social anxiety and social software

For various reasons, I’ve been trying out a few new social networks lately, and I plan, gradually, to add a few more.

This past weekend, I went down to Denver to a wedding. The bride is an old, old friend–we’ve known each other since first grade, though we haven’t been in touch regularly in several years. The only people I knew at the wedding were the bride and her parents. One woman there remembered the column I wrote for an independent weekly newspaper in Iowa City, and a couple of people looked vaguely familiar, like I might have met them around campus in the late ’90s.

I suffer from a certain amount of free-floating anxiety, some of which attaches itself to social situations when it has the chance. One of the reasons I live in such a small and out of the way place is that in a place as small as this one with as many eccentric people as this place has, my own eccentricity and awkwardness don’t stand out very much. Going to a wedding where you have to dress nicely and converse with people about potentially mine-field-laden topics such as What You Do for a Living and the State of Your Social Life is not, therefore, generally my idea of a good time. I put myself in these situations, though, because I don’t want to lose the ability to function in them at all, just as I don’t want to lose completely my knack for driving in the city.

A lot of people have social anxiety of some sort, but lately I’ve been thinking about the ways that sort of anxiety might translate to social software, where you have both friends and “friends,” where you can poke someone but no one will tell you what doing so means, and where, in some cases, people are not who they seem.

When Meredith and Sarah wrote awhile back about their disliking of the rush of “friends” one gets when one joins a new social network, and how that makes it hard to use the network with your actual friends, I saw their point, but then I immediately began to worry. Had I become “friends” with too many people? Were these people adding me back out of obligation or out of interest? When I tried a new site out, was I a librarian trying to learn more about the tools her patron uses, or was I Laura, trying to make more friends, not just more “friends?”

Very few of my actual, non-librarian friends have much of a presence online. There are a smattering of Flickr accounts, and recently there’s been a small rash of Facebook accounts, and there are a couple of blogs. I know of a few LiveJournals and MySpace accounts, but as I’m not on either of those networks (yet), I don’t really keep up with them. Everyone I follow in Twitter is a librarian. Twitter is fabulous that way, as is the LSW Meebo Room–or rather, it’s fabulous if you’re a library person with an interest in the internet. I’m sure to many people–even many librarians–the conversations we have there would sound very much like the biblioblogger sounds to the local branch librarian. If you were hoping to use Twitter to keep up with your college friends, it would be maddening.

Though I didn’t know anyone else at the wedding I went to, I had probably known the bride longer than anyone there other than her family. But she and I haven’t been in touch in a few years, and though I can remember playing with her in the outdoor fireplace at her house in grade school and smuggling rated R movies into the house to watch when we were in high school (and were not, by her parents’ dictate, supposed to be watching such things), I don’t know much about her day to day life in the past few years. On the way down to Denver, I stopped overnight in Laramie and got to meet Kaijsa, and the day after the wedding, Steve Lawson drove up from Colorado Springs and we had lunch. I had never met either of them, but I knew all sorts of things about both of them quite well. I’d seen Kaijsa’s shoes and Steve’s son’s model rockets. In some odd way, I know some of my “imaginary” friends better than some of my oldest “real” friends.

There’s nothing new about the different ways in which we know our new friends verusus our old friends, but there is, perhaps, an added dimension–the ways we know our friends and our “friends,” and how sometimes people morph from one to the other.

My various online presences are currently listed in the sidebar of this blog under “meta laura.” Please feel free to add me as a “friend” or a friend, or both.


My friend says that cross-country skiing is a good sport because it keeps you humble. Every time you start to get too pleased with yourself, you manage to slip and fall down. I can now say the same for usability testing: doing it is an excellent way to remind yourself that you have not created the pinnacle of user interface design. Luckily, I was pretty sure of that to start out with.

Anyway, yesterday I visited the two other branches of the county library to do some usability testing of the new website I’ve been working on. I was about to sit down and put together my findings, but it occurred to me that it might be helpful to someone down the line some day if I wrote a little about the whole process.

