All posts by Meg Simon

Farewell, Walden University… Hello, Austin Public!

I have a new job! Next month I extend my career as a Librarian II at Austin Public Library – yes, that Austin, the People’s Republic Of. Stationed at Faulk Central, the main library building downtown, I will do reference, instruction, collection development, adult programming, web- and word-wrangling and more.

While much of my experience overlaps or translates, I have not worked in public libraries before. I am ridiculously, ecstatically excited. For all I thrive online, the thought of wandering stacks and teaching face to face makes me downright giddy. I’m eager to engage with a different kind of patron, collection, mission, everything – all of this on top of the adventure of moving, immersing myself in a fun, new city.

With this opportunity, I leave behind Walden University – but not without accolades. At the start of March I was awarded the Frondie, an employee of the month recognition in the library.

What the heck is a Frondie? Why, it’s a creepy Green Man statue/plaque/thingy:

My nominator colleagues said about me:

“I would like to nominate Meg for all the work she does and has done to make the website and guides be fantastic and seamless. Yes, there are working groups for these things but it seems that Meg has often done beyond what is expected.”

“Our successful, on-time launch of the library website re-design may have been neither without Meg’s involvement. She asked insightful, hard questions about the project, but also dedicated extra time to researching and drafting possible solutions to any issue she raised. Meg communicated with her colleagues throughout the project, both sharing progress from the team and collecting feedback from others. She has also stepped up to create resources and support for her colleagues, such as workshops on SnagIt image editing and the content and style guide.”

“Meg has a history of supporting her colleagues and helping us all do quality work (offering SnagIt image workshops, all the crazy work on the content and style guide, etc.) She has also had openness to being flexible to bring success to the library (think all the twists and turns of the website redesign). Once again, we are grateful to Meg for her adaptability and strong support of the team: just recently she has agreed to let us all experiment with her role as a liaison. In order to help meet the ever changing workloads from College of Health Sciences and RWR College of Education and Leadership, Meg is now flexing back and forth between the two schools and collaborating to take care of business. This pilot project is very important to all of us as we explore more ways to keep up with new programs and projects.”

“She doesn’t hesitate to call shenanigans and is great at providing detailed feedback with examples. She’s blazing a trail and taking us with her. Bravo, Meg!”

HOW MORTIFYING! I knew the Austin Public offer was coming – I was trapped in criminal background check limbo for nearly a month and half. Then I find out that people like me and think I do rad work! Can’t say I don’t feel a little guilty, but it’s equally awesome to be recognized and appreciated.

On my last day of work, my Walden colleagues presented me with this wondrous gift:

May my new colleagues in time understand me so well. 😀

user testing and style guides, oh my!

meg in action

Here I be in my staged-tidy cube in Walden University Library. Contrary to my pastiness in this photo, I did see the light of day this summer, I swear! But it’s been a breakneck speed, productive past several months, with two major accomplishments:

1. Website user testing

I’m on a team that has been developing a reorganization for the library website. The design will stay largely the same, but the current site has significant usability problems, mostly due to poor labeling and non-intuitive categorization—legacy decisions that leave us with loads of library jargon and way too many assumptions about user know-how.

Inspired by user experience discussions at MinneWebCon and Steve Krug’s Rocket Surgery Made Easy, I advocated for user testing and won—to my delight and terror. Without a user testing precedent in the library or elsewhere in the university as far as I could determine, I was on my own. Though some decisions were less than ideal, like using other staff as participants instead of actual students (it’s an online university, hey… can’t exactly post fliers by the washrooms), the pilot test proved most useful.

I designed and conducted the tests with input from two colleagues, also on the website team. We opted to get feedback on the existing site to confirm our suspicions about things that are confusing and to uncover new problems we hadn’t considered. The data collected was largely confirming but with plenty of the unexpected to keep it interesting.

