The end of the year tends to bring some of the most interesting writing. And so my tbr list of articles is already longer than Santa’s list. Here’s what I’ve enjoyed reading so far this week.

On regulating AI

“We need trustworthy AI. AI whose behavior, limitations, and training are understood. AI whose biases are understood, and corrected for. AI whose goals are understood. That won’t secretly betray your trust to someone else. The market will not provide this on its own.” 

“AI and trust” by Bruce Schneier

On web analytics

“Lots of likes is an okay-ish signal. Lots of comments is a clearer signal. A small handful of comments or private replies from people saying they’ve never felt so seen or understood by a piece of writing—that’s the kind of thing I’m trying to discern and quantify here.” 

“Measuring what matters” by Rob Hardy

On privacy and college students

“Few institutions collect as much data about the people inside of them as colleges and universities do. Residential campuses, in particular, mean students not only interact with their schools for academics, but for housing, home internet, dining, health care, fitness, and socialization. Still, whether living on campus or off, taking classes in person or remotely, students simply cannot opt out of most data collection and still pursue a degree.” 

“He wanted privacy. His college gave him none” by Tara García Mathewson

On libraries and platforms

“After all, we’re the libraries. We have plenty of experience with corporate entities that don’t reflect our values. We deal with the journal publishers who practice a business model that hoards the world’s knowledge and maximizes profit from the research that our university’s scholars conduct. When it comes to the academic publishing system, institutions of higher learning have made a deal with the devil, and we, the libraries, are the campus units who pay the bill.” 

Why we’re dropping Basecamp” by Duke University Libraries

On social media trends

“In 2024, strategic organizations will push back against unjustified expectations to be on every platform. They’ll unlock their top-performing channels based on ROI, and focus their attention on those—and only those. If they’re really confident (and brave), they might even abandon one or two altogether.”

Hootsuite’s Social Media Trends 2024

On attention

“The platforms that control search were conceived in sin. Their business model auctions off our most precious and limited cognitive resource: attention. […] Critical ignoring is the ability to choose what to ignore and where to invest one’s limited attentional capacities. Critical ignoring is more than just not paying attention – it’s about practising mindful and healthy habits in the face of information overabundance.”

When critical thinking isn’t enough: to beat information overload, we need to learn ‘critical ignoring’” by Hertwig, Kozyreva, Wineburg, and Lewandowsky

wall mural of Kurt Vonnegut

“Every passing hour brings the Solar System forty-three thousand miles closer to Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules— and still there are some misfits who insist that there is no such thing as progress.”

(Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., The Sirens of Titan, epigraph, 1959)

Last week, I attended the 2023 Library Marketing and Communications Conference in Indianapolis. This is one of my favorite conferences to attend. It’s relatively small, relatively affordable (with meals included!), and attended by people who get me. Regardless of whether we work in academic libraries, public libraries, as librarians or as professional staff, we all speak the same language. We understand that not everything can go on the website. We know that fliers are a net waste of everyone’s time. We know that creating social media content is a specialized skill that few people actually do well. We realize that more promotion does not equal more awareness. We understand the power of storytelling. We value having a consistent brand. And yes, we all spend too much times on our phones, but secretly (or not) we enjoy it. 

So here are a few of my takeaways from this year’s conference.

Burnout is real

Libraries cycle through outreach and communications folks like trends on Instagram. Constantly developing new ways to connect with users takes a toll on all of us. A number of sessions this year spoke to the necessity of setting up guardrails, taking time to step away, and the need to find ways to reconnect with your creative spark. Sadly, there wasn’t much talk about burnout being a systemic and organizational problem that needs to be solved at the management level, but that might be a result of there being so many new professionals in attendance.

Email is king, Instagram is queen, and existential dread

Everyone is looking for an excuse to get off X/Twitter. No one is interested in Threads. TikTok is banned in many states and the rest of us are reluctant to jump on. But email… email is king. Email offers a stronger analytics story, a closer connection to users, and a more dependable way to reach out. And it’s what our users want! A number of presenters confirmed what I’ve discovered at my own library: users prefer to be contacted by email. Instagram is a close second, but only as a vibe check. If email is for sharing information, Instagram is for sharing feels. 

