Language, libraries and ‘The Market’

The central market in Valencia, Spain.

One of the trends in library rhetoric is the increasing use of neoliberal words and terminology. This has been ongoing for some time and, in many ways, is nothing new (indeed, the discussion about it is nothing new). However, it seems to me to be ever more prevalent as growing numbers of people talk about library services (and public services in general) in broadly capitalist terms. We see this through the growth of the use of terms such as ‘customer’, ‘marketing’ and, most recently, in the suggestion that libraries should adopt a ‘market orientation’.

Language is probably not given the importance it deserves. Care needs to be taken with the words we use and how we use them. Words have meaning, but they also come with baggage. It can help engender cultural change within an institution, changing the collective mindset and corrupting the values of an institution.  There are increasing efforts, some might argue, to “roll-out neoliberal logics” within institutions and language is a powerful tool in paving the way for these “logics” to take hold.

But what of neoliberalism? Why should we be concerned about language reflecting neoliberal ideals? Self (Rolling Back the Market: Economic Dogma and Political Choice, 1999) argued that neoliberalism consists of five main dogmas:

  1. The “free market” and market led growth are the principal and most important sources of wealth.
  2. Large incentives are necessary to market efficiency.
  3. The wealth created by free markets will trickle down to benefit all members of society.
  4. The market is intrinsically more efficient than government.
  5. Government should be re-designed according to market methods and incentives to ensure greater efficiency.

Neoliberalism argues that public services are inefficient unless they adopt market strategies to deliver services. Public services should, in effect, adopt a ‘market orientation’. It is by adopting such a strategy that, according to neoliberal dogma, public services will thrive. Not only should we be wary of the strategy, we should also be wary of the terminology that enables it.

Concern about the use and meaning of language is undoubtedly unfashionable. To value language and its meaning is to be too old-fashioned, to hold back progress or to be an infuriating block on progress.  This is a typical characteristic of neoliberal debate – to present the argument as being between two opposing and simple perspectives:

1) The forward-thinking, progressive view.

2) The old fashioned, backwards view.

Such a strategy is well established by neoliberals: neoliberal ideas are painted as progressive, forward-thinking and exciting. Opposition to such ideals (and there will be opposition when espousing neoliberal ideals that are odds with the values of the majority) is somehow a block on progress and somewhat old-fashioned. These old-fashioned perspectives, underpinned by a fear of change, prevent us from making progress. It’s not just about the way they use language, it’s about the way in which they frame the debate.

Language is repeatedly abused by neoliberals to further their goal of turning us from citizens to consumers [pdf]. Our language has become increasingly capitalist, which is perhaps unsurprising when one also considers that we are increasingly living in conditions that could be best described as ‘extreme capitalism’. One does not necessarily cause the other, but it cannot be mere coincidence that our language is increasingly utilised in capitalist terms. Does the shift in language facilitate the growth of the capitalist system, or does the expanding capitalist system influence our language? Is language, in fact, the weapon that enables the rollout of “neoliberal logics”?

In 1961, Raymond Williams pondered the term ‘consumers’ and wondered if we were seen as ‘users’ instead of ‘consumers’:

“…we might look at society very differently, for the concept of use involves general human judgments – we need to know how to use things and what we are using them for… whereas consumption, with its crude hand-to-mouth patterns, tends to cancel these questions, replacing them by the stimulated and controlled absorption of the products of an external and autonomous system”.

Perhaps the changing of our language influences the way we view our society and how it might develop. Maybe using ‘consumers’ (or ‘customers’) instead of ‘users’ sows the seeds of a particular mindset. A mindset that sees society as one filled with consumers rather than citizens, one that enables the establishment of these “neoliberal logics” within institutions.

It is primarily due to concerns about the extent to which language enables the expansion of “neoliberal logics” that I am weary of its growing (mis-)use in libraries. I’m not comfortable with talk about ‘market orientation’ (or ‘marketing’ if I am entirely honest) with respect to public services in general, let alone with specific reference to libraries. Libraries do not exist in a market (although it could be argued that HE libraries operate increasingly within a market environment). Talk of “market orientation” in terms of a public service is, for me, deeply troubling (and I come from the retail sector where such language is obviously deepy ingrained). Not least because one has to question when a market based solution has ever worked for any public institution (clue: never). But also because of what the word actually means.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘market’ as:

Of a manufacturer, advertiser, etc.: to place or establish (a product) on the market; esp. to seek to increase sales of (a product) by means of distribution and promotion strategies. Also (in extended use): to promote the public image of (a person, organization, etc.).