Data was used to justify design decisions, to incorporate additional ones and to make a few emergency changes to the current site immediately—critical facepalms not fit to print. User testing overall was thrilling and embarrassing and yes, time-consuming, but at the same time so important, and despite the initial timesink, it wasn’t terribly complicated. With a process in place, future testing sessions can hopefully happen with greater frequency, and with our other user groups, like students and faculty.

2. A comprehensive style guide for all library content

The new website requires loads of revised and new content, the majority of which will be pushed through LibGuides, of which we already have a ton. A metric ton. An expletive ton, and honestly, sadly, they’re all over the place when it comes to consistency.

Consistency is quality—inescapably. But with incomplete guidelines and several librarians producing content, the guides as a whole lack cohesion.

Now was my chance to reign in our over 2,500 guides, exploiting my English degree and proofreading background to the fullest. After investigating the university style guide and APA style (the university-wide standard), plus considering deeply the merits of common use and sense (e-hyphen-mail? really?), I created a content style guide governing every aspect of content creation, including:

  • Grammar, spelling and usage
  • Screenshot creation and specs for annotations (call-out boxes, arrows, highlighting, etc.)
  • Link names and image descriptions (“alt tags”) that are mindful of screen readers to ensure all content is ADA compliant, or as close as we can get given tech constraints

The style guide applies across all platforms: the main site, LigGuides, LibAnswers, the blog, Facebook, YouTube, and all things to come. With the help of an instructional designer colleague, instructional best practices are included throughout.

The style guide is a thing of beauty—and was a wonderful exercise in choosing the fights worth having. I tend to lean toward the minimal. Serial comma?—hate it. But I let it go and let it inside. Two spaces instead of one between sentences? I knew enforcing a rule either way would cause a war, and didn’t even bother.

But killing the capital “I” on internet? Now that’s worth fighting for.

Mayo Clinic presentation recap

Mayo Clinic from the Plummer Building tower.

On June 21 I traveled to Rochester, Minnesota, with Augsburg College colleagues to talk about LibGuides with the Mayo Clinic librarians. They’d been intrigued after one of them saw the nursing guide I created for Augsburg (the nursing program at Augsburg in Minneapolis offers classes in Rochester for Mayo Clinic personnel working on nursing bachelors completion and doctorate programs).

Though the two other contractors and I are not currently working on guides, we were happy to join the nursing liaison Augsburg librarian to give the Mayo folks the LibGuides rundown, covering pros and cons, best practices, guide organization ideas and more. I’m intrigued to see what they come up withthe subject matter is more technical and the audience much different from the largely undergrad-focused Augsburg guides, and might range from high-level physicians to medical students to laypersons seeking consumer medical information.

Following the presentation, we were treated to lunch and conversation. I’ve never worked in a medial library, and it was fascinating to hear firsthand from information professionals at one of the best medical practice and research communities in the worldeverything from database access issues to painstakingly detailed search notes on reference questions, necessary for review in medical publications.

We also had tours of the History of Medicine Library, housing rare medical texts with stunning 15th century anatomical woodcuts (a pet interest of mine), and the carillon bells in the tower of the Plummer Building. Resident carillonist Jeff Daehn even hammered out a few tunes for us, as we cavorted along the tower with the stone guards and eagle/gargoyles overlooking the city and the Mayo complex.

Mayo Clinic from the Plummer Building tower.

PRI internship and libe tech conference

Quick shoutout! I recently started an internship with Public Radio International cataloging radio segments for the PRI / WNYC show, The Takeaway. I’ll also be presenting at the Library Technology Conference 2010 at Macalester College in St. Paul next week with my Augsburg colleagues, discussing contracting for LibGuides. Forget how to make the dang things workhow can cash-strapped libraries mired in hiring freezes get them done at all?

escape coffins and patent classification

Blogging at the Death Reference Desk has been interesting, entertaining, befuddling and more. We get the occasional reference question, but it’s mostly pulling in news articles and other content through RSS feeds (the deathwire, as I calls it) and selecting, summarizing and commenting on items of interest.