Social takes way more time than people assume

If it wasn’t apparent from my opening, one of the best aspects of LMCC is the collective kvetching. One strong theme this year was how many of our colleagues misunderstand the complexity of our work, most notably the time it takes to develop content. A 10-second Instagram post may only take an hour to film, edit, and post, but what you don’t see are the countless hours searching for inspiration: finding the right music, twisting the arms of the right colleagues, waiting for the right time of day to film, coordinating with all the other communications going out that day. We spend far more time consuming content than creating it, but that’s necessary for understanding how our work fits in with the ecosystem of any given platform.

What I’m reading

How I’ve Changed My Thinking About Burnout by Anne Helen Peterson

“I am doing less. I am lowering the bar. I am loosening my schedule. But I also have a fuller life, with so many places to direct my attention and time. It’s both less busy (with work) and more busy (with other life) than ever before.”

Nobody Wants Their Job to Rule Their Lives Anymore by Eloise Henry

“If I had a shorter work week and a dignified salary then they’d get a well-rested, enthusiastic and switched-on employee. Instead, they’re getting a poor and exhausted worker.” 

Adopting the Perennial Mindset by Tara McMullin

“Quality-of-life guarantees could help people make life transitions—at any age—with more ease. And while these guarantees do benefit individuals directly, they also benefit our society. Fewer people scraping by, falling behind, or burning out because of unreasonable expectations is an overall cultural and economic good.”

Garden update 

Until next year, friend! For about 6 weeks, this lovely orb weaver rebuilt her web between the top of my dwarf orange tree and the power cables running to our house. Each evening before sunset, she would meticulously reweave her web, which by midnight would already be full of flies and the occasional honey bee. I haven’t seen her for a few days so my guess is she either returned to being strictly nocturnal or, more likely, she mated, produced her offspring, and died. It was comforting to greet her each day when I came home from work. 

Links to the past

  • 1 year ago: Notes from the 2022 Library Marketing and Communications Conference Day 1 and Day 2
  • 6 years ago: One of the best photos I ever took 
  • 10 years ago: I still need to find out the answer to this mystery

Overheard online

Protip: browsing and borrowing from your local library can satisfy the shop therapy part of your brain without costing you money

ami_angelwings on Mastodon (h/t Dense Discovery)

burning star in space

It’s a mad world. Mad as Bedlam.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Trifles make the sum of life.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I don’t run the social media account for my university, but I do oversee the accounts hosted by the library. As Head of Outreach and Engagement, managing the various external (i.e., campus facing) channels is part of my portfolio. This is of course in addition to research and service, collection development, faculty liaison work, leading a department, and all the other “normal” academic librarian duties. Social media is only a tiny fraction of how I spend my time. 

That said, a recent article by the Chronicle, “This is One of the Loneliest Jobs on Campus” by Megan Zahneis made me feel seen. But before I get into it: have you said thank you to your social media manager yet today? Have you told them how much you respect and appreciate their work? Have you given them a bottle of wine? Go do that first. I’ll wait.

Drink bleach and die

“To manage an institution’s social-media accounts is to act as its voice to hundreds of thousands of people, and to take in those people’s thoughts, questions, and complaints in real time.”

When things are going well, you can feel like you’re on fire. The excitement of developing new content (yarr!), seeing people fall in love with it, watching engagement numbers rise… all of that can be thrilling. But just as quickly it can turn sour. I once posted an image of a new book from our popular reading collection that was about Trump’s legal troubles: I immediately found myself the target of MAGA trolls. They were not even our students! That didn’t make it any easier to read. I’ve internalized negative reviews of my organization, even though I know that’s absurd. When you’re the one creating and pushing out all the messaging, it’s difficult not to take it personally. 

Keys to the brand

“[Social media accounts are] the keys to your brand. Surprisingly often, those keys are held by a single person.”

In one survey cited, 48 percent of respondents were the sole individuals running social media accounts for their uni. Another 35 percents were on teams of two. While the article didn’t mention it, I would bet those 35% are much happier and well-adjusted than the other 48%. There’s solidarity in teams, not to mention the comfort in knowing that it’s not all on you to figure out. Creating content daily that is engaging, unique, up-to-date, and useful is … painfully difficult work. I’ve been doing this type of work for almost a decade, but even I have days where I’m at a complete loss for ideas. More often, though, it’s the lack of time that’s the killer.