Marketing is:

The action or business of bringing or sending a product or commodity to market; (now chiefly, Business) the action, business, or process of promoting and selling a product, etc., including market research, advertising, and distribution.

Using the terminology of the market simply validates it and encourages its spread, enabling the “neoliberal logic” to take hold. By adopting capitalist language we accept that information is a commodity (a product) that can be promoted and sold (marketed) – in essence “neoliberal logics”. If we accept the logic, do we then accept that our services should be re-designed according to market methods and incentives?

Is it appropriate to frame information as a commodity? And, if it is, how do we square this with our professional ethics? Commodities have prices, it therefore follows that if we treat information as a commodity we accept that it has a price. But if we are concerned with facilitating free access to information, isn’t there a conflict? In a neoliberal, extreme capitalist state the answer is, of course, that there is and that, therefore, the conflict must be resolved in favour of the market (the market trumps all in an extreme capitalist society). We then become marketers and sellers of a product, rather than facilitators of access to a social good. The roll-out of “neoliberal logics” would be complete.

The problem for me is exacerbated by how such terminology is couched. If you oppose such language (as I mentioned above) you are seen as obstructive block to progress, an out of date annoyance. This is how the discussion is often framed: accept market terminology or face marginalisation. The truth is, however, that that particular side of the argument is actually deeply conservative and is, in many respects, the real block on progress. After all, how progressive is it to adopt the terminology and strategies that constitute much of the frameworks of our capitalist society? Surely to reject capitalist norms is to be progressive and forward-thinking? Is a fascination with ‘market orientation’ the actual block on progress? Shouldn’t resistance to “neoliberal logics” be respected in a professional context, rather than rejected out of hand as obstructive? Such resistance is, after all, entirely in tune with our professional ethics.

The adoption of capitalist language and strategies lacks imagination. It’s easy to reach for a solution readily available from there, even when such solutions have had limited success over there.  It seems much harder to come up with a strategy that is substantially different. It takes time and effort to construct something new. We can do much better, we can construct something imaginative and distinct. We do not have to adopt capitalist, neoliberal norms because that’s the path others have followed. We have the skills and the capabilities. It’s no good being fearful and negative, believing that we can do no better than what is done there. We have to believe that we can construct something better.

And this is where the debate often leaves me filled with despair – it prevents us from constructing something new, from using our imagination to construct something better. If you dare to criticise the rollout of “neoliberal logics”, your argument is nullified at source, prevented from being explored in any meaningful sense. There are alternatives, there should not be one dominant voice in the debate, all avenues should be explored and critiques should be a launching pad for further discussion not seen as a threat. However, neoliberals and arch-capitalists frequently frame the debate in such terms so as to close down the opportunity to explore alternatives – leaving us in the state we are in now where we have seen continual ‘progress’ towards an extremist capitalist state.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We do not have to be fearful of the alternatives. We do not have to accept that by rejecting capitalist rhetoric we are, in some way, holding back progress. We do not need to enable “neoliberal logics” to take hold within our services. Fear may prevent us from taking action, from challenging existing norms to create something distinct. But we shouldn’t be fearful of rejecting these norms and creating something new. We have it within ourselves to build an alternative, we just need to be fearless, collaborative and patient.

The problem with Twitter becoming a little less Piccadilly Circus…

Messages delivered by third parties for payment on social media raises a number of ethical concerns, for information professionals and society in general.
(Image c/o Joe Price on Flickr.)

One of the things I have become increasingly interested in (and wary of) is the use of social media, in particular Twitter, for either personal financial gain (via a corporate sponsor), or to push certain agendas. Of course, this sort of thing has been pretty much part of the Twitter landscape for some time now (this article on the phenomenon dates from 2011), but either this trend has increased, or I am noticing it far more than I used to. A couple of incidents recently have raised my interest in the area to such an extent that I felt I simply must write a blog post on it (one incident alone isn’t enough to pad out a post, I need two different examples at least to prompt me to sit here and start bashing out a series of letters and symbols).

The first was the news that the Israeli government are offering grants to students if they tweet ‘pro-Israeli propaganda’. According to The Independent:

In a campaign to improve its image abroad, the Israeli government plans to provide scholarships to hundreds of students at its seven universities in exchange for their making pro-Israel Facebook posts and tweets to foreign audiences.

