Tensions on the Web

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 Wikipedia has shown that a model in which content is contributed not just by a few employees, but by self-forming self-managing communities on the web can be amazingly detailed, complete, and robust. so now people are looking at ways in which the same emergent self-forming self-administering models of tagging and Wiki’s and moderation can be used for events (EVDB) and for music and for video and for medical information. It’s all very exciting. It is a true renaissance. I haven’t seen this much true innovation for quite a while. What I particularly like about all this is how human these innovations are. They are sloppy. To me Tags are sloppy practical de-facto ontologies. Wiki’s are sloppy about changes and version editing. It is accepted that we’re trying new things and that sometimes messes will occur. In short, it is unabashedly creative and imprecise. I’ve always believed in the twin values of rationalism and humanism, but humanism has often felt as though it got short shrift in our community. In this world, it’s all about people and belonging and working with others.

In this very triumph, comes the tension and the problems. Every one of these groups has to worry about spam. Wikipedia does occasionally get spammed, but their entries are long-lasting and resilient and usually get fixed. For information that is more time critical and evanescent however, this sort of vandalism can be much more harmful. While the commercial part of this is detestable, it is at least comprehensible. Often though, there are pointless attacks. Much as vicious people constantly invent viruses to destroy the existing web (amusingly now called the old web) and somehow tell themselves that this vandalism is acceptable, so they destroy the tenor of message boards, vandalize Wiki’s, screw up the tags just because they can and generally try to attack, smear, and destroy. The blogger world calls these people Trolls. Message boards end up needing moderation techniques because of these people. Bloggers learn to turn off comments. And Taggers will end up having to use reputation and other techniques to protect something hugely useful but potentially fragile, or to create gated communities like the old fortresses in history built to keep the vandals out. A great deal of the discussion at etech and even at PC Forum was how to keep the vandals from doing too much damage. Sadly, one reaction may be to curtail anonymity because it is so abused and with the loss of anonymity comes the loss of privacy.

Indeed the other concern is privacy. Presence is in the air. The web because of mobile and broadband and IM is becoming real-time. Real time presence changes everything and rapidly leads to thinking about much richer ways of communicating within communities. It highlights some of the, in my opinion, few limitations of the browser as a zero deployment user interface model. But it also risks us losing those last moments of privacy. Lufthansa has announced that it will support internet on planes. I will not fly on them. I need some periods in my life where I am unreachable. Indeed, every year in August, I vanish for a month from the web, turn off email, and deal with the withdrawal and suddenly I relearn how to think and concentrate. In a world where knowledge and thinking is everything, it is ironic that increasing availability had led to decreasing time in which to reflect, ponder, and just let the mind wander and yet these periods tend to be essential to truly thinking hard. If Nokia sold a phone that reported where I was at all times through presence (as some phone vendors actually already do) I wouldn’t buy it. We’re going to have to work out how to support all this in a manner in which the customers can effortlessly and intuitively opt in and out so that, when they want, they can be left alone and vanish from view and can control who can see them when.

It is going to be fascinating and exciting to watch how these tensions play out, namely the rising trend of people working together and collaborating and communicating over the web in increasingly real time ways contending with the human needs for privacy and reflection and with the unfortunate nature of some humans to vandalize rather than to construct.

One Response to Tensions on the Web

  1. [...] KISS principle rulesĀ  and sloppiness is not only acceptable but often useful as described in this great post by Adam [...]

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