I have been advocating for an assistant to my position for years, specifically someone with a few years experience creating content for the web. As the article notes, most of the people doing this work [well] are not 18-year olds and interns: they are professionals who have been working in higher ed social for years. Understanding internet culture, knowing how to critically follow and examine trends, being able to create content that matches the platform and algorithm you’re posting to, and being able to do all that within the limits of your institution’s mission and branding guidelines: that takes skills, knowledge, and experience. In an academic library setting, moreover, you also need to juggle the overlapping context of our own professional standards/expectations for how libraries “do” social media. 

“[Social media managers] are the Swiss Army knives of a college’s public-outreach apparatus, often incorporating copywriting, photography and videography, graphic design, marketing, and public relations into a day’s work.”

Collaborating from Day 1

“Our team — including social media — is involved at the outset of any planning, including the strategy for releasing those plans,” [Wilson] wrote.

I cannot count the number of times colleagues have come to me and said “Hey, we’ve just [done this thing]. Can you get the word out on social?” As if taking a photo and writing some copy is all you need to “get the word out.” Sure, I can do that, but it’s a waste of my time and won’t get you the outcome you think it will. Instead, as the person quoted above notes, loop in your social media leads from the start. Include them in the initial planning meetings. For most projects, if I’m involved from the beginning, I can develop a much more robust and interesting promotional campaign.

Or I can just Tweet about it.

image credit: European Space Agency on Flickr, cc-by 2.0

“I am just going outside and may be some time.”

Lawrence Oates, qtd. in Robert Falcon Scott, Diary, 16-17 May 1912.

When Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram launched, I was an early adopter. I remember when Facebook was limited to .edu email addresses, when Twitter mobile meant SMS, and when Instagram felt like weak-sauce Flickr.

Since the meteoric rise of the Big 3, I’ve been reluctant to get involved in other platforms. I’ve stepped back from social media more generally over the past few years, even before the towers of Twitter began to crumble. By 2019, I had deleted all my Facebook content and de-activated my Instagram account; and while I had set my tweets to auto-delete, I was still actively engaging with my Twitter community. The Elon take-, make-, and break- over pushed me over the edge and I stopped posting completely last spring. Many of my connections left the platform. Some are still there, but the exodus of so many is hard to ignore.

I am still debating whether to get back involved with Twitter, now that some of the dust has settled and those who stuck around are tweeting regularly again. In the meantime, I’ve joined Mastodon. I’m happy to be on a server hosted for library and museum folk. It’s definitely quieter. I’m still not sure I’m doing it right. I do love the content warnings. Even if it’s for things I’m OK with (e,g., politics), it makes it easier to skip over if I’m not in the mood. 

In any case, you can find me See you there!

Garden updates

The winter garden is in! I have carrots, golden beets, celery, Tokyo bekana, onions, garlic, cabbage, spinach, and potatoes. The okra, peppers, and watermelon are still trucking along as well (such is garden life in a coastal zone 10b). In planter trays I have fledgling cauliflower and Brussel sprouts, but they are slow-going and I’m starting to suspect I’ll need transplants.

What I’m reading

We are not supposed to live like this by Erin Remblance

“How can we care about species loss when we cannot name the species that live in our own community?”

My Saturday self versus my Sunday self by Tom Ellison

“…with the tail of Godzilla, the tentacles of Cthulhu, and the politics of Elon Musk.”

xQc is stealing content by LegalEagle

This is a fascinating rumination on the possible legal outcomes for YouTube reaction videos.

Links to the past

  • 1 year ago: On arm twisting and outreach work. I”t’s like that meme about everyone’s reaction when the social media person shows up to your office: Shit. Shit. Shit.” 
  • 6 years ago: Learning to live with it. An important life lesson was learned that day.
  • 10 years ago: Did I mention… It’s been a decade since I started my first “capital L” librarian job!