The students making the posts will not reveal online that they are funded by the Israeli government, according to correspondence about the plan revealed in th

This troubles me greatly and, I think, it’s part of a growing trend of using Twitter as a means of covertly pushing propaganda (or misinformation) out into the public domain. Without an awareness of the funding aspect, such tweets not only undermines everything that individual tweeters tweet, but also Twitter itself. Suddenly, everything becomes suspect. Who else is pushing out tweets with an agenda, trying to covertly influence public opinion? If we are not aware that an individual has been sponsored by either state or corporate actors, how can we properly evaluate what they are saying?

I was reminded of this story recently when this tweet popped up in my timeline. Whilst a reasonable comment on the iPhone, a bit of digging into the tweet author raises some questions. A quick check of his bio indicates that the aforementioned tweeter works for Telefonica. A further search on Google revealed this story:

Telefonica, one of the world’s largest carriers, has signed a deal with Microsoft to promote far more heavily the software giant’s Windows Phone 8 operating system and devices running it.

The carrier said in a statement on Wednesday that over the next year, it will enhance its marketing efforts for Windows Phone 8 and Windows Phone 8 devices. The company will focus those marketing efforts in several of its major markets, including the U.K., Germany, Spain, and Brazil.

Telefonica said that its move is designed to enhance competition in the marketplace. The company said Wednesday it wants to “encourage the presence of additional mobile operating platforms as an alternative to the current duopoly of Android and iOS, and provide customers with a more personal smartphone experience like Windows Phone offers.”

[Yes, that is a terribly written article, see other sources here and here.]

I’m not suggesting that the author is posting tweets as part of some grand corporate strategy, that would be a little far-fetched, but one wonders to what extent corporations actually deploy such tactics. After all, if nation states are using the technology to engage in more subtle promotion, you can be sure corporations are and have been doing so for some time (when have you known the public sector be one step ahead of the private sector?). Stealth marketing is, of course, a well-established concept and Twitter (and social media in general) makes it much easier to push out promotional materials from seemingly independent accounts. How can we be sure whether @X is tweeting about a product or service because they value it, or because they are being paid to be seen to value it?

Of course, marketing people love social media, particularly tools such as Twitter. Here is a service which enables a corporate entity to interact directly with both customers and potential customers. That’s a powerful weapon for any business or service. But, of course, utilising it effectively requires care and subtlety. It’s no good being the virtual equivalent of Piccadilly Circus, blazing loud messages out into the ether whilst thousands of people walk past or chatter away oblivious to the messages being pumped out around them. Sure, you’ll pick up a few along the way (who may well then broadcast your message to their audience), but to a significant number you will become background noise and a more sophisticated approach is warranted (besides, no marketing strategy should focus purely on one tactic). Most people do not want their feeds cluttered with corporate messages, they want such messages to be as unobtrusive as possible. Which is why, for those wishing to push out a certain agenda, alternative methods to push out such messages are sought. If it means paying a third-party (a willing customer, a celebrity or an employee) to push those messages out for you, then so be it. As long as the message does not come direct from source. The more removed the message, the more effective it becomes.

However, once the message does become removed from source, certain ethical questions are raised. Individuals are no longer providing ‘personal opinions’, they are providing opinions for money. Once opinions are provided in this way, it then devalues the entire output of that individual. How many other ‘opinions’ have been formed as a result of payment? Can anything they say be taken at face value? Once it is clear that your opinions can be bought, your output becomes valueless.  As Bill Hicks once argued, if you do a commercial, “everything you say is suspect” (I’ll let you look up the rest of that quote…).

It’s difficult to know, however, how this can be tackled. In part it’s just a case of being aware that there might be a particular agenda at play, but then you also don’t want to view with suspicion every single thing that is tweeted by someone referencing either a service or product. Some people may be genuinely endorsing a product or service without financial gain, I see little problem with that. However, when there is a financial incentive behind the tweets that are being posted it clearly becomes problematic. Not only does this kind of tweeting raise questions for the online community in general, it particularly raises a number of issues for librarians and information professionals.

First, it makes it difficult to evaluate published materials. With a lack of transparency about the motives and agendas behind a series of tweets, it is hard to determine whether tweets are genuine opinions and beliefs, or merely the opinions and beliefs of a corporate (or state) sponsor. Taking the example of the accounts to be sponsored by the Israeli government, how will it even be possible to determine whether published opinions are actually those of the Tweeter in question, or whether they are opinions given for financial reward? It could possibly be determined, but it would take a lot of work, far more work than the average Twitter user has to investigate the authenticity of a tweet or tweets. And who is really going to take the time to find out whether X’s comments about the state of Israeli society are an accurate reflection of the reality? I’d be surprised if anyone does.

