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A tale of social media woe

Recently, a frustrated librarian contacted me because she wanted to discuss a situation that had occurred at her library.  After hearing her story, I asked her permission to recount it here (and to keep identifying details confidential).

In essence, here is her sad tale:

Her library had a MySpace account.  The librarian friended anyone who wanted to be MySpace friends, believing that the library is accessible to all.  It later turned out that some of the friends had some questionable content on their profiles.  The administration reacted by severely criticizing the librarian and shutting down the MySpace account.

Here’s my take on this:

  • Why is the library “screening” patrons at its virtual door when no library does it at its physical one? Why is the library’s presence online only open to some and not all?
  • Regardless of what is on someone’s profile, that reflects on that person, not necessarily on the connecting friends.  Unless the profile is somehow directly harming the library’s reputation, I just can’t see this argument.  I refuse to take responsibility for every silly picture or irresponsible thing that my friends do online.  Why should a library?
  • Part of the administration’s overreaction was likely due to a misconception about how to approach social media.  Traditional marketing and reputation management are not applicable.  Libraries need to understand that successful social media has a human tone; market-speak and incessant self-promotion are a quick route to epic fail.  Being human means having human friends, not necessarily paragons of what we want our patrons to be.
  • If one of these “questionable” MySpace friends came to the library in person, would the library refuse to help them?

Libraries need their patrons.  We don’t judge their information needs; why do we judge their lives outside of libraries?

There are 3 comments

  1. The reason lies in a term that is, at times, both misleading and unfortunate: “friends”. Yet, this term is so thoroughly embedded in Social Media that I don’t know if we will get away from it any time soon.

    An organization may have clients, patrons, customers–and that organization is not going to be judged by them unless they have a tendency to attract “the wrong crowd”. A Library is intended to be open to all, so the people who visit there are not seen as reflecting on the library.

    But, what happens when the Library goes on public record as saying, “This person is our friend?” You don’t really mean that this person is a confidant, your best buddy, someone with whom you share values and a beer down at the pub! But that is the term that Social Media chose–starting with Livejournal, I believe, or if not starting with them, certainly they helped set the standard.

    You are saying “This person has an interest in what we do as a library.” That’s not friendship as we usually define it. But that word “friend” is so emotionally laden in Real Life, and means so many things in Social Media, that some people (like yours truly!) are wary of whom they “friend” online.

    I think the administration overreacted very badly and made fools of themselves–but I understand WHY they did so. A pity.

  2. My library has a Facebook page and a Twitter account, both of which I maintain. For about the past month, we’ve been “followed” on Twitter by women who were very clearly soliciting for virtual sexual encounters. I feel it is my responsibility to block them and have done so. By Laura’s measure of “if they came in our building, would we refuse to help them,” I like to hope that if women were soliciting for sex in our building we would block THEM. I hope that doesn’t make me appear to be overreacting or practicing traditional marketing/reputation management. I like to think we are cautiously forward-thinking.

    1. Janet, you are correct; these types of accounts are a blemish on all social networks. It should be noted that many of these are automated and are spambots; in many cases, these are not real people. Twitter, in particular, has these in great numbers and they should be blocked. Facebook is much less susceptible to this kind of thing, fortunately.

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