I’ve always been fascinated by social interaction online, all the way back to 1994 when I started a discussion list for Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks fans on my old Mac with a dial-up connection. I didn’t know it then, but I was attempting to bring together a community–to make some connections between various folks who shared an interest and to let them talk to each other.
Now, more than 12 years later, I realize it was one of many early examples of building a virtual community and the beginnings of social networks. Social networking services (SNS) are Web-based sites that “provide a collection of various ways for users to interact, such as chat, messaging, email, video, voice chat, file sharing, blogging, discussion groups,” according to Wikipedia. And these days it’s easier than ever to create a social space for you and your group–staff, users, etc.–with some free and simple Web 2.0 tools. Let’s take a look at what any size library, library organization, or state library agency could do for free!
Mix-and-Match: Tech Tips Favorites
Even without any special social network software, librarians can create an online community with some of our favorite free tools, such as WordPress, Flickr, and NetVibes. We’ve written about many of these tools in the past few issues; let those articles be your guides for putting together your own social network.
Using a blog, like one set up at WordPress, as a main entry point for an online community is an easy way to build the foundation of your social network sites. Flickr would add image sharing and more discussion. A portal site such as NetVibes could also serve as the starting point, offering a clearinghouse for monitoring RSS feeds (as we detailed in the September 2007 issue). FreeForums.org provides discussion boards at no charge and would enhance your mix-and-match site as well.
Some other applications, however, bring all these features together in a one-stop-shop environment that may be perfect to use with your staff group, library organization, state library Web portal, conference, or other instance when you’d like to bring people together.
Face to Facebook
Facebook started as a site strictly for college students, but it recently received a lot of attention by opening the social network beyond colleges and universities. Its founder also opened the platform for application development. For this example, let’s say that a library’s workers wanted to build a staff site for interaction and knowledge-sharing, with a playful, fun aspect as well.
First, all interested staff members would build their own Facebook Profile pages. Staffers could share as much or as little information about themselves as they want, including favorite authors, movies, TV shows, music, etc, With photos, mood indicators, information about pets, and much more, Facebook Profile pages can be customized to your heart’s content! Part of the fun is also learning how sites such as this work–and that will carry over when your organization launches other socially enabled initiatives online.
After the staff members have Profiles and are busy Friending and Poking each other, create a Facebook Group for the library staff. The department or librarian in charge of the social site initiative might be the one to do this. Just click Groups on the main page in Facebook and then click Create a Group.
The setup for a Group is rather simple. A page of boxes and pull-down menus allows complete customization and configuration, including making it “closed” (requiring admin approval) or “secret” (the Group does not display in Profiles or Facebook lists). Either of these would ensure that your staff Group was only available to library staff. Opening the Group to all, however, might lead to local library users finding the Group as well. Maybe a blended library staff/community Facebook Group would come next, after staffers are comfortable in the space.
A Facebook Group can be configured to display streams of photos from members, to allow discussion forums and threads, and to present Wall posts (notes written by members to the Group). Staff could use the Facebook Group for librarywide polls, program planning, and general discussion. They could place feeds from the library’s blogs into the Group as well.
And with the launch of Facebook Applications earlier this year, you can further customize Profiles and Groups with any number of useful and fun enhancements. Savvy developers could also create their own branded Applications for the Facebook Platform. Don’t miss a chance to explore what Facebook might do for your staff or organization.
You Can Ring Up Ning
Ning is a social networking service that goes one step further than Facebook; it allows people to build their own free SNS sites via a set of integrated Web tools. Ning offers a site Go anyone for free, and display ads on Ning pages provide revenue. Features include the ability to create groups, discussion forums, integrated blogs, RSS feeds, tag clouds, and integrated video and photos. Users can customize their personal pages too. The site FAQ at www.ning.com/help/faq-using-ning.html states:
Ning is a platform for creating your own social networks. Our passion is putting new social networks in the hands of anyone with a good idea. With Ning, your social network can be anything and for anyone.
You start by choosing a combination of features (videos, blogs, photos, forums, etc.) from an ever-growing list of options. Then customize how it looks, decide if it’s public or private, add your brand logo if you have one, and enable the people on your network to create their own custom personal profile pages.
First, get a Ning ID and check out the thriving Library 2.0 or ALA groups hosted at the site. Then follow the directions to build your own site: Choose to add forums, music, photos, a blog, videos, groups, and RSS. The groups feature allows subgroups under the main network–perfect for round tables and interest groups. Then, you can configure profile questions for members, who will in turn get their own Ning IDs and join the group. The prototype I created for the state of Indiana took less than 15 minutes–and it includes features that some companies would charge you for!
You Must Make Time for Promoting and Training
Sure, it’s easy to build sites like these, but also remember to do some promotion and education. Announce your new Facebook Group or Ning site on library lists, in blogs, at meetings, etc. Spread the word and give your staff some time to build Profiles, join the network, and discuss library initiatives and plans. Offer some brief training sessions and let staffers get their feet wet. You may find it’s a perfect way to enable a social online component at your library without breaking the bank!
ALA Ning: http://alamembers.ning.com
Indiana Librarians Prototype: http://indianalibrarians.ning.com
Library 2.0 Ning: http://library20.ning.com
This was my last article for the Tech Tips for Every Librarian department here at Computers in Libraries. The last 2 years of writing with Rachel Singer Gordon have been wonderful. I appreciate all of the feedback about my articles and the support of Kathy Dempsey and the staff of the magazine. I look forward to contributing to CIL in the future. I’ll still be writing and blogging here and there, and I’ll be working hard at Dominican GSLIS to help our library students realize how easy and useful technology can be–especially in this 2.0 world. Thanks for reading.
This article originally appeared in Computers in Libraries magazine in November 2007, published by Information Today Inc.