Immersive Environments

We’re talking about Immersion this week (er, rather last week) in the final module of LIBR 559m.  So last night I gave Second Life a try, the most prominent of the virtual worlds in the readings.  Years ago I had an unsatisfying experience trying out a demo for The Sims Online and I assumed Second Life would be more of the same.  Honestly, if it hadn’t been brought up at the beginning of the course as a potential medium for the final presentation (didn’t happen), I wouldn’t have guessed Second Life was still around.

How was the experience?  Well, negative, to say the least.  I thought back to Group VIII’s presentation last week where Tristan mentioned that users’ experiences are shaped by their attitudes going in.  That is, those open to the idea of SL will have a positive experience while skeptics will remain skeptics.  I tried to keep an open mind going in, but the longer I spent the world the less I enjoyed it.  In part, it was the hideous aesthetic (like Geocities communities brought to life in eye-stabbing 3D) but mainly the ghost town atmosphere.  I started off in the virtual Toronto because I wanted to visit somewhere I knew in real life.  I was greeted in Yonge-Dundas Square by the cacophony of a rock station blaring with what sounded like an internet busker singing at the same time, yet after spinning around in circles and wandering around I couldn’t find anyone there.  After 10 minutes of wandering around aimlessly (as a floating panda torso because my arms/legs wouldn’t load), I asked myself if this was a typical Second Life world or if I simply needed to find a well-designed, populated world to get a better experience.  I entered the Newcomers area, warping into circle with 15 avatars standing around.  Two people were talking about kilts using audio while the rest were just standing there frozen (technical glitch?).  I got weirded out, backed off slowly and flew away (unfortunately my real-life anti-social tendencies manifest in the virtual environment too).  I decided to check out Info Island where there’s a library.  The desk was not manned, but in an adjacent building I thought I saw a person in the distance.  I walked up close and discovered it was a bot.   My feelings were mixed because I felt isolated with no one around, but I was also distinctly uncomfortable when there were other humans around.

I tried to pinpoint what was fundamentally wrong with the whole venture, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  It was like a game with no game aspect.  It’s probably supposed to be a social environment, but it wasn’t really.  For comparison, I spent an hour messing around in the video game L.A. Noire because that stuck me as a recent example of a very immersive environment in a game.  From the company that created the Grand Theft Auto series, L.A. Noire depicts a fully realized recreation of 1940s Los Angeles.  The player is a cop rising through the ranks from patrolman to vice squad detective while working cases.  Even after finishing the main story of the game, users can simply roam freely through the world, which is what I did.  Even though there’s ostensibly no purpose or task at that point, simply exploring the meticulous detail of the world is fascinating, something I did not get out of Second Life.  I captured this short video, which does not actually do justice to the stunning visuals, of the player walking through the L.A. County Art Museum:

Even though this building is completely superfluous to the main gameplay, it’s these details (the audio, the graphics, the animation models) that fully immerse the player in the experience.  It’s immersive in a way that’s completely different than Second Life where I felt alienated.  I think this clip shows the potential of a museum-themed virtual environment and if, say, this was combined with contextual information, further interactivity, and multi-user support it could be a remarkable way of visiting museums of the world.  Mind you, this was one of the most expensive video games ever made…

From a library standpoint, I don’t yet see the value of devoting resources to a virtual world like Second Life when resources are already stretched thin particularly in public libraries. While I’m all for outreach to different populations of patrons, this seems too limited in participants and value (even though there are a reported 1 million active users). Seems like Second Life is a virtual manifestation of the social media ghost town joked about in this cartoon where a negative social media experience is actually worse than having no social media experience at all. Basically, if that Info Island library was my hometown library I’d be somewhat embarrassed.

Ruminations on Aggregation

This past week we’ve been discussing Aggregation.  At the beginning of this module, the first thing that came to mind is RSS feeds and Google Reader, though it was interesting to be exposed to a broader set of aggregation tools (Symbaloo, NetVibes, Moodle) and see the different contexts in which the word aggregation itself may be applied. In fact, as Rachel blogged, librarians are essentially (human) aggregators if you consider the subject guides, reading displays, and web pages we create by gathering and sharing resources. In the forums, we also discussed the difference between being an aggregator and pushing aggregated content.

One of the discussion threads that caught my attention was a fellow classmate’s reluctance to embrace aggregation tools. I’m paraphrasing here, but his argument was basically the process of collecting disparate content through a single interface will frequently compromise the full functionality of the original application. I agreed with him and expressed my similar skepticism with one-stop web portals, basically arguing in favour of libraries pushing aggregated content rather than aiming to create a aggregator interface (like NetVibes) that collects widget versions of other sites. Ironically, I find such applications to increase the sense of information overload rather than manage it. I liken it to staring at a wall of computer screens showing hundreds of different websites at once. Each small screen doesn’t do justice to the full site.

