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Cloud Street



Information, community and the work of making sense; knowledge as an emergent property of conversation; and various other interesting things that I'm working on, have worked on or would like to work on.



Updated: 2012-04-12T23:12:20.778+01:00

 



Strange clothes of sand

2007-03-28T23:34:56.441+01:00

There hasn't been a lot here lately; there hasn't been a huge amount on my home weblog Actually Existing either, and quite a lot of what I have posted there has been tagged as work-related. So this will be the last post here; I'm merging my weblogs and taking the opportunity to leave Google and go to Wordpress. I'll see you at The Gaping Silence. (True to the name, there's nothing much there now, but I'll put some new stuff up one of these days.)



Great big bodies

2007-02-12T11:47:20.940+00:00

I think the thing that really irritates me about the Long Tail is just how basic the statistical techniques underlying it are. If you've got all that data, why on earth wouldn't you do something more interesting and more informative with it? It's really not hard. (In fact it's so easy that I can't help feeling the Long Tail image must have some other appeal - but more on that later.)As you may have noticed, this weblog hasn't been updated for a while. In fact, when I compared it with the rest of my RSS feed I found it was a bit of an outlier:The Y axis is 'number of blogs': two updated today (zero days ago), 11 in the previous 10 days, 1 in the 10-day period before that, and so on until you get to the 71-80 column. Note that each column is a range of values, and that the columns are touching; technically this is a histogram rather than a bar chart.You can do something similar with 'posts in last 100 days':This shows that the really heavy posters are in the minority in this sample; twelve out of the eighteen have 30 or fewer posts in the last 100 days.So it looks as if I'm reading a lot of reasonably regular but fairly light bloggers, and a few frequent fliers. If you put the two series together you can see the two groups reflected in the way the sample smears out along the X and Y axes without much in the middle:My question is this. If you can produce readable and informative charts like this quickly and easily (and I assure you that you can - we're talking an hour from start to finish, and most of that went on counting the posts), what on earth would make you prefer this:or this:I can only think of two reasons. One is that it looks kind of like a power law distribution, and that's a cool idea. Except that it isn't a power law distribution, or any kind of distribution - it's a list ranked in descending order, and, er, that's it. The same criticism applies, obviously, to the classic 'power law' graphic ranking weblogs in descending order of inbound links.DIGRESSIONYou can compute a distribution of inbound links across weblogs using very much the techniques I've used here - so many weblogs with one link, so many with two and so forth. Oddly enough, what you end up with then is a curve which falls sharply then tapers off - there are far fewer weblogs with two links than with only one, but not so much of a difference between the '20 links' and '21 links' categories. However, even that isn't a power law distribution, for reasons explained here and here (reasons which, for the non-mathematician, can be summed up as 'a power law distribution means something specific, and this isn't it').END DIGRESSIONThe other reason - and, I suspect, the main reason - is that the Long Tail privileges ranking: the question it suggests isn't how many of which are doing what? but who's first?. A histogram might give more information, but it wouldn't tell me who's up there in the big head, or how far down the tail I am.People want to be on top; failing that, they want to fantasise about being on top and identify with whoever's up there now. Not everyone, but a lot of people. The popularity of the Long Tail image has a lot in common with the popularity of celebrity gossip magazines.[...]



They don't know about us

2006-11-23T15:08:14.646+00:00

Some dystopian thoughts on data harvesting, usage tracking, recommendation engines and consumer self-expression. First, here's Tom, then me: "This is going to be one of the great benefits of ambient/pervasive computing or everyware - not the tracking of objects but the tracking and collating of you yourself through objects."This sentence works just as well with the word 'benefits' replaced by 'threats'. It all depends who gets to do the tracking and collating, I suppose.Now here's Max Levchin, formerly of Paypal, and his new toy Slide (via Thomas):If Slide is at all familiar, it's as a knockoff of Flickr, the photo-sharing site. Users upload photos, which are displayed on a running ticker or Slide Show, and subscribe to one another's feeds. But photos are just a way to get Slide users communicating, establishing relationships, Levchin explains.The site is beginning to introduce new content into Slide Shows. It culls news feeds from around the Web and gathers real-time information from, say, eBay auctions or Match.com profiles. It drops all of this information onto user desktops and then watches to see how they react.Suppose, for example, there's a user named YankeeDave who sees a Treo 750 scroll by in his Slide Show. He gives it a thumbs-up and forwards it to his buddy" we'll call him Smooth-P. Slide learns from this that both YankeeDave and Smooth-P have an interest in a smartphone and begins delivering competing prices. If YankeeDave buys the item, Slide displays headlines on Treo tips or photos of a leather case. If Smooth-P gives a thumbs-down, Slide gains another valuable piece of data. (Maybe Smooth-P is a BlackBerry guy.) Slide has also established a relationship between YankeeDave and Smooth-P and can begin comparing their ratings, traffic patterns, clicks and networks.Based on all that information, Slide gains an understanding of people who share a taste for Treos, TAG Heuer watches and BMWs. Next, those users might see a Dyson vacuum, a pair of Forzieri wingtips or a single woman with a six-figure income living within a ten-mile radius. In fact, that's where Levchin thinks the first real opportunity lies - hooking up users with like-minded people. "I started out with this idea of finding shoes for my girlfriend and hotties on HotOrNot for me," Levchin says with a wry smile. "It's easy to shift from recommending shoes to humans."If this all sounds vaguely creepy, Levchin is careful to say he's rolling out features slowly and will only go as far as his users will allow. But he sees what many others claim to see: Most consumers seem perfectly willing to trade preference data for insight. "What's fueling this is the desire for self-expression," he says.Nick:I'm not sure that I see, in today's self-portraits on MySpace or YouTube or Flickr, or in the fetishistic collecting of virtual tokens of attention, the desire to mark one's place in a professional or social stratum. What they seem to express, more than anything, is a desire to turn oneself into a product, a commodity to be consumed. And since, as I wrote earlier, "self-commoditization is in the end indistinguishable from self-consumption," the new portraiture seems at its core narcissistic. The portraits are advertisements for a commoditized selfGranny Weatherwax:"And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is. ... People as things, that's where it starts."More precisely, that's where some extraordinarily unequal and dishonest social relationships can start.[...]



Got a web between his toes

2006-11-16T12:23:23.141+00:00

Now that Nick has read the last rites for Web 2.0, perhaps it's safe to return to a question that's never quite been resolved.

To wit: what is Web 2.0? (We've established that it's not a snail.) Over at What I wrote, I've just put up a March 2003 article called "In Godzilla's footprint". In it, I asked similar questions about e-business, taking issue with the standard rhetoric of 'efficiency' and 'empowerment'. I suggested that e-business wasn't - or rather isn't - a phenomenon in its own right, but the product of three much larger trends: standardisation, automation and externalisation of costs. (Read the whole thing.)

Assuming for the moment that I called this one correctly - and I find my arguments pretty persuasive - what of Web 2.0? More of the same, only featuring the automation of income generation (AdSense) and the externalisation of payroll costs ('citizen journalism')? Or is there more going on - and if so, what?

Update 16/11

It would be remiss of me not to give any pointers to my own thinking on Web 2.0. So I'm republishing another column at What I wrote, this time from February of this year. Most of you will probably have seen it the first time round, when it appeared in iSeries NEWS UK, but I think it's worth giving it another airing. Have a gander.



Simplify, reduce, oversimplify

2006-11-08T10:10:44.033+00:00

An interesting post on 'folksonomies' at Collin Brooke's blog prompted this comment, which I thought deserved a post of its own.

I think Peter Merholz's coinage 'ethnoclassification' could be useful here. As I've argued elsewhere, I think we can see all taxonomies (and ultimately all knowledge) as the product of an extended conversation within a given community: in this respect a taxonomy is simply an accredited 'folksonomy'.

