I attended two conferences in the last week, eTech and PC Forum. The contrast between the two was somewhat startling. eTech was hard nosed, edgy, totally clued in, almost dissonant, and really interesting. I learned a great deal about what is cutting edge in the world I’ve been watching, conversations and collaboration on the web. There were also some really exciting announcements such as Amazon’s Open Search model for A9 for which Jeff and Udi are to be commended and an amazing presentation by George Dyson, at least for a historian like me. PC Forum was much more socially conscious, more ponderous, much older, and more like some sort of British club in which those of us who had the luck to have done something right once (or to have just gotten lucky) now got to sit in our club chairs and try to solve the really hard problems of the world such as health and education and how the brain works. There were some really interesting presentations, in particular one by Jeff Hawkins but I didn’t learn as much about the web as I did about world issues in general. Indeed I learned more about the web in the last 20 minutes from Mary Hodder teaching me about Technorati links than I did in the rest combined. There was/is an infatuation at both conferences with folksonomies(tagging) that I’ll discuss more in a moment.
I haven’t posted for quite a while because my last posts caused unfair attacks on Google by twisting the words I’d used in my posts and attributing my posts to Google. I want to be really clear about something. The opinions I express in this Blog are my own. They have nothing to do with Google’s opinions. Google only asks that I not leak information about future products. Period. But despite that, recent blog posts of mine were used to attack Google and this upset me deeply. Much to my surprise, Dare Obasanjo came up to me and told me, after some fairly vitriolic complaining from me to him about this earlier state of affairs, that he wished I’d continue to post. I thought about this over the weekend and decided that to some degree, you have to take your chances in this environment rather than just hide when you don’t like the behavior and that perhaps I was being over sensitive anyway. There are too many interesting things going on right now anyway.
I’ve been complaining about two things on the web for years. Think of the web as the worlds best communication machine. Then the promise should be that anyone can connect to any information or application or anyone else and that any application can connect to anyone or any application or any information. We got anyone to anyone early in the form of email and more recently in the form of IM and of Blogs. IM adds real time communication and presence and Blogs add broadcasting to the world along with a dialog with the world. We got anyone to any application from the esteemed Tim Berners Lee in the form of HTML, HTTP, and URL’s which changed our world. I say applications because there wasn’t any standard way to ask for information. We got, unfortunately, any application talking to anyone (we call this spam). Web services in one form or another are letting applications access other application although, as I’ve said elsewhere, I think that the standards are too prolix and that a lot of the action will come out of REST and RSS.
But we didn’t get two things. We didn’t get a standard way to get information (e.g. a standard query model for sites). And we didn’t get people working together in communities to create and construct things with one interesting exception, message boards/groups. Mail was the interface, not the web and not IM. I’ve been whining about this for about 5 years off and on and even started a company once to try and address this.
With Open Search the lack of standard ways to get information is, for the first time, beginning to change. There is now a simple but de-facto standard way to start querying sites for information. That’s hugely exciting. The current standard is limited, but a great start. And the web is now rapidly becoming the place for people to collaborate. Wiki’s are growing like wildfire. Folksonomies(tagging) are causing people to quickly and in an emergent bottoms up way, come together to build taxonomies that work for them and surprisingly rapidly become stable. Flickr which Yahoo just bought is a great example of this and Del.icio.us by Joshua Schachter pioneered this model and Wikipedia has picked it up. I’ve always been hugely suspicious of top down taxonomies and restrictive ones (e.g. if you’re a book, you’re not a newspaper) and confident that normal people would never bother to classify things according to someone else’s taxonomy. But I think that tagging has broken through that. It is sufficiently KISS (see my early talks on this for why I think this is good) and rewarding (you get attention if you pick popular tags) to have gained amazing momentum. The clever and audacious Dave Sifry of Technorati claims to have found 5MM tagged posts just in the last 2 and a half months (from del.icio.us and from Flickr and from various blogs). As long as we don’t let the ontologists take over and tell us why tags are all wrong, need to be classified into domains, and need to be systematized, this is going to work well albeit, sloppily. What it does is open up ways to find things related to anything interesting you’ve found and navigate not a web of links but a link of tags. At the same time