Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant
Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
Hustle and Flow
It hit me while looking at the activity report for the photographs I had uploaded to Flickr.com. Flickr lets you see how many people have been looking at your photos, in various time increments, and for several months no one had looked at them. These very same photographs on my personal photo site FreeLargePhotos.com generate significant hits every day. That's when I understood. Flickr, similar to other new interactive resources like blogs or link-sharing sites (like del.icio.us), is all about flow. The constant refreshment of new information, or flow, is about grabbing your attention. People use these tools mostly for current awareness rather than to find previously posted content. For evidence, consider the voyeuristically fascinating utility called 1001. This free Macintosh program "allows you to step into the stream of photos passing through Flickr and to quickly see what's new at the moment." When you start up 1001, it opens a window on your desktop that it refreshes on a regular basis with photos newly uploaded to Flickr. Even if you have it in the background, it pops up a small semitransparent square that previews each uploaded photo in a slide show. A click will bring up a larger version of the photo and a link to the Flickr site hosting it. This can be a strangely addictive experience, since you have the sense of having your finger on the pulse of a large community. What exciting discoveries lurk around the next corner? Will someone upload an amazing photo? That is the power of the new. The pitfalls of the new However, a focus only on the new can lead to dangerous shortsightedness. What if you want to find a picture that streamed through a few days ago? In many cases, sites and the tools that support them are not set up well for locating content. Flickr does not make searching obvious or consistently effective. That's because the content is often poorly described, if at all. When users upload their photos, they can "tag" them with uncontrolled terms. The resulting soup of term variations, words with double or triple meanings, and useless tags (e.g., "cameraphone") makes it difficult to find much beyond the basics (e.g., "Paris"). Some oft-quoted individuals have dubbed such uncoordinated efforts "folksonomies" (user-created taxonomies), but that doesn't mean they work well. The blog bog Photo sites are not the only sites that exhibit good and bad characteristics of "flow." Blogs are tailored to maximize the power of flow. The only blogs that are read are those that post new content regularly. This new content is streamed seamlessly to the reader's favorite current awareness tool. Users tend to focus solely on the new, and although blogging software makes it easy to assign posts to topical categories of the blogger's own invention, it's not clear that readers use those categories for much of anything. Tools such as Technorati and Google's Blogsearch help with searching blogs. But, again, the focus on flow can render the search for an old post difficult if not impossible. If you remember where you read something, you can search an individual blog with better results, but that presumes you already know where to look. By default, Technorati ranks search results based on age, and rightly so. Technorati is all about flow and the pulse of the "blogosphere." For example, it will display a bar graph of the number of times your search topic was mentioned in a blog in the last week. It will also automatically pull in the latest Flickr photos that match your search. The role of libraries As librarians, we have a role in trapping the best of this flow in reservoirs. If we could perform such behind-the-scenes batch processing tasks as topical clustering, automated metadata enrichment, and content-tailored indexing, we might be able to enhance retrieval significantly. Current awareness is a useful goal. But being able to locate something you've seen before can be important as well. So we must collect, organize, provide access to, and preserve the best of this information and content flow. For more on the wired library, see the netConnect supplement mailed with the January, April 15, July, and October 15 issues of LJ __________________________________________________________________ Link List del.icio.us del.icio.us Flickr flickr.com FreeLargePhotos.com freelargephotos.com Google Blogsearch blogsearch.google.com 1001 1001.kung-foo.tv Technorati technorati.com