However, I think there's a dangerous (but interesting) slippage here between what folksonomies could be and what folksonomies are: between the promise of the project of 'folksonomy' (F1) and what's delivered by any identifiable folksonomy (F2). (You can get into very similar arguments about Wikipedia 1 and Wikipedia 2 - sometimes with the same people.) Compared to the complexity and exhaustiveness of any functioning taxonomic scheme, I don't believe that any actually-existing 'folksonomy' is any more than an extremely sketchy work in progress.

For this reason (among others), I believe we need different words for the activity and the endpoint. So we could contrast classification with Peterme's 'ethnoclassification', on one hand, and note that the only real difference between the two is that the former takes place within structured and credentialled communities. On the other hand, we could contrast actual taxonomies with 'folksonomies'. The latter could have very much the same relationship with officially-credentialled taxonomies as classification does with ethnoclassification - but they aren't there yet.

The shift from 'folksonomy' to 'ethnoclassification' has two interesting side-effects, which I suspect are both fairly unwelcome to folksonomy boosters (a group in which I don't include Thomas Vander Wal, ironically enough). On one hand, divorcing process and product reminds us that improvements to one don't necessarily translate as improvements in the other. The activity that goes into producing a 'folksonomy', as distinct from a taxonomy, may give more participants a better experience (more egalitarian, more widely distributed, more chatty, more fun) but you wouldn't necessarily expect the end product to show improvements as a result. (You'd expect it to be a bit scrappy, by and large.) On the other hand, divorcing process from technology reminds us that ethnoclassification didn't start with del.icio.us; the aggregation of informal knowledge clouds is something we've been doing for a long time, perhaps as long as we've been human.



A taxonomy of terror

2006-11-08T10:10:43.974+00:00

I attended part of a very interesting conference on terrorism last week. The organisers intend to launch a network and a journal devoted to 'critical terrorism studies', a project which I strongly support. As the previous blog entry suggests, I've studied a bit of terrorism in my time - and I'm very much in favour of people being encouraged to approach the phenomenon critically, which is to say without necessarily endorsing the definitions and interpretive frameworks offered by official sources.However, it seems to me that the nature of the object of study still needs to be defined - and defined at once more precisely and more loosely. In other words, I don't believe there's much common ground between someone who thinks of terrorism in terms of gathering intelligence on the IRA, and someone who maintains that George W. Bush is a bigger terrorist than Osama bin Laden; I don't think it's particularly productive to try to find common ground between those two images of terrorism, or to simply allow them to coexist without defining the differences between them. On the other hand, I don't see much mileage in a 'purist' Terrorism Studies which would focus solely on groups akin to the IRA - or in an alternative purism which would concentrate on terror attacks by Western governments.A third approach offers to resolve the gap between these two - although I should say straight away that I don't believe it does so. This approach is that of terrorism as an object of discourse: what is under analysis is not so much an identifiable set of actions, or types of action, as the texts and utterances which purport to analyse and describe terrorism. The effect is to turn the analytical gaze back on the governmental discourse of terrorism, which in turn makes it possible to contrast the official image of the terrorist threat with data from other sources; an interesting example of this approach in practice is Richard Jackson's paper Religion, Politics and Terrorism: A Critical Analysis of Narratives of “Islamic Terrorism” (DOC file available from here).I think this is a powerful and constructive approach - my own thesis (as yet unpublished) includes some quite similar work on Italian left-wing armed groups of the 1970s, whose presentation in both the mainstream and the Communist press was heavily shaped by differing ideological assumptions. But I think it should be recognised that it's an approach of a different order from the other two. To combine them would be to mix ontological and epistemological arguments - to say, in other words, That's what is officially labelled terrorism, but this is real terrorism. (Or: That's what they call terrorism, but this is what we know to be the reality of terrorism.) The problem with this is that it implies a commitment to a particular idea of real terrorism, without actually suggesting a candidate. At best, this formulation frees the analyst to retain his or her prior commitments, bolstered with added ontological certitude. At worst, it suggests that real terrorism is the inverse of officially labelled terrorism - or at least that there is no possible overlap between officially labelled terrorism and real terrorism. This is surely inadequate: a critical approach should be able to do more with the official version than simply reverse it.I believe that the study of terrorism must include all of these elements, and recognise that they may overlap but don't coincide. In other words, it must include the following:Organised political violence by non-state actors: 'terrorism' as a political intervention (call it T1)Indiscriminate large-scale attacks on civilians: terror as a tactic, in warfare or otherwise (T2)The constructed antagonist of the War on Terror: 'Terrorism' as object of discourse (T3)We can think of it as a three-circle Venn diagram, with areas of intersection between each pair of circles and a triple intersection in the middle. What is immediately apparent about [...]



The people with the answers

2006-11-08T10:10:36.465+00:00

Nick:Larry Sanger, the controversial online encyclopedia's cofounder and leading apostate, announced yesterday, at a conference in Berlin, that he is spearheading the launch of a competitor to Wikipedia called The Citizendium. Sanger describes it as "an experimental new wiki project that combines public participation with gentle expert guidance."The Citizendium will begin as a "fork" of Wikipedia, taking all of Wikipedia's current articles and then editing them under a new model that differs substantially from the model used by what Sanger calls the "arguably dysfunctional" Wikipedia community. "First," says Sanger, in explaining the primary differences, "the project will invite experts to serve as editors, who will be able to make content decisions in their areas of specialization, but otherwise working shoulder-to-shoulder with ordinary authors. Second, the project will require that contributors be logged in under their own real names, and work according to a community charter. Third, the project will halt and actually reverse some of the 'feature creep' that has developed in Wikipedia."I've been thinking about Wikipedia, and about what makes a bad Wikipedia article so bad, for some time - this March 2005 post took off from some earlier remarks by Larry Sanger. I'm not attempting to pass judgment on Wikipedia as a whole - there are plenty of good Wikipedia articles out there, and some of them are very good indeed. But some of them are bad. Picking on an old favourite of mine, here's the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article on the Red Brigades, with my comments.The Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse in Italian, often abbreviated as BR) areThe word is 'were'. The BR dissolved in 1981; its last successor group gave up the ghost in 1988. There's a small and highly violent group out there somewhere which calls itself "Nuove Brigate Rosse" - the New Red Brigades - but its continuity with the original BR is zero. This is a significant disagreement, to put it mildly.a militant leftist group located in Italy. Formed in 1970, the Marxist Red Brigades'Marxist' is a bizarre choice of epithet. Most of the Italian radical left was Marxist, and almost all of it declined to follow the BR's lead. Come to that, the Italian Communist Party (one of the BR's staunchest enemies) was Marxist. Terry Eagleton's a Marxist; Jeremy Hardy's a Marxist; I'm a Marxist myself, pretty much. The BR had a highly unusual set of political beliefs, somewhere between Maoism, old-school Stalinism and pro-Tupamaro insurrectionism. 'Maoist' would do for a one-word summary. 'Marxist' is both over-broad and misleading.sought to create a revolutionary state through armed struggleWell, yes. And no. I mean, I don't think it's possible to make any sense of the BR without acknowledging that, while they did have a famous slogan about portare l'attacco al cuore dello stato ('attacking at the heart of the state'), their anti-state actions were only a fairly small element of what they did. To begin with they were a factory-based group, who took action against foremen and personnel managers; in their later years - which were also their peak years - the BR, like other armed groups, got drawn into what was effectively a vendetta with the police, prioritising revenge attacks over any kind of 'revolutionary' programme. You could say that the BR were a revolutionary organisation & consequently had a revolutionary programme throughout, even if their actions didn't always match it - but how useful would this be?and to separate Italy from the Western AllianceWhoa. I don't think the BR were particularly in favour of Italy's NATO membership, but the idea that this was one of their key goals is absurd. If the BR had been a catspaw for the KGB, intent on fomenting subversion so as to destabilise Italy, then this probably would have been high on their list. But they weren't, and it wasn't.In 1978, they kidnapped and killed form[...]