The book on usability that everyone recommended to me is Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability by Steve Krug. While under normal circumstances I would be off put by that title (it is, after all, one of my goals to make people think), when it comes to web design, it’s right on. I don’t want people to have to think about how to find the information: I want them to think about the information.

Krug talks a lot about how to design websites and how not to, and at the end of the book he outlines how to do “simple” usability testing. His “simple” involves a separate room, a video camera, several people to run the test, and $50 each for the people who take it. All of that is above and beyond what we can manage here, but Steve Lawson told me they’d done usability testing without the camera and with cookies or something instead of $50–so I figured I could also do it without the separate room and the multiple people. I did get treats for the testers from the Meeteetse Chocolatier.

Since I’d returned the Krug book many months ago, I poked around to see if I could find some more good advice on the web, and I came up with the University of Virginia library’s Web Usability page, which had some good instructions and lots of sample questions used for testing various parts of their websites.

Of course, I did a lot of things wrong: I designed the website, and I wrote the questions and did both the interviewing and observing. These are all big no-nos, but you do what you can, and I think I learned a lot even with this small, highly imperfect system.

I asked the other branch managers to find me two volunteer testers each. I said they didn’t need to be computer experts–just average people who might use the library or the website. I planned for an hour with each person, which I figured was going to be way too much time and was–each tester took perhaps 20-30 minutes total.

We did the tests sitting at one of the public computers in each library. The tester sat at the computer, and I sat a little to the side so I could see the screen. I explained the idea–I would ask them questions or give them little tasks to try to do–and emphasized that the test was a test of the web design, not of them. For each question, I recorded whether they were able to answer it and made some notes about the process they followed to get there. I tried to keep track of how much time they took on each question, but that got too hard to do along with writing comments and watching, so I gave up. Here are some of the results:

I started by asking, “Is the library open on Thursday nights?” Half the respondents saw the library hours in the sidebar right away; the other half clicked on the tab for their branch and scrolled from there. I was glad I’d decided to put the library hours in both places, so things began well, but they went downhill rapidly.

Almost everyone mistook the catalog search box in the sidebar for a search box for the site. If they couldn’t find whatever I had asked them about (how long they could check out a movie; what kind of ID they needed to get a library card; what programs are available for teens), they’d try typing something into the search box. That’s perfectly logical–in most cases, a search box will search the site its on. In this case, though, it searches the library catalog. As you may guess, when you type in “library card id” as a catalog search, you don’t get many helpful results.

A few people figured out they were in the catalog and not in the site when that happened, but most didn’t really distinguish. Almost everyone tried to use the “Go Back” button in the catalog to get back to the website, which of course doesn’t work.

Another result of people thinking that the catalog search was a site search was that when it came to asking them where they’d go to look up a book or a movie, many of them were stuck. They wanted the catalog–many of them even said, “I’m looking for WYLDCAT,” the name of our statewide library catalog. They didn’t see anything that said “WYLDCAT,” or any of the familiar graphics, and they didn’t think of the search box as having anything to do with the catalog. So they went all over the place–they’d try clicking the tab for their library, or clicking on the Books category, or clicking on one of the New Books posts. One of them said, when I asked how they’d find a book, “I’d go to one of those computers,” pointing to the computers reserved for catalog searching.

The question I thought would be the hardest–“Can you look for information about your genealogy?” turned out to be the one everyone got right on the first try. Everyone clicked on the Research tab, and then scrolled (or used the anchor tags) till they got to the genealogy databases.

The other thing that turned out to be really puzzling was the contact form. I meant to get rid of the “website” box before I did the testing, since I figured that would be confusing, but as it turned out, the whole thing was confusing. Many people were just baffled. . . “But how can I put in an e-mail address? I don’t know any e-mail address to send it to?” At the debriefing, after we finished, I explain that it was an e-mail form, and the E-mail box was for their e-mail address. Though some said that making it say “your e-mail address” would help, I got the feeling that the contact form really isn’t the way to go for this project.