I do, however, look for opportunities to dig deeper–to be a librarian, not a blogger, and add research value, not regurgitate the web. My recent post, Premature Burial Device Patents, was one such opportunity. As keen to explain the search process as share the information, I fear I may have gotten a tad too library science enthusiastic for the audience. So I figured I’d elaborate more here. In short, gasp! massive, wondrous patent classification system! And Google Patents is a bit broken yet still manages to be reasonably awesome.

Inspiration struck for this post when one of those skim-friendly web lists came down the deathwire10 Horrifying Premature Burials. This is not typical DeathRef fodder. It’s ad-laden, the photos are cheesy and the references, scattershot vague. But it did get me thinkingpremature burial was a genuine fear, rational or not, around the turn of the twentieth century, and inventors of the time were up to the task. Be that task cheating death and saving lives or exploiting the fear of paranoid Victorians, who knows. But the patents for such devices poured inplans and designs for spring-loaded escape coffins and electrical systems that detected corpse movement then triggered alarm systems above ground, to name a couple.

As government documents, US patents are in the public domain, and I wondered if they are online. I started with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), which, sure enough, provides patents onlinefull text (and full text searching) starting in 1976 and image-only patents since 1790. I couldn’t get the image plug-in to work, however (arrrrrghgh!) and search is impenetrable. All this data was at my fingertips but I couldn’t quite grasp it.

Wikipedia’s safety coffin article directed me to this marvelous page at USPTO. This was iteverything I wanted, as far as I could tell, in barely human-readable format. The 27/31 intrigued me the most is that what I think it is? sure enoughclassification numbers.

Like most classification systems, the United States Patent Classification System is at first glance amazing. I wanted to swan dive into classes, wallow in all its sprawling facets. But I’m sure upon deeper inspection, it’s driven many a patent librarian or poor legal assistant insane. For my domain of interest:

Class 27, Undertaking:
This class includes coffins or caskets and portable coffin-cases for receiving and transporting dead bodies for burial; processes and apparatus for embalming and preserving the bodies of persons after death; and various attachments, accessories, and devices used in connection with the preparation of the bodies or employed at the time of interment at the grave, such as head-rests, corpse-carriers, lowering devices, life-signals, and the like. Subclass 31, Life Signals:
Alarms or signals used in connection with coffins for indicating life in persons supposed to be dead.

Bingo. Keywords got nothing on a calculated brain putting things in their places. But what to do with this cumbersome interface?

Enter Google Patents (GP). With a search and view structure much like Google Books, GP has mined all of USPTO’s content and delivers it much more digestibly. All those image-only patents I couldn’t get to work are now slick PDFs I can preview in-browser, see as copy-pastable HTML or download as PDFs. Everything is also now full-text searchable (unlike USPTO’s pre-1976 black hole).

Unfortunately, however, that doesn’t make searching for the patents any easier. In the About GP page, it states:

As with Google Web Search, we rank patent results according to their relevance to a given search query. We use a number of signals to evaluate how relevant each patent is to a user’s query, and we determine our results algorithmically.

I’m assuming word frequency and fields play a part. For instance, “coffin” mentioned a lot in a patent, especially in important fields, will increase its relevancy ranking. Great. But there’s so much that happens with web search rankinga critical mass of users, search optimization, incoming and outgoing links, even domain extensionsthat simply aren’t a part of a pile of patents, many of which have faulty information (whether an omission on Google’s part or from the start when extracted from USPTO). Fields are transposed, the inventors becoming their inventions. Other fields are left blank. Words are misspelled and other typos abound, likely from bad OCR.

In other words, Google Patents is familiar, clean and comforting, but keyword searching is still crap.

If you know exactly what you’re looking for, you may have better luck but not necessarily. Advanced search allows you to search by patent number, inventor, date and so forth. You can also search by classification, US and international, which initially thrilled me, but my magic numbers 27/31 for life signal devices rounded up only a handful of results, none of them relevant (like the martial arts uniform top or “duck on the rock” kids’ game). Out of curiosity, I tried searching for other classification numbers: some results appeared relevant while others, again, were way off.

