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2.0 = Reprioritizing the Qualitative

February 23, 2007

It took me a while to come up with the subject for this post, and it’s still meaningless (and sounds like the name of a bad blog) .

There are many ways in which all things “2.0” (or the semantic web, or the new web, or whatever) are significantly different from previous versions (like 1.0, I guess). It seems that the pace of change, and the degree to which this particular change is simply embedded in the way people behave, has meant that not too many people are really sitting back and pondering what’s going on here. I also think the fact that 2.0 has simply happened rather than being talked about first, and marketed, and forecast, and put in a box so that everyone can see it, has meant that it has really snuck up on people, and most users don’t even realize (or care) that something new is happening. In fact, why should they care? They’re just using things that work … leave the philosophizing to someone else.

Like I said, people point to many different things that make the “new web” different. The social aspect of it seems to be a popular choice, the participative nature of it is another (and there are more). As a librarian, however, it strikes me that there is something else about all of this that is the most significant, and ties all of these technologies together. I was at a demo by a library vendor recently, and I was trying to think of what it is that these people are fundamentally missing when they think about human/computer interaction. They produce large /huge databases of material, and they provide people with the ability to search through immense amounts of metadata and retrieve things. They realize that what they are providing is just matching one’s search terms to identical things in the metadata … this, of course, is not much more advanced than hitting Cntrl+F and finding words in a web page (which is about as old as computers in terms of technology). In order to become more “web 2.0 – ish” these folks most often say “we’ll add the ability to insert comments on records, then we’ll be like Amazon” (I’m being a little harsh, but this is basically what is going on). I then groan inside ….

What is being missed here is more than just comment boxes, or the ability to put a star beside a title that you like (although those are examples of useful 2.o-ish tools). All of the characteristics of 2.0 sites are really, in my mind, trying to accomplish the same thing. That is, they are attempting to reintroduce the dimension of qualitative assessment into the search for information. All of the techniques of collecting comments, allowing for rating systems, analyzing patterns of use, letting people chat with each other, are shooting for the goal of inserting qualitative assessment into search. Currently, the vast majority of library systems have no ability to allow for qualitative assessment of items in the database … they match text-strings with other text-strings, and they bring back lists of like objects. Oddly, the subject heading system may have been the closest thing that we had to assessment of the items, as that did insert an element of analysis of the content of the material into its organization … but I’m not sure how many people ever even glance at the subject headings anymore. (mind you … this being a blog, I haven’t thought this through too carefully!)

Thinking about this was interesting to me because it finally made clear to me why Google is truly in the web 2.0 camp. Most people just think of Google as a search engine … you type in a string and it returns things that should have that string somewhere in it. As I mentioned in realtion to medical libraries (below), Google also utilizes qualitative assessment of web pages when its pagerank algorithm looks at how people link pages together. Linking to something in a web page is a qualitative assessment of the page … you are suggesting that another page is worth looking at. This is extremely 2.0, as the real magic of 2.0 sites is their apparent ability to suggest to you what else you might find interesting.

There’s something else really important … library systems are strictly in the business of organizing information. This seems like a trivial statement. 2.0 sites organize information as well, but the most important aspect of that organization is the fact that they also organize the characteristics of the users of the system and link the two together (seems trivial as well, I suppose). The idea that we need to think about the characteristics of our users and link that to the characteristics of our information is not there yet in our systems, however, and we seem to be very hesitant to take that step. We need to link up like with like when it comes to data, but there is a huge amount of potential being wasted by not linking up like with like when it comes to our users.

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