So, here are some changes I’m going to make:

  • Add the WYLDCAT logo above the library catalog search box, and revise it to say “Search for books, movies, etc.” or something like that
  • Add a “search this site” search box
  • Redo the contact page and give multiple ways to contact each library: address, telephone number, and at least one e-mail address (There is a generic address for each library, and some e-mail addresses are on the old website. I need to find out who is willing to be contacted and who isn’t. That might have been a smart thing to figure out earlier on, eh?)
  • Put a few more things like phone numbers and important details in bold type
  • Move the information from the Friends and Foundation tabs somewhere else (probably to the sidebar) to make room for an FAQ tab up at the top–though I think I may just call it “Help,” since I’m not sure how many people will translate “FAQ” to “Frequently Asked Questions.”
  • Relabel “Flickr Pictures” to something like “Pictures From Your Library,” and maybe add a note explaining that they’re hosted by Flickr. Flickr as a site was not familiar to anyone, and a few people thought maybe it was connected in some way to the movie question.
  • Get rid of the News Categories bit in the sidebar. It seemed to confuse people to have a tab that said Cody and a link that said “Cody Library.” Unless you’re familiar with blogs, it’s not readily apparent that this is effectively a blog.
  • I’m not totally sure about the whole front-page-as-blog thing. . . I think people may expect something more static. I could make a front page and have the blog in a separate tab–or maybe just have one blog post at the top that stays the same. I haen’t made up my mind yet.

Doing usability testing–even in the small, podunk kind of way that I did it–was hugely helpful. It seems obvious now that people might confuse a catalog search box with a regular search box, but I never would have guessed that on my own. When I’ve made some changes to the website, I may try it out a few more people and do a final tweaking, and then, I think, we’ll be ready to go live.

march, april, and may reading

This was going to be March and April only, but then suddenly it was June. I keep meaning to do these summaries more often, but clearly by “more often” I mean “well, once in a great while.” As usual, an L indicates a book I listened to and an R one I reread. My apologies for the length.

The Melting Season by Celeste Conway–I should really learn that when the reviews of a book are not very good, the book itself is also probably not very good, no matter how good it sounds. I had high hopes for this being a Madeleine L’Engle-ish novel about smart, artistic high school students with problems. It is about smart, artistic high school students with problems, and it’s not bad, but it’s not wonderful, either. But if you’re looking for something to read in that vein, you’ll probably like it well enough.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini–This was, by request, our March book discussion book. It’s a great book discussion book, and it’s a good read, but as a work of literature I found it somewhat disappointing.

Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping by Judith Levine–like Walt, I don’t much like to buy things. That’s part of why I live in Meeteetse, Wyoming, where there is very little to buy. It’s often satisfying to look at other people’s buying habits and feel superior because of your greater frugality. Judith Levine, as you might imagine, does a bit of that in this book that documents how she and her companion tried not to buy anything but food and a few other essentials for a whole year. These year-in-the-life books are a popular genre, I think–I’ve read several in the past few years (The Know-it-All, in which the author tries to read all of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in a year; So Many Books, So Little Time, in which the author documents her reading for a year). Levine can get self-righteous with the best of us, but she makes up for it in passages like this one:

During our year without shopping, Paul and I had extra time, energy, and money to act as citizens. We also felt more personally the need to do so. Self-exiled from the shops and eateries, we had no place to hang out by the olde publick square. There we found much that was rich and surprising, but we also discovered that what our nation owns in common is in critically bad shape. Libraries, schools, and bridges are falling down; in 2004, the voting machines broke down again, all over the place.

I suppose you might find that self-righteous, too, but I think it’s right on.

Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick–I read this as a favor to my grandmother, because she was leading a discussion of it for her novel study group. I was expecting not to like it, because I can’t stand Ozick’s essays, but this novel was wonderful. It has very short chapters and a (mostly) first person narrator, an 18 year old orphan named Rose who goes to work for a crazy German family, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for literary fiction that is both complex and easy to read.

Fallout by Trudy Krisher–another so-so YA novel. This one is full of imagery about hurricanes and fallout shelters and the cold war and how these all relate to high school in the early 1950s. Serious librarians will like it because it has a timeline, with, as I recall, source notes at the end.

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman–I took this book home because I remembered that there was some reason I wanted to read it, but I couldn’t remember what it was. The jacket flap left me unmoved, but I started the book and couldn’t put it down. If you get irked by reading about the psychological problems of wealthy people in New York, I would steer clear.

L Wait Until Midnight by Amanda Quick–I sometimes try to listen to things that are outside my normal reading patterns. I’ll grant you that historical mystery/romance is not very far outside my general reading patterns, but it still felt like a little stretch to me.

Cesar’s Way
by Cesar Millan–Everybody at my library has been reading this. We got the book because the DVD is so popular. Before I became a librarian, I was a dog-walker (and before that I taught college–it’s been an up and down sort of career path–which are the ups and which are the downs I leave for you to decide). Millan’s book both confirmed some things I suspected and taught me a lot of new ones. If you’re at all interested in dogs, check it out.

The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi Julavits–a weird psychological novel about a girl who was either abducted when she was high school or who pretended she had been abducted. A decade or so later, she comes back to her hometown for her mother’s funeral. The story is told in three threads: one is the present day; one is notes from the therapist she was sent to after her abduction (or fake abduction); and one is a series of chapters called “What Might Have Happened,” which sketch out (as you might expect) what might have happened if she had been abducted (or what did happen when she was abducted–if nothing else, talking about this novel will refresh your memory on subjunctives and conditions). The tripartite narrative bogged me down for awhile, but if you stick with it, you get drawn into the complexities and the hints and the details.

The Nature of Jade by Deb Caletti–a YA novel about a girl with anxiety problems who’s a senior in high school and who gets a volunteer job at the zoo working with the elephants. She meets and starts dating a boy a few years older who has a baby (leading to such great lines as “He had a baby. I had a locker.”) Like many YA novels, this one is a bit implausible, but if you’re willing to let that go, there are some wonderful elephant descriptions, and the mystery of the boy with the baby keeps you reading.

Letters from Yellowstone by Diane Smith–This was the last book we discussed at the library this year. I had not read it before, but several people who had wanted to discuss it, so we did. I think six months of book discussion may be about the outer limit (for me, if not for everyone else). The turn out was small, and, possibly because of that and probably because I was unmoved by the book, we didn’t have much of a discussion. The whole book is, as you may imagine, written in letters, and it concerns a character called A.E. Bartram who applies to be part of a botany expedition in Yellowstone at the end of the 19th century. A.E. is accepted, though the rest of the party is somewhat shocked that A. turns out to stand for Amelia–they had not been expecting a woman. The expedition goes forward, with plenty of comic characters, and it’s enjoyable but not a book I loved. I would recommend it to anyone who liked Enchanted April–it has a similar feel, if not a similar topic.

My Latest Grievance by Elinor Lippman–I find Elinor Lippman delightful in perhaps somewhat the same way that those who liked Letters from Yellowstone found it delightful. Her latest novel concerns Fredericka, a faculty brat at a so-so eastern liberal arts college where her parents are both professors and house parents. The story takes place when she’s sixteen, and her father’s first wife arrives on campus to be a housemother at another dorm. Her father is unmoved by her presence, but the college president is not, and the tragi-comedy of manners picks up from there.

R Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris–I read this for the first time several years ago, when I was in graduate school in Iowa, and thought it was good. This time around it was like reading a whole new book. A few years ago, I read Norris’s account of life in Lemmon, South Dakota as an outsider. This time I read it as someone who has been, if not there, then somewhere similar. Meeteetse is smaller than Lemmon but much more connected to the outside world. The nearest town is 32 miles away, but it has an airport. Lemmon is over a hundred miles from one. Much of what Norris says about small towns–the good and the bad–is applicable to almost any small place, particularly those in out of the way corners of the country.

by Laurie Halse Anderson–Since I hated high school, I’m not sure why I’m drawn to reading books about high school, but if the book in question is by Anderson, you can be sure that she will get the horrors of high school exactly right, and perhaps I just appreciate and recognize how dead on she is. She does so again here, although unlike her earlier books, this one is told from the point of view of a male main character. I read it in one sitting. (There’s some rule whereby all the authors I really love write very few books, whereas those I could care less about crank them out like so many pieces of popcorn–if you can crank popcorn–my metaphor is a bit off, I know.)

Without a Map
by Meredith Hall–I read the first part of this memoir when it appeared in an anthology put out by Creative Nonfiction. Hall got pregnant in the mid-1960s, when she was sixteen years old. Her mother sent her away to her father’s house twenty miles away, where he and his wife told her to not to leave the house, at all, ever, lest the neighbors see, and of course she had to give the baby up for adoption. Like NonAnon, I find I don’t want to describe it much more than that, but it’s a fascinating (as well as heart-rending) look at what life was like before legalized abortion and before the kinds of programs designed for teen moms that existed in my town. It would probably be interesting to read this book in conjunction with The Girls Who Went Away (which Rick reviewed), though I haven’t read that book yet. And incidentally, if you just read Rick’s review via RSS, please click through to his site and read the comments. I don’t know how the stories that appear there end, if they have ended, but I hope they do end well.

L Microthrills: True Stories from a Life of Small Highs by Wendy Spero–I started listening to this in February, when I was moving into my house; I finally finished in May. I don’t have a CD player in my car, where I do most of my audiobook listening (largely on trips to and from Cody), but I thought I’d try listening to a CD book at home. It took me a long, long time. (I also tried listening to Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, some of which I’d read in the New Yorker. I love her writing but not her voice.) Anyway, Spero is being pitched as sort of a female David Sedaris, I guess because she’s a humorous essayist with a quirky and ribald style. If you like Sedaris, you might well like her (and her day (er, night) job is doing stand up comedy, so she reads her work quite well).

by Cynthia Lord–One of this year’s Newbery Honor Books. The main character is a girl, I think about twelve, who has a younger brother with autism. The novel is about how she deals with him, loves him, gets exasperated by him, and is embarrassed by him, often in rapid succession, or simultaneously. Lord does a good job of making kids with developmental disabilities seem like a regular part of life (as they are, or should be) without being didactic about it.

The Best Place to Be
by Leslie Dormen–Another novel-in-stories, which seem to be a popular format these days, at least based on the book reviews I read. These stories revolve around a New York City woman from college to her mid-50s, with occasional flashbacks to her childhood. She was a relationship columnist for a women’s magazine, though she herself married late, and now she does freelance work. Other characters are her mother, her series of stepfathers, her best friend from college, and her husband, though as I recall he only shows up in the first story. This being NYC, she also has a therapist on the Upper East Side, though she is mostly referred to, not present. It is, as something I read the other day noted, a book concerned mostly with “first world problems” (or rather “second world”–Europe is the first, the US is the second, others follow in the order in which they “developed”), but it’s well enough written to inspire more admiration than jealousy, at least for me.

L A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray–a YA novel set at a girls’ boarding school in England late in the Victorian era, and involving magic, although most of the action takes place in this world. It’s sort of your basic Dead Poets Society wherein the cool teacher (English in the movie; art here) introduces students to a larger world and ends up being punished for it. Bray’s novel is more about the girls than the teacher, but the underlying premise is still there. Josephine Bailey, the narrator, was quite good.