That’s not to say Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) and Virtual Learning Environment (VLEs) don’t have their place.  Stating the obvious, PLEs may prove useful depending on one’s personal learning style, though admittedly I wasn’t exposed to one that appealed to me. A VLE such as Vista has affordances that make it suited to an online course like this (progress tracking, a private walled environment, aggregating capabilities). However, in both cases a quote from this Lorcan Dempsey article Always on: Libraries in a world of permanent connectivity rings true:

“The university, library, or work environment can no longer expect to provide a more sophisticated digital environment than that which is available in the general consumer space; in fact, the formal learning or work environment may appear increasingly clunky beside the social networking and consumer sites which increasingly set our expectations.”

Basically, I think libraries should focus on creating and allowing their content to be accessible through a variety of aggregated platforms instead of being locked in to a single interface.  Allow users to handle and view content on their own terms.

Playing with Glogster

This week’s module is all about Creation and we were tasked with going out there and creating something!  After reading fellow student Jessica’s recent blog post on Using Glogster for Reader’s Advisory, I was inspired to have a go at using Glogster myself.   This tool can be used to essentially create dynamic online posters with animation, sound, video, and hyperlinks that can be shared/embedded through a variety of social media means.  Jessica quickly saw the potential in using Glogster as an interactive reader’s advisory tool, creating a Glogster poster (a glog?) with historical fiction reads for teens.

I look for any excuse to shoehorn one of my favourite bands The White Stripes into anything, so naturally the glog I threw together showcases the collection of White Stripes material at the Vancouver Public Library.  In retrospect, the VPL holdings for White Stripes material is fairly meager with limited availability so it likely wouldn’t be an ideal candidate for promotion.

The drag ‘n drop interface is pretty intuitive, if a bit clunky (particularly on a small screen).  It requires no programming or experience with graphic design since one simply uses preset images/animations/etc. or uploads their own content.  What I found cool was that Glogster works well in conjunction with VPL’s Bibliocommons catalogue in that you can directly link to item records, so each of the items in my poster will take you to the page where you can place a request.  Naturally, there are design contraints in the ability to fully customize certain elements and I occasionally had to fight to make it do what I wanted to do instead of what it wanted to do (though this is no different than PowerPoint or any other tool– negotiating affordances!).  Overall, it’s a pretty nifty tool that brings down barriers to easily creating flashy widgets and has potential as a library tool for highlighting its collection.  It would also be a good tool to direct young patrons toward to make their own creations.

Collaborating in Spirit

The theme of this week’s module was Collaboration and fittingly we were tasked with creating a wiki page with our study group. What struck me upon reflection was how incredibly quick and smooth the whole project came together from conception to execution in just a week’s time. Another interesting fact was that it took place completely online. Previous group collaborations I’ve been involved in at SLAIS have always been tempered by face to face meetings, though this project was completely conducted via e-mail and the wiki page. We didn’t think twice that our five group members were spread across Vancouver, BC; Portland, OR; Charlottetown, PEI; and Sydney, AUS. That’s not to say face to face was not an option these days with Skype or other video chat services, but our team quickly settled on the communication method that worked best and most comfortably for our group.

In the module and discussion threads, our class discussed a number of collaborative tools such as GoogleDocs, DropBox, MixedInk, and Giant Hydra (some familiar to me, some not).  When approaching collaboration, one of the early steps is choosing the right tool not only for the task at hand but for the group members too. Learning the unfamiliar environment and affordances of a particular tool may actually prove to be a barrier to collaboration if that tool is new to some or most of one’s group members. Obviously, the wiki site would be where most of our work would take place, but for communication it was clear that e-mail was best suited for us particularly since we’d be working asynchronously.

So our collaboration went a little like this:

  • The e-mail pitch; tossing around potential topics for the wiki
  • Nodding, agreement, refinement of topic
  • Assignment of duties, playing to everyone’s individual strengths
  • laying down the wiki framework
  • working on assigned sections while also trying to keep an eye on the big picture
  • editing and making sure references were cited properly
  • all the while sharing ideas/links with a lot of “Go team!” mentality

I joked that our pace was seemingly accelerated by that fact that one of our team members was working from the future, but in general the process went so smoothly I felt spoiled. When I think of what contributed to our success, first and foremost was simply our collaborative spirit, an attitude of openness and sharing. It’s this attitude that should carry over into our professional work and that we should strive for organizationally.

Here’s the grand result of of our collaboration: Making a Mashup-Friendly Library.

I look forward to our next group project, which is already in excited early talks of topics and tools to tackle.

Thoughts on Participation

In discussing participation in this week’s module, we were shown this graphic of the levels of participation as a ladder:


At first glance, I self-identified near the top of the ladder as a blogger, youtuber, tweeter, goodreader, what have you.  As this week has progressed, I’ve found I’ve been more often than not spectating or, more derisively, lurking, which is just above the bottom rung.  Stretching this metaphor further, I climb up and down this ladder as it suits me but more or less hang out in the middle.  It’s easy to fall back into lurking habits especially in the face of nonstop information flowing through our screens.

Another thing we looked at was the 90-9-1 rule of participation inequality where 90% of online communities are lurking non-contributors.  While these percentages has likely improved in the past 5 years, I think this generally still holds true.  I had come across this graphic during a spring semester class as I investigated the lack of success in libraries implementing online book clubs.  While there are many contributing factors, the inability to overcome participation inequality was the generally the nail in the coffin.