But it also raises questions about our own ethical principles. How would we square tweeting for financial reward given our professional ethics? It’s not acceptable for anyone, in my view, to sell their opinions in this way, but is it even more problematic if you are a library and information professional? If you clearly state you are such, is there an expectation by the general public that you will hold the highest ethical principles at all times, no matter how unfeasible that might be? When people see ‘librarian’ or ‘information professional’ do they see ‘disseminator of impartial information’? Is it unreasonable if they do? Can any professional truly be held to the highest ethical standards at all times? Likewise, would it be acceptable for operators of an official library account to offer rewards to those who post positive tweets about the service?

But as well as raising questions about our approach to social media, it also raises questions about how and whether we as a profession can tackle the problem. Is there actually anything that we can or should do? What, if anything, can actually be done about covert sponsored social media statements by anyone? Is it about awareness and validating everything everyone tweets or posts? That would surely be too time-consuming and needlessly paranoid/cynical? We don’t want to get drawn into a habit of being sceptical about the motives behind every single thing that people tweet or post. Perhaps all that we can do is to be aware of the problem and to try, wherever possible, to lead by example. For if our opinions and beliefs can be bought, compromising our professional, ethical principles in the dissemination of information, who is left for anyone to trust?

Designing a better library experience

A few weeks back I was asked by a CPD25 Task Group member if I would be willing to talk about the use of social media as a tool for engaging with students and obtaining feedback, primarily as a result of this blog post I wrote a while back.  The presentation would be one of four looking at how universities and libraries can obtain feedback from students. Other presentations included a representative from Anglia Ruskin talking about their ‘Tell Us’ scheme, Jo Aitkins from the award winning University of Leicester and Niru Williams (University of East London) on the International Student Barometer (I’ll try to write all of these up at some point).

My presentation was split into three main parts:

  • definining the current HE environment
  • how social media can assist in the challenges this new environment brings
  • our experiences of using social media at Christ Church.


The final slide contains a list of references made throughout the presentation which hopefully will be of interest.  That said, if you would like to see the script, do feel free to drop me a line.  One article that isn’t listed but influenced the title of the presentation and reinforced some of my beliefs, was “Students tweet the darndest things about your library – and why you need to listen” [PDF] by Steven Bell of Temple University, Philadelphia. It was this article that led to the discovery of some interesting stats related to Twitter use that are quoted in the presentation and I agree wholeheartedly with his concluding paragraph.

Finally, my presentation touched on some theories around ‘relationship marketing’, indeed they provided the foundation for much of the presentation.  If you are interested in this area, I’d really recommend Service Management and Marketing by Christian Grönroos.  I used it quite heavily when completing the marketing module on the MSc and I think it has some interesting ideas.  That said, ‘marketing’ is a controversial term in LibraryLand, and rightly so.  Some of the terminology associated with it is, I think, inappropriate for public sector institutions.  Some of the ideas are sound, but certain aspects are not a comfortable fit.

To that end, I came across a fascinating article a couple of days ago exploring this particular area.  Marketing and Public Sector Management [PDF] by Kieron Walsh may have been written back in 1994, but I think it is one of the most intelligent articles on ‘marketing’ in the public sector that I have come across.  I’ve always been taught never to end a piece of writing with a quote, but I think this is an appropriate point to end on:

Marketing is a dangerous language for the public service to begin to speak, because the way that we think is influenced by the language that we use. However ill-defined the public service ethic may be, we do need to distinguish between the values that guide the public and private sectors. It is already apparent that the language of commercialism fits ill with that of service…If marketing is to be developed for the public realm, then it will need to develop a language that is defined by the specific character of that realm, not negatively, by contrast with the private sector.

Why you should learn to stop worrying about your brand

A caveat to start off with. One of my favourite books is No Logo by Naomi Klein. Broadly speaking, I take up positions that could best be described as anti-capitalist. Therefore, as you can imagine, I don’t have much time for marketing or marketing speak.  I guess my view of marketing are best articulated here.  Now that caveat is out-of-the-way, I shall plunge straight into explaining my views on the whole “branding” phenomenon, something that appears to be very much (still) the “hot topic” in library land.

I do not like the idea of “personal branding”.  The term itself is incredibly difficult for me to even contemplate putting to paper (or screen).  I find it a deeply reductionist term. Products are branded, human beings are not.  Turning an individual into a brand simply, to my mind, reduces them to the status of a product or commodity, commodities such as Coca-Cola for example. Coca-Cola is a well-known brand.  It’s been around for over a century and is known across the globe.  It is also (bar the odd ingredient change) broadly speaking unchanged.  The drink itself, the way it has been packaged, very little about it has changed over the years.  It is a constant, unchanging brand.

