17 March 2009

Biological Construction and Networked Content Creation

The order and symmetry of biologically created structures, such as an egg or the human body, are expressions of how correctly those biological systems worked to construct the natural artifact. Biological organisms are collections of cells cooperating with each other. The order and correctness is an expression of the successfulness of the collaboration.

An egg comes out more egg-like when the biological processed working to make it cooperate and collaborate more correctly in its construction. I believe this has implications for the collaborative processes operating in networked software development and information science. The biological process of construction is inherently different than the one humans have inherited from their tool making and industrial heritage. What will we make of it?

Where are we going?

The issue of whether people should pay for forums or not came up on dpreview. With the current economy, I expect how to pay the bills will be a growing question for many web services.

The problem is with forums there is perfect competition. Anyone can setup a forum and run it for next to nothing. If one forum decides to charge a fee, the users can flee to another forum. The only reason they might stay is because of the audience. For example, photographers pay for to host their photographs on Flickr primarily because it provides a rich audience of people who love to look at still photographs. Flickr is the Life and Look magazine of our time, it is the revival of the great picture magazines, not because of its technology (that helped orient the site in the right direction to succeed, just look at the abject failure of Picasa to be social---too little too late). Flickr just happened to be where most people who like to look at pictures gathered, mostly because of its blog-like streams of every changing pictures and social tools. It is easier to pay a small fee to use Flickr (perhaps even to "read" it) than it would be to overcome the "capital" costs of changing sites. Flickr users have a lot invested in Flickr and it might just cost less to stay and pay than to move elsewhere. Besides, there is no where else to move. The closest thing I could see to Flickr would be for every photographer to put up their own photo blog software and then join photoblogs.org, which would become the "magazine" and "social hub." This is a distributed vision of photo sharing online. I used to wonder which would be successful. But it really was simple, Flickr did it all for you, some for free, a little more for pay, well worth it to promote your photography.

Despite the somewhat juvenile and absurd environment of Flickr with regard to art photography (you know, the dozens of people giving out "Great Photograph" awards to pedestrian, derivative and mediocre images mostly to promote themselves or because they are too young to know what a derivative image is), it is useful to professional photographers and art photographers because Flickr is where the eyeballs are. It attracts people who still love still photography, which in this age of video, is a bit of a miracle that anyone takes an interest in photography. However, photographs can make the world sit still long enough for people to pay attention, and that is a very similar experience to poetry, which at least in part, is there to draw attention to things. I've heard from professional photographers they get an order of magnitude more requests or work through Flickr than through one of the professional portfolio sites.

One reason, perhaps the principal one, Henri Cartier Bresson and other great photographers became well known, was through their images being published in the great picture magazines. When television came along, the picture magazines went into decline. Photojournalism began its long decline at this time, for the simple reason people could learn about their world visually through television, a more attention grabbing (the barrier to entry for television was lower, you didn't have to be intelligent to watch it, a good example where low barrier of entry is destructive to society) and free medium. Without the picture magazines it was no longer possible for a photographer of acknowledged artistic merit to become known and their images have significance in society. The audience was gone. Flickr reestablishes this audience.

So the question still stands. Will people in the future pay for their online content. Pay to create it. Pay to consume it. What is happening now? People are already paying to create content. They pay for a Flickr account with better tools. They pay for services to create graphics, three dee art, property in virtual communities. A few sites charge for reading content, but not many. But given human history and the recent past, when most content was paid for, in newspapers, books and magazines (except for tv), it seems reasonable to assume the free ride will be over someday.

There may be a tipping point when a non-pay site is no longer competitive. When most good content has gone to pay sites and the community of interest for that content willing to pay is consuming all they can (this is what happens with books and magazines today), the other sources will be driven out in a kind of perfect competition. The free sites will be filled with garbage and what passes for content on local cable access.

The network is not the old traditional world of libraries and publishers. It will be different. Project Gutenberg. Open source projects. The collections of enthusiasts sick and tired of the crap shoveled out by the traditional content and software businesses have taken it on their own to produce quality products where the marketplace would not or could not. This is an order of magnitude different than the pre-networked world, where people could not work together, providing little bits of effort or expertise to collaboratively create a cultural artifact. This is entirely new and we don't know where its going.

As an aside, the idea of tipping or donation comes up. Frustrated with no way to fund my original website, I considered taking a modern high tech variation on the PBS approach. I considered (in the 1990s) creating a content management system where each article would have a countdown timer displayed like a reverse donation thermometer. If you didn't contribute something to the article, it would count down, when it reached zero, the page would be pulled from the site. Of course, the ability to cache networked content presents a threat to such schemes, the wayback machine can regurgitate considerable missing content and so can the Google search cache. What about caching? If the Wikipedia were to dry up funding and blow away today, would its content still remain available in a myriad of niches around the network? On people's computers, disks, servers here and there, in caches? Would it evolve another life in a peer to peer environment? Will all information become distributed over billions of cell phones and have no location at all?

