July 20, 2017

Sometimes You Just Have to Click | From the Bell Tower

Presented with a non-stop flow of content, choosing which links to click can be a tough decision. There’s no time to waste, but what if you miss something that could make all the difference? Can librarians help others make better clicking decisions?

Columnists need to routinely cast a broad net to capture content of all types. One never knows exactly where inspiration will come from, and the hardest decision we all make is deciding whether or not to click on a link. We never know if it will lead to a new idea, a brilliant insight, or nothing at all. For example, I encountered an article in the New York Times that gave me an idea for a blog post. I probably would never have seen this article when it first came out. It appeared in a section where I rarely browse. But on a hunch, I decided to click on a link at the bottom of another article I was reading because it looked interesting. That link took me to an article I decided to ignore. But on that screen, a link to a letter to the editor caught my attention, though why I cannot quite recall. It was that letter that referenced the article that ultimately inspired me to write. Truthfully, what I just described happens in nearly every encounter with the Times. More often than not, little comes out of it beyond some good reading time.

FOMO Always There

When something more does happen, it’s a serendipitous accident. You have to wonder, “What if I’d just ignored that link?” Everything would be different. Something important might be missed. Another, entirely different, thing might be discovered instead. Take that article about Russian companies, long known for notoriously bad customer service, now implementing training to improve it. Should I click? I doubt I’m ever going to Russia, so why should I care? Then again, there might be a takeaway in that article about improving customer service—and I do care about that. I decide to pass, but feel just slightly anxious that I could be missing something. That’s FOMO: fear of missing out. In addition to the challenge of deciding what’s really important to click, we need to fight the temptation to click on that link to this week’s most watched television commercials—and anything else we know is absolutely not worth our time.

Clicking Behavior

It got me wondering about our faculty and students and the ways in which they now conduct research. What make them decide to click on a link? Are they willing to take a chance on making a new discovery, or do time and other constraints keep them from doing so? Does a fast twitch college student exhibit somewhat different clicking behavior? I imagine they, too, have serendipitous accidents like my own. What, if anything, can we do to design systems that would engineer serendipity into the search process? Many library materials lie dormant, waiting for discovery. There may be more we can do to help people have serendipitous accidents with them.

Managing the Endless Flow

Just think about all the possibilities. Links in Facebook status updates. Links in Twitter messages. Links in your RSS feeds and email messages. No one can follow them all. We have to make decisions about how to use our time judiciously in navigating this endless flow of information. These are often split-second decisions: Click or move on. There is little in our experience as academic librarians that qualifies us to know which are the right links to click. Perhaps there are some kinds of advice we could share. All sorts of strategies are suggested to cope with too much information. You know the drill: Be picky. Only choose the information with which you want to interact. Filter out the junk. Abandon any resource with a high noise-to-signal ratio. Take special note of something you see multiple people sharing. Following this advice could help to minimize overload, but we are still left to decide what to examine more closely. Further, if we limit ourselves only to the information we think we should engage with, as the advice suggests, it may cause us to look away from those odd spots where something unique and valuable lies.

Just Go For It

Titles and descriptive notes, when available, can be of some help. With everyone going for the catchy title these days or abbreviating liberally, we have only the slimmest of clues upon which to make our choices. You can follow all the advice that’s out there to cut down the noise and boost the signal, but ultimately one must decide to click or pass. It may be there’s no way to advise on how to do this better because it comes down to intuition, gut instincts, and luck. Perhaps the best strategy is to avoid worrying so much about whether the click gets it right or wrong. That can lead to analysis paralysis. Unable to make up your mind, you just move on. Where I’m headed these days with this little “do I click or move on” dilemma is to just go for it. With the web tools we have today, like Diigo, Evernote, Pocket and others, it’s possible to happily click on anything that seems even remotely of interest, take a few seconds to add metadata, and move on. What seems like a useless source today may be gold a few weeks or months in the future.

Helping Others to Click

Academic librarians devote much energy to helping community members build skills that we hope will enable them to navigate our databases more efficiently, so that their search activity produces more gold and less tin. Even in the most sophisticated of databases, you still need to exert some judgment about when to click. With the right search strategies and revision techniques, the field of possibilities is tailored enough to produce better outcomes. We have all sorts of expert tips and strategies to share. Could we transfer that knowledge to the digital space where students now spend most of their time and the odds of making a great discovery are not in their favor? It may present a new service opportunity: to offer guidance to the tools and optimal ways in which to use them for better handling and management of where our clicks lead to and what to do on arrival. Before that can happen, though, we need greater insight into both the decision process for making the clicks and techniques for improving the quality of those decisions.

If it was just a random click that brought you here, I hope it turned out well.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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