I’m stumped. USPTO can easily retrieve patents based on classificationif they’re using the same data, why can’t Google? Searching by patent number also retrieves a lot of irrelevant results in GP. Despite specifying a field search, it still seems to be doing a keyword search. Many patents refer to other similar patents (including their numbers) to explain how this new one compares or deviates, which can be helpful if researching the evolution of an invention or process. But extraneous, completely different items end up in the mix, too, which frustrates and impedes.

Because I couldn’t generate a list of what I wanted in Google Patents, I used the USPTO 27/31 list to grab the patent numbers which I then searched for in GP to compile a list of life signal coffin devices for the DeathRef post. These are linked to the easy-to-view and use (once you find them) GP patents.

As the titles of these patents are often similar or vague, I annotated a few of them with quotes from the patents. This is where the plain text view came in handyfor easy copy and pasting. But what really blew my mind is the clipping feature found in the upper right:

Google Patent clipping feature.

With Clip you can select with a bounding box any part of a PDF then immediately grab the embed code for the image and presumably do whatever you want with it. I threw a handful into the DeathRef post. These patents have marvelous line drawingsI had planned to download PDFs or take manual screenshots, resize as needed, upload them to the blog then link back to the PDFs. The clipping feature did everything automatically and instantly. Wowza!

I don’t know whether Google takes a snapshot of the image and stores it somewhere, or if the code is a script that generates the image on the fly based on the bounding box parametersI think it’s the latter. While it’s always good practice to have local copies of images in case something happens to ones stored elsewhere (beyond your control), this is a slick feature I haven’t seen before, from Google or anyone else. I suspect it’s the absence of copyright that makes this possible more so than newly discovered technical ingenuity, but stillso handy, so cool.

In conclusion, I love what Google Patents is doing but arughg! it could be so much better. I have a hunch making improvements on providing access to something in theory already available is of pretty low priority, howeverand it does say it’s beta, so *deep breath* I can settle down. And in the meantime, be excited. For all the endless ventures and questionable agendas of the Google Empire, this one seems pretty innocuousand neat.

Minneapolis moved! and into the work fold

I forget I can write asides with this blog… updates without the hassle of premeditated depth. In short: I’ve moved back to Minneapolis, MN, and am currently doing contract work with Augsburg College to create subject guides using the all-hailed LibGuides. The software isn’t bad, but it definitely has its foibles and limitations, resulting in fist shakes and many “Guh!” exclamations. More on this, perhaps, later&#8212given all the hype, I am definitely pleased to start playing around with them, not to mention grateful to have so quickly found library-related employment in this bled-dry job market, even if only short term.

birth of the death reference desk

Death Reference Desk

A few months ago, once fellow Minneapolitan John Troyer, now a professor of death and dying practices at the University of Bath, England, approached me with a vision. Well, it was more like a statement: “We need a blog.” He and his colleague Kim Anderson, a public librarian in Portland, Oregon, were in the habit of swapping death-related news stories via email, sometimes posting them on Facebook. Ever the helpful information consumer and conduit, I too occasionally passed along to John death links I knew would be of interest–think less shock schlock morbidity than the culturally nuanced and historically intriguing bits of death and dying lore and lunacy.

John and Kim wanted an online space where they could share ideas and information with a wider audience. Recognized for my web prowess (and later, praised for the happy surprise of actually being able to turn a fuzzy idea into a solid, slick reality), I was courted to build and contribute to such a joint-venture website with the promise of zero dollars and uncertain outcomes all around. Ain’t that the way of it? But I loved the idea and signed on. After countless hours of WordPress hacking, tracking down permanent WorldCat URLs and trying to determine the best way to organize a collection that doesn’t yet exist, the Death Reference Desk was born.

