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August 16, 2012

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BELLTONES: Communication Gravitation--Which Environment Is Best?

BELLTONES: Communication Gravitation--Which Environment Is Best?

How do we connect with colleagues online? With the advent of Web 2.0, our options have increased dramatically. Which environment is best? Which is less useful? Each has vehement detractors as well as loyal fans. I often hear comments such as the following:

Listservs are passé. They are so 20th Century. Today we have Web 2.0 instead. Listserv users are old fogies. Besides, your mailbox gets flooded with messages.

Facebook is so gossipy, and the privacy issues make it a nonstarter for me.

I just don’t see the point of Twitter. Who cares what some stranger had for lunch?

Frankly, all such statements bother me. When they are voiced by M.L.S. students, they also worry me because I feel like they indicate that we are not providing the students with adequate instruction about the value of all types of online communication. Of course, you will have favorites. Some environments just click with some people and not with others. But, I do not think educators should reject any means of reaching out and connecting with others online. So, I decided this month to look closely at usage and perceptions about listservs, Facebook, Twitter, and Nings. Some of my initial hunches proved accurate, and I also picked up some very interesting insights into why people favor one mode of communication over another.

Where else should I turn for information about online communication other than the very groups I seek to examine? Using SurveyMonkey, I created a poll about the environments listed previously and posted it to each one: e.g., LM_NET. Results of the survey can be viewed at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/onlinecomm. There were only three questions beyond the demographics. Within 1 hour I had 40 responses, and I had 75 by the end of the first day. The number of answers at the time of writing this article was 191. As always, colleagues from all over the world gave of their time and thoughts to help with this survey. I never cease to be humbled and amazed by the results I get from asking people’s opinions online.

Survey Questions

The first question I asked was, “How did you find out about this survey?” I have always felt that I reach more people with listservs than via any other vehicle. The responses prove me right. Responses from LM_NET provided 54%, the Texas Library Connection (TLC) provided 28%, and EDTECH provided 8%. That comes to a total of 90% of participants who visited the survey that got the information from a listserv. What about the remainder of respondents? Twitter brought in two people, Facebook delivered 10, and five came from Ning. I have always known that for me, the way to reach the most people is via listservs, and I confess it was a bit gratifying to prove myself right.

There were also a couple of surprises. First, I thought I would get more responses from Twitter. That was a tad disappointing, but maybe part of this can be attributed to the fact that I have been less active there in recent months than in the other venues. The other pleasant surprise was the amount of responses I got from Facebook. I love my mix of professional and personal friends, and this serves as a verification that my time does have job-related value.

Regarding the options, the second question I asked was, “Which of these online environments do you use regularly? Multiple selections are fine.” Obviously, I knew listservs were going to do well, and indeed they did. They garnered an impressive 96% usage rate. We all know Facebook is popular, and 74% of the respondents said they were members. Twitter was listed by 38% of the participants, and Ning was listed by 12%. If there was a surprise for me, it would be that the number of people using Twitter was a little low. As for Ning, people who do not visit either TeacherLibrarianNing or Classroom 2.0 are missing out on great resources, information, and communication. Any educator would do well to visit Classroom 2.0 and also subject-specific Nings, and all librarians should at least be familiar with TeacherLibrarianNing.

My last question asked for comments— “Which do you like best and why?” A whopping 171 out of 191 participants took the time to write answers to this question. As always with a question that elicits people’s explanations, I learned the most here.

Listservs

First of all, why do people love listservs? The most common remark was that most people can get listservs at work while the other venues are blocked. I am going to exercise restraint here and not rant about filtering, but this is certainly a big plus for the message groups. The second most frequently mentioned asset of listservs was that the messages come right to email, making them so easy to access. Studies consistently show that people gravitate toward options that require the fewest clicks, and this is an excellent example. You have to go to the other three resources while the listserv messages just show up in your mailbox. Of course, many people do not like listservs because they “clutter up my inbox.” My answer to this? Bah! Every computer has a delete button. Read the subject lines and weed out those that do not interest or apply to you. A couple of people mentioned the added value of listserv archives, something I really do use but might not have thought to mention. Just for fun, I did a vanity search (for my own name) via LM_NET archives. I came up with more than 400 postings dating from 1998. I don’t know many other venues with that length of professional history stored and waiting to be referenced. Here are some direct quotations that shed additional light on people’s preferences for listservs:

Professionally I like LM-NET the best because there is so much information offered for various aspects of my job. The book recommendations are wonderful and it’s always great to have a group of colleagues to question when I need help or doubt myself.

I like LM Net best—it’s specifically for librarians.

Listserv[s] are the best for the messy details of our jobs.

