29 January 2009

User Curation of the Archive

We need to enable people to curate collections. This means blogging the contents of an archive, which can be as simple as a blogger selecting certain items (by surrogate, typically a picture but also 3D rotatable image or video) and posting them to the blog along with any caption available through the collection's online database. They don't have to say anything original to be useful. The basic requirement is that archives places their collections online, giving access to potential curators outside the archive. Curating is anything a user does to create context for the cultural artifact, commenting, annotating, writing that contextualizes the artifact (like wiki pages).

User curation of the archive helps people feel connected with the archive and its contents. Involving non-academics in the archives is important for the continued existence of an instituation and the collection, the value of which exists partly in the memories of people and in the objects themselves. I learned from genealogy that people only preserve what they care about, and that people care about things when they have meaning, and stories give artifacts meaning.

The context becomes a bigger and bigger net as it grows, bringing in more people from search engines. The effect of this net can be powerful, as I learned soon after getting on the web in 1995. I put a collection of family photographs from the middle 19th century online and within a few months several relatives of the people in the photographs had found them and made contact with me. After over 120 years of separation. This was when the web was very small, the users a very small percentage of the population. My idea to cast a net with the pictures and captions had brought in the catch I desired, helping to identify individuals in the images and reconstruct the family history, both photographic and genealogical.

I was intrigued by a project Social Media Classroom. It shares features with ones we envision for Folkstreams, as a platform for creating access to archives, but we also recognize that our site is mostly used in the classroom and that features of our site are shared with features of a classroom, such as the "contexts" accompanying our films, including transcripts.

Archives will, through online access, become an integral extension of the classroom. There will be less of a distinction between archives and classroom (and the public).

22 January 2009

Content is the person

In discussions about farmfoody.org, the idea came up that recipes represent people in a way similar to the way avatars represent people, only much richer because they contain search engine friendly content. The recipe becomes a way for people to explore farms by navigating to the profile the recipes belongs to, then exploring the connections between users (producers and consumers who are friends).

Content is the person. I think we will see more of this as social media continues to expand an evolve. This can be seen, again on Twitter, where the person is represented by the content. When you go to a person's Twitter page, you see mainly their content. The "profile" is in the background. This allows Twitter to prominently display information about the content stream, because they do not have to deal with ten different kinds of content under ten different categories. Tweet streams have following friends, followers and the number of updates counted. If there were ten types of content on the page, if each time personal information was updated, what would constitute an update? It is clear updates mean the number of posts. Following, followers, post stats. That's it. Clear and concise.

Twitter succeeds by not being all things. It is a tool. Putting the profile in the background the content on the page. We can speak of a "Twitter page" because we know what is on it, unlike a Facebook page, which has almost anything on it. People know what you mean when you say "go to my Twitter page."

Our thinking about the direction farmfoody's features should go in are being directed by these concerns.

21 January 2009

Thoughts on Twitter

I've been thinking about why Twitter is successful. And why some other services that attempted to compete with Twitter by offering "improved" features, like Jaiku, were not. Twitter had the first mover advantage. In the last month or so the buzz about Twitter has spread to average people through use on cable television networks and by cases where people reported on news events through Twitter by cell phone. Those are well and good, but there are other reasons for Twitter's success.

One is the simplicity of its presentation. The real estate devoted to profile and "friends" or user to user relationships is compact. The profile is brief and concise. The friends (following) and followers are represented by badge-like elements showing the number of following and follower users, with the numbers linked to listings. The followers are displayed as compactly as possible, represented by tiny icons arranged in rows and columns. The various kinds of posts are filtered by clicking a navigation menu item in the sidebar.

Twitter reverses the idea of a profile. The content is the profile and the profile becomes background to the content. When someone visits a person's Twitter page, they want to read the latest posts. The user goes straight to the posts. Most sites make you go to a profile and then to the content. If they like the content and want to know something more about who is posting, they can look at the little profile box containing the name and brief bio or click the link to visit their website. This difference contributes significantly to the usability and attractiveness of the site compared to other social networking sites. Twitter is a tool, not a "Swiss army knife" like Facebook, so it can take this approach. It should be a lesson to any designer or developer, even of more complex, layered sites.

