Sharing information effectively

I’ve been having conversations recently about sharing information, specifically the medium used. Not the complex things, like how you frame something differently, but the simple “When do you share a link? Text? A video?”

(We got into this because of the tendency of some people to link a whole bunch of videos without summaries or other content information as part of discussions – it especially happens with some threads of political discussion, but I’ve seen it on other topics, too.)

This lead me to three questions, a principle, and some discussion.

The questions:

1) Are you switching modes?

2) Are you asking for a chunk of someone else’s time, focus, energy, or attention (beyond what would be a reasonable part of the interaction they’re currently in.)

3) What does this add to the conversation in the place you’re already in?

Here’s the principle. Use material outside the space you’re currently talking in as supporting material, not the core of your contribution. Give people a reason to consider taking time for the content.

If you don’t do that, and you browbeat people for not using a different kind of content in the way you want, well, that’s not an honest discussion, is it? People are going to notice that.

1) Are you switching modes?

I started thinking about this because of someone linking to uncontexted videos in a text-based discussion on a site that is set up for longform text discussion.

But it’s also true if you link to a PDF in a text discussion. If you are on Twitter and link a podcast episode. If you’re listening to a podcast episode or the radio and they reference visual materials. In a short-form text format (texts, Twitter, Facebook) linking to a lengthy news story on another site.

All of these are about switching modes. Sometimes, that’s really appropriate and informative. But if it’s handled poorly, it can leave a bad taste in the mouth. Personally, it makes me less likely to take other things someone says seriously.

Here’s the thing. Handling it well is pretty simple.

If you are switching modes, tell people that you are. Give them a brief summary so they can decide when and how they might want to explore that.

Things to include:

  • What’s the format you’re linking to?
  • Why are you dropping it into this conversation?
  • How much content is it? (Especially for video or audio.)
  • What are the key points, if someone can’t watch/listen/read/access it?
  • Any major accessibility notes. (Is it purely an image? Not captioned? Only auto-captioned?)

You don’t need to be extremely precise about these things: a brief summary will be really helpful in the vast majority of cases.

It can also be very helpful to identify a specific part (particularly in a longer work) that is relevant to the conversation or that you’d like to discuss more.

Example summaries

(All examples entirely made up.)

Video link:

There’s a great video that illustrates this perspective. It’s about 20 minutes, from ExampleUser on YouTube. Auto-captioned, but the speaker is facing the camera. The part most relevant here starts at about 10:30, about the purple rabbits.

 

PDF link:

There’s a PDF that goes into this. About 50 pages, but the opening summary is the part I’m interested in, especially the discussion of how they chose people to interview.

 

Images being discussed on a podcast:

You can find the image from our show notes for this episode on our website, but the important parts are the claws, which are about eight inches, and were used for digging burrows.

 

Linking to a long detailed source:

Much more detail at this link – about 20,000 words. The discussion of previous experience is about a third of the way through, and there’s a significant chunk of citations at the end.

 

Referencing a much longer work (a book, in this case)

I got most of this from a really great book, called Finding All The Things, by Named Author. The book’s quite long, but I found it worthwhile and recommend it to anyone who’s really interested in how our current search algorithms got developed.

 

Audio track

Here’s a version of the song (about 6 minutes) via YouTube. Lyrics on the screen.

 

You can see here that these examples are brief, and should be pretty straightforward to explain if you’re familiar with the content you’re sharing. None of them require extensive additional time on your end , but they’re tremendously helpful to people trying to figure out if they should click through or make time for this, and why.

They also help someone continue the conversation even if they can’t take in that piece of material now (or anytime soon).

2) Are you demanding someone’s time?

People have a lot of things going on in their lives. What those are will be different for each person.

You don’t get to decide how they spend their time. (Unless you’re paying them, or have an agreement about that.)

Often when people won’t click through to videos, or point out accessibility issues, they get a “Well, it’s less time than Game of Thrones” (or whatever the current TV of choice is. (Like people who are poor get the “Well, stop buying a daily cup at Starbucks.”)

That’s making a false equation.

I set out what my day looks like when it comes to information consumption in a previous post. Your day probably looks pretty different, but the point is, there’ll be some things that are easier for you or fit more comfortably in your day, and some that don’t.

(Key points if you don’t want to read that post: I read very fast, so I can consume most written content much more quickly than video or audio. I can listen to some podcasts while at work, but my time to watch video content is pretty limited and it competes with a number of other things I want to do like writing or projects.)

Example : me

If I’m watching a video for content, I want to pay attention to it – and my time for that is pretty limited, both by time slot and by attention. My current backlog of “Video I know I’d like to watch but requires more attention than I can usually manage after work” is currently well over 20 hours, and growing.

