Flickr and user-generated metadata: what is all this participation leading to?

November 4, 2007

Flickr has been making waves both online and among information professionals since its release in 2002.  (http://www.flickr.com/ )   I am sure many readers will have browsed Flickr’s content in recent years, or perhaps even have accounts with this popular photo sharing utility.  This review will focus on Flickr’s notable Web 2.0 innovations and some of the challenges and opportunities that result from large-scale user generated content rather than how to use the site specifically. 

Flickr has two goals at its center.  The first goal is to allow people to make their photographs available to “the people who matter to them”.  Flickr therefore allows people to choose the level of exposure they wish for their photographs to have.  While an aspiring photographer may make his photographs available to the entire web, another user may be more comfortable restricting her viewers to a carefully selected group of family and friends.  This kind of widespread sharing of personal information is clearly a large part of the Web 2.0 landscape, as we have seen in our discussion of the social networking sphere.

Flickr’s second goal is to provide new ways of organizing pictorial content.  Due to the exploding number of photographs in personal collections (thanks to widespread use of camera phones and digital cameras) the physical album is often no longer adequate for organizing such a large number of photos.  Flickr acknowledges that few people have the time to organize their vast collections of pictures, and so it proposes that an answer to this problem is collaborative organization.   Metadata tags, comments, and notes can all be ascribed to photographs posted on Flickr, and each of these is full-text searchable.

User-generated metadata is a very hot topic in library school right now, with opinions varying wildly.  Regardless of whether you believe that tagging serves order (by providing a scalable, flexible solution to the description of online content,) or chaos (as it uses no controlled vocabularies, synonym control, or standards,) tagging is a very popular function that Flickr users have widely embraced, and it is worth exploring.  The idea is that with enough users contributing descriptive terms to an image, over time a cluster of the most relevant words will emerge as many users independently ascribe the same terms to an item.  Tag “clouds” like the one displayed here, visually display the most commonly occurring tags within a system. 

 If you are unfamiliar with social tagging and folksonomies, I highly suggest reading this article by Clay Shirky.  Though biased, Shirky does provide a clear description of how tagging works, where it is being used, and some of its broader implications.  While I do not agree that folksonomies offer a complete solution to the problem of organizing online content, they do provide a fascinating glimpse into the descriptive terms that are most relevant to specific user groups at a specific moment in time.  Similarly, tags are continually updated as new terminology is invented and the connotations of various words change among certain audiences.

So, what happens when the popularity of programs such as Flickr generate hundreds of millions of freely searchable photographs online, many of which are coupled with descriptive metadata?  In essence we are beginning to see opportunities for the development of new applications to facilitate the discovery and use of visual information.   Recently, for example, Flickr launched its map function, which allows users to drag and drop photographs onto a map, creating a diverse landscape of photographs.  A quick search for “Flickr map” on Flickr’s home page will allow you to view users’ map applications to get a better view of what is possible with this feature, but I couldnt’ get permission to feature a specific user’s works in time for this post.  I highly suggest checking this function out in detail!

A much more powerful example of how vast content and user-generated metadata can be used in cutting edge visualization technologies is better illustrated in this video.  It is about five minutes long and describes how models of the earth can be created through aggregates of user-contributed photos to help people search and discover data on a grand scale as well as a very granular level.  This project all photos tagged “Notre Dame on Flickr were aggregated and placed within an interactive, 3-D model of the cathedral.  Please do have a look at the video.  This research hints, I think, at where we are headed thanks to Web 2.0 culture of sharing and participation.

 I would love to hear some of your comments on the video, Flickr, and especially user generated metadata.  I hope to hear from you!

Flickr cool rating:  5- easy to use, with a highly developed community and privacy options make this site tremendously useful and innovative.  Very cool!

 Additional Reading

Here is an article detailing the Brooklyn Museum’s use of Flickr to create interactive exhibits:  http://www.archimuse.com/mw2007/papers/caruth/caruth.html

If you enjoyed the video and would like to explore this research in more detail, please check out Microsoft Live Labs’ preview of Photosynth: http://labs.live.com/photosynth/default.html

All Consuming.net: The new road to Readers’ Advisory?