The typical jumble of posts in the Twitter message stream explains why the developers of competing sites saw room for improvement. When replies enter into the message stream, it becomes a single-threaded discussion. It seems reasonable to let users reply directly to a message, creating a threaded discussion. Twitter might look similar to Facebook's Wall, where certain posts may have comments posted to them, creating a limited kind of threaded discussion. I believe this misunderstands how people use Twitter and why they use it. If Twitter users were looking for a simple, online threaded discussion forum, there are plenty of free microforum services to be found.

I believe Twitter users do not want a threaded discussion because they value the immediacy of tweets. There may be a way to capture conversations going between cell phone users in an intuitive and simple way, but I'm not sure what that is. Activity posts, like "What is Steve doing now?" are unlikely to elicit conversation, but as I've seen on Facebook, they sometimes do burst into conversation. I believe friends use the posting of completely uninteresting and unimportant information about their activities as a way to touch base, through a brief conversation. It's like talking about the weather. It may be possible, if the interface is sufficiently transparent, to support threaded discussions. Facebook does a good job implementing the thread as a collapsible series of posts below the post.

One thing in passing, it is clever how Twitter enables linking to other user's Twitter pages through a Wiki-like notation for Twitter-name on replies (using the @ symbol, @twittername). It helps solidify the username as not just a name used for authentication, but as a symbol representing a person. In a way, wikis have had this from the beginning, since it was traditional to create a page using your own name, which could be linked to in "talk page" discussions, and the like.

Friendship Rot

I may not be the first, but I have noticed something on social networks that hadn't occurred to me, although it should have, if we have link rot, why not rot in the relationships between friends? I've noticed on our farmfoody.org site there are some lapsed users, since their email addresses are bouncing. It occurred to me that they still have friends but no longer participate in the site. These are ghost relationships suffering from what could be called friendship rot. I suppose Facebook must have millions of people who no longer participate but have accounts and friends. It must have a terrible friendship rot problem. I suppose this form of relationship rot extends to LinkedIn and other sites that depend on navigating networks of relationships between people.

19 January 2009

Growing List of Adapters for Panasonic G1

It looks like the G1 is shaping up to be the manual focus lens fanatic's dream camera. A growing list of adapters is available from http://www.rangefinderrestorations.com/photo_posts/G1adapterlist.html or at google docs directly.

I'd like to see an inexpensive adapter for Contax/Zeiss. I have the 50mm f/1.4 although I could use the Contax to 4/3 adapter with a 4/3 to m4/3 adatper.

There is a lot of talk about using C-Mount cine and television lenses for ultra wide angle work, which is interesting, but I wonder how they will compared to the planned 7-14mm lens?

I'm still waiting to see the HD video version of the camera.

I'll be watching.

15 January 2009

Information Evolves and Other Stuff

I've learned to avoid precategorizing anything in my bookmarks.

I don't make a category unless it is necessary, unless I am using it. For example, I need to bookmark Amazon web services, so I create an Amazon Web Services folder, but I don't create a Web folder, with a Web Services folder inside, which I then put the AWS folder in. I don't have any other web services bookmarks yet in Google Chrome so I leave this for later. It just creates more folder depth to dig through before it's needed.

I also try to avoid adding a bookmark just for reference. That just leads to clutter, where I can't find the bookmarks I use on a daily basis, because when you categorize information according to its classification or how it relates to other information, you lose how it relates to you, to useage. For example, if in browsing the web I find a half dozen interesting resources on manual focus lenses, but for cameras I don't use, the bookmarks will obscure the resources I use for manual focus lenses for cameras I do use. What I do now is add bookmarks only when I use the content or need the content now, not for reference or anticipating future use, placing them in the categorized heirarchy. The others I place in Uncategorized (what a wonderful idea, that Uncategorized anti-category!) awaiting the day they become useful and can be categorized, or I place them in a special heirachy called Reference. I don't know if a parallel heirarchy will work but it does keep them out of my way.