The blog portion of DRD focuses on death and dying in the news. Topics range from death industry trends, new discoveries in anthropology and the effect of social networking on mourning and memorializing, to name a few. We also function as an email-the-librarians reference desk for death and dying subjects. We’ve only had a couple questions so far, so it’s hard to predict the range of questions we’ll receive and the magnitude of research required; we don’t track down obituaries nor do in-depth research, but we are more than happy to help with search advice and places to get started. DRD also has search term tips and a few research guides, and we hope to add more in the future.

I also maintain a DeathRef Twitter account; the lastest tweet appears on the homepage, with tweets announcing new DeathRef content or linking to articles that lack sufficient weight to warrant their own posts. While (*ahem,* in my humble opinion) Twitter is the most annoyingly hyped and often pointlessly appropriated web doodad of the year, for DRD it has proven surprisingly effective for identifying and making connections with unexpected audiences, namely, genealogists and obituary enthusiasts.

So far the Death Reference Desk journey has been a challenging and gratifying experience for me as a web designer, librarian and writer. I approached it first as a project manager, defining and predicting what we wanted to achieve and how to get there, including our purpose and possible trajectory, scope, audience and value (…both to others and ourselvesI plainly admit I hoped to improve my web skills and expand my portfolio, which I’ve definitely achieved).

Melding knowledge of blog management with information organization, I attempted to translate subject classification and indexing theory and best practices to the category and tag functions of a blog. This has been no easy feat, especially with multiple contributors adding content and metadata and not knowing what our “collection” might ultimately contain. As such, categories and tags shift and evolve. The tag “crime” has become its own category, “Death + Crime.” Given thus-far limited content, the categories “Death + Art” and “Death + Architecture” should perhaps be combined. I scowl nonstop at having both a “Monuments + Memorials” category plus a “memorializing” tag, but I’m not sure what to do about it yet, and so it remains, redundant and confusing.

Naturally, my aim is to make navigation and drill-down terms as logical and useful as possible from a user’s perspective. But it’s also difficult to know how exactly a visitor will and wants to use the site, and I fear usability studies at this point would be, to put it lightly, exceptionally silly. DRD, while interesting to others for its content, has been especially interesting to me as a vehicle by which to explore professional issues, but that doesn’t mean it always requires professional insight and application, nor that such things are feasible. Sad that it matters, but true, I can expend only so much effort while not getting paid, plus I am probably the only person in the whole WWW who cares whether our small-fry blog makes total sense all of the time.

Nevertheless, I am having a blast with it, and what I’ve been learning falls well beyond information organization and design. In addition to that and the requisite web-hashing, I view and work on DRD in terms of its branding, marketing, promotion and outreach (I’m considering delving into and answering relevant Yahoo! Answers and WikiAnswers questions); its editorial policy and the various means of locating and developing relevant, engaging content (thank you, RSS alert services!); researching and creating an appropriate privacy policy and disclaimer; and my personal quest to swallow my disgust and experiment with the grossness of online advertising.

Though I’ve maintained personal websites for nearly a decade, I’ve never considered myself a blogger, in fact, I’ve resented the term. I see blogging as quick and dirty–not necessarily thoughtless but with certainly less mental and emotional investment than the creative nonfiction of my prior web engagements. But whaddya know: finding, writing about and sharing things that I find interesting for people who will also find them interesting is fun as well as deeply satisfying–not to mention a pretty darn librarian thing to do.

The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive. While it’s impossible to predict its long-term sustainability, I’m definitely enjoying it right nowfor what it is, and in imagining what it might become and how to make it happen.



It is official; I am a graduate of the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia with an MLIS. Hooray! Actual commencement was May 21. Having missed the inordinately early and devilishly well-concealed cap-and-gown deadline, I was not in attendance and thus have no capstone photos of me in full graduation regalia. (Awww.)