September 18, 2007

I’d like to move our discussion away from the social networking sphere and into another Web 2.0 tool, which utilizes many of the concepts of a social network (community, large-scale participation, virtual contacts) to aid in purchasing decisions.  This site, All Consuming.net, taps into the knowledge of a large base of users to provide recommendations regarding food, literature, music, activities, and so on. 

As advertised on the home page, All Consuming uses large scale community to provide three interconnected services.  Users can:

  1. Create a list of the food, books, music, movies, etc. that they have enjoyed (or didn’t, as the case may be) on a personal profile page. (An example of a personal profile page, with its navigational scheme can be viewed here)
  2. Users can also receive (or contribute) recommendations regarding what should be “consumed” next, based upon the lists that have been volunteered
  3. Users can share their All Consuming favorites with the world outside of All Consuming through widgets that can be embedded into their external blog, personal homepage, Facebook, etc.

The recommendation function is at the center of what this site has to offer.  Amazon.com offers a similar service in the form of “Customers who bought this item also bought…”  The difference between Amazon’s recommendations and those offered by the All Consuming community is that Amazon’s system is automated, relying upon Amazon’s vast stores of usage data.  The process is binary, and though very useful, cannot take into account the items that you are passionate about but which may have been purchased elsewhere.  Similarly, Amazon’s recommendations may not contain in-depth comparison information or reasoning behind the linking of the two items.

All Consuming, however, taps into the collected knowledge of many human users, and can offer more in-depth recommendations with useful comparisons between items.  (i.e.  “If you like the poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson, you may also like Annie Dillard’s book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, because both authors are concerned with man’s place in nature, and both authors focus on the question of whether – and how- God speaks to man through the natural world.”)   Similarly, All Consuming is not limited to recommending items from within one store.  Recommendations can be made by people across many continents, people who may be exposed to items that a U.S. user may not otherwise learn about. 

Obviously,  a service of this type requires a large user base.  All Consuming partners with a similar group of websites, “43 Things“, so any user that is registered with “43 Things” is also automatically a member of All Consuming, and vice versa.  These partnerships help to keep the membership levels high enough for the service to be effective.

I think that this site has some implications for traditional library services, especially readers’ advisory services.  Sites such as All Consuming provide a scalable and inexpensive alternative to Amazon’s automated recommendations by relying upon voluntary participation by a wide variety of users.  Libraries have long known that human-supplied descriptive information can help people to discover new and relevant avenues of thought, experience, or information that otherwise may remain unknown.  Establishing school-wide networks such as this, to which students are automatically members, could provide tremendous information on the student body’s interests and scholastic needs, as well as provide a new way for librarians to provide readers’ advisory services.

Although All Consuming is difficult to navigate and somewhat difficult to learn, it has discovered an important niche in the information landscape, and offers an important “library-type” service.  It may be important to watch sites such as this, as they are bound to become more sophisticated as automated processes pair with user participation to eliminate unhelpful content, spam, etc. 

 Cool Rating- 3 (Though still in its infancy, All Consuming has a lot of potential!) 

Dodgeball: a Social Network for your mobile phone

August 22, 2007

If Facebook’s lack of privacy didn’t scare you enough, here comes the next step in social networks- dodgeball.com, a “mobile” social software application.  This page allows users to create an online profile and add friends to these accounts in the same way as in Facebook or NING.  Again, these connections allow people to meet or contact one another through mutual friends and interests.  However, Dodgeball’s aim is not to connect people virtually via a social networking site, but rather to connect people in the physical world.  The site states that it “focuses on using technology to facilitate serendipity.”

For instance, if  a member of Dodgeball was headed out to a local restaurant, he or she would post a message via the site stating where he or she was going.  A mass text message would then be automatically sent to the mobile phones of everyone in his/her network notifying everyone of where the user was going to be that night.   There is also a “Friends of Friends” function, so  Dodgeball will notify you if there are members that are friends of your listed friends anywhere within 10 blocks of you, so that you can meet up.  Dodgeball will also notify these “friends of friends” that you will also be nearby. 

Dodgeball, I think, correctly anticipated that one of the best uses of this kind of information feed would be to facilitate dating.  Therefore, it offers a feature known as “Crushes” in which a user may designate five other Dodgeball users that he or she has a “crush” on.  Dodgeball will immediately send a notification to both the “crush” and the admirer if the two are nearby one another, making mention of the special “crush” designation.  Another feature is Dodgeball’s ability to look up venues of interest based upon your location. 