16 March 2009

Twitter is a 'starfish' enabler

Twitter is a 'starfish' enabler. It's what makes Twitter powerful and empowers those who use Twitter. It puts individuals at the center of the star.

Twitter friends (followers) are more like information flows you choose, organizing the flow of information for yourself and others, curating, editing, creating than other social network friends, which are more passive, something you collect or at most create a space to explore. This is because friends/followers bring content to you automatically. It is the flows of information resulting from following that make Twitter different from other social networks.

I didn't know much about Twitter when we started designing Farmfoody.org and thought it was something to do with short text messages on cell phones. I am currently integrating Twitter into farmfoody.org, after having considered a Facebook social feed model and finding it overly complex and confusing. We need as low a barrier to participation as possible. Farmers don't have time for complex systems, blogging, social feeds with posts and comments and threads and six dfferent types of publishing and bold and italic.

Neither do people standing at a farm stand with a bag of white corn tucked in their arm have time for complexity. It turns out that the social bulletin system we were envisioning two years ago exactly describes the information flows in Twitter. The way your friends (followers) tweets (messages) aggregate on the Twitter homepage is identical to how we envisioned messages from our users collecting on the user's profile page. In our bulletin system, all the friends of a user receive a bulletin, similar to the "homepage" on Twitter, creating an information flow. The only difference is bulletins are like craigslist ads and expire. That original requirement for bulletings to operate as classified ads with an expiration date, similar to craigslist, held us back. I should have looked into Twitter integration then, since we would not have needed to develop one of our own.

12 March 2009

A Twitter Wiki

As the popularity of short, fragmentary messages grows, I have become concerned the public conversation may lose the capacity for thoughtfulness and reflection. At the same time, I would like to caution those who condemn Twitter or other systems based on micro content to not throw the baby out with the bath water. The long form newspaper article found in the New York Times or Washington Post contains a lot of material used to provide background for the reader, often at the end of the article. Not only is this text boring and redundant to the knowledgeable reader, it takes up previous space. The one thing the web is good at is connecting one piece of knowledge to a broader context of other pieces of knowledge. There is no sane reason to continue repeating background and further reading material in a long form newspaper article when on the web, a writer can simply link to the information.

The brief, concise texts of micro content can be connected to many other sources of information, some just as concise (a kind of "blizzard" of small pieces connected loosely) as well as to other longer, deeper and reflective sources. This loose, disjoint and connected type of writing is simply the network native way of writing and connecting information. It is beneficial, as long as both kinds of writing and forms of content are available and can be connected.

My concern is really with lowering the barrier of entry, enabling and encouraging those longer, deeper and reflective forms of writing. I recognize that there are benefits from shorter, more concise writing, which leaves redundant, expansive or source material hidden (properly) under a link or conntected through a network of tags or a network of people. Perhaps will will see fewer long texts divided up by headings and sections and more smaller texts connected together through search, tags and linkages into a variety of wholes, determined by the user's interests and needs.

About ten years ago, I was fascinated by the idea of a long text (article, book, etc.) entirely constructed of fragments, similar to the kind of texts you see posted on Twitter today, which could be freely rearranged similar to those magnets used to write poetry on refrigerator doors. I imagined that instead of writing a large text with a single coherent whole, they way books have always been written, the pieces of information on a topic could be combined to create a "book" in innumerable ways by rearranging those pieces.

It would be like taking all the paragraphs in a book, shaking them out on to the floor, and then allowing or enabling those pieces to be rearranged for each reader or interest. The pieces would be tied together by keyword or by search result and only lastly by links. I coded a small prototype application called Strands to test the idea, but work and life caught up with me and I shelved it. I was and am still surprised by the ease and rapidity with which people have adopted Twitter.

Not only are people using Twitter, despite the fragmentary nature of its texts, they are participating creatively in shaping the technology and usage of this kind of system based on fragmentary texts.

The use of tagging emerged spontaneously from the user base. Using "hashtags" brief texts can be connected to media, such as images and video, with the tag at the center of a network of content.

Also, I've noticed users are starting to fit the tag word into their text. Some examples are:

"Young Nebraska farmer explains how limiting direct payments would affect his #farm at www.nefb.org"
(Tweet from http://twitter.com/farmradio)


"farmanddairyGet four issues of #Farm and Dairy FREE! Click on the big promo on our home page: http://www.farmanddairy.com/"
(Tweet from http://twitter.com/farmanddairy)

At the heart of my Strands prototype were small texts connected by keywords. I wanted to create the lowest possible barrier of entry, so a user could create a keyword (essentially a tag, I called them "strand words") just by writing it into the text. In this system, what was essentially a tag was created by writing it (texts were scanned on post or edit for the presences of tags and any new ones added to an index), which is hauntingly similar to how people have started using tags on Twitter. They started out adding the tags to the end of a message, but have now begun incorporating them directly into the flow of text. I hesitated to continue working in this direction on Strands, partly because I expected people would find the tags sprinkled through the text troublesome.

