Wikipedia rocks. Literally

I was listening to my favourite song a few minutes ago. And just thought I’d check to see what the web has to say about it. Just because I could.

And there it was, the song had a wikipedia entry. Unbelievable. I need to stumble around WikiPedia. Anyone with tips and tricks?

I think Hugh Macleod should draw a gapingvoid cartoon in the song’s honour, and post it to Wikipedia. You listening, Hugh?

When I was young, I remember being entranced by my grandad (he was a chemistry professor)  telling me about Glenn Seaborg. And his unlikely postal address made up of elements. Seaborgium Berkelium Californium Americium.

There is a Wikipedia equivalent to come. A post consisting only of Wikipedia-linked material, yet a story entire in itself?

Chris says I need to add more graphics. I agree. But I’m still learning about this medium. So I thought I’d take a leaf out of Sellar and Yeatman’s 1920s classic and provide you with a relief map. Stare at the space below if you need to.




If you haven’t read the book, you could do worse. It taught me knitting. P for Plain. P for Purl. What’s the problem? -)

Dirty dogs

My dad was a journalist. So was his dad. Surprise.

And he told me lots of tales. Wonderful tales. I remember one about a real yellow journalism fight between two papers in Somewhere, USA, called the Post and the Sun. Might have been New York, before my time.

In an editorial, the Sun called the Post a “dirty dog”. And the next day the Sun carried a simple editorial response: The Post called the Sun a dirty dog. The attitude of the Sun to the Post is that of any dog to any post.

Those were the days.

I feel the same way about this story. A smiling Truman holding ”Dewey defeats Truman”. And I cannot begin to tell you how frustrating it feels not to be able to just cut and paste the related photo, because of potential infringement of image rights. Even reading through the Wikipedia warning made my skin go cold. Digital Wrongs Management.

I was named after a relatively famous Indian freedom fighter, in fact he was meant to have been my godfather. I have no memory of ever meeting him. Sometime in 1977 I think the BBC World Service announced he had died. And he hadn’t, so a correction was issued. So the guys at my university thought it must have been me. [But that was in another story, Malcolm, and besides the wench is dead.]

The point is that big media do make mistakes. Lots of them. And corrections tend to be published in the most unlikely places, always at odds with where the uncorrected story ran.

Now, as we move into real use of social software, we have the opportunity to make new mistakes. But the mistakes tend to be out in the open, and the speed of correction is high. And the corrected versions are in exactly the same place where the errors were.

Big difference.

Blogs are not big media replacements. They are different. Period. And who knows, I will learn from big media about blogs as well. I tend to spend time watching my kids using MySpace and seeing how they do things, without the corruptions in thought and practice that someone like me has, without that bag and baggage.

Incidentally, did Bill Gates invent opensource? Opensource testing, that is. I wonder.

Ecosystems and social software

Why do I get hung up about platform independence and vendor-neutral strategies, about avoiding layers of lock-in?

Not because it’s cool, I’m too old for that. Cool is not a word to use when you’re fighting to hold on to your teeth and your hair. My children blench every time I use the word.

Not because it’s easy to follow such a path, it isn’t. There’s a need to accept delayed gratification and for emotional intelligence a la Goleman.

Not because it’s faster than any other (it isn’t). Snake oil is always easier to buy than to make.

But because we pay too high a price any other way. The price is freedom. Freedom of movement, freedom to share, the ability to manoeuvre, to adapt, to adjust to unknown futures.

I tend to think that people who buy vendor-locked-in products are buying trains on tracks while thinking they’re buying cars. They don’t see the tracks. They don’t see the problems with manoeuvring. They don’t realise the track is there until they try to move off it. By which time it’s too late.

The guy who owns the tracks decides where the train goes. You, as train driver and crew and passenger, can only decide to stay in one place or go where the track takes you. And sometimes you can’t even elect to stay, you’re in the way.

I am of the opinion that social software can never come from a single vendor. Cannot be allowed to. Otherwise all we do is put off the next battle for breaking up Bells, the next net-neutrality-style debate, the next ICANN argument. And we really don’t need that.

So. If social software should not come from a single vendor, a “let the market decide” approach, then how do we decide what to use?

I don’t have the answers. But what I have been trying to do is to follow a few principles:

  1. Keep your mail and IM and blog and wiki and audio/video distinct and separate in terms of origin. But common in terms of vision and direction. And supported by an open community of developers who can extend and modify the product sets.
  2. Make sure that regardless of origin, the tools you select must let you implement your own version of single sign-on, of authentication and permissioning, of identity management. They have to make it easy for you, not the other way around. #
  3. Make sure the information that flows in each piece remains open; open to common ways of archiving and restoring, of recording and retrieving. Look out for train tracks that say “you can only search using tool X” “you can only share in manner A” “you can only archive in way Z”.
  4. Have some common way of naming things that are shared by the different pieces, so that 2 and 3 are achievable. We will need new upstream registries all the time.
  5. Plan for telephony becoming software, for mobility support and location-specific services and device agnosticism and related issues all the time. Their time is almost here.
  6. Plan to record everything. Archive everything. Search everything. Retrieve everything. Independent of device and location and time and language and connect style.

