Posted by Morten Blaabjerg, April 8th, 2009 in Social networking
Laura Hale has a great post on the Fan History blog (via Kaplak Stream), which deals with Twitter fatigue. Among other things, she writes :
I really wish that as Twitter exists now, that I felt like I was getting more out of my relationships that use Twitter to facilitate them. They don’t. I’m tired of trying to make the effort while feeling like I should be getting something out of it. I’m tired of people following me for no apparent reason who never communicate with me. I’m tired of the idea that I should be getting more connected with people as I feel even less connected.
I’m tired of the hype. (…) CNN talks about Twitter. FaceBook changed to look more like Twitter. News people talk about how Twitter will change how news is reported. Newspapers print Tweets. Twitter will change the world! Celebrities tweet from everywhere. Entertainment Tonight covers people who are tweeting while they are being interviewed. I get it. This is like MySpace about 2 years ago. (And we know where MySpace is going.) I kind of just want to be left alone in a world where I can use it with out everyone and their neighbor going on about how great it is. If we could get back to reporting the news instead of reporting on how people are sharing their news, I might be less tired.
In my particular case what Laura describes goes a long way to describe the love/hate relationship I have with most proprietary social networks (if in doubt, see this piece on why we don’t really like social networks). It would best be called social networks fatigue in general.
On Twitter in particular, I tire excessively of the countless outright attempts to game the system, of which this is only the latest I’ve bumped into. I like experiments and new ways to approach the Twitter API – but I dislike manipulation and being treated like a fool.
I would maintain that it is possible to use these tools to create and sustain meaningful relations, although like Laura it is probably no more than a handfull or at most a few handfulls which have come out of my personal use of Twitter. I haven’t calculated it rationally in terms of how many hours I’ve put into it, and if I did the numbers probably would not look encouraging.
But I don’t look at it in those terms. I see it more like a big learning experiment which helps me dress myself and others up for whats coming – and what will be _more_ the real thing. More peer-to-peer driven, more sharing, more caring and much more powerful (as in the Wikipedia meaning of the word). More so than say Twitter, Facebook, even Google, which are all young wild proprietary experiments trapped in the “old” economy.
I never forget the wonder of encountering Wikipedia in those early years, in 2003 and 2004. I and a few others worked on the Max Stirner article in the wiki and we built what we thought was a pretty decent encyclopedic article on Stirner. Since then, our work has been completely destroyed, mashed-up and remixed into an obscurity of an enormous and unstructured piece of writing. Great, because our work was not so sacred it couldn’t be demolished, and the lively activity on the article suggests that a lot of people find Stirner’s thinking interesting – which is great. Great, because the friendly environment and cooperative spirit which nurtured and built Wikipedia in those years laid the foundation for a global phenomenon we have yet to fully understand and appreciate. Great, because Wikipedia shocked me. It woke me up! In the Lessig meaning of those words. Sure there are problems. Lots of them. One of these minor quibbles may be, that the article which at present introduces Max Stirner to the uninitiated is not as good as the one we once wrote. But when all comes to all, it is a minor quibble. What shocked me and appeared to me as truly revolutionizing, was the power of people coming together, from different parts of the world, working together towards a meaningful goal, if just an encyclopedic article, we wanted it to be the best article it could be. And this stays with me. A lot of people these days use services such as Facebook and Twitter and marvel at the opportunities of connecting with other people. Most coming in via these online services have not learnt how to connect. They are easy targets for the “make a quick buck”-promoters who will sell their old grandma for +10.000 additional followers on Twitter.
There’s a big job in educating ourselves on how to communicate. The real power of tools like Twitter is not in the meaningless “what are you doing right now”-nonsense (except these may sometimes be good conversation-starters) but in the ability to reach someone beyond far distances, who shares your concern, your problem, your interests. Who may be able to help you. Whom you may be able to help. Not in the “shouting” and “selling your products in the face” way of “helping”. Forget the products. Help because you care. Because you share passionate common interests.
I like when I can see the person behind the connection. “It is the real you I want to see, behind the imagery”, I once described it somewhere. In that context, I spoke about the importance of crafting films with authentic messages and stories which resonate with oneself and one’s audience. But it is no less true when connecting with others using internet tools. To have something important to say, something meaningful to communicate. Something to ask. Something to think about, to be concerned about. A piece of information which makes my life richer, in the deeper sense and not the monetary sense.
We don’t always know what that is, and if we can’t write and post a message without thinking deeply about the deeper meaning of it, we would write and post a lot less. Which may be a good thing, some might say. Something which I repeatedly find very embarrassing myself, is how despite all precautions, you can’t easily hide the less flattering sides of yourself when engaging in online conversations. Some of it doesn’t look very pretty. Misspellings, impatience, frustrations, childish blabbering, pride, just plain rudeness. I’m a big fan of civil online behaviour as I am in civil offline behaviour, but still sometimes things slip out, which are less than flattering, sound a little too blunt than it was meant etc. And it doesn’t all have to be flattering. I’m also a great fan of filtering tools and I hope those who read what I have to say take note and learn how to use these to their great effect. As we’re still only learning how to handle and filter our in/out information streams, the noise levels of our online communication are inevitably rising as we try and deal with the problems of communicating with people in different contexts, on different platforms, and using different kinds of filtering tools.
