Perception vs Reality on Social Media

by Melissa Powell, Independent Librarian,

"Philadelphia Story"
Image from “Philadelphia Story” (1940)

All librarians are uptight, stuffy, wear buns, and act JUST like Marian the Librarian!  Don’t you get tired of that?  I know I do.  Judging our profession on one portrayal that has been copied over and over.  It is maddening, don’t you think?

For decades we have fought the stereotype.  Railed against blanket judgments based on a media portrayal.  Remember the uproar about the Nancy Pearl Action Figure?  “She looks like a frumpy librarian!”  Never mind that is how Nancy actually dressed and she is anything but a frumpy librarian. We get angry when anything portrays us based on little more than a few fictional characters or a few librarians who fit that stereotype instead of the THOUSANDS of hard working librarians that don’t get focused on.

Our call to arms: “These blanket statements and judgments harm our profession!  We need to combat them! “

However, we do this very thing to ourselves within our own profession constantly.  We judge based on appearance, professions within the profession, library type, associations.

The example I use to illustrate this is ALATT (ALA Think Tank).  There are almost 10,000 members and more than a dozen, often dozens of posts per day.  Every couple of weeks, or even as little as once a month, someone either posts something that is a little inflammatory, or a few people start spewing blame, disdain, vitriol, and statements not based on fact in the comments.  This small group will look down their noses like the librarians of old, or channel the media talking heads with their disdain,  or pick out one word or statement and obsess on it.

Image from "Parks & Recreation"  (2009)
Image from “Parks & Recreation” (2009)

Just like real life.

Think about it.  10,000 people in a room.  Will there always be peace, love, and understanding?  Unfortunately no.  Will someone start a fight?  Unfortunately yes.  Will someone misunderstand or get emotional?  Of course.  Will there be heated arguments?  Yes.  Will others join the fray to try and mediate?  Of course!  Will they be derided for doing so?  Probably.  Will this be a constant occurrence?  Most likely no.

Just like real life.

Can you be part of a group and not expect some discord?  No.  Can you ignore it and move on?  Yes, and MUCH easier in social media.  Unsubscribe from the individual conversations and scroll right on past it.

Holy cow?  You mean we can control our own environment and experience?  Sure can!

Image from CafePress
Image from CafePress

Now.  Scrolling through the posts of the last month I see dozens of questions about programming, management, personnel, funding, technology, jobs, etc.  I see several articles about libraries, books, technology, intellectual freedom, and other topics relating to our profession.  I see posts with humor, posts of cats (and dogs), posts of food and drink (yes alcohol too, as part of the weekend online ‘cocktail hours’), and other things that allow us to make connections with our colleagues and often turn these connections into friendships.  Even a post asking “you know you are a librarian when ___________” that is garnering some hysterical, yet painfully true, comments.

I do see two posts that caused a bit of a ruckus because a handful of people got very emotional and judgmental.  And often mean.  Behavior that is completely uncalled for and not constructive.

Two among hundreds.

A few people among thousands.

judge by coversWould you use statistics like this to support an argument?  Only if your argument was for the hundreds and thousands, I hope. Tho this could explain some of our library issues . . .  I digress.

I have observed two things over the years on social media, especially Facebook:

  1. Because we are not face to face we can keep a discussion going for days. This goes for disagreements as well.
  2. We can miss important things because there is so much posted and the algorithm pushes posts with the most and/or recent activity to the top. Because these other posts are not seen they don’t get liked or commented on so they don’t get moved to the top.

So, we can keep a disagreement going for days as people continue to comment and new people discover it and comment. Since we can only check in once in a while we don’t see many of the other non-negative posts.

Many have commented that maybe it’s time to break the general ALATT into subsections or make it a closed group.

keep-calm-and-scrolldown-letitgo-1Closed groups have their issues too and who is to say these same people wouldn’t be part of the group? (this falls into the “we have a couple of people who cause problems so let’s make a policy” line of thinking. )

Subsections means more places to look and I am already on lots of other groups and  . . . Wait, the real problem with subsections is that many of us not in the same library type, profession, etc actually have some valuable things to contribute to our fellow professionals.  If we divide it up then us non-academics won’t be in the academic group and how is that progress?  ALATT has brought me colleagues in so many library types and locations that I NEVER would have gotten elsewhere because we naturally divide into groups.

So, if you think ALATT is a bunch of alcoholic haters you have COMPLETELY missed the boat!  Those who blame the administrators of the group need to remember they are upholding Freedom of Speech, Intellectual Freedom, and a whole host of other things our profession is based on.

So here is my advice: learn to “scroll down” and to “let it go”.  You do NOT have to read everything or comment on everything or agree with everything or participate in everything. Do you do that in real life?  Participate in EVERY conversation you hear? Join in EVERY activity you see?  Walk past a couple of bars and complain that the town is just bars?  Pass a group of people being rowdy and claim all the people in the town are miscreants?  I hope for humanity’s sake you do not.

This group was started as a SOCIAL way for librarians to get to know each other and has morphed into a way for librarians to learn from each other as well.  It is SOCIAL LEARNING.  A “conference without borders” if you will.

Remember, we don’t ban or censor what we don’t like and we don’t judge a book by its cover.  We are librarians.