The web’s development has had an enormous and growing influence on the way information, advice and guidance (IAG) services are delivered. Recently, I’ve been doing some thinking about how IAG services for young people have developed on the web.
The definition of what constitutes IAG precisely is a controversial topic- and not something I want to dive into very deeply with this post. In terms of scope I’m applying this thinking to both careers and non-careers IAG services, as well as rights-based (legal, housing, benefits, etc.) and non-rights based services (health, relationships, emotional wellbeing, etc).
The following is heavily influenced by my experience working on TheSite.org with charity YouthNet providing online information to 16-25 year olds across a range of different issues. To clarify, this post is written in a personal capacity and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of YouthNet.
The issue or the person?
Broadly, online IAG services have developed along two different routes.
Initially, the way information services were delivered online tended to begin with the issues the services sought to address and that the services’ users were perceived to face. Subsequently as the social web took hold, information services were developed that thrust the personal context of service users to the forefront of service delivery.
This legacy of web evolution means the online information services can often be separated into those that focus on a specific issue and those that focus on the personal context of the service user.
Here’s a simple illustration of the distinction outlined above. An online resource such as a catalogue of factsheets is typically written to address specific issues faced by service users (based on a generic understanding of their personal circumstances). An online discussion forum meanwhile is a resource that privileges the personal context of service users (it makes the specific personal circumstances of specific service users the starting point to delivering its IAG services).
Beginning of web info services
In the beginning, IAG services were delivered in a Web 1.0 world. IAG providers were excited by the storage potential and search capabilities of the web. Gradually all kinds of previously paper-based information was put online, followed by the creation of new content specifically made to fit the web.
Text-based resources typically categorized by issue, followed earlier delivery models developed by libraries and other offline information providers. It was the potential to create huge, seemingly unlimited information resources rich in textual content that excited us. In the world where keyword search was king, information developed around the issues the providers saw as key.
In the case of TheSite.org, from 1998, articles and factsheets were developed editorially that tackled the issues that affected young people. Categories included: “Advice”, “Drugs & Alcohol”, “Education” and so it went in alphabetical order. In addition, sources of support and further information like helplines and organisations were categorised by issue in an effort to render the information accessible to service users.
All kinds of IAG providers discovered they could store and publish this written information relatively cheaply. They could make access to this kind of text-based information (stored on static pages) available on demand, usually for free.
Web technology could begin to automate areas of information provision simply by uploading HTML and thereby hooking into the growing power of search engines. Offline databases could be made available online.
In YouthNet’s case, it meant that it could provide access to information around the clock to millions of young people who had previously been much, much harder to reach. The database of local services, originally called “The Information”, later became Local Advice Finder.
At the dawn of the web this was an information world sorted and ordered predominantly by issue. As a result though this was information delivered on a machine scale, not a human scale. It was an issue-centric approach, which led to systems that tended to be designed assuming service users already understood or could break up their problems into specific issues.
This was a service optimised for those who weren’t in crisis, and could access the information they needed by browsing issues that interested them. For those in crisis, they had to make do with links to resources where they could get the support (often delivered offline) they needed.
This Web 1.0 phase was a world dominated by information that was delivered primarily as objective and factual content, rather than as discursive or speculative material. Content that was more subjective was often seen more as entertaining than informative.
Happily serving information via hosted data sitting on servers came with a funding model of sorts: how people accessed information provided on static pages came with a bunch of new metrics. Page views, unique browsers, bounce rate, SQL queries and so on.
Unhappily, it presented particular challenges. For example, it often separated information provider from information seeker. While we knew when users found the information we offered online (such as with page views), we didn’t often know what they thought of it or the impact it had on them.
Fortunately, another web revolution was just round the corner.
Issues now bound in personal context
Web 2.0 ushered in a new era in online IAG. The web had officially become a social space. It was no longer simply about service users searching for issue-specific content. Information providers began to understand the value of connecting information seekers to their peers. The social web meant that instead of searching for content, you could now search for people affected by the same issues as you.
At a stroke, information provision became as much about information, as it did about support. Issues came to be understood in the specific personal context of those that presented them. This led to a growth in the demand for support services for those presenting with these issues, even before issues could be identified and information on possible options provided.
IAG online had gone beyond simply encouraging service users to read rather rational expositions of issues. IAG providers began to understand the value of facilitating the expression of feelings. These emotions emanated from issues rooted in the lives of the people who chose to connect with such IAG services in a radically new and interactive manner.
Encouraged by the anonymity and connectivity of the web, peers discussed their lives on discussion boards in strikingly personal and intimate ways. Issues were no longer assumed to exist. They could now be discerned through this new person-to-person dialogue mediated by the web.
It’s interesting that looking back, how soon in TheSite.org’s development the paths had been laid down between the issue-specific content from 1998, and the coming of personal context with the discussion boards in 2000.
Issues understood in a personal context
If online IAG services are ultimately all about building links between identified issues on the one hand, and how these issues may play out in the context of people’s personal lives on the other, then an interesting case-in-point is TheSite.org’s service askTheSite.
It’s a service set up to allow young people to pose questions on a range of topic areas to trained advisors in confidence. It’s a service that encourages users to set out the issues they face privately and confidentially, with as much personal context as they want to include. At the same time, it has led to the development of generic content based on the specific issues presented by specific users (editorialised Q&As are based on real questions received on askTheSite are published on a public archive on TheSite.org with the user’s consent).
In fact, with a bit of rough and ready analysis, it’s apparent that askTheSite is an information service that seems to sit somewhere between these two distinct strands of online IAG.
These two different approaches can be seen in the different ways young people ask questions on askTheSite. Often most users of the askTheSite service seem to articulate their question in terms that clearly and explicitly identify issues they are looking to resolve. Or instead, many users submit questions that talk about their life, rich in personal context, but in words that often leave the issues unsaid and implicit in what they say.
Issue-specific: My problem is this, can you help?
Personal context: My life feels like this, can you help?
Too be clear, this shift in focus can be seen within services too as well as by comparing one service against another. For example, on TheSite.org articles can be issue-specific (such as factsheets), but they can also put the personal context first (through blogs, opinion pieces or diaries). Another example are group chat sessions, which are often focused on the people participating, unless an expert is invited and a topic or theme is selected for the chat session. In these cases, the information service puts the emphasis on the issue selected.
Funding and impact
One of the legacies of this development of information services on the web is the challenge of developing funding models. The majority of funders tie funding to specific issues, making it difficult to balance such funding with an overall holistic approach to offering information. In a technical sense, the web favours a holistic approach by creating value providing information services across a range of issues, and not in isolation.
On the other hand, many funders are also very interested in the personal context of their beneficiaries. Many make funding dependent on reaching specific niche groups of people. However, this can conflict with the demands of providing information as a universal offer (open to all). Again, the strength of the web is that it opens up access to information and can make universal offerings more straightforward than targeting services at specific niche groups.
On top of this, whether this starting point is the issue or the person can point towards the kinds of impact that different information services can have.
Issue-specific resources, often automated, can reach broad audiences Yet often this contact with the user is short in duration.
In contrast, support services focused on supporting the person tend to be narrower as they can’t be automated by the web to account for all the personal contexts that might conceivably by relevant with any given service user. However, the length of the intervention of these personal information services is often longer lasting because of the personal connections it facilitates.