Accidentally in Code

Personal Value and Social Value

Posted on: May 9, 2009

Lately I’ve been reading Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. It’s a really interesting book, and one that I would thoroughly recommend if you’re interested in this kind of thing. Something in Chapter 11 (Promise, Tool, Bargain) struck me because it resonated with an experience I had this week (emphasis added).

Single user tools, from word-processing software to Tetris, have a simple message for the potential user. If you use this, you will find it satisfying or effective or both. With social tools, the group is the user, so you need to convince individuals not just that they will find the group satisfying and effective but that others will find it so as well; no matter how appealing the promise, there’s no point being the only user of a social tool. As a result, users of social tools are making two related judgments: Will I like using this tool or participating in this group? Will enough other people feel as I do to make it take off.

The larger the number of users required, the harder the group is to get going, because the potential users will (rightly) be more skeptical that enough users will join to make it worth their while. (An empty restaurant has the same catch-22 in attracting diners.) There are several strategies for handling this problem. The most obvious one is to make joining easy, in order to make the promise seem within reach. Kate Hanni’s Flyers Rights group made the basic action (signing the petition) quite simple and reserved more complicated actions (like calling Congress or talking to the media) for more committed members. Other strategies include creating personal value for the individual users, allowing the social value to manifest only later. Joshua  Schachter’s service for bookmarking and tagging webpages, called del.icio.us, serves as a persona archive of webpages; the value that accrues from aggregating the group’s view of the Web is optional for any given user, but enough people have taken advantage of that value to cause the service to grow dramatically.

I was at the MCETECH conference at Carleton this week (I hate going to Carleton, so remote, other than that the conference was really good though) and there was a workshop on Zotero. The workshop was so good that during it, I switched browsers to Firefox (my but I’m going to miss Safari), downloaded the plug-in, and got started.

Now I should probably mention at this point that I’ve been needing to get something to organize my references for a while. I’m reading a lot at the moment and although better than index cards (I hope) half a dozen spreadsheets and a word document is not the best way to go. Last week, I went to a day of talks for graduate students (of varying usefulness) and one of the talks was on RefWorks. RefWorks also looks pretty good, but it’s proprietary. So whilst it’s free over the course of my time at university, once I leave I face loosing all my references, paying for it, or solving the same problem again. Zotero also makes it easy to cite webpages and news articles, and for those that it doesn’t accept already I can write my own “translator” so it seems more versatile and extensible. I’ve also tried EndNote, which was OK but the big pain there is getting in all the information for the paper or whatever it is you’re citing, so if there’s something that makes that easier… I want it. (I was then using the desktop version, I understand there’s now a Web version but I haven’t tried it).

So Zotero, is free, open source, extensible, easy to use, and does everything I want it to do. Sold. That’s what I’ll be using. And I’m twittering about @Zotero, and #mcetech (incidentally, I hate it that Twitter doesn’t actually delete posts you delete – it just removes them from your profile, typos grr), of course. I’m a twitter junkie – that’s what I do now.

And… I get an @kittenthebad tweet from someone who’s suggesting I use Mendeley. Which I’d heard of before but had just written off as *yawn* yet another social network. Nice idea, but ultimately just a procrastination tool, so being ever-diplomatic, I say: Looked at mendeley ages ago but thought it just for procrastinating. Like @zotero ‘cos social stuff byproduct of great+useful ap.“. And the guy responds, I’d recommend you have a better look. There have been many updates. And it’s absolutely not for procrastination hehe 🙂. K, fine. And I do. And perhaps it could do everything that I want but the big thing they’re selling is this social aspect. Which is nice, an’ all, but not enough to convince me to go to the effort of putting in a load of data and giving it a go. Zotero are bringing in a lot of social stuff (next couple of weeks, I was told) so when I was telling supervisor about the talk (he hadn’t been able to make it) I was telling him how he will be able to create a group for the course he teaches etc, and that’s awesome. But first and foremost? It’s a great and versatile reference tool which – get this – will even work with your Google doc (maybe you’re not impressed, but I thought that was pretty awesome). Most of the social aspect I need is that I can make my library visible and my supervisor can see what I’m reading (you can see it too, if you like, it’s here)

Finally we come back to the text highlighted in bold way back up there. Because both Mendeley and Zotero will eventually have similar products that do similar things and have a social / sharing aspect on top of that. But at this point in time, Zotero’s product definitely creates that personal value for me. And if the social value manefests later, well that’s great. If it doesn’t, well that’s OK too – I can do everything I want already. It would be wonderful if it came up with recommendations for me (as it should very soon), but would I bother logging everything I read just to get those recommendations? No.

On a side note, Zotero is funded by the Centre for History and New Media. They will soon charge for storage (so you can back up the stuff you’ve been reading online), but the cost will be nominal. Mendeley is a business with funding and will eventually need to turn a profit. I’m not going to speculate as to what that means for your data (on their website FAQ they promise that what’s currently free will remain so) but it is a consideration – for me at least.

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