Now think about yourself as an individual.  You are not a constant.  You change from day-to-day.  The person you are today isn’t the person you were ten, five, even one year ago.  People are complex, they cannot be reduced to one, unifying brand image.  Besides, who would want to be?  Conforming to a particular brand image is dehumanising.  Dehumanising because it is not a natural state for a human being to adopt, for the reasons I have already given.  It is simply not natural to try and adapt your behaviour to conform to an image you wish to project at all times.  Whilst turning oneself into a brand is problematic there is, however, a bigger issue for me around the idea of personal branding.

My biggest concern is that a focus on a “personal brand” can actually do substantial damage to the profession in which such a strategy is employed.  Actions taken by an individual to enhance their brand can, as a side-effect, have a detrimental impact upon the broader profession (emphasis on ‘can‘).  Take, for example, being a vociferous campaigner for public libraries.  You may often say things that are in conflict with superiors within your profession, your peers or the professional body itself.  As a result, you may be seen as nothing more than a trouble-maker, an antagonist causing problems.  This, therefore, would become yourbrand.  Now, is this a brand image that you would want to cultivate?  An antagonistic trouble-maker?  Probably not.  Who wants to be viewed by others as nothing more than a trouble-maker?  But whilst this “brand” can be seen as damaging to the individual, it can be a good thing for the profession as a whole.  It may not become apparent in the immediate short-term, but over a longer period of time that individual’s actions can have a very beneficial impact upon the profession.  Dissenters and trouble-makers can, after all, be “an organisation’s most valuable asset.”

On the other hand, someone who plugs away and focuses on creating a “positive brand image” which reflects well upon themselves, may create a positive image of themselves amongst their peers, yet will not have a significant impact upon the broader profession because they are unprepared to damage their own “personal brand”.  So focused have they become on creating a positive brand image of themselves, they have been unwilling to upset this image by taking positions that may be unpopular with peers or superiors but will result in long-term benefits. It is, in my opinion, a short-term strategy that will yield some benefits but will have a negligible impact upon the long term future for the profession.

In my view, if you allow yourself to get too sucked in by “what makes you look good” you are in danger of forgetting about what will help the profession overall.  I think of it as a little like neo-liberal Conservative policy over the past thirty years – an ideology focused on what benefits me, rather than what benefits society. Sometimes the things that benefit the “society” (ie the profession) do not benefit you directly as an individual.  Consequently, you may take actions that benefit yourself (your “brand”) rather than “society” as a whole.  Once you get into that mode of thinking as an individual it is hugely damaging, but when you engage in a process of groupthink where everyone acts in that way, you risk damaging the entire profession.

For example, take strike action.  Strikes may reflect badly on the group that is taking the strike action.  In fact, in this country, it is almost invariably the case that it will reflect badly on those taking such action (have you ever encountered positive reporting from the perspective of those on strike?).  However, it is very often the case that the things they are seeking to defend that has led to them taking action will benefit all of us.  The recent petrol tanker situation being a case in point.  Drivers were prepared to strike due to their concerns regarding (amongst other factors admittedly) health and safety.  Whilst the strike action itself had a negative impact on their “brand image”, a successful action leading to a stricter health and safety policy would benefit all of us (we don’t want truck drivers delivering a substance like petrol without adhering to certain health and safety standards obviously).  Short term impact: negative “brand image”. Long term impact: safe transportation on public highways of a highly flammable liquid.

Of course, I am probably mis-reading the whole “personal branding” phenomenon, seeing it purely through the eyes of an anti-capitalist who has no interest in “brands” and marketing, I am sure someone will tell me as much.  However, this is about my perception of personal branding as a strategy.  And my perception is that it is certainly not a good thing.  Personally speaking, I think we would do well as a profession to stop indulging in continuous self-analysis of how we are viewed by those outside the profession.  It does us no favours whatsoever.  The best way to deal with the concerns that this strategy seeks to address is to demonstrate our relevance.  It is through demonstrating our relevance that we will seek to address the concerns that have been thrown around the profession over the past few years (possibly since the year dot).  Not, I’m sorry to say, navel-gazing or a focus on our “personal brand”.

I couldn’t find the time to squeeze them in here, but I would also recommend reading thiswhich I agree with very much (as you can tell) and a post by Lauren here which also sums up my feelings. In fact, I should probably have just posted those two links and not bothered writing this post at all.