Overhead online

“my perpetual advice to new university students: go the fuck to class and go the fuck to bed. almost all student crises stem from not doing those two things”

abadidea on Mastodon

Indiana Statehouse at night

This week, I’m attending my first in-person conference in more than three years. I am in Indianapolis at the annual Library Marketing and Communications Conference. This is my third time attending this event and what I loved about it most in 2016 is still true today. The attendees are a mix of librarians and non-librarian staff, instruction and outreach folks, graphic designers, social media managers, front-line staff and administrators, all from both academic and public libraries. It’s a hodgepodge of “people who do outreach work” with a specific focus on communications. These are people who do the same work I do, albeit in a wide variety of settings and capacities.

I attended every possible session on Day 1 of the two-day conference. Here’s a run-down of my favorite sessions.

Chris Tonelli (NC State) on “The Comfortable Uncomfortable”

Tonelli spoke about two recent events from the NC State Libraries system: the discovery of the First white supremacist history of their building’s namesake as well as the discovery of a library-adjacent (though not technically employee of) staff member who identified as a Proud Boy and was accused of doxxing students. Tonelli’s presentation urged folks in the room to not think of these as “PR nightmares” and instead see them as opportunities for healing, connection, and clearly communicating your institution’s values. I particularly appreciated how he walked us through the entire communications cycle between the library’s external relations team, library administration, and university communications. As he reiterated numerous times, having a good working relationship between all three entities is essential for finding a solution that is respectful of both the institution and the people who (rightfully) brought the issues to light.

Main takeaway: Never accept the first draft of an external comms. And if you don’t agree with it, offer an alternative draft.

Chris Vitellio and Charles Samuels (NC State) on “When Other People Try to Do Your Job”

As an outreach librarian, I would never unilaterally negotiate an e-resources contract with a vendor. I would never accept (on my own) the gift of an archival collection. I would never set up my own roving reference desk. Yet, quite often I find myself having to negotiate communications- and programming-related agreements that others have made on behalf of the library. As Vitellio and Samuels point out, that’s part of the job: sometimes we are freelancers, collaborators, service-providers or, yes, an afterthought. They instead showed strategies and examples for how you can get more colleagues on board with your workflows and processes, including templates, style guides, and web forms.

Main takeaway: Try to shift your role from “creator” to “editor” when you can’t control the entire process.

Best line: (referring to logos and branding) “We are not a food court. We’re Apple.”

Brianna Marshall and Julie Pitts (NKU Steely Library) on “Transforming Non-Library Users into Library Advocates”

The project described in this presentation blew me away with its creativity and outcomes. Marshall and Pitts, in collaboration with a library student advocacy group, created a social media campaign that blended storytelling, scavenger hunts, and exploration of library spaces in a truly innovative way. To highlight their makerspace, they created 3D prints of stegosaurus babies in the style of a statue that occupies their library’s main lobby. On Instagram, they then encouraged students to “Find my babies” using clues and photo hints. The winning team would win a study room for a whole day of their choice, plus a catered lunch for 3 additional friends (brilliant!). The level of engagement they got through Instagram was through the roof.

Main takeaway: Scavenger hunts on Instagram can work, with the right incentive, the right story, and the right real-time modifications.

Erin Rushing (Smithsonian Libraries and Archives) on “Collaborative Social Media Strategies”

This idea has been on my to-do list for years: cooperating with other institutions to mutually engage and boost each others’ content. Initiatives like #ArchivesHashtagParty and #MuseMeme are good examples of such projects. Followers love to watch institutional accounts interact with each other. Some great ideas that came out of this session include “swapping” accounts with another unit on campus; connecting with institutions that have similar names as yours (and may be frequently confused); and finding creative ways to highlight similar collections across institutions.

Main takeaway: Clear your schedule. If you host something like this, it’s going to take all day.

Final Thoughts

As I am fond of saying and my colleagues are tired of hearing, “I don’t need more ideas. I need resources to implement those ideas.” It’s true: there is no lack of good ideas coming from library outreach circles. As one presenter noted, we’re all extremely creative people and it’s likely what attracted us to these positions in the first place. Add to that the fact that we work with colleagues who are as equally scrappy as we are creative, and you will have no end of potential outreach projects. However, there are only so many hours in a day, weeks in a year, and people on my team. So I am torn when returning home from conferences such as these: what can I implement now? And what needs to sit on the hold shelf until I’ve finished my current to-be-realized projects list? Regardless of my answer to those questions, I’m leaving Day 1 inspired and energized.