The interesting thing about Dodgeball is that, though it is a hybrid system using both a website and mobile phones to offer its service, most commands, including check-in (which posts and subsequently broadcasts your current location) shout-outs (which sends a personalized message) and commands to organize events and send messages to specific groups, can all be done using text messages directed to the central Dodgeball system.  A user does not need to be near a computer to work with Dodgeball.  He or she simply must memorize the Dodgeball commands and send a text message.  Here  is a list of commands and functions that a user can execute from his or her phone.  (I find it reminiscent of DOS or DIALOG type commands.)

Dodgeball is city based and is currently available in 22 US cities.  It was acquired by Google in 2006 and requires that users have a Google account before being able to connect their mobile phones to this service. 

So, what does Dodgeball bring to the discussion of libraries and Web 2.0?  I think the merging of mobile and web-based technologies is particularly interesting, and compliments up-and-coming technologies such as the iphone.  If this type of combined utility (a social network, a dating utility, a city map database and a venue listing) is evolving alongside the combined utility of PDAs, I think we may see escalating user expectations for combined functionality in library sites and services that will be increasingly challenging to meet. 

Further, Dodgeball may be symptomatic of a new rejection of individual privacy.  For example, a user of Facebook may publish volumes of intimate personal details for the world to see, yet feel secure because those that view this information may not be able to locate him or her in the physical world.  However, Dodgeball’s main purpose is to broadcast users’ personal details as well as their up-to-the-minute physical locations to selected “friends” as well as non-selected “friends of friends”.  You’ll note that this is one site for which I have not created a profile.  Participatory culture is all well and good but there I some boundaries that I don’t want to cross!

Cool Rating:  2 (The idea is interesting, but the risks may outweigh the utility.)

Readings:

Further information on Dodgeball’s privacy policy.

Interesting Blog post on the relationship between Google and Dodgeball.

Information Today article regarding the relationship between social networks and information professionals. I think it fits in well with the ongoing discussion and the previous few posts. 

M.G.

Social Networking Tools Part 2: The Library 2.0 Network, and NING

August 8, 2007

Library 2.0:  http://library20.ning.com/

The Library 2.0 network (“Library 2.0”) was started in 2007 by Bill Drew, a Systems Librarian at Tomkins-Cortland Community College.  This tool was created to allow librarians with an interest in Web 2.0 tools and their relationship to libraries to have a space to bring up topics of interest and to share information.  Library 2.0 was created this year, and already has attracted 2,149 members worldwide.  Library 2.0 simply states: “This network is for librarians and others interested in Library 2.0.” 

Library 2.0 is a great example of a middle-of-the-road kind of tool.  If you consider Facebook’s level of information sharing to be frightening or uncomfortable, a Library 2.0 type of tool will likely appeal to you.  Although information posted by users is browsable on a page-by-page level, it is not indexed exhaustively, nor is it as widely searchable as is the information on Facebook, so it is easier to maintain privacy.  Furthermore, Library 2.0 does not feature a News Feed.  Therefore, unlike Facebook, your activities within the network are not broadcast to all of your contacts.  However, witout a Facebook-style News Feed, it takes much more effort to become aware of interesting discussions within the site’s many fora, useful user blogs, and groups of interest.  A great deal of browsing or manually checking the pages of one’s contacts is often necessary to discover such items of interest. 

Library 2.0 has many of the standard features of a typical SNT.  I have included a screen shot of the network’s home page:  Library 2.0 Home Page 8-6-07

…as well as a screen shot of my Member Profile Page  

The library 2.0 community is still small enough so that most network updates (newly created groups, forum posts, etc.) can be listed directly on the home page in lieu of a News Feed.  Communication and idea sharing is still the major function of this SNT.  Library 2.0 offers a number of RSS feeds as one solution to the necessity of time-consuming browsing.  Like Facebook, the level to which a user would like to have information pushed to his/her email is customizable.  I currently receive email notifications if network members respond to my blog or if I receive friend requests (these are default settings), but I do not currently subscribe to feeds for the blogs.

On my profile page, above, there are several utilities available to the user.  On the far left is listed a single discussion that I started within a forum, and beneath this are network groups that I am affiliated with.  My eight “Friends” (I only know two of them in real life!) are listed by way of their thumbnail images so that I may easily access their own pages.  Below the friend listings is the blog area. 