Back in the garage

2006-11-08T10:10:36.406+00:00

I have begun to see what I think is a promising trend in the publishing world that may just transform the industry for good.Paul Hartzog's Many-to-Many post on publishing draws some interesting conclusions from the success of Charlie Stross's Accelerando (nice one, Charlie). but makes me a bit nervous, partly because of the liberal use of excitable bolding.What I am suggesting is happening is the reversal of traditional publishing, i.e. the transformation of the system in which authors create and distribute their work. In the old system, it is assumed that the publishing process acts as a quality control filter ... but it ends up merely being a profit-capturing filter.[...]Conversely, in the new system, the works are made available, and it is up to the community-at-large to pass judgement on their quality. In the emerging system, authors create and distribute their work, and readers, individually and collectively, including fans as well as editors and peers, review, comment, rank, and tag, everything.Setting aside the formatting - and the evangelistic tone, something which never fails to set my teeth on edge - this is all interesting stuff. My problem is that I'm not sure about the economics of it. It's not so much that writers won't write if they don't get paid - writers will write, full stop - as that writers won't eat if they don't get paid: some money has to change hands some time. If the kind of development Paul is talking about takes hold, I can imagine a range of more-or-less unintended consequences, all with different overtones but few of them, to this jaundiced eye, particularly desirable:Mass amateurisation means that nobody pays for anything, which in turn means that nobody makes a living from writing; this is essentially the RIAA/BPI anti-filesharing nightmare scenario, transposed to literatureMass amateurisation doesn't touch the Dan Brown/Katie Price market, but gains traction in specialist areas of literature to the point where nobody can make a living from writing unless they're writing for the mass market; this is Charlie Gillett's argument for keeping CDs expensive (and the line the BPI would use against filesharing if they had any sense)Downloads like Accelerando function essentially as tasters and people end up buying just as many actual books, if not more; this scenario will also be familiar from filesharing arguments, as it's the line generally used to counter the previous twoMass amateur production becomes a new sphere of economic activity, linked in with and subordinate to the major mainstream operators: this is the MySpace scenario (at least, the MySpace makes money for Murdoch scenario)Mass amateur production becomes a new sphere of non-economic activity, with a few star authors subsidised by publishing companies for the sake of the cachet they bring: the open source scenarioMass amateur production becomes a new sphere of economic activity, existing on the margins and in the shadows, out of the reach of the major mainstream operators: the punk scenario (or, for older readers, the hippie scenario)We can dismiss the first, RIAA-nightmare scenario. The third ('tasters') would be bearable, although it wouldn't go halfway to justifying Paul's argument. Most of the rest look pretty ghastly to me. Perhaps Paul is thinking in terms of the last scenario or something like it - but in that case I'd have to say that his optimism is just as misplaced, for different but related reasons, as the pessimism of the first scenario (although a new wave of garage literature would be a fine thing to see).The trouble with making your own history is that you don't do it in circumstances of your own choosing. The participatory buzz of Web 2.0 tends to eat away at the structural and procedural walls that stop people getting their hands on stuff - but that can just mean that only the strongest and highest walls are left standing. Besi[...]



We're all together now, dancing in time

2006-11-08T10:10:36.348+00:00

Ryan Carson:
I’d love to add friends to my Flickr account, add my links to del.icio.us, browse digg for the latest big stories, customise the content of my Netvibes home page and build a MySpace page. But you know what? I don’t have time and you don’t either...

Read the whole thing. What's particularly interesting is a small straw poll at the end of the article, where Ryan asks people who actually work on this stuff what social software apps they use on a day-to-day basis. Six people made 30 nominations in all; Ryan had five of his own for a total of 35.

Here are the apps which got more than one vote:

Flickr (four votes)
Upcoming (two)
Wikipedia (two)

And, er, that's it.

Social software looks like very big news indeed from some perspectives, but when it's held to the standard of actually helping people get stuff done, it fades into insignificance. I think there are three reasons for this apparent contradiction. First, there's the crowd effect - and, since you need a certain number of users before network effects start taking off, any halfway-successful social software application has a crowd behind it. It can easily look as if everyone's doing it, even if the relevant definition of 'everyone' looks like a pretty small group to you and me.

Then there's the domain effect: tagging and user-rating are genuinely useful and constructive, in some not very surprising ways, within pre-defined domains. (Think of a corporate intranet app, where there is no need for anyone to specify that 'Dunstable' means one of the company's offices, 'Barrett' means the company's main competitor and 'Monkey' means the payroll system.) For anyone who is getting work done with tagging, in other words, tagging is going to look pretty good - and, thanks to the crowd effect, it's going to look like a good thing that everyone's using.

Thirdly, social software is new, different, interesting and fun, as something to play with. It's a natural for geeks with time to play with stuff and for commentators who like writing about new and interesting stuff - let alone geek commentators. The hype generates itself; it's the kind of development that's guaranteed to look bigger than it is.

Put it all together - and introduce feedback effects, as the community of geek commentators starts to find social software apps genuinely useful within its specialised domain - and social software begins to look like a Tardis in reverse: much, much bigger on the outside than it is on the inside.

That's not to say that social software isn't interesting, or that it isn't useful. But I think that in the longer term those two facets will move apart: useful and productive applications of tagging will be happening under the commentator radar, often behind organisational firewalls, while the stuff that's interesting and fun to play with will remain... interesting and fun to play with.



So much that hides

2006-11-08T10:10:36.292+00:00

Alex points to this piece by Rashmi Sinha on 'Findability with tags': the vexed question of using tags to find the material that you've tagged, rather than as an elaborate way of building a mind-map. I should stress, parenthetically, that that last bit wasn't meant as a putdown - it actually describes my own use of Simpy. I regularly tag pages, but almost never use tags to actually retrieve them. Sometimes - quite rarely - I do pull up all the pages I've tagged with a generic "write something about this" tag. Apart from that, I only ever ask Simpy two questions: one is "what was that page I tagged the other day?" (for which, obviously, meaningful tags aren't required); the other is "what does my tag cloud look like?".Now, you could say that the answer to the second question isn't strictly speaking information; it's certainly not information I use, unless you count the time I spend grooming the cloud by splitting, merging and deleting stray tags. I like tag clouds and don't agree with Jeffrey Zeldman's anathema, but I do agree with Alex that they're not the last word in retrieving information from tags. Which is where Rashmi's article comes in.Rashmi identifies three ways of layering additional information on top of the basic item/tag pairing, all of which hinge on partitioning the tag universe in different ways. This is most obvious in the case of faceted tagging: here, the field of information is partitioned before any tags are applied. Rashmi cites the familiar example of wine, where a 'region' tag would carry a different kind of information from 'grape variety', 'price' or for that matter 'taste'. Similar distinctions can be made in other areas: a news story tagged 'New Labour', 'racism' and 'to blog about' is implicitly carrying information in the domains 'subject (political philosophy)', 'subject (social issue)' and 'action to take'.There are two related problems here. A unique tag, in this model, can only exist within one dimension: if I want separate tags for New Labour (the people) and New Labour (the philosophy), I'll either have to make an artificial distinction between the two (New_Labour vs New_Labour_philosophy) or add a dimension layer to my tags (political_party.New_Labour vs political_philosophy.New_Labour). Both solutions are pretty horrible. More broadly, you can't invoke a taxonomist's standby like the wine example without setting folksonomic backs up, and with some reason: part of the appeal of tagging is precisely that you start with a blank sheet and let the domains of knowledge emerge as they may.Clustered tagging (a new one on me) addresses both of these problems, as well as answering the much-evaded question of how those domains are supposed to emerge. A tag cluster - as seen on Flickr - consists of a group of tags which consistently appear together, suggesting an implicit 'domain'. Crucially, a single tag can occur in multiple clusters. The clusters for the Flickr 'election' tag, for example, are easy to interpret:vote, politics, kerry, bush, voting, ballot, poster, cameraphone, democrat, president wahl, germany, deutschland, berlin, cdu, spd, bundestagswahlcanada, ndp, liberal, toronto, jacklayton, federalelectionand, rather anticlimactically,england, ukClustering, I'd argue, represents a pretty good stab at building emergent domains. The downside is that it only becomes possible when there are huge numbers of tagging operations.The third enhancement to tagging Rashmi describes is the use of tags as pivots:When everything (tag, username, number of people who have bookmarked an item) is a link, you can use any of those links to look around you. You can change direction at any moment.Lurking behind this, I think, is Thomas's original tripartite definition of 'folksonomy':the three needed data points in a folksonomy tool [are]: 1) the [...]