I hate digging through deep categories. Yet, for proper categorization to find things later, when you've forgotten where they are, they need deep categories. If I have have five different web services providers, each one needs its own folder and there will be clutter if I just create them all at the same level. So I need to create a Web Services folder, which then adds another annoying, slowing, confusing layer to finding what I want and to my thinking. I want Amazon Web Services when I want it, not digging through Web, Web Services to get to it. What if I use it every day? I have to dig each time.

This brings up another issue: information structures evolve.

One of the problems library scientists create is through this need for pre-creation of categories. They must predict every category that will be needed ahead of time. I was once told I needed to create "name authority records" for every photographer in a database I envisioned of 19th century photographers, before a database collecting names from old card photographs could be built. At that rate, the database would never be built and besides the whole purpose of the project was to collect the names so we could see who was doing what and look for patterns. If we had an authoritative name for each one, we wouldn't be doing the research.

Don't engineer. Evolve. Evolve. Evolve.

We don't need architects and engineers, we need some new job description with a new name, evolvineer or something, for the person who creates a framework for information evolution (maybe like the game Spore?). Perhaps databases like multivariate or Lotus Notes will help get us there.

11 January 2009

The Aperture Pin on Minolta Lenses

Manual focus lenses from the 1970s on usually have a mechanism to adjust the aperture during exposure so the lens can be held wide open while focusing to improve brightness. There is usually a pin extending from the lens into the mount throat or mirror box area. When mounting a legacy lens to a modern digital single lens reflex camera, this pin can sometimes contact surfaces in the mount throat, or possibly the mirror. It is dependent on the individual lens and camera model, so there is no general rule that applies.

Since I purchased my Olympus E-510, I've collected a number of Rokkor lenses for Minolta cameras (and a X-700, which is a very nice 35mm film camera): 50mm f/1.4, 58mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.8, 200mm f/4.5, 45mm f/2.0 (This lens makes a very compact camera mounted to the 510 and I like the color and rendering quality of despite it being very inexpensive lens.) Due to the small viewfinder and lack of focusing aids, such as a split prism, microprism collar and ground glass I was used to in my film slr, I found it difficult to achieve critical focus reliably. Since I wanted to use the lenses wide open or nearly so, this was the case. The result is much better when using the lenses stopped down or with a larger viewfinder of the E-3, according to reports.

The aperture pin does need to be filed down for the E-300, E-330 (I posted a guide to Minolta Lenses on Four Thirds Cameras, covering this on ebay, the source information is the Rokkor Files page on Olympus). My experience is with the E-510 only, but I suspect it applies to all E-x10 and E-x20 series cameras, as well as the E-3 and upcoming E-30. I did have to very slightly file the aperture pin on my 45mm Rokkor. I used an emery board to remove the build up of enamel, which was sufficient for the pin to clear the lens mount throat. The pin cleared nicely without having to file the metal down.

All mount nicely without modification except for above. I believe the same would be true for the newer cameras. I do have to tighten the adapter set screw (This is a small hex screw that applies pressure to keep the lens tight to the adapter, since there is no lens mount locking mechanism as there would be on a Minolta camera.) for the heavier lenses, otherwise, they can unexpectedly dismount while turning the focusing ring (especially if the ring is stiff from age).

10 January 2009

Olympus Offers "Proof" Photo Contest

I like Olympus cameras. Ever since I saw and handled the OM-2 at the camera shop, when I was a teenager deciding on my first SLR camera (not that I could afford the OM's) and very impressed with the compactness of the OM-1 and OM-2 and performance of Zuiko lenses, I've had an affinity for Olympus. In recent years they have produced some amazing digital single lens reflex cameras, such as the first ones with Live View and the legendary E-1. But their marketing efforts have fallen short of what is necessary to explain the advantages of Olympus and Four Thirds photography.

