How social is social media?  

Recently, Web 2.0 services in which users collaborate to create knowledge together or filter information by using sociotechnical means have come to be referred to as social media. However, the term ‘social media’ or ‘social software’ is actually older than the Library 2.0 discussion that has recently taken place in our field. ‘Social software’ became famous when network guru Clay Shirky organized a summit meeting in November 2002 for key people involved in the research and development of social applications. Shirky wanted to create an umbrella concept that would cover all possible software creating and supporting group interaction.

For me, Library 2.0 and Web 2.0 are code words. They refer to the transformation of the network environment into a lively and interactive entity, but neither term possesses the same descriptive power as discussion about social software or social media. For example, ‘social media’ is a term that tells the listener exactly what is involved. Different 2.0 terms, on the other hand, create more confusion than ideas because they form no connection concerning what lies behind them. I have even heard people say that Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 mean nothing.

I understand the reasons for this 2.0 jargon being labeled as techno-hype, but for practical reasons, I would continue using this terminology. ‘Web 2.0′ and ‘Library 2.0′ are helpful search terms and facilitating expressions for RSS monitoring. Scientific 2.0 definitions may also emerge in the future; the information researchers at Åbo Akademi University have recently received funding from the Academy of Finland for a Library 2.0 research project.

Is community possible on the net?

Talk about social media and virtual communities has also received criticism recently. In November 2007, Leena Eräsaari, professor of community social work at the University of Tampere wrote in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper of her concerns pertaining to the notion that no one should be left alone on the net.

What Eräsaari does not consider in her article is the Web’s potential in building, not just destroying, communities. Am I alone on the Web when I use it as social media, when I use Instant Messenger or Skype or when I discuss with American librarians in the Second Life virtual world? Can not a group of people using a social software application, who never meet each other face-to-face, form a virtual community if they themselves feel to be part of this community? When people believe they are a part of a community, they will inevitably keep the community in existence through their everyday activities. The observations of Benedict Anderson, researcher of nationalism, hold true for virtual communities as well.

When I am in a chat room or on Messenger, I feel, at the very least, that I am in social interaction. I must admit, though, that when I am in Second Life, I sometimes feel like I am part of a global library conspiracy, which is perhaps not as notorious as Al Qaida or Opus Dei, but peculiar in its own way. On the other hand, I do not really feel as if I were in a community when I use or when I read something on Wikipedia or book reviews others have written on Amazon. Furthermore, when I write for our library blog, I cannot really perceive myself as a part of a vast blogosphere or blog community. Since I have purposely refrained from involving myself in the Facebook-hype, I cannot comment on its communal potential. I have heard that one is able to find out about what one’s old classmates and colleagues have been doing, though.

How does a community take shape?

According to Eräsaari, there are two prerequisites for the existence of a community. Firstly, you need a group of people, who feel a sense of community among themselves. Secondly, you need a physical place where the members of the community can meet. When these prerequisites are applied to virtual communities, Eräsaari’s perspective leads to philosophical questions on how the physical and the virtual are intertwined already, and how our future virtual existence will affect the feeling of physical presence.

The development of haptic technology, robots that perform routine operations with the guidance of a surgeon, Finnish chemists distance-using a Californian microscope, virtual gloves and helmets, Matrix movies, cyber-punk literature, videoconferencing technologies, and even the Wii remote controls, as well as dance-mat games, are indications that we will become ever-increasingly present as physical beings on the network of the future. It seems rather certain that our understanding of community is changing, because experiences of locality and physicality will be revolutionized in the future through socio-technical development.

Upward-building communities vs. cliques

Despite the fact that Eräsaari’s definition of community is too narrow, I share her concern about the notion that an individual can end up in wrong types of virtual communities or circles. These kinds of communities may turn into sealed and air-tight cliques, which recycle one-sided and ideologically colored information (gossips, tenuous beliefs and lies) among its members. Becoming alienated from physical communities and becoming absorbed in socializing only with virtual friends can be harmful, as we have had to witness. Last autumn, a young man who had lived mostly in the digital universe shot his school’s principal, nurse and six students in Jokela, Finland. This mass murder indicates that by no means are all virtual communities wholesome.

Quantum physicists, volunteer workers and moral philosophers, as well as neo-Nazis and terrorists are able to use the Internet to build their own communities. Unfortunately, both the physical and the virtual world are full of cliques. Although not all social software is communal in the old-fashioned, value-bound way to which Eräsaari refers, we should still be able to speak about social media and virtual communities. However, we should also remember that not all virtual and physical communities are well-meaning and progressive.

Communal library work

Like the community social work that Eräsaari is studying, communal library work also requires physical services, in addition to virtual services, and support for the creation of communities bound to a physical location. The need for physicality and locality in library work with children and teens and in school libraries is an especially topical issue. Perhaps young people need local libraries bound to a certain place and “physical” services like story hours and book recommendations for the very reason that many of them are especially sophisticated users of social media.

Not all communities are active; some are rather lax, while others are established, communal entities. These entities may form in both the physical and virtual realities, although still today most of the communities related to our lives are bound to a defined geographical area, organization or place. Not all physical or virtual interaction can be considered upward-building, nor can the aims of all communities be considered constructive. There are differences in what can be considered a community, at least in the degree to which a community is a healthy community.

Edited by the author 6.8.2008

Kimmo Tuominen
Head of Reference and Archival Services
Library of Parliament, Helsinki

kimmo.tuominen AT

Head of Reference and Archival Services Library of Parliament, Helsinki