Saturday, August 13, 2011

My thoughts on the new digital divide - How to think about search?

I wrote about Helene Blower's new digital divide here

It's one of those slides where you look at it, and you are instantly struck by the brilliance of it.

One criticism I've read about this idea is that it's not nuanced enough, and too simplistic. I think It's not quite fair a criticism since the word "divide" , implies only two possible sides?

Still, perhaps we should jettison the idea of a divide and talk about degrees of information savvy "Those who know how to think about search and those who don't"

Here's my very take on how to unpack this. Note this is still somewhat simplistic.

1. People who don't Google or do any kind of online searching
2. People who only have the "google reflex"
3. People who google as a first step but know when to go beyond

#1 are people who are the have-nots in the old digital divide. They lack the google reflex or habit. It's not necessarily true that they don't have access to the internet, it's just that they haven't discovered the power of search engines or aren't comfortable with computers.

I'm sure you know of many older family members, colleagues and friends who are like this. They turn to you when they can't figure out why they are getting a certain error message or how to use a certain function in Outlook, and are amazed when  you figure out the solution almost instantly by googling the error message or the function name.

This famous xkcd comic illustrates the point.

#2 consists of a large group of people these days , in particular the younger ones. Their first and only reflex when faced with a question is to google it. Many have essentially offloaded memories and facts onto the net , why bother remembering anything or storing anything locally, if it's just a google search away right?

They tend to be comfortable with ambiguity, quickly skimming information, jumping from page to page until they gather enough information to answer their need. BTW That's basically what I do when I write blog posts connecting diverse threads.

A recent article (full paper) getting a lot of discussion is a study showing that people who relied heavily on systems to store facts, information were less capable of remembering the facts itself. Essentially people find that Google is so good at finding stuff, they don't need to remember.

Honestly, I am not sure why people are surprised or alarmed? Isn't that what good reference librarians do? A good one may not know exactly the information but knows where it might lie (could be print source or online) and sometimes more importantly who to ask.

What are the implications for libraries when dealing with users from this class of users? Firstly, don't expect them to come through the main library page. You can spend a lot of effort making such your site beautifully designed but a lot of them will never see it and just google for what they need and deep link in straight away.

So for example students attend a library orientation and learn that they can get past year exam papers from the library portal. A large number will not remember the steps involved to get there. They just google "nus library exam papers". So making your pages findable, searchable is important. Also design it such that for most pages it makes sense even if the user just jumped into there as a landing page . I also like the way some system librarians make sure their catalogue pages are all indexed by Google.

One simple example, I was looking at one of my libguides and I found it was one of the most popular guides, despite me not popularizing it much. A quick look at the google analytics of the referrers showed that most people were using google to find it and went in there directly bypassing the main libguide page (or even the portal page) because it had terms that people were searching for in their assignments.

One issue with such people is that if the information they find is not on google (or at least not on the first few pages of results), it's essentially does not exist for them. They are also not necessarily the most skilled at using advanced google features because for most simple basic searches google is optimised such that the first few results are what they need. (e.g. Opening hours of libraries).

I'm a bit worried since these class of users are the ones who often won't come to library classes because they have always being able to find what they need for most everyday tasks. They might not realize their skills don't apply for academic level work either because google doesn't have it or because our library tools aren't working like Google.

#3 are the ideal class of searchers of course. They still heavily use Google of course. But they know a variety of search techniques and tools. They use limits to narrow searches. They use real-time searches like twitter search when they are monitoring breaking news, social bookmarking tools like delicious when they want to quickly find precurated sites bookmarked by experts, they know how to find discussions of products on specialized forums and sites etc..

They are also not adverse to directly using specialised google vertical searches like google books, google scholar, google news etc when necessary. While it's true that the main google search gives you access to most of these via the Google universal search interface, the results tends to be a lot better if you use an appropriate vertical search if that is what you need.

Even more importantly, they know how to search and access the invisible web (academic databases), and when to go offline to look for information (print books and journals).

After handling many queries from users, I notice this class of users are fairly rare. Some people I think tend to have this misconception that you cannot use Google AND library databases together. So for example I get users who will use every trick I teach them on how to find an article using library databases fail and are stunned when I find them the preprint using Google/Google scholar as it never occurred to them to google it.

My guess is some people tend to divide their tasks into library/academic and everyday tasks and use different modes of searching.

People vs Sources

Information resides not just in books, or even in the internet, but also resides in people's brains, which makes being able to find the right person to ask questions important as well.

Again, I distinguish between three classes

#1 Those who don't ask people
#2 Those who rely only on physical network of friends
#3 Those who have a virtual network to rely on.

#1 refers to people who haven't yet realized that some times the information they need reside in the brains of people.

I myself am weak on this point, I am quite reluctant to ask people until I feel I have exhausted every other option, though in recent years I have changed to being willing to ask more.

#2 are people who only ask people they know personally very well. So for example an undergraduate will ask his closest friends about what databases to use, a out of work person might ask his close friends if there are any job opportunities.

Most people are here. If a librarian is able to get himself into this position (where people think of him when needing help) with regards to most of the community he serves he will have done well.

#3 refers to people who have cultivated a large number of weak ties.

Before the rise of the internet and social networking, this meant doing a lot of physical networking

As digital services like facebook and twitter make cultivating weak ties a lot easier this generally led to a class of people are very active on social networks like facebook , twitter, linked-in or even just plain old fashioned forums/mailing lists to cultivate their networks.

For example as a librarian if you have a strong twitter network of peers from libraries locally or internationally, you can tweet out a question on a certain library policy and ask how other libraries are doing it and you will quickly get responses. Some use the term PLN or Personal Learning Network to describe this.

Even in the days before social networks like facebook, people who knew of the right mailing lists and forums were at an advantage as they could channel their inquiry to the right lists or forums and have a high chance of expecting a good answer, particularly if they have being active members of the community.

I have being really fortunate in having a good network of peers and seniors in the library world to learn from and have blogged about some of my favourite networks I use to get news and seek help.

And often such ties once created virtually, can bear fruit and lead to physical networking and meetings. For instance my trip to New Orleans ALA Annual 2011 would have being a lot more lonely if I didn't already have existing online ties.

At this point with the rise of social networking, more and more people are realizing the power of weak ties but many still don't. A simple rules of thumb is, if someone is on Twitter and interacts with a large number of people they have never met in real life, they generally have a fairly strong number of weak ties.

Conversely people who use Twitter pretty much like Facebook probably don't have that many weak ties.

Some librarians are filling in the gap and trying to teach members of their community on how to use Twitter, Facebook even Google+ for these purposes.


I am not going to pretend I am a master searcher, my searching skills are probably just adequate for a librarian (I am more of a stubborn searcher than a efficient one in my view), but I believe my classification does have some value when it comes to thinking of search.

What do you think? Do you agree with the way I classify users and the way they think about search?

Note : This is the last of unfinished blog posts series (one has being converted to a book chapter & seminar presentation), since then I have generated even more unfinished drafts of course  that might never see the light of day. :)

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