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Month: October 2009

Hashtag Contexts

I wouldn’t have expected a thing like a hashtag in Twitter or FriendFeed to become a rhetorical device as well as a functional one, but that’s exactly what I see happening. (For those of you that just asked “Hashtag? What now?” here’s a nice summary of how it works on Twitter.)

Looking back, I can see now that hashtags not only allowed people to gather together categories of posts, but they also gave a kind of short-hand context to those posts. A brief post like “Mediocre at best” reads differently if it’s tagged “#IL2009” or “#ProjectRunway.” The first sounds like a conference attendee who’s underwhelmed by a session. The second sounds like a critique of a fashion design on a reality TV show. Totally different contexts lead to totally different readings.

And as it turns out, short-hand contexts are pretty useful rhetorical things online, particularly in asynchronous conversations or when you’re only allowed a few words at a time. Lately the amateur anthropologist in me has been fascinated by the ways I’ve seen hashtags used not so much to allow people to gather posts together but instead to imply a category or topic that in turn supply a context for the preceding post. They let posters signal “I’m joking” or “here’s how I want you to interpret my post” without ruining the moment with a dry pronouncements of intent.

For example, I’d have had no idea what a friend was talking about if he’d just said, “Remember that part in Star Wars where the characters are running from the troopers in Mos Eisley, and they scramble on board the Millennium Falcon and then have to wait several hours for the weather to improve before they can blast off? Yeah, me neither” (from stevelawson on friendfeed). But then he added “#nasaisharshingmyfuture,” to let us know that he’s talking about the way that modern day space travel isn’t living up to the promise of science fiction. Context. There are no other posts with that hashtag, so it’s certainly not serving a gathering function, but it implies a category, implies that there could be many more examples of this particular phenomenon, and therefore builds a whole imaginary context for the original statement.


Like any rhetorical device, though, it’s a skill that needs developing. Some of the people I follow seem to be really good at it. I, on the other hand, could really use some practice.

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Friday Flowers
Friday Flowers

It’s been a weird week. I’m feeling very get-off-my-lawn-ish about a bunch of things that really don’t deserve my ire (as well as a couple of things that do). It’s cloudy and very windy and generally feels like I’ve stepped into a scene from Wuthering Heights. I’m tired. So yeah, things are generally blah.

Luckily, it happens to be Friday, and on Fridays at Carleton they sell flowers in the student union. Students buy flowers for each other and stick them into each others’ mail boxes, and every time I walk past those mail boxes (this time on my way to get hot chocolate) I fall in love with this tradition and this campus all over again.

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Report from SirsiDynix on Open Source ILS Platforms Leaked… Oops

Stephen Abram has lived a bit of a charmed life. He’s somehow managed to be the Vendor That Everyone Kind Of Thinks Has Our Best Interests At Heart Even If He Is A Vendor. Meanwhile, he’s also headed up the Special Library Association. Meanwhile, he’s also been a sought-after voice in the library community. And did I mention he’s done all this while being a vendor? No small feat.

There’ve been some bumps along the way, to be sure (I’m lookin’ at you, SLA realignment name change drama), but for the most part he’s managed to keep people from looking too closely at his vendor status.

And then he authored a report on open source ILS platforms.

From WikiLeaks:

This document was released only to a select number of existing customers of the company SirsiDynix, a proprietary library automation software vendor. According to our source it has not been released more broadly specifically because of the misinformation about open source software and possible libel per se against certain competitors contained therein.

SirsiDynix is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with one of the largest public libraries in the U.S. (Queens Borough, NY) and this document does illustrate the less-than-ethical nature of this company.

The source states that the document should be leaked so that everyone can see to what extent SirsiDynix will attempt to spread falsehoods and smear open source and the proponents of open source.

I’m sure that others far better versed in these matters will write cogent and thoughtful responses to the document itself. I know of an effort underway to mark up the report and respond with some actual research to back up the counter-claims. With all of this serious thinking going on, I think I’ll just play court jester and point out my four favorite bits of the report.

  1. The ubiquitous Asian woman who appears on every page and on the cover sheet, and always next to Abram’s name, making it seem like maybe that’s what he looks like.
  2. The totally information-less charts that appear on page 4 straight out of the “If there’s a chart for it that makes it fact” school of rhetoric.
  3. “Proprietary software has more features. Period. Proprietary software is much more user-friendly” (p. 6).
  4. “Rogue programming teams may decide to create a better version, while exclaiming ‘Damn the torpedoes'” (p. 6). (I just love the “damn the torpedoes” phrase.)

Dear Stephen, we’ve seen your infomercial colors now. Next time you write such a report, please cite some sources. What you have here wouldn’t last 5 minutes on Wikipedia.