Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Taking care of business (cards)

As they always are, people in The Profession have been very kind and offered me lots of advice for my upcoming trip to Chicago and the big US-style SLA Conference 2012. The one piece of advice that has come up again and again is to take business cards. Not just a few business cards – a lot of business cards. For example, Cindy Hall left this comment on Kate Arnold’s excellent blog post giving advice to conference first-timers
Business cards! Especially if you are between jobs (self-employment or otherwise) be sure to bring lots of cards with your contact information: LinkedIn profile, preferred email address, blog address, etc. and offer them to everyone when you are being introduced. 

Designing my new business cards caused me to consider the purpose of business cards and led me to the conclusion that, for me and (sweeping generalisation) people of my peer group, business cards simply aren’t as relevant as they were in the past. This change in attitude towards the humble business card highlights several paradigm shifts in society, in technology, and in social interaction. (1) 

To consider the place of business cards in society, we need to define the purpose of business cards. First and most obviously, they are a means of passing on contact information from a Card-Giver (CG) to a Card-Receiver (CR). Second, they are a tangible indication of the CG’s position and provide a CR with a primer on the CG. Third, they remind the CR that they met the CG. 


The most apparent purpose of a business card is to communicate contact information. Once the CG has given the CR a business card, the CR should always be able to contact the CG. Business cards generally contain name, job title, phone number, email address, website URL, Twitter username (if one wants to appear hip and trendy), and LinkedIn profile address (if one does not want to appear hip and trendy (2)). At its most basic, a business card provides the details of every medium through which the CG can be contacted. 

My - now outdated - business card.

But young librarians like myself are not that difficult to find. At the CILIP New Professionals’ Day a few weeks ago both Ned Potter and Phil Bradley spoke about the need for engaging with a wide range of social media and its benefits for professional development. Their presentations are here (3) and give an idea of how many social networks one could use to communicate. 

With The Profession’s current emphasis on ‘personal branding’ and self-marketing, many young librarians have carved out a presence for themselves on the Web. Even a person only vaguely conversant with technology using the search engine of their choice should be able to quickly find my email address or at least an alternate means of contacting me. (4) Nowadays, armed with only basic biographical information, it’s fairly easy to find tech-connected people like information professionals. 

As an experiment, I looked through my wallet and thought about how I would go about contacting the people whose business cards I currently carry:

  • Sarah Hammond: I follow her on Twitter and am friends with her on Facebook. 
  • Ned Potter: I know his email address and I follow him on Twitter. 
  • Tom Roper: I receive emails from Tom every other day as part of Voices for the Library. Also, Twitter and Facebook. 
  • Graham Cornish of The Copyright Circle: I found his email address within 5 seconds using a Google search for his name. 
  • Carol Helton of Credo Reference: whose card is actually kind of useful. Though a Google search did turn up her LinkedIn profile and I daresay if I needed her email address and didn’t have the card, I could get it through mutual acquaintances. 
  • And my brother who, yeah, I know how to contact. 

My point is that if I were attempting to contact any of these people a business card would not be my first port of call. I’d use Google followed by Twitter followed by LinkedIn followed by asking mutual acquaintances. 

The obvious objection to this argument is that it encourages digital divide. This represents a prejudiced attitude against those who don’t have online lives. It perpetuates and expands the division between digital and non-digital humans. For someone with no online presence, a business card is still a useful tool. To which objection I must fall back on the advice given in footnote (1). I work with technology: what is relevant for me, the people who are likely to want to contact me, and the people I am likely to contact is not necessarily relevant to you. I can however predict that as more and more people become more enmeshed with technology, these changing attitudes will spread. (5) 


Business cards allow the CR to read a primer on the CG: name, job title, social media presence. This (perhaps) allows the CR to extrapolate the CG’s interests, to gauge his/her status, and to learn from a piece of card who the CG is. 

But nowadays positions and job titles are not permanent. ‘Jobs for life’ barely exist anymore: we’re more than likely not going to be in our current positions forever and our employers more than likely know this. Certainly in The Information Profession – a profession which encourages a certain amount of social and geographical mobility – one is expected to change, develop, move to different places, try different career paths. One can expect to have a range of different job titles all of which means different things in different institutions. On my business cards pictured above, you can see the job title ‘Assistant Librarian’. But that hasn’t been my job title for nine months. Next Wednesday, I’m starting a new job and I’ll get a new job title. (6) That’s three job titles in one year. (7) 

The nature of modern life is impermanence. Particularly in an economic climate in which job security is increasingly low. The permanence of business cards therefore does not fit this new paradigm of employment. Making one’s position tangible in the form of a business cards become impractical if one’s position is changing every year or so. 