In Cal Newport’s latest article for the New Yorker, he contemplates the future of social media companies in the wake of TikTok’s recent growth. The kernel of the argument is that TikTok’s method for capturing attention (which it does remarkably well) is not rooted in the social graph, something which gives it an advantage over older platforms; and that this essential difference could lead to an arms race that results in a more diffuse social media landscape.

“This all points to a possible future in which social-media giants like Facebook may soon be past their long stretch of dominance. They’ll continue to chase new engagement models, leaving behind the protection of their social graphs, and in doing so eventually succumb to the new competitive pressures this introduces. “

I can imagine a third path: one in which Twitter and Facebook push back toward the local. Part of the original appeal of these platforms was that “all my friends are there.” For libraries, it was a chance to connect directly with local communities.

That experience changed with the emergence of retweets and the news feed. It was no longer just you and your connections: it was all their friends and follows as well. The community got too big. For me, I lost the sight of my closest connections. For libraries, we had to compete with content creators outside our community.

This is why I’ve been hesitant to dive into TikTok. You’re not competing for the attention of your local community. They’re not even part of the equation. You’re just competing with everyone.

If the noise was removed from my feed– if I could find the signal to connect me with the people that matter most– would that pull me back? Would that pull others back? Would libraries find it easier to connect with their communities instead of competing with the content creators of the world?

I don’t think academic libraries need social media.

I say this as someone who has run social media accounts for academic libraries for almost a decade. Granted, the social media landscape has changed quite a bit in the last 10 years, but I think this has always been true and I’ve only just begun to realize it. 

Currently, I’m working on a literature review about how academic libraries justify their use of social media and what assessment methods they use to bolster that justification. I’m focusing on articles published in the last 5 years and I’m starting to see a general trend in the narratives. It goes something like this:

  1. Libraries need to be on social media because of X (where X is typically something you would expect, like engagement, communication, or marketing to students).
  2. Ok, so let’s assess how well social media does X.
  3. Hm, the data doesn’t make a strong case that social media does X.
  4. Well …

It’s at this point that I start tensing up. What are the authors going to do next? In too many cases, they go on to say something to the effect of: “Oh well… We should still be on social media anyway!”

What? You just found evidence that something is not working and you’re just going to keep doing it anyway? There’s an apocryphal Einstein quote about that. (The quote is actually from a 1981 Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet, via Rita Mae Brown’s 1983 book Sudden Death.)

We have come to a point where everyone (well, not everyone) assumes that maintaining an institutional social media account is something we must do, despite evidence that it is not producing the results that we would like it to produce. In their 2017 article, “Social Media Use in Academic Libraries: A Phenomenological Study,” published in the Journal of Academic Librarianship, Harrison et al. describe this phenomenon as it relates to the content of academic libraries’ social media:

“The high level of correspondence in codes and themes were interpreted by researchers to mean that academic libraries are using social media in a homogenized manner, suggesting the presence of institutional isomorphic mechanisms (mimetic, and normative forces). Given that isomorphic forces impose conformity, but do not necessarily coincide with efficiency or effectiveness, awareness of these isomorphic forces is valuable to academic libraries. This new knowledge offers libraries the opportunity to evaluate the degree to which they have traded conformity for efficiency and effectiveness. If the tradeoff is determined to be less than ideal: academic libraries may consider requirements for establishing a social media strategy that best suits their organization as opposed to using a onesize fits all approach.”

This concept of “institutional isomorphic mechanism” comes from earlier sociological research cited by Harrison et al. Basically, institutions within any given profession start to copy and adopt each others’ actions and structures over time. This mimicry helps maintain legitimacy and “in-group” status, but sometimes at the expense of function and outcomes. As the authors note: “Regardless of efficiency or evidence of potential efficiency, organizations will adopt formal structures that align with institutional myths in order to gain legitimacy, resources, stability, and enhanced survival.”

I don’t think academic libraries’ inability to quit social media is driven by an insistence on engagement. As some of the articles I’m in the process of reviewing show, engagement on social media is tepid at best. And I would suspect that many us in outreach work would readily admit that social media engagement is an poor substitute for interacting with students in other ways.

