Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Community redefined...

iWon News: "Young people are now the savviest of the tech-savvy, as likely to demand a speedy broadband connection as to download music onto an iPod, or upload digital photos to their Web logs.

The Internet has shaped the way they work, relax and even date. It's created a different notion of community for them and new avenues for expression that are, at best, liberating and fun - but that also can become a forum for pettiness and, occasionally, criminal exploitation.

'Students are continuously connected to other students and friends and family in ways that older generations never would have imagined,' says Steve Jones, chairman of the communications department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a senior research fellow with the Pew Internet & American Life Project."

The Pew Internet & American Life Project Reports:

"88% of online Americans say the Internet plays a role in their daily routines. Of those, one-third say it plays a major role, and two-thirds say it plays a minor role. The activities they identified as most significant are communicating with family and friends and finding a wealth of information at their fingertips. 64% of Internet users say their daily routines and activities would be affected if they could no longer go online." (The Pew Internet & American Life Project)

This radical redefinition of community by young people is likely to hit theological schools in the next five years as we see a generation of college undergraduates moving into post-graduate education. This raises all sorts of issues for theological education and theological libraries.

Reed's Law suggests that "GFNs create a new kind of connectivity value that scales exponentially with N." GFNs (or Group Forming Networks) are networks that provide functionalities such as buddy lists, chat rooms, discussion groups, etc., that allow small or large groups of network users to coalesce and to organize their communications around a common interest, issue, or goal." I think that is what we are seeing in the reports from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Perhaps more important, Reed suggests that what is important in networks changes as the network scales. So, he claims that small networks that scale in a linear fashion value "content." There are a small number of information sources (publishers, broadcasters, etc.) that are valued for the content they produce. As the network begins to grow, Metcalf's Law (the value of the network grows at a function of the number of nodes on the network squared) kicks in, Reed suggests the value of the network shifts from "content" to "transactions." Stuff that is traded by transaction, whether by e-mail, voice-mail, purchases, or contracted services take precedence over content. When Reed's Law kicks in, the value of the network shifts away from "transactions" to socially or collaboratively constructed value such as specialized newsgroups, collaborative projects or reports, gossip, etc.

I suspect this may be a factor in what I've observed about the way information is viewed by the the younger generation. Traditional sources of information that produce the materials libraries typically collect are beginning to be devalued in favor of information that is produced in a collaborative effort through social interaction.

Responding to Reed's Law, Robert Patterson suggests "the big value to come will not be in selling a thing, not in having a broadcast network or even a association network but will come from facilitating the development of communities." Recast in library terms, this might be to suggest the big value to come will not be libraries with big collections of books, but libraries that see their role as helping the user find and use the information she seeks. The library user generally doesn't care how many books the library has. The library user wants to be able to quickly get an answer to their question.