"I'm in business." "What kind of business?" Etc etc.
Business cards serve to remind the CR that they met the CG. Imagine the CR sitting at home going through her bag after a busy four-day conference. She discovers the CG’s business card, hastily exchanged during a meet-and-greet breakfast when they all-too-briefly discussed the use of RPG video games for teaching information literacy. The CR realises she had forgetting the CG and would like to talk to the CG more and perhaps offer him a cushy job with use of a private jet and a monkey butler, etc etc. 

In the above scenario, I must admit the usefulness of business cards. I’m told that American conferences are epic affairs spanning days and comprising hundreds of social interactions. At the end it would be useful to remember who one met and a business card can be a handy reminder. Unless one makes a stellar first impression, business cards come in handy here. 


I’m not one to dismiss freely given advice and I will be getting some business cards printed. But I don’t think they’re as relevant as they once were, particularly to someone in my peer group, and there’s a whole other blog post which could be written on changes in employment paradigm; the shift from an Apprentice-style workplace to a Google-style workplace, etc etc. 

But that’s another story for another day… 

(1) I should qualify this by saying that I have a narrow slice of experience in the job market chiefly in The Information Profession and among (generally tech-savvy) New Professionals. To make my argument stronger but less wide-ranging, substitute “society” with “Simon’s peer group” throughout.

(2) Well-meaning joke.

(3) You'll also find "Have you tried logging out and then in again?": a presentation about e-resources that Abby Barker and I delivered.

(4) It helps that I have a fairly uncommon name. I appreciate that the John Smiths of The Profession may find this more difficult.

(5) It was at this point that I realised I was committing the mistake of assuming my generation’s plight is more important than any generation’s that came before. Every generation believes that they are living at the end of history; that their struggles, their fights, their lives, are more important than the generation before who, we usually believe, ruined everything for all of us. It’s the old ‘No-one has ever been through what we’re going through’ fallacy.
“To imagine that we are a necessary part in the order of the universe is, for well-read people like us, the same as superstition is for uncultured people.” The Prague Cemetery, Umberto Eco.
(6) E-Collections and Service Analyst. Which, even more confusingly, can be variously capitalised as ‘E-collections’, ‘e-Collections’, ‘e-collections’, or ‘e-ColLEcTionS’. Not to mention the hyphen…

(7) I could use some title like ‘Information Professional’ on my cards but that’s so vague as to be almost meaningless.

Monday, 7 May 2012

"Pictures or it didn't happen."

Recently I took a week-long break from Twitter. As someone who could probably be classed as a ‘medium to heavy’ Twitter user, it was like experiencing silence after being in a noise-filled room. The constant chatter of my friends and colleagues fell away and I was left with the quiet peace of my own thoughts.

I do love Twitter. I needed a break for various personal and work-related reasons (1) but apart from Google, Twitter is probably the Web tool that I get the most out of. It’s no exaggeration to say that without Twitter I wouldn’t be the award-winning librarian that I am today: it’s given me contacts from across the LIS profession and continues to provide me with professional insights and information that I wouldn’t get elsewhere.

With that expository caveat in place, I’m now going to spend about 1000 words discussing the negative impact of Twitter (and other Web 2.0 style tools) on the human psyche and how, in Homo sapiens’ mad dash to become Homo digitalis, we forget things about being human.

I know a lot of people through Twitter and there are some friends whom I know chiefly through Twitter. Now consider the use of the word ‘know’ in the preceding sentence. What does it mean to ‘know’ someone? Depending on the context, ‘knowing’ someone either means acquaintance with the person or a deeper familiarity: the difference between ‘knowing of’ someone and ‘knowing’ someone (2). Is it possible to ‘know’ someone (in the second sense) despite never having met them in the flesh?

Trying to know someone (in the second sense) through her tweets is like trying to get an image of a person by looking at her through a keyhole. Tweets only present a fraction of a fraction of a person – even for ‘medium to heavy’ users like me. There are nuances of body language, expression, emotion, attitude, how we behave on a long-term basis, how we approach relationships with other people, etc., that cannot be reflected in messages of fewer than 140 characters, no matter how often we tweet. On top of which, for most people, what we produce is a self-consciously air-brushed version of ourselves: every tweet is a snapshot of ourselves which we have carefully produced through a conscious process. Through our tweets we create an image of ourselves without our flaws and imperfections. We may tweet that we had a great success at work – the students enjoyed our presentation – and not tweet that we experienced a big failure – we deleted an important spreadsheet. Twitter is a culture of image: we reflect ourselves in a positive light; we give no indication of the true and complex undercurrents of thought and feeling raging in our minds; we produce a version of ourselves that appeals to our audience. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Playing this game has brought me professional success and made me feel like part of a community. Despite this, I am more than the sum of my tweets.

The mind through the keyhole.

