month I wrote this piece, I worked on two NewsBreaks [http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks] that demonstrated the efforts underway to merge quality content into sites with enough content and enough “brand name” recognition to reach end users effectively. Thirteen scholarly society publishers created a search engine protocol called Scitopia.org that would transmit a search statement simultaneously to all the digital libraries of each society and return merged results to the searcher. This portal effort already has its vertical comprehensiveness in place. A search through Scitopia pulls up bibliographic citations and brief annotations for every document in the participating societies’ digital collections from the earliest — and some collections reached back to the 1880s — to the latest posting. As for quality issues, scholarly society publishers contend — and with some justification — that their peer-review processes and publishing procedures guarantee the respectability of their content. Only one thing is missing — a few hundred more scholarly society publishers. But the people I spoke with in the course of my interviews were definitely in pursuit. It might not be too long before Scitopia becomes a one-stop shopping site — not for all of scholarship or even all of sci-tech scholarship — but for all scholarly society sci-tech scholarship. Still a handsome accomplishment, if and when completed.
The other NewsBreak involved OCLC’s continuing march to glory. WorldCat.org continues to expand. It has now added 30 million documents by merging content from four of its FirstSearch basic databases: ArticleFirst, GPO, MEDLINE, and ERIC. OCLC has also launched a pilot project called WorldCat Local, which lets libraries integrate WorldCat content with their own holdings in a full-featured end-user interface. Any search of WorldCat Local retrieves up to three layers of results, tiered by accessibility, with records from the local library on top, then those from a consortium arrangement to which the local library belongs, and finally from WorldCat as a whole. OCLC staff are already working on bringing in the ultimate in accessibility, namely, open access or public domain full text. If WorldCat Local succeeds, users will be able to move around from one library’s collection to another with a reasonable expectation that if any library has an item, any user can get it. And wouldn’t that be a nice development for the reputation of Marian/on the Librarian?
Both of these are works in progress. Both need lots of work to get all the content required, and all the features needed, in place and working well. Both face the challenge of building userbases in a Google-dominated world and, probably, the midnight cold sweats from nightmare visions of suddenly facing Google-like hordes of users — our old nemesis, Fear of Success. But they both are facing in the right direction, following the Grand Goal. As the old jazz song sings, “Find out what they want/And how they want it/And give it to them/Just that way.” And that’s the policy these services — and any others hoping to “do good and do well” — are following.
Barbara Quint's e-mail
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