I remember a few months ago, my friend Rochelle wrote a terrific post about the Second Life Library 2.0. She basically wrote about her first-time experiences in the Second Life realm and how confusing and off-putting it was for her. She voiced some criticisms of the Second Life Library project, which she made clear were her own opinions and the opinions of someone who was viewing it all for the first time. I love reading people’s initial impressions of things; it’s the most honest impressions you can get. Once you’ve done something a few times, you forget a lot of the things that initially made you like it or not like it. You’re just “in it.” You see it with new eyes; without any assumptions. Anyways, Rochelle was practically tarred and feathered by a few Second Life-ers. Responses ranged from hostility, to absolutely horror that someone would have the nerve to criticize something someone else has worked so hard on, to intimating that her impressions are not really valid since she hasn’t spend enough time in there, to making her feel like she should have to work to make the SLL better because she criticized it.

One of the more defensive commenters wrote this:

I think that bloggers should be careful before criticizing what other people are doing. Everyone has the right to be interested in what they are interested on. Let’s let it end there.

I didn’t read anything in her post saying that there was anything fundamentally wrong with what this gentleman was doing in Second Life. She was just writing up her own impressions. Here was an excerpt from my response:

I wish someone would come to our library here at Norwich and do the same thing. In fact, I want to hear all the criticisms — what they had trouble with, what they didn’t understand, what they don’t like. That’s how we learn and how we can improve our services. Because you want things to be intuitive to the first-time user and sometimes when you’re so close to something, you can’t see the little things that might be confusing.

Her discussion of Second Life seemed very balanced to me. She wasn’t saying “people shouldn’t bother with the Second Life Library.” She was saying “this is what I had trouble with and what I didn’t understand.” And what is wrong with that? Are we saying that someone can’t criticize or write their honest experiences with something until they’ve used it as much as you have?

What I didn’t say was that I was relieved that Rochelle had written it. I had gone into Second Life while doing research for my book and I really didn’t enjoy my experience in there. But everyone was raving so much about it and it was starting to feel very (I’m not sure if this is the right word) false to me. I’m not saying that people don’t genuinely enjoy Second Life or the Second Life Library 2.0 project; what I mean is that all rah rah and no criticism makes me feel that a lot of people aren’t saying what they really think. I think SLL 2.0 is a really fascinating project and it’s terrific that people are exploring how to provide library services in 3D virtual worlds. But when a certain blogger who had written about the Second Life Library in positive terms turned to me at a conference and said “do you ‘get’ Second Life?” (and then admitted that s/he didn’t either) I knew we were getting only one side of the story online. So bravo to Rochelle for having the guts to “keep it real.”

After reading the entire exchange (and taking part in it), I had started a post on the topic of criticism in the blogosphere, how much groupthink there is, and how critical doesn’t have to equal mean. Of course I didn’t have time to finish it and time passed and the topic didn’t seem as fresh anymore. But Rochelle just wrote a terrific post on politeness, how boring it is in the echo-chamber and how the best blogs are those that are written with one’s authentic (read: uncensored) voice and ideas.

I created the title of last week’s post (“It’s Not Just the OPAC that Sucks”) because I was feeling like I would bang my head against the wall if I saw one more person write about OPACs sucking. OK! We get it! Now what? It’s great to see people criticizing things and coming up with new ideas (and there were some terrific posts on the woeful state of the OPAC). But then the groupthink takes over and people just echo the same ideas over and over again, without adding anything new or productive. What’s the point of that? I don’t need to read the same exact thing on 50 blogs. Then there are people like Jennifer McCauley and Dan Chudnov who go beyond the echo chamber to add original (and contrary) thoughts to the mix. And while you may not necessarily agree with either of them, they get you looking at things from another angle.

I’ve redesigned my library’s Website and am going live with it this Thursday. A week ago, I contacted my colleagues to get feedback on the site, but heard back from almost no one, including my own supervisor. Two people responded with “good job’s” which was nice. The two people I actually got useful criticism from were the only two people I ever hear from when I ask for opinions. And while some of the criticisms were a bit harsh and challenged me to make a whole bunch of changes I hadn’t anticipated, I appreciated it. The site is now far better because of their input. But I would have liked to have gotten feedback from more people considering how important this is. I’d rather hear a hundred negative criticisms of my site than a sea of silence.

For those of you who blog, why do you do it? I can’t even honestly remember why I started blogging, but I know that I do it now to make people think and to spur dialogue. And to spur dialogue, you really have to speak your mind. Speaking your mind isn’t always the politic thing to do. Look, I criticized the ALA and less than a year later I was speaking at ALA Headquarters BECAUSE of it! Mary Ghikas told me how much she appreciates criticisms like the ones I’ve written about ALA because they are productive and are something people can learn from. I wrote another criticism of ALA while in talks with Leonard Kniffel to write for American Libraries. Like me, they’d rather hear something useful and constructive than a sea of silence. Regardless of what organizations I am involved with, I will always give my honest impressions of things. I will always be an independent agent. In some blogs, you can tell that people are being so careful. It shows. Their work isn’t as vibrant, thought-provoking or useful. I know I don’t always write posts that are thought-provoking, but it’s usually due to lack of time to write anything substantial than fear of being impolitic. A number of blogs I used to enjoy have become “careful.” Some of them I’ve reluctantly unsubscribed from. They remind me of a once fierce lion that’s been tamed and has lost everything that made him a lion other than the anatomy.

I’ve taken a beating for some of the things I’ve written and have gotten criticized for many of my projects. You take that risk when you do anything publicly online. But it’s always been worth it. It hurts when you spend days and days straight working on a wiki only to have people criticize it. But you know what? You get over it pretty quick. And, unless the critic’s just a troll looking for an excuse to be mean to someone, you learn from what they wrote or said. The sting of criticism isn’t that bad.

I love that something I wrote last week about user experience in libraries inspired this terrific post from Mark Linder. While we largely do agree on things, he didn’t just nod his head. He really made the topic his own and focused on user experience in bookstores and libraries from his perspective as a customer and budding cataloger. It was a terrific post and he didn’t need any of those “it’s not that I disagree with Meredith but” caveats. It’s great to see some dissent in the blogosphere as long as it doesn’t get personal or mean. I have always enjoyed Mark’s unique take on things; he brings a truly unique and useful perspective to the blogosphere.

Be nice, be critical, but most of all… be you. It’s definitely a good idea to censor yourself when you’re writing something you think is too personal or might hurt someone’s feelings (or could get you fired), but if you find yourself worrying about what someone might think of your impressions of something, please hit “Publish” as quick as you can. The blogosphere needs more authentic voices.