We maintain diamond hands on social media accounts due to the (mostly unsupported) expectation that it is an effective communication tool. We want people to know about the library. On social media, we can pump out endless amounts of information: new collections, old collections, new programs, throwback programs, technical updates, deadlines, etc. It’s our personal megaphone! We easily fall into the trap of posting about a new program or initiative on social media and saying to ourselves “Done! Now people know about it.”

Except that no one is listening.

If our goal is to increase engagement online, we need a shit-ton more resources. Full-time, dedicated teams that can strategically build the brand: developing high-quality video content, working with campus influencers, and experimenting with emerging platforms. It would require more targeted, fine-grained assessment (and probably the use of personal data that would make most librarians squirm), more financial investment in ways to expand our reach (read: paid advertising), and way more yarrr! content!

Alternatively, if our goal is simply communication, there are more effective methods.

For example, if you set up a table outside the library and talk with students as they walk by, I guarantee you will speak with more students in a couple hours than might read a tweet in an entire day. Moreover, your interactions with them will be stickier and more impactful. Instead of spending an hour crafting the finest carousel of Instagram images for the library’s page, you could spend that same time crafting content for the university’s main channels and reach a larger audience. You could draft blurbs for other units’ newsletters, go on a roadshow to different departments on campus, develop vanity publications for key stakeholders, or work with student influencers. All would have a deeper impact than relying entirely on social media for outreach needs.

If you can do both, great! But most of us are working solo and thus choices are necessary. Unless you have a team (or at minimum a full-time employee) dedicated to social media, you are going to get more bang for your buck (read: impact) spending your energies elsewhere.

Does this mean I think academic libraries should simply shut down their Instagram accounts tomorrow? No, that would be reckless and unnecessarily disruptive. But I do think exploring the idea of “what would it look like if we did?” might serve as useful exercise in strategic thinking. Plotting the path between here and there by exploring how we might substitute the creative energies we spend on social media to communicate in other ways would almost certainly illustrate areas where we could improve how we connect with students, faculty, and senior leadership.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go make some content. (yarrr!)

This evening, I had the pleasure of attending a discussion between Brian Stelter, host of the CNN show Reliable Sources, and Carol Costello, former host of CNN Newsroom. Their conversation floated effortlessly over, through, and between topics such as misinformation, the impact of mainstream media outlets like CNN and FoxNews, the Trump presidency, the intersection of journalism and entertainment, and social media. At one point in the conversation, Stelter reflected upon how social media has changed in the last decade, from the heyday of blogging and SMS-based Twitter to the notably ugly situation we are in now.

As someone who moved into adulthood during the emergence of “Web 2.0,” I often catch myself looking back longingly on the internet of the 21st century’s mid-aughts. Many of my friends and colleagues built careers, passions, and communities of practice that propelled them to where they are now through the connections they built in these proto-social media spaces. Some of those friends and colleagues have now left those spaces behind, leaving them to the wolves of hate, cynicism, and always-on indignation. These things have always existed on the internet, but their pervasiveness now feels unstoppable. It feels woven directly into the fabric of the web. To go online is to experience violence.

Nonetheless, I still have a small hope that we can make it through this time into something less violent, less polarizing, and less destructive to our civic discourse. I don’t know what that thing will be, but when I reflect upon how much the digital landscape has changed in just 10 years, I can imagine something entirely other taking its place in the next 10 years; and I invite it to arise.

Two years ago I quit LinkedIn. Last year, I erased by Facebook footprint. This year, I’m slowly letting go of Twitter. I don’t miss these things as they are in their current states, but I miss what they used to be (well, except LinkedIn. That was always a mess). Most of all, I miss the hope and optimism many of us held for these platforms.

I don’t think I need to read yet another “Buddhist approach to [insert tech]” article. The argument is well-worn and essentially a known entity. Nonetheless, I can’t resist the urge to throw them into my to-read queue.

Social media has the ability to connect us with many people, so we do have a responsibility to post things that are true, kind, beneficial, offered with good intention, and shared at the right time.

Lodro Rinzler, “Buddhism and Social Media

There is a lot wrong with Twitter these days. In my heart, there is still a spark of love for a possibly never-existing but perhaps always-possible inherent good of the internet, but that spark is quickly dying. I don’t expect the systems to correct themselves, but perhaps I can try to correct my own approach.