Giving a Tour

April 20th, 2009

You know how your familiar haunts look different when you’re showing them to out-of-town guests? How Penn Station or Grand Central or a subway junction like the one at Columbus Circle or Union Square suddenly seems much more complicated when you see it through an out-of-towner’s eyes? That’s sort of the way I felt when I was showing the CUNY Academic Commons to those assembled at the Office of Academic Affairs meeting last Friday. (This was an OAA Senior Staff meeting — people reporting directly to Executive Vice Chancellor Logue.)

This is not to say that people weren’t receptive. On the contrary, they were very complimentary. I heard heartening comments like “This is just what this university needs.” And Matt Gold and I had gone over the best things to show beforehand. I even had a few soundbites like “This is sort of like a Facebook for academics.”

You probably winced a bit at that (I know I do), but what I was trying to get at, and followed up explicitly with, was some sense of the value we are placing, not just on social interaction, but on serendipity. We want that sense of happy discovery: I didn’t know there was a group on THIS, or I didn’t know So-and-so was interested in THAT, or I didn’t know another campus was also doing work on THE OTHER THING. I’m a fan of StumbleUpon, and I want the stumble-upon effect of hitting on just the thing even though it was a thing you didn’t know you were looking for: in our case, the chance meeting with someone whose interest you share, the epiphany that that you’ve chanced upon a section of the wiki you can and should contribute to, that sort of thing. That’s hard to convey in a guided tour — not that I didn’t try

But seeing this with others’ eyes, imagining what it would be like to enter for the first time, also made me aware that an emphasis on social networking and serendipity, on what you might stumble upon, might just lead to stumbling, even fear of falling. (I guess I was especially aware, in a roomful of university deans, of what a prospective user might think who doesn’t have a lot of time, who doesn’t want too much [or even any] social implication.) What do we do for the new users who come with specific needs or the out-of-towners whose biggest concern is not getting lost?

I should say that I think the answer doesn’t lie in design — at least not entirely. A system can only be so navigable; a home page, only so informative. But it occurs to me that the reference to train or subway stations might be more apt than I had thought at first. How about something like an information booth? In addition to help documentation, site maps, and the like (and it would be great to have that), how about a prominent feature of the Commons that asks the new user or out-of-towner if they’re looking for something, if they need help. (I’m not thinking of the “contact us” feature with an anonymous e-mail address.) What if, for instance, we had something people could post that would immediately be sent to members who are  online and/or relayed by RSS feed to those who aren’t? If we could make the digital equivalent of sitting in a Welcome Booth or Information Desk fully collaborative,  the lift for the individual member wouldn’t be that great, and the responses could be almost synchronous even if they were asynchronous.

Someone could even get back to me right away with the suggestion that there’s a place for suggestions for the Commons, and it’s really not the proper province of blogs….

  1. Joe Rosenberg Says:

    I like the idea of an information booth that gets pushed out to members. I am doing a very short presentation to my faculty about the commons and I wanted to get the thoughts of others on the committee, but wasn’t sure of the best vehicle for doing that. I did not think it worthy of a blog unto itself–although maybe it is–so a resource that would bump me in the right direction would be helpful. More to the point, although the serendipity aspect is important and attractive, I know that my colleagues at the law school are also (maybe primarily, but perhaps not) interested in how the Commons might help them extend their own professional interests. And I have some ideas about that, which I will try to bring into the short conversation at our meeting tomorrow.


  2. Karen Greenberg Says:

    Thanks for confirming many of the things Joe and I have been discussing. And your suggestions are (as always) terrific. Many echo Matt’s requests for features that he wanted the Tech Fellows to create, and on which they’re beginning to develop now that they and I have added basic “content” to the Wiki.

    One of my ideas for making the site more accessible and easier to navigate was the revised Wiki home page that I showed you (that’s now at

    If you’d like me to create an Information Desk and “woman” it, just say the word. (As you know, I’ve been working daily on this site–and enjoying every minute of it–so if there are any Sloan funds left, I would love to create multiple Information Desks, Guideposts, and Helps; develop and facilitate a network of Tour Guides for out-of-towners; create and try out procedures for dealing with newcomers’ questions that would result in a relevant guidebook;, and use visitors’ responses to make changes that would make the more accessible.

  3. Luke Says:


    This is an important question: how to make the Commons as usable as possible to a broad audience while still maintaining the joy of discovery that evolves from an organic and dynamic space. One small solution, which could also help populate the information booth, might be to explore sitewide tagging… essentially using WPMu to aggregate alike posts.

    Matt may have already installed that plugin, but I think that its presence (along with the informed use of tags by those who author on the Commons) could go along way towards making the content of the site more easily accessible and portable (feeds can be generated from tags or a combination of tags). Once you get the content flowing, you can easily create multiple, flexible paths into the site.

  4. Matt Says:

    Great point, Luke — you’re exactly right. One of the big items on our to-do lists is to redesign the home page of the site so to allow it to take better advantage of feeds. Sitewide Tags — a plugin I hadn’t installed, but will now — is a perfect example of what we need to add. Thanks very much for pointing it out.

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