Hope, Hype, and VoIP: Riding the Library Technology Cycle

July 15, 2010


After the initial hype is past, the real value of an emerging technology unfolds as librarians adopt, test, and learn from it on the ground. By understanding a tool’s practical library affordances and how they are adopted, adapted, and rejected, we can better evaluate its local promise critically, creatively, and with an eye toward sustainability. The long-term adoption cycle of one established tool, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), offers actionable insight into the library innovation process.

Web voice and video are old news: Skype’s international popularity is established, voice and video chat proliferate, embedded webcams are commonplace, and many organizations have made the transition to IP phones in offices and classrooms. The rise of mobile technology has two implications for VoIP: cellular subscriptions continue to outstrip fixed-location options, but mobile VoIP is fast becoming a cost-cutting feature on cellphones and smart mobile devices.

When web calling tools began to emerge several years ago, I took on the de facto role of video reference evangelist. I predicted that applications like Skype could transform how librarians provided public services over the web. I imagined video consultations and kiosks that could increase service point efficiency and humanize virtual reference.

Understanding the hype

Why did I have such high hopes for video reference, arguably among the lowest-impact library applications of VoIP to have emerged in the last few years? A partial answer is that I was caught up in the overzealousness that often accompanies innovation, otherwise known as “hype cycle” thinking. When a new tool catches the eye of trend watchers, it initiates an arc of blog and tweet prognostication that spurs people and organizations to adopt the tool. Some expectations pan out while others don’t, and lessons are learned and (hopefully) shared in the process. This progression from hype to hope to reality is often mirrored in library innovation and technology adoption.

Developed by Gartner Research, the hype cycle (more of a curve, really) describes the rise and fall trajectory shared by many emerging technologies, from Second Life to the iPad. It begins with a technology trigger that creates an upswing of media and user interest leading to a peak of inflated expectations, after which a trough of disillusionment occurs as expectations are not met or the shine simply wears off. This is followed by a gradual slope of enlightenment where more modest assessments are made, culminating in a plateau of productivity as the lasting utility of a tool is determined.

Piloting web voice and video in libraries personally taught me an important lesson about working with technology: snafus are going to occur, and a concept rarely performs to expectations. What matters is how you learn from yourself and others in order to improve your own implementation experience.

Instead of taking a new application and running with it blindly, we can create a layered perspective on how and why it suits our local needs:

  • Utility—First understand a product’s technical foundation.
  • Application—Then, examine how it is hyped, adopted, adapted, and rejected.
  • Insight—Finally, implement with a critical understanding of its capabilities and caveats.

It is this process that transforms the hype cycle into an innovation trajectory. By sharing the knowledge that is gained, we come to understand the importance of context in innovation. Those of us with the flexibility to experiment can contribute hugely to the field by shining a critical light on our efforts and outcomes, positive and (especially) negative. Those of us without flexibility who still manage to pull things off can contribute just as hugely by doing the same.

Char Booth is e-learning librarian at the University of California, Berkeley. She blogs about library futures, instructional design, and technology literacy at info-mational and tweets at @charbooth. This  article was adapted from the July 2010 issue of Library Technology Reports.


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