The users geeks don't see

2006-11-08T10:10:36.235+00:00

Nick writes, provocatively as ever, about the recent 'community-oriented' redesign of the netscape.com portal:A few days ago, Netscape turned its traditional portal home page into a knockoff of the popular geek news site Digg. Like Digg, Netscape is now a "news aggregator" that allows users to vote on which stories they think are interesting or important. The votes determine the stories' placement on the home page. Netscape's hope, it seems, is to bring Digg's hip Web 2.0 model of social media into the mainstream. There's just one problem. Normal people seem to think the entire concept is ludicrous.Nick cites a post titled Netscape Community Backlash, from which this line leapt out at me:while a lot of us geeks and 2.0 types are addicted to our own technology (and our own voices, to be honest), it's pretty darn obvious that A LOT of people want to stick with the status quoThis reminded me of a minor revelation I had the other day, when I was looking for the Java-based OWL reasoner 'pellet'. I googled forpellet owl- just like that, no quotes - expecting to find a 'pellet' link at the bottom of forty or fifty hits related to, well, owls and their pellets. In fact, the top hit was "Pellet OWL Reasoner". (To be fair, if you googleowl pelletyou do get the fifty pages of owl pellets first.) I think it's fair to say that the pellet OWL reasoner isn't big news even in the Web-using software development community; I'd be surprised if everyone reading this post even knows what an OWL reasoner is (or has any reason to care). But there's enough activity on the Web around pellet to push it, in certain circumstances, to the top of the Google rankings (see for yourself).Hence the revelation: it's still a geek Web. Or rather, there's still a geek Web, and it's still making a lot of the running. When I first started using the Internet, about ten years ago, there was a geek Web, a hobbyist Web, an academic Web (small), a corporate Web (very small) and a commercial Web (minute) - and the geek Web was by far the most active. Since then the first four sectors have grown incrementally, but the commercial Web has exploded, along with a new sixth sector - the Web-for-everyone of AOL and MSN and MySpace and LiveJournal (and blogs), whose users vastly outnumber those of the other five. But the geek Web is still where a lot of the new interesting stuff is being created, posted, discussed and judged to be interesting and new.Add social software to the mix - starting, naturally, within the geek Web, as that's where it came from - and what do you get? You get a myth which diverges radically from the reality. The myth is that this is where the Web-for-everyone comes into its own, where millions of users of what was built as a broadcast Web with walled-garden interactive features start talking back to the broadcasters and breaking out of their walled gardens. The reality is that the voices of the geeks are heard even more loudly - and even more disproportionately - than before. Have a look at the 'popular' tags on del.icio.us: as I write, six of the top ten (including all of the top five) relate directly to programmers, and only to programmers. (Number eight reads: "LinuxBIOS - aims to replace the normal BIOS found on PCs, Alphas, and other machines with a Linux kernel". The unglossed reference to Alphas says it all.) Of the other four, one's a political video, two are photosets and one is a full-screen animation of a cartoon cat dancing, rendered entirely in ASCII art. (Make that seven of the top ten.)I'm not a sceptic about social software: ranking, tagging, search-term-aggregation and the other tools of what I persist in calling ethnoclassification are both new and powerful. But they're most powerful within a delimited domain: a user coming to del.icio.us for the first time should[...]



We hear the sound of machines

2006-11-08T10:10:36.176+00:00

Sooner or later, the Internet will need to be saved from Google. Because Google - which appears to be an integral part of the information-wants-to-be-free Net dream, the search engine which gives life to the hyperlinked digital nervous system of a kind of massively-distributed Xanadu project - is nothing of the sort. Google is a private company; Google's business isn't even search. Google's business is advertising - and, whatever we think about how well search goes together with tagging and folksonomic stumbling-upon, search absolutely doesn't go with advertising. (Update 15th June: this is a timely reminder that Google is a business, and its business is advertising. Mass personalisation, online communities, interactive rating and ranking, it's all there - and it's all about the advertising.)

I had thought that, in the context of plain vanilla Web search, Google actually had this cracked - that the prominence of 'sponsored links', displayed separately from search results, allowed them to deliver an unpolluted service and still make money. I hadn't reckoned with AdSense. AdSense doesn't in itself pollute Google's search results. What it does is far worse: it encourages other people to pollute the Net. Which will mean, ultimately, that Google will paint (or choke) itself into a corner - but that, if we're not careful, an awful lot of users will be stuck in that corner with them.

For a much fuller and more cogent version of this argument, read Seth Jayson (via Scott). One point in particular stood out: Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) insiders are continuing to drop shares on the public at a rate that boggles the mind. It's true. Over the last year, as far as published records show, Sun insiders have sold $50,000 worth of shares, net. In the same period, IBM insiders have sold $6,500,000; Microsoft insiders have sold $1,500,000,000; and Google insiders have sold $5,000,000,000. See for yourself. That's a lot of shares.



I couldn't make it any simpler

2006-11-08T10:10:36.120+00:00

I hate to say this - I've always loathed VR boosters and been highly sceptical about the people they boost - but Jaron Lanier's a bright bloke. His essay Digital Maoism doesn't quite live up to the title, but it's well worth reading (thanks, Thomas).I don't think he quite gets to the heart of the current 'wisdom of the crowds' myth, though. It's not Maoism so much as Revivalism: there's a tight feedback loop between membership of the collective, collective activity and (crucially) celebration of the activity of the collective. Or: celebration of process rather than end-result - because the process incarnates the collective.Put it this way. Say that (for example) the Wikipedia page on the Red Brigades is wildly wrong or wildly inadequate (which is just as bad); say that the tag cloud for an authoritative Red Brigades resource is dominated by misleading tags ('kgb', 'ussr', 'mitrokhin'...). Would a wikipedian or a 'folksonomy' advocate see this situation as a major problem? Not being either I can't give an authoritative answer, but I strongly suspect the answer would be No: it's all part of the process, it's all part of the collective self-expression of wikipedians and the growth of the folksonomy, and if the subject experts don't like it they should just get their feet wet and start tagging and editing themselves. And if, in practice, the experts don't join in - perhaps, in the case of Wikipedia, because they don't have the stomach for the kind of 'editing' process which saw Jaron Lanier's own corrections get reverted? Again, I don't know for sure, but I suspect the answer would be another shrug: the wiki's open to all - and tagspace couldn't be more open - so who's to blame, if you can't make your voice heard, but you? There's nothing inherently wrong with the process, except that you're not helping to improve it. There's nothing inherently wrong with the collective, except that you haven't joined it yet.Two quotes to clarify (hopefully) the connection between collective and process. Michael Wexler:our understanding of things changes and so do the terms we use to describe them. How do I solve that in this open system? Do I have to go back and change all my tags? What about other people’s tags? Do I have to keep in mind all the variations on tags that reflect people’s different understanding of the topics?The social connected model implies that the connections are the important part, so that all you need is one tag, one key, to flow from place to place and discover all you need to know. But the only people who appear to have time to do that are folks like Clay Shirky. The rest of us need to have information sorted and organized since we actually have better things to do than re-digest it.What tagging does is attempt to recreate the flow of discovery. That’s fine… but what taxonomy does is recreate the structure of knowledge that you’ve already discovered. Sometimes, I like flowing around and stumbling on things. And sometimes, that’s a real pita. More often than not, the tag approach involves lots of stumbling around and sidetracks.It's like Family Feud [a.k.a. Family Fortunes - PJE]. You have to think not of what you might say to a question, you have to guess what the survey of US citizens might say in answer to a question. And that’s really a distraction if you are trying to just answer the damn question.And our man Lanier:there's a demonstrative ritual often presented to incoming students at business schools. In one version of the ritual, a large jar of jellybeans is placed in the front of a classroom. Each student guesses how many beans there are. While the guesses vary widely, the average is usually accurate to an uncanny degree.This is an example of the special kind of intelligenc[...]