Olympus is running a photo contest, asking for images offering "proof" of the ability of their weather resistant cameras to go where most cameras cannot. This is at least heading in the right direction, emphasizing the extraordinary weather sealing that Olympus cameras have, the experience Olympus has with making tough, water-resistant cameras. If I wanted to take a camera with me while exploring caves, I would choose the E-3 hands down. If I wanted to continue shooting on a rainy day, I would choose the E-3. If I wanted to shoot waves standing in surf. If I wanted to photograph off-road vehicle races. If I wanted to visit Africa or some other wild place. It would be the E-3 (or E-1).

Some will say weather sealing is not really important. How many photographs are taken in bad weather? But we really don't know how many photographs or what photographs might be taken if all cameras and lenses were weather sealed. It's like saying you don't need ISO 64000 becuase photographers got along fine with ISO 400 for years. Having ISO 64000 allows you to explore realms you never could before, in ways you never could before.

Henri Cartier-Bresson introduced a whole new vocabulary for photography, which he could not have done without the availablity of high speed black and white film and a small, unobtrusive camera to make "street photography" possible. Not every photographer needs high sensitivity or extraordinary weather sealing, but both give the photographer new possibilities to explore.

03 January 2009

Blogging the Archives

A vital interest of mine is access to archives. I've been interested in the possibilities inherent in the web and network for increasing access to archives and enabling a greater number of non-academics to browse, organize and surface archive holdings. One of the most significant ways of exposing the holdings of an archives is blogging the contents.

We really haven't got there yet, but I've noticed a small trend, which I hope signifies the beginning of exponential growth, of people blogging artifacts. I do not remember the first site I came across where a blogger was posting pictures of artifacts, usually photographs from an online catalog of a museum, but here are some recent finds.

Illustration Art

All Edges Gilt

If we could just get every artifact in the world's museums and archives photographed or scanned and online, give the tools to blog the contents to millions of ordinary people interested in telling the stories of these cultural objects, think of how rich that would be. I don't know if people will do this, but I do know that ordinary people have a lot to contribute. Academics cannot know everything, they are an isolated individual, no matter how expert they are, and there is a very Long Tail out there of family members, amateur historians, hobbyists and who knows who that know something about cultural and historic artifacts. Maybe they will be willing to contribute. It will likely be only two percent, like Wikipedia authors, but that small percentage can do a lot of good.

As an aside, author and developer Liam Quin has a site, fromoldbooks.org which has great potential to provide fodder for bloggers. The interface to this digital archive of old book scans is easier to use and better than ones I've seen institutions deploy.

I wonder, also, if this phenomena is not somehow similar to the Cinematheque, not just an archive, but concerned that people actually view or interact with the artifacts.

Update: Shorpy is a commercial site, which shows  how successful blogging the archives can be. The site appears to have developed a following, with, I imagine, readers checking in each day to see what new photographs are posted. The blogger acts as curator by selecting images that will be of interest to the readers. Arranging them into albums, possibly by narrative (using Tabloo would be a good way to achieve this).

This fits exactly with the idea of people being able to easily find images of their local area in the past and the idea of "blogging the archives" at its most simplest and effective. The power of simply posting images and their captions, without any commentary, is surprising. It is encouraging to see people are interested and willing to participate in the interpreation and "unpuzzling" of old photographs. One of the pleasures of old photographs is rediscovering what lies behind the mysteries the images present.

02 January 2009

Why Tag Clouds are Beating a Dead Horse

Tag clouds are dead. I don't want to mince words. I've been waiting for a long time for someone to say so, to let everyone see the elephant in the living room. What interests me is why tag clouds are dead.