Even something like Bibliocommons, which has all sorts of social media affordances, strikes me as something that will never hit a critical mass of participation like, say, GoodReads.  I think sites like Amazon, Wikipedia, and GoodReads are able to overcome participation inequality through sheer numbers of users.  If that participation rule holds, even 1% of millions of users will give the appearance of constant activity while an individual library’s members (only a percentage of those being active online anyway) will, again, never hit that critical mass.  Bibliocommons attempts to offset this by pooling comments across all Bibliocommons-using libraries, though this still pales in comparison to other more “open” sites for everybody.  In fact, the company itself puts it best when they state (as a means of marketing), “The communities of even the largest library systems are small by comparison with those of the online environments that library customers the world over engage with daily to discover, keep track of, and respond to books, movies and music.”  While I may be ragging a bit on Bibliocommons here, I admittedly dig its functionality as a catalogue.

So how then do we as libraries foster social participation?  Here’s just a random list of words that came to mind, less actionable solutions than qualities that I associate with successful forays into social media (not necessarily libraries):

  • authentic
  • engaged
  • natural
  • active
  • current
  • two-way
  • user-focused

Along those lines, I like this 2007 blog post from The Other Librarian:
My Top-ten Library 2.0 “No-brainers” for Public Libraries
Deserving of an update, but still applicable and relevant today, at the very least from a philosophical standpoint about what libraries can/should be doing.

On Affordances, Neil Gaiman, and Google+

The term affordances was a new one to me and quite tricky for me to get my head around. The more I read about it, the more muddled the definition became. The most helpful document was ironically a paper (PDF  here) discussing the ambiguities and varying uses of the term, though even the wikipedia entry on affordances provided some guidance.

Basically as I understand it, affordances describe all the possibilities of actions of an object or tool. Depending on whose definition you follow, this includes all action possibilities or only those perceived by the “actor”… The course module refers to affordances as “can do” statements, so I’m taking the broad view of affordances as all the actions that an object/tool allows or “affords” you to do, whether intended or not.  [EDIT: I’m realizing affordances don’t necessarily have to be actions per se, but qualities.  For example, an iPod affords portability.  I think I learn better with lots of examples…]

For example, a chair affords being used as a seat, being stood upon to reach something high, and perhaps as an overkill paperweight. The latter is obviously not the intended usage, but it’s an affordance nonetheless. Likewise, Twitter has evolved into usages that were likely never envisioned by its creators (crowd-sourced poetry, stalking, alerting burglars to when you’re not home), yet these are all things that are afforded by the tool. By the way, please correct me if my interpretation of affordances is completely invalid…

My favourite author Neil Gaiman’s most recent journal entry discusses joining then quickly abandoning of Google+ and his reasons for doing so:

I found the continual stream of notifications telling me that another 500 people I did not know had put me into circles and that lots of other people I didn’t know had mentioned me really irritating and distracting, and I couldn’t turn them off or easily find the signal in the noise (or find my friends in the flood of people putting me into circles), and when I grumbled about it mildly (agreeing with Warren Ellis that I couldn’t find friends I’d actually want to put in circles among the thousands of people who I was being told were putting me in circles) a couple of hundred people explained to me that I was Doing It Wrong.

It was the “You’re Doing It Wrong” messages that were my personal tipping point. As far as I’m concerned, the mark of a good social network is that it either does what it was made to do easily and cleanly, or it’s bendy enough that you can make it do what you want. And being told “you’re trying to use it like Facebook but really it’s like Twitter!” just made me strangely nostalgic for Twitter. And as Twitter was still there, I cancelled my Google+ account, feeling at this point that I didn’t need another time sink, another place to check, another distraction from work or from life.

That sounds like an affordance issue to me. Google+ has many unadvertised affordances and perhaps a lack of desired affordances, particularly for users who will inevitably attract thousands (or millions) of followers/circlers.  I’m with Neil in that there shouldn’t really be a “wrong” way to use these social media tools.  In fact, it’s the users that will ultimately shape their usage (to an extent), exploring and uncovering all of a tool’s affordances.


Welcome to this blog for LIBR559m. Just posted this mini-bio in the discussion forums of Vista:


I’m Jamie and I started at SLAIS in September 2010. I just completed my practicum at the British Film Institute Library in London on Friday (it was wonderful). In fact, I’m not even back in Vancouver yet, having made a pit stop here in Toronto to visit relatives. I also work at Vancouver Public Library as an on-call Library Assistant, with previous experience working at public and academic libraries in Edmonton, my hometown. When all’s said and done, I’m leaning towards work in public libraries but a film-related library would be just peachy too. 

I’m relatively active in social media… you can find me on:
Google Plus
-and I’m sure if you dig around you can find abandoned forays into Tumblr, LiveJournal, Myspace, etc.

I also used to write a music blog for 5 years which went on indefinite hiatus around the time I came back to school.

Looking forward to meeting you all, online and/or offline!