When there is no outside

2006-11-08T10:10:36.064+00:00

Nick Carr's hyperbolically-titled The Death of Wikipedia has received a couple of endorsements and some fairly vigorous disagreement, unsurprisingly. I think it's as much a question of tone as anything else. When Nick reads the linecertain pages with a history of vandalism and other problems may be semi-protected on a pre-emptive, continuous basis.it clearly sets alarm bells ringing for him, as indeed it does for me ("Ideals always expire in clotted, bureaucratic prose", Nick comments). Several of his commenters, on the other hand, sincerely fail to see what the big deal might be: it's only a handful of pages, it's only semi-protection, it's not that onerous, it's part of the continuing development of Wikipedia editing policies, Wikipedia never claimed to be a totally open wiki, there's no such thing as a totally open wiki anyway...I think the reactions are as instructive as the original post. No, what Nick's pointing to isn't really a qualitative change, let alone the death of anything. But yes, it's a genuine problem, and a genuine embarrassment to anyone who takes the Wikipedian rhetoric seriously. Wikipedia ("the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit") routinely gets hailed for its openness and its authority, only not both at the same time - indeed, maximising one can always be used to justify limits on the other. As here. But there's another level to this discussion, which is to do with Wikipedia's resolution of the openness/authority balancing-act. What happens in practice is that the contributions of active Wikipedians take precedence over both random vandals and passing experts. In effect, both openness and authority are vested in the group.In some areas this works well enough, but in others it's a huge problem. I use Wikipedia myself, and occasionally drop in an edit if I see something that's crying out for correction. Sometimes, though, I see a Wikipedia article that's just wrong from top to bottom - or rather, an article where verifiable facts and sustainable assertions alternate with errors and misconceptions, or are set in an overall argument which is based on bad assumptions. In short, sometimes I see a Wikipedia article which doesn't need the odd correction, it needs to be pulled and rewritten. I'm not alone in having this experience: here's Tom Coates on 'penis envy' and Thomas Vander Wal (!) on 'folksonomy', as well as me on 'anomie'.It's not just a problem with philosophical concepts, either - I had a similar reaction more recently to the Wikipedia page on the Red Brigades. On the basis of the reading I did for my doctorate, I could rewrite that page from start to finish, leaving in place only a few proper names and one or two of the dates. But writing this kind of thing is hard and time-consuming work - and I've got quite enough of that to do already. So it doesn't get done. I don't think this is an insurmountable problem. A while ago I floated a cunning plan for fixing pages like this, using PledgeBank to mobilise external reserves of peer-pressure; it might work, and if only somebody else would actually get it rolling I might even sign up. But I do think it's a problem, and one that's inherent to the Wikipedia model.To reiterate, both openness and authority are vested in the group. Openness: sure, Wikipedia is as open to me as any other registered editor d00d, but in practice the openness of Wikipedia is graduated according to the amount of time you can afford to spend on it. As for authority, I'm not one, but (like Debord) I have read several good books - better books, to be blunt, than those relied on by the author[s] of the current Red Brigades article. But what would that matter unless I was prepared to defend what I wrote against bulk edits by pe[...]



Who's there?

2006-11-08T10:10:36.003+00:00

At Many-to-Many, Ross Mayfield reports that Clay Shirky and danah boyd have been thinking about "the lingering questions in our field", viz. the field of social software. I was a bit surprised to see thatHow can communities support veterans going off topic together and newcomers seeking topical information and connections?still qualifies as a 'lingering question'; I distinctly remember being involved in thrashing this one out, together with Clay, the best part of nine years ago. But this was the one that really caught my eye, if you'll pardon the expression:What level of visual representation of the body is necessary to trigger mirror neurons?Uh-oh. Sherry Turkle (subscription-only link):a woman in a nursing home outside Boston is sad. Her son has broken off his relationship with her. Her nursing home is taking part in a study I am conducting on robotics for the elderly. I am recording the woman’s reactions as she sits with the robot Paro, a seal-like creature advertised as the first ‘therapeutic robot’ for its ostensibly positive effects on the ill, the elderly and the emotionally troubled. Paro is able to make eye contact by sensing the direction a human voice is coming from; it is sensitive to touch, and has ‘states of mind’ that are affected by how it is treated – for example, it can sense whether it is being stroked gently or more aggressively. In this session with Paro, the woman, depressed because of her son’s abandonment, comes to believe that the robot is depressed as well. She turns to Paro, strokes him and says: ‘Yes, you’re sad, aren’t you. It’s tough out there. Yes, it’s hard.’ And then she pets the robot once again, attempting to provide it with comfort. And in so doing, she tries to comfort herself.What are we to make of this transaction? When I talk to others about it, their first associations are usually with their pets and the comfort they provide. I don’t know whether a pet could feel or smell or intuit some understanding of what it might mean to be with an old woman whose son has chosen not to see her anymore. But I do know that Paro understood nothing. The woman’s sense of being understood was based on the ability of computational objects like Paro – ‘relational artefacts’, I call them – to convince their users that they are in a relationship by pushing certain ‘Darwinian’ buttons (making eye contact, for example) that cause people to respond as though they were in relationship.Further reading: see Kathy Sierra on mirror neurons and the contagion of negativity. See also Shelley's critique of Kathy's argument, and of attempts to enforce 'positive' feelings by manipulating mood. And see the sidebar at Many-to-Many, which currently reads as follows:Recent Commentsviagra on Sanger on Seigenthaler’s criticism of Wikipediahydrocodone cheap on Sanger on Seigenthaler’s criticism of Wikipediaviagra on Sanger on Seigenthaler’s criticism of Wikipediaalprazolam online on Sanger on Seigenthaler’s criticism of WikipediaTimur on Sanger on Seigenthaler’s criticism of WikipediaTimur on Sanger on Seigenthaler’s criticism of WikipediaRecent Trackbacksroulette: roulettejouer casino: jouer casinocasinos on line: casinos on lineroulette en ligne: roulette en lignejeux casino: jeux casinocasinos on line: casinos on line[...]