In addition to degreed, I am the honored recipient of the Beverly Maureen Becker Memorial Prize for outstanding work in courses related to reference and information services. Strangely, I only took one reference course, the core course required of everyone (I would have liked to take more but scheduling did not allow for it). I believe the criteria were expanded to include actual reference desk experience, of which my co-op jobs at UVic and my Graduate Academic Assistant position with Art + Architecture + Planning and the Science and Engineering Libraries at UBC provided me a great deal. The award includes a schnazzy certificate and a cheque for $500. Thanks, SLAIS! I most definitely appreciate it.

As for job… though I’d originally planned to search far and wide for a librarian position, after much consideration I have decided I would like to be in Minneapolis/St. Paul, still home in my heart and closer to family. I’m hanging out in Vancouver to enjoy one last (…for now? who knows!) BC summer of beaches and bike rides along lush seawalls. I plan to be back in the States toward the end of July then concentrate my job search in the Twin Cities area.

In the meantime, I have been entrenched in a handful of creative writing and other projects. One exciting bit of news is that my work, You Are Not Dead: A Guide To Modern Living, a free ebook released in Spring 2008, caught the interest and inspiration of a local live performance production company. Over the past couple months I have been working with the director to turn the guide, perhaps best described as a satirical cross between self help and propaganda, into a script, with some revisions to reflect Canadian content and context. The play will open late October 2009 in Vancouver.

…Which I guess makes me a playwright. Which I am still wrapping my brain around. Though eager to start my library career, this is a welcome and fun change of pace from a grueling semester, and it’s excellent to get some recognition in a regrettably neglected area of my life. Stay tuned!


March 12-15 I attended My First Library Conference, ACRL 2009, in three-hours-south Seattle. Schoolmates and I skipped classes and ditched work to play Tetris with a car trunk and try not to laugh explaining to the border guard the purpose of our visit to those United States. They look at you funny when you claim you’re a book-sort, even if you’re not, without fail, it’s true.

The conference was part total blast, part perplexing disappointment. The roadtrip mystique, the being-in-a-different-city-doing-non-routine-things, the chance meetings of acquaintances both meatspace, virtual and crossing over, discovering new nerd stuff and neat applications for the known, seeing hilarious, thought-provoking and inspiring keynote speakers, dodging Cheshire-grinned vendors and devouring free food = good. Wanting to run screaming from poorly organized sessions of ugly confusing tedious PowerPoints guided by pulseless monotonous nonsensical presenters = bad.

There is a difference between being nervous and being egregiously unprepared. I empathized with the former, but the latter? I was befuddled. Why wouldn’t you… practice? Attempt to push valuable content? Tell us something we don’t already know? Is the pressure to publish and perform so great we forget to make it interesting, show enthusiasm and invest ourselves in true knowledge transmission? Conferring with others revealed similar sentiments. It seems ACRL has some serious issues with quality control and relevance, which makes me fear for my profession. It was, after all, my peers and superiors presenting. But many sessions seemed aimed at non-librarians while simultaneously preaching to the choir, with precious little emphasis and evidence of What’s New and Unexpected: results, insights, epiphanies, the possibly plainly interesting and the transformative and translatable for one’s own institution.

I felt pain. I have been told–mentored–to avoid library conferences altogether and hit education ones instead, or whatever your subject discipline or niche, like technology cons, even if you don’t quite fit. It’s better to not understand half of what they’re saying if they’re saying something fascinating than already know everything about everything. Exposure to peripheral topics can yield interesting connections, reveal opportunities and position you to find or develop and apply to library land that authentically new, next big thing.

That said, I did see a few great sessions and spent a lot of time in the overflow floor section of the Cyber Zed Shed, which offered quick presentations on web tech, social software and mobile device use in libraries. “Like carpet time for big kids,” which would have been a clever resnark for Twitter, had I not been ill-equipped for the party. Not wanting to lug my laptop around, I went without, largely foregoing the communal joy and wonder of twittering the conference via hashtag (#acrl2009), though I did get a few words in. And it was fun. A little ridiculous but also… worthy? With exception to alerting activists to the location of staging riot cops and directing medics to the wounded at the RNC ’08, it was one of the only times I’ve seen (and the first time I participated in) the concrete usefulness of Twitter.