Those are my thoughts and experiences as we stand. And the only way I can see, to keep to all the principles, is to use products clearly and demonstrably based on opensource. Not vendor standards. Not industry standards (just vendors under a different name). Not market standards (biggest wins). But community standards.

No point having the only phone in town, or phones that only work between prime-pairs on Saturdays.

Social software is all about ecosystems. And open adaptive evolutionary ecosystems at that, able to respond to external stimuli. Not integrated-platform offers. Not Digital Wrongs Management.

I’d love to know what has worked for others. And as importantly what hasn’t worked.

On Blogrolls and trusted domains and heresy

This is still a medium I’m learning about. Dylan Tweney’s comment, ostensibly after he noticed I blogrolled him, reminded me of something.

There’s something about blogrolls and trusted domains and avoidance of heresy, something I can’t quite put my finger on but it’s there.

Here are a few assertions I would love to see challenged, so I can learn:

  • When I visit someone’s blog for the first time, I tend to use the blogroll as a visual inspection aid, to try and see whether we have common philosophies and interests. Maybe there’s a product in waiting, one that shows how much your blogroll has in common with someone else’s, a sort of compatibility check
  • The way I get to someone’s blog for the first time tends to be on a trusted domain basis. I know and like person/blog X. That blog links to Y. I have never seen or heard of Y. So I must take a look, because I trust X.  Yes, I know it sounds like swivelchair StumbleUpon, but it worked for me before I ever saw StumbleUpon. Yes there are other ways, like when I search for something and truly stumble upon someone I have never heard of, or actually via StumbleUpon, but most of the time I go via someone else’s blogroll.
  • When I find someone on a trusted list that I have never heard of, I feel I’ve discovered gold. Somewhere deep inside me, I know I must keep extending that net and bringing fresh stuff in, otherwise I will be part of a heretical mutual admiration society where everyone agrees with everything and ideas decay very quickly. No learning can take place in such a context.
  • Since blogrolls won’t scale (we can’t have everyone listing hundreds of sites), there needs to be consolidation and perhaps even culling. We need to learn to concentrate on the different rather than the similar.

Just thoughts. So you see why I added you, Dylan.

More four pillars: looking harder at search

There is much that is technical about search; how you measure relevance and improve it, how you do the indexing, how you process the queries, how you remove duplicates from the found, how you deal with spelling errors, how you put together the found and present it.

This post isn’t about any of these things. There are a lot of places where those dialogues are taking place already.

I am more interested in what people search for, why it differs from past paradigms of requesting information, what that means and why we can obtain immense value as a result.

My way or the highway 

First and foremost, people are now getting used to asking for things the way they want to ask for things. Not the way the “system” expects, but the way consumers expect.

And guess what? No error codes or warnings when you do the asking. No “Invalid code entered” or garbage like that. It’s not validation but parsing and transformation.

I know it when I see it

Many years ago I read a book on quality by David Guaspari. A decade and a half later, I still enjoy the fable. Customers know what they want when they see it. This process, of discovering requirement by delivery, is to me nothing more than a variant of fast iteration. Al-Noor Ramji, who hired and mentored me in my early years, used to say “Don’t ask them what they want, they don’t necessarily know. Show them a Ford Escort and ask them what’s wrong with it. And keep improving it. Quickly”. Or words to that effect.

The shift from deterministic returning of “founds” to probabilistic and relevance-ranked is not trivial. And it will take time for our generation to move off the accuracy high horse, the digital yes-no approach. But tomorrow’s generation are used to relevance and ranking as a way of life.

Size doesn’t matter

We search for many things. Sometimes it is a precise answer, sometimes we’re browsing within a general area, sometimes it’s a number, sometimes it’s a book or article. But unlike the way we pull information down from today’s systems, the answer sizes vary enormously. And we have to cater for that, people want little things and big things, a small amount and a lot.

Speed does

I remember many years ago when working with dumb terminals at Burroughs, I was amazed to see how much perception ruled customer satisfaction. Given a choice between painting the screen with one big chunk of information or doing it in little bits at a time, the technical guy would always opt for buffering it up and doing the one big chunk. Why, because it was faster overall. But the customer preferred to see some action early, even if the transaction took longer. Why, because it felt faster. Fast is as important as relevant.

There are so many other things to consider. How to learn from the Firefly and Amazon and StumbleUpon experiences in collaborative-filtering-meets-deep-preferences. How to use the clickstreams and patterns to aid new hires, provide people with a readymade “this is how she does it”.

How to savour the richness of diversity between two people apparently doing the same job, but doing it very differently. Celebrating that diversity and learning from it rather than grinding everyone into lowest-common-denominator submission. Learning how to use tags and feedback loops to transcend language and cultural barriers.

More later.