Some day this will all be yours

2006-11-08T10:10:35.942+00:00

Scott Karp:What if dollars have no place in the new economics of content?...In media 1.0, brands paid for the attention that media companies gathered by offering people news and entertainment (e.g. TV) in exchange for their attention. In media 2.0, people are more likely to give their attention in exchange for OTHER PEOPLE’S ATTENTION. This is why MySpace can’t effectively monetize its 70 million users through advertising — people use MySpace not to GIVE their attention to something that is entertaining or informative (which could thus be sold to advertisers) but rather to GET attention from other users....MySpace can’t sell attention to advertisers because the site itself HAS NONE. Nobody pays attention to MySpace — users pay attention to each other, and compete for each other’s attention — it’s as if the site itself doesn’t exist.You see the same phenomenon in blogging — blogging is not a business in the traditional sense because most people do it for the attention, not because they believe there’s any financial reward. What if the economics of media in the 21st century begin to look like the economics of poetry in the 20th century? — Lots of people do it for their own personal gratification, but nobody makes any money from it.Pedantry first: it's inconceivable that we'll reach a point where nobody makes any money from the media, at least this side of the classless society. Even the hard case of blogging doesn't really stand up - I could name half a dozen bloggers who have made money or are making money from their blogs, without pausing to think.It's a small point, but it's symptomatic of the enthusiastic looseness of Karp's argument. So I welcomed Nicholas Carr's counterblast, which puts Karp together with some recent comments by Esther Dyson:"Most users are not trying to turn attention into anything else. They are seeking it for itself. For sure, the attention economy will not replace the financial economy. But it is more than just a subset of the financial economy we know and love."Here's Carr:I fear that to view the attention economy as "more than just a subset of the financial economy" is to misread it, to project on it a yearning for an escape (if only a temporary one) from the consumer culture. There's no such escape online. When we communicate to promote ourselves, to gain attention, all we are doing is turning ourselves into goods and our communications into advertising. We become salesmen of ourselves, hucksters of the "I." In peddling our interests, moreover, we also peddle the commodities that give those interests form: songs, videos, and other saleable products. And in tying our interests to our identities, we give marketers the information they need to control those interests and, in the end, those identities. Karp's wrong to say that MySpace is resistant to advertising. MySpace is nothing but advertising.Now, this is good, bracing stuff, but I think Carr bends the stick a bit too far the other way. I know from my own experience that there's a part of my life labelled Online Stuff, and that most of my reward for doing Online Stuff is attention from other people doing Online Stuff. Real-world payoffs - money, work or just making new real-world friends - are nice to get, but they're not what it's all about.The real trouble is that Karp has it backwards. Usenet - where I started doing Online Stuff, ten years ago - is a model of open-ended mutual whuffie exchange. (A very imperfect model, given the tendency of social groups to develop boundaries and hierarchies, but at least an unmonetised one.) Systematised whuffie trading came along later. The model case here is eBay, where there's[...]



Not a fish at all

2006-11-08T10:10:35.886+00:00

On the subject of broadcast vs broadband, Tom writes:
There's nothing rapid about this transition at all. It's been happening in the background for fifteen years. So let me rephrase it in ways that I understand. Shock revelation! A new set of technologies has started to displace older technologies and will continue to do so at a fairly slow rate over the next ten to thirty years!
...
My sense of these media organisations that use this argument of incredibly rapid technology change is that they're screaming that they're being pursued by a snail and yet they cannot get away! 'The snail! The snail!', they cry. 'How can we possibly escape!?'. The problem being that the snail's been moving closer for the last twenty years one way or another and they just weren't paying attention.

In comments, Will writes:
If one person is claiming that the world is moving fairly slowly, and has some sound advice on what this might look like (as you are doing here), and another person is claiming that the world is moving extraordinarily quickly, but offers some quickfire measures through which to cope with this, the sense of emergency will win purely because it is present. From here, it almost becomes *risky* not to then adopt the quickfire measures suggested by the second person. Panic becomes a safer strategy than calmness. Which explains management consultancy...

and John asks:
does web2.0 count as a snail too?

But Web 2.0 is not a snail.

Web 2.0 is the people pointing and shouting 'The snail! The snail!'

Web 2.0 is also the people who overhear the first group and join in, shouting 'The whale! The whale!' and pointing vaguely upwards and towards the nearest ocean.

Web 2.0 is also the people who hear the second group and panic about the approaching whale, or is it a land-whale? what is a land-whale anyway? whatever it is, there's one coming and we'd all better... well, we'd better tell someone about it, anyway - I mean, there's a land-whale coming, how often does something like that happen?

Web 2.0 is also the people who hear the third group and improvise a land-whale parade, with floats and dancers and drummers and at its centre a giant paper land-whale held aloft by fifteen people, because, I don't know, but everyone was talking about land-whales and it just seemed like a good idea, you know?

And Web 2.0 is the people who come along halfway through the parade and sell the roadside spectators standing-room tickets.



Cloudbuilding (3)

2006-11-08T10:10:35.827+00:00

By way of background to this post - and because I think it's quite interesting in itself - here's a short paper I gave last year at this conference (great company, shame about the catering). It was co-written with my colleagues Judith Aldridge and Karen Clarke. I don't stand by everything in it - as I've got deeper into the project I've moved further away from Clay's scepticism and closer towards people like Carole Goble and Keith Cole - but I think it still sets out an argument worth having.Mind the gap: Metadata in e-social science1. Towards the final turtleIt’s said that Bertrand Russell once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” Russell smiled and replied, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down.”The Russell story is emblematic of the logical fallacy of infinite regress: proposing an explanation which is just as much in need of explanation as the original fact being explained. The solution, for philosophers (and astronomers), is to find a foundation on which the entire argument can be built: a body of known facts, or a set of acceptable assumptions, from which the argument can follow.But what if infinite regress is a problem for people who want to build systems as well as arguments? What if we find we’re dealing with a tower of turtles, not when we’re working backwards to a foundation, but when we’re working forwards to a solution?WSDL [Web Services Description Language] lets a provider describe a service in XML [Extensible Markup Language]. [...] to get a particular provider’s WSDL document, you must know where to find them. Enter another layer in the stack, Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration (UDDI), which is meant to aggregate WSDL documents. But UDDI does nothing more than register existing capabilities [...] there is no guarantee that an entity looking for a Web Service will be able to specify its needs clearly enough that its inquiry will match the descriptions in the UDDI database. Even the UDDI layer does not ensure that the two parties are in sync. Shared context has to come from somewhere, it can’t simply be defined into existence. [...] This attempt to define the problem at successively higher layers is doomed to fail because it’s turtles all the way up: there will always be another layer above whatever can be described, a layer which contains the ambiguity of two-party communication that can never be entirely defined away. No matter how carefully a language is described, the range of askable questions and offerable answers make it impossible to create an ontology that’s at once rich enough to express even a large subset of possible interests while also being restricted enough to ensure interoperability between any two arbitrary parties.(Clay Shirky)Clay Shirky is a longstanding critic of the Semantic Web project, an initiative which aims to extend Web technology to encompass machine-readable semantic content. The ultimate goal is the codification of meaning, to the point where understanding can be automated. In commercial terms, this suggests software agents capable of conducting a transaction with all the flexibility of a human being. In terms of research, it offers the prospect of a search engine wh[...]



Seldom a dread

2006-11-08T10:10:35.771+00:00

It's been quiet around here for a while, and probably will be for a while yet. For now, a small question. Is anyone reading this? More specifically, is anyone reading this in Britain? Even more specifically, is anyone reading this who is in Britain and knows about academic funding, in particular how to obtain and where from? (I've got a few ideas, but more is generally better.) Drop me a comment if so.



Searching low and high

2006-11-08T10:10:35.712+00:00

Update 14th June: it's fixed. The search I describe below now returns 91 results on both Google and Yahoo!. (And one on MJ12 (thanks Paulie), but it's early days.)

Help - Google's broken.