 A final utility on this page that I would like to point out is in the center of the page, marked, “Your library 2.0 box.”  This is essentially an area that the designer set aside for the user to import widgets, badges, or other embedded content.  Embedded content has become a phenomenon within social networks recently. 

NING

Finally, I would like to mention that Library 2.0 is powered by NING, a social networking service.  NING, founded in 2004, is a program that allows anyone to create and maintain a social networking tool of their own, with all the basic functionality of a typical SNT.  Library 2.0, with its numerous members, and its developed blogs and discussions, exemplifies the potential success of such a home-grown tool. 

 What instantly sprang to mind when I discovered that NING is highly customizable as well as FREE, was that this could be a great tool for student groups affiliated with the library such as the RWIT tutors.  I think such a tool would provide a forum for feedback, collaboration, improving and streamlining practices, or just a place to blow off steam during midterms and other “crunch times”.  It could also become a great window into RWIT’s day-to-day world for librarians and administrators of the RWIT program. 

I am sure there are other specific applications for a home-grown social networking tool such as this, and I welcome any thoughts that folks have regarding some potential uses. 

 IN SUM:

  • Library 2.0 is a home-grown social network powered by NING, which has been home to a fairly vibrant community of librarians since it was founded.
  • Library 2.0 has many similar features to Facebook, but does not include a pervasive News Feed or exhaustive member indexing.  Therefore, a level of member privacy is more easily maintained.
  • Search and discovery of relevant information can be time consuming on Library 2.0 because of this lack of indexing, though members are encouraged to tag their posts for ease of access.
  • Library 2.0 is a great example of a social networking tool that revolves around professional development in a specific field. 
  • NING allows us to create such networks inexpensively and quickly

Cool Rating:  4  (I’m really glad to see an SNT used for professional development, but wish that browsing this one was a little easier)

-M.G

Social Networking Tools Part 1: Facebook

August 6, 2007

I decided to start with social networking, because I think it is a great way to start a conversation about Web 2.0’s impact on the world and on libraries.  No doubt many of you have read about social networking tools (“SNTs”) as they have generated a lot of hype. As part of this review of popular social networking tools, I will shortly add posts regarding Library 2.0, dodgeball.com and (for fun) All Consuming. 

Today’s post will focus on how Facebook (www.facebook.com) works and why its particular utilities are popular with students and useful to libraries.  I will also list some reasons to be excited about this product as well as some reasons to be wary of it.

 Here is a Snippet of my Facebook Profile (complete with goofy picture) so that you can see the interface and content.

 This is the Home Page of Facebook , which you see upon first logging in.  (Like many 2.0 tools, you must register to view the content.)  The home pages are centered around the News Feed, which is based upon the Facebook members you have tagged as “Friends”.  Take a look at some of the news items that have been pushed to me by Facebook in the News Feed Section.  These are all the changes or events that happened on each of my friends’ pages within the past three days.  It’s a little creepy… you can’t so much as sneeze on Facebook without your entire network knowing about it. 

But on the filip side, that kind of intense connectivity allows networks to expand naturally- even if you aren’t a “Facebook Stalker”.  The News Feed above allows me to see that Philip and Heather are not “Friends”.  I then realize that Heather (whom I also know) now has an account, and I can easily request that she be connected to my page as a “Friend”.  In this way, your virtual network of contacts expands naturally, through mutual friends and mutual interests.

Opportunities:

So, aside from being a great tool for busybodies, what can Facebook offer us?  I really struggled with this for a while, since my gut reaction was that this kind of lack of privacy seems somewhat antithetical to our profession.  In the end, however, I think that it offers a few great oppotunities when used both cautiously and thoughtfully. 

