I went to the discussion about the SWIFT conference platform, which I haven’t discussed publicly on this blog (though many others have on theirs — and many of them offer quite astute observations). I do think it is a deeply flawed tool that doesn’t provide value. I knew just about everyone in the feedback session and I respect all of them very much. That’s why I was surprised and disappointed by the tone of the discussion. While most of the criticisms were valid, there were some people who were really on the attack about this. There was real anger in the room. It got to the point where I actually felt sorry for Kathleen Gilroy of the Otter Group and frankly, felt a bit embarrassed. Is this the impression we want to give? Aren’t we better than that? Yes, the emails were annoying (especially when your picture was used in adverts for it… wtf?). Yes, the platform met a need that simply doesn’t exist. Yes, the platform is awful. Yes, the terms of service were ridiculous. But we always talk in this profession about not castigating people for their failures so that they will feel comfortable taking risks and trying new things. And I felt that we did exactly the opposite. There was no telling Kathleen what we would like out of an online conference community. There was very little in the way of constructive criticism. It was largely a venting of spleen.
I’m not defending Kathleen Gilroy here. I think she and her organization are seeking to make money off a concept (Web 2.0) on which they seem to have little understanding. They are creating deeply flawed community platforms that don’t meet needs and feel rigidly structured from above (the polar opposite of what people want from 2.0 communities). I think her behavior in trying to silence bloggers who criticized her last project (ALA 2.0 Bootcamp) was reprehensible, and I think that may have been part of the cause of the sturm und drang. However, I feel like by having this open forum, she was at least trying to be more transparent and open to criticism. Hopefully, though, she at least took to heart some of the legitimate points that people were making about SWIFT. I don’t know that I would have if I were attacked in that way.
Kudos to Jane Dysart and Information Today for exploring new options for aggregating content and building community online. We shouldn’t discourage their experimentation in these areas, and I worry that might be the result of this whole affair. There may well be better ways of collaborating online around a conferencethan what we already do. Kathleen, sorry for the drubbing, but it really is a terrible product. I hope you’ve figured out that librarians are not a good market for your products/services. Or maybe we’re the perfect test audience since, if it can survive us, it must be a pretty darn good product. We’re like a wind tunnel or one of those crash-test machines. “Designed even to survive librarians!”
If nothing else, this SWIFT platform gave me some ideas for how to do some of what they were trying to do better. I’ve been looking for a way to aggregate all of the blog posts about a specific session together since I created the wiki for ALA Annual 2005. For Internet Librarian 2006, I created pages where people could post a link to their blog post about a specific session or write a report right on the wiki. That did not happen because it took effort on the part of the user. The Otter Group sought to solve this problem by having individual tags for each session. The likelihood of people actually using a session tag is slim-to-nil – it’s hard enough to get people to tag their posts CIL2008. But I had another idea while I was sitting in the session about SWIFT. What if I take the RSS feed that comes from the Technorati conference tag and filter it using Feed Digest or Yahoo! Pipes? I could filter it for each individual session and then would have feeds that contained just the posts from each individual session. I’d probably miss some posts because people would not put in the title of the session or would enter it differently, but it’s the best alternative I can think of. I could then use Grazr to create an interface where someone could click on a date, click on a track, click on a session, and see all the blog posts about that session (here’s a very rough version with posts that mention Pecha Kucha and CIL2008 or Computers in Libraries — there’s an RSS feed as well). I just did that in a few minutes using Feed Digest, Technorati, and Google Blog Search (to pick up stuff Technorati missed — like my own post!). It would be very time-consuming to set it up for every session, but it would certainly provide value without asking users to do anything differently. Do you think this would be useful? Are you happy enough with just seeing what Technorati pulls up under the conference tag? I’d love some feedback, because it would certainly not be worth the effort to do for future conferences if it doesn’t add much value.
When I see something done badly or stupidly, I don’t get mad. Well, maybe I do sometimes. 😉 But I also try and think of a better way of doing it. Five Weeks to a Social Library was my comment on the ALA 2.0 Bootcamp. See? This is how it’s done. We often can do this stuff better, because we have an understanding of the tools and the culture. How can we create better conference communities online? Ideas anyone?
Librarians seem to be too rough or too soft on vendors. Sometimes an idea is so bad, it should be killed. However, if the person is really dedicated to make it better, it can withstand any criticism. It becomes a test of whether the project is worthy enough. Make it better, or abandon it.
Sometimes librarians are a bit harsh. I remember a conversation I had with a library consultant who stated, “The library field have very specific needs and are very demanding, moreso than other fields.” He sold his very successful consulting business six months later. I wonder if there was a connection?
Mereidth, I hear ya. I know I sounded more angry than I was. It was a tense situation, and the tension showed in my voice.
I, too, think Jane Dysart deserves credit for trying something new. We are always saying that we need to try new things and not be afraid of failure, so I don’t want to think I made someone feel bad about doing just that.
It was, perhaps, courageous of Kathleen Gilroy to have this forum. The format, however, made me feel like the message was less “tell me how we can make this product better” and more “let me tell you why I think you should like this product.” That’s what made me frustrated, and that’s what made me leave early.
I probably looked and sounded angry. I’d say I just realized early on that the forum was not going anywhere, and let my frustration show. Apologies to Jane Dysart if I seemed mad or confrontational.
Hmmm. A better tool. How about if, instead of trying to pre-choose the keywords, you were shown the most common keywords after making your initial selection. So you see stuff tagged “cil2008” and the top keywords are “pecha kucha,” “Steven Cohen,” “Facebook,” etc., and you drill down that way?