Google's 'exact phrase' search, to be precise. Earlier today I was looking for an English counterpart to the French phrase 'basse police' (elsewhere I've rendered it as 'low policing', following J-P. Brodeur, but the idiomatic content of the phrase gets lost that way). If in doubt, Google - so I googled

"basse police" definition

secure in the knowledge that Google would find the French 'définition' as well as the unaccented English word. And it's true, I didn't need to worry about that; the word 'definition' was present and correct, with and without accent. The only trouble was, only 19 of the pages Google brought back (1-87 of about 67,000) also included the phrase 'basse police'; in particular, none of the first 66 results displayed included the phrase, although some included the word 'basse' and others the word 'police'.

It gets worse (for Google). I tried the same query on Yahoo and got results 1-64 of about 114 (about 114?). Here are the first few, minus a couple of duplicates:

qu'elle participe de la définition de ses fins et qu'elle n'est pas dénuée ... l'ordre semble d'abord relever de la basse police

entre " haute " police et " basse " police, entre surveillance d'un territoire et surveillance ... des services secrets sont, par définition, opaques

Ces méthodes de basse police ont déjà eu lieu à Genève avec les persécutions du Parti Communiste ... Ta définition de "stalinien" est fausse

utiliser (pertinemment) les expressions "haute police " et " basse police ... je veux voir le mot et sa définition

And so it goes on. You see what they've done there? Yahoo has brought back pages containing both the word 'definition' and the phrase 'basse police', and only those pages. Fiendish.

To be fair to Google, this is a problem I've only noticed in the last couple of days. To revert to being hard on Google, it's a major, major, service-vitiating-if-not-actually-disabling problem, and I would like to know what on earth they were thinking of to allow it to happen. (And I'd like it fixed, obviously.)



We are bored in the city

2006-11-08T10:10:35.648+00:00

Et la piscine de la rue des Fillettes. Et le commissariat de police de la rue du Rendez-Vous. La clinique médico-chirurgicale et le bureau de placement gratuit du quai des Orfèvres. Les fleurs artificielles de la rue du Soleil. L'hôtel des Caves du Château, le bar de l'Océan et le café du Va et Vient. L'hôtel de l'Epoque.Et l'étrange statue du Docteur Philippe Pinel, bienfaiteur des aliénés, dans les derniers soirs de l'été. Explorer Paris.The early situationists, following Chtcheglov's lead, turned urban wandering into a form of political/psychological exploration, a group encounter with the city mediated only by alcohol. At a less exalted level, I've long been fascinated by the kind of odd urban poetry evoked here, in Manchester as much as Paris, and by the changing articulation of city space: established cities are a slow-motion example of Marx's dictum about how we make our lives within conditions we have inherited. So it's easy to see how well this could work:Socialight lets you put virtual "sticky" notes called StickyShadows anywhere in the real world. Share pictures, notes and more using your cell phone.But - for all that the site says about restricting access to Groups and Contacts - it's also easy to see how very badly it could work. * I leave a note for all my friends at the mall to let them know where I'm hanging out. All my friends in the area see it. * A woman shows all her close friends the tree under which she had her first kiss. * An entire neighborhood gets together and documents all the unwanted litter they find in an effort to share ownership of a community problem. * A food-lover uses Socialight to share her thoughts on the amazing vanilla milkshakes at a new shop. * The neighborhood historian creates her own walking tour for others to follow. * A group of friends create their own scavenger hunt. * A tourist takes place-based notes about stores in a shopping district, only for himself, for a time when he returns to the same city. * A small business places StickyShadows that its customers would be interested in finding. * A band promotes an upcoming show by leaving a StickyShadow outside the venue.It was all going so well (although I did wonder why that entire neighbourhood couldn't just pick up the litter) right up to the last two. Advertising - yep, that's just what we all want more of in our urban lives. Lots of nice intrusive advertising.Anne:The worst thing about taking-for-granted that our experiences with the city and each other will be "enriched" by more data, by more information, by making the invisible visible, etc., is that we never have to account for or be accountable to how.More specifically, there's a huge difference between enabling conversation and enabling people to be informed - in other words, between talking-with and being-talked-at. Social software is all about conversation - about enabling people to talk together. Moreover, any conversation is defined as much by what it shuts out as what it includes; it's hard to listen to the people you want to talk with when you're being talked at. Even setting aside the information-overload potential of all those overlapping groups (do I need to know where so-and-so had her first kiss? do I need to know now?), it's clear that Socialight is trying to serve two ends which are not only incompatible but opposed - and only one of which pays money. Which is probably why, even though the technology is still in beta, I already feel that using it constructively would be going a[...]



Cloudbuilding (2)

2006-11-08T10:10:35.586+00:00

Here's a problem I ran into, halfway through building my first ontology, and some thoughts on what the solution might be.Question 47 of the Mixmag survey reads:Have you ever had an instance[sic] where your drug use caused you to:Get arrested?Lose a job?Fail an exam?Crash a car/bike?Be kicked out of a club?What this tells us is that one of the things the Mixmag questionnaire is 'about' - one of the in vivo concepts (or groups of in vivo concepts) that we need to record - is misadventures consequent on drug use. The question is how we define this concept logically - and this isn't just an abstract question, as the way that we define it will affect how people can access the information. There are three main possibilities.1. Model the worldWe could say that to have a job is to be a party to a contract of employment, which is a type of agreement between two parties, which is agreed on a set occasion and covers a set timespan. Hence to lose a job is to cease to be a party to a previously-agreed contract of employment; this may occur as a consequence of drug use (defined, in the Mixmag context, as the use of a psychoactive substance other than alcohol and tobacco).This is all highly logical and would make it explicit that the Mixmag data contains some information on terminations of contracts of employment (as well as on drug-related stuff). However, the Mixmag survey isn't actually about contracts of employment, and doesn't mandate the definitional assumptions I made above. So this isn't really legitimate. (It would also be incredibly laborious, particularly when we turn our attention away from the relatively succinct Mixmag survey and look at more typical social survey data: surveys of physical capacity, for example, routinely ask people whether they can (a) walk to the shops (b) walk to the Post Office (c) walk to the nearest bus stop, and so on down to (j) or (k). All, in theory, capable of being modelled logically - but perhaps only in theory.)2. Stick to the themeAlternatively, we could begin by taking a view as to the key concepts which a data source is about - in this case, psychoactive consumption, feelings about psychoactive consumption, consequences of psychoactive consumption, and sexual behaviour - and draw the line at anything beyond those concepts. On this assumption the fact that the survey covers misadventures consequent on drug use would be within scope, but the list of misadventures given above wouldn't be: that's part of the data that researchers will find when they look at the data source itself, not part of the conceptual 'catalogue' that we're building. The advantage of this is that it's conceptually very 'clean' and makes it that much clearer what a source is about; the disadvantage is obviously that it cuts off some ways in to the data and hides some information.3. Include black boxesWhat I've got at the moment - following the principle of using the definitions supplied by the source - is an ontology in which some concepts are defined and others are undefined (black boxes). For instance, I've got a concept of Job loss, but all that OWL 'knows' about it is that it's a type of Misadventure (which may be consequent on drug use) - which is in turn a type of Life event, (which is a type of event that happens to one person). This would allow anyone searching for events consequent on drug use to get to job loss as a type of misadventure, but wouldn't let them get to drug-related misadventure from job loss - unless they happened to enter the exact n[...]