  • Marketing:  Facebook allows every individual to index him/herself along a variety of lines.  For example, you may enter that you work at Dartmouth.  Facebook automatically tags you as part of the Dartmouth network.  So, if you create a Dartmouth library group, every Dartmouth student, faculty, and staff member who is on Facebook is extremely likely to come across your group in the normal course of Facebook use.  If they choose to join your group or add you as a “Friend” they will receive information on all your activities via the News Feed.  Although you can similarly push information to library users through RSS feeds or listservs, Facebook is particularly effective because users instantly see how many of their real-life and virtual friends are connected to the same sites and groups, so there is an added “hook” that goes far beyond an email message. 
  • Professional Development:  This is the favorite use of Facebook among LIS students at Syracuse. I am a member of both the Syracuse iSchool group, which acts as a forum for discussion on issues regarding the school, and the ALA members group, which encourages conversations about how to develop policies and best practices for utilizing SNTs.  As soon as anyone has an idea and posts it, my News Feed pushes that information to me, and I stay apprised of the conversation. 
  • Entering a networking culture that is embraced by students:  Facebook started as a tool exclusively for university students, faculty and staff, so it has been associated with this sphere for some time.  The Dartmouth network alone currently lists 15, 192 members.  Here are two Facebook Groups  that have been created by members of the Dartmouth network.  Please note the size of these groups.  The impromptu and very heartfelt memorial group, avove, underscores Facebook’s cultural function within the community.  When I was recently wroking at SUNY ESF, students informed me that their student government body no longer maintains a listserv or an email account.  Rather all communications, official and unofficial, are handled through Facebook, relying entirely on groups and News Feeds.

Concerns:

  • Student Culture:  Students may well consider Facebook to be “their turf” to be used exclusively for leisure, and Library involvement could be seen as an invasion rather than a partnership. 
  • Preservation:  There is no internal system for archiving information that is posted or disseminated through Facebook.  Pages are meant to be dynamic, with new content superceding the old.  In the case of SUNY ESF, above, such heavy use of Facebook for official business could mean the loss of long term records of the student government’s activities.
  • Time:  To create a working community, or to tap into an existing community, one needs to be continually present.  It is considered bad Facebook etiquette to check in only rarely.  Similarly, student involvement must be continually courted to maintain group participation.  I can foresee some neat opportunities for contests, games, promotions, etc that are disseminated through Facebook groups and take place in the physical library; similarly, tutorials and embedded chat widgets add another dimension of potential usefulness to group members.  However, it is clear that once the library commits to this online community, it must commit long term.  Hence, effective use of this service is a drain on staff time.
  • Privacy of librarians:  Facebook’s terms of use clearly specify that an institution cannot have a profile page of its own.  Only individuals can set up a profile, gather contacts, and start groups.  Therefore, any librarian that is willing to enter the Facebook world must be fairly comfortable about posting information about him/herself online.  This is a personal decision, and not an easy one to make, although it is possible to limit how much information is disseminated by Facebook. 
  • Assessment:  With the necessity of continued participation and staff time, assessment is a vital part of a library’s interaction with this tool.  Unfortunately, it can be difficult to assess the impact that Facebook has had on students’ level of interest or awareness of library services in a quantitative fashion. 
  • Copyright:  Facebook’s Terms of Service are ambiguous as to how much of a claim it takes over content posted to personal pages via its service.  Terms of service must be very carefully analyzed before ever using Facebook extensively.

In Sum:

  1. Facebook is primarily a communication tool which pushes information to users in a number of ways and encourages involvement.
  2. Facebook is widely adopted and extensively used at Dartmouth.
  3. Facebook indexes individuals along any dimensions they provide (hometown, high school, favorite book, etc) so be aware that any information you provide is searchable, unless you carefully specify otherwise.  While this makes groups within a network easily discoverable, individual privacy becomes a major concern.
  4. At the heart of this service is participation.  The service cannot be used adequately without maintaining a continued presence.

Cool Rating:  5 (if you’re not scared of publicity).

Further Reading:

Regarding the explosive growth of SNTs:  http://www.pcworld.com/article/id,135355-c,webservices/article.html

-M.G

The purpose of this Blog

July 18, 2007

The goal of this blog is to provide a space for the RIS team at Dartmouth to learn about, share, and comment upon various Web 2.0 tools and how these tools can be utilized in reference work.  Many, many great things are happening on the web outside of just the big names (Flikr, MySpace, Wikipedia).  I will maintain this blog on a volunteer basis through December, providing reviews of the various sites and services that are out there, as well as readings on how cultural institutions are making use of these tools.  I hope that others will find this resource helpful, and will feel free to comment and/or add their own 2.0 finds to the list.  There are a lot of good innovations out there right now, but not all of it fits into the library world, despite the hype, so the careful examination of these tools is essential.   I hope you all enjoy! 

 -M.G