Those of us who learnt how to communicate and work together building the early articles of Wikipedia, and did it the hard way, by connecting with others and discussing page up and down with complete strangers how best to do it, we’ve got a long way helping the many others coming into this world of online connectedness much less well prepared. And most importantly, whether we use crude (but working) wiki talk pages or sophisticated tools like social messaging or multi-platform microblogging, we need to make our passions shown. To help deliver the shock.
Tags : awakening, Facebook, Lawrence Lessig, making meaning, Max Stirner, peer production, Twitter, wiki, wikipedia
Posted by Morten Blaabjerg, March 10th, 2008 in Information filtering, The mainstream problem
Or do algorithmic search really scale better, work faster and ensure better quality than ‘socially produced’ services? A few days ago, I had an interesting exchange of POV’s with Danish SEO Mikkel deMib Svendsen, known among other things from the SEO radio show Strikepoint.
I replied to Mikkel’s blog post on ‘Search – before, now and in the future’, where I tried to make the point that search as a communications solution suffers from key preconditions, which are far from optimal. Among these the fact that in order to search for something, you need to know what to look for before you search, and you need to deliberately and consciously use a search engine to look for it.
In other words, search is a deliberate and conscious affair. This makes it difficult, for instance, to use search to market products, which are not well known, such as niche products, or to address problems or needs, which are not yet consciously thought or expressed.
Add to this the present growth rates of information on the web. For each new website added to the web, you increasingly risk that your information will never reach the queries seeking it. We’re talking exponential growth rates in several millions of new websites, added each month to the web. As Search faces these increasingly greater amounts of information, this problem, which we’ve so far dubbed the mainstream problem, will only become more apparent.
Mikkel, however, firmly believes in the future of algorithmic search, so these claims didn’t go uncommented. First, he argues that machines will always work faster and scale better than social services, which has great filtering and quality challenges :
I am completely in line with Louis Monier [founder of Altavista], and am 100% certain that algorithmic search will remain dominant. Manual data processing, like in the [online] social services, simply suffers from too many scaling and quality assessment-issues to compete in the long run. Only machines are scalable on the necessary scale and with a continued central quality assessment. … [my own translation, MB]
I have a few problems with these arguments for the quality of search as a communications method. I wanted to analyze them a bit here, in order to make them part of our process to find out more about the effectiveness of online communication and it’s niche/longtail effects. Over the past months, I’ve come to question the widespread naturalization of search as ‘the best’ and ‘natural’ method of making information available and visible online. True, right now Search is the dominant method for obtaining information online. It is also a billion dollar business, although this is mostly due to the success of Google AdWords/AdSense, which is quite a different product. However, this may not be so in the future.
The part of Mikkel’s argument which makes a distinction between social services on one hand, which are manually created and processed (by humans), and search on the other, which uses machines and algorithms, and therefore scale better etc, is fundamentally flawed.
First, search results are ‘peer production’ almost as much as any online social bookmarking service is, i.e. they are socially produced. Peer production is a term coined by Harvard professor Yochai Benkler (in The Wealth of Networks (2006) – which can be downloaded freely here). That search results are peer production means that they create value by putting together websites from different peers (i.e. companies, organizations or individuals) in order to respond to a search query. Google does this without even asking the peers first (it’s an opt-out, not an opt-in system), and so the peers used to create value may not even know that they contribute value to this system. However, this doesn’t detract from the fact that it is the sourcing and pooling together of the work of different peers as a response to a human search query, which creates value in a search result. A search result is socially produced, even though the work done filtering and presenting it in few seconds is done by advanced programming, software, hardware – and cables.
These advanced architectures however, are also created by humans, which means there are someone sitting and using their human capabilities to decide what categories and what variables should factor in with how much weight in the algorithms which control the process of finding and delivering information, when somebody searches for something particular.
The problem with this is not that the process is just as human-influenced as any online social bookmarking service for instance, but that the someone deciding what variables should factor in, is (most likely) not an expert on what the someone at the other end typing in a search query is looking for. The other someone is. It’s one size fits all. One architecture (in principle) for all queries in the world.
I tried asking Mikkel how he could be sure, that a query actually met with a usable result. Even if a query is answered by a number of search results, this doesn’t mean that the search results are actually usable and delivers the answer to the query. If this user experience is bad, search fails in delivering an answer, even if there are a million hits on the query.
Let’s take a look at something completely different, i.e. this page at Wikipedia. Notice the edits happening to the article “Tsunami” in december 2004? A page which before december 2004 had minimal contributions and edits made to it, literally exploded with new information, when a tsunami this month devastatingly hit the coasts of Sri Lanka and Thailand. Everything was frequently updated as events rolled along and people in different parts of the world found out new things about what had happened, complete with a small animation to go along with it.