Also, Kathleen can feel better by soaking up the anti-Flickr-video drama in the meantime. Flickr has to deal with cranks, too!
I can definitely understand your frustration, Steve, especially with Kathleen leaving us with the question “is this better than all of the other methods of collaboration we currently have?” Clearly the answer was no and she kind of set herself up for a beating. I would have asked instead “how can we make this better?”
I like your idea! Not sure I could architect it, but it is a neat idea. And Steven Cohen would certainly be one of the top keywords. That and “hoochie coochie.” Yeah, it would be like Flickr’s hot tags feature.
Jeff, I totally agree that sometimes ideas should be killed and that this is probably one of them. I also agree that librarians tend to be demanding. There’s nothing wrong with demanding better products, but people will listen much better to criticism when it comes from a constructive place rather than a place of anger. Sometimes, librarians come at vendors in a state of extreme frustration and with few suggestions as to how to make it better.
I like your little feed digest example quite a lot, actually. It seems to me that the number of bloggers at conferences, and the number of sessions that get blogged, is going up, and cherry-picking through the Technorati feed for CiL200X for the stuff you’re interested in is kind of a pain. Any attempt to do thematic aggregation is going to require a fair amount of work by someone, but as an infrequent conference goer who likes to read up on some of the sessions, I find it valuable.
Setting aside SWIFT (I was only there for 20 minutes, as I had to catch a flight, but in that time I didn’t catch any vigilante vibe), I met with an ITI staffer to talk about how to approach new software development in the future. It’s not easy to select new software and there are all kinds of confusing messages. But ITI puts on a damn fine show for librarians and if they need help we should give it to them.
Couldn’t agree more, Karen! Their conferences are consistently among the best for librarians at all interested in technology and I’ve always been impressed by their efforts to make changes based on our feedback. 🙂
Thanks so much for this post, Meredith. I was also frustrated with the session and with the Swift experience, and I think I led off on the wrong foot when it was our turn to speak. What baffles me is that it felt like the audience–most of whom I knew and respect as well–really did not connect with Kathleen and Jane and what they were trying to tell us about the direction Swift will be taking.
Perhaps a more informal venue, earlier time, or wine and cheese would have helped; it just felt odd. I stayed after to talk a bit and hope that I conveyed the sentiment that we really do want to help. There were a few suggestions made at the end that I hope that Otter and ITI–and we, the attendees and presenters–will benefit from.
After thinking about this more, I think that the failures were due to an intersection of unfortunate circumstances: those who tried it have high expectations for web functionality and low tolerance for failure; we are intensely self-sufficient; we have little time to devote to something that adds no perceived value to what we already do. As Steve Lawson put it so succinctly, we already are in the habit of aggregating our own information feeds; no one in the room saw the need for a site that would do this for us, given the fact that we’ve already got our routines worked out. However, a fully-functioning Swift or a product like it might be useful for attendees who don’t have time or inclination to follow their own flickr, delicious or blog post RSS feeds. The key there will be unveiling the product in just the right way and providing the *right* information to the *right* group of potential users at the *right* time. …and we weren’t it, but we’re willing to help. Honestly, how many other conference planners would have provided this forum for us?
Have to echo that Computers in Libraries and Internet Librarian are the best conferences that I go to. The content is always fresh, relevant and exciting; nowhere else can I go to connect with so many like minds. This year’s CiL was simply amazing for me. Kudos to Jane Dysart and her crew for another stellar event, soup to nuts.
Also see Jason Griffey’s concise and neutral assessment of Swift.
I think a few people mentioned that they were going into the room thinking positively and were eventually turned off somehow during the course of the discussion.
I went in thinking I had the least to say and ended up sounding the most I angry I suppose. What I was experiencing was not anger though, but a sense of “let’s cut to the chase here.” In talking to customers, there’s no excuses. In the end, I feel I did a favor — honest angry sounding criticism is always better than polite, sweet waving while you watch someone’s ship go down. Frankly, I think the discussion at that session was worth alot. The comments were relevant, succinct, and damn good advice in my view.
Hi Ryan, I have to disagree with you on this one. I think you’re setting up a false dichotomy. “Honest angry criticism” and “polite sweet waving” aren’t the only options when it comes to offering advice and/or criticism. In high school, I was always known as the person people wanted to read their writing, because they knew I’d be honest about it, even when it sucked. I wasn’t mean about it, but I’d tell them where I felt they went wrong and where they could improve. You can criticize without sounding angry and still be effective.
And really, there were a number of people (not you) who talked about that session two days before who were already out for blood then. I’d never had such a negative reaction to SWIFT before the conference. It sucks. I don’t use it. But I did tell Kathleen some of the things I saw that were wrong with it and in a way that I didn’t think sounded angry (nor wishy washy either). I know that when someone talks to me the way people were shouting at her, I shut down. I don’t respond well to anger and I literally will not hear what they say. When someone offers me constructive criticism or advice, I will listen. I will take it to heart.
And I agree with you that the comments were good advice, but they didn’t have to be delivered in such an angry tone. If I’d been up there, I wouldn’t have heard it. I’d just have gone to the place I go when I’m being yelled at. But maybe that’s just me. Hopefully she heard the criticism and took it to heart.
I want to thank all of you for your comments about SWIFT. We are beginning design on the next version and have incorporated some of your ideas and suggestions into how we think about the product. I have no problem with the tone of the discussion. It wasn’t always constructive but it was honest. My only criticism of how this played out was in how the suggestion of bad faith, profiteering, or malice in the intentions behind the product design. We genuinely want to develop something that creates real value in how people share information and connections around an event. SWIFT v1 certainly didn’t achieve that goal. But we are working hard to make sure SWIFT v2 does.