So, if you link me to a video, it’s competing with that 20 hours (plus all the other things I’d like to do), but if you give me text, I will get through it much faster.

Other people might be quite different. They might find it harder to get through text, and have an easier time with audio (or a longer commute or a job where they could listen more than I do.)

There are some tendencies, though. Video tends to be least accessible. Someone doing a long commute on public transit might have more time, but they might also have data or battery limits. Someone at home with young kids might not want to expose those kids (or themselves!) to random undescribed content from an internet stranger.

There are also accessibility issues to think about – I’ll get to those at the end of this post.

3) What does this add to the conversation?

People having a conversation in a particular place have probably chosen to spend time in that place for a reason – often because the format and kind of conversation suits them for some reason. Even if it’s not ideal for them, if they spend a bunch of time there, they’ve probably figured out how to make it work for their specific preferences.

(Obviously, many of us are somewhat flexible about this: we may use a format that’s not our favourite because someone we really like talking to strongly prefers it, or needs it. There are reasons I’m hanging out on Twitter more than I used to.)

The people in a space are there because they want to have conversations with the other people there. At least spaces that are focused on conversation (rather than one-to-many content or one-upsmanship.)

The more time you’re asking someone to spend, the more that’s important to remember.

Thinking about proportions

If I’m in a text-based discussion, and the comments are a few hundred words each, each comment is going to take me a minute or so to read. (And most comments will be shorter than that…)

If we’re in the middle of that kind of exchange, and you suddenly want me to watch 45 minutes of video, you’re asking me to spend 20 times as many minutes on your comment as I am on every other comment in the conversation.

If you want me to do that, it’s up to you to tell me what’s so compelling and why it’s worth that significant a proportion of time.

The same thing is true if you want me to read a long PDF, or work my way through a complicated flow chart graphic, or read a bunch of interconnected discussions with many links and hundreds or thousands of comments.

Expecting people to spend 45 minutes of their time on the thing you think is important, when it’s off to the side of the main conversation is unrealistic. People might spend 5, but more than that, and they probably want to know why it matters.

Giving a summary, and a “If you want more, here’s where I got more about that” is a good start.

In other words, use the links and other modes of content as supporting evidence, not your only contribution.

Talking in your own words about what a source or approach does for you is ideal – that’s you talking, and they’re in a conversation with you, directly, not with your video (or audio or PDF or whatever) link.

If you just want to monologue, well, that’s a different thing. Monologues are fine things! But don’t blame people for deciding not to be in dialogue with them, and doing something else with their time.

Accessibility

The final piece of this is that not all types of content are equally accessible.

If someone is an ongoing and active user of a particular site, you can probably assume they’ve sorted out ways of using it that work for them (at least well enough.) If they’re not on the other site you link to, though? Maybe it’s not accessible to them.

Someone might be visually impaired, and not able to get anything out of that really gorgeous but badly described infographic or chart. Or that PDF may be so badly organised it will take as long to navigate it as to get a sense of the content.

Someone might have hearing impairments and the thing you linked to has lousy auto-captioning. Even when the captioning’s okay, it takes extra time and energy for them to figure out who’s speaking and to sort out context cues that others can hear (like background noises, music cues, or who’s speaking.)

Someone may find some sites frustrating or impossible to use for design reasons. They may have medical conditions affected by flashing images or lights, and not want to watch videos without someone checking that’s okay. They may have specific experiences that mean they’re strongly affected by some kinds of content, images, or sounds, and watching those things (especially without warning) will mess them up for hours or days.

Someone may have young kids at home or just not care to listen to some kinds of language or content themselves. (Or at least not without some warning and a chance to prepare.)

Someone may have medical issues that make concentration and focus precious things. They may find it much less tiring to process text than audio or video, or short text compared to longform conversations. Switching from one location to another online often changes these things too.

Someone may get most of their online access from work or school (so some sites may be blocked, or some content could get them in trouble). Others may have limited data or technology access, so they can only watch videos in specific places (and need to balance that against other tasks.) Some people may be in a public internet space and not want to click on unknown sites, or be using a network that has filtering.

You probably know these things about your close friends. (I hope so, anyway!) But you probably don’t know many of them about someone in a given online conversation.

Long story short

Pointing people at undescribed content isn’t a good way to get them to engage with your points. If you care about the conversation, give them some content in the context you’re all currently talking, and take a sentence or three to explain what you’re linking to.

It feels weird to explain this, but clearly, it’s a thing a lot of people on the Net haven’t adequately internalised yet.

