Herding cats

Well, life before cell phones was like herding cats too. I am not one of those Luddites who romanticizes the age before we all had laptops and cell phones. As a person who sometimes gets lost while driving (despite the GPS) or doesn’t always plan for getting stuck in traffic, I’ve found that the ability to communicate on the fly has saved me from critically annoying my near and dear.

Back when I was an undergrad, we were still in Web 1.0. It seemed like we mainly used it for email and instant messaging. I was a student worker in the School of Education at Marquette University, mostly as an office assistant and sometimes as a library assistant. Basically, we did the work that the full-time secretaries/executive assistants/professors didn’t have time for. Sometimes there were stacks of projects waiting in our wire basket, and sometimes there were notes that said, “See me. –Susan”. Sometimes, projects got claimed by another student worker on a previous shift and the professor didn’t want to take the time to re-train another student worker.

So on the days where there weren’t projects in the basket, you would stalk Susan or whoever at their office door, trying to catch them between appointments or meetings or whatever. And when you caught them, they typically didn’t have time for the interruption and only gave you part of the instructions and then you were back again in 15 minutes for more stalking or with a question. Of course, someone that busy typically isn’t very warm toward being interrupted, but what choice did you have? If you sat at the student worker desk and did your own homework too long you’d get reprimanded for that too!

A few years later, I got myself into a similar predicament as I moonlighted as a Technology Secretary for a school district right before I started grad school the first time. I had a zillion projects going on at the same time and no real sense of what was priority. When my classes started up, they got me a sub until they found someone full-time to replace me and it was just like my student worker experience all over again. I’m sure my sub looked at me like I was the worst cat-herder she’d ever met.

The description of the University of Houston Digital Services Department’s use of Google Calendar and Blogger in R. Nicole Westbrook’s article, “Online Management System: Wielding Web 2.0 Tools to Collaboratively Manage and Track Projects” would have been a god-send to my office worker experience!

Rather than interrupting staff work to get a worker started on a project each time someone arrives for a shift, supervisors can create all assignments for a day at one time and respond to questions posted on the blog at their convenience. Creating blog posts in advance also benefits students. With pre-posted assignments, students can immediately read their assignment for the day without waiting for supervisors who might be returning late from a meeting or might not be in the office at all that day. Managers also have the freedom to create a large volume of posts as far in advance as is convenient. Therefore, when supervisors travel, they can create posts before leaving town and then monitor status posts and questions remotely so that progress on projects can continue in their absence.

What a nice use of digital tools to keep everyone busy and on-task and communicating! I really would’ve appreciated the opportunity to have a blog to post questions/progress on, instead of stalking a professor’s door. That is exactly what I was looking for back then.

Westbrook described one weakness of Google Calendar:

Unfortunately, Google Calendar does not currently have an archive or export feature and shifts are only stored for a finite period of time before they are purged from the calendar permanently. Although UHDS staff does not have an ideal solution to this problem as of yet, an effort is made to conduct project reviews in a timely manner in order to capture shift information elsewhere before it is unavailable.

While Google Calendar may not export or archive (I don’t think), I’ve never seen it purge. I can still look at the first event I entered into my own Google calendar on August 30, 2006. But then again, this does not guarantee permanence and there are plenty of Web 2.0 services that have been discontinued without much notice and there you are, without a back-up.

Of course, I realize that being impressed with the use of Google apps as a inter-office communication tool probably means that my programming chops are pretty much non-existent. Drupal and WordPress were not even on my radar until I took this class. The last time I dappled with HTML was with Microsoft FrontPage 2003 and it seems that we’ve moved far beyond that. I think I could [maybe] figure out this content management system (CMS) stuff, given I had a meaningful project to use it on and an up-to-date tech guide like Jones and Farrington’s Using WordPress as a library content management system(I seriously was not kissing up, Kyle. You just happen to be the co-author and my instructor.)