More than at any other point in human history, each of us has an audience. Technology and augmentation with technology allows us to document and share more and more aspects of our lives: what we’re seeing on Flickr; what we’re reading on LibraryThing; what we’re thinking on Twitter; what we’re doing on Facebook. Nowadays, we are always in front of an audience. We have become obsessed with documentary: with taking pictures of everything and uploading them to the Web; with capturing our thoughts and sharing them with followers. And in this culture of image, when one is thinking about one’s presentation to an audience, the danger is that the priority of our lives can be shifted. The object becomes the audience rather than the experience.

There was a story in the first episode of Aleks Krotoski’s new Radio 4 series, The Digital Human (3):
“There’s an interesting piece written by John Fowles. He goes for a walk and he sees… he sees an orchid. And he thinks “Fantastic”. So he gets his camera out and he spends ages getting the perfect photograph of this orchid. And then he puts his camera away and walks on and suddenly realises that he hasn’t actually seen this flower at all. He’s spent all his time working out how to take the perfect photograph of it…
“We spend so much time focused on the capture and then later the display that we lose the real sense of experience.”
During my break from Twitter, I realised that I had experienced the feeling described in the orchid story. The only difference is that my medium is words rather than photography. When I was away from Twitter, I began to stop putting my experiences into words and instead just experienced them. I realised that occasionally I have spent so long thinking of how to put an interesting event into the form of a witty, 140 character message that I haven’t experienced the event at all. Over the past year or so, I’ve become more likely to think ‘This’ll be a good thing to tweet about’ than ‘This is a good experience’. 

We begin to use Twitter and other social media as a form of validation. We feel that unless we broadcast our lives – unless a large number of people view our lives – then they are not worth as much. Like quantum states, our experiences don’t exist unless they are observed. Unless you tweet about what you are doing, it won’t be registered by the global consciousness or stored in the World Brain’s great memory. Pictures or it didn’t happen

The unmediated life is not worth living?

This is of course untrue. If a tree falls in the forest and no-one is around to tweet about it, the tree still falls over. Technology is a way to mediate experience to share it with others but it is the experience that matters rather than the mediation. The experience of one person is no more valid or ‘true’ if it is shared with a thousand other people. What you do and what you achieve is yours and is real whether you tweet about it or put it on Flickr or not. When you die and your experiential continuity ceases, you’ll be just as dead whether you tweeted every second of every day or not at all. All that matters is that you experienced your life in the way that you wanted to: not that other people saw you do it. 

All of which is nothing new. This is by no means an anti-Twitter rant because nothing that I’ve said about Twitter cannot also be applied to writing of all kinds throughout history. The only thing that’s new is the size of the audience. People once wrote letters to one another to communicate with their loved ones, make sense of their world, and validate their experiences. The talented (or egoistic) wrote novels and books as a means of mediating their experiences and sharing them as a form of validation. By this point, mediation of experience is a natural part of human existence and the culture of image is a core part of social life. 

Life is always mediated – whether by Twitter or Flickr or fiction or biography or art or whatever. There is no ‘authentic experience’ or ‘unmediated life’: no form of life is inherently better or worse than any other form of life. We will only know (in the first and second senses) in real life a small subset of all the human beings in the world. There are innumerable thousands – living and dead – whom we will only ‘know’ through their writing or their photos or their films: we’ll only ever be able to look at them through the keyhole. And even when we’re not presenting a limited image of ourselves through a medium like writing or tweeting or other technology, we’re presenting a favourable image of ourselves through how we act, what we say, and importantly what we don’t say. By pretending to be confident, by laughing at jokes we don’t think are funny, by not saying what we really think; for the most part, we project the person that we want to be rather than the person we truly are. (4) 

(1) For those who are interested, I’m presenting a workshop on e-resources with the glamorous Abby Barker at the CILIP New Professionals Day 2012 this coming Friday. And then the following week, I’m presenting a media communication workshop with the wonderful (and award-winning) Ian Anstice at the CILIP Wales Conference in Cardiff (1a). Both of which have required lots of preparatory work and even more worrying. 

(1a) There’s no reason you should know this yet since you haven’t read the post but this footnote is an example of the kind of validation-seeking that I discuss later. Pre-emptive meta-self-analysis FTW! 

(2) For a sense of what I mean by this second sense, watch Mad Men 4x7 ‘The Suitcase’. But since that episode won’t make sense without context, you’ll have to watch all the preceding episodes of Mad Men before it. It’s OK: I’ll wait… 

(3) If you’re like me and spend a lot of time using technology, the whole show is well-worth listening to and the podcast can be found here.  

(4) So if this discussion has brought us right back to the beginning – if we are unable to escape the culture of image and if our bodies are mediating cages for our minds – what was the point of it? Beats me. Maybe I was just trying to validate these ideas on the human condition by sharing them with you, dear reader. Or maybe thinking and writing don’t need a point. And maybe that’s what so beautiful about them.