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Magazines > Searcher > May 2004
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Vol. 12 No. 5 — May 2004
Peer Pressure
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

Complex human actions — like persevering in a cause or carrying out a plan or following the path of virtue — all require multiple motives. Not all the motives will meet the highest standards, but then not all of them will sink to the lowest level, either. It's not that human beings are natural hypocrites. The problem is that, as self-programming life-forms rather than instinctual ones, we have short attention spans. We don't hibernate; we nap. We not only find many reasons to follow a course of action over time, we generate reasons. For example, multiplicity of motivation is a key feature in the programming language humans use to produce the "apps" known as habits.

One set of motivation patterns operates universally — peer pressure. People want a sense of belonging and fear becoming outcasts. If the comfort and security that comes from being one of the group requires individuals to do things they might not do on their own, then most people meet the requirement. We've all seen the negative side of peer pressure — mob rule, silenced debate, bell-bottom trousers and other fashion excesses, or — shudder — "reality" TV shows.

But peer pressure also has some good accomplishments to its credit. When doting parents cannot bring themselves to discipline the brattiness out of their offspring, one can pretty well count on peer pressure to do the job when the enfants terribles arrive at a schoolyard occupied by people who don't love them. And think of all the time we save on a daily basis by looking in closets filled with clothes and moving directly to the socially acceptable sets of clothing for the situations or environments we expect to encounter that day.

The most troubling aspect of peer pressure is its intrinsic amorality. As long as one follows the herd, it seems not to matter where or why the herd is moving. A generation of youngsters raised with Bart Simpson as a role model may succeed in inserting brattiness into a well-mannered child, while TGIF may force uncasual figures into casual attire. Birds migrate to warmer climes to ensure survival; lemmings march to the sea.

Whether we approve or disapprove, we all must recognize the power that peer pressure has. To counter its dangers, we must first recognize its presence, both in ourselves and in others. People who always act contrary to the norm become as predictably compelled by peer pressure — though in reverse — as those who obey the norm. Even those who take the "road less followed" should know where the main highway might intersect.

Look at the history of end-user adoption of online information. Set aside the time when it was too difficult and/or too expensive for universal adoption. Even after simpler, cheaper systems arrived, one saw a lot of people pooh-poohing any idea that they personally should use online resources. The "top people" in fields — who also tended to be the older, more monied, better-staffed people — wouldn't sully their hands. They had subordinates to do that kind of thing for them. Today, I doubt that any member of the elite would have the moral courage to confess they could not "google." Top people might not share their e-mail identities with hoi polloi, but if you want to manipulate them into revealing those addresses, just imply that they don't have e-mail access and their defensive reactions may reveal their digital identities.

Sometimes trouble comes from not having the right kind of peer pressure. The other day I was looking through an estimable publication and spotted an article on librarians partnering to improve services to clients. Wonderful! I approve! But as I got into the article I noticed that all the candidates for partnering were other librarians. Maybe we should strive to expand our image of the group we're in to include some of the "cool kids."

For example, online and offline bookstores and music stores and video/DVD outlets supply some of the same services as public libraries. These establishments also have expanded digital delivery mechanisms from e-books to MP3 downloadable files to online rentals and video-on-demand. Now other outfits are moving into the field. Starbucks has announced a pilot project that will roll out a digital music service to 2,500 of its 5,400 U.S. stores over the next few years. The service lets patrons choose tunes from a list of licensed music and burn their own CDs. Virgin Megastores will soon offer a similar service. Several online services already offer downloadable music. There are a lot of pay services out there now, but there is also a lot of music available for download from library Web sites and other open sources. How about opening a download service in the library? "Bring your own blank CDs or buy some from us." Even if only as a promotional event, it should draw some traffic.

Speaking of partners, what about approaching some of those commercial services? Apple gave away 100 million songs through a promotional program with a Pepsi bottle-cap game. Maybe Apple would be glad to partner with the libraries of the land for a joint promotion. Might even be tax-deductible.

Speaking of promotional activities, the NCAA March Madness package of college basketball games will have come and gone by the time you read this. But during that dribbling dementia, offered a $9.95 subscription service for high-speed Internet connection to dozens of games in the early rounds. The Webcasts offering up to three games at a time were also available to America Online's subscribers with no extra charge. Now wouldn't it be wonderful if public or academic libraries could have cordoned off a section beyond the "SSSHHH" zone and made those Webcasts available? Might even have gotten a big screen rental, maybe more than one. That would have looked awesome, baby!

What about corporate or institutional libraries? How about bringing in a vendor panel of the new competitive intelligence services emerging from advances in text-mining technology? Or a sampler of new sci-tech services for open access publishing and archiving? Or a review program for news sources? Too much for one library or one overburdened team of information professionals to do? Well, that's why you have professional associations. Get them to do programs like this that you can re-brand and distribute to clients. Buy, rent, or borrow the Web versions or computer conference copies. Supplement them with some additional material that vendors provide particular to your institution's interests. Make sure the professional associations have notified vendors that acquirers of the program will be contacting them for such assistance. Tell the association staff to please supply vendor contact information specific to the programs. You've paid your dues. Now let them pay theirs.

Of course, you understand, I don't want to put any pressure on anyone, but ... well....

Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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