When you are faced with a problem like the University of Michigan Libraries’ website, as described in K. J. Varnum’s introduction to “Drupal in Libraries,” published in The Tech Set, 2012 (p. 2-3):

There was no standardization between the HTML parts of the site and the dynamically generated portions–not even within the static pages or dynamic pages. This was the result of having different developers and authors building their own pieces of the site, independently, over the course of almost two decades… From the user perspective, the library’s site had dozens of graphic identities for different parts of the library, many of which bore little resemblance to the homepage. Constituent libraries, service points, departments, and information pages had radically different designs. There was almost no consistent navigation across the site; many pages did not link to the main library page. Those that did used different logos or graphics, and the links were placed on different parts of the webpage. This complicated user interface made it very difficult for a site visitor to move from one library to another or from a library to a particular resource. The site was an exercise in frustration for our users and our staff… We arrived at this state of affairs much of you may have: by allowing the web to grow organically over years without finding the time or energy to bring it together.

it seems pretty obvious that there has to be a better way. These CMSs are the way to go. Go figure, another tech tool has found a slick improvement to a tedious process. The question is, is it better to continue herding cats yourself or do you employ the professional cat-herder? At least the cat-herder knows how to manage the chaos. However, some of us may be appointed to be the professional cat-herder ourselves someday, so it’s probably in our interest to starting putting on the cat-herder gear now (i.e. mess around with WordPress and Drupal, in this example.)

finding each other

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations by Clay Shirky for me was a lesson in economics and sociology. I know a little about sociology–well if taking one college class as an 18 year-old counts, but almost nothing about econ. While econ fascinates me to some degree, there are some things in life that are just best left to your financial advisor (or whoever else works/cares about that stuff). Truthfully, there was so much in this book that just made me think, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense!” that I’m really not sure how to tie it together at this point.

First of all, on the power of organizing in a Web 2.0 era, consider Evan Guttman and his StolenSidekick webpage. This was a guy who got fired up about an injustice and mobilized people to get his way. Our author poses the following question:

Do we also want a world where, whenever someone with this kind of leverage gets riled up, they can unilaterally reset the priorities of the local police department? (I wish I could cite the page number here, but I read from a Kindle so the best I can do is offer a location: 261)

When you think of it that way, suddenly the internet seems like a pawn of the well-connected and well-spoken to serve their own agendas. (Talk about the digital divide!) Now I can honestly say that I have thrown that kind of tantrum (maybe not of the caliber that involves millions of New Yorkers) and haven’t relented until I saw some action–my venue of choice has always been customer service phone calls–but I have never drawn in other people to support my cause, so it was novel for me to consider this. I thought it was a little ridiculous of the guy to go that far just to deliver a “spanking” to that Sasha character, but impressive none the less.

Then, I read the stories of the Catholic abuse scandals and the airline complaints and I really started thinking about how powerful it was for people who felt strongly about a cause to be able to find each other and unite. It wasn’t that the second incident in either of these cases was any less infuriating (the case in the 1990s versus the one in the 2000s), it was that, finally, for something that is truly serious, the malefactor couldn’t just depend on the odd adage, “This too shall pass.” It’s like in the past, people would be able to do enough damage control that as long as it was out of the papers, they were in the clear. Trent Lott’s comments about Mississippi’s voting history and Strom Thurmann are another example–the papers missed the first story and couldn’t publish “old news” when they picked up on it later. However, the internet community can buzz and buzz and buzz until a critical mass is reached and the world pays attention.

While I was troubled by the idea of the “Pro-Ana” girls using the YM message boards to unite (and then migrating to other online locations once YM shut them down), some people need to find “their own communities”:

Much of the way we talk about identity assumes it is a personal attitude, but society maintains control over the use of identity as an associational tool. A recovering addict would find it very risky to ask coworkers for help finding a support group, as might someone looking for the local gay community. Whether society offers or withholds this support, however, matters less with each passing year. (location 2525)

The marginalized (provided they have online access) have the opportunity to be a little less marginalized. I like that.

There’s another beauty to this. It’s not about hiding out and talking to other online hermits who don’t have any friends in the real world (I’m exaggerating here–for awhile, there was a fear of that). People still want to be with people:

In the developed world, the experience of the average twenty-five-year-old is one of substantial overlap between online and offline friends and colleagues. The overlap is so great, in fact, that both the word and the concept of “cyberspace” have fallen into disuse. The internet augments real-world social life rather than providing an alternative to it. Instead of becoming a separate cyberspace, out electronic networks are becoming deeply embedded in real life. (location 2421)


This is what the end of cyberspace looks like: the popularity of these Meetup groups suggests that meeting online isn’t enough and that after communicating with one another using these various services, the members become convinced that they share enough to want to get together in the real world. (location 2449)

Between Meetup groups, political actions and flash mobs (I still want to know how flash mobs coordinate dance numbers though. That seems bigger to me than a mass email…), with transformations this large due to social tools, we each have to consider our role and our participation level in it all. I’m starting to think that none of those levels matter too much, as long as we’re all still aware of our place in the world. (Is that too touchy-feely or cliche?)