Transcribing magical texts (and an intro to digital archives)

Image of a large old-fashioned library of dark wood with a high arched ceiling. Text on image reads: "going digital : transcribing archival materials"

Transcribing magical texts

If you’re me, about half a dozen people mentioned an article from Atlas Obscura about a project transcribing magical texts for the Newberry Library in Chicago. (And then most of them followed it up with this being how movie plots get started and/or Buffy the Vampire Slayer references. I find the predictability of my people very reassuring, honestly.)

The project is interesting in itself (and the Esoteric Archives project it links to has a ton of historical materials about magic and related topics.)

But above and beyond the content, I’m always delighted to see interesting catchy articles that talk about the amazing things going on in archives these days.

Bonus tip: Atlas Obscura is a long-running website that highlights quirky or interesting history. They started as a tiny little two person blog back when, but in the past year or so they’ve started doing longer detailed pieces, many of which are fantastic intros to new resources and hidden gems.

A brief pause for a technical note

Here is where I should note that I’m a librarian, not an archivist: there’s overlap between the two, and we share the same professional degree. But the trained archivists I work with have a whole lot of training on topics like preservation, and digitization, and how you label archives materials that I don’t have.

That said, I work really closely with our archivist, and I’m very grateful she exists, because she knows all this important stuff I don’t know. (And she’s glad I exist, because mostly she’d rather work with the materials than answer reference questions, and I consider reference questions the most fun thing ever, even the ones I’ve basically answered a dozen times before.)

Here’s what I didn’t really know before I got my current job two years ago, and started working a lot more closely with an archivist:

  1. There are all sorts of tools for making materials available. Ok, I knew this part. Just not the rest of the details.
  2. Some of them are things you might use as an individual (like Flickr) but there are other tools that make digitizing entire books feasible in a very short period of time, compared to what it used to be (scanning or photographing each page.)
  3. The Internet Archive (and some other places, but many archives use the Internet Archive for a variety of reasons) makes it easy to upload entire books (that we can do this with, so things out of copyright and/or things an institution can give permission to make available.)
  4. For books with print text, they also do optical character recognition on the test, producing a machine-readable and machine-searchable copy of the text. This text isn’t perfect, but it works pretty well for many common uses.

To give you a sense of what this means, my predecessor had a painstakingly indexed list of all student names mentioned in our annual reports. Done by hand, over months, and it only has the students, so finding information about teachers or staff or other kinds of people associated with the school was overwhelming to search.

I can, with about 15 mouseclicks and keystrokes, load a volume of our annual reports, search across multiple years for a given name, and then click to the places where it’s been found. It takes maybe two minutes, depending on how quickly pages load.

Handwriting is hard.

Here’s the thing. Computers are pretty good at figuring out printed text. But they’re really lousy at handwriting. Especially any handwriting that is at all quirky. (Like your average Renaissance manuscript.)

That means that for handwritten manuscripts, you can make the images available fairly easily, but that’s not always a lot of help to researchers – it can be very time consuming to figure out what’s there (and if it’s worth the effort to spend more time on it), and of course, not everyone has the skills to read various forms of handwriting. (The term for this is paleography, and it’s something historians often learn as part of their degree and education.)

Also, some of these people had truly horrendous handwriting for their time period.

(At work we have a 20th century collection that includes handwritten notes from someone associated with a major historical figure whose handwriting has baffled at least half a dozen researchers. We currently have a couple of volunteers who are the world’s experts in deciphering this particular person’s handwriting, and we’re really sure the transcriptions they’re working on are going to reveal new and interesting information people do actually care about. Plus a lot of other random things like what the dogs and garden were up to – we’re mostly not transcribing those.)

Finally, of course, untranscribed or undescribed images aren’t accessible. They’re not available to people with visual impairments, and they can be tremendously hard to access for people with learning differences like dyslexia. Or just plain people who struggle with other people’s handwriting.

Want to transcribe things?

There’s probably a project out there for you. If you don’t want to transcribe these magical manuscripts, check out the Smithsonian Digital Volunteer program (which has people transcribing field notes, manuscripts, and related topics) or the National Archives Citizen Archivist project (documents in the US national archives collections) or there’s a long list from the Folger Library of other projects over here.

What’s particularly cool about this is that you don’t need to be anywhere near the collection, and you can do as much or as little as you like. You usually don’t get to choose your topic, but if you’ve got a particular passion (and can commit a bit of time) try contacting an archive that deals with your topic and asking if they need help. They may not have a snazzy online set up to do it yet, but they might be delighted to send you images and ask for a text transcription.