My current interest is in providing tools or ideas that will encourage and enable a society addicted to short messages, however beneficial they may be, however native to the networked way of writing and reading in a connected fashion, to engage in greater contextualization and thoughtful reflection, to enable collecting some of the knowledge quickly flying by in the "Twitterverse" into slower, more reflective pools of knowledge, like eddies on the edges of a fast flowing stream.

The first tool I want to build is a "Twitter Wiki" enabling anyone to associate a text of any length with a Tweet and anyone to edit it. If I have the energy, I will post any experiments on my site or at least attempt to describe it.

03 March 2009

Social Micro-blogging and bookmarking

It hadn't occurred to me until I saw it being done that social bookmarking and social microblogging are both popular in part because the create flows of information edited and curated by experts.

One good reason to follow the bookmarks of a user belonging to a social bookmarking site is simply it is a source of good information. The bookmarks ought to be high quality and relevant in the expert's topic area.

It makes sense to follow the tweets on the homepage of a user belonging to Twitter (or any microblog system), because they represent a selection, an inclusion, of edited and curated information for free, usually from an expert.

A Twitter homepage combines the posts from a user's followers, which amounts to multiple levels of curation. Suppose a number of people practicing organic farming create Twitter accounts and post information they feel is important. Suppose then an expert in organic farming, perhaps an editor of an organic farming and gardening magazine becomes a Twitter user and then follows the tweets of those practicing organic farming. Suddenly, this user's homepage becomes a fountain of curated knowledge on organic farming.

The same phenomena occurs (without the vertically integrated curation) on social bookmarking sites. A social bookmark system is an example of horizontally integrated curation, since many hands organize, but one result does not necessarily flow into another, progressively filtering content. What if you could follow another person's bookmarks and aggregate the bookmarks of all your followers onto your profile page?

The question presents itself: Where did I go wrong?

I had thought of bookmarking as bookmarking and blogging as blogging, each highly personal, one organizing content for an individual's own use and the other for publishing (in a mostly traditional way, I tended to scoff at the idea of blogs as conversations, but they are, just not as flexible and immediate as microblogs). What I missed about the social aspect was the flows of information they create, which are curated. I envisioned years ago the idea of users collaboratively organizing the content of a website, but that wasn't all that great an achievement, since that is essentially what wiki users have been doing from day one.

I thought about applying it to all the content, thinking perhaps I could Tom Sawyer-like, get others to organize my stuff, but my second thought was, who would want to do that? I think most efforts to get users to organize content will fail and I think most efforts have, except where the social ingredient is in the mix. Collaboratively edited social content sites for news, bookmarks, short messages, do work, but through self interest in the flows of information they create. They become platforms for self-promotion.

There is no incentive for you to come organize my site. Flickr allows users to tag other user's pictures, to essentially organize content for another user, just as I thought would be possible, but I see no evidence it is being used generally. Except for the Flickr Commons, where there exists an incentive to surround historically important images with context, to tell their stories so they will be preserved and meaningful for society, where local historians can demonstrate their knowledge and where self-promotion is possible through the organization of other people's stuff.

Despite seeing the social ingredient at work in wikis and despite seeing the essentially (and pioneering) social organization of the CPAN library, I missed its importance. It's importance comes from the curated flows of information created by the social organizing, editing, contextualizing with narrative, selecting and filtering, that occurs in social media systems.

02 March 2009

Twitter as curated news feed

When I follow another Twitter user, their posts (Tweets) are included on my homepage, which is public. This amounts to creating a kind of "newspaper" news feed of content "curated" (selected and managed by me). The problem with this, is for example, that with our farmfoody.org Twitter account (established primarily for communicating announcements to users) is that it could become a kind of "mashup" of farm-food related news by following Twitter users posting on those subjects. However, that would result in clutter and chaos, since there is no way to organize the flow of content onto my homepage.

What is needed, is a way to tag posts. It would be nice if posts could be tagged according to topic and each tag converted to a tab, which would separate the streams of information, so there could be a #farm and a #food tag (using the hashtags convention) and a Farm and Food tab would appear on my homepage, allowing readers to chose the topic they are interested in following. I suppose they could just follow the individual sources, but what is needed is a curated aggregation to enable Twitter users to follow an "edited" flow of information through Twitter (like Reader's Digest?, it might even be possible for Twitter users to give a thumbs up/dn vote on what content should appear in a particular flow or to collaboratively tag).

If I could categorize posts based on farm or food topics, it would be useful to me and my followers. If the users I am following could tag their posts, it would be very similar and I would be relieved of some work (of course, merely following does in a sense create the mix, but it is all jumbled together). It is not important who organizes the content as much as it gets organized with the least effort possible.

I don't know if anyone is working on something like this, but it seems rational that Twitter would be working on some internal mechanisms for organizing that flow. The hashtags solution appears to not be scalable, since it requires following their user account (in order to scan for tags), more of a prototype.