Cloudbuilding (1)

2006-11-08T10:10:35.528+00:00

This one's about work.I'm currently documenting the concepts underlying the 2005 Mixmag Drug Survey using Protege. Here's why:The documentation of social science datasets on a conceptual level, so as to make multiple datasets comprehensible within a shared conceptual framework, is inherently problematic: the concepts on which the data of the social sciences are constructed are imprecise, contested and mutable, with key concepts defined differently by different sources. When a major survey release is published, for example, the accompanying metadata often includes not only a definition of key terms, but discussion of how and why the definitions have changed since the previous release. This information is of crucial importance to the social scientist, both as a framework for understanding statistical data and as a body of social data in its own right.It follows that we cannot think in terms of ironing out inconsistencies between social science datasets and resolving ambiguities. Rather, documenting the datasets must include documenting the definitions of the conceptual framework on which the datasets are built, however imprecise or inappropriate these concepts might appear in retrospect. This will also involve preserving - and exposing - the variations between different sources, or successive releases from a single source.There are currently two main approaches to conceptually-oriented data documentation. A ‘top down’ approach is exemplified by the European Language Social Sciences Thesaurus (ELSST). The Madiera portal allows researchers to explore ELSST and access European survey data which has been linked to ELSST keywords. The limitations of the top-down approach can be gauged from ELSST’s concepts relating to drug use. Drug Abuse, Drug Addiction, Illegal Drugs and Drug Effects are all 'leaf' concepts - headings which have no subheadings under them. However, they are in different parts of the overall ELSST tree: for example, Drug Abuse is under Social Problems->Abuse, while Drug Effects is under Biology->Pharmacology. Although the hierarchy is augmented by a list of 'related' concepts, to some extent facilitating horizontal as well as vertical navigation, the hierarchy inevitably makes some types of enquiry easier than others. Anyone using the ELSST 'tree' will be visually reminded of the affinities identified by ELSST’s authors between Pharmacology and Physiology, or between Drug Abuse and Child Abuse. These problems follow from the initial design choice of a single conceptual hierarchy.This approach to classification has recently come under criticism. Advocates of 'bottom-up' approaches argue that top-down taxonomies like the Dewey Decimal System or ELSST are an artificial imposition on the world of knowledge, which is better represented as a set of individual acts of labelling or ‘tagging’. It is argued that the 'trees' of hierarchical taxonomies can be replaced with a pile of 'leaves'.One successful 'bottom-up' approach is the framework for documenting survey data developed by the Data Documentation Initiative (DDI). The DDI standard makes it possible to search on keywords associated with surveys, sections of surveys and individual questions; the short text of individual questions is also searchable. Searches of DDI metadata can also be run from the Madiera portal: a search on ‘marijuana’, for instance, brings back short text items including the following:CONSUMED HASHISH,MARIJUANA- Health Behaviour in School-A[...]



Nor mine, now

2006-11-08T10:10:35.464+00:00

I nearly installed Hyperwords this morning; the only reason I didn't is that I haven't moved to Firefox 1.5 yet (and don't intend to until I'm confident it won't break any of the extensions I'm already using). And, in principle, it looks great:With the Hyperwords Firefox Extension installed just select any text and a menu appears. You can search major search engines, look things up in reference sites, check dictionary definitions, translate, email quickly and much more.So why does the thought of actually using it give me the creeps? Alex is similarly ambivalent:In principle, it's a handy tool. But I would have to overcome a few personal adoption barriers before I started using it on a regular basis. As a consumer, I can see the appeal of opening up texts to interact with the rest of the Web; but as a writer, I instinctively bristle at the idea of giving up that kind of control. I suspect that disposition colors the way I read things on the Web; I like my documents to feel fixed, not fluid. And the Web feels squishy enough as it is. That, and somehow the premise of cracking open someone else's document with a toolbox of Web services feels like a kind of violation. This is undoubtedly my own personal neurotic hangup.Well, if it is, it's mine too. Mark Bernstein gets some of it:In the very early days of hypertext research, people worried a lot about hand-crafted links. "How will we ever afford to put in all those links?" We also worried about how we'd ever manage to afford to digitize stuff for the Web, not to mention paying people to create original Web pages. Overnight, we discovered that we'd got the sign wrong: people would pay for the privilege of making Web sites. The problem isn't the 'tyranny' of the links, and replacing it with the tyranny of the link server might not be a great solution.and Authors don't offer navigation options to be "useful"; thoughtful writers use links to express ideas. Argumentation seeks understanding, not merely access.Let's put some of that together: cracking open someone else's document with a toolbox of Web services; the tyranny of the link server; thoughtful writers use links to express ideas. In other words, Hyperwords doesn't extend existing hyperlink practice but undermines it. In the Hyperwords world you'll no longer read a document, you'll mine it for information - or rather, mine it for jumping-off points for retrieving information from authoritative sources. (Or retrieving whatever other stuff you may want to retrieve.) Alex mentioned Xanadu, but I don't think Hyperwords is a step in that direction. If anything, it's a step backwards. (One of Xanadu's key words is "author-based".) Hyperlinks and the Web of dialogic, socially-produced content go together just fine; as Mark says, mass amateurism is already providing an answer to the question of where all those links are going to come from. It's messy and incomplete, but it's here - and it's, well, ours (as a writer, I instinctively bristle at the idea of giving up that kind of control). You can see two visions of the Web here: the mass amateurisation of writing as against the 'consumer'-oriented, authority-led, broadcast Web. Hyperwords ostensibly enhances horizontal, transverse linkage, but its effect would be to pull the Web further towards broadcast mode - albeit an 'empowered', roll-your-own broadcast mode.Can't keep quiet for long - I'm a human being!Can't help singing this song - I'm a human being!You won't l[...]



All the things I could do

2006-11-08T10:10:35.399+00:00

But (for new readers, this is point 2; point 1 is here, and you should go and read it immediately), it's becoming clear that Web 2.0 is all about the walled gardens. As I wrote in that post, In the context of social software, when I use a word like 'enclose' - or a word like 'monetise' - it means something quite specific and entirely negative: it's a red-flag word. Which means that, oddly, when I started reading Russell Beattie's WTF 2.0 I found a lot to agree with.The worst thing about all the Web 2.0 hype is the complete loss of business perspective. There’s a few companies out there that seem to get it but just about every other new website I’ve seen lately is nothing but features parading as businesses. Sure, these guys get to be entered in the “Flip It Quick Acquisition Lottery”, but beyond that, none seem to be creating anything of any real value."Features masquerading as businesses", the "Flip It Quick Acquisition Lottery" - all good stuff. Except that Russell's objections aren't quite the same as mine.You can create a new website, fill it with all the goodness in the world, be good to your users, and be a good netizen and use every open standard there is while you’re at it, if at the end of the day your users didn’t put money into your bank account, it’s a useless waste of time for everyone involved. I mean, hey, if you want to create the next non-profit service like Wikipedia, all the more power too you. But if you want to get VC cash, an office in downtown Palo Alto, do a bunch of development, attract lots of users and pretend you’re a business? Then act like one, create something of real value and make some real money from it."Real value", "real money". You don't have to be a Marxist to suspect that those aren't necessarily the same thing (although, to be honest, it does help). In the next paragraph Russell draws a hazy distinction between the two himself:look at the Weblog federations for example. They’re making money like people have done for a hundred years or so: hire writers, sell some ads, publish using standard technologies. Nothing too innovative, but they’re making money and I totally dig that. Then again, those writers are generating real value, IMHO, so there’s something there to make money from.Russell commends the Weblog federations, whoever they are (didn't they have trouble with the spice routes a while back?), for making money. He then stresses that they're also creating real value, which means there’s something there to make money from - but 'real value' is qualified rather worryingly with 'IMHO', suggesting that it may or may not be real. At the end of the day the money's real, though, and Russell digs that.Russell then reminds us that things are different in the 'mobile world'. (If your immediate reaction to this sentence was "Damn right, things are obscenely expensive in the mobile world", or words to that effect, you're ahead of me already.)I deal with companies every day who have no qualms about charging 25 cents to send 160 characters of data from one person to another, or who have no problems charging $3.00 for a 10kb .gif image or a bad .midi version of a popular song, or even up to $10.00 for a small Java clone of Tetris - a 20 year old game. Unlike the web world, the mobile world is accustomed to charging for every thing that has the slightest bit of value. The difference between the markets couldn’t be more drasti[...]