Emerging Themes from Internet Librarian – Ethnography of Online Life

It’s a curious thing, going to a conference. A healthy chunk of the presenters are people I know and talk with all the time, so I’m often familiar with their topics and sometimes even with their approaches. And yet, the experience of going, sitting, and attending sessions back to back, hour after hour, day after day is still enlightening. It’s not so much that I learned new facts (though there was a little of that, too). No, it’s that when you sit through that many sessions, themes emerge from the periphery, gather form and substance, and finally strut around in all their splendor.

The theme that emerged most strongly for me at this conference was ethnography. Previous conferences have trumpeted tools, change, and stories, but this is the first time that I saw a collective desire to understand what it means to inhabit this online world.

Rather than lead us on tours of tools and services, more than one presenter echoed Cliff Landis’ statement that it’s not enough to have an account any more, you have to participate. Over and over we heard about presenting ourselves as humans online, not as institutions. Sometimes this means presenting yourself as a professional (Elizabeth Edwards’ session on an ethnography of Facebook made this point),* but even professionals have personality, and personality is as important online as off. danah boyd spoke compellingly about how an online profile is our digital body that we adorn as if we were getting dressed in the morning.** And both Greg and I spoke about online identity.

Not only are we finally taking a closer look at what it means to inhabit these online spaces, but the online spaces are becoming more integrated with our off-line spaces. As the two worlds come closer together, as the process of switching from one to the other becomes less and less of an action that requires thought and decision, and as computing becomes more and more ubiquitous, these issues of social norms and interpersonal interactions are bubbling to the surface and commanding our attention. How refreshing! This was the first conference in a long while that didn’t rely primarily on listing Tools You Should Know and instead concentrated on interacting with people online.

* A very similar presentation to the one we saw was blogged here.
**For excellent notes on this talk, see Jenica’s blog.

3 thoughts on “Emerging Themes from Internet Librarian – Ethnography of Online Life

  1. Interesting to read this as I prepare to go to a conference session titled, “Making the Most of Conferences via Social Networking.”

    Also, Elizabeth Edwards is a good friend of mine, (former) fellow student and co-worker.

  2. That’s good to hear about the conference.

    I went to IL 2007 last year and it was pretty much all “tools you need to know” 90% of which I already knew and a good percentage of which i was already using.

  3. In a world where megaconferences might start to downsize (due to the way “everything is now online”), this approach to conference sessions will keep the f2f thing relevant for years to come. You can get the content anywhere; the story, experienced in person, is priceless.

    One goal I have set for myself is to find another planet just like Earth, with people looking for other planets just like theirs. Well… not really. But I am interested in seeing if there are others in librarianship who live part of their professional lives online, similarly to how people I know do, but whom or about whom I do not yet know. Remember… the number of people working in librarianship in the United States (at all levels) is well into the six figures. This online thing might cover 1-2% (of those who might report on a mythical survey that they “heavily” participate in formal or informal online communities related to librarianship). How does the other 98-99% live?

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