About ten years ago I was working on a prototype web application. It never saw the light of day. But it was called Strands and consisted of a wiki-like content management system that allowed anyone (it was based on SoftSecurity) to create pages, to post and edit content. Any author could include single keywords in the text. These would be automatically scooped up and entered into an index. You could display the posts associated with (containing) any keyword listed on a page like search results. The idea was that content could be navigated in any number of ways according to keywords added by users. It's wasn't social. It didn't know the user who contributed the keyword. The idea was to destroy hierarchy and create a user centered order to information, something close to the folksonomy (but not quite because it didn't care about who submitted a keyword). One version did not allow linking between pages, no "wikiword" links, the idea being that all navigation was by keyword links, either in content or on the "strand" pages listing all content belonging to a keyword.

One of the other ways of navigating considered was by popularity of keyword. The system could generate a list of keywords based on how many posts contained or were associated with them. You may start to find the elements of this system familiar. "Strands" are posts listed by tag. Keywords are tags. Navigating by popular keywords is a tag cloud. The ideas for this system partly developed out of work I'd seen on the web where posts were ordered by single keyword. The other reason was I have a terrible time categorizing anything, I can't decide which category something could go in. I am incredibly bad at and hate categorizing anything, so I decided the wiki element would let visitors to my site categorize my junk for me.

If this were not a blog, I'd spare you all this personal history, but it does show you why I am interested in the question of why tag clouds suck.

When I visit a website with a tag cloud, I tend to pay close attention to it. I noticed that I never bothered clicking on them, never used them. When I thought about why, one of the things I noticed was that nearly every tag cloud consisted of a number of large tags I could count on my hand, and the rest were undifferntiated in size. One of the solutions that came to mind was displaying tags by popularity on a logarithmic scale, which could help increase the difference between the less popular tags. I'm not that great at math, so I would need to leave it to someone else to work this out. But the idea is to create greater differentiation visually among the less differentiated tags.

The other problem with this is there are only so many font sizes that are easily usable on the web. This worsens the differentiation problem.

The other concern I had devevloping the keyword based application was that chaos would ensue. People tend to prefer order. Would it help or hurt for people to be navigating by tag? Tags don't always apply to the subject. Their strength is freedom, freedom from controlled vocabularies and rigid meanings, but without those restrictions tag-chaos can reign. Wikis always had a kind of randomness to them and so do tag structured and navigated content.

I almost never click on tags in Wordpress blogs for this reason. It usually produces a result that widens not narrows my search. Nielson observed that clicking on a link has a penalty, and the trouble with tags is they have an uncertantity penalty.

The closest I've ever seen to a realization of the keyword based navigation idea is a photo gallery developed by Alex Wilson some years ago. You can see it still in operation here. It's a great idea and an excellent implementation, I don't know why I didn't go ahead with my own version instead of abandoning it (doubly, since the eventual goal was for organizing photographs). It makes the homepage a tag cloud and each detail page with a photograph displays a vertical row of thumbnails to photographs linked by tags, which is very similar to the way the Strands pages listed posts according to tag (like Flickr pages with the tags next to the image). Alex recently switched to a standard gallery system for this exact reason, that visitors and customers apparently found the tag-navigated album confusing.

I love tags. I use them like I feel they were supposed to be in this blog, I just write any significant word that comes into my head about the subject. I don't care that they create long lists of tags, since I only use them as a memory aid. They are terrible for people navigating the site and categories would probably be better. Tags aid memory, they aid discovery and exploration, but I'm uncertain that they are good finding aids.

I'm sure others have observed this before, but I've kept quiet about it, so I may be late the party, but still, it's a useful discussion, to dissect why tags ultimately fail to live up to the (strange to me) hype they received. Every new web technology seems to be annoucned like the second coming.

So, yes, tag clouds are beating a dead horse. Even the little sets of tags next to blog posts don't really do much for me, not even on my own site, or they don't seem to do much for visitors in my view.

The other thing that tortured me developing the keyword based navigation was whether to allow spaces in keywords, which would prevent combining keywords like chicken+soup and create confusion (sepearte keyword threads of navigation) between "farmers market" and "farmers_market." I worried a bit about misspellings, but not too much since I didn't like controlled vocabularies.

References: Tag Clouds_Rip and ZigTag supposed to solve these problems.