Wikipedia aims to make knowledge freely accessible to anyone on the planet. Like providers of algorithmic search, Wikipedia uses lots of machinery to deliver it’s information, as well as an advanced complex of software architectures. Wikipedia’s articles are peer produced, but much more directly and consciously so than the algorithmically created search result we saw earlier. Even the software is peer produced. MediaWiki is free software, which can be copied and worked upon by anyone who wishes to do so, and any changes may be adopted by the main package.
A second point is the difference in value created. With an example from his own work, Mikkel illustrates how Search Engine Optimization (SEO) done right directly creates great surplus of value for the companies he and other SEO’s work for. Regular SEO maneuvres help direct lots of relevant traffic to the corporate websites.
That SEO helps create value, however, by more directly targeting traffic at corporate websites can’t be said to be an argument for the quality of search as a communications solution in and of itself, but rather for the quality of Mikkel’s and his colleagues’ work. There’s a lot of money in SEO, and that’s not because search is a brilliant solution to a communications problem. It is rather because search is inherently insufficient as a solution to the problem of connecting a query/demand with an answer/product, especially for a company which wants to stay alive and gain a competitive edge. And this problem will grow a lot bigger. I predict that Mikkel and his SEO colleagues will be paid even better in years to come.
It is first and foremost a problem of visibility, not particularly of search. We need to create better ways to make information accessible to the people who need it, without swamping those who don’t. Second, it is a problem of speed, because we need information fast, to better meet the challenges we face, as individuals, organizations and societies.
As a non-profit, Wikipedia doesn’t make any money on the processes involved in creating and building a quality article, but the value that an improved Wikipedia article (such as the tsunami article) provides for millions of journalists, for instance, and the newspapers and media companies which employ them, is indispensable. I know for a fact that reporters use Wikipedia a lot, and with good reason. It is the fastest and most scalable source of information online, beyond any doubt. And when as many contributors as in the tsunami article come together, it also proves a highly reliable and credible source. It beats the crap out of trawling search results pages without finding what you’re looking for. But it is only a small example of what peer production is capable of, given the right architectures and tools.
Tags : peer production, search, seo, speed, time, tsunami, video, visibility, wikipedia
Posted by Morten Blaabjerg, January 11th, 2008 in Copyfight
This Wired article provides some interesting insights into the intersections of an old corporate tradition such as the LEGO corporation and online fan communities of the hacking, open source breed. (Found it via Jake McKee’s blog).
It’s an interesting read, which also sheds some light on the dilemma facing businesses and individuals who walk the delicate balance between salaried, financed “work” and volunteer “fan” input; when are people paid to do work for you, and when aren’t they?
Peer production, as coined by Harvard professor Yochai Benkler, is basically a method to build something using the internet and a lot of people’s spare time and spare expertise. It utilizes the effect a lot of connected computers can create via the internet. It makes possible the creation of value of such different projects, companies and products as peer-to-peer filesharing, Wikipedia and even Google, whose value lies almost exclusively in the cached pages of websites, brought together in “search results”. As of now, most if not all such collaborative efforts are unpaid, based on volunteer work.
One assumption of Kaplak’s is that a lot of people are kept out of the peer production loops on the internet, because they simply do not have as much “spare time” to spend on their interests, as college students and rich geeks do, to put it bluntly. Most people with a fulltime dayjob and a family with small children, for instance, wouldn’t ever find time to contribute even to Wikipedia. Where can one find the time for something like this? Unless, of course, one leeches on the “paid time” and so the “spare time” is really lost production time from the wasteful, industrial workflow. This requires that one’s job has a reasonably frequent use of computers connected to the internet, and that management is not too tight.
My point is not that online collaborative efforts as a result are unreasonably unbalanced as they are dominated by young people and geeks (who else can find time to redo one’s edits on an article day in and day out, so that one eventually have to give up?). My point is, that put against “unpaid time” and lofty ideals, “paid time” makes the difference in the end, all the time, as it puts the food on the table. It may be possible to create an online encyclopedia with the voluntary help of thousands of college kids and unemployed geeks with too much spare time on their hands. And it may be possible to develop open source software projects, with the participation of much the same segment of the world’s population. But what about the rest? What happens when the working family man gets released from his daytime job (which he could care less about), because he is able to finance his hobby (which he is passionate about) with a little help from the internet?
This is already happening in some places of the world, among other things thanks to Google’s Adsense program. It is not felt or appreciated quite as much in the West, as it is in Third World countries, where AdSense dollars makes a felt difference. For most, the higher living standards in Europe and USA make AdSense earnings a welcome addition to a regular daytime business or job – in countries such as Egypt or India, it finances a business, a career – or a new car.
These are the financial undercurrents of the new online economy, and it is and will be moving our way, if and when we can build the right products and online architectures to help us take advantage of this economy.
Tags : adsense, Google, Google ads, LEGO, niche economy, open source, peer production, time, wikipedia, wired, Yochai Benkler