By Emily Ford
So ALA has joined the ranks of two point oh. Last month it rolled out ALAConnect, a service influenced by Ning, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google Docs, and other online networking platforms and shared work spaces. Despite the hoopla about the system I hadn’t even heard of it until one of my working groups was asked to use it. Being an online networking junkie I was intrigued and decided to log in and, consequently, to write this post. After my first look around the site I was a bit pessimistic, but after taking a deeper look, I have come to hope that ALAConnect will be able to reach individuals who haven’t been able to attend conferences and engage with their colleagues about ALA-centric issues. If ALAConnect can draw this constituency to use it, then the tool might mean some real changes for ALA.
Currently, ALAConnect, which aims “…to engage in ALA business and network with other members around issues and interests relevant to the profession” (ALA, 2009) is in Phase 1 of its launch. This means that not all functionality has been implemented and future enhancements are planned for the site by the end of 2009. These include an advanced search for members and a mentoring network. (Check out the ALAConnect Roadmap for more details.)
At first glance the system seems to have tools that we librarians have been using for a while from many different places and systems. It offers the ability to create and modify shared documents, host chats, and sponsor polls and votes all in one space! In many ways this fills a very real need for ALA committees that have been struggling to work virtually. Instead of chatting in a Meebo room, on Gchat in your Gmail, AIM, and using Google Docs or e-mailing documents back and forth, these groups now have the opportunity to conduct work in one community space.
Before I begin to discuss the social context and implications ALAConnect has on ALA politics and the organization’s evolution, I’d like to discuss some of the more apparent and concrete issues surrounding this technological implementation.
As with any system, some basic usability problems are apparent in ALAConnect. Most of the issues I point out have something to do with the structure of the system in place, in this case, Drupal. Some of these issues will be fixed in time with future Drupal releases, but right now they pose some usability issues.
One of the first things I attempted to do in ALAConnect was build my social network. I quickly discovered that it takes too many clicks to add a new friend. After you have found a friend to add and successfully add that friend, the system returns you to your profile instead of the “My Network” page.
Next, I tried to do some searches to find relevant communities to join. Being the librarian I am, I clicked on “advanced search” but was confused that this did not take me directly to the advanced search interface. Instead, I had to click a few more times to get there.
Another seemingly simple usability issue that I noticed is that in the left navigation toolbar, the drop-down arrow next to menu items isn’t functional. While it does tell you that there are more items to view under that navigational category, it does not work to drop down the structure. Instead, you have to physically click on the link and load a new page to see the sub-navigation levels.
Again, these problems will likely be addressed as ALA gets more feedback or as Drupal’s developers make further improvements to the software. Either way, these are basic usability issues that, in the future, might be improved.
Privacy seems to be another issue with the system. In fact, Jessamyn West was one of the first to comment on it. (You’ll notice from the comments in that blog post that ALA staff was quick to respond and fix the issue!) I get the feeling that they are getting a lot of privacy based questions because of the existence of the Privacy FAQ page and the many posts in the forum related to privacy. There are some pretty robust features for privacy in ALAConnect, but it’s hard to figure out what’s what without doing your research. You can choose to keep your membership in communities private, but your official ALA work will display to members. You also have options to control your privacy for each community you join. See the FAQ for more information about these details.
The first thing I saw on my profile, shockingly, was my (personal) phone number. Why? Well, the answer is simple. First, my personal phone number is the phone number with which I joined ALA. (Being an unemployed librarian at that point it was the only number I could give and I haven’t yet updated my information with ALA.) Second, this piece of contact information was imported with other membership information when creating ALAConnect. (Why we need a phone number to display in an online social networking tool is beyond me.) Upon further investigation I discovered that phone numbers display only to people you call contacts, but this overlooks two simple questions: Who is going to call me when they could shoot me an email, and why was this piece of data even imported into ALAConnect?
More disconcerting to me, however is that ALAConnect displays who recently logged in on its homepage, even to the public. At first I thought I had the ability to opt out of this, but it turns out I don’t.
Going into my profile I disabled the ability for people see my online status in my user preferences, but this status only relates to IM and chat gadgets embedded in your profile, not the entire portal.
While displaying whether I’m online might be inconsequential, it still gives me the heebie jeebies to know that anyone can find out that I’m at a computer logged in to ALAConnect. Furthermore, what utility does this function add? How will the information that I’m online be used by other members? There is no internal IM function (except for chats in member communities and groups) to which it can link. I’d be more forgiving if there were some utility to this part of the interface, but there doesn’t appear to be any.
Unlike usability, functionality is one of those things that is harder to change after a system has been implemented. While I think the functionality of ALAConnect is quite rich, I did have some basic questions and frustrations about it. For instance, when creating my profile I wanted to include all of my schooling, not just one school.
I would also like to be able to show that I have two master’s degrees, and I know there are many many people out there who are in the same boat. Moreover, I would like to be able to connect with people who are alums of my same college, which seems to be a logical way to network. For example, I belong to a group on Facebook called Reedie Librarians, which is a way for me to connect with Reed College graduates who are also in the library profession. (This functionality has been marked in the ALAConnect Roadmap as a future improvement.)
