Can your social network replace a search engine?

Last week I attended the CILIP CDG National Conference. The programme included a presentation by Phil Bradley on social media and why it is important to Librarians. It was a full-throtle, engaging talk explaining where social media is today and how its exponential growth is affecting the world of information. As always, Phil made very good points in favour of engaging with social media. We know this can be an issue for librarians, not always through personal choices, but because their organisations have decided that social media is BAD and should be blocked. Phil made powerful arguments for information professionals taking action and communicating the value of social media to their organisations.

One of these arguments was that social media have become the new way of finding information. Users no longer look for authoritative content on a company’s website, they expect the information to come to them via a combination of news feeds and recommendations on social networks. These may come directly from friends or as a result of the user’s browsing history.

I can’t possibly disagree with any of these points. However, what Phil said next gave me a lot of food for thought.  Social networks (or rather the people that inhabit them) are not only replacing websites as authoritative sources, they are also taking the place of search engines as a way of finding information. I find this idea misleading and overly simplistic and this is why:

  1. I have observed people asking questions on Twitter and even asked some myself. Crowdsourcing information can be very effective, but the quality of the response depends on the subject of your enquiry and the appropriateness of your network. As with many things social media, I feel virtual and physical networks mirror each other. Tweeting “how do I make spaghetti carbonara?” will have a similar effect to turning around in the office and asking my colleagues. Obviously, going online increases my chances of getting a response, but the quality of the information I receive will always depend on how ‘expert’ my contacts really are. If you haven’t got the experts right, you may end up having to do a lot of filtering or even and worse of all, following incorrect information. It takes a while to develop a good network and, if like me, your job spans across various disciplines, you’ll need to include people from all these areas. Throwing random questions at them is likely to produce a lot of noise, in their direction and mine. For me, searching online for a carbonara recipe or looking at the cookbook on my shelf would be a quicker and more accurate way of finding the information I need.
  2. As an information professional, I feel I should always try and find an answer by my own means. This may just be a personal gripe, but I feel it is lazy to do otherwise. I’m often bemused by people going on Twitter and asking things like “does anybody know any good books on XXX?” Errr… couldn’t you have checked on Amazon? The information is already there. Also, much of the knowledge I need to do my job exists on technical lists, forums and wikis and the best way to find it is to use a search engine. Of course, if that doesn’t work, I would always try and ask those who may know, whether they are local or virtual contacts. However, there again, I would target a particular list or group, to make sure I get an informed response.
  3. Similarly, when I answer a question, particularly online, very often I’ll use a search engine somewhere along the line. I know there is a useful resource out there, but I’m not a walking encyclopaedia. Before I can send you the link I’ll have to Google it or search my Delicious bookmarks or whatever.
  4. Why should information professionals want to replace the search engine? By all means we – as any professional in any other area – should aspire to be experts in our field. That does not mean we have to have all the answers. As I said earlier, most likely we don’t and we’ve just used a search engine to find the link to that resource we were asked about. Search engines, like social networks are tools. What makes information professionals experts is their ability to master these tools and use them to meet the information needs of their users.

This is not meant to be a dig at Phil’s presentation. It was just one of many points he made and, I think the intention was good: to expose the importance of social media and encourage librarians to engage in social networks, even if it means having to sell them to their organisations. I just feel that generalisations like this may be harmful at a time when many people are confused about their role. Social media serve a very important purpose in enabling us to have, enhance and amplify conversations, to connect with likeminded individuals and to reach out to people on the other side of the planet at the click of a button. They transcend social barriers, they give a voice to multiple causes that would otherwise remain hidden. And yes, they are a source of information too, but replacing the search engine? I don’t think we are there yet. However, I would be very interested to see if anyone else has any other thoughts on the matter.



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