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November, 2010:

The way we communicate, Facebook, libraries, and life

Monday this week, Facebook announced its new messaging system. The new messaging system is Facebook’s attempt to unify SMS, email, instant messaging, and Facebook’s existing messaging service in the already powerful and vast social network platform with five hundred million users. I highly recommend actually watching the video included in this announcement because it explains well as what Facebook regards its new messaging system.

The main idea is to create a Social Inbox that unifies all different modes of communication based upon one’s social network, thereby giving the context and the priority often needed for us to move through different emails and messages. It is a smart move by Facebook.  And it’s a reason for one to worry even more about our putting too much of our (not even just social) lives into one private company’s hands whose business plan is yet to be known. What will Facebook take from us once it decides to make money out of what they own, i.e, data of our lives?

According to Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, the inspiration for this system came from a number of high school students who use mostly SMS or Facebook and rarely e-mails because e-mails are too formal and slow. So what does the Facebook messaging system offer to satisfy the teenagers’ needs for faster and more informal communication? Messages with no subject line, no cc, no bcc, one thread, and no need for paragraphs. Messages are sent as instant messages on Facebook, or either as an email or an SMS message depending on what the recipient “friend” prefers.

This sounds somewhat similar to what Google has attempted early this year with Google Wave but actually more ambitious. Also while the purpose of Wave was never quite clearly defined and focused too much on the real-time aspect of the communication, Facebook’s advertising for its new messaging system is simple and and to the point. It focuses on the convenience you will enjoy if you adopt the Facebook messaging system as the main platform for  your communication needs. That’s a much better sales pitch than real-time communication.

Facebook

Facebook by sitonmonkeysupreme in Flickr

Although Facebook explicitly specifies that its new messaging system does not intend to replace emails, the arrival of the new Facebook messaging system makes me worry about whether I will be soon living in the world inundated with the briefest messages like SMS and Twitter regardless of what setting I am in – work, family, friends, business, entertainment, culture, sports, etc.

I have recently realized that more and more people adopted the trend of forgoing the traditional greetings and sign-offs in their emails. No “Dear/Hi/Hello”, no “Best/Thanks/Cheers/Regards”, and often with not even the sender’s name in the email body. This SMS-like terse email trend is catching on thanks to the prevalence of smart phones.

Granted that typing itself is pain on the phone sometimes. It is only reasonable that the communication device we use determines the mode of our communication. However, this kind of e-mail style written on the phone is now becoming popular in normal e-mails that people compose in front of computers. Why bother with greetings and sign-offs if others do without them? So now everyone is sending emails like SMS messages. I confess that I initially felt quite far apart from those teenagers who complain that e-mails are too informal and too slow. But then I myself am not free from typing away on the phone terse and even cryptic emails trying to send out responses promptly on the go. And it is in an utterly informal fashion that I chat, vent, and joke with people on Twitter.

So the changes in the way we communicate are not just happening among teenagers. The informalization of everyday communication is happening to all of us. And one day, the mental reflex that interprets the terseness and informality of a message as rudeness may be regarded as a mere relic from the pre-digital age.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO LIBRARIES? Many libraries are already in Facebook and Twitter sending out and exchanging informal and brief messages. Some of the libraries also offer SMS as an option for users with research or reference questions. So are libraries going to be communicating with users in this increasingly more informal and faster manner?

Text a Librarian from http://www.textalibrarian.com

This would probably true for most library services. However I doubt if this would very much change the nature of research assistance that libraries offer. At least until we find a way to “think faster” rather than merely to communicate faster what we have thought.

Actually “communicate faster” may be an entirely wrong mantra for research as it may deprive you of the opportunity to critically reflect on the thoughts you have formed through research. Perhaps you made wrong assumption. Perhaps you missed an argument somewhere building up to your big proof.

How do librarians help users to do research better when the common mode of communication and information consumption becomes ever faster, immediate, and hectic? How do libraries show and persuade users that there are different gears they will need to use when they are in the middle of research while still engaging them and be responsive to the faster and more immediate communication channels that users make use of everyday? Certain services libraries provoke are simply not suited for the faster and immediate mode of communication and that’s due to the nature of research , not any fault of libraries.

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ps. On a personal note, I am intrigued by this passage in the Facebook announcement: I’m intensely jealous of the next generation who will have something like Facebook for their whole lives. They will have the conversational history with the people in their lives all the way back to the beginning: From “hey nice to meet you” to “do you want to get coffee sometime” to “our kids have soccer practice at 6 pm tonight.” That’s a really cool idea.”

I am inclined to think that if somebody asserts that having the entire conversation history of his or her life in Facebook is a great idea, then that somebody may as well not know much about life, which is filled with more things that we would rather forget than remember and with more break-ups and fall-aparts than happily-ever-afters.  Is it really sufficient to place the people we know into two categories, friends and non-friends?  Are those going to be the categories that we apply to the people we meet throughout our lives?  Of course, Facebook doesn’t have the evil plan to make our human relationships flat and shallow.  But now that friend-ing, poking, status-updating, liking, and brief messaging seem to be just  good enough, are we willing to go beyond that?  I believe we all have the need for hiding ourselves from time to time behind “the arbitrary ten digit numbers and bizarre sequences of characters.”  But Facebook thinks that’s anachronistic.

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