I love these sorts of things for the sake of experimentation and casual communication (and for the spread of humor, egoism, etc.), but oh! my! heart! to see it actually do something interesting. It can be a seldom occurrence, a rarity that makes me dubious, and critical, and not willing to sink my time into new toys. But I was glad to observe and play what I did, though I became increasingly jealous of #sxsw as the weekend wore on… perhaps one of those “peripheral topic conferences” I can hit up next year? 🙂 I did learn that ACRL happens only every other year, which I did not know and am pleased to see. Given my experience, I can’t say an annual attendance would be worth it, though it was definitely a good time and the student rate is swell. I would not, however, pay the full, professional price ($400-500ish) without institutional funding.

Other highlights and tragedies: No Naomi Klein after racing to the registration booth five minutes before she was supposed to take the stage = devastating. I don’t have a job at which I can apply all the cool stuff I learned = bummer. I can talk about cool stuff in interviews = yay! As a new hire, I wouldn’t have the clout and unlikely the freedom to implement anything anyway = dar. The barnburner Experience Music Project social mixer dance-off = riotous. Author Sherman Alexie, damn! = charming, hysterical, extraordinary. And This American Life maestro Ira Glass magically appearing right next to me after his smashing closing keynote and signing my Minnesota Public Radio cloth bag with a fat green Sharpie = #omgomgomg. I squealed like a fangirl and clutched my grocery sack all the way home.

MPR bag

facing facebook

Facing Facebook

As most people reading this probably know, the latest Facebook debacle, as uncovered by The Consumerist, hinged not on their telling all your friends about what you thought were private transactions on completely unrelated sites, or hints of selling us off wholesale to market researchers. The onerous, out-of-no-where head-check this time comes from their updated Terms of Service (TOS), revised February 4 without user notification, which their TOS conveniently allows them to do.

The new license terms granted them the perpetual rights to all content a user posts or otherwise contributes to the site, even if a user later deletes that content or cancels an account. They also claimed control over content on a completely unrelated site if it contains a “Share Link,” a tool that helps readers post a link to that content on their Facebook page, if, you know, copying and pasting a URL is deemed too arduous. If that isn’t bad and bizarre enough, no one actually needs to click the link, ever, for the license to apply.

I currently have a “Share Link” -type service called AddThis on my personal blog, deepsicks, enabling a reader to easily bookmark and share the site (though not individual posts) with social link aggregators such as Reddit, Digg, StumbleUpon and yes, Facebook, along with a couple dozen others. This is how the internet works–through linking. Facebook essentially wants to turn a link into a license, thereby owning everything they touch or that touches them (and with their more than 175 million active users, you can bet that’s a lot). Even if they claim they would never enforce this in an unscrupulous way, the fact that the TOS language allows them to is deeply troubling if not outright outrageous. Because of my AddThis button, according to Facebook, they own my website. Forever.

I suppose this is the part where I should freak out and remove the link. I won’t. Not because I’m trusting or indifferent, but because I refuse to step light and wary around an entity that is trying to break the internet. What are they thinking, seriously? FB claims they would never use our content in a way we wouldn’t want them to, but for me they already failed that test with their “social advertising” nightmare-fest, Beacon. I have no reason to trust them to protect us from themselves, to have our best interests in mind. Why should they? Facebook is a business, and one using a precarious model“free” for users, surviving off advertising dollars. I commend their success and innovation as a social networking site and certainly understand their desire to sustain themselves, as well as their need to have some licensing mechanisms in place so that they can offer their services at all. But I strongly oppose the direction they’re heading and especially the means by which they intend to get there.

Nothing a free service could “do to us” could be construed as “unfair”unless it’s behind our backs without our consent, and that’s exactly what has happened (and not for the first time). The new TOS may not seem like a big deal, especially after they so quickly rescinded itbut this is presumably only because it got such bad press, not because they didn’t consider its implications beforehand. I’m starting to feel amphibious in this slowly boiling pot. These piecemeal incursions aren’t meant to dismay or horrify, only test our tolerance and inure us to and for progressively worse attacks on privacy and ownership.