There are some additional items in ALAConnect that might prove to be useful. Using tagging and being able to “favorite” a post or group is really helpful, if you use this functionality. Though if you’re anything like me, you might never look at your favorites again. ALAConnect also boasts the ability to create RSS feeds to read content of interest. (I did not try to create an RSS feed so I cannot say if this is easy to do.) Additionally, the system embraces some other, but not all, social networking sites such as Flickr and Delicious. These sites will show up as gadgets on your profile if you include them. The following image is of Aaron Dobbs’s public profile.
Even though users can embed some gadgets in their profiles, some might want better interoperability between ALAConnect and their other networking tools. ItLwtLP blogger Derik says,
“My big issue is that I want interoperability with my other social networks. If ALA Connect would connect up with Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, etc., maybe I could see a use. That interoperability is where we get into OpenSocial, Facebook Connect, and Google Friend Connect, all different ongoing projects to make the social network portable.”
I have a feeling that many people agree with Derik. Why would I join another networking site if isn’t interoperable with the other things that I’ve been using for online networking and work? The problem here is that ALAConnect is not supposed to be a social networking site. Rather, it is intended to be a professional networking site. This is an important distinction to note, but I wonder if it is a distinction that users will make.
Finally, one of the best features and functional pieces of ALAConnect is its ability to host user-generated content. Users can create groups, join groups, post comments, etc. This kind of content is one that I feel has been lacking within the ALA structure, and creating this functionality may open the doors to increased organizational participation and meaningful online discourse about professional issues.
I’m sure there are other functional things within ALAConnect that I haven’t yet been able to explore. If you know of any, please comment on this blog post!
The Social Context
I’d like to move from the concrete portion of this review to looking at the social context of ALAConnect. As was ingrained in my brain in graduate school, no technological implementation exists in a vacuum. In fact, the social context surrounding a technological implementation will most likely determine how well the system is adopted and used. (See Kling, Rosenbaum, and Sawyer’s 2005 book, Understanding and Communicating Social Informatics for an easy to read summary.)
ALAConnect might be able to offer ALA members the networking and virtual space to engage in discourse and other community-based activity that has been taking place in other virtual spaces. There is no doubt that online networking and use of webapps are part of a computerization movement which is particularly useful for information professionals and librarians. (For more about computerization movements, read a piece by Susan Iacono and Rob Kling in Yates and Van Maanen’s 2001 book, Information Technology and Organizational Transformation.) The question is: for ALA members who feel disenfranchised and disenchanted, can ALAConnect be a democratizing factor? Can a social movement form in this virtual space to give ALA members what they need from the organization? I think it’s possible, but whether this happens will be determined by the system’s users.
There are a few things in the ALAConnect interface and system that show its surrounding social context. You will notice that ALAConnect’s structure is based on ALA’s scary, unwieldy, and seemingly unnavigable political structure. Notice in the following screenshot that to browse ALAConnect you immediately have to understand the structure of ALA. This is not all that helpful to those who don’t quite understand it. One the one hand, this system must reflect that structure. On the other hand, this could prevent many users from joining and using the system, simply based on its parent structure.
I tried to look at how to create a group (see the screenshot below), and was left wondering what the “ALAConnect” subject headings had to do with the group I was going to create. For instance, we are asked right away to place our user-generated content into an organizational hierarchy (ALA’s) that is hard to use. However, like any classification, this function will help to make groups more findable. You can also request to add a new subject heading, which is a great service. (See the Member Chair FAQ for more details.) This model isn’t ideal, but it seems to address the issue of how different users might find the groups they’re looking for.
It is impossible for a system like ALAConnect to be devoid of social context. The real issue here is the tension between the “networking” part of the system and the part that is tied to offcial ALA committees and structure.
Despite some of the criticisms I’ve discussed in this article, I think it is a tremendous resource with great potential. Content, including communities and discussions, can be user-generated. Structures and conversations can center around an issue, not around a division, something that ALA desperately needs in order to be able to involve a larger community, to make the ALA structure more open, and to make the association’s work more relevant to today’s librarians. The fact that the system is part of the ALA structure may dissuade some users, but there is a growing online community of non-ALA members who have created ALAConnect accounts and are using the resource.
ALAConnect offers everyone in libraryland (not just ALA members) a way to get involved in professional discourse, to engage in professional networking, and to create their own professional communities online. What we need to do is to join ALAConnect en masse, create groups, engage in communities, and make ALA what we need it to be. ALAConnect is just a starting point, but I honestly think that if we start there, the sky is the limit. It’s up to us to make sure we use the system in a way that is meaningful to us.
Thanks to Aaron Dobbs for his thoughtful comments on this post. Additional thanks to Jenny Levine of ALAConnect for answering some last minute questions and providing thoughts and her expertise about the system, and to Derik Badman of ItLwtLP for his comments.