IMHO, LM_NET [and its ARCHIVE] is the mother of all librarians’ online learning & sharing environments. I belong to two helpful, regional librarians’ lists and enjoy the contact with colleagues on Facebook.

LM_NET listserv for work because it connects me to others within my field and enables us to have conversations and pass along information in an easy to use format with a (generally) quick response time.

 

Facebook

Based on the number of “fans,” Facebook came in second. The most common remark about it was that many people consider Facebook a social environment rather than a professional one. A large number of respondents said they use both Facebook and listservs, but their professional interests were best served by the message boards. For these users, Facebook is more of a recreational outlet, something to do at home after work and on weekends. Some people did find Facebook valuable professionally, and I do as well. Because I teach at the university level, it is probably easier for me to merge my personal and professional worlds. I do not have the concerns of parents or my administrators to worry about. Here are some comments from people who do find professional uses for Facebook:

I like Facebook because it can bring in a variety of people and opinions.

I like Facebook because I created closed Facebook groups to communicate with parents and students, and it has been an incredibly successful tool to disseminate information.

I used a Facebook group when working on my masters and it provided a great deal of excellent support and interaction.

Facebook for multipurpose. Can be private. Can be anonymous. And you can browse.

I really like Facebook now because of ease of use especially when sharing resources.

I like Facebook for big nationwide type of news—like Scholastic’s latest link about Walter Dean Myers.

I believe one great strength of Facebook is that it is very visual. It is great for sharing pictures, charts, graphs, and videos. This was alluded to in many comments. For my part, I often click on links to videos or websites based on the tempting lead-ins from Facebook. Whether or not this venue has professional value depends upon the preferences of the user, but the capability is certainly there.

Twitter

Twitter continues to grow in popularity, with 38% of participants reporting that they are users. A very interesting thing about avid Twitter users is that they are very, very fond of this resource—people have strong feelings about it one way or the other. I am going to give in to the temptation to inject my own opinion into this discussion again because one of the favorite things people mention about Twitter echoes what I have said since first joining. When someone says he or she just does not get the point or that Twitter is merely a place to post self-important banalities, I always suggest following a number of very smart people. There are other benefits for Twitter, of course, including publicizing your own works, promoting books, and sharing your own ideas and opinions. But for many avid users Twitter is a rich resource for links and quick ideas. Here are some direct quotations from Twitter fans:

For resource discovery and fruitful connections, Twitter above all.

Twitter. It gives me quick bites of information that I can look into.

Twitter because of the ability to follow someone without having to see other comments.

I like Twitter because of its immediacy and relevancy.

I like Twitter because of the 140-character limit. I can read a lot of information from a lot of different people in a short amount of time.

Professional: I like Twitter. I am careful who I friend. Only librarians, technology specialists, professional organizations are on my list.

I like Twitter because it runs a feed of not just my “friends” but it also runs the feed of professionals/personal interests that I follow. I find Twitter to be more to the point and quick to impart information. I find I do not have time to follow websites as often. I am also interested in Pinterest, but did not like the personal information they were requesting when I got the “invite.” I also like Evernote for keeping up with what I deem important enough for long-term access.

Obviously, the last comment was from someone with a great deal of online activity. Pinterest and Evernote are indeed great resources, though not of the type I wanted to explore in this article. One thing that was interesting about Twitter fans’ comments was that, for the most part, they were very brief and concise. This leads me to wonder if there is a correlation between the ways people themselves communicate and the venues to which they gravitate.

Nings

Nings were the least used environments but were still mentioned by a respectable 11% of the survey participants. I strongly recommend the two Nings that I used to post this survey, TLNing (TeacherLibrarianNing) and Classroom 2.0. The comments offered seemed to suggest that Nings’ greatest strengths were also their greatest weakness—the expansiveness of the environments. Nings are great because they tie together a number of groups and offer a plethora of resources including discussion forums, webinars, etc. People who disliked Nings mentioned that same complexity and complained that navigation was too complicated and time-consuming. All the same, for the educator seeking free professional development, whether for personal use or to use with faculty, Nings are excellent resources.

After considering all four online environments, which is best? Does the number of users hold the answer, causing listservs to “win this contest?” I say most emphatically not. I believe there is no best choice in this group of resources. Each has its own particular strengths and weaknesses. Just as we are not cookie-cutter professionals, the online environments we favor and use are not going to look the same. In my own case, I use each one almost daily and would not want to forego any. They are all part of my personal learning network. I think it is unfortunate when people limit their options and think of them as either/or choices. The strongest and most versatile teachers and librarians will appreciate and use each resource as it meets their needs.

 

Contact Mary Ann at lis_mah@shsu.edu.

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