No amount of PR backpedaling with a return to the previous TOS while they “sort things out” will cool my blood and persuade me to ignore my values and the premium I place on privacy. I have removed most personally identifying information and all original content from my profile with the exception of a single profile picture, wall posts, comments on links and photos that others have tagged of me. Facebook is a social networking tool, and that’s solely what I intend to use it for from now on. I suppose being really serious about my disgust would entail canceling my account, but I do find the service valuable for keeping in touch with the long tail and the occasional vegetative time-out. I have a website–two of them–where people can learn more about me through my writing and photography. Ironically, my main website, deepsicks, is released with a Creative Commons license. I gladly and freely give away my original, creative content–but I will not consent to having it taken away from me.

I see the occasional librarian / educator / student forum about Facebook and privacy, but I don’t think the discussion has been framed very well. Privacy is a lot more than “adjusting your settings” so your cousin can see your wacky, potentially illegal antics but not your parents or parole officer. Facebook and privacy is invariably conflated with two scenarios: Strangers will steal your identity or stalk you (though the latter is more of a FB benefit–showing off how awesome and fetching you are for potential equally awesome and fetching friends and flings). Or, the nebulous, nefarious “future employer” will look up your profile, see photos of you fantastically drunk / stoned / debauched / addicted to lolcats and/or spewing incoherent word salads in your 25 Things, and who in the office wants to put up with that? then toss your application in the shedder.

These are real concerns, surely. But what needs to be emphasized (by information professionals? irate bloggers? concerned citizens?) is the very territory Facebook would love to exploit. It won’t be fellow casual users invading your privacy, but Facebook itself, selling or otherwise allowing marketing companies and advertisers to use your information. Even if FB claims immunity, all the info is still right there. I can’t see FB lasting much longer without tapping into this further, willfully and blatantly–if they haven’t already, in ways unseen.

What unnerves me the most is some peoplemany peopledon’t see this as a problem. Advertising has become an ingrained, habituated part of modern life, from entertainment to electioneering to self improvement and self expression. This could easily spin off into a ramble-rant, entire new post or post-grad thesis, but Facebook, “helping you connect and share with the people in your life,” in addition to being an enormous time-suck of human talent, is a mechanism for social normalization that helps us be good consumers of products and informationthe latter to which FB just tried to claim perpetual ownership, the former which they are paid to make us want. I know a (small) handful of people who refuse to sign up, and they endure inane amounts of Facebook evangelism (shaming! begging! berating!), receiving multiple invitations from the same people frantic that their friendship doesn’t count if not part of the official FB tally, unable to conceive why one would choose not to conform.

“Free” is not free. Ever. I’ve seen some awe-inspiring and plain neat things resulting from social networking and internet mobilization, but that comes from the bottom up, not top down, and the powers that be, no matter what they say, will ultimately control which way the wind blows (unless, of course, everyone were suddenly to abandon it), especially as Facebook, victim of its own success, scrambles for a way to sustain itself.

For those who don’t agree, don’t won’t can’t see the forest for the trees, the writing on the wall, the meta in the metaphor, youall-drive-me-crazy and thisall-disturbs-me-deeply. But I shall continue to be suspicious on your behalf. I will fight for you when the crystal cracks.

feedback thanks and dreamhost

Thanks everyone for the feedback, mentioned here and through other streams. I’ve already made a few changes. A couple SLAISers (read: classmates) have asked me about my hosting and domain name. I use DreamHost, a most excellent provider (it is a United States server, but uh… c’mon, it’s a new administration).

Contact me if you have questions about setting up a site, figuring out your domain (registration, redirection) for an existing site, or if you’d be interested in carving off a piece of my pie in the sky series of tubes for super cheap.